Wild card races have many teams on an October quest

Corey Marine

The hunt for October is well under way, and the wild card is still up for grabs. The last playoff spot has come down to a three-team race in the American League, while four to five teams in the National League are still in contention.

American League

The AL East has been considered the strongest division for most of the 2009 baseball season, and it comes to no surprise that the Yankees and Red Sox are sitting at the top of the division. With the core of last year’s team still intact, the reigning American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays are also expected to make a postseason push this season. The Texas Rangers were expected to be a strong offensive team coming into 2009, but the pitching has been able to get through games as well.

The main story for Boston this year has been the front end of its pitching rotation. The right-handed Josh Beckett and the leftie Jon Lester give the Sox a legitimate shot to win whenever they take the mound. As a team, the Red Sox have the best strike out to walk ratio in the majors, and they have a strong, young bullpen. The offense struggled early in the season, especially when David Ortiz could not find his power swing, but with the addition of the versatile catcher and first baseman Victor Martinez, Boston has been able to compete in slugfests as well as pitchers’ duels.

The Rays’ youth showed itself this season in the form of a very slow start. Shortstop Jason Bartlett missed significant time before the All Star break, but the team has come alive since his return. He, outfielder Carl Crawford and third baseman Evan Longoria are critical pieces to the Rays’ success, and they will have to continue to play well offensively and defensively if Tampa Bay wishes to continue playing into October.

However, off-season signings did not pan out as well as Boston and Tampa Bay had hoped. The Red Sox signed pitchers Brad Penny and John Smoltz, and neither still plays for the team. The Rays overpaid for outfielder, turned DH, Pat Burrell, whose numbers have fallen in every major offensive category since last year’s stint with the Philadelphia Phillies. The organization has also traded away starting pitcher Scott Kazmir to free up money for upcoming seasons. Although he was not having the most productive season statistically, Kazmir was able to consistently beat the Red Sox and the Yankees. The move was made with the future in mind and is not a step toward improving the team for this year.

The Texas Rangers can go swing-for-swing with almost any team in the Major Leagues, but their pitching does not always show up when it needs to. The starters often struggle to go deep into games, and the Rangers’ bullpen has been rattled from time to time this season. With players like second baseman Ian Kinsler and outfielder Josh Hamilton, the offense will always be there for Texas, but the team will only go as far as their pitching young pitching staff will take them.

National League

The National League West has often been one of the weaker divisions in baseball. This is not the case at all this year. The Los Angeles Dodgers got off to a great start, despite Manny Ramirez’s suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance. Outfielder Juan Pierre proved that he can still play when he started in Ramirez’s place. Fellow outfielder Andre Ethier has come up with clutch hits for his club time and time again.

However, the Dodgers have slowed down considerably. The two teams currently looking up at first place find themselves in the middle of a fight for the wild card spot and possibly a division title as well. Starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Marquis have been at the forefront for a resurgent Colorado Rockies ballclub that has recently put together a string of wins against good teams. Infielders Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton have been the foundation for the Rockies’ offense, and closer Huston Street has been able to shut down opponents in the ninth inning.

The San Francisco Giants have caught most baseball fans off-guard. Star pitcher Tim Lincecum has been great at the top of the rotation, and Barry Zito is having one of his better seasons in recent memory. Pablo Sandoval has been solid offensively and defensively. Benjie Molina has gotten the job done with the bat and glove, proving he is still one of the premiere defensive catchers in the game today.

The Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins have quietly been making a name for themselves. Both NL East teams have plenty of young talent, especially in their pitching rotations. Although both clubs struggle to generate offense from time to time, their starting pitchers have allowed them to stay in games. This is when superstars like the Florida Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez and the Atlanta Braves’ Chipper Jones need to take their games to the next level.

The Chicago Cubs are simply too talented to write off completely. Manager Lou Piniella needs to come up with a formula to get this group playing well quickly, or the Cubbies will have one more year without a championship to add to their long-suffering resume.

Every game is a must win at this point in the season. The NL wild card is especially close and may come down to the very last games of the season. The hunt for October is on.