We're getting close now: Just one more month until the end of the 2013 regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, and as befits the ever-waning schedule, we have a pretty good idea who is going to be making appearances in that postseason in both the American and National Leagues. There's still time for surprises -- judging by the last few years, contenders' seasons aren't actually over until the last out of game 162 (or 163, if necessary) -- but that time is very quickly running out, and the clear favorites have done nothing in August except extend their leads and tighten their grips on their presumptive postseason berths.
In the National League West, that means that the Los Angeles Dodgers have been just as white-hot astonishing as they were last month, and in a bit of June before that. They've followed up a 19-6 July with a 21-5 August to date, making them 47-12 since their abrupt turnaround on June 22. They've faltered a bit recently, for certain very generous definitions of faltering: They lost their first series since June when the Boston Red Sox came to town from Aug. 23-25 and took the last two of a three-game series from them. It was only the second time that Los Angeles had lost back-to-back games since its streak of success started, and the one previous instance happened only a few days earlier from Aug. 18-19, the last game of a series the Dodgers won against the Philadelphia Phillies followed by the first game of a series they took from the Miami Marlins.
The sports media appears convinced that the story of the Dodgers revolves around Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers' rookie right-fielder and predictable flashpoint for their grumbling about players that don't respect the game or play the right way or whatever nonsense this is (to date, Puig is the only player I've seen get a scathing, doomsaying column written about his immaturity specifically for the crime of hitting a pinch-hit home run). Puig has had a very good month -- a .917 OPS in 104 PA going into Tuesday's games -- but the clear story on the Dodgers right now is ace Clayton Kershaw. It's perhaps understandable why the coverage of Kershaw has been muted compared to that not only of his teammates but of other great pitchers around the league: Max Scherzer, for example, is getting a lot more ink recently as he tries to win his first Cy Young Award. Albert Pujols had this problem too back when he was the player Miguel Cabrera is now, instead of the injured shell of his former self. He was so good that best-in-the-league excellence from him came to be expected and would pass without comment.
Barring injury or collapse -- and Clayton Kershaw hasn't had a month with an ERA more than 4.00 since March 2009 -- the Dodgers' lefty will lead the National League in ERA among qualified starters for the third consecutive year, finishing with between 230 and 240 innings pitched and, for those that care about pitcher wins, probably 15 or 16 of those. Kershaw's ERA on the season is 1.72 as August comes to a close, and he is at the head of the staff on a team that has put together one of the all-time great sustained hot streaks. As good as Matt Harvey, Adam Wainwright and assorted others have been, Kershaw's 2013 is approaching 2002-2003 Pedro Martinez in terms of raw ERA. Kershaw isn't quite on the level of Martinez and Greg Maddux at their absolute peaks -- those guys were putting up ERAs in the mid-1 range during the heart of the steroid era -- but he's quite possibly the best pitcher the league has seen since. Kershaw already has the Cy Young locked down, and considering the relatively weak state of the NL MVP race and the recent precedent set by the writers in the 2011 season with Justin Verlander, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Kershaw take the MVP as well.
The National League Central remains a mess. Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals have been able to gain a substantial upper hand over the other during the month of August, let alone put away last season's division-winning Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates, for their part, have not collapsed. Going into Tuesday's games they sat six wins away from a winning season, but their fans should have their eyes set much higher than a mere winning record. The Pirates' great months were May and June -- they're a slightly better than .500 since then -- but they continue to get it done with great pitching from Francisco Liriano and a rotation that continues to be one of the league's elite staff in terms of results, if not necessarily name-brand reputation. The Cardinals have had a better August than Pittsburgh -- 15-10 going into Tuesday, which is .600 baseball -- but they've been unable to put the Pirates away. Luckily for them, if they can just hold on through the next few weeks they'll win the division, and the Cardinals have something on their roster no other team can lay claim to: Carlos Beltran, the best postseason hitter in baseball history.
The Reds, Cardinals and Pirates all have one series remaining against the other two teams in September, which should ratchet up the drama. The Reds will need to win their series against the Cardinals and Pirates convincingly if they wish to climb back into the driver's seat of the NL Central, and at only 3.5 games back that's certainly not out of the question. The Reds have done very well considering they've spent most of the season without the services of starter Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos has been his usual very effective self and both Mike Leake and rookie Tony Cingrani have stepped up in a big way this year. With a few more innings Cingrani might have gotten himself into the conversation for NL Rookie of the Year (or runner up, at least), but his trip to the 15-day DL for lower back issues on Aug. 24 ended those chances, and even without Yasiel Puig lighting the NL West on fire, Jose Fernandez of the Marlins, Shelby Miller of the Cardinals and Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers probably all have better cases from a production standpoint. Still, with their pitching and the bats of Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto -- one of the more unheralded non-Kershaw candidates for the NL MVP -- the Reds are still a force to be reckoned with as the season enters its final month.
Then there's the National League East, which hasn't even been a contest for months now. The Braves sit 13 games up on Washington Nationals, whose season can't even really be called a collapse at this point, because they never really established any kind of lead or momentum. The Braves have never had a respectable challenge put to them all season in what was thought would be one of the closest races in baseball. So it goes. Considering that the Braves have already wrapped up the division, the big hurdle in August and September was going to be staying sharp while staying healthy. That's not exactly going according to plan.
First, Brandon Beachy's return to Atlanta was marred by early ineffectiveness and then more injury woes, but at the very least he should be able to return sometime in September, perhaps in a bullpen role. The big blow, of course, was the loss of Jason Heyward for the rest of the regular season after an errant Jonathon Niese pitch broke his jaw. Heyward will be out 4-6 weeks and had to undergo surgery to repair his jaw, but the (very slight) good news is that his jaw wasn't wired shut, meaning that he won't be on a strict liquid diet and will be able to maintain muscle mass during his rehab and healing process, and there's an outside chance -- a pretty remote outside chance, but an outside chance -- that he'll be able to both return and be effective for the Braves in the playoffs. Still, with their playoff berth secure, the only thing that can hurt the Braves' chances right now are injuries to their contributors, and Heyward, who had battled injuries earlier in the year as well, had put up a .960 OPS in the second half before his most recent trip to the DL. That said, the Braves are still in good position to take the first overall seed and home field throughout the playoffs, so it's not time to panic just yet.
The wild-card race in the NL is mostly all about the second spot at this point. It's almost guaranteed that the first wild-card team will be the second-place team in the NL Central, and the only question now is whether the second wild-card team will be the third-place team in the Central or the Arizona Diamondbacks. With Arizona six games out going into the last month of the season and all three contending Central teams being flat-out better than the Diamondbacks, it's hard to see them mounting a comeback, but crazier things have happened.
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On Friday, we'll look at the comparatively wide-open playoff races in the American League, including the three- or four-team wild-card race and AL West and AL East races that are both very much in play.