What difference does September really make? How often does a team get to play
in the post-season who would not have had the opportunity if the season
had ended on August 31? Does it happen regularly?
Let's walk backward until we find the last time it didn't happen. We'll highlight any team that got to play in the post-season who wouldn't have been there were it not for the Games of September...
2005: On September 1, Philadelphia had a half-game lead on Houston for the Wild Card (they were tied in the loss column.) The Astros ended up edging out the Phillies by a single game. In the AL, the Yankees and Red Sox exchanged winning the division for winning the Wild Card.
2004: The Angels trailed Oakland by 3 games heading for September. They made up all of it, and then some. In the NL, the Cubs were 1 game ahead of San Francisco and 3 games ahead of Houston in the Wild Card hunt, but Houston ended up taking the prize.
2003: The White Sox led Kansas City (yes!) and Minnesota by 2 games; the Twins would win the division by four games. In the NL, Houston and St. Louis were tied for the division lead, 1.5 games ahead of the Cubs, who would go on to make Steve Bartman famous.
2002: The Dodgers held a 2 game lead over San Francisco for the Wild Card; the Giants would go all the way to the World Series.
2001: Although the Cubs trailed the first place Astros by 3 games, they did have a 1.5 game margin over San Francisco in the chase for the Wild Card. But when the season was over, the Cubs were behind both Houston and St. Louis. The Cardinals made up 6 games to end up in a tie with Houston in the NL Central.
2000: Oakland trailed Seattle by 2.5 games in the AL West; they also trailed Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto for the Wild Card. The A's ended up winning the division outright, while Seattle settled for the Wild Card. In the NL, the Mets and Braves exchanged winning the division for winning the Wild Card.
1999: What you saw on September 1 was what exactly what you got in the post-season. In the NL, Atlanta, Houston, and Arizona would win their divisions. The Mets would take the Wild Card, although Cincinnati would throw a scare into them. In the AL, Texas and Cleveland were already on cruise control, and the Yankees had a comfortable lead in the AL East. Boston's strong September didn't do much to close the gap in the division, but it did leave Oakland in the dust in the Wild Card chase.
And so, as we head for home in 2006... five of the six division races are pretty well over. In the AL, the smallest advantage is Detroit's 5 game lead on the White Sox. But the Sox and Twins are in a virtual dead heat for the Wild Card. Chicago is ahead on points at the moment because they have played, and won, an extra game.
In the NL, the Reds are slipping out of the NL Central race, but they're still alive in the Wild Card chase. They're 2.5 games behind San Diego. The Padres themselves are 3 games behind the Dodgers in the only division race that still looks halfway... not interesting, it's the NL West... competitive, I suppose.
As we head into the final four weeks, 13 of the 30 teams have won 70 games. Nine of those teams are in the American League. Now, granted, 70 wins is an arbitrary cutoff. By Wednesday, four NL teams could very well have 70 wins as well.
But anyway, four of those AL teams - Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Texas - are effectively out of post-season contention already; and obviously one of Minnesota and Chicago is not going to make it either. Of those six teams, all but Texas have better records than the San Diego Padres, who are the NL's current Wild Card leader...