MLB: Large questions loom as schedule nears end



David Cassilo

Time is running out for teams looking to make the final push for the playoffs. With only the Mets, Red Sox, Indians and Angels looking like shoo-ins for the playoffs, half of the spots for the postseason are still up for grabs. All the teams fighting for the playoffs have had to answer questions all season long about their ball clubs, but with less than a month to play, there are only a few questions left that will decide who is playing baseball and who is playing golf in October.

1. Can the Yankees continue to get good performances from young arms Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy?

While many Yankee fans expected Roger Clemens to be the savior they needed, it turned out to be the young arms that the Yankees have refused to part with over the years. The most impressive of which has been starter-turned-reliever Joba Chamberlain. Although he is under special orders not to pitch in back-to-back games, he has been enough to help save an overworked bullpen. Hughes and Kennedy have been equally important to the Yankees this season. The sudden downfall of Mike Mussina has made them even more important to the pitching staff. With an offense as good as theirs, as long as these young arms don’t implode on the mound, they will allow the Yankees to hold on to that Wild Card lead.

2. Can the Tigers get back the dominant bullpen that led them to the World Series last season?

It was a magical season for Detroit in 2006, but with such a quick turnaround taking place, it had many people wondering if its run was a fluke. The one constant that avoided the doubts of all skeptics was that the Tigers bullpen was as good as any in the league. Shockingly, the team’s brightest spots coming into the year have been complete disappointments. Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya have battled injuries all season, and Todd Jones has blown six saves this season. The Tigers will need to have faith in their bullpen in order to make it back to the playoffs, and the way these guys have been pitching lately does not bode well for their postseason hopes.

3. How will the Diamondbacks fill the hole at second base left by Orlando Hudson?

Late last week, Arizona was given the shocking news that it had lost its veteran second baseman for the season to a thumb injury. The second baseman was on pace to have the best offensive season of his career, but the loss of his offense will be the least of the team’s concerns down the stretch. On a team with so many young players, Hudson was seen as a team leader on the field. That is one of the hardest things to replace, and someone like Tony Clark must step up and assume that role. Also, Hudson is regarded as one of the best fielding second basemen in the game today. His slick play on the field has helped pitchers such as Brandon Webb put up career years behind Hudson. The D-backs will try to fill the void at second with Alberto Callapso and Augie Ojeda, but neither poses much of a threat at the plate. As long as it can play a strong second base, Arizona will remain in playoff position.

4. Which Carlos Zambrano will show up for the final weeks of the season?

There does not figure to be a better division race going down the stretch this year than the one in the NL Central. The Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals will all play a virtual must-win from here till the end of the month. Perhaps the most important player on any of those teams is Cubs pitcher Zambrano. It has been an up-and-down year for the Big Z, to say the least, as he has posted an ERA over five in the first two months, under two during June and July and over seven down the stretch. With every start down the stretch bigger than the last, he cannot struggle like he has over the past two months. Zambrano is one to relish the big moment and, as the games get more important, odds are he will do what it takes to keep the Cubs atop the NL Central.

5. Will the Phillies find enough pitching to avoid being the last team out for the third year in a row?

Sure the Brewers, Cardinals, Padres and Dodgers have a better shot at the playoffs, but this is the Philadelphia area, and no one cares about those teams. Will the Phillies fans spend October watching football instead of baseball? The two biggest concerns are if Cole Hamels can come back to once again be the staff ace and if Brett Myers can morph into a shutdown closer. Even if those two things somehow take place, Philadelphia has a major problem left. That problem is every other pitcher on the roster. Does anyone have faith in Kyle Lohse, J.D. Durbin, Adam Eaton, Antonio Alfonseca and Tom Gordon? I doubt it, and, because of that, it will be another long offseason for Phillies fans.