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Predicting September's 10 biggest newsmakers

MLB.com @RichardJustice

You can almost see October from here, and isn't that what makes September special? That's especially true of a season in which 18 teams are still in serious contention for one of the 10 postseason berths.

The Cubs, Rangers and Nationals have comfortable division leads, which leaves 15 clubs slugging it out for seven spots. This competitive balance has the potential to make for a chaotic finish.

You can almost see October from here, and isn't that what makes September special? That's especially true of a season in which 18 teams are still in serious contention for one of the 10 postseason berths.

The Cubs, Rangers and Nationals have comfortable division leads, which leaves 15 clubs slugging it out for seven spots. This competitive balance has the potential to make for a chaotic finish.

Baseball's beauty is its sameness, its rewarding of consistency and riding out the peaks and valleys with the same approach. This month is different. The things every club has been playing for are right there to be won or lost.

Players feel the tension, too. When it's over, they almost always say they had no idea how equally tired their bodies and minds were until there were no more games to play.

So let's look down the road at these final few weeks and predict who the newsmakers will be:

1. Clayton Kershaw
The Dodgers lead the National League West despite having placed an NL-record 27 players on the disabled list. As a result, they've used 53 players, including 30 pitchers. At the moment, the Dodgers have six starting pitchers on the DL, but they have still somehow patched it together enough to enter September alone atop the NL West.

• Up-to-the-minute standings

Now, the Dodgers are fairly confident their main guy can return within a few days. They are 14-2 in Kershaw's starts, and when he was injured on June 26, he was on his way to winning possibly both the NL Most Valuable Player Award and the NL Cy Young Award.

If Kershaw can return, he might transform the Dodgers into a club capable of knocking out the Cubs. He has a 4.59 ERA in 13 postseason appearances, but he'll be fresher than ever (121 innings at the moment) and capable of turning these playoffs upside down.

Video: STL@MIL: Wainwright fans seven over seven innings

2. Adam Wainwright
The Cardinals desperately need some stability in a rotation that now includes two rookies, Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver. Can Wainwright still be that guy? At times, he has looked as good as ever (3.00 ERA in his past three starts). At other times, he has looked like a 35-year-old veteran with 1,732 innings on his odometer. Wainwright has allowed six-plus runs in five of his starts. That is as many as he had in 66 starts in the 2013-14 seasons combined.

Now the Cards need Wainwright again in a season in which everything has seemed to come hard. Yet they're positioned to get the NL's second Wild Card berth, leading the Mets by two games and the Pirates by 2 1/2.

3. Andrew McCutchen
No one will care how the first five months went if McCutchen can put a nice finishing touch to his most puzzling Major League season. In his previous four seasons, he won the NL MVP Award once, finished third twice and fifth once, averaging 25 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .926 OPS.

This season has been a challenge almost from the beginning. McCutchen hit .226 in April and hasn't gotten his average above .252 since the All-Star break. He has offered no excuses, saying simply he has to do better.

McCutchen has played at such a high level so consistently during his first seven seasons in Pittsburgh that it would surprise no one if he had a monster September stretch run. If he does, the Pirates have a great shot at a fourth straight postseason appearance.

4. Chris Tillman
The Orioles are 20-6 when Tillman starts and 52-54 with anyone else. He was the glue holding a shaky rotation together, and when he departed an Aug. 20 start with a sore shoulder, the O's postseason hopes took a huge hit. Even as Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy have emerged as quality starters, Baltimore probably can't get into the playoffs without Tillman returning. Manager Buck Showalter is targeting next weekend for his return.

Video: Must C Clutch: Cespedes hammers a walk-off homer

5. Yoenis Cespedes
Speaking of teams doing improbable things, the Mets have remained in contention despite a ridiculously long injury list. As Terry Collins pieces his rotation together and hopes he can still get some quality innings from Steven Matz down the stretch, Cespedes could have nearly the same impact he did last season when he fueled a run to the World Series.

Cespedes is hitting .364 in 11 games since returning from the DL with the Mets going 9-2. He's playing despite a right quad injury that may not completely heal until after the season. At the moment, though, the Mets are riding more of Cespedes' magic to remain in the mix.

6. Aaron Sanchez
Sanchez might have been the AL's best starting pitcher when the Blue Jays removed him from their rotation on Aug. 20. He was 12-2 with a 2.99 ERA. But he had thrown 156 1/3 innings, which was 54 1/3 more than his previous career high. Rather than send Sanchez to the bullpen, which had been under consideration, they optioned him to the Minors for an 11-day break. He returned Wednesday and went six innings and allowed no earned runs in a victory over the Orioles. Sanchez will be watched carefully the remainder of the season. If he holds up, the Jays will probably win the AL East.

7. Alex Gordon
Just when the Royals might have wondered if they'd ever see the old Gordon this season, he went on a tear. While Kansas City has gone 18-6 to get back into contention, Gordon has played his best baseball of the year, hitting .294 with four doubles, six homers, 11 RBIs and a .934 OPS.

The Royals have had baseball's best pitching staff for nearly a month, and their offense has been solid, averaging five runs per game. Gordon has a chance to be part of one of the cooler stories of this baseball season.

Video: Jim Callis on the Red Sox calling up Yoan Moncada

8. Yoan Moncada
Looking for a comparable? Think Mike Trout in the infield. Or a shorter Carlos Correa. Or a taller Mookie Betts. Yeah, he has a chance to be that good. Smart move by Red Sox to bring him up now. Why wait? Haven't we learned that, in the end, talent takes over? It simply does not matter that he has only played 187 Minor League games. Red Sox manager John Farrell probably will throw him right into the mix at third base. No, he's not going to make the Red Sox bullpen better. But he's going to make the Red Sox better, and he's going to make them a lot more interesting.

• Callis: What to expect from Moncada in Majors

9. Stephen Strasburg
This isn't about the regular season. The Nationals are going to win the NL East whether Strasburg throws another pitch or not. But he's scheduled to return from the DL on Monday, and whatever work he gets down the stretch will be critical to what the Nats do in the postseason. If the Nationals have Max Scherzer and Strasburg lined up to open the NL Division Series, they might be the team most capable of challenging the Cubs.

10. Hunter Pence
Pence has missed 56 games with a hamstring injury, and his absence creates a significant hole in the Giants' offense. He returned on Tuesday night and has gone 6-for-12 in three games since. Pence is not the only key in San Francisco making another even-year trip to the playoffs, but he's certainly one of the keys.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.