Monday, September 2, 2013

September Brings a New Kind of Baseball

By Bob Ekstrom

Life is captivating while adrift in a small kayak on the harbor. There's a smorgasbord of vessels on the move, every one going in different directions and at varying speeds, and rules of the water seem as vague as the proscribed lanes of travel. A boat pulling away from dockage waves me to his starboard, citing the law of tonnage, while a sailboat passes me port-to-port. Jet skis dart through a field of moored yachts that I had depended on for sanctuary. A trophy wife in a nearby motorboat asks who has the right-of-way and her leather-skinned husband tells her the kayak does, even as he cuts across my bow. I bob in his wake and marvel at how fast the summer has passed.

September baseball feels a lot like paddling on the harbor. It's an emotional free-for-all offering little sanctuary amid the whirlwind of big boys vying for postseason privileges on the cutting edge between euphoria and despair. In most cities, it will be hard to shake the hangover of a bad loss the night before, but for a few the new day's game can't start soon enough.

There's the steady coolness of the Oakland A's in their perennial autumn surge and the wide-eyed wonder of the Pittsburg Pirates, who can't remember what a real autumn pennant race looks like. Tearful tributes for Mariano Rivera in the Bronx, satisfaction at a near-miss in Kansas City, resignation in Chicago as the Cubs add to the longest running championship drought in the history of the game.

For a sport that has long since lost its hold over America, where games drag on far beyond our collective attention spans, baseball nevertheless belies its dullness each September to create dramatic theater that the other three major sports can't. It's as if the imminent autumnal cool fronts maintain diligent punctuality for the sake of the game, bringing with the crisp air an invigoration that displaces the lugubrious summer malaise even before the coals of our Labor Day barbecues go out.

Baseball becomes a different game on Labor Day. What was only an occasional power alley drive or diving catch away from being reduced to a game of skill now elevates into a competitive sport whose balance is challenged with every pitch. For the first time all year, baseball really seems to get it. Each September brings some twist in the plot that once seemed rigid. Leads become fragile where those half their size seemed insurmountable in summer's heat.

The annuls are filled with classic collapses, but some of the most notorious have occurred in recent times. Take 2007, when the New York Mets took over first place on May 16, and for the next 106 games that lead never dipped below two in the lost column, even swelling to 7 by September 12. Nevertheless, it quickly dissipated over the last 17 games. Two years ago, the Atlanta Braves lost their can't-miss playoff berth on the last game of the season after squandering a 10½-game divisional lead in August, but that wasn't even the next day's headline. That same night, the Tampa Bay Rays capped off the greatest September surge in baseball history when they captured the AL wild card after overcoming a 9-game deficit to the Boson Red Sox with 25 to play.

This year, the Red Sox are far more balanced emotionally as well as positionally, and without their usually reliable fallibility to fall back on, fewer plot twists are on the horizon. Of far more intrigue in the month ahead is whether the new Ziva will be hotter than Cote de Pablo. But if September does claim a victim, it will ironically be the Rays. After being swept this weekend in Oakland, Tampa Bay has lost 4 straight, 7 of the last 8, and 15 of the last 24. The midseason favorites to win the A.L. East are trying to stave off the Yankees, not exactly a team over which you want to see your lead shrink to 3½ games with all of September remaining.

If baseball is a marathon, the Rays' problem is that they broke away from the pack too early and never distanced themselves. They struggle to score against anyone and still have 7 games remaining on the West Coast, which has proved hostile to them. They're 0-8 west of the Rockies this year. When they finally return to Florida, they'll likely be outsiders looking in as the A's and Yankees ride soft schedules all the way to October, and Baltimore and Cleveland prove a year too late and a year too early, respectively.

In the National League, there's too much distance and not enough legitimacy to usurp any of the five postseason berth-holders, so just enjoy some new Modern Family episodes and the nip-and-tuck battle for the NL Central. That's still a three-team race with each contestant assured of moving on to the October round. The St. Louis Cardinals are the salty veterans but the Pittsburgh Pirates are the emotional favorites, and for a month filled with emotions, that may be enough for them to win.

Safe harbors may be great for paddling kayaks, but they don't make for compelling pennant races. But that's the beauty of September. Oftentimes, you never see it coming until it rakes across your bow, leaving you bobbing in its wake and marveling at how fast things all came undone.

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