Baseball is officially rounding third and heading home. With the calendar flipping to September, the 2023 MLB regular season has one month to settle its biggest narratives, questions and battles.
Some major characters have been shunted to the side — please wave, San Diego Padres, New York Mets and New York Yankees — and others have stepped into a more focused spotlight. As the final four weeks play out, we’re here to help you narrow your attention to the storylines most likely to stick in the collective memory.
The wild, wild AL West
Let’s get started with the wildest, highest-stakes race going.
Three teams, three very different trajectories, one division, one game of separation. The Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers are dueling in close quarters for both a division title and a guaranteed bye into the ALDS (any of them would outrank the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins). The insurgent Rangers led the way for most of the season … until their stumbles coincided with Julio Rodriguez and the Mariners achieving liftoff in a scorching August. Then there are the Astros, defending division and World Series champs, coasting along, lurking, preparing to make a run at their seventh consecutive ALCS appearance. Overlook them at your peril.
Right now, all three of these teams would make the postseason in whatever order they finish, but the Toronto Blue Jays might have something to say about that before season’s end.
Circle on your calendar: Seattle’s last 10 games are against the two rivals. The final weekend at T-Mobile Park could have huge postseason implications.
The NL wild-card race
OK, take the AL West and democratize it. Anyone can play! Just stick around .500! With the Philadelphia Phillies firmly in control of the top wild-card slot and the Chicago Cubs looking strong on the second line, there are four teams in a chaotic jumble vying for one spot in the NL wild-card picture. Right now, the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins are all within three games of one another, with the Giants holding a slight edge on the month’s first morning.
The youthful Reds have slipped a bit recently in their quest to ride a raft of top prospects to a surprise playoff berth, but they snapped up potential veteran jolts in Harrison Bader and Hunter Renfroe during this week’s waiver wire flood. The Giants and D-backs look like the sturdiest contenders, but their thin pitching staffs threaten to turn at least half of their games into adventures.
Circle on your calendar: It’s tough to pick any one series out of this mayhem, but the Giants’ stretch beginning Sept. 19 stands out. They have a two-game set with the D-backs before facing the juggernaut Dodgers seven times in their final 10 games.
Ongoing Shohei Ohtani intrigue
Diagnosed with a torn UCL in his pitching elbow, the two-way superstar and impending free agent won’t take the mound again. The Los Angeles Angels have adamantly waved the white flag. Yet Ohtani is still hitting.
Having already locked up the AL MVP award, Ohtani hasn’t given the media any hint as to the motivations driving his decision to play — or the motivations driving anything else, frankly. Maybe he wants 50 homers or to found the 50-homer, 25-steal club. Whatever his goals for the month, Ohtani will somehow keep attracting eyeballs to the whimpering end of an era in Anaheim.
Circle on your calendar: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Ronald Acuña Jr. vs. Mookie Betts
The two NL MVP favorites are playing at stunningly high levels. Acuña, the Atlanta Braves’ dynamo, has broken new ground with 30 homers and 60 steals in a season. Betts, a relative graybeard who has the strongest non-Ohtani claim on Best Player in Baseball status, is seeking his second MVP nod and first with the Los Angeles Dodgers with another power explosion.
Oh, and they’re just the tips of their teams’ respective spears, as the Braves and Dodgers currently carry MLB’s two best records.
Circle on your calendar: The two NL powerhouses are playing a Labor Day weekend series in Los Angeles, and there have already been fireworks. On Thursday, Acuña bashed a grand slam (on his impromptu wedding day), Betts hit two homers, and the Braves escaped with a win. Expect more high-flying action from these teams — not to mention first basemen Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson, who might finish third and fourth in NL MVP voting.
The sneaky close AL East race
It feels like the Baltimore Orioles have taken control of the AL East, what with their long run in first, an injury wave hitting the Tampa Bay Rays and allegations landing Rays shortstop Wander Franco on administrative leave. The division is not yet in hand, though. The Rays — the same team that won 13 in a row to open the season — are only 1.5 games back with a month to play.
This race could come down to which team answers its pitching questions more confidently. The Orioles are still grappling with youth and inexperience in the rotation, while the Rays have been decimated by injuries, most recently to Shane McClanahan.
Circle on your calendar: This could be a “one series to rule them all” solution. The two teams square off Sept. 15-17 in Baltimore. The winner might earn home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.