Phillies, Yankees Gain Momentum Heading To Oct.

For baseball fans, Labor Day weekend is a time to take a close look at the standings, and which teams are likely to make it to the playoffs. Buster Olney, a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, talks with Ari Shapiro about the eight open playoff slots. Olney says the N.Y. Yankees and the Philaldlephia Phillies, last year's champion, are gaining momentum.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

In the world of baseball, things are heading down the home stretch. It's Labor Day weekend, and for baseball fans, that means it's time to take a close look at the standings, and at which teams are likely to make it to the playoffs. Joining us to talk about the pennant races is Buster Olney. He's a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. Good morning.

Mr. BUSTER OLNEY (Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine): Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Okay. We're in the last chapter of the season. So which teams do you see as the shoo-ins?

Mr. OLNEY: Well, the Yankees I think right now, without question, are having a season of redemption. They came into this season under a lot of pressure. There was talk that their manager Joe Girardi might get fired if they didn't make the playoffs. And they seem to be gathering momentum as they head toward the playoffs.

C.C. Sabathia, was their big pickup during the off season, has been pitching so well lately that he's probably going to come under consideration for the American League Cy Young award.

SHAPIRO: And the Phillies, last year's champions, also seem to be doing really well.

Mr. OLNEY: Without question. And a guy who was so important to them in winning the championship last year, Cole Hamels, struggled through a lot of this year. He had some elbow discomfort earlier this year. But in his last two starts, he's been tremendous. They, like the Yankees, seem to be gathering momentum as we head toward October.

SHAPIRO: Okay. So if there are eight playoff slots, and we assume that the Phillies and the Yankees will take two of them, who else do you think are the most interesting teams to watch right now?

Mr. OLNEY: The St. Louis Cardinals are fascinating. Of course, they've got the best player in baseball in Albert Pujols, who's sort of his generation's Joe DiMaggio. And they made a great midseason acquisition, Matt Holliday, to bat behind Pujols. This is forcing opposing pitchers to actually have to throw strikes to Pujols. And they've got a great one-two punch at the front end of their rotation in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. You know, they're a team that's going to be very dangerous in October.

And I think the teams out in the National League West - the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants, the Colorado Rockies - those are three really good teams that are playing well as we head down the stretch. And I think we'll be talking a lot about them in the weeks ahead and in October.

SHAPIRO: Are there any dark horse teams that you think may surprise us in the weeks ahead?

Mr. OLNEY: The San Francisco Giants are a very interesting team because they basically have a very weak offensive lineup, and they've suffered some injuries and they've struggled to score one or two runs every game. But they have a tremendous pitching staff. Tim Lincecum - who's this little 5'10", 160-pound pitcher - he throws 95 miles per hour. He's at the front end of the rotation.

Matt Cain is another guy who's been completely dominant with a great fastball. And they just picked up a pitcher from the Boston Red Sox named Brad Penny. And it'll be interesting to see if they make it to the post season, if that pitching staff is good enough to carry them.

SHAPIRO: Now, you're a journalist. You're always looking for a great story. So what would be to you the most interesting, compelling pairing for the World Series?

Mr. OLNEY: Without question, a matchup of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees, because, of course, you would have Joe Torre, the manger of the Dodgers, going against the Yankees.

And right now, there's a lot of ill feeling between Joe and the organization since he had his book come out on spring training. He was critical of different members of that organization, including Alex Rodriguez. And so it would be interesting to see the Dodgers and Yankees, old rivals, face off with that as the underlying story.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you said, the Yankees seem like a likely bet. How well do you think the Dodges are doing? How likely is it that they would make it all the way?

Mr. OLNEY: Well, they're going to have to get past teams that probably have better pitching staffs. And they also have to see resurgence in Manny Ramirez, who was so great for them in the last two months of last year. He hit .396. But since he came back from his 50 game suspension for use of banned substances, he really hasn't been the same hitter. He hasn't hit for the same kind of power. We'll see if he picks it up before the end of the year.

SHAPIRO: That's Buster Olney, who covers baseball for ESPN The Magazine.

Thanks a lot.

Mr. OLNEY: Thanks, Ari.

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