MLB in September is must-see TV

Turn off the grill. Labor Day is over. The best days of the baseball season are here.

All year, managers and players caution us against drawing conclusions from a single game or series. They invoke the marathon metaphor, stating this is no time for panic or celebration. But they are lying if they say so today. Less than one month from the Oct. 3 season finale, this is assuredly the time for panic, celebration, or some combination thereof.

The sprint has begun. Welcome to Usain Bolt baseball.

October is a singular baseball month, with a worldwide fan base savoring (and enduring) the tension in every pitch. But September is enchanting on its own, with a sixth-month season distilled to a single pitch between familiar foes. The Dodgers host the Giants for the season’s final three games. Who wouldn’t want that series to decide their fates, as in 2004 — and 1951?

Throughout the majors, this promises to be a September unlike any other. The introduction of a second wild card in each league — a change under the new collective bargaining agreement — has added intrigue in more markets. The innumerable tiebreaker game scenarios could turn the early days of the postseason into a sleep-deprived, multicity thrill ride.

With that, here are the key storylines to follow during baseball’s most meaningful weeks.

Could the World Series favorites please raise their hands? Anyone?

Perhaps it’s fitting that we’re still searching for a front-runner in each league during the first season of the expanded postseason. During what should be a chaotic autumn, no team is assured of advancing past the first round.

The Texas Rangers (80-54) may be most deserving of the “favorite” label. They own the best record in the American League and have made (unfulfilling) trips to the World Series in consecutive seasons. The Rangers are essential to the narrative of this postseason, because they have toiled for the past 10 months in hopes of reaching the same point — one strike away — where we left them last year.

Yet, questions persist about the Rangers’ pitching staff. Their 3.99 ERA last month was barely better than the AL average, and they’ve walked too many batters lately.

The Washington Nationals (82-52) have the best record in baseball, period. But apparently their No. 1 pitcher isn’t available for the postseason. Have you heard that rumor, too?

Are the Yankees really going to blow this?

The Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays have gained thousands of followers in New England.

Since the Red Sox are beyond fixing — at least anytime soon — all that’s left in Boston is for fans to hope that the archrival Yankees are headed for similar misery. And it’s not that farfetched. The Yankees (76-58) have a losing record since the All-Star break (24-25) and Monday saw their lead over Baltimore in the AL East shaved to one game. They were 10 games up in mid-July, which would make this a collapse worthy of the 2011 Red Sox.

Well, almost.

In all seriousness, the Orioles and Rays have been playing more consistently than the Yankees. What if Baltimore and Tampa Bay finish 1-2, and the Yankees fall into the second wild-card spot or out of the playoffs entirely? If the Yankees wish to end such talk, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira must make an impact on the lineup, and soon.

Do the Dodgers know how little time they have to come back?

Turns out, the blockbuster of blockbusters didn’t catapult the Dodgers to the division lead. The Dodgers are 5-5 since joining forces with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto, while the rival Giants have gone 6-3 to expand their lead.

If the Dodgers (73-63) intend to win the National League West, they are taking their time doing it. In fact, the tendency to get started late has become a theme with these Dodgers — they needed walk-off hits Sunday and Monday to remain within 4 1/2 games of the division lead. At this point, a wild-card berth is more attainable.

While the Dodgers addressed the middle of their lineup by adding Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, their lack of production at the top remains a glaring issue. They have the second-worst OPS from the leadoff spot of any team in the majors.

“Baltimore vs. Oakland” sounds like a 1970s AFC playoff game between the Colts and Raiders. But it might be the inaugural AL wild-card game.

This is not a vague hypothetical. If the season ended today, the A’s (76-58) would host the Orioles for the right to face the Rangers in an American League division series. The Las Vegas payout on a preseason bet for that scenario would be equal to the GDP of many small countries.

As strange as this may sound, the A’s are easier to explain than the Orioles. Oakland has had terrific pitching all year, second only to Tampa Bay among AL clubs. Bartolo Colon’s suspension became a non-story for them, as Brett Anderson has been magnificent since returning from the disabled list.

The Orioles, meanwhile, continue to defy logic with their best-in-the-majors 24-7 record in one-run games. Buck Showalter is probably the AL Manager of the Year, new acquisition Joe Saunders delivered a huge win Monday, their bullpen is nails, and they aren’t afraid of the Yankees. Somehow, it works.

How will the Nationals survive A.S. (After Strasburg)?

The National League is there for the Nationals to win. In one sense, that’s why the decision to shut down Strasburg is so disappointing — and, indeed, so misbegotten. The Nats would be favored to win the World Series if he were pitching. (How many more times in Strasburg’s Nationals career will the Phillies, Mets and Marlins all have sub-.500 records? The path will only get more difficult once the Dodgers compound their financial advantage over multiple years.)

But that’s a different argument for a separate column. The matter at hand is how far the Nationals will go once Strasburg throws his final pitch Sept. 12. Here’s the answer: They should win the National League East and at least one playoff series. In fact, I still expect them to win the pennant and advance to the World Series.

Look at it this way: With Strasburg, the Nationals have the best rotation ERA in baseball. Without him … they still would have the best rotation ERA in baseball at 3.33.

Thank the schedule-makers.

Virtually every day in September, contenders will play one another with wide-ranging ramifications on division and wild-card races.

The Dodgers and Giants have two more series, including one this weekend in San Francisco (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:05 p.m. ET). Including their current trip to Tampa Bay, three of the Yankees’ next four series are against Tampa Bay or Baltimore. The White Sox and Tigers will stage what should be an epic four-gamer in Chicago next week.

And there is reason to hope for drama similar to what we witnessed in the epic Game 162s last year. The final night matchups include Orioles at Rays, Rangers at A’s and Giants at Dodgers.

Be prepared for tiebreaker mayhem.

The postseason is scheduled to begin with wild-card games Friday, Oct. 5. But what happens on Oct. 4 could be even more fascinating.

The day could be chockablock with elimination games, with the NCAA-tournament feel that made for such a memorable conclusion to the 2011 regular season. Ties for division titles will be settled on that day; in fact, the losers of those games could advance into the wild-card round if all the teams have the same records. We could see three-team, two-day playoffs if three teams tie for the wild card.

Basically, we may have chaos at the end of this season — the good kind of chaos, of course. September baseball has a way of delivering that, this year more than any other.