As baseball has turned the page on the dog days of August, and into September's pennant stretch, the season schedule dwindles quickly, and a sense of desperation envelops those teams fortunate enough to remain in the race.
The marathon is nearing its conclusion. Many have fallen back out of sight, others are limping along simply trying to finish; a few of the leaders are coasting along well ahead of the pack, while a few hopefuls are engaged in a feverish sprint toward the finish line. Any tripping up now could mean the proverbial, "wait until next year."
In the quest to extend their season into the crisp October nights of playoff baseball, clubs must produce a strong September, either to solidify their standing atop their respective division, or to catch and overtake the current leader.
Much of the heavy lifting down the stretch is performed by the usual suspects, the elite players that you'd expect the critical production to come from. The superstars have opportunities to cement their cases for postseason awards; a slugger can carry his club's offense on his back in the season's final month or an ace can set the tone for the rest of his rotation with dominance down the stretch.
However, the household names aren't always the players to rise to the occasion and carry their team to baseball's promised land. Occasionally, role players step to the forefront, filling in for an injured star, or a fading veteran will find one last reserve of greatness left over from his prime from which to draw, utilizing his veteran savvy and experience to lead his team to greater heights.
One of the more thrilling examples of such a phenomenon is when a young player, maybe just beginning his career, or possibly already on the cusp of breaking into full-fledged stardom, steps up his game over the final month or two of the season, and becomes an integral aspect of his ballclub's success.
We've seen it many times over the years, where a highly-regarded youngster seizes an opportunity and thrusts himself into baseball's limelight during its most crucial period. In 2002, Frankie Rodriguez appeared out of nowhere, making his first MLB appearance on September 18 and suddenly becoming an invaluable member of the eventual World Series Champion Angels.
Just a year later, a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera made his debut for the Marlins during June of 2003, and quickly displayed the offensive prowess that would make him one of modern baseball's most-feared hitters. In September of that year, Cabrera hit .308 with an OPS of .875, while driving in 20 runs during the season's final month, en route to a stunning World Series title for the young Marlins.
In 2007, 24-year-old Dustin Pedroia overcame a difficult beginning to his big league career, in which he was hitting .172 on May 1, to catch fire over the second half and hit .324 with an .830 OPS over the final two months of the season. Pedroia became a major force for the Red Sox as they fought to their second World Series Championship within four years, and is now the heart of their club.
With September upon us, the time is now for heroes to be made, for a player to elevate his game and become a force down the stretch, to help lead his team to glory in playoff baseball.
On the still-contending teams, among the players 25 years old and under, who might be ready to lead his club into the bright lights of October? Let's take a look at the primary candidates with the potential to etch their name among the legends of baseball's pennant stretch.
While Elvis Andrus is not the first name you think of shutting down in the powerful Texas lineup, we have seen how the speedy shortstop can influence a game or series with his legs and defense.
Blessed with tremendous range at short and blistering speed on the base-paths, the 23-year-old Andrus can serve as a massive distraction for opposing pitchers when they're attempting to focus on the thunderous bats throughout the Rangers' order.
The Rays and Yankees both witnessed the influence Andrus can have last season, when he was constantly on base and running against them in the ALDS and ALCS, respectively. He hit .333 and stole seven bases against the two of them over 11 games, proving to be a pest throughout the two series and keeping attention on him, so that the big bats were able to feast on offerings from distracted hurlers.
Andrus will never be confused with Josh Hamilton or Nelson Cruz, powerful sluggers that can change the game with one swing of the bat, but he is certainly an influential player that could prove invaluable to Ron Wahington's Rangers as they attempt to hold off the Angels.
Though Mike Trout just recently turned 20, and has only 28 big league games under his belt, the highly-touted, young outfielder has an opportunity to make a significant impact for the Angels down the stretch.
Regarded as one of the elite prospects in the game, Trout was named the top prospect in baseball by MLB.com prior to the season. At midseason, Baseball America ranked him at No. 2, only trailing uber-prospect Bryce Harper in their evaluation.
The Angels surprised many, when in early July, they called the then-19-year-old Trout up to the Majors to help fill in for the struggling and injured Vernon Wells.
During that initial foray into Major League action, Trout looked overmatched at the plate, and only hit .163 over 14 games. Despite his elite athleticism, it appeared that the Angels' bright hope for the future was still in need of seasoning in the minors before he was ready to perform at the big league level.
Just three weeks later, the Halos surprised once again, when they recalled Trout and thrust him into regular action during the most critical stretch of their season. With various struggles afflicting the senior members of Mike Scioscia's outfield corps at times, notably Vernon Wells' horrific first season in Anaheim, Trout's youthful exuberance and energy has been a valuable shot in the arm for the squad.
In the 13 games since being recalled on August 19, Trout has hit .325 with a tremendous 1.088 OPS. Over 46 plate appearances, he has slugged four home runs and driven in eight runs, hinting at the powerful force that he will eventually become. While it's obviously a small sampling, the young outfielder has displayed much of the promise that talent evaluators have drooled over during his early professional career.
While he has only started 22 games for Mike Scioscia so far in his debut season, the Angels are 18-4 in those games, something that has surely been noticed by Los Angeles brass.
Lingering just 2.5 games behind the West-leading Rangers, the Angels have a potential opportunity to overcome their Texas foes with a strong September. Many thought Texas would have run away with the division by now, but they have allowed the Angels to hang around, and with just a month left, the pennant stretch should be compelling.
Most teams will not be focusing on the 20-year-old rookie batting seventh in the Angels' lineup, so Trout may have a great opportunity to fly below the radar and provide significant production hidden in the lower half of the order.
Certainly however, if he continues the success he has found over the last two weeks of August, Mike Trout will no longer be able to hide in the shadows, and will gain greater notice from his opponents, as they strive to silence his young, but explosive bat.
Josh Reddick's big bat has long tantalized the Red Sox, as he has torn up various levels of the minor leagues.
Finally afforded an opportunity for regular action at the big league level, due to injuries throughout the course of the year to Carl Crawford and J.D. Drew, Reddick, he is not disappointed.
The 24-year-old outfielder has started games at all three outfield positions, displaying a versatility that is immensely valuable to a team chasing playoff baseball. Terry Francona will undoubtedly appreciate the ability to rest various players down the stretch by slotting Reddick into any OF position. Roster flexibility is every manager's dream.
Not only has Reddick shown an aptitude at all three outfield spots, but he has brought his big bat with him from the minors.
Currently hitting .295, with seven home runs and 27 RBI, he has impressed in his 232 plate appearances. His .840 OPS and 120 OPS+ have fit in nicely with a loaded Boston lineup.
Reddick already ingratiated himself to the "Fenway Faithful" with a walk-off single against the Yankees almost a month ago, instantly endearing himself to Boston's rabid fanbase.
With less than a month to go in the regular season, and the Red Sox chasing the Yankees now by 2.5 games, Reddick may very well have further opportunities to bolster his growing reputation with a strong performance down the stretch.
I didn't want to include Montero in this considering his lack of big league experience and the fact that he doesn't necessarily have a position with the New York Yankees currently.
However, in light of his recent debut and impressive play over the weekend, the highly-regarded catcher/DH has inserted himself into the Yankees' postseason roster conversation.
Of course, it's far too early to make any definitive judgments about Montero based upon 15 plate appearances at the big league level, but the super prospect has at least done enough to be noticed.
In his four games as the Yankee DH, he is hitting .385, has belted two home runs and owns a tremendous 1.313 OPS. The requisite, "it's only a four-game sample size" certainly applies here. Undoubtedly, anyone in MLB could have a four game stretch and achieve similar success.
However, not everyone is ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the game by Baseball America, as Montero was prior to the 2011 season. That was a jump from No. 4 prior to last year.
If you watched the ball explode off his bat and soar deep into the bleachers beyond the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, you know why the franchise was reluctant to include the young slugger in potential deals for top-flight starting pitching over the last couple seasons.
This situation bears watching. If Montero can continue his torrid hitting for a few weeks, the Yankees will likely feel inclined to include him on their playoff roster, potentially at the expense of Jorge Posada and his eroding skills.
It's still far too early to deem Montero ready for playoff baseball, but he has a few weeks to convince the doubters, and more importantly, the Yankees, that his potent bat is ready for the prime time.
With just three weeks to go before he gets aged out of our "25-and-under players to watch down the pennant stretch" category, Antonio Bastardo just makes the cut.
After hinting at something special at times over the last two seasons, Bastardo has emerged as one of the premier left-handed relievers in all of baseball during 2011.
Over 53.1 innings out of the Philly bullpen, Bastardo is 6-1 with a 1.69 ERA and a minuscule 0.75 WHIP. He has struck out 66 and has only allowed 19 hits all season, holding opponents to a batting average of .110.
One might look at those numbers and assume he is a lockdown lefty-specialist, only brought in to wreak havoc on left-handed hitters. With Bastardo, however, that is not the case, as he has excelled against opponents from either side of the plate.
He is holding lefties to a .125 batting average and a .488 OPS. Somehow though, he has been even tougher on righties, as they're hitting only .101 against him, with a meager .379 OPS.
Bastardo has become a formidable weapon at the disposal of Charlie Manuel.
Though the Phillies have the NL East locked up with a seven game lead, and are a lock to return to the postseason once again, they will strive to finish out September on a high note, as they look to assert their dominance over their potential playoff foes.
If the Phillies' starting staff hasn't already demoralized its opponents, the sight of Antonio Bastardo warming up in the bullpen is sure to do so.
After a disappointing (unless you're a Yankee fan) sophomore year in the big leagues, Austin Jackson is heating up at the right time for the Detroit Tigers.
Though he's only hitting .258 with a .716 OPS, Jackson has been on fire and was just named the AL Player of the Week. During his torrid stretch, he hit .529 with three doubles, three triples and two home runs. His OPS was an absurd 1.514.
The Tigers will need Jackson to continue his torrid hitting in order to add a different dimension to their occasionally stale offense. As the team's only true speed merchant, Jackson's athleticism is invaluable atop the Detroit lineup.
He is prone to strikeouts and prolonged slumps, but just as we saw early last season, Jackson is also prone to catching fire and staying hot for a while. The speedy outfielder will need to continue the pace he set last week if the Tigers hope to take full advantage of his greatest assets, which would enable them to employ a much more diversified attack in October.
When the Angels acquired high-priced veteran, Vernon Wells, in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, it was assumed by many that either he or incumbent center fielder Torii Hunter would man the central OF position for the 2011 Halos.
However, the club had different plans, and handed the position to speedster Peter Bourjos, flanked by Wells in left and Hunter in right.
Bourjos impressed immediately, hitting well and utilizing his incredible range to cover vast amounts of territory in Los Angeles' outfield.
Overall, he is hitting .274 with a .769 OPS, with 25 doubles, nine triples and 10 home runs. He has stolen 19 bases in 26 opportunities, but possesses the raw speed to improve upon that significantly with some work on his stealing technique .
His .326 on-base percentage certainly could improve if he hopes to work his way toward the top of the LAA lineup.
For now, he'll likely stay lower in the order, but if he hits a hot streak, with his bat, wheels and immense range, he can be a thrilling, game-changing talent for the Angels as they attempt to catch Texas.
It's easy to underestimate Vance Worley among the high-profile names that make up the Phillies' starting rotation.
While Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels receive much of the focus from the national media, the 24-year-old Worley has been winning at a rate that surpasses even his greatest peers in Philadelphia.
In 20 appearances, including 18 starts, Worley is an incredible 11-1 with a 2.85 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. Over 110.1 innings, he has struck out 96 and is only allowing opponents to hit .225 against him.
Though the Phillies have a 9.5 game lead on Atlanta, and are a lock to return to the playoffs yet again, Worley has an opportunity over the last few weeks of the season to supplant Roy Oswalt in Charlie Manuel's post-season plans if he can out-duel the veteran down the stretch.
Not only that, but the emergence of Worley could potentially make Oswalt expendable next season, when the veteran right-hander's contract calls for an expensive $16 million option.
While there is little drama left in the NL races, it could be interesting to see if Worley can impress enough to earn himself a playoff start amidst all the star power populating Philly's staff.
Neftali Feliz, the 23-year-old phenom that dominated his way to the AL Rookie of the Year in 2010, hasn't looked completely like himself this season.
Though his numbers are still top-notch among closers, his velocity dipped early in the year, and his command has gone missing at times.
Feliz has still saved 26-of-32 opportunities for an 81 percent success rate, and is holding opposing batters to a .196 batting average, but it has been tougher at times this season.
Much of that can be attributed to shoulder inflammation early in the year, and subsequent command issues, which have caused his walk rate to jump from 2.3 per nine innings last year to 4.6 this season.
There is also concern that his strikeouts per nine innings have dropped from 11.3 in 2009 to 9.2 last year, all the way to 6.2 in 2011.
He has looked good lately, going 12 appearances without allowing a run, while striking out 11 in 11.1 innings. The right-handed closer has still walked 7 in that span, so his control remains an issue.
If Texas are to hold off the Halos in the West, and hope to return to the World Series after falling just short of their ultimate goal last year, they will need Feliz to resemble the shut-down relief ace he was during 2010.
With a rebuilt bullpen around him, boasting several recently-acquired veteran relievers, Feliz needs to locate his command and return to form, otherwise the Rangers have other options to consider late in games.
At one corner, you have the ancient Chipper Jones, seemingly on his last legs for the last five years or so. Across the diamond, soon-to-be-22-year-old Freddie Freeman has emerged as a long-term solution at first.
The 2007 second-round draft pick scorched triple-A pitching last year, enabling the Braves to feel confident handing the young player their first base job in 2011.
As they had hoped, Freeman had little difficulty adjusting to the big leagues, as he is wrapping up a fine year in Atlanta. He has hit .291 with 18 home runs, 64 RBI and an .812 OPS. His 122 OPS+ trails only Chipper and Brian McCann in the Braves' lineup.
His smooth stroke has produced 29 doubles as well, and the Braves retain hope that as he grows into his 6'5" frame, his power numbers may increase.
During the second half of 2011, Freeman has hit .322 with an .825 OPS, improving on his solid .274 average and .805 OPS from prior to the All-Star break.
With the struggles of Jason Heyward during his sophomore campaign, Freeman has provided a positive counterbalance to that story and will be counted on to provide some thump in the heart of the order as they look to advance deeper into the playoffs after their early exit in 2010.
Though his 9-8 record may not do him justice, there is no doubt about 25-year-old Josh Collmenter's contributions to Arizona's stunning resurgence atop the NL West.
In 21 starts, and seven bullpen appearances, the righty has posted a 3.10 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP, and has only allowed opponents to hit .231 against him. His stellar 1.7 walks per nine innings fits right in with rotation-mates Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy.
Confidence is beginning to grow with the young club, due in significant part to the young trio they have leading the starting staff.
Collmenter has heated up as of late, as he is 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA over his last six starts.
If he can continue progressing as he has, along with the rest of his staff, Arizona's belief will continue to grow, and they could be a potentially surprising force in October.
When the Angels learned just prior to the 2011 season that their slugging first baseman, Kendrys Morales, was to miss another entire season following his freakish broken ankle on May 29, 2010, one could hear the collective groan emanating from Angel Stadium.
Without a power-laden lineup, the loss of their most potent bat was an unforeseen sucker punch for the Halos, just as the new season was dawning.
Waiting in the wings was 25-year-old rookie, Mark Trumbo. The slugging first baseman had torn up the minors, but appeared to be blocked at his natural position by Morales, the Cuban-defector who had emerged as an MVP candidate in 2009.
Thrust into an important role for Mike Scioscia's club, Trumbo responded with an impressive rookie campaign, which has seen him mentioned as a potential top candidate for end of the year honors.
Trumbo's powerful bat has been integral throughout the year in Anaheim, as he is leading the club with 26 home runs and 80 RBI, helping to fill the power void created by Morales' long-term injury issues.
Though his measly 24 walks and sub-.300 OBP leave much to be desired, the right-handed slugger has provided much of the punch that the Angels desperately need if they still hope to erase the 3.5 game deficit between them and Texas in the AL West.
When the Angels jettisoned Brian Fuentes in order to save themselves money on the final year of his contract last season, they were entering uncertain territory as far as the back end of their bullpen was concerned.
Sure, Fernando Rodney was capable of closing games, but no one realistically expected that to become a reality. The Angels figured they could count on Kevin Jepsen or Jordan Walden to emerge as legitimate candidates to take over the closer's role.
Jepsen stumbled badly out of the gate and the completely untested, 23-year-old Walden, a set-up man early in the season, assumed control of the role as April came to a close.
The flame-throwing reliever, capable of hitting 100 MPH with ease, stepped right into the role with confidence, and has claimed it as his own over the course of his rookie campaign.
In 53 appearances, over the course of 51 innings, Walden owns a 2.65 ERA, a 1.216 WHIP and has saved 27 of his 36 save opportunities. He's held opponents to a .222 batting average, and has struck out 9.9 per nine innings.
If the Angels hope to potentially catch the Rangers down the stretch, Walden will need to continue his success, and even step up his save conversion rate in order to lock down every victory possible. With less than a month of the season left to go, each win is critical, and there can be no more demoralizing blown saves if the Halos hope to return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Though his overall numbers might suggest that Derek Holland has produced a solid, if unspectacular first season as a regular in the Texas starting rotation, those who watch him regularly have witnessed plenty of dominance from the southpaw throughout 2011.
Currently 13-5, with a 4.13 ERA, a 1.387 WHIP and an ERA+ of 106, Holland has experienced inconsistency throughout the year, but has elevated his game during the second half.
Since the All-Star break, Holland is 6-1 with a 3.16 ERA and a WHIP of 1.245, and has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2-to-1 to 3.19-to-1.
The 24-year-old Holland has tossed four complete games which ranks him third in the AL, but those four CG have all been shutouts, a category which he is tied for the AL lead with James Shields of Tampa Bay.
With Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando fading down the stretch, and Colby Lewis having an uneven season, Holland has a massive opportunity to solidify a top of the rotation slot following C.J. Wilson as the Rangers fight toward the postseason in an effort to improve upon their AL pennant-winning season last year.
There is little that Craig Kimbrel could possibly do to improve upon his 2011 season so far.
In the midst of a scintillating breakout campaign as the Braves' closer, the 23-year-old Kimbrel has dominated all season, and has become a major force at the end of games for Atlanta.
He has successfully converted 42 of his 47 save opportunities, for an 89 percent rate. In 68.2 innings, he has struck out an astounding 113 batters, or 14.8 per nine innings.
Opponents are hitting only .167 with a meager OPS of .456, so the ninth inning offers little hope for opposing hitters. With only 5.2 hits allowed per nine innings, and only one home run allowed all season, opponents know that they must do their damage earlier in the game if they are going to beat the Braves.
If Kimbrel can continue his dominance throughout September and into October, the Braves, who currently hold an 8.5 game lead in the NL Wild Card race, should ease into the playoffs, hoping to erase memories of their early exit in the NLDS last season.
The surging Arizona Diamondbacks have an exciting trio of right-handed starters under 26 years old leading their charge to the top of the NL West.
Daniel Hudson, the 24-year-old righty acquired at last season's trading deadline, has thus far outperformed the more-heralded pitcher he was traded for, Edwin Jackson.
Currently closing in on 200 innings for the first time, Hudson is 15-9 with a 3.53 ERA and a 1.216 WHIP, along with 149 strikeouts in 196 innings.
Though he has given up a hit per inning, his impeccable command helps him limit potential damage and stay out of perilous big innings. His 1.9 walks per nine innings is a stellar mark that he would do well to continue.
His breakout campaign follow a 2010 pennant stretch in which Hudson went 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA after his trade to the Arizona desert.
With a seven game lead on the defending champion Giants, the young staff in Arizona may get to relax somewhat as they prepare for the franchise's first postseason since 2007.
While fellow 25-and-under Atlanta hurlers Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are struggling with injuries down the stretch, Brandon Beachy has been tearing up NL offenses as he seeks to secure a rotation slot for October.
The 25-year-old right-hander has made 21 starts for the Braves, earning a 7-2 record, with a 3.37 ERA, and has struck out 135 in 120.1 innings. His 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings are made even better by his solid walk rate rate of only 2.6 per nine.
Lately, he has been on fire, going 4-0 with a 2.79 ERA over eight starts since July 24.
Depending upon the health status of Jurrjens and Hanson, Beachy's stellar breakout campaign could see him in line to join Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe in Atlanta's playoff rotation.
If you were asked to name the best hitting catcher in MLB during 2011, you would likely come up with names like Mauer, Wieters, McCann or Santana. You'd be wrong.
Alex Avila, the 24-year-old backstop for the Tigers, stepped into baseball's limelight with an All-Star season in just his second full year with the team, tearing up American League pitching in the process.
Avila had hinted at solid production in the minors, but his emergence as a legitimate catching star is somewhat of a pleasant surprise coming from the 2005 34th round draft pick.
Currently hitting .299 with 17 home runs and 68 RBI, Avila owns a .905 OPS and a stellar .391 on-base percentage due in part to his 64 walks.
Not only is he producing offensively, but he is fourth among all regular catchers with a 32.5 caught-stealing percentage.
His breakthrough has allowed the Tigers to utilize Victor Martinez as their primary DH, which the veteran catcher is better suited for.
Though Avila's first-half performance earned him an All-Star selection, his second-half has been even greater, as he has hit .321 with a .956 OPS following the mid-season break.
When the Yankees constructed their starting rotation for the 2011 season, Ivan Nova was considered as a potential candidate for the fifth slot in their rotation, but he has turned out to be far more than that in his first full year with the team.
After missing out on Cliff Lee in free agency, the Yankees went with plan B, and filled out their rotation with veteran Bartolo Colon and 24-year-old Nova after their incumbent trio of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes.
Nova started out unevenly, displaying promise, but had difficulty pitching deep into games. He looked great at times, but at others, he displayed many of the hallmarks of a young pitcher when he would run into trouble and give up a big inning to doom his start.
The young right-hander has stepped up his game considerably during the second half of the season, and is currently unbeaten since June 3, when he was the hard-luck loser against the Angels in a 3-2 defeat.
Currently 15-4, with a 3.89 ERA and a 1.341 WHIP, Nova has inserted himself into the core of the AL Rookie of the Year debate.
Due to his tremendous run of success, and the poise that he has displayed on the mound, Nova's profile has risen significantly, and there is talk of him following CC as the No. 2 starter once the Yankees progress to the playoffs.
That may be a heavy burden for the youngster to bear, but he has displayed an ability to shine under the intense conditions that accompany playing in New York.
For as long as Justin Upton has been producing at a high level for the Arizona Diamondbacks, it feels nearly impossible that he just turned 24 a little over a week ago.
The younger and so far, more successful of the Upton brothers, Justin is in the midst of his best season to date, and appears primed to continue his ascension into the upper echelon of big league stardom.
Currently hitting .297 with a .918 OPS, Upton has tied his career-high of 27 home runs, and already has 82 RBI, only four from his career-best 86 from 2009. His 93 runs are a new career-high, as well as his 38 doubles thus far. If he continues at the pace he has set, he will set new marks in on-base percentage and slugging as well. His 20 stolen bases also match a career-high from 2009.
After looking up at San Francisco for much of the season, Arizona has been streaking and has overtaken the reigning World Champions on the strength of their own pitching. At the moment, the Diamondbacks own a six game lead in the West, and will need to finish strong to return to the postseason for the first time since 2007.
Upton's potent bat will be counted upon to produce in the heart of the order as the Diamondbacks strive towards the playoffs once again.
With a playoff berth so close, I would expect the talented Upton to provide the thunder required to support his pitching staff as they look to bury the Giants and any hopes they retain of repeating as World Series Champions.
Not only is Upton thriving in the desert heat of Arizona, but he is gaining momentum nationally in the discussion over potential NL MVP candidates, With the type of consistent production he has provided, Upton is certainly a worthy candidate, considering his well-rounded contributions to Arizona's brilliant season so far.