STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Okay. Labor Day weekend is upon us, which means it's crunch time for Major League Baseball. The playoffs are a little more than a month away. So let's take stock of the season so far, as well as the pennant race to come. Buster Olney is on the line with us. He covers baseball for ESPN The Magazine.
Mr. BUSTER OLNEY (Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine): Good morning.
INSKEEP: Okay. Red Sox or the Yankees? Didn't look like it was going to be much of a rivalry this year because the Yankees almost didn't show up. But now, here are the Yankees sweeping them in a series and getting closer and closer to the Red Sox in that division.
Mr. OLNEY: Yeah. And despite the horrible start that they had, they look like they may be the most dangerous team in baseball, fueled by this unlikely group of Yankees, a bunch of young and cheap players. And the best guy of that lot may be this rookie pitcher named Joba Chamberlain who throws about a hundred miles-an-hour. The Yankees are probably too far out to eventually catch the Red Sox in the division race, but they certainly have made up a lot of ground, now lead the wildcard race, a very dangerous team.
INSKEEP: Possibility at all that they could end up being a very dangerous team now in the playoffs?
Mr. OLNEY: Without a doubt, because their offense, which was really stagnant in May, has stepped up to the point that they are averaging about seven runs a game since the all-star break. It really harkens back to the great offenses that they had during their dynasty in the late '90s. And their pitching has really stepped up. And guys like Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, familiar faces, are throwing very well right now.
INSKEEP: You mentioned Roger Clemens. He won one of the games against Boston. Here is a guy who's what? 45 years old, doesn't have the stuff that he had when he was a brilliant rookie pitcher, brilliant young pitcher 20 years ago, but here he is still winning some games.
Mr. OLNEY: Yeah, he finds a way to win. As you say, he doesn't throw the old 96, 97 mile-an-hour fastball that we're accustomed to in the '90s, but he has a great split-finger pitch, works the ball down, and he gets a lot of respect from the umpires when he's working the corners.
INSKEEP: I took a look at the National League standings the other day, and there were the Chicago Cubs still in first place in their division.
Mr. OLNEY: Yeah, and they've had quite a season because, early in the year, all kinds of problems between their manager, Lou Piniella, and some of their players. But they sorted those out. They've gotten some great performances out of guys like Carlos Zambrano, who is one of the best young pitchers in baseball, Alfonso Soriano, who just came back from the disabled list. And they've benefited from the fact that the division is so mediocre. And I think winning the National League Central is a little bit like being the high school football champion in the state of Vermont.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OLNEY: It's not the highest caliber of competition.
INSKEEP: We should mention that you are a Vermonter, right? You're allowed to make fun of Vermont.
Mr. OLNEY: Exactly. It's not a cheap shot.
INSKEEP: And we should mention that the Cubs, although they are leading the division, they're only a handful of games over .500, hardly anybody is playing very well on that division.
Mr. OLNEY: Exactly. And maybe a dangerous team in that division is the St. Louis Cardinals. Because the Cubs have not taken control of this division, because the Brewers have come back so far to the pact, the Cardinals are still in the race despite a ton of injuries, including their ace pitcher Chris Carpenter who got hurt after opening day. And a lot of the baseball veterans believe that if the Cubs don't run away with the division, the Cardinals could be very dangerous because of that experience down the stretch.
INSKEEP: And, of course, yeah, they're the guys who won the championship last year, they know how to do it.
Mr. OLNEY: That's right.
INSKEEP: Is there any other team you've got your eye in the National League right now?
Mr. OLNEY: I think the San Diego Padres are a very interesting team. They had a great series this week against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they're led by an interesting player, Milton Bradley, who's named for the board game. He has a very troubled history. He's bounced from team to team. He's had incidents with managers and fans. And yet, when he's in lineup, he can have a real impact. He was hurt all the way up until August 21st, but he came back. And since then, the Padres have won seven out of ten games. He's a terrific switch-hitting outfielder. He's made a real difference with their offense.
INSKEEP: Could I just ask you, as a longtime baseball fan, what you do if you get to this point in the season - that's about a month ago - and you know, as many fans do at this point, that their team is toast and they have no chance?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OLNEY: It's funny. In a lot of cases you'd say your team has no chance. But in the National League in particular this year, I think it's so packed together that you literally could draw out scenarios probably for 10 different National League teams to play in the World Series because the teams are so bunched. The best example this week may have been the Philadelphia Phillies - almost left for dead, six games behind the Mets. They just swept the Mets in four consecutive games, including a wild comeback win on Thursday.
INSKEEP: Okay. Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Thanks for the update.
Mr. OLNEY: Thanks for having me.