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And Down the Stretch They Come – Wild MLB Season Nears End
By David A. Lane of Predictem.com

Was it just me or were there not quite a few years in a row where Major League Baseballs post season participants were for the most part predictable each season? Seems that early August was ordinarily about the time when baseball teams such as the New York Yankees, the Atlanta Braves, and the St. Louis Cardinals- all three would miss the playoffs if the season ended today- would make their usual runs for the playoffs and all three would almost always inevitably make it in. Even the defending champion Boston Red Sox, who just traded away a key cog in their empire Outfielder Manny Ramirez, and are only fighting for a lowly wild card spot look vulnerable! For these and other reasons, it appears that the conclusion to this 2008 Major League Baseball Season will be as wide-open, unpredictable, and dramatic as ever.

It would be almost impossible to not say something about the usually pathetic Tampa Bay Rays next because this team has surprised and survived with toughness and grit all season long. Going into the MLB All Star break they had lost seven games in a row and people began writing their obituaries. However, despite losing key players such as rookie of the year award candidate 3B Evan Longoria, Closer Troy Percival, and Outfielder Carl Crawford in the second half, they have compiled a 24-10 record since the break and have instead built their lead up to four and a half games in the American League East while also battling for the best record in baseball at 79-50 (they are tied with the L.A. Angels and are only one game back in the win column from the Chicago Cubs at 80-50).

Reasons for their success: The pitching has been superb with a team earned run average of 3.71 for the season and a record of 23-15 in one run games. The defense in the field has also been terrific- by allowing only 66 errors the team is tied for second in the majors. Timely hitting and success against right handed pitching (58-31) has thus far been working for them as has manufacturing runs by stealing bases, and, if taken with their pitching stats, this usually is a recipe for post season success. Whether or not they can keep themselves from fading remains to be seen but the schedule down the stretch isnt very favorable for them since they still have six games left with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and four games left each with Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers. My prediction is theyll hold onto the division title by a thread by somehow withholding a late surge from the Red Sox and then will also have some post season success riding Troy Percival and his hanging wing.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (can we just say Angels already?) have been streaking away from their lowly division pretty much all season and have recently acquired perhaps the biggest prize at the trade deadline – 1B Mark Teixeira to put them over the proverbial top. On offense, they also rely on manufacturing runs with speed and a balanced attack like the Rays albeit not quite as productively. Many feel Big Tex was the bat they needed making them favorites to be the American League representative in the World Series. Post season experience will surely help them as will the opportunity to rest many of the starters due to their insurmountable lead in the AL West.

Chicago White Sox have thus far been clinging to a small lead in the AL Central just ahead of the resurgent Minnesota Twins for some time now. Their pitching has been good with a team ERA of 3.85 and they lead the majors in home runs by a mile with 194 of them- next closest team is the Philadelphia Phillies with 174. Many of the players remember their championship of 2005 and are experienced in the post season. Manager Ozzie Guillen provides plenty of fire for this group- a fact which Im sure isnt lost on newly acquired outfield Ken Griffey Jr.

The Minnesota Twins continue to hang tough in the race for the division and the wild card. Although they didnt have any big acquisitions before the trade deadline, the return of SP Fransisco Liriano to the rotation amounts to the same thing. Good team defense and solid pitching might just carry them to the post season but theyll be battling both Sox teams the whole way for one of the two available spots in.

The AL East Red Sox are still working on trying to either catch the Rays or overtake the Twins for the remaining wild card spot however doing so without injured ace Josh Beckett is like trying to do so with one arm tied behind their back. Jason Bay has proved to be worthy value in exchange for Manny but it seems something is missing. The New York Yankees are a distant third and dont seem to have the pitching to compete for anything.

The National League appears to be a runaway with the Chicago Cubs (82-50) way ahead of the rest. Their hitting has been timely all season long as theyve scored the second most runs in the league (727) and are leading in batting average (.282). Acquiring SP Rich Harden has certainly helped solidify the pitching staff that has only a 3.80 ERA and is currently fourth best in the show. There balance of pitching and hitting should make them a formidable opponent in the playoffs.

Five games behind the Cubs in the central are the Milwaukee Brewers who are battling for the wild card spot behind the pitching of ace C.C. Sabathia and others. They hit lots of home runs with 173 their rank is 3rd in majors but they are among the worst in the league in batting average (.253) and errors in the field. However, the pitching staff keeps them in enough games- 3.87 team ERA – for the power to prevail a lot of times, making them a distinct wildcard possibility unless the Cubs ahead of them falter down the stretch.

In the NL East the New York Mets have been battling the Philadelphia Phillies all season long. Manufacturing runs with steals and sacrifices have worked for the Mets so far but with SP John Maine joining closer Billy Wagner on the disabled list now the end might be near. The Phillies, on the other hand are second in the majors in home runs with 176. They steal a lot of bases (4th in the league) and score lots of runs. Their team ERA is good at 3.84 and they look ready once again to place the Mets in the rear view mirror.

Finally, the NL West leading Arizona Diamondbacks have been out front pretty much the whole time behind their pitching including the brilliance of ace starter and probable Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb (19-5). As a team they usually dont give up too many runs problem is they dont score many either (19th). Offense is sporadic and strikeouts are plenty for them but 1B Adam Dunn provides pop to counter the Los Angeles Dodgers acquisition of OF Manny Ramirez.

The Dodgers have the 3rd ranked ERA in the majors at 3.75 and then it all goes downhill from there. Their offense has been anemic all season as they are among the worst in runs scored (25th) and home runs (25th) making it difficult for them to make much of run in a pathetic division. All of which gives rise to an honorable mention for the Colorado Rockies who are still only six games out of first and who still do, Im sure, believe.

There truly is Only One October and this one should make for some good television to come. Gone will be many of the usual participants and in will be some new ones- making this years title appear to be open to a more wide open field. My World Series prediction is a Windy City series with the White Sox prevailing over the Cubs in six- making the 100 years mark since the Cubs last won the championship an even bitterer pill to swallow.