First full week of September, and do you know where your pennant races are? Instead of counting games back, we're counting the stress points to a healthy and happy autumn for the contenders:
Yankees on the hill: Joe Girardi's club leads the world in runs scored, but Joba Chamberlain leads the league in babysitters. The latest Joba Rule is three innings followed by graham crackers and milk. At 137 innings pitched as we speak, he's 36 over his career high. So the Yankees are right to be vigilant in his development program. But at the same time, with Chamberlain's workload severely limited since late July and an 8.22 ERA in five August starts, nobody should be expecting him to play a key role in October.
Which brings up the inconvenient point that what the Yankees essentially have is a three-man rotation right now: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, with Joba on training wheels and Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin filling roster spots. The Yankees still may win behind their sleek offense (and not-so-sleek ace Sabathia), but the man most pivotal to delivering world championship No. 27 (and fulfilling the point of Girardi wearing that number on his back) is Burnett, whose post-All-Star ERA (4.85) is more than a run higher than his pre-All-Star ERA (3.77).
"The secret to the Yankees is getting Burnett going," says a major league scout who has watched the Yankees recently. "Sabathia is going to be fine, the bullpen is good, everything else is good outside of getting Burnett going. His stuff is good, he just makes too many mistakes."
This on a team that makes very few of them. If Burnett becomes a little more fine-tuned in key spots, there will be little to stop this steamroller of a ballclub.
Josh Beckett: Monday's start against the White Sox (three earned runs in seven innings) was a step back in the right direction for a guy who had an 8.88 ERA over his previous four starts. Beckett is the key to the next two months for the Red Sox, who entered the week leading Texas by 2½ games in the AL wild-card race (and trailed the Yankees by nine games in the AL East). Just as he was in the Red Sox's 2007 World Series run, and just as Cole Hamels was for Philadelphia last fall.
• Verducci: September stories
Pitching wins in October, and you can't fake it without an ace. Boston will go as far as Beckett will take them -- in September and in October.
"His velocity is good and his breaking ball is good," says a scout who watched Beckett last week in Tampa Bay. "He's just been getting balls over the middle of the plate. He usually doesn't. But he's big-game guy, and I'd bet he'll remedy that."
Manny post steroids: Look, Ronnie Belliard cannot carry the Dodgers by himself (even if he is batting .370 with two homers and six RBI in eight games since Los Angeles grabbed him from the Nationals). Yes, Belliard is eligible for postseason play, but the Dodgers are in the same spot they were a year ago: thoroughly dependent on Manny Ramirez.
Here's where the watching becomes fascinating: Whatever the reason -- performance-enhancing drugs now flushed out of his system or having lost the feeling of invincibility that came with them -- Ramirez is a different player now. Since the All-Star break, he's hitting just .267 with a .370 on-base percentage and eight homers in 49 games compared with .355/.487/9 in 36 pre-break games.
He also has hit four homers in his past nine games. So ... is that Manny the Monster emerging? Or a false start? Having missed their chance to run away with the NL West, the Dodgers now are clinging to a 3 1/2-game lead over Colorado and even brought in a psychologist who specializes in aiding athletes over the weekend.
"Sounds like the mentality is 'Let's not blow this thing' than 'Let's go win'," says a veteran scout. "It's like, 'Don't think about that pimple on your nose.'"
While disparaging the Dodgers is becoming increasingly popular, however, I keep coming back to this: Threatening to drop into free-fall in early August, the Dodgers went into San Francisco and won two of three. And, taking on water a couple of weeks later, they won two of three in Colorado (after dropping the first game of the series). These Dodgers are not perfect -- and maybe they should add that psychologist full time with Manny around -- but they are more resilient than they get credit for.
Verlander's durability: Detroit, as I wrote the other day, will be tough to beat in a short series with Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, rookie Rick Porcello and even Jarrod Washburn starting. The flip side: Verlander entering this week has thrown more pitches than anybody in baseball, 3,218. Jackson (2,974) ranks 10th. Will the workload catch up with those two important Tigers starters? Or is Detroit's powertrain warranty in good shape?
Even as he leads the majors, Verlander is still 310 pitches behind the career-high 3,528 he threw in 2008, which suggests he should have plenty left in the tank. Jackson, though, likely will exceed his total from '08 in his next start. He's just 82 pitches away from the 3,056 pitches he threw in '08. Meanwhile, Porcello, in only his second year of professional ball, is up to 135 2/3 innings. He worked 125 for Class A Lakeland last summer. So there's something else to watch.
Phillies on the Lidge, er, ledge: Philadelphia is perfectly positioned to win a second consecutive World Series (after winning just two in the franchise's first 126 years). But one looming fatal flaw is with the closer who was perfect last year: Brad Lidge, following a 100 percent conversion rate in 2008 (41 for 41 in the regular season and 7 for 7 in the postseason), has converted just 28 of 38 save opportunities this year and owns a 7.15 ERA. Meanwhile, erstwhile starter Brett Myers, who pitched the eighth inning in Houston the other day, is healthy and essentially on call -- him or Ryan Madsen -- if Lidge doesn't get straightened out soon.
Scout's take: "Madsen is good enough to close. Lidge is a disaster when things are going badly for him. Even though his stuff is good, there's something wrong with the guy. He can't stand the pressure. They've got a hell of a good team but they've got a big problem, too. They're going to have to get their heads together and figure something out."
Rangers' run: Can Texas catch Boston (2½ games back in the wild-card chase)? The Angels (five back in the AL West)? With Michael Young (hamstring) and Josh Hamilton (back) bushwhacked by injuries, the resilient Rangers need Kevin Millwood, supposed veteran anchor of the rotation, to step up. But Millwood (10-9, 3.77 ERA) is fading: After allowing five earned runs in five innings in Baltimore on Saturday, his post-All-Star break ERA is up to 4.71 -- including an ugly 6.75 in July. He's only won once since July 20.
"His stuff was down a notch anyway, and he's limping to the finish line," says a scout who saw him recently. "He's not throwing as hard and his breaking ball is not as crisp."
He's probably got five starts left. The Rangers fate largely will be directly related to those starts.
Colorado: De La Who? The Rockies maintain their NL wild-card lead and continue to threaten the Dodgers in the NL West despite losing ace Aaron Cook (shoulder) on Aug. 21 and closer Huston Street (biceps tendinitis) on Sept. 1. Street hopes to return within the next several days, Cook is working toward later this month.
In the meantime, Jorge De La Rosa and Franklin Morales continue to play pivotal roles. De la Rosa, acquired from Kansas City in 2008 with the dreaded "potential" tag, has won 12 of his past 14 decisions and is a major (and underrated) reason why the Rockies are doing what they're doing. His fastball, which touches 96, is a solid weapon, as is a cutter, which he throws in the low 90s, and his slider. Morales, meantime, is 4 for 4 in save opportunities while stepping in for Street. The left-hander with the electric arm has been lights out -- which the Rockies will continue to need.
"You keep waiting for De La Rosa to blow up, and he keeps getting better," one scout says.
He might be a Giant: Everybody knows San Francisco crosses home plate just a wee bit more often than you find a $20 bill on the street. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez, acquired from Pittsburgh in July, has returned from the disabled list (shoulder). Whether or not the Giants can win the NL wild-card spot might well depend on this question: Ready, Freddy?