Labor Day ignites final sprint for contenders
Holiday benchmark arrived with few surprises this season
The 2011 season has careened around the last turn of Labor Day and charges into the September straightaway. Summer fades, teachers and books emerge, spontaneity gives way to order.For some teams, the September road will lead into the October clearing. For others, it leads into 2012 and is the all-important chance to lay foundations for a next year. September is the groundwork for revival. Fans will be riveted for signs of the kind of recovery teams have consistently made in the last decade. The Arizona Diamondbacks are on track to become the ninth team since 2001 to make the postseason off a 90-loss season. The seeds for such turnarounds are sown in September. You want concrete evidence? In Washington, it will be personified Tuesday night by Stephen Strasburg, in his comeback start from Tommy John surgery. In Queens a little later this month, perhaps the proof will come through Johan Santana's return. On this side of Labor Day, as you know, it is time to put away the white loafers and the white jeans. White flags are another matter. They are waving everywhere. The Majors' front-running teams can taste the spoils of their labors, sitting on average division leads of 6 1/2 games. The Wild Card races, for a change, offer no relief; the American League Wild Card race even spoils the plot of one of the tightest divisions. Still with work to do: The Rangers and the Angels, heading into the AL West stretch 2 1/2 games apart without any fallback options, on a collision course for their season-ending series at Angel Stadium. Other races? How about the race to avoid an NL Division Series date with the Phillies' muffling pitching staff? The Brewers and D-backs will jockey to avoid such a fate. The division champ with the inferior record draws Philadelphia, and Milwaukee is up by 3 1/2 games. Sometimes, though, those white flags do morph into red herrings. Instead of setting up an anticlimactic finish, a wide Labor Day lead can be prelude to a miracle, the sort that drives sleep from fans' eyes. There are no guarantees, until your playoff ticket is actually punched. It doesn't happen often. That's why we call them miracles. But the 1995 Angels couldn't hold a 6 1/2-game Labor Day lead over Seattle. The 2007 Mets saw a five-game lead trampled by the Phillies. And after Labor Day 2009, the wire-to-wire Tigers still led by 6 1/2 games, but they couldn't make it stick. Trying to remember this kind of September? Don't bother. We haven't had any quite like this one during the post-1994 division era, at least not as it concerns Wild Card races. Brilliant concept. The leagues' Wild Card scrambles have electrified numerous Septembers in which division races were slaughters. In 1995, for instance, the six leaders came away from Labor Day with an average edge of 12 games -- but spicing things up were Wild Card races in which the Royals led the Mariners by a half-game and the Rockies led the Astros by one. More recently, in 2006, the average division lead of 7 1/2 games was offset by the Twins' half-game edge over the White Sox and San Diego's 1 1/2-game edge over Philadelphia in the respective Wild Card chases. Concept gone awry: Today, for the first time, the Wild Cards are comparable runaways. The Red Sox's seven-game bulge over the Rays spoils the most heated division fight, in which Boston trails AL East-leading New York by 2 1/2 games. But if September is light on suspense, it teems with enthralling storylines. Some are personal. If Justin Verlander holds onto his leads in wins, strikeouts and ERA, he will post pitching's first Triple Crown since 2006, when Minnesota's Santana led in all three categories. Verlander would be the first Detroit pitcher to accomplish the feat since Hal Newhouser in 1945.
Meanwhile, Toronto's Jose Bautista tries to become the first AL homer king to protect his crown since Alex Rodriguez's threepeat in 2001-03. The Curtis Granderson-Adrian Gonzalez AL MVP Award duel is a neat inset to their teams' AL East portrait. The batting races in both leagues are extremely tight.Most revolve around teams and how they will position themselves for next season. Occasionally, the September ingredients of coming glory are subtle. Two weeks before the end of their 97-loss season, the D-backs hired new GM Kevin Towers, whose reconstruction of their bullpen has proven to be instrumental. Often, the signs are obvious. The Reds wrapped up a 10th consecutive losing season in 2009 with an 18-9 September, and they used that as a catapult to a 2010 NL Central title. The 2007 White Sox lost 90 games, but their 15-12 September foretold a 2008 AL Central flag. That's why fans keep flocking to ballparks in September, to glimpse the future. They will get a good look at it in Target Field, where the Twins are committed to letting a corps of young players earn a role in helping the team rebound from what will be its poorest finish since 2000. The Pirates will give ample playing time to midseason acquisitions Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee, to determine whether they could play a part in the next stage of their renaissance. New faces are popping up all over the baseball landscape, because this month is the incubator of incipient superstardom. What do Brooks Robinson, Joe Morgan, Greg Maddux, Ernie Banks, Carlton Fisk, Stan Musial, Ryan Howard and many others have in common? All were introduced to us as September callups. As leaves' colors begin to change, so do Major League teams' rosters. In real life, pride may come before the fall. On the diamond, fall often comes before the prize.