The biggest topic in baseball to me right now is the postseason races in the American League.
I believe the AL West winner will be either the Oakland A's or Anaheim Angels, just as I did at the beginning of the season. I felt one would win the division and the other would win the wild card, but the Texas Rangers have crashed that party, leading the division early in the year and sitting just 1.5 games back right now.
Anaheim looked like the best team in the West but suffered devastating injuries to key players, and it shows how good the Angels are that they are still in the race. Anaheim lost Troy Glaus and his 40-plus home runs early in the season and the Angels best hitter, Garret Anderson, was out for a significant time early in the year, while the bullpen was also without closer Troy Percival for a long period of time. Give them a lot of credit for overcoming all that to lead the wild-card race.
Also, Bartolo Colon didn't pitch well when the injuries started happening, but he's pitching well now and they're getting healthy so it's going to be tough for the rest of the division to outrun the Angels.
Oakland has been more consistent than any team in the West and leads the division by a game over Anaheim, but I'm a little surprised at the way the A's played. I didn't think they were as good at the beginning of the season as I do now and they've grown into an excellent ballclub.
Most of the credit for that should go to the manager, Ken Macha. He's done an excellent job getting the most out of the players he has and making them believe in themselves. Oakland was built around pitching and has been for the past few years, but the keys to the team are that the A's play good defense, they've been more aggressive on the bases and they've even bunted in some situations.
I like that approach because it uses all the strengths of the team rather than just waiting for players to get base hits. Oakland is doing a lot of different things to score runs.
The addition of Bobby Crosby at shortstop in place of the departed Miguel Tejada has been good for them. Crosby is obviously not the same player Miguel Tejada was for Oakland, but Crosby has not been a weakness, either. When Tejada left I thought that would leave a weak spot.
The main thing I like about what Macha is doing is that it helps prepare the A's for the postseason. Teams cannot get to the postseason and ask guys to do things they haven't been doing all year. You can't just flip a switch and say "We're going to play a different style than during the regular season." You have to play the same style all year long because if you wait until the playoffs to change it up guys won't be able to execute when it matters most.
The confidence level Macha has instilled in his team is also key. They come from behind often in the late innings, down two or three runs but getting back ahead in one inning. That had given the A's a little more mental toughness, and if I were voting right now it would be a coin flip between Macha and Buck Showalter of Texas for American League Manager of the Year. Both have done a good job with their clubs.
I still think the New York Yankees will win the AL East, although the Boston Red Sox are trying to make it close. But the Yankees had a 10.5- game lead earlier in the year and even if the Red Sox get that down to just two or three it will be hard to pass New York. The old adage says that a team uses all its energy and luck to get back into the race, but then it's hard to sustain that once they get close.
At the beginning of the season it looked like Boston had enough to beat the Yankees, or at least stay right with them, but I thought the trade of Alex Rodriguez to New York would swing the pendulum to the Yankees and it has obviously worked out that way.
The Red Sox will have to look to the wild-card race, where they have a slight edge over the AL West teams fighting for that playoff spot. Not because Boston is so much better but because it has Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, two dominant pitchers at the top of the rotation down the stretch. The Red Sox will also be playing in the East while the top three in the West will be beating each other up over the last month of the season. That definitely works in Boston's favor.
National League races
The National League West is the best race in that league but is hard to predict because the San Francisco Giants are such overachievers. They are four games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division race but I don't think the Giants are as talented as their record indicates, because they have only one great pitcher (Jason Schmidt) and one great hitter (Barry Bonds). Everyone else just kind of fills in the gaps.
The one thing that helps is that Bonds makes all the players around him better. First of all, they get a chance to watch how he handles the game. Secondly, Bonds is always on base for them. He gets the pitcher in a stretch that way and always impacts how teams pitch the guy hitting in front of him. The talent might not be good as the record, but Felipe Alou, like Ken Macha, has gotten the most out of the players he has, and San Francisco has proven over the last few years that it knows how to win so you can never count the Giants out.
I picked San Francisco to win the division at the beginning of the year and picked the San Diego Padres as a darkhorse, but the Padres have not been consistent at all this season. They play very well for stretches then play very poorly and that's why they're in the position they are, six games behind the division-leading Dodgers.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, came out of the gate playing well and the weaknesses they had last year, especially offensively, almost disappeared at the beginning of the year. The Dodgers still didn't have a lot of power but were able to score runs by stealing bases and using the hit-and-run while playing great defense. They played as they had been expected to play for the last two years. The starting staff is not as good as it was last year yet the bullpen, led by closer Eric Gagne, was still dominant.
And now Los Angeles is starting to hit the ball with power. Shawn Green is hitting more consistently and Adrian Beltre has been spectacular. The MVP talk in the NL is always about Barry Bonds, Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols, but Beltre has to be in that conversation as well because without him the Dodgers would not be in first place.
If the Dodgers win the West and he continues to play as well as he has there is a great argument to be made that he deserves the award. It was a travesty that Beltre was left off the All-Star team, having led his team into first place with 22 home runs and 56 RBI in the first half.
But remember one thing: the team that got the Dodgers the division lead was one former general manager Dan Evans put together and new GM Paul DePodesta tried to put his stamp on the club by making deals at the trading deadline.
DePodesta brought in Steve Finley from Arizona, who had helped from an offensive standpoint by hitting with some power, but Brad Penny has not been able to help the starting rotation because of injury. Catchers Brent Mayne and David Ross have not contributed much to the offense since Paul Lo Duca was traded to Florida in the Penny deal.
The loss of setup man Guillermo Mota in that same trade has also changed the dynamics of the bullpen. Los Angeles had won 151 games in a row when leading after the eighth inning, thanks mostly to Mota pitching the eighth and setting up Gagne for the ninth, but that streak ended Aug. 18 against Florida when Gagne blew a three-run lead, allowing Mota to get the win for the Marlins.
Darren Dreifort replaced Mota in the setup role for the Dodgers but immediately blew leads in three games and is now out for the year with a knee injury. Gagne is also being used in a much different capacity since the trade. He was asked to pitch three innings the day after the deal and hasn't been the same since, even following the loss to Florida with another blown save and loss the next night against Atlanta.
Los Angeles is not the same team as before the deadline and even though the Dodgers have the division lead they are vulnerable. I just don't know if San Francisco or San Diego can play well enough to catch them.
I see the NL wild card coming down to the Giants and the Chicago Cubs, and I give the Cubs the upper hand because they have a starting rotation they can count on. They were short from an offensive standpoint which is why they went out and got Nomar Garciaparra from Boston, and if Nomar can stay healthy we will make a big difference for Chicago. The nagging wrist and Achilles injuries are a worry, though, because we don't know just how serious they are.
But when he's been healthy Garciaparra has already contributed, fitting in on a team that was short offensively. If he stays in the lineup and Sammy Sosa gets hot at the plate the Cubs will win the wild card.
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.