Column: Recapping the MLB Season
Issue   |   Wed, 09/21/2011 - 02:49

If you are a long-time Red Sox fan (as I proudly am), your team’s current standing should come as no surprise. After a dismal April, the Red Sox managed to cling to first place through the end of August despite an ailing pitching staff, relying instead on an outstanding offense — the second-best in the American League (AL) — and the late-inning duo of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.

In September, however, the Red Sox have slumped to a 5-15 record, having fallen to six games behind the division-leading Yankees.

Now, after losing seven out of their last eight against Tampa (including three out of four this weekend), Boston’s Wild Card lead over the Rays, a team that had previously posed almost no threat to them, has shrunk to a mere two games. If the Red Sox can hold on, they will likely draw either the Tigers or the Rangers in the Divisional Series, two teams whose records are similar to Boston’s but who have both been hot in September, at 14-4 and 11-5, respectively.

Still, the Boston faithful should remain relatively unfazed. Although the Red Sox do meet the Yankees for a three-game set this weekend, the rest of their games come against the Orioles, the laughingstock of the American League.

The Red Sox have also barged into the World Series out of the Wild Card slot before; anyone remember the 2004 Red Sox? And, in the Boston sports world, doom and gloom are in our blood (or they were until that magical year) — why should we take dire pronouncements seriously?

One of Boston’s potential first-round opponents, Detroit, has had a fairly easy go of things since midseason, feasting on weak AL Cental competition en route to a scintillating 40-22 mark since the All-Star Break. The Tigers are the first AL team to clinch a 2011 playoff berth, with the second-place Indians having faded long ago. Five of Detroit’s starting nine are hitting over .280 for the season, led by Miguel Cabrera, who, despite slightly diminished power numbers, remains an offensive force. Perennial Cy Young contender Justin Verlander, a 23-game winner who is a shoo-in for the award this year, is the workhorse on the pitching staff, while Doug Fister and Matt Scherzer have emerged as solid complementary pieces in the starting rotation.

In the AL West, the division-leading Rangers boast the league’s top offense, with five players contributing at least 20 homeruns and Michael Young, a longtime Texas staple, hitting .333. The Rangers, who boast the second-best run differential in the American League (+150), also lead the majors in batting average (.280). Their pitching staff isn’t too shabby either, with a starting rotation anchored by C.J. Wilson and emerging youngsters Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando, all of whom have an ERA below 3.60.

It’s a tough call, but I’d prefer that the Red Sox face Detroit. They have shown the ability to hit Verlander in the past: Jason Varitek, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Carl Crawford all have decent lifetime numbers against him. Besides, the Rangers’ lineup is simply too potent: they’re sure to wail away at a Boston rotation and bullpen that, collectively, rank only 20th in the Majors.

The National League’s (NL) dark horse of the year has been Milwaukee, which completed a sweep of the Reds last weekend and have all but wrapped up the NL Central. Put another way, perhaps more accurately, that the second-place Cardinals have been a profound disappointment this season, as they’ve had to cope without ace Adam Wainwright.

Nonetheless, the “Brew Crew” has managed to hold their own: Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are any pitcher’s worst nightmare, and previously inexperienced closer John Axford (full disclosure: I had never heard of him before writing this) has registered 43 saves and proven himself a legitimate end-game presence.

Elsewhere in the NL, the Phillies, whose All-Star rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley has performed at a mythical level, have clinched the East and should certainly be looking for more in the postseason. The Diamondbacks and Braves are in position to take the weak NL West and NL Wild Card, respectively, but neither team seems particularly impressive.

Of course, the season’s close also marks the beginning of speculation about the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. In the NL, Braun would appear to be the MVP frontrunner, hitting for a career-high and NL-best .336 average while remaining a run-producing threat (30 HR, 103 RBI) and leading his team to its first division title since 1982.

In the AL, however, Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson, Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez will all be vying for MVP honors. Bautista, while hitting .304 and leading the AL with a surprising 42 home runs, plays in the obscurity of languid Toronto. By contrast, Granderson’s uncharacteristically explosive power (40 HR) has come on the Broadway stage; still, he’s only hitting at a .268 clip, and naming him the favorite borders on absurd. The race, then, stands between the first basemen leading the AL in batting average, Cabrera and Gonzalez.

I would give Gonzalez the nod, being partial to the Red Sox and appreciative of Gonzalez’s excellent defense, a skill Cabrera does not exactly share (three errors for the former, 12 for the latter this season).

In the AL Cy Young consideration, Verlander is a virtual certainty to take home the trophy with not only a 24-5 record for a division-leading team but also an AL-best 2.36 ERA and an AL-best 238 strikeouts, giving him the “Triple Crown” of pitching.

The NL race, however, is one of the tightest in recent memory among Lee, Halladay, Arizona’s Kennedy and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, with no clear favorite emerging.

The Rookie of the Year race in AL remains open, with Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, Yankees starter Ivan Nova and Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, among others, in contention. Finally, the NL Rookie award should go either to the Braves’ leading hitter Freeman or to the Phillies’ Worley, who is 11-2 with a 2.85 ERA. This one is far from decided although, personally, I see Worley, who has been downright phenomenal, as the obvious choice.

I am the type of baseball fan who usually considers even the last week in September too premature to make a playoff prediction. That said, I will, with much disappointment, affirm the widely held belief that we will have a Yankees-Phillies World Series this year. The Phillies are dominant — end of story — and, unfortunately, I can’t realistically see anyone in the AL stopping the Yankees.

Last year, though, with both teams in a similar situation, the Rangers did exactly that; nobody says I can’t reconsider. To console myself for now, I’ll say: Phillies in 6.