Eye Toward October: Sept. 22

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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.

- Drama Dwindling: With one week left in the season, the hope and heart-fluttering of the September pennant races has largely been replaced by crushing reality. Three teams are already in the October tournament. With a win or a Yankees loss any time in the next week, the Red Sox will join the party too.

Miniscule, seemingly insignificant leads in August become enormous with less than 10 games to play. The Dodgers (up 2 1/2 games) and the Phillies (up a de facto three games) are virtual locks to qualify for the postseason as well.

The reality is this: only two races that really matter remain. The three-way wild-card race in the AL never materialized. Neither did the down-to-the-wire NL West race. The AL East is tight, but not consequential in a knockout fashion.

The Mets and Brewers are left to fight over one playoff spot in the NL. The race between those two is seemingly fueled by angst and little else. Both teams appear fragile; both team's fanbases most certainly are. When one of them sneaks into the playoffs, it will be greeted with relief more than any other emotion.

That leaves us with the White Sox and Twins. Neither club has played well down the stretch, though neither has seemed quite as shaky as New York and Milwaukee, but they will at least meet this week at the Metrodome with a playoff spot on the line. Unlike last season, when we were treated to Colorado's unlikely run and the historic collapse of the Mets, the final week of 2008 figures to be fairly tame.

- Halo of a Decision: It looks like the Angels will end up with the best record in the AL, which means they will get to dictate their schedule in the ALDS. One series comes with an extra off day, presenting an interesting dilemma for Los Angeles.

Under most circumstances, it would probably be best to opt for the extra rest, but with the Red Sox the Angels' likely opponent, the series with four games in five days might be preferable. The trio of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka is as formidable as any in the game, but there's a significant drop from there to Boston's No. 4 starter -- either Paul Byrd or Tim Wakefield. It would behoove the Halos to force the Red Sox to start one or the other in a key game.

- Leery Over Lidge: Phillies closer Brad Lidge stayed perfect in save opportunities Sunday, but that doesn't mean there isn't reason to be at least a little worried about him. Lidge walked a batter and gave up a hit in the ninth against the Marlins. The OPS of hitters facing Lidge has spiked 163 points in the second half of the season and his walk rate since the break (4.78 per nine innings) is also worrisome.

Then there's the mental aspect of returning to the postseason. The last time Lidge was on a team that made the playoffs, he gave up a home run to Albert Pujols that, to borrow a hackneyed expression, is still in orbit somewhere. It turns out Lidge might have been tipping his pitches then, so take that with the appropriate grain of salt.

- Dice-K Rolling: Daisuke Matsuzaka has been a bit of an enigma this year, posting a gaudy win-loss record and ERA, but struggling mightily at times with his control and failing to get deep into games consistently. Matsuzaka tired down the stretch last year, but he'll finish the regular season with 30 fewer innings pitched than in 2007. So he'll be fresh.

But he also appears to be getting stronger. If you look at Matsuzaka's first 14 starts and his last 14 starts the difference is stark. The right-hander has gotten through the sixth inning in 10 of his last 14 turns. In his first 14, he only got through the sixth inning five times. He's averaged 6.33 innings per start in his last 14, an increase of a whole inning over his first 14. Best of all, Matsuzaka appears to be attacking the strike zone more aggressively. His BB/9 over his last 14 is 4.36. It was 5.88 in his first 14.

- In Awe of Manny: The performance of Manny Ramirez this year has been nothing short of amazing. According to statistical Web site Baseball-Reference.com, Ramirez is hitting .400 in high-leverage situations.

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