When they fall right, the final six weeks of the Major League Baseball season are the best competition of any sport's late-season stretch. It's no mere matter of six games to go, or even a dozen.
Of the remaining contenders with 40 games left, more than half will look up at the end and wonder what could have happened on any of 10,000 pitches in the final six weeks to change their fortunes.
The pennant race is constant day-to-day pressure in which no single day decides anything. The struggle to qualify for the baseball playoffs makes every other sport's stretch drive look like child's play.
You can run, but you can't hide your flaws. Make the playoffs, and anything can happen. But getting there is the tough part.
In the American League right now, six clubs are strongly in playoff contention, with two others just outside. Half of those clubs will miss the playoffs, and any one of the rejected could have gone all the way.
In the National League, 10 clubs are thickly involved, and the Reds or Houston Astros could stumble into the race with a strong run of two weeks. Somebody might snag a weak division with 83 wins then match its way through the playoffs and win the World Series. It happened last year.
Watching the St. Louis Cardinals again this year is a lesson about how raw resourcefulness can be enough to get a chance, and the chance is everything. Tony LaRussa's ball club is, sort of literally, a non-starter. The Cardinals have the worst starting pitching in the National League by ERA, Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder are gone and, to top it off, the Cards don't score runs.
Through Aug. 19, the Cardinals batted only .217 with two outs and runners in scoring position, which ranks them 15th in the 16-team National League. Veterans Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen are producing like old guys trying to hang on, and Albert Pujols, with the recent assistance of the re-invented Rick Ankiel, is carrying the offense.
It's not much, but LaRussa knows that if he can just duct tape something together and win a couple more than he loses he can survive until October. Now he's again batting his pitchers eighth just to set up an extra base runner for Pujols once in a while.
The Cardinals have resorted to a starting rotation of Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Anthony Reyes, Kip Wells and Joel Piniero. Sounds like a tweaking job here and there for pitching coach Dave Duncan.
With these immortals, the Cardinals ran off a streak of nine games in which they gave up three runs or fewer eight times and gave up four runs the other time. Looper, Wells and Piniero each won two starts in a row during the stretch, which began Aug. 8.
Last week, the Cardinals went to first-place Milwaukee, where Wells, Piniero and Wainwright all took solid command against the tottering Brewers. The Cardinals swept the Brewers, who lost their grip on the National League Central right there.
It was just a matter of time before someone moved in front of Milwaukee. The Cubs did it by outpitching the Cardinals to win twice in Chicago last weekend.
The Cubs are riding high, considering they were 18-16 since the All-Star break, they went without Aramis Ramirez for a week and Alfonso Soriano will have been gone a month when he comes back the first week of September. The Cubs scuffle offensively, but people like Jacque Jones and Daryle Ward keep delivering big hits.
When your starting pitching is as good as the Cubs', you don't need big innings. Big hits suffice. In time, perhaps, the Cubs will return to full strength. Until then, manager Lou Piniella is trying to win 4-3 games in Wrigley Field.
Given all their parts, the Cubs are the best club in the division. But knowing how to win matters, and the Cardinals own that knowledge like no one else in the competition.
The NL Central race is likely to go at a dull pace, but the elements will keep it interesting. We've got a young club going to school in the Brewers, LaRussa's old airplane riding through the storm and a sleeping giant, the Cubs, who have finally gotten serious.
The other five divisions are not only close, but, unlike the NL Central, are briskly contested among winning clubs. The wild card positions will rescue a couple good teams, but not all of them.
Of course, you can't live in America without hearing all about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who are putting on another high-wire show. While the NL Central is contested among mediocre clubs trying to maximize themselves, the American League East involves two excellent clubs with no margin for error.
The Red Sox set out to improve their league-leading pitching staff by dealing for resurrected reliever Eric Gagne at the trade deadline. Then Gagne blew three leads in eight days. And the Yankees are coming fast: They're 27-11 since the All-Star break.
The Yanks devour their daily diet of opposing pitchers, and now their own pitchers are stabilized. Between Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Chien-Ming Wang and Phillip Hughes, they're getting a quality start just about every day. The Yankees won't win with their pitching, but if their pitching doesn't lose, their hitters will win.
Asserting themselves within the American League Central, the Cleveland Indians hold the lead over the Detroit Tigers. Last season, the Indians finished 25-32 against the Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. Through Aug. 19, the Tribe is 22-14 this season against those same clubs, a 7 1/2-game swing. But the Indians still need help in late relief.
The Tigers are a much different team this year. Injuries keep taking down Kenny Rogers, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, while Nate Robertson has been ineffective.
Suddenly, Detroit's pitching is average, if that. The Tigers have compensated with a more productive offense, but hitters can't do everything.
Leading the American League West, the Los Angeles Angels are as solid as any club going. But they have a surprising challenge from the Seattle Mariners, who aren't big on subtlety.
The Mariners don't take a lot of pitches, they don't walk and they don't strike out. They put the ball in play and see what happens. To date, it's worked well for them.
Finally finding their groove in the National League East, the New York Mets were 21-14 after the All-Star break and have begun to pull away. But the Atlanta Braves upgraded at the trade deadline, most notably by bringing in Mark Teixeira. The Philadelphia Phillies will just try to slug their way into the playoffs.
Of all the division leaders, the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West are the least likely to be in first and the least likely to hold on. It's hard to trust such a young club with so little offense, and the Diamondbacks are doing it with mirrors; they're 27-16 in one-run games. They're going to receive an education from the pitching-powered San Diego Padres and the experienced Los Angeles Dodgers.
The road is still long, yet time is running short for the contenders. Just another 10,000 pitches for each club. Every one will be worth watching.