Hunt for Reds October! : A look at MLB Pennant Races

Brandon PhillipsBring on September baseball!

Baseball superstitions are many, far too many to list but you know most of them and individual quirks among the players are simply endless. But this essay is not about superstitions, omens,harbingers or astrological signs pointing to playoff fate.

It is not about fortune tellers or parlor tricks as now is the time for gritty baseball as nobody gets anywhere with smoke and mirrors at this point. It is about human will, the makeup and character of teams and of course talent. It too is about who is healthy come September and of course who is hot. Then one can judge the true makeup of a team and its ultimate destiny and in Cincinnati we have reason to think about such things this Reds magical season … thus far.

Although I cannot recall what I had for lunch yesterday, I do recall the stretch run of a season ago as teams came thundering down the backstretch bunched up looking for room to make their move or hold foes off and garner a playoff spot. I remember free falls and dramatic comebacks and all the excitement and yes, disappointment that filled the air depending on where you were.

I too remember the Reds were not part of that Autumn anticipation and times were anything but exciting like the Fall of 2010.

Because the Reds are in seemingly the best of positions, currently in first place and with the best record in baseball, one may want to pay attention as lessons can be learned from the past.

Therefore a little historical reference before looking for tends, something the numbers nuts love and count me among them as there is NO sport in the world where numbers are more significant than in baseball.

Due to the added excitement of the Wild Card some years back (and even another this season to add to the excitement) a number of teams as has been the case since its inception were battling for postseason spots as they are again this year which is great for the game. You may recall Atlanta had a 10 ½ game Wild Card lead in August before losing 18 of its final 26 games and being overtaken by St. Louis, which was nearly as shocking as the Cardinals going on to win the World Series.

St. Louis entering play on September 1st  still trailed the Braves by 81/2 games, but went 18-8 in September and edged the Braves out for a playoff spot.

In the American League Boston finished its season 7-19, blew a 9-game Wild Card lead, losing to Baltimore on the final day of the regular season to an Orioles team, hopelessly out of it but one that did win 11 of its final 18 games and more so, wanted a say in the final decision and had a very loud say at that which is something to remember for this season.

Meanwhile while Boston was losing, resurgent Tampa Bay quietly, but steadily kept chopping Boston’s margin and you know the rest with the never-say-die Rays.

A good place to begin looking for trends is how a team has played since the All-Star break, not that a Cardinals-like rise or a Boston-like fade cannot occur out of the blue. But there seems little reason with a month left that much will dramatically change from the first five months at this point. You have a pretty good idea who is going to be there, but the mystery is just how they will finish as order means everything.

In the American League the East Division-leading New York Yankees were in front at the break, but have been mortal in the second going 23-22 to date. Meanwhile the Orioles who simply refuse to fade have gone 27-18 and the Rays 26-18 in the second half which suggests the Yankees will be looking over their shoulder throughout the month.

The Chicago White Sox have bent but have refused to break and still lead the AL Central in what was a three-team race, going a modest 25-20 after the Classic. But Detroit, who had to win five in a row to even get  two games above .500 at the star break, has failed to gain much ground going 25-18 in that time while Cleveland has faded into oblivion in the second half at 11-35!

Texas has the look of a team that has been on top of the AL West most of the season and will stay right there, doing enough (25-19) to keep two others in their dust. Oakland, a   500 team at the mythical halfway mark has been nothing short of amazing going 30-14, but cannot manage to gain much ground while the LA Angels have done little (20-24) to suggest much a September surge, but this is a funny game, so who knows as this team has talent.

In the National League Washington has been by many (yours truly not included) touted as the class of the league and even with a recent five-game losing streak, has enjoyed a 29-17 mark. Tempting here to mention a certain pitcher about to be shut down for the season because it is so relevant, but you already know that debate.

Atlanta has played well over that same stretch (28-18) but has not gained considerable ground. Rest assured the Braves know all about what not to do this September when it comes to wearing shirts with starched collars.

The NL West which promises to be a great fight between bitter rivals in the LA Dodgers and the SF Giants, has just taken a bit of a turn. The Dodgers led at the break by a half-game but have been just average, 23-20 since and things did not get any more promising for a torrid September run despite some impressive roster moves when the team just learned in a 24-hour span hot starter Chad Billingsley had to go to the 15-day DL and they likely have lost their closer Kenley Jensen to a heart problem for the season.

Meanwhile San Francisco, despite its own woes, managed to play good ball to the tune of 27-17. Arizona was pretty much average at the break (42-43) and the still third-place Diamondbacks remain pretty average going 22-24 since the star classic.

The day of the All-Star game saw Pittsburgh atop the NL Central, but those who felt the Bucs would swoon were not exactly correct, but not too far off either, the Pirates going 22-23 since. And to those in the Tri-State who feared the Cards would make a run? Going 25-19 and getting southpaw Jamie Garcia back, one has to think they just may have one left based too on the aforementioned historical references from 2011.

Now the Reds are a horse of a different color, not that being a game off the pace at the break was bad. Cincinnati has gone 33-14 since that time and shows no signs of slowing up and is still awaiting the return of superstar Joey Votto. Yikes! Nice position to be in. .

In the worth mention category you have a team like the New York Mets who seemed poised to be a long shot or darkhorse, but going 15-39 in the second half killed those September notions.

However if you want to look ahead at a teams playoff hopefuls may not want any part of I will give you two, not to mention Philadelphia who of late has looked a lot like the team it expected to be since the return of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Doc Halladay off the DL.

In the AL, teams may not want much to do with Seattle as the M’s are 28-17 since the classic and in the NL, don’t look now but San Diego won’t be a picnic to play either, 27-18 since their dreadful start. What makes this more amazing is the fact they have used a club-record tying 15 different starters.

Suddenly Reds fans realize how lucky/charmed they have been. It would be only the same five starters all season … still blows my mind … had it not been for a rain out and unscheduled doubleheader, calling for a call up.

It is also a time when true fans start looking at individual races, Cy Young runs, batting races and homer titles. Have you noticed Melky Cabrera, who was banned for 50 games and is essentially done this season, slipped ahead of Andrew McCutchen in the batting race?

Well guess what? In a case of sweet poetic justice or MLB gets the last laugh, depending on your take, it takes 502 plate appearances to qualify. Cabrera has 501, falling one short to qualify!

To those who felt the Pirates would free fall out of sight, I have this. In order for the Bucs to break a streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons, they have to go only 11-21 to be .500 and 12-20 to have a winning record. Streak, be damned!

Reds fans know full well that right hander Johnny Queto has the numbers to be the leading candidate for NL Cy Young. However guess who leads the NL in quality starts with 16?  Bet you won’t get this one … Yovani Gallardo of Milwaukee.

Just a follow-up for perspective on a past column note. For people in Cincy to fully understand just how much Boston’s Johnny Pesky was beloved, think only of the way people here thought of Joe Nuxhall.

In the “I can’t let it go” category, I just want to take this opportunity to compare NL All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla’s numbers (.208-16-63) to the guy who was slighted, Brandon Phillips (.297-15-70).

Yup, still sticks in my craw. But considering one has to search for things that have not gone right for the Reds this season, I guess we are all having a pretty good time following another “Hunt for Reds October.” Wow, do I like that line some marketing ace came up with in 2010 and that one sticks in my mind and I wouldn’t mind dusting it off again!