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Contenders gear up for start of the stretch run

With a quarter of the season remaining, pennant-race excitement is only just beginning

As any aficionado of horse racing will tell you, the marker to the inside of the track as the horses make their turns and head toward the finish line is called the quarter pole -- the start of the thrilling final stretch to decide who's best this time around.

In the annual race that is the Major League Baseball season, the quarter pole is at hand.

The closing leg of the 162-game marathon begins this weekend, with the three-quarters point of the 2,430 games to be played this season passing in the middle of Saturday's slate. Already, most teams have entered the fourth quarter of their season. By Monday, they'll all be down to their final 40 games.

And down the stretch they come!

The most exciting part of the season is ahead. Be prepared for a photo finish or two, and untold moments of heartbreak and joy.

One needs to look back only as far as last year to see what power the final quarter of the season holds. All 10 of the teams that made the postseason were above .500 down the stretch, but it was the hottest of those teams -- the A's, at 28-12 in their last 40 games -- that overtook the coldest -- the Rangers, 22-18 in their last 40 -- to win the American League West on the regular season's final day.

The shoe had been on the other foot much of this season, with the A's holding the AL West lead over the Rangers. Now, they're chasing the Rangers again and currently holding the second AL Wild Card position -- despite a rough stretch since the All-Star break. Oakland sits in a postseason slot at the moment, and the still youthful A's already have last year's run behind them.

The flip side is that's not something they can take to the bank.

"That is the Catch-22, that you do have experience coming back and putting yourself in a position that we did last year, yet you don't want to sit there and say, 'Oh, it's going to happen,'" A's manager Bob Melvin said. "You have to make it happen, and our guys know that."

As we enter the weekend, there are teams squaring off with postseason positioning in mind, with the Royals playing five games in four days in Detroit to try and stem the Tigers' summer surge while keeping their own long-held postseason hopes alive. There's also Yankees-Red Sox with New York needing a surge and fast, a Nationals-Braves matchup with roles more than flipped from a year ago and an intriguing series in Oakland between a current AL Wild Card and a team fighting to make up ground in that race, the Indians.

One thing's for sure: It's beginning to look and sound a lot like the stretch run.

"Every game's important now, especially in the Central Division when we're playing one of our opponents," All-Star outfielder Alex Gordon said after Detroit's 4-1 victory over his Royals in the opener of the five-game set, which includes a day-night doubleheader on Friday.

What we've seen this year around the final turn is a handful of teams really finding their strides, extending their leads and running with ease as the finish line begins to show up on the horizon. For some, it looks like a stumble or two could hardly keep them from reaching the postseason promised land. But for many others, a sudden burst or a bit of a bobble could make all the difference.

The fun part is nobody knows how it will turn out. Last year at the quarter pole, reached on Aug. 20, there were several scenarios that turned out to be quite different over the last segment of the campaign:

• The Rangers had the largest lead in the AL over the A's, who were not yet in the postseason picture. Oakland gained six games in the final 40 to win the West.

• The White Sox led the AL Central -- not the Tigers, who overtook Chicago in September and emerged as AL champs in October. Final 40: Tigers 23-17, White Sox 18-22.

• The Rays led the AL Wild Card race but wound up bowing out of the playoff picture, a 22-18 finish not enough to hold off the Orioles, who went 27-13.

• In the National League, the Pirates were holding on as the second Wild Card after fading out of the Central race. But they went 12-28 in their final 40 games while the Cardinals (22-18) did just enough to emerge as the first-ever fifth entrant in the NL playoffs.

• The eventual World Series champions finished strong, as the Giants went 27-13 to take the NL West over the Dodgers, who went 19-21.

What will happen this year remains to be seen, but the one thing we do know is that this weekend we're passing that legendary quarter pole -- the real one.

That means we're heading into the fourth quarter, taking on the final 40 games of the 162-game circuit, watching the annual race to the finish line unfold.

That means, in baseball as well as horse racing, the stretch run is here.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for