Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wednesday, 8/15/07's main point: Baseball's pennant races on fire

ON BASEBALL

When, during the middle of my vacation, I heard that Barry Bonds had finally hit a couple home runs, broken Hank Aaron's record, hugged his kid and given an emotional speech, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Not because I was happy for Barry or Bud Selig, who could turn his mind to other issues. No, I was happy because the completion of Bond's chase for the home run record allowed the focus in baseball to be shifted to where it ought to be this time of year: the pennant races.

And what a finish we are in store for. Not a single division has been decided. Anything could happen in all six divisions. I'm not even talking about a crazy comeback, either, like the Astros' late surge a year ago.

The largest lead a division leader owns is Boston's five-game advantage over the Yanks. If you think that's safe, remind yourself of that five-game series between the hated rivals a year ago. (Hint: Yankees swept). These teams play each other six more times. The Yanks are far from dead in this race.

Here's a look at the six races, with uneducated opinions included:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AL Central
Jake's Take: This race is so up in the air, I'm going to base my thinking on a single game — last night's 6-2 win for Detroit over Cleveland. Jeremy Bonderman put together a very solid outing, the bullpen hung tough, and the Tigers got very timely hitting, including a three-run home run from Magglio Ordonez in the 10th inning. I like Detroit's experience over Cleveland's relative youth. I also give the Tigers an advantage in close games, such as last night's. Should be fun to watch.
Prediction: 1, Detroit. 2, Cleveland (2 GB). 3, Minnesota (7 GB).

AL East
Jake's Take: What's interesting about this race is that while everybody's talking about the Yankees putting pressure on the Red Sox, the Sox have been playing great. After a 2-1 comeback win Tuesday night, they're 25 games above .500, the most they've been all season. Plus, their pitching is set, with Jon Lester back in the rotation. Their only worry? Eric Gagne has been awful. The Yanks will cool down a bit, opening the door for the Sox to cruise into October.
Prediction: 1, Boston. 2, New York (6 GB).

AL West
Jake's Take: Who would have thought back in May that the division would be this close? Count me among the doubters. The Mariners, just three games back of the Angels (not to mention tied for the wild card with the Yanks), have surprised just about everybody, and now several pundits are calling them a playoff team. But how? Sure, they have a lights-out bullpen, but their lineup isn't exactly feared and neither are their starting pitchers. I don't see them catching the Angels (especially if can return and become a serviceable starter once again).
Prediction: 1, Los Angeles. 2, Seattle (4 GB).

NATIONAL LEAGUE

NL Central
Jake's Take: This race could be downright ugly. Seriously. The Brewers and Cubs, separated by a game and a half, are playing as if they'd rather hit the links come October (Milwaukee is 4-6 and Chicago is 3-7 their last 10 games). By playing so poorly, they've opened the door for the champion Cardinals, who linger just four and a half games out. This could get so hectic, I'm not even ruling out the Astros, who are eight out. The Brewers, who have struggled on the road all season (13 games under .500), have 27 of their final 43 games away from home. They're done. The Cubs are chokers. They're done. The Astros are a little too far out. So that leaves the Cardinals...
Prediction: 1, St. Louis. 2, Chicago (1.5 GB). 3, Milwaukee (3 GB). 4, Houston (6.5 GB).

NL East
Jake's Take: This division isn't going to be quite as hectic as the Central, but there will still be plenty of drama. The Mets have officially invited Philly and HotLanta to the party, and their not rain-checking. The Phillies, with Mr. Second Half, Ryan Howard, are just three games out. The Braves, with Mr. "I'm so happy I'm no longer a Ranger," Mark Teixeira, are three and a half out. All three teams are playing good, but not great, baseball. Atlanta has history on its side (remember the 14 straight division titles?). The Mets have recent success on their side (last year). And the Phillies? Well, they're due, right? Hmm, that sounds too much like a sentence about the Cubs. I'll go with the current leader.
Prediction: 1, New York. 2, Philly (2 GB). 3, Atlanta (3 GB).

NL West
Jake's Take: Believe it or not, this race used to be juicier. But the Dodgers have made the jobs of prognosticators like myself easier by completing tanking, falling six and a half games behind the surprising Diamondbacks. So, for the sake of not overloading this paragraph, let's call the Dodgers done (hit me in October when they win the division). Which leaves us with the D-back, Padres (two back) and Rockies (five back). In other words, the small-market teams of the division. How the D-backs continue to win is beyond me. Their lineup is as threatening as a prairie dog. Without the Big Unit, nobody's scared of their pitching. But they win. Works for me, I guess. The Padres' pitching is much more daunting as is the Rockies' hitting. The statistic-minded analyst would pick one of them. But I'm a moxy guy. I like winners, even if they don't appear on the back of cereal boxes. That's why I'm sticking with the "How do they win?" D-backs.
Prediction: 1, Arizona. 2, San Diego (1.5 GB). 3, Colorado (3.5 GB). 4, Los Angeles (5 GB).

As you can tell, all six races are up in the air right now, waiting to be grabbed — kinda like Barry's No. 756 before that Mets fan snagged it.

And I haven't even discussed the wild card.

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