Here are 6 predictions for the final month

September 1st, 2021

It’s hard to believe, but we have reached the final month of the 2021 MLB season.

(Well, not counting those three days of October that are part of the regular season and allow us to make wisecracks about last-place clubs playing “October baseball.”)

It’s also hard to believe that just one month ago the Braves were four games behind the first-place Mets in the National League East, and the Rays and Red Sox were well ahead of the third-place Yankees in the American League East.

Things can change in a hurry around here, and there’s enough unsettled going into September and those few days in October to give us a compelling conclusion.

Here are my best guesses as to how we finish up -- six predictions for the regular season’s final month(s).

1. The Dodgers will win the NL West.

This will be the only division race with a change at the top in the final month (congrats to the Rays, White Sox, Astros, Braves and Brewers). This will also be a rare instance in which a 100-win team finishes second in its division (fifth time in the divisional era and first since the 100-win Yankees finished second to the 108-win Red Sox in 2018).

The Giants don’t deserve to be a second-place team, and this prediction is not to be taken as a knock on them. The depth they assembled and the way they’ve managed workloads has taken them a lot further than any of us anticipated. And it is long since past time to acknowledge that, no matter what any of us dopes in the media thought before the season, they are elite.

But the Dodgers are the better team, in no small measure because of what they added at the Trade Deadline in Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. As of this writing, the Dodgers have a plus-69 run differential in the second half, while the Giants have a plus-29 mark. The Dodgers have struggled to make up any ground in the NL West because the Giants, who won nine series in a row before dropping two of three in Atlanta last weekend, have refused to let their foot off the gas. But beginning with a three-game slate in San Francisco this weekend, the Dodgers are going to put together perhaps their most hard-earned of nine straight NL West titles.

2. That Yankees-Red Sox AL Wild Card Game? Forget about it.

Too many people are hyping up this game (“Gerrit Cole vs. Chris Sale!”) a month beforehand for me to believe it will actually happen. Something is going to throw a wrench in those plans. Because that’s baseball.

Maybe it’s the Yankees overtaking the Rays for the East title, though I personally don’t think Wander Franco and Co. are going to let that happen.

More likely, it will be the Red Sox getting yanked (no pun intended) down from behind by another club.

It could be the Blue Jays, boosted by a healthy George Springer and a schedule with a healthy helping of Orioles on it. That would be a great story.

It could be the Mariners, who have blown a bunch of saves since the ill-received Kendall Graveman trade but remain in the mathematical mix for their first postseason berth in 20 years. That would be a great story, too.

I’ll chicken out and take the path of least resistance: The A’s will face the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game for the second time in four years. With Boston’s pitching staff showing its cracks and the roster depleted by COVID concerns, Oakland will rise up and seal its semi-regular spot in the one-and-done round, hopefully with a healthy return for Chris Bassitt and possibly with the previously unanticipated return of a homer-hitting Khris Davis.

Sorry, folks, we’ll have to revisit the Bucky Dent Game some other time. (Unless, of course, everybody could just be quiet about the potential Yankees-Red Sox matchup. Then maybe it can actually happen!)

3. We’re going to need a tiebreaker to settle the NL’s second Wild Card.

Rooting for a tiebreaker game that doesn’t happen: A tradition unlike any other.

But hey, maybe it’ll happen this year. The Reds and Padres enter September neck and neck, with the Cardinals, Phillies and, if we’re being super generous, the Mets still in the mix.

All of these teams have their warts. The Reds’ schedule makes them a favorite at this point, but their offense, which is susceptible to left-handed pitching, has slowed down of late. The Padres’ pitching is a mess, and they have probably the most difficult schedule remaining in MLB. The Phillies could still push the Braves in the NL East, and the Reds and Padres in the NL Wild Card, but J.T. Realmuto’s injury hurts an already inconsistent club. The Mets get a thumbs down from me.

My crystal ball sees the Phillies still in it going into the final weekend, but crushed by a late-inning loss to the Marlins on the penultimate day of the season. The Reds take a one-game lead into the final day but get punked by the Pirates, while the Padres tackle the Giants to clinch the Dodgers’ division win and necessitate a Monday tiebreaker.

The Padres get to host it by virtue of their 6-1 record vs. Cincinnati, but the Reds, boosted by a Joey Votto homer (naturally) pull off the road win to set up an NL Wild Card Game date with the Giants. And then, in gearing up for that game, we all have an excuse to re-watch one of the great grand slams (and catcher reactions) in postseason history.

By the way, thanks to the tiebreaker ...

4. Fernando Tatis Jr. will make history.

With 36 homers, Tatis enters the final month with a big edge on the NL leader board. The next-closest competitors are tied at 29. And with 24 steals, Tatis is two shy of Trea Turner’s league lead.

Though Game 163 won’t go the Padres’ way, its statistics will count toward the regular-season totals. And so Tatis will use the extra game to swipe second and take down Turner. In doing so, he will become just the second player in the modern era-- joining the Phillies’ Chuck Klein (1932) -- to lead his league in both homers and steals.

That’ll make the NL MVP vote pretty easy. You’re welcome, voters.

Speaking of easy MVP choices…

5. Fifty home runs for Shohei Ohtani.

He’s at 42 going into September. But just nine of those dingers have come since Ohtani decided to serve as Home Run Derby participant, starting pitcher and leadoff man, hot dog vendor, program hawk and in-game organist at the All-Star festivities. If he’s a bit fatigued, who could blame him? And so maybe 50 proves unreachable.

But I would expect the Angels to ease off Ohtani on the pitching side of things as we wind down (he already missed a scheduled start against the Yankees this week after taking a pitch off his right hand a few days earlier), and that would lighten the load. They’ve also got seven games left against a Rangers pitching staff that allows 1.5 homers per nine innings.

So let’s dream big: Ohtani will not only become the first pitcher to lead the Majors in homers, he’ll hit this nice round number in the process. Babe Ruth didn’t reach 50 (or 30 or 40, for that matter) until he became a full-time position player. Ohtani can still realistically get there while also leading his team in ERA.

Have we told you lately that this is completely and utterly absurd?

 And speaking of absurd ...

6. We will see yet another no-hitter.

As it stands, the eight no-hitters this season (not counting the two in seven-inning games) tie the all-time record set way back in 1884. But just like Grover Cleveland took down James G. Blaine in a closely contested U.S. presidential election in 1884, the 2021 season is going to take sole position atop the no-hit hierarchy in this final month by the slimmest of margins with one more no-no.

(I would tell you who is going to throw No. 9, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for the Mariners’ Marco Gonzales.)