Players who must perform down stretch
From Justin Verlander to Mark Buehrle to Bronson Arroyo, several players need to step up in the month of September.
The stretch run is here. With just over a month left in the season, this is the time for those who have slumped to get going and for those who have been hot to stay hot. This is the time when reputations are made and when MVPs are won. This is simply the best time of the year.
Here's a look at the one player from each contender -- by our definition, teams less than six games out of the division or wild-card lead -- who needs to be at his best in the final month.
New York Mets
Pedro Martinez/Tom Glavine. The Mets are a good team in a bad league.
They are the clear favorites to go to the World Series from the National League, but only if Martinez and Glavine get healthy and remain the clear Nos. 1 and 2 starters on the team. It's unclear who their third starter would be, but everything is unclear without Martinez and Glavine.
The closer. With Tom Gordon on the DL for perhaps the rest of the season, Ryan Madson, Arthur Rhodes and Geoff Geary recorded saves in the last week. Going with a bullpen by committee down the stretch is not recommended, but the Phillies may have no choice.
Jeffrey Loria. The Marlins owner needs to clarify manager Joe Girardi's status with the club. It is ridiculous that perhaps the NL Manager of the Year is in limbo about next year: Either fire him or say he'll definitely be back. The uncertainty hasn't bothered the surging Marlins, but stability for a young team in the last month could be crucial.
Jones must stay healthy and productive down the stretch for the Braves to stay in the race for a playoff spot.
St. Louis Cardinals
Jim Edmonds. It is hard enough to hit a baseball going 95 mph, but it's virtually impossible when your head is jumbled. Edmonds is trying overcome the effects of post-concussion syndrome. The Cards need more protection for Albert Pujols, which Edmonds can help provide, but only if he is thinking clearly and seeing the ball just as clearly.
Bronson Arroyo. He went 9-3 with a 2.47 ERA in his first 15 starts, but he has gone 1-5 with an ERA near 5.00 in his last 13. The Reds are starting to stumble. They're not going to make the postseason without the best possible pitching they can get from their best pitcher, Arroyo.
Brad Lidge. One day he's the closer, the next day he's not. One day he strikes out the side on 10 pitches, the next day he gives up a game-winning homer in the ninth inning. It has been a strange ride for Lidge, but if it doesn't get smoother, the Astros won't make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Grady Little. Managing this team isn't easy, with all its moving parts and all its talented, but sometimes brittle, players. Finding the right lineup every day and keeping everyone happy every day is not easy. But so far, Little has done both extremely well.
San Diego Padres
Jake Peavy. How can anyone with his stuff, and with 174 strikeouts in 161 2/3 innings, have a 7-13 record? He's too good for that. But a great final month from Peavy could help the Padres earn a playoff spot.
San Francisco Giants
Barry Bonds. He has been very good for the last three weeks, but we're still waiting for that power explosion that carries the club for a month. Maybe it's not coming. Maybe those who say that Bonds' bat has slowed, that he can't catch up to the fastball anymore, are right. But with him, it's never over until it's over.
Luis Gonzalez. Some nights, the D-Backs play a rookie in center field (Chris Young), in right field (Carlos Quentin) and at shortstop (Stephen Drew), and a virtual rookie at first base (Conor Jackson). Usually, it's a veteran who gets it done in September. For Arizona, it'll have to be Gonzalez.
New York Yankees
Alex Rodriguez. His horrendous play -- he is mired in a 7-for-39 slump with 16 strikeouts -- is what makes baseball so great. The best player in the American League over the last 10 years is playing as if he has forgotten how to play.
This never happens in football or basketball. No great NBA shooting guard wonders if he's ever going to hit another shot. Michael Jordan, even on the worst day of his prime, was always the best player on the court.
But just as quickly as a player can lose it in baseball, he can find it, also without explanation. Rodriguez needs to find it now if the Yankees are going back to the World Series.
Justin Verlander. This is a lot to ask of a 23-year-old who before this year had pitched 118 2/3 innings in his one year in pro ball. He has helped carry the Tigers' staff this year, but perhaps the innings toll (158) is starting to show. He has been hit hard in three of his last four starts.
Does Verlander have enough to help the Tigers get to, and through, October?
Chicago White Sox
Mark Buehrle. He is 2-6 with an ERA over 7.00 in his last 11 starts, but he was very good his last time out. With Jim Thome's hamstring injury, the White Sox likely aren't going to outslug everyone down the stretch.
They're going to have to pitch better, and that starts with Buehrle, who was the ace of the staff until the last three months.
Francisco Liriano. He was the AL's best pitcher for about two months but hasn't pitched since Aug. 7 because of an arm injury. He recently threw firmly from 75 feet on flat ground and reported no problems, and he has thrown off a mound. His next step is a full bullpen session on Saturday.
The Twins hope to get him back in mid-September, even if it's as a reliever. With his talent, however, there's no way they will rush him and risk further injury.
Milton Bradley. He has been the key to the recent resurgence of the Oakland offense. The A's can really pitch, and they can really catch the ball, but to win a first-round playoff series, they're going to have to score more runs.
If Bradley can continue to produce as he has for the last month, and not implode, the A's will have a chance in October.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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