With just a few weeks left to go in the regular season, baseball's pennant races will be a daily story the rest of the month. Some divisions--namely the Central in both leagues--are essentially wrapped up already, but there are still plenty of things left to be decided. Two division races in the National League appear likely to come down to the wire, and both wild card races will be full of intrigue. Let's look into 25 individual players who will play a large part in determining how these races play out.
The reigning NL MVP got off to a slow start in 2021, but that's a distant memory now. Since the all-star break, the Braves first baseman has slashed .326/.398/.517 and driven in big runs as the sole left-handed threat in the middle of Atlanta's lineup. The Braves will need him to continue producing down the stretch as they look to hold both Philadelphia and New York off in the NL East.
The Phillies have seemingly been fighting an uphill battle all season, but their best player, right fielder Bryce Harper, is doing absolutely everything in his power to steal the NL East title for Philadelphia. Since August 3rd Harper has hit well over .300 and crushed 11 home runs. With first baseman, Rhys Hoskins out for the remainder of the season, Harper and J.T. Realmuto are under significant pressure to carry this offense on a daily basis. Philly will need both to dominate down the stretch if they're going to overtake Atlanta.
Mr. Smile has had a tumultuous first season in Queens, but he's got a chance to rewrite the entire storyline with one tremendous month down the stretch. Lindor's '21 campaign to date has included a terrible start, a dust-up with a teammate in the tunnel, a six-week absence thanks to an oblique issue, and frustration over being booed boiling over into an unbelievably childish feud with his home fans. That said. Lindor has been front and center in the Mets' recent turnaround, and two clutch home runs over the weekend in Washington helped secure two more Mets wins. New York is still a long shot to pass both the Phillies and Braves in the NL East, but their dynamic switch-hitting shortstop represents their best chance at an amazin' finish to the regular season.
Similar to Lindor, Baez's tenure with the Mets has gotten off to a rocky start. He was at the forefront of the thumbs-down gesture that he later revealed to be a way to boo the fans back after they were booing the team. Mature. Anyway, since that whole debacle a week ago Baez has really come on offensively. Highlighted by a 4-4 game against Washington on Sunday, he's hit big home runs and showed elite instincts on the bases to help lead New York's charge back to relevance. He'll have to keep playing at this level to give the Mets a shot.
Nola was the ace of the Phillies staff for a long time, and while teammate Zack Wheeler has stripped him of that title, the veteran righty may still be the most important player on Philadelphia's team down the stretch. The Phillies are confident in what they'll get from Wheeler, but Nola has been very much up and down to date. In 27 starts he's 7-7 with a 4.54 ERA in 152.2 innings. With every game of immense importance and uncertainty behind them in the rotation, Philadelphia will have to win virtually all of Nola and Wheeler's starts down the stretch. If they can, the Braves could be in a bit of trouble.
Talk about a change of scenery working wonders, huh? After struggling for most of the season in Kansas City, Jorge Soler was traded to the Braves at the deadline and has absolutely taken off. In just 120 at-bats he's crushed nine homers while slashing .275/.367/.533. When Ronald Acuna Jr. went down for the season Atlanta needed someone to step up in a big way to get back in the NL East race, and Soler may be the primary reason they're currently in first place. The question now is can he keep it up?
The Reds dug themselves a hole when they got off to a slow start in 2021--particularly on the mound--but they've been one of the best teams in baseball in the second half. Entering play on Labor Day Cincinnati is just a half-game behind the Padres for the 2nd Wild Card in the National League, and a big reason why is their young rookie second baseman that isn't talked about enough on the national level. Jonathan India is the hands-down favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year, and he's been a force for the Reds out of the lead-off spot, reaching base at a .380 clip and connecting on 45 extra-base hits. They'll need to continue igniting this offense the next few weeks.
Sticking with the Reds. Ace right-hander Luis Castillo got off to just a miserable start this season and was carrying around an ugly 7.22 ERA at the end of May. Since then though, he's really turned his campaign around, and it's no coincidence that is about when the Reds starting winning. In 18 starts since the calendar flipped to June, Castillo has pitched to a 2.76 ERA in 110.2 innings. He's probably got about five starts left, and the Reds will need him to be money as they attempt to steal a playoff berth from the high-profile Padres.
Speaking of the Padres, they looked like a lock to be a postseason team for most of 2021, but they have emphatically left the door open for the Reds and maybe even the Cardinals now. There's no mistaking their current situation, San Diego is in four a four-week dogfight to finish the season, and what better time for arguably the best player in our game to take center stage. A shoulder injury derailed much of Tatis' August, and he's actually playing the outfield right now to avoid having to throw the ball as much. It's fair to wonder just how healthy that shoulder is as after the all-star break he's hit only .265 with nine home runs. With all of that being said though, Tatis is a difference-making talent, and the Friars are counting on him to make the difference for them in September.
Left-hander Blake Snell's transition to the National League has come with some ups and downs after he switched coasts in a winter trade between Tampa Bay and San Diego. In 25 starts for the Padres, he's pitched to a 4.31 ERA with a 1.38 WHIP while pitching in a division that has housed the two best teams in baseball (the Dodgers and Giants). One thing to remember about Snell though is that he's a prime-time performer, a former Cy Young award winner, and someone who doesn't shy away from the big stage. The Padres simply need him to dominate in his last few starts if they are indeed going to snag this second wild card position they're after.
The Cardinals' decision to buy at the deadline was met with skepticism, after all, at the end of July they were 6.5 games out of the second wild-card position. Well, skip ahead five weeks and they've cut that number in half down to three. The recent performance of their slugging first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, is one of the primary reasons they still have a heartbeat. In the last month, Goldschmidt has clubbed seven homers and driven in 27 runs, many of which have come in big spots. The Redbirds' chances to qualify for the playoffs are still remote, but a dominant four-week stretch from both Goldschmidt and fellow corner infielder Nolan Arenado could potentially be enough for them to overtake both the Reds and Padres. They've got an immensely important three-game series with Cincinnati coming up this weekend.
In one of the most interesting division races we've had in years, the loaded Dodgers and the surprising Giants have been neck and neck with each other for the NL West crown all season. Heading into play this week San Francisco owns a one-game lead, and while both teams will certainly make the playoffs, the stakes of winning the division couldn't be higher. One team will have home-field advantage throughout October, the other will face a one-game elimination contest with likely either the Padres or Reds. Do you want to face either Yu Darvish or Luis Castillo with your season on the line? Trying to help win the West for LA will be the probable NL Cy Young award winner this year, Walker Buehler, who is on a staff with Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer has emerged as this team's ace. Buehler struggled against the Giants on Sunday night, taking his first loss in over a month, and his team needs him to carry that chip on his shoulder for the rest of September.
When the Dodgers pulled off their big trade with the Nationals to bring Max Scherzer to Los Angeles, the fact that they were also able to land Trea Turner sent shock waves across the National League playoff field. Turner is a proven winner who owns a championship ring, an elite offensive table-setter with power, and a skilled defender--although he has not looked all that comfortable at second base. His addition likely means Corey Seager is going to depart as a free agent this winter and the Dodgers will still have an all-star shortstop on their roster. But for now, they're counting on their super team to find a way to outlast the Giants in the West before setting their sights on another deep October run.
Baseball's best team at the moment, San Francisco, has gotten contributions from all over their roster in 2021, and he's a guy you should know about if you don't already. Young righty Logan Webb has very quietly become a force in the Giants rotation. In 21 outings he owns a spectacular 2.56 ERA with a dazzling 1.09 WHIP. His development into an upper-echelon starter has come much earlier than expected, and the only thing that can potentially slow him down down the stretch is if the Giants decide they need to be careful with his innings.
San Francisco catcher Buster Posey opted out of the 2020 season amid concerns over COVID, and a year off sure did wonders for the 34-year-old. The Giants have been a little careful with Posey's workload thus far and he's still yet to appear in 100 games, but he also looks fresher than ever at the plate. Entering play on Labor Day he's slashed .304/.395/.502 with 16 homers and 43 RBI. As his Giants try to hold off the Dodgers and win the West, look for Posey to catch virtually every day down the stretch, and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his offensive production with a more intense workload.
One of the more surprising teams in baseball so far is easily the Mariners, although you wouldn't know it given that nobody really talks about them. Heading into play on Labor Day Seattle is 13 games over .500 and just three games out of a playoff spot. To sneak into the postseason and end a long playoff drought, they'll have to overtake either the Yankees or the Red Sox, which is not likely but not impossible. And if they pull it off, bet the ranch young Jarred Kelenic is a big reason why. Heading into 2021 Kelenic was a consensus top prospect in the game, but his campaign has not gone to plan. He's been hitting on the interstate all season and his eight home runs in 250 at-bats are a far cry from his minor league production levels. But why not flip the whole script, dominate for four weeks, and become a legend in the Pacific Northwest?
Doing everything in his power to make sure the Mariners don't steal the Yankees' playoff spot is New York's ace right-hander Gerrit Cole, who has been brilliant for most of the season for the Bombers. In 25 starts Cole has worked to a 2.73 ERA with a sub-one WHIP while striking out well over 200 hitters already. He probably has about five starts left in the regular season, and with the rotation, a little suspect behind him, New York simply needs to win every time Cole takes the hill.
Yankees' slugger Giancarlo Stanton could certainly educate his crosstown peers with the Mets,--Francisco Lindor and Javy Baez--about getting booed in New York. But he could also tell them just how quickly you can turn that negativity around with a few good games. And lately, Stanton has had more than a few of them. New York's DH has already crushed 11 second-half bombs with raising his average about 15 points from where it was at the end of July. He played a big role in a long Yankees' winning streak that put them in prime playoff position, and he'll have to continue swinging the bat like this to help them hold onto it.
Infielder D.J. LeMahieu has been a difference-maker for the Yankees since the moment he arrived in the Bronx, although 2021 has easily been the most frustrating season of the veteran's New York tenure. Heading into Labor Day action LeMahieu has hit .268--by far his lowest mark in three seasons as a Yankee. He's also compiled only 32 extra-base hits to this point. For reference, in a full season in 2019, he racked up 61. Forget all that though. LeMahieu is a winner and the kind of versatile veteran every team needs this time of year. And I'd expect him to kick it up a notch as the Bombers get closer and closer to securing an October ticket.
Boston's baby-faced all-star third baseman has been an elite run producer since debuting in the Major Leagues back in '17, and this year has been no different. Right now Devers is 3rd in the big leagues behind only Jose Abreu and Salvador Perez with 100 RBI. Boston led the AL East for most of the first half, but thanks to a furious post all-star break surge from Tampa Bay, the idea of a division crown is now out of the question. The Red Sox are still in good shape to enter a one-game Wild Card showdown with probably the Yankees, but they'll need Devers and company to continue producing down the stretch to hold off the likes of Seattle and Toronto.
Sticking in New England. Three weeks ago southpaw Chris Sale returned from a nearly two-season hiatus thanks to the dreaded Tommy John surgery, and he has given the Red Sox everything they could have hoped for in his first four outings. In 21.1 innings he's allowed only six earned runs, and if he can continue building up his strength and stamina, look for Boston to really cut him loose in late September and October.
Red Sox fans are not likely to forgive the organization for trading beloved superstar Mookie Betts away anytime soon, but the primary piece they received in that trade, Alex Verdugo, is already on his way to becoming a fan favorite in his own right. The left-handed swinging right fielder has enjoyed a terrific first full season in Beantown, slashing .286/.357/.432 with 12 homers and 50 RBI so far. Last Saturday night he delivered a walk-off hit to help the Red Sox avoid a disastrous loss to Cleveland, and he's someone they'll continue to lean on as they look to secure a postseason berth these next few weeks.
The A's postseason hopes seem to be dwindling by the day, but don't blame Starling Marte for that. In his first 33 games with Oakland after coming over in a deadline trade with the Marlins, the veteran center fielder has hit .336 and reached base at a .373 clip. In wild card position for much of 2021, the Athletics are now four games behind Boston for the final playoff spot, with both Seattle and Toronto also ahead of them. Can Marte help lead a spirited run to get his club back in the race these final few weeks?
The Blue Jays are currently riding a four-game winning streak that has pulled them to within four games of the second Wild Card spot in the American League. And as they try to chase down one of their division rivals --either New York or Boston--to steal a playoff spot, the Jays have something going for them the other two teams (Seattle and Oakland) don't. Games left against a team they need to catch. Toronto is done with Boston, but beginning Labor Day afternoon it has seven games left with the Yankees. Big players need to show up in the biggest moments and look for Toronto to lean on their AL MVP candidate, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in those contests.
Sticking north of the border. Outfielder George Springer has had a frustrating first season in Toronto after joining the Blue Jays as a free agent, as injuries have limited him to only 55 games thus far. That won't matter, though, if he can catch fire in September and lead Toronto back to the postseason. As an Astro Springer was one of the most clutch performers our game has seen in recent years, and if the Blue Jays are going to continue making this push they're on they'll need him to be front and center.
Justin Mears is a freelance sports writer from Long Beach Island, NJ. Enjoys being frustrated by the Mets and Cowboys, reading Linwood Barclay novels, and being yelled at by his toddler son. Follow him on twitter @justinwmears.