Checking out key storylines as baseball’s stretch run arrives

September is almost here and that means perfect weather and a list of storylines that lead to the postseason.

The Astros and Yankees are going to win division titles in the American League, while the Twins try to hold off Cleveland in the AL Central. In the National League, the Dodgers are on cruise control in the NL West, while the Nationals in the NL East continue their push from a 19-31 start.

The NL Central? The Brewers don’t have the pitching, so that leaves the Cardinals and Cubs in a battle of classic, traditional teams.

The potential come-from-nowhere-to-make-the-postseason teams as wild cards are Arizona and Boston. Each has little margin for error.

The storylines for baseball’s final month:

Q: Can the Nationals catch the first-place Braves in the NL East?

A: Yes, many teams have come back from five-, six- or sometimes seven-game deficits in the final month to win a division. The Nationals’ biggest advantage over Atlanta is in the rotation. The teams are equal when it comes to offense, defense and bullpen questions. The Braves, who play the Nationals seven times in September, are vulnerable with the youth of Max Fried and Mike Soroka, who each have never pitched a six-month season. The general thought was the Braves were going to fall apart after Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte went out with injuries. Instead, the Braves won series against the Twins, Dodgers and two against the pitching-rich Mets. The Braves’ new bullpen pitchers - Mark Melancon, Chris Martin and Shane Greene - have settled. The Braves’ first four hitters - Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson - are dangerous. Freeman (.960 OPS with 31 home runs) and Acuña(36 home runs, 31 steals) should be NL MVP candidates.

Q: Speaking of the NL MVP, who is favored?

A: The two favorites since the All-Star break are Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich (1.097 OPS, 41 home runs) and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger. Assuming the Brewers aren’t going to make postseason, does Yelich’s stock drop or has the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s thought process in that regard changed? Bellinger is a strong candidate, but while he’s improved against left-handed pitchers, his production has dropped in the second half. He’s got a 1.054 OPS with 42 home runs, but his second-half average is .247, down from .326. Washington’s Anthony Rendon is hitting .329 with a .408 on-base percentage, 29 home runs and 1.204 OPS. Rendon has all the intangibles. Can Bellinger be considered an MVP on a team that wins by 20 games? Probably not.

Q: Can Rendon win the NL batting title?

A: If Rendon does, he’ll be the first Nationals player to win a title and the first Washington player since the Senators’ Mickey Vernon averaged .337 to beat Al Rosen in the AL in1953. The competition includes defending NL champion and MVP Yelich (.330), Jeff McNeil of the Mets (.330) and Pittsburgh rookie Bryan Reynolds (.328), who was born in Baltimore and had a 17-game hitting streak. The Pirates got Reynolds, who has played all three outfielder positions, from San Francisco in the Andrew McCutchen trade. Reynolds started this season in the minors and played his first big league game April 20. McNeil, 24, reached 200 hits in 599 at-bats, fastest to 200 in Mets history.

Q: Are the Phillies the most underachieving team in the NL?

A: Yes, no doubt. The bullpen has been hit hard with injuries and starter Jake Arrieta is out for the season. Starters have gone back and forth to the bullpen. Bryce Harper, McCutchen (injured) and J.T. Realmuto have not lived up to billing as far as run production. Still, the Phillies are in the wild card hunt. The Phillies hope that the appointment of former manager Charlie Manuel, 75, as their new hitting coach, can jumpstart the offense in the final month. If the Phillies are going to make October, they are going to have to do it on the backs of an improved offense that will make up for thin pitching.

Q: Think the Phillies regret a losing record against Miami?

A: Yep. Who would have thought the Marlins would have had so much say in the standings? The Phillies are 7-9 vs. the Miami this season, the Mets 11-3, the Braves are 15-4 and the Nationals 10-3.


Q: Has the Nationals’ Max Scherzer got a chance to win the NL Cy Young? How about Stephen Strasburg?

A: It’s amazing, but, yes, Scherzer does. At least his statistics say he does, even though he’s missed five or six starts and is currently in spring training mode, building endurance. The Dodgers’ Hyun-Jim Ryu has been the favorite, but his ERA has jumped to 2.43. He’s given up 18 runs in his last three starts. Ryu has 133 strikeouts, 19 walks and a 0.98 WHIP. Scherzer has pitched similar innings with an ERA of 2.46 with 200 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.02. The Mets’ Jacob de Grom has 1.04 WHIP, 162 innings and a 2.56 ERA. The Dodgers are also going to rest Ryu in September so he’s strong for October and that could work in Scherzer’s favor, along with his strikeout advantage. But how about Strasburg? This could be his year given he’s likely to win 20 games. He’s already 15-5 with a 3.63 ERA, 201 strikeouts and a 1.08 WHIP. A season of 20 wins doesn’t seem to register with BBWAA voters as it once did, but still, Strasburg deserves serious consideration.

Q: Orioles pitcher John Means was a surprise All-Star. Would a strong September give him a chance to win the AL Rookie of the Year?

A: A strong September will help, especially if the assumed leading vote-getters - all hitters - slump in the final weeks. Houston’s Yordan Alvarez has 21 home runs in 62 games for the first-place Astros. Eloy Jiménez of the White Sox has 22 home runs, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has 15 for the Blue Jays in addition to plenty of buzz. Minnesota’s Luis Arraez has an impressive on-base percentage (.401) and batting average (.335). Arraez, a second baseman, has walked more times (26) than he’s struck out (21). Arraez has cost former Oriole Jonathan Schoop playing time, even though Schoop has 21 home runs.

Q: Baseball is on the verge of setting the single-season record of 6,105 home runs and could have four players with at least 50 home runs. How rare is that?

A: It has only happened twice. In 1998, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Greg Vaughn and Ken Griffey Jr. each were at 50-plus. In 2001, Barry Bonds, Sosa, Alex Rodríguez and Luis Gonzalez each hit 50. This year, four players could do it, including two from Los Angeles. The Angels’ Mike Trout has 43, Bellinger 42, the Mets’ Pete Alonso 42 and Yelich 41. Bellinger is also taking aim at the Dodgers’ single-season record of 49 by Shawn Green. Yelich is going after the team record of 50 by Prince Fielder. Alonso is going after Aaron Judge’s single-season record for a rookie, 50 in 2017.


Q: Are the Cardinals the favorite to win the NL Central?

A: They have been inconsistent all year, but might be playing their best baseball going into the final month. Their ace pitchers are Jack Flaherty, who had a 0.71 ERA during August, and Dakota Hudson, (1.71 during August), but the rest of the rotation - Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright - have been so-so lately. Kolten Wong is their leading hitter. Paul Goldschmidt is hitting .250 in August, not what the Cardinals expected, and he’s been inconsistent with runners in scoring position. Catcher Yadier Molina (hand) is back from the injured list and hitting .300 in his last 15 games, meaning former Oriole and Nat Matt Wieters’ playing time is cut drastically. The Cardinals and Cubs play seven games during the final two weekends, and that’s likely when the NL Central will be decided.

Q: What concerns do the Cubs have?

A: Their two rotation lefties, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester, are showing signs of slowing down. Each is 35. Hamels has given up 33 hits in his last 21 innings with a 7.29 ERA. Lester is at 7.12 with 42 hits in his last 30 innings.

Q: We know the Nationals, because of their rotation, and the Mets, because of pitchers de Grom and Noah Syndergaard, would be tough in a win-or-else wild card playoff game. Who would be the most dangerous in the American League?

A: Cleveland, because of Mike Clevinger or Shane Bieber. Oakland isn’t far behind with Mike Fiers scheudled to start a wild card game. Tampa Bay expects to get Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner, and Tyler Glasnow back from the injured list in mid-September, but they will likely be used out of the bullpen and not the rotation. The last thing the Rays are going to do is disrupt their future by pitching them too much in September.

Q: Can the Indians catch Minnesota in the AL Central?

A: The two teams play each other six times during September. Carlos Carrasco has returned to pitch in the Indians bullpen, so that helps. But Corey Kluber, out with a broken arm, has had a setback in his rehabilitation and might not pitch the rest of the season. That hurts Cleveland. And, it doesn’t help that the Indians lost José Ramírez, one of their hottest hitters, with a hand injury. Ramírez had a bad first half, but he hit well in the second.

Q: The Twins are on pace to win 99 games. Should they be worried?

A: Their biggest concern is that their ace starter, José Berríos, has seen his ERA skyrocket to 8.44 in August until he pitched six strong innings in the Twins’ 10-5 win against the White Sox on Thursday. He said he made mechanical adjustments. The Twins’ schedule isn’t easy until the end. They play in Boston, plus series against Cleveland and the Nationals in the first two weeks of the month. After Sept. 16, they only play the White Sox, Tigers and Royals. Minnesota needs to survive the first two weeks of September.

Q: Think the Yankees regret not signing pitcher Patrick Corbin?

A: The Yankees came close to signing Corbin before he went to the Nationals. Now as the postseason approaches, the Yankees rotation is a huge question mark. Masahiro Tanaka is likely the Game 1 starter in the AL Division Series. J.A. Happ is awful. Lefty James Paxton is inconsistent. CC Sabathia is old. Domingo Germán is talented but unproven.

Q: Aside from the Ryu’s struggles, what else are the Dodgers concerned about?

A: They have a thin bullpen and closer Kenley Jansen isn’t the Kenley Jansen they are used to having. The Dodgers have been great for five months, but it is possible they have peaked.

Q: Houston starters Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are the favorites to win the American League Cy Young. Who has the edge?

A: September will decide and it could go Verlander-Cole or Cole-Verlander. Verlander has the edge with a 2.69 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 243 strikeouts. Cole is at 2.85, 0.96 with 252 strikeouts. It would be Verlander’s second Cy Young after winning one in with Detroit. The closest the AL has come to teammates finishing one=two was 1990 when Oakland’s Bob Welch (27 wins) won the award while teammate Dave Stewart was third. In 2001, Arizona’s Randy Johnson won the NL Cy with teammate Curt Schilling second.