The Washington Times - September 9, 2008, 01:24AM

By SEAN RAPOSA
September 9, 2008

The last two weeks I examined fun topics, reaching outside of the box to bridge My Five through the dog days of summer. This is my 16th column for National Pastime and I must say my appreciation for the grind of the baseball season we always hear about has grown exponentially. I’ve poured my share of blood, sweat and tears into this season and now that the stretch run is finally upon us, it’s time to dive back into the on-field action and get down to it. This week’s action is heavy with playoff implications and, much like that moment when the arena lights go dark, the crowd grows silent and the music blares through the loudspeakers, the anticipation and excitement are tangible. What follows is My Five answers to the most pressing questions as we barrel towards October.

No. 5: Who wins the A.L. East?

The excitement began yesterday as the Boston Red Sox beat the Rays 3-0 behind Jon Lester to kick off a string of six meetings between the teams over the next 10 days. The Tampa Bay Rays‘ lead has been cut to a half a game and the Sox will trot Daisuke Matsuzaka and his 16-2 record to the hill tonight and the resurgent Josh Beckett tomorrow. All year I have said that Beckett is the key to the Sox’ chances, and last week he made a victorious return to the mound at Texas after a brief stint on the disabled list. Optimism was scarce in Boston when the Sox brass sent the right-handed ace to see the dreaded Dr. James Andrews, but the clean bill of health he received after inspection of his pitching elbow may turn out to be yet another stroke of brilliance by general manager Theo Epstein. Beckett looked confident and determined last time out, throwing five shutout innings with seven strikeouts, and his well documented big-game experience will be much needed down the stretch.

The Rays will counter with Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine tonight and tomorrow, which, by this year’s numbers, is a formidable match. However, these games represent a journey into previously uncharted waters for the feisty youngsters and their Rays teammates, and playing in the hostile confines of Fenway Park followed by a trip into Yankee Stadium will have them looking up at the No. 1 spot by week’s end. The beauty of the situation for the Rays is that they will still finish the year as the A.L. Wild Card winners regardless, and these late-season games under tough conditions should provide some trial by fire in preparation for October.

No. 4: Can the Twins catch the White Sox?

Unlike the A.L. West, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have enjoyed the pleasure of counting magic numbers for weeks, and the A.L. East, which seems destined to provide two playoff teams, the A.L. Central looks like a winner-takes-all affair. The Minnesota Twins - fresh off a brutal 14-game road trip in which they went 5-9 - just dropped two of three to the Detroit Tigers, and after a quick three-game series against the Kansas City Royals they’re back on the bus for another 10-game trip. Needless to say, it’s going to be a tough uphill climb.

However, the Chicago White Sox went 7-8 over that same span and were only able to extend their lead to two and a half games. After hosting two potentially tough teams in the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tigers, the ChiSox will hit the road for 10 in a row themselves, culminating with three in Minnesota that could be the deciding series if the Twinkies can hang around. Despite the long odds, I see the gritty Gardenhires persevering to pass the aging big-namers of the South Side on the final weekend.  

No. 3: Who takes the N.L. coastal crowns?

For a while it seemed as though the answer to this question was irrelevant, as the Chicago Cubs were “destined” to erase their 100-year drought and take home the World Series Trophy a la the ‘04 Red Sox. That perception is long gone, and the N.L. is wide open yet again. This paragraph will mark my official renouncement of the Philadelphia Phillies as my World Series favorites - which was a ridiculous shot in the dark to begin with - and at this point I see the New York Mets holding on to win the East. The aura surrounding the Phils has deteriorated considerably since Jimmy Rollins‘ “front-runner” comments about Philly fans burst onto the front pages in the City of Brotherly Love. The team responded early, going 9-2 after the public defacing, but has since lost its steam. They have gone 5-5 over their last 10, including two losses to the lowly Washington Nationals. Both teams have equally favorable schedules remaining, but while the Mets have gotten lifts from unlikely sources like Carlos Delgado and Mike Pelfrey, the Phils just continue to stockpile scapegoats.

The eventual winner of the NL West seems equally apparent. All year I have been reluctant to count out the Arizona Diamondbacks because of the strength of their staring pitching and the decrepit status of their division. The recent demise of ace and previous Cy Young front-runner Brandon Webb is of great concern and has swung my vote. Over his last three starts Webb is 0-3 with a 12.51 ERA. Ouch! That line reeks of injury to me and despite the 10-game roady the Los Angeles Dodgers started on Monday and their penchant for streaking like Frank the Tank - five-game and eight-game losing streaks and an eight-game winning streak since August 11 alone - they get my nod. Closing the season with six versus the San Francisco Giants and three versus the San Diego Padres helps, too.

No. 2: Did the Cubs peak too early?

This has become a very popular topic following the rash of injuries and recent swoon to hit the National League leaders. They are 1-5 so far in September, including a sweep (and two shutouts) at the hands of the Houston Astros at Wrigley. Ace Carlos Zambrano has one win since August 3 and mid-season acquisition Rich Harden has required extra rest lately. As one of my favorite movie quotes - courtesy of Jack Nicholson’s joker - goes, “Ever dance with the devil at the pale of moonlight?” Batman of course responded with some nasty kung fu, but the Cubs took on a certain reliance on luck when they brought in Harden and his checkered health history, which seemed like a ticking time bomb for such a cursed franchise. The truth is that you can’t win without pitching, and the third wheel of Chicago’s potential postseason rotation, Ryan Dempster, has been worked like crazy. He has been absolutely spectacular this year but he is on pace for 209 regular season innings. The former closer had not previously logged more than 100 innings pitched since the 2003 season. Combine these facts with the “What can happen next?” mantra sure to be floating amist the ivy, and you have yet another disappointing season for the North Siders.

No. 1: Who wins it all, really?

As I stated above, my reach to make a splash by picking the Phillies in the My Five Contenders article from last month was a big mistake. Of course, even my impeccable foresight could not predict the sheer stupidity that spouted from Rollins’ mouth, essentially dooming any chance of success. However, I’ve discovered one of the greatest things about being your own boss; I can change my mind as I please. So, in that light I’m going to use a mulligan and resort back to my original pick, the Angels. This team simply has it all, and my assessment of the Mark Teixeira acquisition in my Rounders column has proven to be dead-on. Big Tex has been mashing as an Angel and his presence between Vlad Guerrerro and Torii Hunter in the order will be huge when those close-and-late situations assuredly arise come playoff time. Most importantly, if things stay true to form and the Halos secure home field advantage and the rival Red Sox come to town to battle yet again for A.L. supremacy, the Angels can feel confident in the knowledge that earlier this year, they busted out the brooms on the Beantown bombers at home. 

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Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at sraposa33@gmail.com.

Photos by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting rotations, The power alleys, MLB’s best bullpens, The table setters, Young guns, Burgeoning bats, Favorite first-half storylines, X-Factors, Financial blunders, Superbad Awards, Rounders, Contenders, Spoilers, What if?, Ways to make MLB better.