5 intriguing storylines for September
Everything the Kansas City Royals did last season had the feel of a magical ride. Remember that eight-game playoff winning streak? That surely didn't feel real, did it? Did all that 2014 magic mean the Royals would be a one-hit wonder? Some wondered.
How would the Royals handle success and expectations? Turns out, they've handled it just fine. So as September begins, we offer a tip of the hat to Kansas City and its 13-game lead in the American League Central.
The Royals have been alone in first place since June 9, and they are cruising toward a second straight postseason appearance. They are a deep team, a playoff-tested team. Kansas City is also a confident team, which is a natural byproduct of all that success.
Since July 22, 2014, the Royals have baseball's best record -- 132-77, including the postseason. See you in October, fellas.
As for baseball's nine other playoff berths, there's still work to do. No other division has been settled, and in four of the remaining five, the distance between the first- and second-place teams is five games or less. At least 16 teams still have reasonable playoff hopes.
This is the kind of scenario Major League Baseball hoped for when it added an additional Wild Card team in each league in 2012. Because a single-elimination Wild Card Game is so risky, teams were forced to put additional emphasis on winning their division.
Here are five other storylines to keep an eye on:
1. Can the new kids on the block hang in there?
Six teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2014 -- the Blue Jays, Astros, Yankees, Rangers, Mets and Cubs -- are nicely positioned for 2015. Can they hang on?
Let's begin with the Blue Jays, who have morphed into an amazing baseball team in the past five weeks. Toronto is a team that didn't clear .500 for good until the last week in July. Since July 29, it has gone 24-6 and gone from seven games out of first place in the AL East to a 1 1/2-game lead.
The Blue Jays averaged 6.3 runs per game in that time. Their run differential is plus-97. They've scored 10 more runs than any other team. Only the Cardinals and Astros have a better staff ERA.
The Mets are right behind the Blue Jays in scoring runs, a tribute to general manager Sandy Alderson's reshaping of his lineup. And the Mets have all that pitching.
The Yankees are old and they have questions. But the Yanks are tough and resilient, and it would be a mistake to overlook them.
Finally, there are the Cubs and Astros. They're young teams riding energy and enthusiasm and loads of young talent. There aren't two teams having more fun than Chicago and Houston, which makes watching them great fun.
2. Is time running out on the Giants?
We write the Giants off every year about this time. That was especially tempting this season with the roster decimated by injuries. Yet it's September and they're still in contention.
Haven't we seen this movie before? San Francisco's rotation lacks the quality and depth of past years. But the Giants also have Bruce Bochy and Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner. They've got a solid bullpen and a winning core.
At a time when the Dodgers have a few problems of their own, it would be a mistake to overlook the defending champions again.
3. What are we to make of the Nationals?
For three straight years, Washington has won the "Best Team in Baseball" trophy. Unfortunately, we give that one out before the real games start.
So far, the Nationals have yet to win a single postseason series, and now they find themselves 6 1/2 games behind the Mets with 32 to play.
The Nats have had some injuries, but so have other teams, including the Mets. Now they have five weeks to avoid missing the postseason and the beginning of what might be a tumultuous offseason.
Other than a 20-5 run in April and May, the Nationals haven't come close to being what we thought they'd be. At a time when almost no one expects them to salvage this season, they've got a chance for one of those shock-the-world runs.
4. Is the playoff format unfair?
Oh, please. It couldn't be more fair. If the Pirates and Cubs finish second and third in the National League Central, they'll have a chance to keep playing.
If you want unfair, check out the 1992 Giants, who won 103 games and missed the postseason. Or the 1980 Orioles, who won 100 games and went home.
There are degrees of unfairness. This playoff format was designed to give an advantage to the division winners, but to allow two other teams a chance to keep going.
The Pirates still have a chance. They play the Cardinals six more times. Meanwhile, the Cubs have six games apiece with the Cards and Bucs.
St. Louis has been alone atop the NL Central since April 17, but the Redbirds still have some work to do.
5. Awards season is upon us
In the AL, Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson has established himself as the favorite to win his first MVP Award. Meanwhile, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper seems to be heading toward winning the NL MVP Award. D-backs first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is still very much in the race. As for the Cy Young Awards, the Dodgers' Zack Greinke (NL) and the Astros' Dallas Keuchel (AL) are the players to beat entering the stretch run, while Terry Collins of the Mets (NL) and A.J. Hinch (AL) of the Astros headline the top Manager of the Year Award candidates.