Believe it or not, we have reached the final month of the 2021 MLB season.
(Well, not counting the three days in October that are part of the regular season and allow us to joke about the last few clubs to play “October baseball.”)
It’s also hard to believe that just a month ago the Braves were four games behind the first-placed Mets in the National League East and the Rays and Red Sox were way ahead of the third-placed Yankees in the American League East.
Things can change quickly here, and there is enough turmoil in September and the few days of October to give us a compelling conclusion.
Here are my best guesses as we conclude – six predictions for the final month (s) of the regular season.
1. The Dodgers win the NL West.
This will be the only division race with a change at the top in the last month (congratulations to the Rays, White Sox, Astros, Braves and Brewers). It will also be a rare case where a 100-win team finishes second in its division (fifth time in the divisional era and first since the 2018 100-win Yankees runner-up behind 108 wins for the Red Sox were).
The Giants don’t deserve to be runner-up, and that prediction shouldn’t be taken as a blow to them. The depth they built and the way they managed workloads took them a lot further than any of us expected. And it’s long time to acknowledge that each of us dope in the pre-season media thought we were elite.
But the Dodgers are the better team, not least because of what they added to the Trade Deadline in Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. As of this writing, the Dodgers have a plus-69 barrel differential in the second half while the Giants have a plus-29 mark. The Dodgers are struggling to make up ground in NL West because the Giants, who won nine straight series before losing two of three in Atlanta last weekend, refused to let their foot off the gas. But starting with a three-game slate in San Francisco this weekend, the Dodgers will be putting together what is perhaps their hardest-earned of nine NL West titles in a row.
2. The Yankees-Red Sox AL Wildcard Game? Forget it.
Too many people hyped this game (“Gerrit Cole vs. Chris Sale!”) A month in advance for me to believe that it will actually happen. Something is going to thwart these plans. Because this is baseball.
Maybe it’s the Yankees who overtake the Rays for the East title, although personally I don’t think Wander Franco and Co. will allow that.
More likely, the Red Sox will be dragged back down by another club (no pun intended).
It could be the Blue Jays, backed up by a healthy George Springer and a schedule with a healthy serving of Orioles. That would be a great story.
It could be the Mariners who have gambled away a number of saves since the badly-received Kendall Graveman trade but remain in the math mix for their first postseason berth in 20 years. That would be a great story too.
I slave and go the path of least resistance: The A’s will compete against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game for the second time in four years. With Boston’s pitching team showing their rifts and the roster exhausted from COVID concerns, Oakland will stand up and seal its semi-regular spot in the one-and-done round, hopefully with a healthy return for Chris Bassitt and possibly the previously unexpected one Return of a homer beating Khris Davis.
Sorry folks, we need to watch the Bucky Dent Game another time. (Unless, of course, everyone could keep quiet about the possible Yankees-Red Sox match. Then maybe it can actually happen!)
3. We need a tiebreaker to settle the NL’s second wild card.
Looking for a tie-breaker game that doesn’t happen: a tradition like no other.
But hey, it might happen this year. The Reds and Padres are going head-to-head into September with the Cardinals, Phillies and, if we’re super generous, the Mets still in the mix.
All of these teams have their warts. The Reds’ schedule makes them a favorite at this point, but their left-handed offensive has slowed lately. The pitching of the padres is a mess, and they have probably the most difficult schedule in the MLB. The Phillies could still push the Braves in NL East and the Reds and Padres in NL Wild Card, but JT Realmuto’s injury is hurting an already inconsistent club. The Mets get a thumb down from me.
My crystal ball still sees the Phillies going into last weekend but being crushed by a late inning loss to the Marlins on the penultimate day of the season. The Reds take the lead with one game in the final day but get punky by the Pirates while the Padres battle the Giants to claim the Dodgers division win and a tiebreaker on Monday.
By the way, thanks to the tiebreaker …
4. Fernando Tatis Jr. will make history.
With 36 homers, Tatis entered the last month with a big lead in the NL best list. The closest competitors are tied with 29. And with 24 steals, Tatis is two just ahead of Trea Turner’s lead in the table.
While Game 163 won’t follow the Padres, its stats count towards the regular season totals. And so Tatis will use the additional game to swipe second and defeat Turner. In this way, he becomes only the second player in modern times – alongside Chuck Klein (1932) of the Phillies – to lead his league in both Homers and Steals.
That makes NL-MVP voting pretty easy. You’re welcome, voters.
Speaking of easy MVP selection …
5. 50 home runs for Shohei Ohtani.
He is 42 in September. But only nine of those things have come since Ohtani decided to serve as the Home Run Derby participant, starter pitcher and lead-off man, hot dog seller, program hawk, and in-game organist at the All-Star festivities . If he’s a little tired, who can blame him? And so maybe 50 turns out to be unattainable.
But I would expect the Angels Ohtani to subside on the pitching side of things as we relax (he already missed a scheduled start against the Yankees this week after taking a pitch off his right hand a few days earlier had), and that would make the load easier. They also have seven games left against a Rangers pitching agent who allows 1.5 homers per nine innings.
So let’s dream big: Not only will Ohtani become the first pitcher to lead the majors in Homers, he’ll hit that nice round number in the process. Babe Ruth didn’t reach 50 (or 30 or 40) until he became a full-time positional player. Ohtani can still realistically get there while also leading his team in ERA.
Have we been telling you lately that this is utterly and utterly absurd?
Speaking of absurd …
6. We will see another no-hitter.
It looks like the eight no-hitters this season (not counting the two in seven inning games) hold the all-time record set in 1884. But just like Grover Cleveland’s James G. Blaine in a hard-fought US presidential election in 1884, the 2021 season will occupy the only position at the top of the no-hit hierarchy by a narrow margin that final month.
(I’d tell you who’s going to throw # 9, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for Marco Gonzales of the Mariners.)