Starr: Baseball’s Stretch Run

David Ortiz’s heart palpitations have put something of a pall over what otherwise has been a fairly compelling season, one in which, even with the obsessive Barry Bonds watch, the action on the field has mercifully trumped events off. With his prodigious power numbers and unrivalled clutch hitting, Ortiz was on his way to giving lie to the notion that a DH can’t be an MVP. Even more important, he has become baseball’s first face, the desperately need anti-Barry. Bonds’ menacing “Screw you” scowl has been replaced by Big Papi’s megawatt smile that says, “Hey, you look like you need a hug.” And there’s nothing that we, the game’s faithful fans, need more than an occasional hug. Here’s betting Ortiz can return to the game. September would be something less without him.

Still, the season’s final month appears rather intriguing. Entering the stretch run, about the half the American League and almost the entire National League can claim to still be in the playoff hunt. That should enable baseball to hold its own against the return of the NFL juggernaut. Here’s nine innings worth of intriguing story lines from the summer of 2006:

1st: American League Superiority

We’ve known for a few seasons now, what with the A.L. All-Star Game winning streak as well as back-to-back World Series sweeps by Soxes Red and White, that the American League has vastly superior teams and talent. Still, the regular season used to do a little better job of obscuring the imbalance. Not this year. Of the 10 top teams in baseball, no more than two—and possibly only one—play in the National League. Thank goodness for the Mets, who at least offer the hope of sparing baseball the embarrassment of another non-competitive World Series. But even if New York’s ancient rotation—the average age of Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and Steve Trachsel is nearly 37—stays healthy, I doubt it can hold up against any of the A.L.’s power lineups. The Pedro of old only exists against weaker N.L. hitters; matched up against an American League squad, he is just old Pedro.

2nd: Young Guns

Has one league, in this case the American, ever witnessed such an influx of stellar young pitchers in a single season? Check out this rookie fire-balling crew: the Minnesota Twins’ Francisco Liriano (11-3 with an ERA of 2.19 and 142 strikeouts in 119 innings); the Detroit Tiger’s Justin Verlander (15-7 with a 3.42 ERA); the Boston Red Sox’s Jonathan Papelbon (34 saves and an 0.96 ERA); the Los Angeles Angels’ Jered Weaver (9-2 with a 2.33 ERA); the Tigers’ Joel Zumaya (6-2 with a 2.03 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 66 innings as a set-up man); and Boston’s Jon Lester (7-2 record). The first four are not only rookie-of-the-year candidates, but contenders for the Cy Young Award as the league’s top pitcher. However, several of them have wound up on the disabled list or missing starts of late. How these pitchers fare in the stretch could go a long way to determining the playoff races and how young pitchers will be brought along in the future. Moreover, don’t mark all these kids for superstardom yet. There’s reason to be wary of sophomore slumps. The two freshman phenoms of 2005, Felix Hernandez (a 2.67 ERA, allowing just 61 hits in 84 innings) and Zach Duke (8-2 with a 1.81 ERA) this year are 11-12 with a 4.54 ERA and 8-12 with a 5.01 ERA respectively.

3rd: Motor City Mojo

It’s always fun to see one of baseball’s elders resurrected—especially when the man at the helm of the Detroit Tigers is Jim Leyland, a manager of the decidedly  old school. His young, talented Tigers have been one of baseball’s top teams all season. Still, the surprising strength of the A.L. Central, baseball’s toughest division, has the Detroit’s wire-to-wire run in jeopardy, both to the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins. With a pitching rotation featuring Kenny Rogers, who has never been particularly effective down the stretch and Verlander, who appears to have hit the wall, these cats are not a great bet to hold on to the division or even a wild-card playoff spot. (If the Tigers make it to the post-season, their fans will look back and realize Craig Monroe’s home run saved their season against the Yankees Wednesday night.) Regardless, Detroit’s strong showing makes me misty for Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Willie Horton and a lot of nights I spent one summer in old Tiger Stadium .

4th: How Do You Find Relief?

Not very easily, that’s for sure. The Cincinnati Reds, trying desperately to cling to a wild-card spot, have already traded for seven different veteran arms in the hopes of shoring up its sieve of a bullpen—and likely to no avail. The White Sox improved their lineup this year, but the team’s chances of repeating appear doomed by a formerly great bullpen gone sour. The Red Sox bullpen, with the sole exception of Papelbon, has been a disaster. Makes one wonder if steroids, which really are about recovery rather than raw power, were even more of a boost to bullpens than to the sluggers. If bullpens prove to be a key to the post-season, that’s good news for the Twins, the A’s, the Tigers and the Mets; in fact, it’s the depth of the Oakland bullpen that continues to make the A’s my choice to go all the way .

5th: The Amazin’s

Perhaps not all that amazing when you consider the money Mets general manager Omar Minaya has dropped to build this team. Still, there is spending and then there is spending wisely. The Mets’ best acquisition may have been Carlos Delgado, who not only has been the horse in the middle of the lineup he was expected to be, but took the pressure off Carlos Beltran, who has responded with an MVP season. The Mets are spending as if the future is now, but with Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes as a young nucleus, the team should be competing with the crosstown Yanks for years to come.

6th: Shakespeare in the Bronx

Baseball’s young king, Alex Rodriguez, has become a tortured soul in a drama worthy of the old master. At 31, A-Rod is still in his physical prime, so only the machinations of his mind can account for the deterioration of his game. Last year’s MVP is having a season that is even worse than the numbers indicate—and the numbers suggest that this is the summer of A-Rod’s discontent . He is on his way to a career-low in batting average, a career-high in strikeouts and will likely lead the league in only one thing—errors. With A-Rod’s disappearing act coming on top of injuries to slugging Yankee outfielders Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, even George Steinbrenner’s bucks might not have been enough to salvage this season. But Joe Torre is having blast with a National League-style offense that ranks eighth in the majors in home runs, but third in stolen bases. Torreball rocks!

7th: The Bonds Fade

It’s not clear whether time has finally caught up to Barry Bonds or if he just misses his flaxseed oil. In truth, his numbers aren’t all that bad, especially a .454 on-base percentage that is tops in baseball. That stat alone should land him the kind of deal Frank Thomas scored this year to be a designated hitter and limp around the bases in Oakland. If Bonds signs with some American League team to be a DH in 2007 and puts together a similar, subpar season, he would still be right on pace to pass Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home-run king come next September. But it’s not clear anybody wants the lingering distraction that is Bonds or to cater to his malevolent clubhouse presence. Nor is it certain that Bonds would accept a major pay cut and a DH role—even to reach his historic goal.

8th: Mazzone Magic

Atlanta’s extraordinary string of 14 straight division titles is coming to an end. It seems a bit much to attribute the Braves’ demise solely to the departure of longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone. But Mazzone clearly worked some magic with Braves hurlers, many of whom never found the same form when they moved elsewhere. Mazzone didn’t appear to be having any more luck in his own move to Baltimore early this season. But lately the young Orioles pitchers appear to be responding and, in Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen, Baltimore might have a pitching nucleus to revive the woeful O’s.

9th: Team of the Future

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays may have the best young outfield in memory with Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young, who finally made his Major League debut this week—and made it a splashy one with a home run. But while the Rays finally look to be turning in the right direction, it’s the Twins who boast the best young talent: the top 1-2 pitching punch in the game, Johann Santana and Francisco Liriano (not to mention a promising kid starter in Matt Garza); the M&M boys—legitimate MVP candidates both in catcher Joe Mauer and first basemen Justin Morneau; and a young shortstop, Jason Bartlett, who has hit .347 since being called up mid-season. If Liriano rebounds from his elbow problems this month, Twins fans may not have to wait until next year. A healthy Minnesota is the team nobody wants to play in the post-season.