According to widespread rumors and the healthy consensus among Gregorian calendars, the month of September soon will be upon us. In the sub-universe of baseball, that means stretch-drive intrigue and lots of it. So to get us fans in the proper state of mind, here are the Top 10 Stretch-Drive Burning Questions. And they really do burn. — Dayn Perry
Who will "win" the top overall draft pick?
There are races to the top, and then there's the race to the bottom. The team that finishes with the worst record will receive the top overall draft pick next June. For a long time, the Orioles seemed bound headlong for this, um, honor, but thanks to the alchemy of Buck Showalter, the Pirates are now in the lead. The O's, however, have a much tougher schedule ahead, so they still could seize the top pick. And with a miracle finish the Mariners and D-backs also could re-enter the discussion. Whoever secures the worst record will, in all likelihood, use that first pick to take Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, TCU right-hander Matt Purke or UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole.
Any miracle finishes in the offing?
Best guess at the playoff field? In the American League it almost certainly will be the Yankees, Twins, Rangers and Rays. In the NL, things are more muddled, but standings, underlying strengths and remaining schedule suggest it will be the Braves, Reds, Padres and Cardinals. The Giants and Phillies are also very much in the mix. If you’re looking for long shots — i.e., teams that have, roughly speaking, a 5 or 10% chance of making the postseason — then the Red Sox, White Sox and Rockies enter the discussion. Needless to say, those teams are likely to be golfing in October, but minor miracles happen in baseball.
Will we see any late-season milestones?
Any minute now, Albert Pujols will hit career home run No. 400. As well, a certain legendary manager will likely win a milestone game (more on him in a moment). Over in Milwaukee, Trevor Hoffman is inch-worming his way toward 600 saves, and Toronto’s Jose Bautista could become the most improbable 50-homer guy since Brady Anderson. Twenty-game winners? At present, eight pitchers have 15 or more wins, which means it’s possible we’ll have that many reach the 20-win threshold. Baseball hasn’t had that many 20-game winners since 1978.
Will Justin Morneau be able to contribute?
Check out Morneau's line: .345 AVG/.437 OBP/.618 SLG. That’s an outstanding level of production, but Morneau, because of lingering concussion symptoms, hasn’t played since July 7. There’s no timetable for his return, and that is a concern. Yes, the Twins have managed just fine without Morneau, but if they’re to go deep into the postseason, then having their best power hitter in the lineup might be necessary.
Will the Padres lock up home-field advantage?
The Padres, without question, are the surprise team of 2010. Not only are they running away with the tough NL West, but they also boast the best record in the National League. If that holds up, then the Padres (keep in mind the NL’s victory in the All-Star Game) will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Sure, the Pads are baseball’s best road team, but they’d of course prefer to play any deciding Game 5 or Game 7 in Petco. They play just eight more games against losing teams this season, so staying on top of the NL will be a challenge.
How will the NL wild-card race shake out?
At this writing, the Phillies lead the NL wild-card chase, but the Cardinals and Giants are each just off the pace. The remaining schedule favors the Cardinals (or the Reds, should St. Louis overtake them in the Central) and Giants by a wide margin. Sure, Philly is the two-time defending champ, but right now the odds are against a return to the postseason.
Can Bobby Cox go out in style?
Atlanta’s venerable skipper will one day be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but right now he’s still at the top of his profession. The Braves lead the NL East and Cox has kept them there despite injuries and despite playing in a fairly tough division. The Phillies are semi-surging, and Ryan Howard is back. So they’ll certainly be heard from. As for Cox, he’ll almost certainly notch career win No. 2,500 this season. Will he also nab a division title and maybe another World Series ring to go along with it? Given the Braves’ superior run differential, current lead and easier schedule the rest of way, you can consider them roughly 3-1 favorites to take the NL East flag.
Can the Reds hang on?
The upstart Reds rebounded from a home sweep at the hands of the Cardinals and churned out a lead in the NL Central. For many, though, there’s the sense that it won’t last. Indeed, the Cardinals have an easier schedule the rest of the way, and they have three games at home against Cincy. On the other hand, the Reds' rotation is much deeper, and that could help them survive this long, hot summer. Don’t be surprised if this one goes down to the wire.
Will Albert Pujols (or someone else) win the Triple Crown?
No one has won the batting Triple Crown since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Over in the National League, no one has pulled it off since Joe Medwick way back yonder in 1937. So will the drought end in 2010? The leading candidate is probably the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols. “El Hombre” presently leads the NL in homers and RBIs, and he’s fourth in the league in batting average. His main competition? Joey Votto of the Reds. He’s leading the league in hitting and he’s very close to Pujols in the other two categories. Over in the AL, the best hope lies with Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. He paces the junior circuit in batting average and RBIs but trails Jose Bautista in home runs by a substantial margin. Consider Cabrera a bit of a long shot, but you can look forward to a nifty showdown between Pujols and Votto the rest of the way. And one of them might just pull it off.
Can the Yankees get healthy?
It would take a conga line of misfortunes for the Yankees to miss the postseason, but what about once they get there? For this aging roster, health is a concern. Alex Rodriguez is on the DL with a calf injury, and alongside him is Lance Berkman, who’s nursing a bad ankle. Their injuries aren’t especially serious, but what of Andy Pettitte? The Yanks’ No. 2 man hasn’t pitched in more than a month because of a groin injury, and he still has no clear timetable for his return. Considering the thin state of the rotation (and considering how well Pettitte was pitching before his injury), they badly need him healthy and in vintage form for the postseason.