The Astros -- before all the injuries to their pitching and before the injury to Carlos Correa, before Hurricane Harvey and Justin Verlander -- were the champions of the early innings of the baseball season, pretty much hands down. They were the ones who were going to run away with everything, with their mix of young talent and veterans, with Correa and Jose Altuve and George Springer hitting all those leadoff home runs.
Then came the injuries to their ace, Dallas Keuchel. Then other starting pitchers went down. And Lance McCullers stopped getting everybody out before he ended up on the disabled list a couple of times himself. And Correa got hurt. The Astros were never going to lose their big lead in the American League West. They just didn't look like world beaters anymore. Or look like they'd make the World Series.
But the Dodgers sure did.
They looked the part even after their ace, Clayton Kershaw, went down with an injury. Cody Bellinger became one of the home run kids everybody was talking about. Their other pitchers stepped up in Kershaw's absence. Even Rich Hill nearly pitched a perfect game. The Dodgers were a runaway train, not just running away from their division, but making a run toward history. They weren't just going to win 100 games, they were going to win 110. Or more.
So the Dodgers became the champs of the big fat middle of the season, at home and on the road, honestly looking like the best regular-season team since Lou Piniella's Mariners won 116 games 16 years ago. They had dusted the D-backs and dusted the Rockies, even when both those teams still looked to be sure things as the two National League Wild Card teams. On top of all that, the Dodgers went out and got all sorts of reinforcements, starting when they got Yu Darvish at the Trade Deadline.
Only now -- even though the Dodgers were 92-45 going into Tuesday's games -- has L.A. come back a little bit, as big as its lead still is in the NL West. Got swept by the D-backs, in the process of losing nine out of 10 games.
And while the Dodgers were losing nine out of 10, the Indians were in the process of winning 12 in a row, and becoming the champions of the end of August and the beginning of September. They finally looked like the team we thought they would be and expected them to be at the start of the season; finally looked like a team that could come back from a World Series heartbreak the way the Royals once did -- a 10th-inning heartbreak in Game 7 for the Indians, bottom-of-the-ninth heartbreak for the Royals -- and finally win it all.
Now we wait for the only champ that matters. That means the champion of October, always a season unto itself in baseball.
Maybe it can still be the Astros. Or the Dodgers. Or the Indians. Maybe it will be somebody else. This is all about the beauty, and even the majesty, of the long season in Major League Baseball, and why it is still the best regular-season narrative we have in sports. There are novels in the other sports. Not like this.
It was Buck Showalter who told me a month ago, as the Orioles were just starting to play their way back into things, that September is still a lifetime in baseball, for both the teams being chased and the ones chasing them.
You know it wasn't like this in the NBA last season. The Warriors won the regular season again, and even when the Spurs were still hanging with them, there was never any doubt that Golden State would pull away in the end. Then the playoffs in pro basketball were even more of a runaway than the rest of it had been, with the Warriors only losing a single game on their way to winning it all.
There was regular-season drama in the NFL, of course, at least in the NFC, when it looked like the Cowboys might finally make it back to the big game. Then the Falcons came on and the Packers got hot and knocked off the Cowboys. It turned out that the very best drama in pro football last season was saved for the very end, the second half of the Super Bowl, when the Patriots finally came all the way back from 28-3 down and made it to the first overtime game in Super Bowl history so that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could win their fifth title together.
Still, there is no regular season as rich and complicated and surprising as the one in baseball, and that is before we even talk about the craziness of the Wild Card races, where it seems everybody except the Rockford Peaches of "A League Of Their Own" still have a chance to play themselves into a one-game season.
There are double-digit leads in four divisions -- AL Central, AL West, NL East, NL West -- and that ought to mean that we should all be killing time in September. Except that the Indians still have a chance to beat out the Astros for best record in the AL, and this year home-field advantage in the World Series goes to the pennant winner with the best regular-season record. So even with their double-digit leads, there's that. And we're still looking at a Red Sox-Yankees September. We are wondering what kind of difference Verlander can make in Houston, and whether or not a wounded city can rally around its baseball team. We are wondering if Mike Trout can still make it back to October. As we keep a good eye on Giancarlo Stanton making a run at 60 home runs.
But the most fun, at least so far, has been tracking the teams at the top of the power rankings. Astros first. Then Dodgers. Now the Indians. They got hot last year and won 14 in a row at one point (setting a franchise record). They got hot this year. When they asked Terry Francona -- who has seen just about everything in baseball, who won two World Series in Boston and finally lost one with the Indians -- here is what he said the other night:
"We'll just show up tomorrow and try to win again. What happened 10 or 12 days ago doesn't matter. We'll show up tomorrow and see if we can beat the White Sox. That's the best way to go about it."
Tito isn't making any lasting judgments. He knows how fast everything can change. Francona knows how long the season is, because the stress and the grind of it put him in the hospital in the middle of this one. Everybody yelled in Houston when the team didn't make a big deal of its own at the Trade Deadline. Now the Astros have Verlander. Nobody could beat the Dodgers, and then suddenly they couldn't get a game. The Cubbies slogged around for so much of the summer, and now here they come, too.
It is like this every year. By Labor Day, we think we've seen just about everything there is to see. Truth is, we're just getting started. In so many ways, ain't seen nothin' yet.