Eye Toward October: Sept. 18

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With the playoff chase coming down to the wire, our MLB editor rounds up the five biggest pennant race stories in Eye Toward October.

- No Time for Panic: The Brewers finally stopped the bleeding Wednesday night, beating the Cubs to end a five-game winning streak and keeping pace with the Mets, who were also victorious, in the wild-card race. But they might be worse off anyway. Ben Sheets left the game after two innings with stiffness in his forearm. After the game, Sheets revealed he has been battling elbow soreness since late August -- describing it as a "cutting" sensation.

Yikes. Considering this is a team that just couldn't go on with its manager with two weeks left in the season and the wild-card lead, it's hard to imagine that the possibility one of its best pitchers being out indefinitely will go over well. Milwaukee has already made its panic move by firing Ned Yost. Now they're really in trouble, right?

Yes and no. Sheets was slated to make two more starts this season. If he can't make either, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the Brewers have a better chance at qualifying for the postseason than they did yesterday. That doesn't mean we should bury them entirely, though.

After all, it's only two starts. Sure, maybe they're two of the biggest starts in a quarter century for the franchise, but how many mediocre pitchers, even terrible pitchers, have strung together two good starts in a row in the major leagues. Heck, Carl Pavano even won two consecutive starts at the end of last month.

Stars are born this time of year, but so are unlikely heroes who rise to the occasion at the right moment then fade into baseball oblivion. (See: Spencer, Shane.) Carlos Villanueva or Seth McClung would be in line to start should Sheets be unable to go, and both are capable of turning in a good start or two.

There have been plenty of histrionics about the Mets and Brewers collapsing, but odds are one of those teams is going to the postseason anyway. With or without Sheets, there's no reason it can't be Milwaukee.

- Call the Dogs Off: The Rays and Red Sox have played several wonderful baseball games over the past week. Save two routs, they've played games any fan would be happy to see in the ALCS. But really, it's time for both teams to reel it in over the final 11 days. The AL East title is a nice little prize -- it comes with home-field advantage -- but with both clubs headed to the postseason anyway, there is no real reason to push for it.

Boston is effectively three games behind the Rays now that it has lost the season series and the tiebreaker that goes with it. That's a steep mountain to climb with 10 games remaining and a full complement of players, but the Red Sox don't have that right now. They need to get J.D. Drew at-bats and nurse Mike Lowell's ailing hip. And they need to set up their rotation for the Angels (or less likely the White Sox or Twins). Isn't it more important to have Josh Beckett and Jon Lester lined up for Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS then press for a relatively meaningless division title?

The same goes for the Rays. Starting Matt Garza on three days of rest was an unneccessary risk. The team's best reliever, Grant Balfour, could also use a blow. He's appeared in 15 of Tampa Bay's last 25 games. The last thing you want is your stud reliever over-worked heading into October. Baseball gives away the big prize next month, not this one. Being healthy and energized is more important than home-field advantage or any confidence a division crown might bring.

- Fish Story: I've offered up a series of teams as the Rockies of 2008 this month -- someone lagging behind in the standings, but playing well -- but none of them, not even this year's Rockies, have panned out. Here's a last stab in the dark. The Marlins have won seven in a row and sit five games back of the Mets in the wild-card standings.

With 11 games to play, they are the longest of long shots. But they also, at least partially, control their own destiny. Series with the Phillies and Mets remain on their schedule. Florida would probably have to win out or go 10-1 to sneak into the playoffs, but as we all learned in 2007, it's merely an unlikely scenario, not an unprecedented one.

- Snakes Still Squirming: The Diamondbacks picked up ground on the Dodgers for the first time since Aug. 29 last night as Brandon Webb followed up Dan Haren's complete game gem with a solid start of his own. Arizona is still clinging to life support. It still needs help from some bad teams to catch Los Angeles, but it has nearly as much hope as the Twins at this point. How many teams in baseball would take a 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 shot at the playoffs right now?

Nevertheless, we'll know a whole lot more about the NL West after Thursday. Clayton Kershaw goes for the Dodgers in the finale against Pittsburgh, while the D'backs get to tangle with Tim Lincecum. If Arizona could somehow pick up a game, we might have a real race on our hands.

- Supernatural Santana: So far at least, Johan Santana has been worth every penny to the Mets. He'll get another chance to prove his worth against the Nationals Thursday night, and in fact, he's lined up to pitch two more times, including in New York's regular season finale against the Marlins a week from Sunday.

Programming Note: Eye Toward October will not be published Friday, but will return Saturday for the remainder of the regular season.

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