Wasn't it just Opening Day? Seems like just yesterday that the Tigers blanked the Twins behind David Price. And the Rockies crushed the Brewers behind Kyle Kendrick. And the A's rolled to an 8-0 win against the Rangers. And the Red Sox shut out the Phillies with four home runs off Cole Hamels. And Felix Hernandez pitched seven innings of two-hit baseball for the Mariners.
It's September now. Those five teams are playing out the string, their playoff dreams smashed weeks ago. Damn you, Opening Day, and your false hope!
But even if you root for those teams, don't give up on baseball. There is still plenty to watch this final month.
1. Great stories
For starters, four teams that had losing records last season are in position to make the playoffs: the New York Mets (79-83 in 2014), Chicago Cubs (73-89), Houston Astros (70-92) and Texas Rangers (67-95). On top of that, the Toronto Blue Jays are leading the AL East and will make the playoffs as either the division champion or wild card, ending the longest playoff drought of any team in the majors. And if the Rangers don't make the playoffs, the Minnesota Twins (70-92 last year) might. It's not just that we're guaranteed multiple Cinderella stories no matter what happens down the stretch, but it's the extent that those teams have suffered in recent years:
Mets: Six consecutive losing seasons, no playoffs since 2006.
Cubs: Five consecutive losing seasons, no playoffs since 2008.
Astros: Six consecutive losing seasons (including three 100-loss years in a row), no playoffs since 2005.
Blue Jays: No playoffs since 1993.
Twins: Four 90-loss seasons in a row.
2. Big series to watch
We can't list all of them, but the current Giants-Dodgers series is certainly a big one. The Dodgers won the first game in 14 innings; next they'll run out Zack Greinke (against Madison Bumgarner), followed by Clayton Kershaw. If the Dodgers take those two games, they'll suddenly lead the NL West by 6.5 games. Considering the way Kershaw has been pitching, that makes tonight's game a huge, huge game for Bumgarner and the Giants. The teams also have a four-game series in San Francisco the final week of the season.
Others to mark on your calendar:
Blue Jays at Yankees, Sept. 10-13; Yankees at Blue Jays, Sept. 21-23
Pirates at Cardinals, this weekend; Cardinals at Pirates, Sept. 28-30
Astros at Rangers, Sept. 14-17; Rangers at Astros, Sept. 25-27
Mets at Nationals, Sept. 7-9; Nationals at Mets, final weekend of season
Those are just the division races. How many will come down to the final weekend? I'll predict the Mets have it clinched by then, in part because of their easy September schedule. Other than the six games against the Nationals and three against the Yankees, the Mets play series against the Phillies, Marlins, Braves, Marlins, Braves, Reds, Phillies. The Nationals will need an amazing kick to make those final three games matter.
The AL wild-card race remains crowded, with five teams separated by four games. Don't sleep on the Indians, winners of six in a row.
3. National League MVP race: Bryce Harper vs. the field
Bryce Harper has been the best player in the NL; at the start of play Tuesday, he leads the league (or is tied for the lead) in average, OBP, slugging, home runs and runs scored. His post-All-Star-break numbers haven't been as big -- .310 AVG/.448 OBP/.476 SLG -- but the main reason the MVP debate is still an open issue is because his teammates haven't been very good. Though voters are certainly paying more attention to sabermetric numbers in recent years, that didn't push Mike Trout past Miguel Cabrera. Voters still reward players on playoff teams, and that could cost Harper the MVP and push Anthony Rizzo, Buster Posey or Andrew McCutchen to MVP honors.
4. American League MVP race: Josh Donaldson vs. Mike Trout
Josh Donaldson's big August -- .324 average, 11 home runs, 35 RBIs -- seems to have pushed him past Trout, who hasn't hit well since hurting his wrist making a diving catch in late July. How hot were the Blue Jays (21-6 in August)? Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion each drove in 35 runs, the first players to do that in a calendar month since Troy Tulowitzki drove in 40 in September 2010. Still, the MVP race isn't over: If Trout has a monster September and leads the Angels back to the playoffs, he could still win over the voters.
5. Jake Arrieta getting in the NL Cy Young race
Greinke remains the favorite, but Jake Arrieta had one of the best months a pitcher has ever had, capped by his no-hitter Sunday night. He went 6-0 in August with a 0.43 ERA and .130 opponents' batting average, just the third pitcher in 10 years to win six games in a month with a sub-1.00 ERA (along with Clayton Kershaw last June and Justin Verlander in June 2011). The last pitcher to go 6-0 in a calendar month with a lower ERA was Jim Kaat back in 1974. So, yeah, Arrieta is on a roll.
If he keeps it going through September and Greinke has a couple bad outings, that opens up the race. Arrieta has more wins (17 to 14) -- yes, voters pay less attention to wins than they used to, but it could be a tiebreaker of sorts -- and more strikeouts (190 to 164). Arrieta has a .195 average allowed compared to Greinke's .189. My money is still on Greinke, who shows no signs of letting up in his dominant season.
6. New York Mets innings watch
They have already skipped Matt Harvey a couple times. Jacob deGrom is at 163 innings after throwing 178 last season (including the minors). Noah Syndergaard is at 151 between the Mets and Triple-A, after 133 last year. If the Mets do collapse, it's likely because these three hit the wall. That said, I think this has been overblown. Yes, Harvey is coming off Tommy John surgery, but he also had a lengthy rehab after his injury occurred in 2013. And he's 26 years old, while deGrom is 27. Syndergaard just turned 23 and is a big, strong kid. I'm not too worried here.
7. Guys returning from injuries
Maybe the most important ones concern the defending World Series champs as the Giants are playing without Hunter Pence (oblique) and Joe Panik (back). Panik is set to begin a rehab stint this week and may join the team in Arizona on Sept. 7. Another key guy will be Pirates starter A.J. Burnett, out since late July with a flexor strain in his elbow. Though J.A. Happ has filled in nicely (3-1, 1.99 ERA in five starts), the Pirates would love to give Burnett a few September starts to see if he's fit for the playoff rotation (assuming, of course, the team gets past the wild-card game, its likely destination).
The biggest return, however, could be Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays. Projected as the staff ace before the season, he tore his ACL in spring training but has made a quick recovery and could join the staff this month. He makes his first rehab start Wednesday.
8. The race to be 10th or worse
Remember, if you finish with one of the 10 worst records, you can sign a free agent who has been given a qualifying offer by his former team without losing your first-round pick. Here's how that "race" looks now:
8. Tigers, 60-70
9. Mariners, 61-71
10. Red Sox, 61-70
11. White Sox, 61-68
12. Orioles, 63-68
12. Diamondbacks, 63-68
Teams like the Tigers and Red Sox likely will be players in the premium free-agent market -- think Johnny Cueto -- so both would benefit from losing down the stretch to keep that bottom-10 record intact.
9. Know your tiebreaker scenarios!
Hey, there seems to be a good chance we'll end up with a tie somewhere, most likely for that second AL wild card. Or maybe in the AL East. Anyway, here is a refresher.
I'm staying the course: I'm predicting that the six division leaders will hold on. The Pirates and Cubs will win the NL wild cards, and the Yankees and ... ahh, let's go with the Twins for that second AL wild card, though I have a gut feeling about the Indians making a miraculous run to get into the postseason. Then I can see Corey Kluber or Danny Salazar beating Masahiro Tanaka in the wild-card game, and then the Indians will shock the Royals in the AL Division Series, and if Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana go off in the ALCS, maybe we'll get an Indians-Cubs World Series.
And the winner is ...