These are the dog days of August, when players begin to wear down, box scores begin to blur into one another, and we find out who rules the porch and who bites. Time for some command performances.
Get the stick!
Contenders can go get the sticks they need after the trade deadline. While talented pitchers almost never clear waivers in August, some good hitters will pass through. The Rockies, collared by Larry Walker's salary, will keep trying to move the outfielder, while the Astros may look to swap Jeff Kent, the Orioles will dangle Rafael Palmeiro, and the Toronto Blue Jays may once more chat with Carlos Delgado about waiving his no-trade clause.
The Mets decided to throw out the best treats from their farm system in trading for pitchers Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano, but in doing so the front office failed to recognize the many signs this team is not yet ready to compete for titles. The Mets have sub-par middle relief, pups playing second and third base, unsettled positions at catcher and first base, corner outfielders who are not suited to play in spacious Shea Stadium, and an erratic shortstop in Kaz Matsui. The Mets were barely hanging in the playoff chase when they made the trades, and a final collapse seems all but inevitable. Adding Benson and Zambrano at the time they did was like putting a Mercedes hood ornament on a riding lawn mower. Other teams which will likely lose touch with contention once and for all in August: Milwaukee and Cincinnati. The defending champion Marlins are in serious jeopardy, now 5½ games behind in the wild-card race -- as close to the Rockies in the standings as they are to the Cubs and Padres.
That's all that left for the Cardinals, who've destroyed their NL Central competition. Tony La Russa should have plenty of time to rest his rotation, a luxury especially important to veteran Woody Williams, who wore down in 2003, and ace Chris Carpenter, who missed all of last year after having arm surgery.
August can be the best time of year for the Oakland Athletics, who rely on a sedentary offensive philosophy. Do not stray off the bases. Do not risk mistakes. Just sit back and wait for hits and home runs. Oakland is 66-20 in August the last three seasons, and third baseman Eric Chavez is just beginning to break loose.
The Minnesota Twins are filling the middle of their lineup with the unproven likes of Lew Ford and Justin Morneau, and they're leap of faith for Joe Nathan, Carlos Silva and Juan Rincon has been rewarded. But one of the primary reasons why the low-budget Twins can keep up with big-budget teams is that they catch the ball -- particularly in the outfield, where Torii Hunter might be the AL's best center fielder and Jacque Jones ranges far. Power hitters are expensive, defense is not; power hitters are unpredictable in their performances, while good fielders are not.
This is what Nomar Garciaparra will do, finally, now that he's moved on to the Chicago Cubs. Red Sox teammates said Nomar would retreat to his locker after games and immediately disappear into cell phone conversations, rarely engaging anybody in the clubhouse, overcome by his bitterness to the front office; even in the aftermath of his trade to Chicago, Garciaparra has been sparring with the Red Sox executives, speaking through reporters. Now he is unleashed in Chicago, where other more prominent and vocal teammates, like Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood, Derrek Lee and Manager Dusty Baker, will give him protection from scrutiny and allow him to just play.
The lines between leaders and followers is hardening, and separation is developing in most divisions. Incredibly, only one race is close, at the moment: Oakland leads the Rangers by 1½ games in the AL West. The Yankees, like the Cardinals, have opened a massive lead, and Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minnesota hold leads of 4½ or more games in their respective divisions. There is still plenty of time for comebacks; some managers say that picking up one game per week in the standings is a realistic guideline, and eight weeks remain.
With a lineup laden with such young sluggers as Hank Blalock, and devoid of big egos, Buck Showalter's Rangers attack like rabid canines day in and day out. The untempered energy makes them very dangerous. Texas had baseball's second-best record at home through July (31-16), and the Rangers have more home games remaining than any other team. What they will have to overcome is their lack of starting pitching: In the first three games of the Rangers' series against Oakland last weekend, the Texas starters combined for 10.1 innings and 15 runs allowed. R.A. Dickey is 0-6 in his last 10 starts, after starting the year 4-1.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released Aug. 17, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.