Now that Michael Phelps has left the pool and Usain Bolt is taking a well-deserved breather, we'll really see who has the best finishing kick.
August might be the most demanding month for major leaguers because of the stifling heat, the accumulated injuries and the mental burden of knowing there are so many games left on the schedule. Now that we're on the verge of September, it means that the playoff picture is coming into focus, the postseason awards picture is about to crystallize and a select few players will find that elusive fifth gear.
Sorry, Albert Pujols. Your 1.043 September OPS is terrific, but it's only the third-best month in your career portfolio. In this week's edition of Starting 9, we shift the focus to good players who become great, or great players who find a way to exceed even their own exacting standards.
Maybe it's because they know their bodies so well, concentrate better in a pennant race or are adept at beating up on September call-ups. For whatever reason, history and the numbers tell us they're awfully good in the final month of the season.
Here are nine players whose box-score lines will merit particularly close attention in September. Only one of them is called upon to save games for his team. But they all know how to close.
Jimmy Rollins, Phillies (.293/.345/.500 career in Sept./Oct.)
Rollins has clashed with his manager and ticked off Philadelphia fans with his "front-runners" comment, and they've been letting him have it on a nightly basis. On a positive note, the Phillies are finished on the West Coast, so J-Roll is done with "Best Damn Sports Show" for this season.
Former Phillies GM Ed Wade calls Rollins a "red-light player" -- a guy who's at his best when he's the center of attention -- and that's never more evident than in September. Rollins stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 174 pounds and has played an average of 157 games per season since 2001, yet his numbers are higher across the board in the final month.
In 2005, Rollins finished the season with a 36-game hitting streak. Last year he cranked it up with six homers, 18 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 14 attempts in September to wrest the MVP award from Matt Holliday and lead the Phillies past the fading Mets in the NL East.
Rollins has a .254 on base percentage leading off an inning this season, so he has some lost ground to recover. But with eight hits in 10 at-bats against the Dodgers and Mets the past two nights, he's gotten the Philly crowds back on his side and built some momentum for the final push.
"He can be the guy to get us going," said Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino. "It's obvious what he does when he gets on base. He changes the whole dynamic for this team."
Randy Johnson, D-backs (50-16, 2.92 ERA in final month)
Johnson went 0-5 with a 6.82 ERA in June and got crushed by the Royals, Twins and Brewers, but he's been a different pitcher since the All-Star break. He has eight quality starts in his past nine outings, and he struck out 13 Florida Marlins in seven innings in his appearance on Friday.
Johnson recently told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic that he benefited from a side session at the break with Tom House, his friend and pitching guru since 1992. "It was hands-on, him showing me what I was doing," Johnson said. "For me, it always comes down to mechanics. Being tall, there's a lot that can go wrong."
Johnson is 44 years old and a year removed from his second back surgery, and his fastball now registers in the 90-93 mph range. But he's pitching so well -- and is close enough to 300 wins -- that it seems a virtual certainty he'll return for one more year. In the meantime, he'll team with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren to give the Diamondbacks a 1-2-3 combination that nobody wants to face in October.
All manager Bob Melvin needs to do now is find someone to protect those leads. Arizona closer Brandon Lyon keeps living on the edge, and Jon Rauch has been brutal since his arrival from Washington in a deadline trade. Rauch has a 7.82 ERA in August, and he's allowed at least one run in six of his past seven appearances.
CC Sabathia, Brewers (19-9, 2.88 ERA, 9.59 K/9 in Sept./Oct.)
Yes, we know Sabathia had a rough postseason with Cleveland last year, but he has a history of pitching well in September. Don't think the Brewers weren't aware of that when they acquired him for Matt LaPorta before the deadline.
What's the secret to Sabathia's late success?
"He's a big, strong, physical guy and he's mechanically sound," said Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin. "And in the short time we've gotten to know him, we've seen how competitive he is."
There's a school of thought that the Brewers won't hesitate to pitch Sabathia into the ground because they have no intention of re-signing him as a free agent this winter. But manager Ned Yost has been adamant that he's not going to abuse Sabathia, even though Yost took some heat for allowing the big guy to go the distance and throw 130 pitches in a recent 9-3 win over Houston.
As Melvin points out, the Brewers know they're going to need Sabathia for some big innings in late September and possibly October, so they have reason to protect him and make sure he doesn't use all his bullets in August. And the innings pitched total tells only part of the story.
Sabathia has averaged only 14.1 pitches per inning as a Brewer -- the most efficient ratio of his career -- so he's not out there long enough to get out of whack mechanically or encounter the type of high-stress situations that lead to bigger problems.
"What's tough is when you have those innings with over 20 pitches," Melvin said. "That's when the wear and tear sets in and you don't have a chance to recover. It's like a boxer, if you asked him to go five-minute rounds instead of three. His arms and his gloves would drop and you'd have more problems. We monitor the pitches more than anything."
David Wright, Mets (.324 BA, .549 slugging in final month)
Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana are proven late-season producers, but they do their best work in August. In his first four full seasons, Wright has shown he's a force from the All-Star break to the final day.
The Mets' historic collapse last season obscured the fact that they ranked fourth in the majors in runs scored last September. The big problem was pitching, as evidenced by a 5.11 team ERA in the final month.
Wright put up monster numbers in September (six homers, 20 RBIs and a 1.034 OPS), and won points for standing at his locker and answering the hard questions during the team's late meltdown. In New York's 8-7 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday, Wright stayed in the game despite a mashed right hand and spent most of the 13th inning flexing his fingers. He's just built that way.
The Mets' overall team failure might have cost Wright the MVP award last season, when he finished fourth in the balloting. If New York overcomes its bullpen issues and wins the NL East this year, Wright has a good chance to make up for that disappointment.
Josh Beckett, Red Sox (18-8, 2.84 ERA in Sept./Oct.)
Like Jack Morris, another pitcher with a sterling postseason résumé, Beckett preps for the playoffs and World Series by posting his best regular-season numbers in September. "Some guys get close to the finish line and they can smell it," an American League scout said.
Hey, it beats the smell of liniment. Beckett has an inflammation in his right elbow that's produced tingling and numbness in his right hand, so the Red Sox have backed off him twice and given him a sleeve to protect his arm when he sleeps. Beckett passed a bullpen side-session test Tuesday, and he's been cleared to return to the rotation Friday against the White Sox at Fenway Park.
With Paul Byrd newly arrived from Cleveland, Tim Wakefield back from the disabled list and Boston leading the Twins and Yankees in the wild-card race, manager Terry Francona has had just enough of a cushion to be cautious with Beckett and make sure he's ready for the stretch drive. The Red Sox want Beckett to be ready for October, when they know he's capable of making a huge difference.
Torii Hunter, Angels (.849 OPS in final month)
Hunter's career batting averages by month: .264 in April, .265 in May, .271 in June, .277 in July, .268 in August and .290 in September and October. His on-base and slugging percentages are also at their highest in the closing month. He's living proof that a spring in your step, a smile on your face and a relentlessly positive attitude can be a major boon to staying power.
Hunter isn't the only Angel with an impressive finishing kick. Vlad Guerrero has a .981 career OPS in September, and Mark Teixeira sports a .601 slugging percentage in the final month. As Scott Boras, baseball general managers and Hot Stove enthusiasts are well aware, Teixeira can significantly strengthen his free-agent bargaining position with a strong finish this season.
With the Angels holding a 16-game lead in the AL West, they have the luxury of playing September with an eye on being ready for October. Other than Francisco Rodriguez's pursuit of Bobby Thigpen's save record, there's not much at stake in Anaheim. It's up to manager Mike Scioscia to strike the right balance between backing off his players and still making sure they enter the postseason with the requisite competitive edge.
Mike Mussina, Yankees (40-19, 2.84 ERA in Sept./Oct.)
The Yankees' postseason aspirations are just about toast, but if history is any indication, they have a few players who won't go down quietly. Second baseman Robinson Cano is a career .365 hitter in the final month, and Mussina and Andy Pettitte, the savvy veterans, are a combined 73-33.
Lou Piniella theorizes that hard-throwing pitchers are bound to fare better in the later months because that's when hitters' bats drag and they have a tougher time catching up with the heat. Then there's Mussina. He's never been a pure velocity guy, and now he's reinventing himself along the lines of Greg Maddux in his twilight years. Mussina's fastball tops out at 89 mph these days, he'll throw his curve anywhere from 68 to 74, and he'll mix in a healthy dose of sliders and changeups.
The overwhelming majority of Mussina's pitches are on the black. He's allowed 1.2 walks per nine innings this season, the lowest ratio in the majors.
Mussina has a reputation as the analytical type, befitting a Stanford economics major. But he routinely disdains advance scouting reports and bases his game plan primarily on feel. The approach has certainly worked this season. Even if Mussina fails to win 20 games for the first time in his career, he's given his Hall of Fame case a substantial lift.
Troy Percival, Rays (152 K's in 111 2/3 innings in final month)
Percival averages a robust 9.64 strikeouts for every nine innings from April through August. In September, that ratio spikes to an otherworldly 12.25. If you don't think it has something to do with his intensity and competitive mindset, think again.
"One thing he's demonstrated year in and year out, he doesn't scare," said Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations.
Staying ambulatory is a more daunting proposition. Percival recently suffered cartilage damage in his knee, but opted against surgery. The combination of knee problems and recurring hamstring issues makes Percival a dicey proposition for September, but nobody's questioning his pain tolerance.
While Tampa's bullpen has been terrific, with a 23-13 record, a 3.35 ERA and a .218 batting average against, Percival's return gives manager Joe Maddon yet another late-inning option. Maddon has two lefties in J.P. Howell and Trever Miller (who's been much better of late), a right-handed sidearmer in Chad Bradford, a reliable workhorse in Dan Wheeler and a hard-throwing strikeout machine in Grant Balfour. Percival is the designated leader/stabilizing influence at the back end.
"He certainly adds depth," Friedman said. "When he's out there, it obviously pushes everybody down a little bit and shortens the game a little bit more."
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals (16-5, 3.43 ERA, .675 OPS against in Sept./Oct.)
Adam Wainwright rejoined the St. Louis rotation Friday, spinning six efficient, 72-pitch innings in a blowout win over Atlanta. Now the Cardinals will take a wait-and-see approach with Carpenter, whose return from Tommy John surgery was interrupted after three starts with a shoulder injury that necessitated a trip to the disabled list.
Carpenter was upbeat after a bullpen session Sunday, and he'll try it again Wednesday. How many starts can the Cardinals expect from him in September? Conservatively speaking, probably three. Carpenter has told the team he finds it distracting to set timetables, so the Cardinals are being as unspecific as possible. "When he's ready to pitch, he'll pitch," general manager John Mozeliak said.
As nice as it would be to have Carpenter available for this week's series with Milwaukee, any kind of contribution would be a major plus. Carpenter is a career 30-12 with a 2.59 ERA against Arizona, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Florida and the Cubs -- the six teams left on St. Louis' regular-season schedule.