September is baseball's truth month, when everything is magnified by the knowledge that the tiniest slip could take a team out of a shot at the World Series. With the finish lines now so visible that they stand out like a waiter in a red vest, two of the four division championships are still up for grabs. Only San Francisco in the National League West and Minnesota in the American League West are breathing easily, both having made it a virtual formality by clinching at least a tie for their respective titles with a week to go. It will be the first time the Giants have been in the playoffs since 1971 and the first appearance for the Twins since 1970.
Meanwhile the other two leaders, St. Louis in the NL East and Toronto in the AL East, continue to make like tightrope walkers. And in a bit of schedule-making that couldn't have been better if it had scripted in Hollywood, each one closes out the season next weekend against its closest rival.
The Cardinals, who led the defending world champion New York Mets by 10 games at the All-Star break, have had to overcome so many injuries that for a while they were a Rhapsody in Blue. Lately the Redbirds have particularly missed power hitter and MVP candidate Jack Clark, who is out for the season. But while their lead has dwindled, they've clung to first place through it all, and now are home for their final seven games.
New York, which has also had its share of injuries plus some internal problems early, closed the gap to 2 games by the Labor Day weekend but has found it tough to inch any closer.
Montreal, whose pitching, hitting, and overall balance were vastly underrated at the start of the season, is also still within striking distance as the final countdown begins.
And in a most appropriate windup, the issue is going to be settled in head-to-head combat between the teams involved.
The Expos get their shot first in a four-game series at St. Louis, starting with a doubleheader tonight. Meanwhile, reflecting like a fireball on the horizon is the three-game season-ending series between the Mets and Cards in St. Louis next weekend.
In the AL East, it's strictly a two-team race between Toronto and Detroit.
The Blue Jays were on the verge of a four-game sweep over the Tigers in Toronto last weekend that would have given them a virtually insurmountable 4-game lead. They won the first three games of the series and were leading 1-0 in the ninth inning on Sunday, but the Tigers tied it on a home run by Kirk Gibson and eventually pulled out a 3-2, 13-inning victory that kept them in the race at 2 games behind.
One reason that these teams were able to pull away from the other AL East contenders in the stretch is that both benefited greatly from late-season trades that did wonders for their pitching. The Blue Jays picked up Mike Flanagan from Baltimore, and the veteran left-hander has pitched well for them, climaxed by a big win over Detroit ace Jack Morris last week. And the Tigers have received a tremendous boost from Doyle Alexander, who is 8-0 with Detroit since coming over from Atlanta, and who kept them in that all-important Sunday game with 10-plus outstanding innings even though he didn't get credit for the eventual victory.
There are more tough tests ahead for them and their teammates, too, because the AL schedule is also a fan's dream - with these same two teams concluding the season in a three-game series at Detroit next weekend.
In the AL West, where most of the season a .500 record was enough to be a contender, the amazing Twins finally put some real distance between themselves and their rivals.
The Twins have been winning with a pitching staff that ranks ninth in the league. But they do have a stopper in Frank Viola, a wise veteran in Bert Blyleven, a tough reliever in Jeff Reardon, and four power hitters in Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, and Kirby Puckett.
Taking turns chasing Minnesota since the All-Star break but never quite able to catch up were the Oakland A's, California Angels, Kansas City Royals, and lately the Texas Rangers. But the A's never had enough pitching; a horrible September ruined the Angels; the talented Royals didn't seem to care enough; and the Rangers started their drive from too deep in the forest.
As for San Francisco, while it has become fashionable to refer to the Giants as a team without any larger-than-life stars, their pitching staff has the lowest earned-run average in the National League. They also have (after the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith) the league's best defensive shortstop in Jos'e Uribe, plus five excellent RBI men in Will Clark, Candy Maldonado, Jeff Leonard, Kevin Mitchell, and Chili Davis.
As in the AL West, San Francisco had to fight off challengers most of the season, but neither defending champion Houston nor 1986 runner-up Cincinnati could keep up in the final weeks as the Giants pulled away.