• Archive:  
Updated: September 1, 2010, 2:27 AM ET

Final month comes with plenty of scrutiny

By Aaron Boone
ESPN
Archive
With September here, and the pennant races and wild-card chases taking over, it's time to focus on what's going to be important over the season's final full month. Here are a few things you're going to want to pay close attention to do as we head down the stretch.

Team to watch: St. Louis Cardinals

After an early-August sweep of the NL Central-leading Reds, a lot of people thought the Cardinals were on their way to running down Cincinnati and pulling away from this "Cinderella" Reds team. Since that time, however, St. Louis has spiraled downward. With Tuesday's 3-0 loss against the Astros, the Cardinals have lost seven of eight. If you would have said at the end of that series that the Cardinals would be seven games back heading into September, well, that would've been hard to believe.

Adam Wainwright was just breezing along, on his way to a Cy Young trophy. But now he's had a few rough starts in a row and seems out of sync. The offense has continued to be inconsistent. Things just aren't clicking for a team that has all the pieces to be really successful.

Still, this rotation, with Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, will right the ship. This team has one more good run in it, but the Cardinals have to pick it up now.

The Cards have three series over the first three weekends of September against playoff-contending teams -- Reds, Braves and Padres -- and you can bet that these teams want to avoid getting beat by Albert Pujols. The supporting cast around Pujols has to step up -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Colby Rasmus, in particular. It will be interesting to see how the St. Louis lineup responds.

This next weekend against Cincinnati is a make-or-break series for the Cardinals' divisional hopes. If St. Louis loses two of three, the Reds can feel pretty confident about wrapping up the NL Central. But don't give up on the Cardinals for the wild card.

Pitcher to watch: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

Lincecum
Lincecum

A lot has been made, and rightfully so, about the Giants' improved offense. General manager Brian Sabean made a lot of great moves to upgrade the lineup (Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen, making room for Buster Posey). But if the Giants are going to make the playoffs, it's going to happen because of the arms in the starting rotation. And no pitcher is as important to that starting rotation as Tim Lincecum.

For the first time in his career, Lincecum has hit a bump in the road and struggled. He went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in August. He's messing with his mechanics, and you can really tell he is questioning himself on the mound. For a guy who dominated the past two years -- really, since joining the league -- these struggles are a huge mental hurdle.

Lincecum will figure things out eventually, but the challenge is, can he iron out his delivery and "find himself" in time to really be that back-to-back Cy Young-type ace over his final five or six starts? If he can be that guy, and the Giants do ride into the playoffs on his arm, they become a very scary postseason team because of him and the rest of the rotation.

The Giants and the Padres have seven head-to-head matchups left -- the last three of the season in San Francisco. Plus, San Diego is starting to show its first real signs of struggle, having lost six in a row after Tuesday's 7-4 loss against the Diamondbacks. But it is Lincecum's September starts that hold the key to the Giants' playoff hopes.

Hitter to watch: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies

Howard
Howard

Since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 24, Howard hasn't looked like himself in the batter's box. Though he's had a solid season at the plate (hovering right around his career .279 batting average), he hasn't gone on one of those tears when he just blasts the ball and carries his team.

Last August, Howard launched 11 homers and batted .299. In September of '08, he batted .352 with 32 RBIs. As he sees more pitches and gets more comfortable with the ankle injury he sustained to his load leg, watch out for one of those kinds of runs. If he gets back in the swing of things, not only will the Phillies make the playoffs, but they'll pass the Braves and win the division.

Howard's one of those hitters who is capable of throwing a team on his back and carrying it down the stretch. Maybe he got started Tuesday night; Howard blasted an opposite-field three-run shot against the Dodgers in the Phillies' 8-4 win.

Aaron Boone is an analyst for "Baseball Tonight."

Touch 'Em All

Who went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page. For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Wednesday's Best Matchups

White Sox at Indians, 12:05 p.m. ET

Manny Ramirez arrived with the White Sox on Tuesday, and got as far as the on-deck circle for a possible pinch-hit appearance. If he does find himself in the lineup, Ramirez will face Indians starter Carlos Carrasco, who will be making just his sixth career start. In five starts, over 22 1/3 innings, he's already given up six homers.


Phillies at Dodgers, 3:10 p.m. ET

Roy Oswalt, since losing his first start with the Phillies, is rolling, having gone 3-0 over his past five starts since that loss. Philadelphia won both games in which he walked away with a no-decision. Oswalt has given up two or fewer runs in four of those five outings. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw had a 3.18 ERA in August, but went only 1-3.


Rockies at Giants, 9:15 p.m. ET

Two of the biggest pitching names in the NL go head-to-back. Oddly enough, both come in struggling. Tim Lincecum has lost his past five starts. Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez is 0-3 over his past four starts. While Lincecum went through August with a 7.82 ERA, Jimenez's struggles haven' t been as bad. He didn't give up more than three runs in any of his starts last month.

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?

SPONSORED HEADLINES