We have arrived at that time of year when six-month projections no longer matter, and when, in one week, a journeyman call-up like Nate McLouth can impact a pennant race more than MVP candidates. Baseball is a summer-long game, but the last bricks of legacies are placed day by day, inning by inning, which is how Howard Ehmke and Al Weis became legends, and how the weakest lineup in World Series history stunned the baseball world in 1988.
There are no super teams now, and all the contenders have needs and holes that they try to plug game to game.
Brett Anderson opened spring training on the disabled list, recovering from Tommy John surgery, and now he is arguably the most important player in the American League wild-card race. When this spring started, Lew Ford hadn't played in the big leagues in five years, Nate McLouth was trying to win a job with the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Monday, Ford and McLouth hit home runs in the midst of a pennant chase that could be decided by one or two big swings.
"McLouth and Ford are great stories," Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter texted late Monday night in response to a question. "They love to play and don't take a single day in the major leagues for granted."
The stretch drive has started with every team seeking solutions. Here's a look at what needs to happen for each current AL contender to make the postseason.
Oakland Athletics: With the Athletics stunningly hanging in the playoff chase, they lost Bartolo Colon -- their most reliable starting pitcher this season -- to a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. But the timing was somewhat fortuitous, because Brandon McCarthy had just made his way back from the disabled list and because Anderson had just finished his last minor league rehabilitation outing.
Now Anderson is rested, and in two starts he has been spectacular. The left-hander flirted with a no-hitter into the fifth inning Monday, dominating the Cleveland Indians for seven innings with an array of fastballs and breaking balls, changing speeds. In two starts, he's allowed just six hits, two walks and one run in 14 innings.
Anderson is the son of a college baseball coach and grew up as a field rat, playing catch and shagging fly balls, and all those hours tossing the ball might be paying off now in his recovery. Regaining command is the greatest challenge for any pitcher coming back from a major injury, but Oakland catcher Derek Norris said over the phone Monday night that Anderson already has really great feel for his pitches. "All of them," he said. "Not just two or three."
Anderson is among the fastest-working pitchers in the sport, returning to the rubber quickly between pitches like Mark Buehrle. Because Anderson's command is already so good, Norris really can choose from the whole menu in any part of the count as he decides which pitch to signal. At times the Cleveland hitters appeared caught in what they looked for, and most of the time, the Indians beat the ball into the dirt. Anderson threw a first-pitch strike to 12 of the hitters he faced, and those hitters went 0-for-12.
The Athletics rank 25th in the majors in runs scored, and although Josh Reddick seems to be reviving from a slump -- he hit his 26th homer Monday -- offensive production will continue to be a struggle. But Oakland has some of the best pitching in the majors right now, ranking third in the AL in ERA since the All-Star break. The continued health and success of Anderson and McCarthy may be the most important barometers for the Athletics as they try to pull out an improbable playoff berth.
Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles' success continues to make no sense, defying all the calculations on which almost all teams build their teams now. Their win on Monday was their 13th consecutive in a game decided by one run, and if you don't necessarily agree with how crazy that is, try flipping a quarter and seeing how long it takes to come up one side or the other 13 straight times.
Ford, 36, started at designated hitter, and in the second inning, he hit his first major league homer since July 29, 2007, 1,857 days ago. With the Orioles trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the left-handed-hitting McLouth came to bat with a runner at first against reliever Brett Myers, bearing a batting average less than .200.
But at this moment, this was a good matchup for McLouth because of history: In 15 previous at-bats against Myers, he had six hits and three homers, the best power he had generated against any individual pitcher in the majors. Monday night, McLouth swung and blasted a two-run homer, and the Orioles, with their negative run differential and their pitching questions, had picked up their 70th win this season in the same way they have all year, with little pieces of help from all parts of their organization.
Orioles GM Dan Duquette explained in an e-mail how Baltimore wound up with Ford and McLouth. "We drafted Lew Ford with the Red Sox in 1999 and I traded him to the Twins," Duquette wrote. "He was recommended to acquire this year from the Long Island Ducks by Mike Boulanger, who had him in the minors with the Red Sox ... [Boulanger] is currently our minor league hitting coordinator.
"McLouth was recommended by [special assistant to the GM] Lee Thomas this winter when the Pirates signed him, and again when he was released [by the Pirates], because Endy Chavez and Nolan Reimold were both on the DL."
These Orioles are really good at staying in the moment, Showalter says.
The same question about the Orioles remains: Can they get enough pitching to hang on and make the postseason?
Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper have done extraordinary work this year steering the Chicago rotation through a gauntlet of injuries and injury restrictions, and with Gavin Floyd out indefinitely, more juggling is needed. Jake Peavy will get the ball on Friday. How the White Sox can manage their health through September will determine their chances of holding off Detroit in the AL Central.
New York Yankees: It's all about how healthy they are because of their aging roster. Injuries have been a major concern, and now, with the Yankees' lead in the AL East down to 3.5 games, Mark Teixeira is out with a calf problem. If the Yankees can keep CC Sabathia -- who recently spent time on the disabled list -- and others on the field, they should be able to win their division.
From ESPN Stats & Information: The Yankees are just 22-21 since the All-Star break and have seen their lead in the AL East dwindle from 7 games down to 3.5. One of the reasons they have struggled is their collective decline on pitches on the inner half. Here's a look at some Yankees' batting averages this season on inside pitches (before ASB/since ASB):
Robinson Cano: .331/.267
Raul Ibanez: .294/.105
Alex Rodriguez: .287/.208
Curtis Granderson: .206/.139
Andruw Jones: .200/.115
Los Angeles Angels: Dan Haren is simply not the same pitcher he has been in the past, which means that every start made by Jered Weaver and Zack Greinke -- the healthiest and most reliable members of the Angels' rotation -- are of utmost importance down the stretch. The Angels probably can't afford any poor starts from those two in the final month of the season if they are going to erase their 4.5-game wild-card deficit.
Detroit Tigers: They have two MVP candidates in Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson, and Justin Verlander has a real shot at his second consecutive Cy Young Award. The Tigers' successes and failures this year have seemingly been determined by the complementary parts of the team -- the hitters behind Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the No. 4 and No. 5 starters, the setup men. This is why Delmon Young's recent burst of offense is so crucial and why Max Scherzer and Doug Fister could be the most pivotal performers for Detroit.
Tampa Bay Rays: They have the best ERA in the majors since the All-Star break. Because there is so little margin for error, given the erratic offense, the excellent pitching must continue; it must be efficient. Tampa Bay is not suited for slugfests and won't get to the postseason without superior performance from its arms.
Texas Rangers: They have the best record in the league and appear to be in a strong position to make the postseason. Barring a rash of injuries or an extended run of poor luck, Texas should be able to hold off the A's and win the AL West.
• Felix Hernandez might have moved into the lead for the AL Cy Young Award with his latest outing. As you watch him pitch these days, it feels like he's totally locked in, with the carrot of this award right in front of him.
Hernandez's current MLB rankings:
ERA: first (2.43)
WHIP: third (1.03)
Innings: first (196.2)
Strikeouts: third (184)
Opponents' OPS: third (.579)
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Felix won Monday:
A. Hernandez recorded a career-high 18 ground-ball outs. His final nine outs of the game came on ground balls.
B. Nine ground-ball outs came on his fastballs, four on his changeup, three on his curveball and two on his slider. It's his first start this season in which he got at least two ground-ball outs on all four of his pitches.
C. Hernandez pounded the strike zone with his fastball. He threw 40 of his 53 fastballs (76 percent) for strikes, his highest percentage in the past four seasons. All but three of his strikes with his fastball came on pitches in the zone.
• Justin Verlander is still the best this year, writes John Lowe, but wins have eluded him.
- Doc's free advice to Strasburg and the Nationals?
- "I think the work you do in between the starts is more important," Halladay said. "You learn over time how much you need to throw in between your starts and what you need to do during the winter, and that to me is the big difference. It's not how many innings you throw. It's about once I get up there in innings in the second half, do I need to throw a 50-pitch bullpen every time or can I get away with doing less and save myself? Over the years, you learn what works best for you."
- Halladay admitted that if he were wearing Strasburg's cleats, he'd be campaigning on a daily basis to continue.