It’s early in the month, but it seems fair to say, “so much for September.”
No disrespect to the mythmaking October plays that loom large in baseball lore, but September is prime time for baseball’s most dramatic moments. It’s the time of year when teams that have been competing day in and day out for seven months meet their fate in pennant races that typically decide who makes the playoffs and who ponders what might have been.
With the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays last season, September baseball seemed certain to live up to its billing. The American League Eastern Division would come down to a battle between the ultra-rich New York Yankees, the very, very wealthy Boston Red Sox and the upstart Rays. Money wasn’t everything, it seemed, as the Rays and Red Sox won the last two American League pennants. The success of the Rays, in particular, gave fans of the other two teams in the division, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles, hope that they weren’t doomed to permanent second-division status.
The Yankees spent close to half a billion dollars—$423.5 million to be exact—last winter to bolster their competitiveness with the Rays and Red Sox. While the magnitude of the spending was staggering, particularly during the deepest recession in decades, it wasn’t surprising. Spending money is what the Yankees do. Most young players go through their ups and downs before finding their groove. The Yankees don’t have the patience to endure the downs, so they usually acquire their talent on the free agent market. The great irony is that in the early ‘90s they built their teams by drafting young players and developing them into stars, creating the core of a team that won four straight titles. Yet, they have now abandoned that approach for one that didn’t work very well in the ‘80s.
What’s different this time is that the Yankees are getting an exceptional return on their spending spree. First baseman Mark Teixeira ($180 million for eight years) is on pace to hit 40 home runs and has solidified the middle of the batting order. Pitchers C.C. Sabathia ($161 million for seven years) and A.J. Burnett ($82.5 million for five seasons) are the team’s top two starting pitchers. In addition to the new players performing at an all-star level, several veteran Yankees, notably shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada, left fielder Johnny Damon and designated hitter Hideki Matsui, have maintained their excellence despite reaching their mid- to late 30s, an age when the slow erosion of athletic skill can turn into a free-fall.
For those reasons, the Yankees are in first place and running away with the division title.
If the Yanks’ 85-48 record as of Wednesday afternoon wasn’t formidable enough, then consider this: The team was 13-15 on May 8 when Alex Rodriguez returned to the lineup after missing the first 28 games with a hip injury. Since A-Rod’s return, the team is 72-33. Over a full season, that’s a 111-win pace, a tempo that neither Boston nor Tampa Bay could muster. The Rays and Red Sox both suffered a rash of injuries and failed to mobilize their talent well.
The Red Sox invested a lot of time and innings in veteran pitchers Brad Penny and John Smoltz; neither is still with the team. The Rays had trouble with an ailing starting rotation and failed to organize their bullpen; they lost several key games.
The result is that the East Division crown is the Yankees’ to lose, and the Red Sox have a small lead on the Texas Rangers for the wild card spot. If the Red Sox falter in September, the race for the wild card slot will get interesting, but Boston’s secondary statistics suggest that their playoff spot is secure. The only American League race with any heat is in the Central Division between the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers, and that is too close to call. The Twins have the best player in the league this year, catcher Joe Mauer, and the Tigers have the best one-two-three punch in their starting rotation in Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello.
In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals—barring a total collapse (which happened in Philadelphia in 1964)—have wrapped up their divisions, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, at their current pace, are a week or two away from securing the West. The only race is for the wild card slot, and that may be closer than it appears. The Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants are the principals in the race, but the Rox are moving much faster. Since the Rockies changed managers this spring, installing Jim Tracy at the helm, they are 55-31, a pace that should enable them to clinch the final playoff spot with relative ease.
The lone hope is that a relatively drab September will be a prelude for a thrilling October. It seems strange to say, given the Yankees’ long history of October heroics, but this team is a bit of a playoff question mark. Since 2004, when they became the first team in baseball history to lose a seven-game series after leading three games to none, the Yanks have bowed out meekly in three of the last four seasons, and last year they missed the postseason altogether. In New York, where fans treat championships as an entitlement, that five-year drought will create a monkey the size the Chicago Cubs’ “101 years of futility” gorilla. Seeing how the Yankees respond to that pressure will be part of the fun of October baseball this year, but until then there isn’t much for baseball fans to do but wait.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.