Eye Toward October: Sept. 23

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With the playoff chase coming down to the wire, our MLB editor rounds up the five biggest pennant race stories in Eye Toward October.

- Big Papi Busts Out:
Josh Beckett

The big bright spot? David Ortiz is rounding into playoff form. Big Papi had a terrible April, then injured his wrist in May, then lost the hitter who protected him for years, Manny Ramirez, at the end of July. But he's hit two home runs in the last two days, one to the opposite field in Toronto and a second to the deepest part of Fenway Park Monday. He's driving the ball like he rarely has this year, and Boston needs him more than ever heading into October.

The Red Sox are not as vulnerable as they were in 2005, the last time they had a championship to defend, but they also don't appear quite as strong as the teams that won in 2004 and 2007, especially with J.D. Drew likely out for the season and Mike Lowell hurting too.

The loss of players like Lowell, Drew and Ramirez and the general ineffectiveness and inconsistency of guys like Tim Wakefield, Manny Delcarmen and Jacoby Ellsbury means Boston needs its stars more than ever come playoff time.

- Beltran Blues:Carlos Beltran is day-to-day after plowing into the center field wall during the Mets' loss to the Cubs on Monday night. It wouldn't be a significant injury any other time of the year, but with so few days left in the season and so much for New York to play for, it could be huge.

Much has been made of Carlos Delgado's second-half surge, but if the Mets do end up qualifying for the postseason, Beltran will be just as big of a factor. The center fielder is hitting .318 since the start of August and has a 1.000 OPS.

- Arizona Still Alive:Brandon Webb came through with his 22nd win to pull the Diamondbacks within two games of the Dodgers in the NL West. The next two days will be huge for the Snakes. While the Dodgers face the lowly Padres, Arizona will continue to tangle with the Cardinals. Luckily, it's sending Randy Johnson and Max Scherzer to the hill in a pair of do-or-die games.

- Grant Him a Rest:
Rays reliever Grant Balfour continues to get a lot of work, maybe a little bit too much considering the fact that Tampa Bay has a de facto 3 1/2 game lead in the AL East with six days. Balfour has appeared in 16 of Tampa Bay's last 30 games and has worked 17 innings.

Considering he is the best reliever on the staff -- the guy most capable of missing bats -- it would be wise to ease his workload over the final week so that he is fresh for the postseason.

- Gauntlet Down: White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has challenged Javier Vazquez to come up big for the White Sox in the opener of their series with the Twins Tuesday. A Chicago win would effectively end the division race. Vazquez has a soft reputation in big games -- one he gained with the Yankees in the 2004 postseason.

That characterization probably isn't fair because it's such a small sample and because Vazquez was a mess mechanically back then. In fact, considering his strikeout rate and the fact that he's pitched at least 198 innings each of the last nine seasons, Vazquez is probably one of the most underrated pitchers in the game.

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