0

One month to go in baseball regular season

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

So much of the baseball season has already been played, and yet there is still so much left to be decided.

Adrian Gonzalez, Heath Bell and the reeling San Diego Padres trying to close out the NL West. Bobby Cox hoping for one last playoff run in Atlanta. Joe Mauer aiming to bring October baseball to the great outdoors in Minnesota.

Four of the six division leaders carried a lead of 3 games or fewer into the final month, setting the stage for a heart-pounding finish to the regular season.

The Twins know all about those. For two straight years, 162 games haven't been enough to crown an AL Central champion. Minnesota lost to the Chicago White Sox in a one-game playoff in 2008, then beat the Detroit Tigers in Game 163 to win it last season.

The Twins started Monday with a 3 -game edge on the White Sox, who brought in Manny Ramirez from the Los Angeles Dodgers to add even more sizzle to what already has been an exciting race.

Can Derek Jeter and the championship-soaked New York Yankees hold off Evan Longoria and the fresh-faced Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East?

And who would have thought when the season started that the Texas Rangers and the Cincinnati Reds would be the only two teams breathing easy as September rolled around? The suddenly banged-up Rangers held an eight-game lead in the AL West while Dusty Baker and the Reds were up seven games in the NL Central as they tuned up for long overdue playoff appearances.

Then again, as Yogi Berra said, it's not over till it's over. Last year the Twins rallied from a seven-game deficit at the start of September to take the division.

Do the Cardinals or Athletics have a similar burst in them? It sure is going to be fun finding out.

A quick look at some of the things to look for as the push for October heats up:

BEST RACES: At the risk of being labeled with the dreaded East Coast bias, the two most intriguing division races in a league full of them are taking place there.

--AL East: The World Series champion Yankees hold a slim lead on the youthful Rays in a matchup that oozes star power. Two best records, and possibly the two best teams, in baseball duking it out.

--NL East: The Braves are clinging to their edge on the Philadelphia Phillies, who are just finally starting to get healthy as they pursue a third straight NL pennant.

BIG SERIES: Plenty of showdowns are on the horizon, which means there are plenty of opportunities to make up ground quickly.

--Twins at White Sox, Sept. 14-16: Last scheduled meeting of the season for AL Central rivals.

--Rays at Yankees, Sept. 20-23: A four-game, intradivisional matchup in September?!? Is this heaven? No, it's Longoria.

--Padres at Giants, Oct. 1-3: May not matter if Padres can't stop the September skid that hit 10 losses in a row on Sunday.

--Phillies at Braves, Oct. 1-3: As long as either team is within three games, last series of season will decide NL East.

SPOILER ALERT!: As the season comes to a close, plenty of teams have been out of it for months. But they aren't quitting, and that feistiness could prove to be problematic for contenders that think they might have easy wins with these guys on the schedule:

--Baltimore Orioles: Sank to their customary place at the bottom of AL East quickly, going 32-73 under manager Dave Trembley and interim skipper Juan Samuel. Started out 19-13 since Buck Showalter took over and are fresh off taking two of three from Tampa Bay. They play nine games against Yankees and Rays down the stretch.

"Spoiler or anything, we're going out there looking to win some games," Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis said. "That's the main objective here, and I think we're on the right path."

--Houston Astros: Opened season at 0-8 and went 17-33 in April. Have steadily improved since, winning 11 of last 14, including sweeps of Phillies and Cardinals. Look out Reds, you play the Astros six times in final two weeks.

SPARK PLUGS: It seems like every year a player or two emerges from relative obscurity or arrives from another team to jump-start a playoff push. Here are a few candidates who could fill that role this season:

--Aroldis Chapman, RHP, Reds: Cuban flame-thrower is hitting 103 mph on the radar gun and blowing hitters away. Like David Price for the Rays in 2008 and Francisco Rodriguez for the Angels in 2002, could be next September call-up to dominate in the postseason.

--Roy Oswalt, RHP, Phillies: Since coming over from Houston in a trade, is 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA in seven starts to give Doc Halladay an imposing sidekick.

--Manny Ramirez, DH, White Sox: South Siders hoping he can do for them what he did for Los Angeles two years ago, when he hit .396 with 17 HRs in 53 games to carry the Dodgers into the playoffs after being acquired from Boston. At 38, does he have another stretch like that in him?

--Danny Valencia, 3B, Twins: Rookie from Miami definitely has that 'U' swagger in him. Has solidified a shaky spot for Twins by hitting .343 with .382 OBP and .454 slugging while playing superb defense in 63 games since June callup.

KEY INJURIES: They always play a role in September as the grind of the long season takes its toll. Playing through pain, and avoiding the serious injuries, could be the key to success.

--Cliff Lee, LHP, Rangers: Ace, and proven playoff stud, has not been himself since being acquired from Seattle. Back injury has contributed to 0-3, 9.00 ERA in last four starts. Is set to miss scheduled start on Tuesday.

--Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers: One of AL's leading MVP candidates injured ribs in weekend series at Minnesota and sounded like he could be out for a while.

--Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins: Has been out since July 7 with a concussion. Team is not rushing him back and there is growing concern that time is running out for him to return this season.

--Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees: One of best postseason pitchers in baseball history has been out since July 19 with strained left groin. Hopes to make rehab start this week and rejoin team as early as this weekend.

--Chris Young, RHP, Padres: Has been out since April 12 with strained right shoulder. Has made two rehab starts and could be a boon to pitching-rich San Diego. If only he could hit.