Labor Day weekend action sets up rest of season

You sprinted to the car on Friday at 5 o’clock — maybe earlier — and began a weekend of football watching, back-to-school shopping and yard work that couldn’t wait any longer.

Or perhaps you took a trip to Florida and didn’t do much of anything, like the Charleston Southern defense.

For one reason or another, the Labor Day observance disrupted your usual baseball viewing/reading habits. That’s OK. The season won’t end until early November. You have time to redeem yourself.

So, here’s a review of what you might have missed since Friday. After all, what’s a new school year without CliffsNotes?

1. The Tigers completed their first road sweep in nearly four months, taking command of the American League Central.

We see games like this all the time: A two-run lead in the seventh becomes a rout with one base-clearing double.

Well, the same thing has happened in the AL Central: The Tigers hit a gapper.

They are 7-1 in their last eight games. In five of those victories — including all three in a weekend sweep at Tampa Bay — the winning run was scored in the eighth inning or later. After struggling away from home all year, Detroit has won back-to-back road series — against the Angels and Rays, no less.

And for those who believe in pennant-race mysticism, consider the following:

After his team clinched a playoff berth in 2006, Tigers manager Jim Leyland acknowledged that the “the biggest game of the year” came Aug. 30, when Craig Monroe’s three-run home run at Yankee Stadium delivered a 5-3 win.

Exactly three years later, on Aug. 30, 2009, Placido Polanco punched a three-run home run just over the left field wall to secure a 4-3 triumph over Tampa Bay. (The victory began Detroit’s current 7-1 stretch.)

Both three-run homers came with the Tigers trailing in their final at-bat.

When told of the parallel, Polanco smiled. “Destiny?” he replied.

Yes, it looks that way. The Tigers have a 6-1/2-game lead on the Twins, who won in Toronto on Monday but are 2-3 dating to Joe Nathan’s rare blown save last Wednesday.

2. The Rockies have won four straight and gained a little daylight in the (apparently two-team) NL wild card race.

In one of the most closely followed races in baseball, the Rockies look like the frontrunners (for now) after sweeping Arizona in a three-game set at Coors Field. They added a series-opening win over the Reds in a holiday matinee.

The Giants, meanwhile, absorbed a walk-off defeat in Milwaukee on Sunday afternoon to fall two games back. San Francisco rebounded to beat San Diego on Monday.

But this seems like the type of race that could seesaw three or four times before Oct. 4. And based on the returns of injured players, both rosters are getting stronger.

Freddy Sanchez was back in the San Francisco lineup on Monday, which may give the Giants a lift during a pivotal nine-game homestand. Meanwhile, outfielder Dexter Fowler should return to the Rockies on Tuesday, possibly followed by closer Huston Street for this weekend’s series at San Diego. (Colorado right-hander Aaron Cook isn’t expected to rejoin the rotation until late September.)

3. Uncertainty in the rotation and bullpen returned for the defending World Series champions.

Despite being swept by the Astros in a four-game series, the Phillies are going to win the NL East. They are too good, and their lead on Florida is too big.

But even with Cliff Lee’s dominance and Pedro Martinez’s mini-renaissance, their pitching woes resurfaced in two significant ways.

On Saturday, closer Brad Lidge blew his 10th save of the season.

On Monday, National League Rookie of the Year candidate J.A. Happ was scratched from his start because of a mild right oblique strain.

Happ (10-4, 2.77 ERA) has looked like a strong candidate for the Phillies’ postseason rotation. Jamie Moyer, bumped into a long relief role last month, performed well in Happ’s place on Monday, allowing two earned runs in six innings.

So, the bullpen may be the bigger problem.

Lidge, a perfect 48-for-48 in save opportunities last year, has a 7.15 ERA. It’s going to be difficult for the Phillies to fully trust him during the postseason.

Brett Myers, the team’s closer in 2007, looms as a possible replacement for Lidge. He pitched a scoreless eighth on Saturday — and protected a one-run lead — after missing three months due to a torn hip labrum.

4. The Braves and Rays unofficially fell out of their respective wild-card races with extended losing streaks.

Nothing nuanced here, just a season-crushing skid for two teams.

Both have lost five straight. Both are now seven games back in the wild-card standings.

Tampa Bay players acknowledged last week’s homestand against Boston and Detroit was a virtual must-win. Well, the defending AL champs went 1-5. And they had a lead in four of the losses.

Carl Crawford is slumping. B.J. Upton is hurting. There was some good news for the Rays, in that top prospect Wade Davis pitched impressively (seven innings, one earned run) against the Tigers in his big league debut on Sunday.

But the game had a familiar conclusion: The Rays’ bullpen couldn’t hold the lead.

The Braves, meanwhile, weren’t able to take advantage of a three-game home series against the lowly Reds. If they can’t beat an also-ran in the NL Central, how are they going to catch teams like the Phillies, Rockies and Giants?

5. Boston’s pitching looks suspect, but Texas might be too shorthanded to take advantage.

Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield started the first two games of Boston’s weekend set with the White Sox. Neither provided a quality start.

Byrd surrendered seven earned runs and didn’t complete the third inning. Wakefield allowed four earned runs in six innings. The Red Sox lost those two games by a combined 17-3 count — and dropped three of the four games overall.

Wakefield only recently returned to the active roster after spending more than a month on the disabled list because of back problems. After Saturday’s start, he told reporters, “It hurts to walk.” Not the sort of words a contending team wants to hear with less than four weeks left in the regular season.

Before Jon Lester’s masterpiece on Sunday, the Red Sox had gone six games without their starter getting an out in the seventh inning. Translation: The bullpen has been busy, and team officials are probably glad to have Billy Wagner.

Boston’s lead over Texas in the wild card race is only 2-1/2 games. That sounds tight, but the Rangers are without All-Stars Michael Young (strained left hamstring) and Josh Hamilton (pinched nerve) until further notice. And key left-hander Derek Holland is starting to look like the 22-year-old rookie he is, with 22 earned runs over his last 12-1/3 innings.

Hamilton received a second nerve-root injection on Monday and isn’t likely to play until Friday’s home series opener against the Mariners at the earliest.

That might not be soon enough. It’s Labor Day, and time is short.

Some final thoughts on the weekend:

  • On their best days — and Labor Day was one of them — the Yankees look downright unbeatable. New York swept Tampa Bay in a day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, snuffing out whatever postseason hopes the defending American League champs had left.

    In the opener, Mariano Rivera (sore left groin) pitched for the first time in nearly one week. He threw a scoreless ninth with two strikeouts. Guess the 39-year-old should be ready for the postseason in four weeks. He wasn’t needed in the nightcap, an 11-1 victory.

    Also, Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner (broken left thumb) returned from the disabled list on Monday. His game-changing speed could be a factor in the postseason.

  • Last week, a dispute between Florida teammates Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez became public. At issue was Ramirez’s perceived lack of toughness with a hamstring injury. That’s a touchy issue, when talking about a $70 million man in a clubhouse filled with players on more modest year-to-year contracts.

    Well, Ramirez responded in the best way possible: He went 5-for-10 with two home runs and six RBIs in a three-game weekend series against Washington. And he played every inning.

  • Other than when Kevin Youkilis was serving his suspension last month for charging the mound, Boston’s Mike Lowell hasn’t started more than two games in a row at third base since the middle of June.

    Lowell told reporters in Chicago over the weekend that it’s been difficult for him to not be in the lineup every day. But the strategy seems to have served the Red Sox well, as Lowell continues to manage his surgically-repaired right hip. Lowell is hitting .325 since returning from the disabled list in mid-July, including at-bats as a part-time designated hitter.

  • We’re about to witness two significant hitting milestones — and they could happen at almost the same time this week. As play began Tuesday, Ichiro Suzuki was five hits away from his ninth consecutive 200-hit season, a new major league record; and Derek Jeter was four from passing Lou Gehrig as the Yankees’ all-time leader.