Baseball’s stretch run is on; let’s take up the questions

Labor Day dawned, comrades, with two pennant races worthy of the term and three of the six division races pretty much blowouts, with the leaders sitting on leads of at least six games. So much for parity, says you?  September can be the cruelest month, says I.

For those of you good citizens of the Nation not hanging on every pitch at Fenway and pulling for the local pets to prevail in their gallant struggle to escape the cellar, there will be many more substantive issues playing out elsewhere to keep you amused. After all, the play’s the thing.

Questions? They do abound! Is everything over and out in the National League? Is Missouri the center of the baseball universe? Are the three best teams in baseball all to be found in just one division? Are the Royals an illusion? Are the Astros for real? How will the Dodgers botch it this time? If Joe Maddon were a politician, could he charm his way all the way to the White House? When does midnight strike for the Blue Jays? Or the Mets, for that matter? Can the Yankees survive?

So there are plenty of complex and thorny issues that September might resolve, or at least illuminate. But the best question may be, is there a team out there that really stands out and truly has the look of a champion?  As we bear on into the gun lap, the field looks mighty skimpy, although September and October have a way of turning boys into men. Sometimes!

Writing in the Wall Street Journal about a month ago, a certain Brian Costa stated the case best in an essay grappling with what he terms “the Triumph of Mediocrity in baseball; where the gap between the mediocre and the elite has never been smaller.” Moreover, he asserts, “The line between the two is blurrier than ever and so it doesn’t take long for a team to vacillate between them.”  

What inspired Costa’s interesting ruminations on the matter was the astonishing sight of the New York Mets – an indisputably lackluster collection surely graced with nice young pitching but also lots of injuries, a lineup full of holes, and MLB’s 29th least productive offense – taking command of the NL East at the expense of Washington’s Nationals, the team all the experts in their pre-season miscalculations predicted would run away with that division joyfully.

Costa adds: “More than any team the Mets have benefited from baseball’s gravitational pull toward .500.” Only on that one point would I disagree with Mr. Costa. It seems to me the cross-town Yankees, who as Labor Day turns to night find themselves only a half game astern of the blustering but uppity and still flawed Blue Jays, have benefited every bit as much from the contemporary phenomenon of rampant mediocrity. Compare this year’s Yankee roster with that of the last great Bronx edition, the Joe Torre team that peaked around 1999, or even the last Yankee championship team, in 2009. The disparities are shocking.
The 2015 edition of the erstwhile Bombers remains deeply vulnerable no matter what the standings may indicate.  Four of their six starting pitchers have spent at least a month this season on the disabled list, the fifth has been in the big leagues four weeks, and the sixth won three games last year. Relief pitching is their alleged jewel in the crown, but their lights-out closer did spend a month on the DL just two months ago, and the equally magnificent set-up man increasingly looks equally over-worked.

Their leading run-producer may be gone for the year, their next heftiest hitter is now 40 and hit .150 in the month of August, their No. 3 slugger is 38 and looked finished three months ago, their two top-of-the-order table-setters are averaging about .200 since the all-star game, their second baseman continues to wage a losing battle with the Mendoza line, and the first baseman is fuzzy-cheeked, 22, and less than a year removed from A-ball. They have no speed and rarely manufacture runs. How are they doing it? Maybe with mirrors!   
And yet there the Yankees sit, a division title within their greedy grasp, control of their own destiny in hand, and a seven-game cushion on the wild card with less than four weeks to go. Granted, the wild card is treacherous in theory. But every season of late finds wild cards making significant impacts and last year both World Series finalists were wild cards who qualified by the skin of their teeth. It’s  yet more affirmation that the difference between the least of the wild cards and the best of the division winners is precious bloody little!
Still, and surprisingly, this has not translated into the wild and crazy pennant races contrived by a willful parity that were widely anticipated. In the AL East, there were great expectations of a five-team donnybrook, but here we are in September with third place Tampa, 12 games out. It’s a bad year for baseball when September fails to deliver rollicking pennant races with raucous give and take down to the wire. Hefty gates are lost. Football gets an extra head of steam. The playoff buildup is greatly diminished. But that’s what we’re stuck with this year.

With the days dwindling down, there are only two genuine races in the AL: the Jays-Yanks beauty in the East, likely to be decided by the seven games they have left to beat up on each other (with the loser a near certain wild-card), and the Astros-Rangers contest in the West where cocky young Houston’s merry season-long romp is suddenly imperiled. The challenge from Texas, which managed smartly to re-build its pitching staff in mid-season, is genuine. If there’s a candidate for a classic September collapse, in all its cruelty, it’s probably the untested Astros.  

In the NL, only that lingering awareness of the Mets being always capable of reverting to being the Mets sustains even the illusion of remaining drama. On Labor Day night, their lead over the Nationals is five games, with heads destined to roll in Washington come October. In the West, the Giants trail the Dodgers by eight games and the last wild card berth by nine. The defending champions, we may safely conclude, are cooked. But hold the hosannas for the Dodgers. Don Mattingly is not the answer in LA.

If there’s to be a great team in the game soon to emerge, it’ll come from the NL Central where, remarkably, three of the four teams with the season’s best records reside. With near a month left the Cards, Pirates, and Cubs have all virtually clinched post-season berths with the third-place Cubs having a nine-game wild-card lead on the Giants and Nationals. No single division – not even the AL East in its glorious heyday – has been so dominant in the expanded playoff era. And all three teams are young, rife with promising star power, well managed, with deep farm systems.    

For many, the Cubs – fast rising under the smart and cool guidance of  accomplished song and dance man, Joe Maddon – are sentimental favorites. Who would not pull for the Cubs, loveable, luckless, losers since Teddy Roosevelt’s last year in the White House?

Redemption is at hand, but likely at least another year from deliverance. They’ll catch the Pirates in the wild-card elimination game and if they get lucky the Cardinals await next along the gauntlet. Surviving all that is too much to expect of Madden’s young and raw troops.

But it’s unlikely no matter the immediate outcome that Theo Epstein will feel the least daunted. Since fleeing the ruins of his Red Sox dreams, Theo has placed the Cubs on sure and sturdy footing with the freedom to develop his own game plan free of the unique stresses of life at Fenway. One imagines he’s finding it most enjoyable.

Meanwhile, his old team looks like it might escape the stigma of another last-place finish, having celebrated Labor Day by stomping into a fourth-place tie with the free-falling Orioles. Let’s call it the “Booby Prize.” But take heart! The gap between the elite and the mediocre is narrowing.