- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The one decent playoff chase in baseball this autumn is playing out past your bedtime, through next-day highlights and online recaps.

This race is the best thing going in the game right now - and it’s the best-kept secret because it’s so many time zones removed from the public consciousness.

Yes, the NL West is the only division keeping a flicker of high September drama alive in this languid, predictable march to the 2009 postseason.

Entering Monday, the Los Angeles Dodgers led the Colorado Rockies by three games, and the San Francisco Giants were 4 1/2 back of the Rockies, who lead the wild-card race. The potentially definitive three-game series between the Rockies and Giants started Monday night.

It’s typical theater in the NL West, which has shown before it’s capable of cooking up some great fall races. Four of the past five years, the division has been decided by two games or fewer, and in 2007, the Rockies beat the San Diego Padres in that epic one-game playoff for the wild card after both finished a game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The configuration of the division fosters close finishes. The West features one big-market bully, albeit one that values homegrown talent and player development (the Dodgers), and four teams with smaller payrolls. The effect on the standings each year is like throwing a deck of cards on the floor, scrambling them up and reordering them at random.

But the division is also filled with sharp talent evaluators - all five general managers have built a playoff team in the past six seasons - and scrappy teams that win with pitching and hustle.

The Rockies, after that remarkable World Series run two years ago, are positioning themselves for a similar run this October. The club is 10-3 in September and 64-34 since replacing manager Clint Hurdle with former Dodgers skipper Jim Tracy. The Rockies lead the NL in runs, rank second in homers and have a pitching staff full of veterans hitting the last years of their prime.

The Rockies and Giants are positioned to be around next season, as well; San Francisco might have the game’s best trio of young pitchers in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, and Pablo Sandoval looks like a star at third base.

The best race is not, it should be noted, in the AL East, where the predicted three-team showdown among the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays never happened. Instead, the Yankees have tucked away the division and the Rays have lost 11 straight, leaving the Red Sox to swat away the Texas Rangers for the wild card.

There’s a reason the AL East won’t be conducive to great September baseball every year.

The Yankees and Red Sox, with their payrolls full of veterans, are much less susceptible to fluctuations in performance than the Rays, who got uneven results from their young pitchers just as some of their position players (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria) are enjoying the best seasons of their careers.

In another year, the Rays must start making tough decisions on arbitration-eligible players, whose price tags will start to rise, and they could be back to regrouping for another approach with their next crop of young players. That’s not a way to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees on a year-to-year basis.

No, the tightest September races typically take place out West. And from the way the division is constructed, that will continue to be the case.

Too bad half the country never sees it.

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