September is here, although you'd never know it by the heat wave that continues to grip the South and Southwest states while the East tries to dry out in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and one of the wettest summers on record. College football kicks off this weekend and the NFL is right on its heels, starting up the season that almost wasn't with games Thursday through Monday a week from now. And, oh yeah, the major-league baseball season is still going, and now it's getting to the good part.
In at least half of the MLB cities, such as Kansas City, baseball is already an afterthought, and football has seized center stage. But trust me, there's still plenty of baseball still to be played. This is the time of year when the contenders come to play and the baseball division races take on a real sense of urgency. From here on out, the MLB season really means something - but not for the pretenders, of course.
As the 2011 season enters the homestretch and the final four weeks of the regular season, most of the division races are down to two teams. Three teams, however, are still very much in contention in the tough American League East, where Boston and New York keep switching in and out of the top spot and Tampa Bay still has a slim and getting slimmer chance of catching the two Northeast juggernauts. In the AL Central, Detroit is threatening to pull away, but Chicago and Cleveland are still within striking distance, only 5 ½ games back.
The Los Angeles Angels continue to chip away at what once was a sizeable division lead for the Texas Rangers in the Al West. The Angels had sliced the Rangers' lead to just two games a week ago, but the margin is now back to four games. Meanwhile, Milwaukee in the NL Central, Philadelphia in the NL East and surprising Arizona in the NL West head into the final month of the season with division leads of 7 ½, 7 ½ and 6 games, respectively. While St. Louis in the Central, Atlanta in the East and defending World Series champion San Francisco continue to hold on against long odds, no other team in the National League is closer than a dozen games out.
If the season were to end today, the AL playoff teams would include division winners, Boston, Detroit and Texas and the New York Yankees would easily capture the wild-card spot. In the NL, the Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks would make the playoffs as division winners, and the Braves would be the runaway choice as the wild-card team.
Philadelphia currently owns the best record in baseball at 87-46. Boston is next with 83 wins, and the Yankees have 82. The Detroit Tigers have the fewest wins among the division leaders entering September, with 75.
The team with the best chance of unseating a current division leader is the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels close the season with three games at home at Angels Stadium against the front-running Rangers, and they are in good position to gain some ground this weekend. The Angels are at home for a three-game series with the struggling Minnesota Twins, while the Rangers are in Boston for a three-game weekend series. Following the Red Sox series, the Rangers travel to Tampa Bay for three games. That is the last time Texas will play a team above .500 until the series with the Angels to end the season. Of Los Angeles' 23 games before the season-ending series with Texas, seven are against teams with winning records (three at home against the Yankees and four in Toronto against the Blue Jays, who are just a game better than .500 entering today's games.
So before you get too comfortable at your weekend tailgate parties this month, remember that the baseball season is just now beginning to get interesting.
2011 MLB Power Rankings Heading Into Final Month of the Season
(Previous rankings in parentheses)
1. (1,1,1) Philadelphia Phillies - Top three starters 43-19.
2. (6,3,2) Boston Red Sox - Big advantage over East opponents.
3. (4,2,3) New York Yankees - Four regulars with 20+ HRs.
4. (11,7,9) Milwaukee Brewers - Nobody will catch Brew Crew.
5. (7,5,4) Atlanta Braves - 20+ final-at-bat wins.
6. (12,12,6) Texas Rangers - Fighting to hold off Angels.
7. (8,9,8) Arizona Diamondbacks - Pitching leading D-backs surprising surge.
8. (10,6,13) Tampa Bay Rays - Workhorse Shields has 10 CGs.
9. (14,8,10) Detroit Tigers - Verlander almost Cy Young lock.
10. (15,14,7) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - Winning West only playoff hope.
11. (9,4,5) San Francisco Giants - Falling behind division-leading D-backs.
12. (3,10,11) St. Louis Cardinals - Best hitting team in NL.
13. (24,21,17) Chicago White Sox - Better away than at home.
14. (2,11,16) Cleveland Indians - Injuries taking Indians down fast.
15. (13,13,18) Cincinnati Reds - Struggling to get above .500.
16. (16,17,15) Toronto Blue Jays - 10-3 in extra innings.
17. 20,15,14) New York Mets - Big bats bolster bad arms.
18. (19,18,22) Colorado Rockies - Best starter has 11 wins.
19. (28,19,20) Washington Nationals - Third-place finish not unlikely.
20. (22,25,23) Los Angeles Dodgers - Ownership drawing all the headlines.
21. (23,16,12) Pittsburgh Pirates - Another losing season seems unfair.
22. (18,24,24) Oakland Athletics - Only Orioles worse on road.
23. (5,27,19) Florida Marlins - Swept: four four-game series.
24. (26,22,25) San Diego Padres - Major league stolen-base leader.
25. (17,20,25) Seattle Mariners - Shutout franchise-tying ten times.
26. (30,26,21) Minnesota Twins - An uncharacteristic year for Twins.
27. (28,29,29) Chicago Cubs - Fielding has been major problem.
28. (27,28,27) Kansas City Royals - Playing better than record indicates.
29. (21,23,28) Baltimore Orioles - Leads majors in HRs allowed.
30. (29,30,30) Houston Astros - Clinched "Worst MLB Team" tag.