Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Dog Days of Summer Are Getting Pretty Wild

The dog days of summer: Maybe not "must-win," but definitely "must-see."

It's been a point of contention since inception in 1995, and while it may have been viewed skeptically by baseball purists then (myself included—I'm the guy that cries for justice every time a National landmark like Yankee Stadium is torn down), the baseball Wildcard is most definitely a boon to the game. Drizzle a few dollops of Wildcard contenders onto an already compelling portion of divisional races, and you have a recipe for a delectable five-course baseball meal.

They call it the dog days, but we all know that baseball fans get so much more than kibble this time of year.

Five of six Major League Baseball divisions are in the midst of very tense pennant races—add to that the wild card chaos, which features seven N.L. teams and four A.L. teams, and you are looking at a plethora of drool inspiring "must-win" games on the docket, each and every night across the league.

As the Twins and Whitesox are battling it out for supremacy in the A.L. Central, and the Cardinals and the Reds are duking it out in the N.L. Central. The Giants are entertaining the Padres this weekend, and although they are currently three and a half games back of the pace, they can still be consoled by the fact that they have a perilous half game lead over the Cardinals in the Wildcard (a game over the surging Phillies).

"This is a showdown," said Padres manager Bud Black, "when you get into September, that's really the line for me."

And there will be plenty of opportunities for both teams to toe the line later in the season, which is great news for those of us with voracious appetites for high-stakes baseball. The Giants and Padres have nine games remaining, including a season ending series in San Francisco.

Games like last night's 3-2 nailbiter at AT&T park in San Francisco (another great outing by that invincible S.D. bullpen), keep fans coming out in droves, and when the fans come out, the atmosphere sizzles with importance.

At this time of year, there is only one surefire way to bring people in the park (dreams of a post season bid), and MLB must feel pleased as punch about the fact that the season is three-quarters done, yet still fourteen of its thirty-two teams have managed to keep the dream alive.

Jonathan Sanchez' prediction of a sweep and the Giants acquisition of power-hitting outfielder Jose Guillen only added to the boisterousness of the sellout crowd of 42,722 in San Francisco last night. When Aubrey Huff launched a drive to right center field that had a chance to leave the yard in the bottom of the eighth, the roar of the crowd was enough to rattle the ear drums.

Huff's drive died at the warning, track, but the hopes and dreams of Giants fans will live on as they take the field this afternoon in another "must win" game. And hopes and dreams are what grease the wheels of the dog day express.

Of course there really is no such thing as a "must win" game when you are three and a half games back with forty-five games left to play. But perception can be very different from reality in cases such as these, and the beautiful thing about "must win" games in August is that if you lose one, you are rewarded instantaneously with another one.

Don't tell the Reds and Cardinals that the dog days of summer aren't life and death. The teams were literally at each others throats earlier in the week in Cincinnati. Their impromptu brawl (and resultant suspensions) may not have been pretty, but it was so captivating that fans are already circling the three game series between the two antagonists beginning September third in St. Louis with red ink.

Baseball can be a sleepy event at times, and it can be downright boring at others. Attend an Orioles-Royals game in May, and you'll get what I'm saying. But when the dog days of summer produce the the thunder and lightning that we're currently seeing all over the league, it's time for even the casual fan to tune in.

The games might not really be "must win" yet, but they are most certainly "must see."