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40 Predictions for Final Weeks of MLB's Regular Season, Playoff Races

Doug MeadCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2016

40 Predictions for Final Weeks of MLB's Regular Season, Playoff Races

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    As of Monday morning, Major League Baseball will be down to its final two-plus weeks, and excitement still abounds for pennant races and individual performances down the stretch.

    With the first year of the new playoff structure, there are still 18 teams that have legitimate shots at qualifying for postseason play.

    Three teams—the Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants—are on the verge of clinching their divisions, but the other 15 teams will be doing all they can to nail down the seven remaining playoff slots.

    Crucial series over the final 15 games could decide many teams' fates, but individual player performances could also decide their playoff aspirations, as well.

    Here are 40 predictions for the final two-plus weeks that will impact MLB's playoff races.

1. AL Central Will Come Down to Final 3-Game Series

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    On Oct. 1, the Detroit Tigers will close out the regular season with a three-game series against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. The Chicago White Sox close out at Progressive Field against the Cleveland Indians.

    The White Sox are a better road team with a 36-35 record, and they have won four of six at Cleveland.

    The Tigers are six games under .500 entering their Sept. 15 contest against the Indians, and they have a 3-3 mark on the road versus the Royals. The Tigers swept Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium in mid-April but then got swept in return in late August.

    These two series will likely decide the winner in the AL Central.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates Will Finish With 20th Consecutive Losing Season

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    It pains me to make this prediction.

    I love the grit shown by the Pittsburgh Pirates this season. For five-plus months, they did everything they could to hang in there, and manager Clint Hurdle deserves much credit for leading this bunch of overachievers.

    However, the Pirates have been swooning in September, entering play on Sept. 16 just two games over the .500 mark and barely hanging on in the wild-card race.

    After an 11-17 record in the month of August, Saturday's win over the Chicago Cubs was only the third for the Pirates in the month of September.

    Things are looking eerily similar to the late-season collapse of last year, and Hurdle again may not be able to do anything to stop it.

    The Pirates will extend their record among North American professional sports franchises to a 20th consecutive losing season.

    But they were a great story while they lasted.

3. New York Yankees Will Prevail in AL East

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    The New York Yankees have certainly seen their share of troubles this season.

    They lost Michael Pineda to season-ending shoulder surgery. They lost closer Mariano Rivera to a torn ACL. They lost third baseman Alex Rodriguez to a broken bone in his hand. They lost returning starter Andy Pettitte to a broken left ankle. They lost ace CC Sabathia for a period of time with arm troubles. And they lost first baseman Mark Teixeira to a calf strain.

    And yet the Yankees are still positioned at the top of the AL East standings, along with the Baltimore Orioles.

    The good news is that Pettitte will likely return to the rotation on Sept. 18 against the Toronto Blue Jays, although Teixeira's return to the lineup is still uncertain.

    The Yankees always seem to get past hurdles, no matter what they are. Their resilience will come shining through once again.

4. Los Angeles Angels Will Not Secure 2nd Wild-Card Slot in American League

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    The Los Angeles Angels were largely expected to contend for the AL West title after their acquisitions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson during the offseason.

    However, the Angels struggled mightily out of the gates to start the season and have been in catch-up mode ever since. Now, they find themselves 2.5 games out of a wild-card spot with 17 games to play entering Saturday night's contest with the Kansas City Royals.

    However, the Angels have been surging, winning 17 of their 23 games since Aug. 21 to get themselves back into the playoff picture.

    The starting rotation has righted itself after a miserable stretch in late July/early August, and the offense has been plenty supportive, scoring just under five runs a game during the recent 23-game stretch.

    The Angels face the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners six times each over their final 15 games, and those divisional matchups will likely decide the Angels' playoff fate.

    I just don't think they can catch the Baltimore Orioles. Time will simply run out.

5. Baltimore Orioles Will Secure 2nd Wild-Card Playoff Berth

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    Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter absolutely deserves this season's AL Manager of the Year Award.

    The job he has done in turning around the fortunes of the Orioles has been nothing short of spectacular, and the Orioles will finish with a winning record for the first time in 15 seasons.

    But is it enough for them to secure a playoff berth?

    The Orioles play nine of their remaining 16 games on the road, including a season-ending series at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays.

    The O's have been a solid road team; they're 39-31 away from Camden, good for second best in the American League. The pitching continues to hold up, and the Orioles have gotten timely hitting from newer players such as Manny Machado and Nate McLouth.

    Their final series—against the Rays—could well decide their fate. Considering their success on the road thus far, I like the Orioles' chances.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers Will Finish on Outside Looking In

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers took on an additional $300 million in payroll from late July on in the hopes of securing a playoff berth this season.

    But it won't be enough.

    While the additions of Shane Victorino, Randy Choate, Hanley Ramirez, Brandon League, Joe Blanton, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto certainly look good on paper, they haven't translated to success on the field.

    The Dodgers are just 22-25 since the additions started arriving on July 25, losing five games overall in their race with the San Francisco Dodgers in the NL West.

    In addition, Matt Kemp has been a non-factor coming back from hamstring injuries and is now dealing with an inflamed left shoulder after slamming into an outfield wall in late August.

    Chemistry is always a factor on teams, and thus far, the Dodgers haven't even started to find that winning chemistry.

    By the time they do, it may be too little too late.

     

    Note: The Dodgers announced that ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw was scratched from Sunday's start against the St. Louis Cardinals with lingering hip pain (via MLB.com). Kershaw is scheduled to visit a specialist on Tuesday for further examination, and surgery could be the next step, ending Kershaw's season.

7. Atlanta Braves Will Not Repeat Last Year's Collapse

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    On Sept. 29 last year, the Atlanta Braves were left to ponder their fate after an epic late-season collapse led to their ouster from the playoffs.

    Fate will not repeat itself.

    The Braves hold a sizable advantage heading into action on Sept. 15—a six-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the race for the top wild-card slot in the National League.

    With just 17 games to play, I don't expect a similar collapse.

8. Chris Carpenter's Return Will Serve as Inspiration for St. Louis Cardinals

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    When St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter underwent surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in July, at the time it was termed as a season-ending injury.

    Apparently, Carpenter never got that memo.

    Carpenter was due to throw a simulated game on Saturday, and if successful he could make his season debut late this week.

    That's the type of inspiration that could very well propel the Cardinals into the playoffs.

    As of Saturday afternoon, the Cardinals held a slim, one-game advantage over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for the final wild-card slot. Carpenter's return would do wonders for a team looking for any edge to carry it into October.

9. Andy Pettitte Will Give Added Boost to NY Yankees Rotation

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    When Andy Pettitte made his return to baseball with the New York Yankees, he was effective, posting a 3-3 record with a 3.22 ERA in nine starts.

    However, in that ninth start, on June 27, Pettitte was felled by a line drive that shattered his left leg.

    Now, almost three months later, Pettitte is ready to return, scheduled to start against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday.

    Pettitte will provide a huge boost to a Yankees rotation that has reeled of late. Ace CC Sabathia hasn't quite been himself in three starts since returning from the disabled list; Hiroki Kuroda hasn't been nearly as effective over the past month; and Phil Hughes has been up and down, as well.

    If Pettitte can return to earlier form, it could be a huge factor in deciding the fate of the Yankees.

    Here's a guess that his return will decide that fate in a positive fashion.

10. Verlander-Scherzer Duo Will Not Be Enough for Detroit Tigers

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    There's nothing more exciting than watching two top-flight pitchers on the same team work their magic.

    That was certainly the case last season for the Detroit Tigers, as the duo of Justin Verlander and Doug Fister carried the Tigers to the AL Central title and a win against the New York Yankees in the ALDS.

    This season, Verlander has been solid once again. This time he's joined by Max Scherzer, whose second half has been spectacular. Since Aug. 1, Scherzer is 6-0 with a 1.83 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 54.0 innings.

    However, the Tigers have still struggled, posting just a 6-6 record in September entering Saturday's game with the Cleveland Indians.

    The back end of the rotation—Rick Porcello, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez—hasn't been nearly as effective, and the vaunted offense led by Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera has been maddeningly inconsistent.

    Having two stellar pitchers at the top of any rotation is a major plus. However, the Tigers have yet to capitalize, and the duo of Verlander and Scherzer—no matter how special—just won't be enough.

11. Marco Scutaro Will Continue to Spark Giants Offense

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    You have to give the San Francisco Giants a lot of credit. Instead of imploding after the 50-game suspension handed down to star left fielder Melky Cabrera on Aug. 15, they didn't just fold up and drown in their sorrows.

    Since that time, the Giants have won 18 of their 27 games entering play on Saturday, extending their NL West lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers to 7.5 games.

    In that span of time, infielder Marco Scutaro has been spectacular, hitting .351 with 15 RBI, delivering several key hits along the way.

    Scutaro, obtained in a trade with the Colorado Rockies in late July, has become the new Melky but without the "supplemental" enhancements. Here's guessing Scutaro continues to supply that spark.

12. Mike Trout Will Win AL Batting Title

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    Los Angeles Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout has slowed somewhat over the past month-and-a-half.

    On July 31, Trout was comfortably leading the American League with a .353 batting average, well ahead of Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

    Since that time, Trout has hit a more pedestrian .290. While certainly not a bad average for any player, let alone a rookie, that slight slide has tightened the AL batting race considerably.

    As of Sept. 15, Trout's .331 average was just two points ahead of Cabrera and only eight points ahead of the surging Derek Jeter.

    While the Angels continue to cling to life in the AL playoff race, it's my guess that Trout will finish strong and capture the batting title. Trout is currently riding an eight-game hitting streak, hitting .355 over that span.

13. Andrew McCutchen Will Win NL Batting Title

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    Following Saturday's win over the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen was hitting .341, trailing the suspended Melky Cabrera by five points in the race for the NL batting title.

    McCutchen was hitting as high as .373 as late as Aug. 3, before sliding to a .252 average overall for the month.

    With McCutchen's 2-for-3 day on Sept. 15, he is now hitting .306 for the month of September. Look for him to elevate his play over the final 18 games of the season.

    The last thing MLB commissioner Bud Selig wants to do is make a decision regarding the NL batting champion if McCutchen doesn't rebound over the last two-plus weeks of the season. McCutchen will relieve him of that responsibility.

14. Jered Weaver Will Finish Strong and Win AL Cy Young Award

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    While I don't believe the Los Angeles Angels will make the postseason, it won't be for lack of effort on the part of starting pitcher Jered Weaver.

    Weaver returned from a missed start on Thursday to throw seven stellar innings against the Oakland A's, picking up his 17th win of the season and helping the Angels avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the Athletics.

    On top of a 17-4 record, Weaver has the second-best ERA in the AL (2.74), and he leads the AL in WHIP (1.004) and the league in hits per nine innings (6.9). Weaver could potentially start four more games this season, with an outside shot at 20 wins for the first time in his career.

    I believe Weaver has an excellent chance of overtaking David Price, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez in the race for the AL Cy Young Award.

15. Todd Frazier Will Finish Strong and Win NL Rookie of the Year Award

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    The Cincinnati Reds are well on their way to clinching the NL Central title, and they can thank rookie infielder Todd Frazier for helping them get there.

    Frazier has proven invaluable in taking over for an injured Scott Rolen earlier in the season and then for superstar first baseman Joey Votto.

    Frazier may not have a permanent place in the lineup, but with his .284 average, 18 HR and 62 RBI on top of an .864 OPS, manager Dusty Baker continues to find ways to insert Frazier's bat into the Cincinnati order.

    Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Wade Miley will get strong consideration as well, but Frazier's efforts in helping the Reds back into the playoffs should be enough to sway the vote.

16. Albert Pujols Will Not Carry Angels on His Back for Postseason Berth

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    Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols has seen a season of ups and downs in his first year in Anaheim.

    Pujols suffered through a miserable April, surged somewhat in May, had a sizzling summer and has cooled again in September.

    A cooling-off period is not what's needed in the last month of the season.

    Pujols is hitting just .241 in September, with one home run in 13 games. With the Angels clinging to life in the American League playoff race, Pujols' bat will be a major factor over the final 17 games.

    The guess here is that Pujols will remain cool.

17. Philadelphia Phillies' Final 15 Games vs. NL East Foes Will Be Their Undoing

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    If someone had asked me on July 31 if the Philadelphia Phillies had any shot whatsoever of making the playoffs, I would have thought them to be insane.

    After trading off two-thirds of their starting outfield and shipping off No. 5 starter Joe Blanton to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it certainly seemed like GM Ruben Amaro was waving the white flag on the 2012 season and the Phillies' playoff aspirations.

    The remaining roster, however, had other ideas.

    The Phillies were just three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the race for the second wild-card slot in the National League heading into action on Saturday night.

    The Phillies' inspired play over the past month-plus has been exciting to watch. However, starting on Sept. 17, the Phillies close out their regular-season schedule with 15 games against NL East foes.

    Their record thus far in the NL East? 25-32.

    The Phillies' great run just might be over.

18. Milwaukee Brewers Will Be Eliminated from Contention Before Final Week

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    Much like the Philadelphia Phillies, it seemed as though the Milwaukee Brewers were virtually out of playoff contention at the end of July.

    The key word there is "virtually."

    Even after the trade of ace pitcher Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels, the Brewers have played their way back into contention, just 3.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals heading into play on Saturday night.

    However, time is of the essence, and as much as I love what the Brewers have done, they are up against it. The Brewers start a 10-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and will continue on to both Washington and Cincinnati before finally returning home to face the Astros on Sept. 28.

    The Brewers will be out of contention when they finally return home to Miller Park. A 28-43 road record clearly works against them.

19. Houston Astros Will Play Major Role in Shaping of NL Wild-Card Playoff Race

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    With a record of 46-99 heading into play on Sept. 15, the Houston Astros certainly don't have much to play for.

    However, they could well impact the tight National League Wild Card race.

    In their remaining 15 games, the Astros play the St. Louis Cardinals six times and the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers three times each.

    Thus far, both the Cardinals and Pirates have stomped the Astros—the Cardinals winning six of nine and the Pirates winning 11 of 14.

    The Astros have fared slightly better against the Brewers, winning six of the 14 matchups thus far.

    With many of the Astros' players auditioning for next season, along with interim manager Tony DeFrancesco, look for the Astros to greatly impact the wild-card race in those remaining games.

20. Remaining 6 Games Between Tigers and Twins Will Impact AL Central Race

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    Much like the Houston Astros in the NL Central, the Minnesota Twins are out of contention in the American League but could have a major impact in the race for the AL Central title.

    The Twins have six games remaining against the AL Central rival Detroit Tigers. The Twins are 5-7 against the Tigers this season, and while they are just playing for pride, they could well act as the spoiler in the AL Central, as well.

    Here's guessing the Twins spoil the Tigers' hopes.

21. Buster Posey Will Finish Strong and Win NL MVP Award

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    San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey returned from a nasty collision at the hands of Scott Cousins last May with a terrific 2012 season.

    Posey put up solid numbers before the All-Star break, hitting .289 with 10 home runs and 43 RBI.

    His second half, however, has been magical.

    Posey had hit .383 with 11 home runs and 47 RBI since the MLB All-Star Game before play on Saturday night. He had already surpassed his first-half home-run and RBI production in 23 fewer games.

    As the Giants continue on their march toward the playoffs, look for Posey to continue his torrid pace and wrap up the National League MVP award along the way.

22. Red Sox Manager Bobby Valentine Will Not Keep Job Through End of Season

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    With a record of 66-80 entering play on Sunday, the Boston Red Sox are just one game away from mathematical elimination in the American League playoff race.

    Manager Bobby Valentine has certainly taken his share of criticism, and whether or not you believe the criticism valid, his mouth continues to put him in hot water.

    Prior to a Sept. 14 game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Valentine was asked about the current state of his roster and whether or not further September call-ups would help.

    "Are you kidding?" Valentine said. "This is the weakest roster we’ve ever had in September in the history of baseball. It could use help everywhere."

    That might be a bit of a slap in the face to current roster veterans Jacoby Ellsbury, Cody Ross, Mike Aviles, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and James Loney.

    Not to mention GM Ben Cherington.

    While Valentine may be right in that the Red Sox roster is certainly depleted, calling it the worst September roster in MLB history couldn't possibly endear him to Red Sox upper management.

    Valentine's tenure in Boston was already in doubt. His latest utterance could just get him out the door that much quicker.

23. Adam Dunn Will Be Major Factor for Chicago White Sox Down Stretch

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    Chicago White Sox slugger Adam Dunn returned to the lineup on Saturday after missing nine of the past 12 games with a strained right oblique.

    Dunn was 2-for-3 with a run scored in Chicago's 5-3 victory over the Twins, and his return could be a major factor in the White Sox's drive for the AL Central title.

    Dunn's return to the lineup gives manager Robin Ventura an added weapon in that he can use the versatile Dewayne Wise in various ways off the bench. Wise has been a breath of fresh air, hitting .283 with five home runs and 16 RBI in 29 games since joining the White Sox.

    Not to mention that a fresh Adam Dunn won't hurt, either.

24. Baltimore-Tampa Bay Final Series Will Reveal 2nd AL Wild Card Team

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    On Oct. 1, the Baltimore Orioles take on the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in the final regular-season series for each team.

    That series could well decide the second AL Wild Card.

    The Rays are scratching and clawing, as they sit 3.5 games back of the Orioles in that wild-card race.

    The Orioles also sport the second-best road record in the American League.

    Advantage: Orioles.

25. Wasington Nationals Will Win Home-Field Advantage for Playoffs

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    As things stand on Saturday night, the Washington Nationals hold a two-game edge over the Cincinnati Reds in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

    With the National League's win in the All-Star Game, that includes the World Series, as well.

    The Reds and Nationals have the two best home records in the NL, so the remaining games will be crucial for both teams.

    Starting on Sept. 18, the Nationals play 10 of their remaining 16 games at home. I like their chances.

26. Oakland A's Will Secure Top Wild-Card Spot in American League

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    The Oakland Athletics are continuing to find ways to win, and they're doing it with players that you've likely never heard of.

    No, these A's are not filled with names that are well known, but they are getting it done. Entering play on Sunday with an 84-61 record, the A's not only hold the top spot in the American League Wild Card race but are now just two games behind the vaunted Texas Rangers in the AL West, too.

    All summer long, people have been waiting for the A's to fold and wither away, yet they continue getting stronger.

    With a young pitching staff, timely hitting, and great all-around play from unheralded players like Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick, these A's aren't just hanging around; they've become one of the elite teams in the AL.

    And baseball nation will get to see even more in October.

27. Mike Trout Will Secure AL ROY but Not AL MVP

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    Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout has put together a season for the ages.

    Hitting .331 entering play on Sept. 16, Trout also has 27 home runs and 45 stolen bases with a league-leading OPS+ of 170. He's already the first rookie ever with at least 25 homers and 40 stolen bases, and he could become only third player in MLB history with 30 and 50 (Eric Davis and Barry Bonds).

    As magical as Trout's season has been, it still may not be enough to secure both the AL Rookie of the Year Award and AL MVP Award.

    The ROY award is already his—of that there's no question whatsoever. However, only two rookies have ever captured both awards, and both did it for teams which made the playoffs. Fred Lynn helped his Boston Red Sox reach the World Series in 1975, and Ichiro Suzuki helped lead his Seattle Mariners to a magical 116-win season and the ALCS in 2001.

    If the Angels finish out of the postseason—in an earlier slide I surmised they would fall short—Trout will take home only one piece of hardware.

28. Manny Machado Will Be Factor for Baltimore Orioles Down Stretch

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    Major League Baseball has already seen two of its top young prospects shine on the diamond this year—19-year-old Bryce Harper and 20-year-old Mike Trout.

    Another youngster could be added to that list as well—Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado.

    At just 20 years old, Machado made his debut for the O's on Aug. 16, and in his first 34 games, he hasn't looked overmatched yet.

    Hitting .270 with four home runs and 15 RBI, Machado is also playing out of position at third base. Even in a position not nearly as familiar to him as his usual station at shortstop, Machado has only committed two errors.

    As the Orioles continue their quest to make the postseason for the first time in 15 years, Machado will play an integral role in helping them get there. He's already mastered the art of the walk-off, delivering a game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the 14th inning on Thursday night to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays.

29. Matt Kemp's Struggles Will Continue Down Stretch

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    On Saturday, Sept. 15, Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp helped save his team from defeat with a spectacular play, throwing out St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina on a perfect one-hop throw to third base.

    Without the play, the Cardinals have a runner on third with no one out in a close, 3-2 game favoring the Cardinals.

    However, at the plate Kemp once again struggled, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. With another hitless performance, Kemp is now hitting just .114 in the month of September with only one home run.

    It's pretty clear that Kemp's sore shoulder—bruised in a collision with an outfield wall two weeks ago—is having a major impact on his game. Unfortunately for Kemp and the Dodgers, none of the new acquisitions—Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Shane Victorino—have been there to pick up the slack.

    While Saturday night's come-from-behind win over the Cardinals evened the two teams up in the race for the final wild-card slot in the National League, the Dodgers likely won't be able to sustain that type of play down the stretch as Kemp continues to play through the pain with less-than-stellar results.

30. Red Sox-Yankees Season-Ending Series Will Impact AL East Race

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    The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will close out the 2012 regular season with a three-game series in the Bronx.

    For the Yankees, they probably couldn't have scripted a better ending.

    The Yankees have a combined record of 23-24 against the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bays and Baltimore Orioles.

    However, against their other AL East foe, the Yankees are 10-5.

    The Red Sox are certainly reeling, heading toward their worst regular-season record since 1992. By the time the final series is completed, the Yankees will have secured the AL East title, courtesy of a weak Boston roster.

31. Yu Darvish Will Emerge as Pressure Pitcher in Final Weeks

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    Heading into the dog days of August, it appeared that the rigors of a long MLB season might have been getting to Texas Rangers starting pitcher Yu Darvish.

    Darvish struggled in late July and the entire month of August, posting a 2-4 record and 6.60 ERA between July 14 and Aug. 17.

    Darvish skipped a start due to a tight right quadriceps, but since Aug. 28 the ship appears to have been righted. Since that time, Darvish has posted a 1.55 ERA with three wins.

    Whatever woes Darvish was suffering through seem to have been corrected, and as the Rangers fight to keep their slim, two-game lead over the Oakland A's in the AL West, Darvish will emerge as a money pitcher down the stretch.

32. Middle of White Sox Batting Order Will Carry Team in Final Weeks

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    With Adam Dunn now back from a strained right oblique, the Chicago White Sox have the meat of their batting order intact.

    Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzynski have provided outstanding production all season long, with both Dunn and Rios returning to form after suffering through a miserable 2011 campaign.

    Look for this quartet to continue raking and help the White Sox secure their first AL Central title since 2008.

33. Ryan Braun Will Rake, Finish Outside Top 3 of MVP Voting

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    The Milwaukee Brewers are actually knocking on the door of a possible wild-card slot in the National League despite a spate of injuries and trades.

    When the non-waiver trade deadline expired on July 31, the Brewers were without their ace pitcher Zack Greinke, gone to the Los Angeles Angels. They were also without the services of Alex Gonzalez, Mat Gamel and Chris Narveson, all with season-ending injuries. Hot-hitting catcher Jonathan Lucroy had just returned to the lineup after missing two months with a broken hand.

    The Brewers seemed to be playing for next season. However, left fielder Ryan Braun and the rest of the team had other ideas.

    Heading into Sept. 16 action with the New York Mets, the Brewers were only 2.5 games out of the race for the second wild-card spot in the National League. Braun was helping to lead the charge, hitting .311 with 38 home runs and 101 RBI.

    With that production aside from the batting average, Braun will match the numbers put up last year when he won the NL MVP award.

    However, he might find himself out of the top three this year.

    End-of-season-award balloting is left up to writers, and writers tend to have long memories. Braun's alleged PED use and the controversial ruling in the appeal of his 50-game ban likely still aren't lost in the minds of voters.

    The numbers certainly don't lie, but they may not mean much to the writers/voters. Especially if the Brewers fall short of the playoffs.

34. Giants-Dodgers Final 3-Game Series Will Have No Bearing on Playoff Race

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    A familiar matchup will be highlighted at the end of the regular season, as the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants face off against each other in Dodger Stadium.

    Unfortunately for the Dodgers, it won't mean much.

    It's my guess that the Giants will have long secured the NL West title by Oct. 1, and the Dodgers will have already lost out on their wild-card aspirations, as well.

    As mentioned earlier, without the services of a healthy Matt Kemp and an ailing Clayton Kershaw, those hopes will already have been diminished.

35. Yadier Molina Will Be Huge Offensive Force for Cardinals Down Stretch

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    At the start of spring training this year, the St. Louis Cardinals and Yadier Molina came together on a five-year, $75 million contract extension, allowing St. Louis to lock up one of the most consistent catchers in all of baseball.

    Molina has been money once again for the Cardinals this season, hitting .321 with 19 home runs and 66 RBI heading into play on Sept. 16 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Molina's play will continue to drive the Cardinals through the final two-plus weeks of the season, as well.

    With Lance Berkman gone for the rest of the season and right fielder Carlos Beltran suffering through a miserable second half, look for Molina to guide this team as it vies to defend its World Series championship. Molina understands what it takes to get to the postseason, and his example and leadership will be major forces down the stretch.

36. Prince Fielder Will Fizzle Down Stretch for Detroit Tigers

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    The Detroit Tigers are fighting valiantly to stay alive in the American League playoff race, just one game behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.

    The division title is likely the best hope for the Tigers, who have to leapfrog three teams (A's, Angels, Orioles) to secure a wild-card berth.

    First baseman Prince Fielder has had a solid first season in Motown, hitting .304 with 26 home runs and 98 RBI entering Sept. 16's contest with the Cleveland Indians.

    However, the month of September has seen a downturn, with Fielder hitting just .196 with three home runs and five RBI.

    Look for that trend to continue.

37. Hanley Ramirez Will Wilt Under Pressure Down Stretch

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    Throughout his career with the Florida/Miami Marlins, shortstop/third baseman Hanley Ramirez wasn't used to playing pressure baseball in the final weeks.

    Don't look for Ramirez to adjust well to it anytime soon.

    Ramirez hasn't shown a liking for important baseball games yet during his brief time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hitting just .224 with two homers and four RBI in the month of September.

    With Matt Kemp ailing, the Dodgers need as much help as they can get from other star position players.

    Ramirez will not be one of them.

38. Adrian Beltre Will Continue Riding Hot Streak Through End of Season

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    You won't find too many players in baseball who have been as hot as Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre over the last two months.

    Since Aug. 1, Beltre is hitting .335 with 14 home runs and 31 RBI, riding a hot bat as the Rangers look to lock down their third consecutive AL West title.

    Look for Beltre to continue his hot ways down the stretch as the Rangers successfully claim the AL West once again.

39. Chipper Jones Will End His Final Regular Season with a Bang

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    For the past several months, teams across the National League have serenaded retiring Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones with a variety of gifts, tokens of appreciation and many rounds of applause from appreciative fanbases.

    Over the last two-plus weeks of the season, look for Jones to serenade his fans with spirited play.

    Even at the advanced age of 40, Jones is still hitting near .300, just eight points shy of his .304 career mark entering play on Sept. 16.

    Jones has always conducted himself in a professional manner, and I don't see him fizzling his way to the end. His team has a shot at postseason glory once again, as has often been the case during Jones' spectacular career.

    He isn't about to go quietly into the night.

40. Davey Johnson Will Emerge as National League Manager of the Year

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    The Washington Nationals were largely expected to contend for the postseason in 2012, especially with a pitching staff featuring Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez.

    But I don't think you'll find many who would have predicted that the Nationals would have the best overall record in all of baseball.

    By the time all is said and done, that could well be the case, and manager Davey Johnson deserves much credit for that happening.

    Johnson guided a team that was missing key components throughout the season, including closer Drew Storen, left fielder Michael Morse, right fielder Jayson Werth, catcher Wilson Ramos and shortstop Ian Desmond.

    Yet through it all, Johnson deftly guided his troops to the top and kept them there all season long.

    At 69 years of age, Johnson has once again shown he is a master at his craft.

     

    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.

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