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Races, aces and 'The Chase' -- An MLB viewers' guide to September

Who'll win the division crowns and wild-card berths? Can Clayton Kershaw return and slay Madison Bumgarner's Giants? Will the Cubs make history? Is this it for Big Papi? Here's a look ahead at the final month of MLB's regular season. Elias Stein

A word about September: Awesome.

"September baseball means paying attention to the scoreboard more," says Washington Nationals manager/poet Dusty Baker. "It means watching ESPN late at night. It's a countdown. It's a countdown to the end."

How eloquent he is. How right he is. Parts of the planet might tend to get a little distracted by stuff like football helmets and fantasy drafts. But that's OK. The baseball gods have furnished us more dramatic plot lines to follow than Lin-Manuel Miranda. So get your remotes ready out there. Here's our handy-dandy Viewers' Guide to September:

THE CUBS CHASE HISTORY

Three things we already know:

1. The Cubs are going to win their division.

2. The Cubs are going to play baseball in October.

3. The Cubs are (wait, are we really saying this?) the surest bet in the whole sport right now to do both of the above.

But if they clinch with two weeks to go and are looking for reasons not to coast to the finish line, here are a few:

The Cubs last won 100 games during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. As in 1935. This year's team is on pace to win 104. So there's that.

The Cubs last won more than 100 games during the William Howard Taft administration. As in 1910. The Civil War had only been over for 45 years back then. Our Dan Szymborski projects this year's team will win 103. I bet William Howard Taft wished he'd lived to see that.

The Cubs' run differential heading into September is plus-222. The last time they had a run differential that good in any full season was in 1935 (plus-250). The last time any National League team had a run differential that good in any season was in the previous millennium (1999 Diamondbacks, plus-232). So the Cubs could do some stuff this month that people talk about for like the next 100 years. I recommend tuning in for that.

THE AL EAST RACE

If there were no such thing as a wild card, let alone two wild cards, the AL East would be the kind of race people write books about. Three teams within four games of each other going into September? Four teams within 6.5 games if you count the Yankees? And three teams that would be in at least a tie for a spot in the playoffs if they started today? Cool. The last time that happened in any division was ...

Oh. How about last year, when the NL Central sent the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates off to the great Octoberfest. Well, it obviously could happen again. But will it? These teams all have killer schedules, in part because they have to fight so many heavyweight championship bouts with each other.

The Blue Jays and Orioles play 19 of their final 29 games against teams over .500, plus two series apiece against those pesky Rays. The Yankees play 23 of their last 30 against teams over .500, with the other seven all coming against Tampa Bay. And the Red Sox have the most brutal schedule of them all, with two three-city trips remaining and all of their final 23 games against their sparring partners in the division.

It won't be fun for any of these juggernauts to try to survive those games. But if you're just a fan with a remote and a 60-inch flat screen, it will be tremendous fun to watch. And if the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Orioles all get through that grind, the last week should be fabulous: Orioles at Toronto for three, Sept. 27-29. Then Blue Jays at Red Sox for three to finish the season. Wow.

THE NL WEST RACE

The universe is just a more interesting place when the Dodgers and Giants are duking it out for first place in September. But I bet you didn't know that has happened less over the last couple of decades than Marlins World Series parades.

The rivalry has been epic. Yet they've found themselves within three games of each other entering September only once in the past 18 seasons, twice in the past 37 seasons and four times in the entire division-play era. Seriously. So considering the crazy way these two teams got here, with the Giants making an eight-game lead disappear and the Dodgers mysteriously catching fire after losing their most important player, a fellow named Clayton Kershaw, let's be grateful for what this September is about to give us.

They play each other six more times in the last two weeks, including the final three games of the season in San Francisco. Who out there would love to see somebody's season riding on those three games? Yeah, me, too.

THE AL WILD-CARD RACE

Just to make this section simpler, let's assume the AL Central and AL West races are history. But it's impossible to handicap the AL wild-card derby without factoring in the scramble in the AL East. So what does that leave us? With eight teams slugging it out for three spots in the tournament.

• Team in the best shape: the Blue Jays. They own the best record in baseball (57-34) over their past 91 games.

• Team to worry about most: the Orioles. They look like the marathoner who is cruising until Heartbreak Hill, then just tries to teeter to the finish line. Ominous tidbit No. 1: The Orioles have a sub-.500 record (36-38) over their past 74 games. Ominous tidbit No. 2: Their starting pitchers had a 5.33 ERA last month.

• Most dangerous team outside the AL East: the Tigers. Just a .500 team (38-38) in the last week of June, they've gone 34-23 since, while allowing the second-fewest runs in the league in that span. Schedule perk: 10 games left against the Twins and Braves!

• Don't count out the: Royals -- The Team You Just Can't Kill. Seven games under .500 as recently as Aug. 5. Five over and a mere three games out in the wild-card brouhaha now. But if it takes 88 wins to grab that second wild card, as Szymborski projects, that means they still have to go 19-10 the rest of the way, after going 15-4 just to get in this position. Don't bet against them. But they still have zero margin for error.

THE NL WILD-CARD RACE

Let's frame this race the same way we broke down the AL wild card. We're bequeathing the Cubs and Nationals first place in the Central and East. So that leaves six teams wrestling for the last three places on Dancing With The NL Postseason Stars.

• Team in the best shape: the Dodgers. I'm still not sure how they've gone 33-23 since Kershaw disappeared from the rotation, even though it's taken 10 starters to pitch those 56 games. But that's the third-best record in the NL since then. They can dream now about Kershaw making it back at some point. And they're in such a secure spot that if you insert them into the wild-card race, they'd be five games up on the Mets with 29 to go.

• Team in the most trouble: the Marlins. They held it together for four months, but went 10-18 in August, averaging just 3.5 runs a game. And Giancarlo Stanton isn't walking back into that cleanup hole any time soon.

• Most dangerous team: the Mets. An executive from a club ahead of them told me he was worried about them two weeks ago, even with their rotation issues. Then Yoenis Cespedes came off the DL. They're 9-2 since. And a schedule that includes 20 September games against the Braves, Twins, Phillies and Reds gives them a chance.

THE BATTLE FOR AL MVP

Mookie Betts: Tremendous. Jose Altuve: Incredible. Josh Donaldson: What MVP winners are all about. And Michael N. Trout: Still the best player alive. So we have to pick one winner out of that foursome? That's not fair.

Now let's give you an idea why this is one of the great MVP free-for-alls in the history of MVP trophies: Trout, Betts, Altuve and Donaldson are all on pace to finish the season as eight-win players or better, if we use baseball-reference.com's Wins Above Replacement formula as our guide. Want to guess the last time the American League produced four eight-win position players in the same season? How about 1912? Which was two decades before there was any such thing as an MVP award.

I think Altuve feels like the sentimental favorite if we had to vote today. But MVPs are often decided by September freeze frames, story lines and perceptions. And in this race, that's just waiting to happen.

THE BATTLE FOR NL MVP, CY YOUNG AWARDS

There are excellent cases to be made for Daniel Murphy, Nolan Arenado and Corey Seager. But the NL MVP award feels like it's Kris Bryant's to lose. The Cubs' mad masher is on pace for 44 homers, 39 doubles, 136 runs scored, 188 hits, 81 walks and very close to a .300/.400/.600 slash line. For the best team in baseball. The only men since 1900 with a season like that were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Whoa.

But the NL Cy Young Award? Still totally within the grasp of Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, Jose Fernandez, three-fifths of the Cubs' rotation (Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks) and maybe even Kershaw if he makes it back in September.

And the AL Cy Young? Maybe the most confusing race of them all. I'd throw Corey Kluber, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, Danny Duffy, Justin Verlander and even Zach Britton into the debate. And if you want to add J.A. Happ, Michael Fulmer, Aaron Sanchez and Rick Porcello, I'd say the more candidates, the more September matters. For every one of them.

THE RETURN OF KERSHAW

The best pitcher in baseball threw a simulated game the other day. Assuming he doesn't wind up in traction, he hopes to sneak in a minor league rehab start Sunday or Monday. And what happens after that is fabulous September theater. Don't you think?

Who the heck knows how this goes? In the best-case world, Kershaw makes five September starts, goes 5-0 with a 1.16 ERA, leads the Dodgers to the top of the NL West and grabs that Cy Young Award he was getting ready to win unanimously two months ago.

But the worst-case world? That one is practically dark enough for "Game of Thrones." In the worst-case world, Kershaw's bulging disk flares up even more intensely than it did the last time he tried to push his way back, jabbing into his nerves so painfully that he needs surgery. Would the Dodgers still win the West if that happens? Possibly. But is there any scenario where they win the World Series if Kershaw throws zero pitches in October? All I can advise is, watch this story very closely, especially over the next couple of weeks.

BIG PAPI'S GRAND FINALE

Perhaps you've gotten wind of this tale. It has come up once or twice. It's the final September of the final season of David Ortiz's career. It has a chance to be one for the ages.

Can this man really lead the American League in slugging, OPS and doubles in his last season in the big leagues? At age 40? Unprecedented.

He could also zoom past Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list. He could pass Lou Gehrig on the all-time extra-base hit list. And if the Red Sox win the World Series, the list of players with 500 homers, four World Series titles and zero seasons as a Yankee would consist of David Ortiz. Period. Is this the Greatest Final Season Ever? Get back to me in a month.

THE RACE FOR HOME FIELD

In the NL, the Cubs have an eight-game lead in the loss column over the Nationals for the No. 1 seed and hold the tiebreaker even if the Nationals catch them. So that race is over. But not in the AL.

Texas leads Cleveland by two games in the loss column and leads Toronto by three. And if you don't think that matters, um, just envision the fall climate in Cleveland versus the fall climate in Texas. Or in a dome. But beyond that, those three teams are a combined 55 games over .500 at home, versus 10 over on the road. And if the Red Sox were to catch Toronto, they're 41-30 at Fenway, only 33-29 elsewhere. So home isn't just where the heart is. It's where the wins are.

THE RACE FOR THE NO. 1 PICK

The last time the Atlanta Braves held the No. 1 draft pick in baseball, they took a kid named Larry Wayne Jones. Some folks called him "Chipper." The last time the Minnesota Twins had that No. 1 pick, they bypassed Mark Prior to grab a local hero named Joe Mauer. Fifteen years and 1,800 hits later, he's still on the payroll. Neither ever spent one day on another team.

Now the Braves and Twins are mixed up in one of the most dramatic races of 2016 -- for the right to make that No. 1 draft pick again. And boy, is this tight. The Twins are at 49-84. The Braves are at 50-83. And no one else is with 5.5 games of them. So this duel has a chance to be as riveting as the AL East. The Braves "led" by five games as recently as Aug. 20. So what happened? The Twins haven't won since Aug. 17. That's what.

So who knows where this is headed. The Twins have already had losing streaks of eight games, nine games and 13. The Braves have ripped off streaks of seven, eight and nine. Those streaks are what it takes to put races like this away. Which means our sage advice for this September is: If you're hunting for drama and intrigue, it sure isn't all in the penthouse. Always make certain to check the basement.