One month ago, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were tied in first place atop the American League East, the Detroit Tigers were playing .670 baseball, there was only one team within four games of the National League wild card-leading Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers were, a day earlier, in the NL West cellar.
Today, the Yankees hold an eight-game lead, the Tigers have faded to winning at a .619 clip, there are six teams within four games of the NL wild card du jour San Diego Padres and the Dodgers hold a three-game advantage atop their division.
All of which is to say: Dionne Warwick, got any soothsaying friends left?
Because to try and predict the final month of baseball's regular season, let alone the next day or two, is an exercise in both futility and impossibility. Fortunes change too easily and indiscriminately.
Instead, the best we can offer is an outline of what to watch as the season winds down and Fox readies to remind us approximately 10 billion times that "Prison Break" will return after the playoffs. Every day is an opportunity to explore another storyline in a season teeming with them, and all of those storylines are, in one small way or another, interconnected.
Thirty days hath September.
Each of them to remember.
1. We start with this because we hope it is the one that comes to the quickest resolution: Jon Lester’s battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and David Ortiz’s mysterious heart troubles. Doctors diagnosed Lester, the Red Sox’s 22-year-old left-handed rookie starter, with cancer Friday. Lester’s prognosis is positive because of his age, and he will begin treatment this week. Ortiz, meanwhile, is sitting out the weekend after an irregular heartbeat showed up again. He said he feels better and will return soon, though Red Sox manager Terry Francona, general manager Theo Epstein and the rest of the sporting world know the names Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers, which means they know for all of the heart’s strength, it’s still a fragile muscle, no matter how big Big Papi’s is.
2. At the end of the series in which Ortiz was first felled – the Yankees' five-game demolition of the Red Sox – Alex Rodriguez fell into perhaps the worst funk of his Hall of Fame career: 1-for-23 with 11 strikeouts. Now he stands an ant under the magnifying glass of New York. The slump has allegedly been broken with a good game Thursday, but his psyche still needs fixing, particularly with the attention he draws and more so with the role he'll play if the Yankees go deep into the playoffs.
3. Presuming that's the case, the Yankees' lone question mark is pitching. When starter Jaret Wright lasting into the seventh inning is considered a groundbreaking achievement, it says as much bad about their pitching staff – which will start Cory Lidle, Jeff Karstens and a mystery guest (Ron Villone? Bueller? Anyone?) this weekend – as Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina and a suddenly strong bullpen (with Octavio Dotel and Brian Bruney complementing the gas of Mariano Rivera, Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth) says it is good.
4. Just as long as they all stay away from Carl Pavano's car (or from Pavano, period), George Steinbrenner figures to pop off on him one of these days, and when he does … well, the Boss gave Hideki Irabu $12.8 million and called him a toad. What kind of insult does $39.95 million buy you? So far, only a great New York Daily News headline: "CRASH TEST DUMMY."
5. Oh, headlines are not where players want to find themselves. Certainly not when embroiled in an allegedly adulterous divorce dance that has ties to high-stakes gambling. Right, Paul Lo Duca? While the story has cooled considerably, the New York Mets catcher still hit .350 in August (though he'd likelier walk the Green Mile than take a base on balls).
6. On the other hand, it's getting tougher to keep Ryan Howard out of the headlines. The Philadelphia Phillies first baseman, in his first full season, could become the first player not linked to steroids since Roger Maris to cross the 60-home run threshold. He's at 49, and he also has 128 RBIs, which gives him a chance to become only the third player since 1938 to drive in more than 160 runs. The others? Manny Ramirez in 1999 and Sammy Sosa in 2001. Neither won the Most Valuable Player award.
7. So who, then, is the NL MVP? Albert Pujols has higher on-base and slugging percentages than Howard. Carlos Beltran is the high-profile candidate on the league's runaway team. Even Mets shortstop Jose Reyes – on pace for around 30 doubles, 20 triples and 20 home runs, which would make him the seventh player in history to hit the 20-20-20 mark – deserves serious consideration.
8. OK, how about AL MVP? Derek Jeter is the favorite – by default, really – with Jermaine Dye charging. Cleveland Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner will win the presidency before he starts getting mention next to Pujols as the game's best hitter, a spot he deserves thanks to a .310/.437/.662 line with 42 homers and 110 RBIs, including .361/.484/.856 with 13 and 30, nine doubles and 22 walks in August alone. For a darkhorse candidate, try starter Johan Santana, who has kept the Minnesota Twins afloat while Francisco Liriano recuperates.
9. The Twins are handling Liriano's recovery from a strained left elbow like careful practitioners do the funny bone in games of Operation. Even the slightest buzz causes big problems and would certainly force Minnesota to shut down Liriano for the sake of the future. Yet the now is certainly for the taking – not just the wild card but the AL Central title.
10. Brad Radke will be with the Twins, perhaps more in spirit than body. His right shoulder, an aptly named body part for all of Minnesota's burdens he has supported in his 12 seasons, is a plate of spaghetti down to its last strand. He's pitching on guile and adrenaline with a nip of cortisone, and though Radke will skip his next start, he promises to return. Whether it's the end of a career or start of one last run, Radke will keep it interesting.
11. Much like Pedro Martinez does. He's a microcosm of the Mets' playoff hopes. If he's healthy, they should have no trouble steamrollering the NL, as they've done all season. Eligible to come off the disabled list, the Mets are taking their sweet time with Pedro. They should. Since June, he has given up 31 earned runs in 46 1/3 innings.
12. Barry Bonds, on the other hand, seems to be saving his energy for the end of the season. He hit home run Nos. 726 and 727 on Wednesday, pulling within 28 of tying Hank Aaron's all-time record. The likelihood of Bonds' return seems to increase proportionately with his level of play, and as he has raised his numbers across the board to more than respectful – if Bonds qualified, his .979 OPS would rank 12th in baseball. The possibility of one final year with the San Francisco Giants, or whoever might let him DH, seems feasible.
13. Roger Clemens might hang it up. He's done it a few times already, and his spate of no-decisions in well-pitched games hasn't exactly reinforced the reasoning behind his return to the Houston Astros. It's not his fault. Clemens is still awesome. The circumstances, it seems, aren't.
14. So the torch passes to … Homer Bailey. Mainly because Josh Beckett coughed it up this year. And because Bailey may have something to do with a pennant race. The Cincinnati Reds are seriously considering calling up the 20-year-old Texan, who in 12 starts at Double-A is 7-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 68 innings. He'd likely work in relief.
15. Much like Detroit left-hander Andrew Miller, the consensus top college player this season who throws 98 mph, flips a slider that tilts like a pinball machine and draws all kinds of comparisons to Randy Johnson. Between his stuff, his size (6-foot-6 and skinny) and his left-handed delivery, they're understandable. Same goes for Delmon Young, an Albert Belle clone, who was 8-for-11 in his first three games with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who, while they aren't in a playoff race, are sporting a mighty nice outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Young.
16. Talking rookies, huh? This is the best class in years, and one guy buried behind Dodgers teammates Andre Ethier and Russell Martin is Chad Billingsley. Next to the Oakland Athletics' Esteban Loaiza, who sported a 1.48 ERA in August, Billingsley was the game's best starter for the month, with a 3-0 record and 1.50 ERA.
17. As for pitchers with recent history in September: Tom Glavine, who will soon return from the numbness in his fingertips, gave up 28 hits in 47 1/3 innings last year. Santana struck out 34 in 36 innings. Andy Pettitte toted around a 1.86 ERA. And Jeff Suppan went undefeated with a sub-2.00 ERA.
18. Lots of hot hitters, too: Houston's Lance Berkman (who could use it after a recent 4-for-38 slump), Chicago White Sox third basemen Joe Crede (who has been tremendous all year), Texas Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira (who has not been tremendous), Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins (who slapped 21 extra-base hits last September) and Giants outfielder Randy Winn, whose 11 homers in the last month of 2005 exceed his entire 2006 total by one.
19. Twins catcher Joe Mauer did just the opposite last September. He didn't hit a home run, drove in three runs and slugged .277. Now look at Mauer: He's an All-Star, got envious sideburns, dates a Miss USA and, should he avoid a September swoon, could become the first American League catcher to win a batting title.
20. Other numbers to chew on: This could be the first season without a 20-game winner since 1995. And almost certainly we'll see a record for fewest victories by the NL's leader in a non-strike season. Currently, Steve Trachsel, Brad Penny, Jason Marquis, Carlos Zambrano and Brandon Webb are tied with 14. The mark is 18, set by Rick Sutcliffe in 1987. With 43 home runs and 34 stolen bases, Alfonso Soriano will almost certainly become the third player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases, along with Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds. He'd prefer to be the first 50-40 guy, then take that onto the free-agent market.
21. Which is a hot topic of conversation following Houston signing starter Roy Oswalt to a five-year, $73 million extension. Dollars are flying around again – not quite in the volume of 2001, of course – but in ways that will drive up Barry Zito's asking price to $15 million a season, a contract Scott Boras won't have any difficulty getting.
22. The Astros could afford that price because next season they lose Jeff Bagwell's albatross contract, Clemens' rent-for-hire deal and Pettitte's overpriced pact. That said, the Astros currently sport the third-highest payroll in baseball (around $105 million) and still can't manage to get above .500, even after a six-game winning streak that has put them 2½ games back of the NL wild-card lead.
23. With that in mind, the best race might not be for the wild card itself as much as for the NL wild-card team finishing above .500. There is a fierce battle of mediocrity taking place in the NL, one imbued with some false sense of hope among nearly a dozen fan bases who prepare for the playoffs with full knowledge their teams stink.
24. Even the Atlanta Braves! They have won their division for 14 consecutive years, and here they are, six games below .500 and still only 4½ games back of the wild-card slot. This isn't as much a testament to manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz as it is an indictment of the NL wild-card race.
25. Early last month, the Tigers seemed the surest lock of all for a playoff spot. Now they've got the smallest division lead aside from the NL West, and both the White Sox and Twins – 4½ and five games back, respectively – are close enough (not to mention good enough) to strike. Unless the Red Sox cobble together some miraculous finish, there are two playoff spots in the AL Central for three teams. And as inconceivable as it may seem, the Tigers are losing their grip on both.
26. Remember, each of those teams plays the Kansas City Royals 19 times a year, which counts for something. The Royals are trying to avoid becoming the first team since Toronto from 1977 to '79 to lose 100 or more games. At its current pace, Kansas City will finish 59-103, which, if you're the rainbow-seeking type, as all Royals fans have conditioned themselves to be, is an improvement from last year's franchise-worst 106-loss team.
27. Nonetheless, Buddy Bell's job in Kansas City seems safe. The same cannot be said for Seattle Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson and particularly Florida Marlins manager Joe Girardi, who is the vinegar in owner Jeffrey Loria's milk. They are the four likeliest to earn pink slips in September, and if not now, then probably after the season.
28. Toronto Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons would have joined that list if he didn't deserve his own category coming to blows with players. First, he challenged Shea Hillenbrand to a fight. Then he got into a tete-a-tete with pitcher Ted Lilly in the clubhouse tunnel after yanking him from a game. The wait isn't so much to see Gibbons' fate as manager – GM J.P. Ricciardi has told him his job is safe – as much as it is to witness the next blowup.
29. If not, just wait until Sept. 14-17, when the Rangers visit the Angels. Or Sept. 25-27, when Los Angeles goes to Texas. Or, for the truly patient, the Twins and White Sox in Minneapolis on Sept. 29-Oct. 1. There's bad blood on the beanball front in both scenarios, and while a benches-clearing fracas seems likely in the first series, it's too close to playoff time for the other teams to let pesky feuds derail a whole season.
30. Anyway, that final weekend of the year is loaded with compelling matchups that – at least for now – might determine a few playoff spots: Astros at Braves, Phillies at Marlins, Padres at Diamondbacks, A's at Angels and Dodgers at Giants. But those are the key words: at least for now.
Because with baseball, no one truly knows.