MLB Pennant Race Kicks into High Gear

Matt Matsumura

Every September cools the summer-scorched lands, but in Major League Baseball, the coming of the ninth month means the heating up of Division and Wild-Card races. Several National League clubs are fighting for postseason berths, while the American League Wild Card Race is down to two contenders. Perhaps the most anti-climactic element to this season’s stretch run is the lack of a Chicago-Milwaukee series to determine the NL Central. Nonetheless, this September still offers some great baseball and here are the teams to watch.

New York Yankees:The Bronx Bombers are rolling once again, leading many a Yankees optimist and Sox pessimist to speculate that the Pinstripes have a chance to clinch their 12th straight AL East title. Unfortunately for Yankees fans, this will not happen. Alex Rodriguez’ mythic capabilities have little control over the Red Sox’ schedule, which, besides this weekend’s foray against the Bombers, includes five more games against Tampa Bay, home series against Minnesota and Oakland, as well as 11 home games compared to six road contests. The Pinstripes play 12 of their remaining 19 games on the road, where for the most part they have been mediocre. The stretch run also includes six contests against the Orioles, who have given the Yankees problems this year. Despite the unfavorable schedule, the Yankees should make the postseason.

Projected Finish: 93-69

Detroit Tigers: Last year’s American League darlings have hit rough times this season, suffering major injuries to Joel Zumaya and Kenny Rogers. Cleveland’s six-game lead is at this point nearly insurmountable. While the Tigers’ pitching has not matched the dominance of last year’s campaign, the lineup has been one of baseball’s most dangerous. The excellence of MVP candidate Magglio Ordonez and the rebirth of Gary Sheffield have bolstered an offense that also features Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson. With the exception of a possibly back-breaking series at Cleveland, the Tigers have a favorable remaining schedule. So can they catch the Yankees? It’s unlikely, but possible, especially if the Yankees struggle away from the Stadium.

Projected Finish: 91-71

Milwaukee Brewers: The young Brewers offered sportswriters great stories throughout the first half of the 2007 season, but have faltered mightily after the All-Star Break (despite winning seven of their last ten). The remarkable success of 3B Ryan Braun (30 HRs in 382 at-bats, 1.010 OPS) and prodigious power of Prince Fielder have managed to save the Brewers from a complete implosion. In addition to Ben Sheets’ fragility and Dave Bush’s incompetence, J.J. Hardy nearly succeeded in falling off the face of the earth and Bill Hall (as well as Rickie Weeks) are having atrocious seasons. Milwaukee finishes the season with a brutal slate, traveling to Atlanta and then hosting St. Louis and San Diego in their last eleven games. The 2007 Brewers look more like a Greek tragedy than a fairy tale.

Projected Finish: 82-80

Chicago Cubs: The bad-news-bears stormed out of the gates after the All-Star Break, finally showing that their off-season spendfest has paid off. Alfonso Soriano recovered from a disappointing first half, and Ted Lilly has been a pleasant surprise. However, not everyone in their winter coup has played up to their paychecks. Cliff Floyd has proven to be a laughable signing, and much-beloved Mark DeRosa has not lived up to his hype. In spite of Carlos Zambrano’s roller-coaster contract year, the Cubs starting rotation has been the team’s strength, featuring Big-Z, Lilly and Rich Hill. The Cubs have an above-average lineup and a suspect bullpen, but would have to play below their ability to miss the postseason.

Projected Finish: 85-77

San Diego Padres: The most boring club in the Major Leagues (except for when Jake Peavy pitches) boasts a potent rotation and a solid bullpen. The offense has benefited from an out-of-nowhere revival from Brian Giles, and despite their recent struggles, still pose a threat to the Diamondbacks. The Padres, despite a moderately tough remaining schedule, should return to form and beat out the Phillies (who are always the club to bet against) for the National League Wild Card.

Projected Finish: 90-72

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies’ inspired play without their leader Chase Utley has kept them in serious contention for a playoff spot in the wide-open National League. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s injury misfortunes hit at the most inopportune time when their young, bona-fide ace Cole Hamels injured his throwing arm a month ago; Hamels may only return for two or three starts toward the end of the season. The remaining schedule will prove to be another uphill climb for the league’s most enigmatic club. The Phils play ten out of their last 19 games on the road, where they struggle (34-37). More importantly, the Phillies play the Mets and Cardinals on the road, as well as home dates with the Rockies and Braves. Unless the Phillies buck the odds, the City of Brotherly Love will be without a postseason once again.

Projected Finish: 87-75