The Oct. 3 end to the regular season is fast approaching, but still roughly 16 teams are jockeying for either a spot in the playoffs or a better seed.
Shohei Ohtani could spend that time chilling at Newport Beach and still become the first Japanese player to be voted Most Valuable Player since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. But the other major awards are still in play.
Here’s a look at what’s at stake for the remainder of the season.
AL East: The ever-resilient Rays overcame the Red Sox and are holding off the Yankees. This could be the first time in franchise history they win consecutive division titles.
The Yankees and Red Sox are jockeying for wild-card spots and that will largely be done from afar. They have one series left, three games at Fenway Park starting Sept. 24.
AL Central: The White Sox running away with the division is a product of their deep roster and the leadership of José Abreu and Tim Anderson. But Tony La Russa, who turns 77 on Oct. 4, proved he was a good choice to manage.
AL West: Dusty Baker, 72, has done remarkable work with the Astros. They lead the AL in run differential and have Alex Bregman back after nearly 10 weeks on the injured list with a quadriceps strain.
Playoff prediction: A Sox-Yankees wild-card game with the winner facing the Rays and the Astros playing the White Sox in the other division series.
NL East: Somebody had to win and credit to Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, who saw an opportunity even after Ronald Acuña Jr. was lost to a season-ending knee injury on July 10. From July 15-30, he acquired outfielders Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler, and also picked up righthanded reliever Richard Rodriguez from the Pirates. The Braves went into the weekend 69-58 with a 5½-game lead.
The Phillies made a run, but the loss of Rhys Hoskins for the rest of the season with a core strain is crippling. This would be a fourth consecutive year out of the postseason for Bryce Harper.
NL Central: The Brewers ran away from a weak division and are headed for their fourth playoff berth in a row. The acquisition of shortstop Willy Adames in May was a season-changing move by David Stearns.
NL West: The closest race belongs to the Giants and Dodgers. Max Scherzer (4-0 with a 1.55 ERA in five starts with Los Angeles) is a difference-maker.
Playoff prediction: The Giants host the Reds for the wild card after San Diego fades, with the winner playing the Dodgers.
A Brewers-Braves Division Series would be fun.
MVP: Ohtani has 8.0 WAR when you combine his hitting and pitching. That’s at least 2.3 more than any other player in the American League.
He has been the most valuable player in the AL and it doesn’t matter how many games the Angels win.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could finish in the top three of the Triple Crown categories and be a distant second. That’s how much of an impact Ohtani has made.
The National League is more of a conventional race and will be a tougher vote.
Fernando Tatis Jr. has been the most exciting player in the league but has missed 32 games with injuries and a stint on the COVID-19 injured list. The Padres also stand as one of the game’s biggest disappointments.
That opens the door for Dodgers infielder Max Muncy. Good cases can be made for Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, or Brandon Crawford.
Cy Young: Lance Lynn, who has kicked around with four teams since leaving the Cardinals after the 2017 season, has the lowest ERA in the AL. But Gerrit Cole and Robbie Ray can make a run.
That Ohtani deserves some votes speaks to how incredible he has been.
In the NL, Jacob deGrom hasn’t pitched since July 7 and seems unlikely to return. That gives Walker Buehler, Zack Wheeler, and Corbin Burnes an opening.
Rookie of the Year: Ryan Mountcastle (Baltimore) and Randy Arozarena (Tampa Bay) are the leading candidates in the AL, although Adolis García has 27 homers for Texas. Luis Garcia strengthened Houston’s rotation.
Pitchers Vladimir Gutierrez (Reds) and Trevor Rogers (Marlins) are legitimate candidates in the NL. But Reds second baseman Jonathan India has 2.7 WAR for a playoff contender.
Manager of the Year: Baker was NL Manager of the Year in 1993, 1997, and 2000. He deserves AL Manager of the Year after holding the Astros together.
La Russa is a good choice and Aaron Boone deserves votes for maintaining the same personality through the ups and downs of the Yankees.
Gabe Kapler would seem like an easy choice in the NL. But Craig Counsell’s body of work in Milwaukee has been impressive.
INTO THE FIRE
Sale will be tested by Rays
Now it’s going to get real for Chris Sale.
The lefthander is 3-0 with a 2.35 earned run average, a 1.04 WHIP, and 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings in three starts since returning to the Red Sox. It’s hard to imagine a better launch after a two-year absence.
But Sale faced the Orioles, Rangers, and Twins in those games, started each time on at least one extra day of rest, and his teammates scored 24 runs while he was on the mound.
Now Sale is scheduled to face the Rays on Tuesday at Tropicana Field on four days of rest.
Tampa Bay is the best team in the American League and is 5-1 at home against the Sox this season, averaging 5.5 runs.
Sale has topped out at 5⅓ innings so far. The Sox will need more than that against the Rays.
Maybe they’ll get it. Sale said his mechanics were the best he’s had this season when he beat the Twins on Thursday. His slider was sharp, and he hit 98 miles per hour with his fastball.
“You want to keep making steps forward,” he said. “The biggest thing I’ve got going for me right now is offense.”
Sale acknowledged that the run support has allowed him to “work on stuff” while he’s been on the mound and that he can’t rely on that luxury every time.
Alex Cora said the Sox feel Sale has more to give.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “You can compare this to ‘18 with the way he’s going … he’s still going to get better.”
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Cora said several times during spring training that Kiké Hernández would play several different positions, but the plan was to have him at second base late in the game if the Sox had a lead.
That made sense at the time. But statistics show Hernández has been a below-average defender at second base so far.
Meanwhile, Hernández has been one of the best defenders in center field, with 11 defensive runs saved. Only Michael A. Taylor of the Royals (15) and Harrison Bader of the Cardinals (12) have more.
The best defensive lineup for the Sox would have Hernández in center with Christian Arroyo at second. Arroyo has four DRS in what has been limited time at second base given all his injuries.
The Sox are an unbalanced team defensively. They are plus-15 DRS in the outfield and minus-29 on the infield, counting pitchers and catchers.
Sox pitchers are a dreadful minus-11, which explains why they’ve had a few more pregame defensive drills in recent weeks. That has to be cleaned up.
▪ Sale had an immaculate inning — nine pitches, three strikeouts — against the Twins on Thursday.
It’s hard to know for sure how many there have been over the years because pitches weren’t always counted until the 1970s. But Sale has three with the Sox and is the first Sox pitcher to have one at Fenway Park since Pedro Martinez on May 18, 2002, against Seattle.
▪ Mike Scioscia, who managed the United States to a silver medal in the Olympics, sure loves Triston Casas.
“He’s advanced beyond his age as far as a hitter. He understands what pitchers are trying to do to him,” Scioscia told Baseball America.
“He’s made some adjustments to his swing just from the qualifiers to now that were tremendous. And I think his ability to hit right and lefthanded pitching is a skill set that you don’t see in a lot of young hitters. Especially lefthanded hitters. I think he’s a student of the game. He’s got tremendous power to all fields and he’s going to play in the big leagues for a long time.”
▪ In case you missed it, Sean McDonough donated $10,000 to The Jimmy Fund in honor of Jerry Remy during the game on Tuesday.
“He is constantly in our thoughts and prayers these days,” McDonough said, his voice quavering a bit during a break in the game when he made the announcement.
Cora and Sox players have been wearing “Jerry Remy Fight Club” T-shirts over the last week.
▪ The Sox say they have committed to keeping Tanner Houck in the rotation for the rest of the season, and they should be. Houck has a 3.82 ERA over eight starts and is averaging 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
But he has pitched only 35⅓ innings in those games and completed five innings twice. Walks (seven as a starter) are not an issue, but foul balls are.
Houck has thrown 616 pitches as a starter and 116 have been fouled off.
“He has quality stuff. But like a lot of young guys, he’s not efficient,” a rival scout said. “A lot of these guys basically missed last year and they’re still learning how to pitch.”
Houck made three starts last season. But counting the minors and the Arizona Fall League, he has pitched only 208⅓ innings since the start of the 2019 season.
At 25, he’s still more prospect than polished.
Correction 26 years in the making
As an homage to Nick Cafardo, there’s space reserved at the end of this column every week to note the birthday of a Red Sox player past or present.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Wikipedia, and other sources, Steve Lomasney was turning 44 this week. The Peabody native was a fifth-round pick of the Sox out of high school in 1995 and made it to the majors for the final game of the 1999 season at Baltimore.
Lomasney came off the bench to replace Jason Varitek in the fifth inning and caught the rest of the game, which the Sox won, 1-0, in 10 innings.
To get some more detail on that game, a call was placed to Lomasney.
It turns out his birthday was Aug. 9, not 29.
“It was wrong on my first baseball card and never got fixed,” Lomasney explained. “I get letters or cards from fans every year around the 29th wishing me a happy birthday, which is very nice. But that’s not my birthday.”
Lomasney still had a good story to tell. He caught six no-hit innings in that game, ably handling Derek Lowe, Tom Gordon, Rod Beck, Brian Rose, and Tim Wakefield.
“I had caught those guys in spring training, so it was familiar for me,” he said. “It was a good game. I struck out twice, though.”
It proved to be his last game in the majors. Lomasney was the team’s top prospect in 2000, but his career was derailed in 2001 when he was hit in the right eye by a ball during batting practice with Triple A Pawtucket.
“I was the quintessential Crash Davis. I played a lot in Triple A,” Lomasney said. “I was never the same as a hitter after the ball hit me.”
Lomasney retired after the 2006 season and now runs an amateur program, Show New England, that includes two indoor facilities and a travel team. He has helped more than 100 players land with college teams and 11 who were drafted.
Dave Dombrowski did little to change the Red Sox front office in his time in Boston. Not so with the Phillies. He demoted minor league director Josh Bonifay and assistant GMs Bryan Minnitti and Scott Proefrock this past week. Minnitti and Bonifay ran what has become a weak farm system that was too reliant on analytics in Dombrowski’s estimation … If Mets manager Luis Rojas is fired after the season, Wednesday may have been the tipping point. Taijuan Walker had a 2-1 lead on the Giants through six innings and had allowed one hit. When Kris Bryant reached on an error and Alex Dickerson singled to start the seventh, Rojas called in lefthander Aaron Loup. His first pitch was a center-cut fastball that Brandon Crawford lined to the warning track in right field for a two-run double. The crowd chanted, “Fire Rojas,” at Citi Field as the Mets were on their way to a 3-2 loss … The extra-inning rule met its match when the Dodgers beat the Padres, 5-3, in 16 innings Wednesday night. No game had gone longer than 13 innings since a “ghost runner” was put on second to start extra innings in 2020. The game took 5 hours and 49 minutes and included 35 runners left on base … Aaron Nola of the Phillies struck out his brother Austin of the Padres last Saturday. Aaron fanned Austin with a 96.2-m.p.h. fastball, the third-hardest of his career, and threw the ball in the dugout to keep. “I might frame it and put it in his room or give it to him for Christmas,” Aaron said … The Orioles averaged 2.9 runs during their 19-game losing streak and scored more than four runs only three times. The Orioles then scored 23 runs in their next two games … The World Series could end as late as Nov. 3 this season if it goes to seven games. The Series hasn’t ended that late since 2009, when the Yankees and Phillies played Game 6 on Nov. 4. It was 42 degrees in Boston on Nov. 3 last year … The Yankees won five of six games from the Twins this season. That’s nothing new. The Twins haven’t won a season series against the Yankees since 2001, when David Ortiz was their designated hitter. The Yankees are 107-41 against the Twins since 2002, which includes winning 10 of 11 playoff games. The Yankees have averaged 6.7 runs in those 118 games, the Twins only 4.8 … Happy birthday to Robby Scott, who is 32. The lefty reliever pitched for the Sox from 2016-18, appearing in 73 games. He came out of an independent league and was signed in 2011. Scott returned to the independent ranks in 2020 and this season has pitched for Gastonia of the Atlantic League and Monterrey of the Mexican League.