With August upon us, baseball's pennant races take on a greater urgency. Let's look at the races in each league and how they're shaping up.
Two races are close to being over. In the NL West, the San Francisco Giants have a 12-game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Giants are basically guaranteed a playoff spot. If they were to lose their divisional lead, they would still have a good chance at the wild card.
While these divisional races appear to lack drama, teams from these two divisions will play prominent roles in the wild-card race.
The NL wild-card race is wide open, but I give a slight edge to Florida. I believe the Marlins have the best overall personnel. While that doesn't mean they'll win, they do have an edge in talent.
Everything has seemed to change for the organization since Jack McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg as manager on May 11.
Montreal has played well and hung in there, but their 22-game road trip really took something out of them. Slugger Vladimir Guerrero was on the disabled list for so long.
But don't count the Expos out, because they're capable of winning seven or eight in a row.
Meanwhile, there is a race in the NL Central, a three-team race led by the Houston Astros, with the St. Louis Cardinals two back and the Chicago Cubs two-and-a-half back. St. Louis is five back in the wild-card race and Chicago five-and-a-half back.
There are more races in the American League. In the AL West, the Oakland Athletics are only four games behind the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners don't look like the same team they were two months ago. The A's still have offensive deficiencies that they haven't been able to address, but if Miguel Tejada stays hot, he can lead the A's again as he did last year.
His recent play is an indication of how much he meant to the A's last year and how much he deserved last year's MVP award. Tejada is clearly the A's catalyst. This year, he got off to a slow start, and you could see the A's struggling, trying to manufacture runs. Even though Tejada hasn't had a good year, he still leads Oakland in RBI, which shows you his importance to the club.
If Tejada gets hot like he did last year, Oakland can catch Seattle. Still, the A's offense lacks a lot. And you can't expect your pitchers to shut teams out every day. The starters are certainly good, although they haven't been as dominant as they were last year.
Barry Zito has a losing record (8-9, 3.30 ERA). Rookie Rich Harden is now in the mix, which is great for the A's, but he's only made four starts so we'll have to wait and see if he's capable of sustaining his success (3-0, 1.33). Mark Mulder has been consistent (15-7, 2.92) and Tim Hudson (9-4, 2.60) has pitched well. But down the stretch, you can't rely on pitching alone. But if Tejada gets hot, watch out.
Seattle has a good nucleus and the best offensive balance. Seattle's offensive consistency could be the difference. The Mariners have lots of good hitters and they score runs, but their pitching staff obviously is not as strong as Oakland's (but neither is anyone else's). However, I think Seattle's bullpen is better than Oakland's. At this point, Seattle also is much better defensively.
In the AL East, the race between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox is a toss-up -- except that the Red Sox don't have the history of winning that the Yankees do. The Yankees still have the nucleus of manager Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and others who won four World Series in five years.
Boston trails by three-and-a-half games and is still looking for a mental edge. They haven't won anything recently.
The Red Sox continue to finish second, and until you can get over that hump and prove you can beat the Yankees, that psychological baggage will always be there. But the Yankees are confident they can beat Boston.
Boston has played well. Their offense has been awesome. They lead the majors in average (.292) and in runs scored (683). And they added starter Jeff Suppan from Pittsburgh.
Boston's pitching key is starter Derek Lowe, who last year won lots of tough games down the stretch. He's going to have to do it again. Meanwhile, you always feel that Pedro will win every time he goes out there.
Boston is prepared to play well down the stretch. But it will again depend on how well the Yankees play. The Yankees have also prepared themselves for the stretch run, acquiring Aaron Boone, who can hit for power and steal bases. Both teams shored up their weaknesses. Now it's a matter of who finishes best.
In the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox are two games behind the surprising Kansas City Royals. While the Minnesota Twins are only four back and in the mix, I think it will come down to a two-team race in the AL Central.
The White Sox are in a good position because of their veteran players and the great trades that GM Ken Williams made for Carl Everett, Roberto Alomar and Scott Schoeneweis. All are veterans who've produced in winning situations (with the exception of Everett). But Schoeneweis and Alomar have played in the World Series, which is a big edge (Schoeneweis won the Series last year with the Angels).
The Royals have been led by rookie manager Tony Pena, who deserves lots of credit for their success. They're getting Mike Sweeney back off the disabled list, which is a big plus. There's a lot to be said for the exuberance of youth, and they have that. I like KC, but looking at these two teams, the veterans usually have the edge down the stretch. Although in KC's case, with Pena as the leader, I'm not sure.
Kansas City is the only team that resembles last year's Angels. Perhaps the Royals can ride a similar momentum. I believe they can win in the postseason, but they have to get past Chicago first in the AL Central. It will be a great race. KC's schedule supposedly is easier. Stay tuned.
The White Sox-Royals race will be just as good a race as the Yankees-Red Sox race, but the two big-market teams will get most of the attention. And it is New York and Boston, after all.
Boston leads the AL wild-card race over Oakland by only one-half game, but I believe the wild card will come from the East -- either the Yankees or Red Sox.
Managers will be key down stretch
Managers will have a major impact on the outcome of the pennant races. In the NL, Atlanta's Bobby Cox and San Francisco's Felipe Alou have done unbelievable jobs with their clubs. Both will be positive factors down the stretch. The fact that Joe Torre has been there before will make a difference in the AL East race.
It's a toss-up in the AL West with two rookie managers at the helm. The positive for Oakland is that Ken Macha was there last year as the A's bench coach and knows who will respond well under pressure. Seattle's Bob Melvin is still learning about his team in a pennant race. This will have an impact on the race.
Of all the managers on contending teams, Tony Pena has had the biggest influence. That doesn't mean he's the best, but he's been the most influential. White Sox manager Jerry Manuel has been amazing to me, because he kept a positive attitude despite everyone calling for him to be fired earlier this season when his team was playing poorly. His perseverance has paid off.
Each of these managers has done a fantastic job, which will be key down the stretch. Who is able to extract the best from his club? And who can keep his guys relaxed? That will be the biggest difference -- and that's why you have to like the veteran teams, because they've been in these situations before and are able to relax. Sometimes young guys in a playoff push for the the first time try to do too much.
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An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series and MVP awards with the Reds in 1975-76.