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Out of race, some clubs look to play spoiler

Out of race, some clubs look to play spoiler

Ray Charles would wail over his piano keys, "Oh, it's cryin' time again ..."

He was singing in the Spoiler Lounge to you, Twins, Braves, Phillies, Yankees, Rays and all the other teams about to turn the corner into September with eyes on the prize.

And the dedication came from the Orioles, the Brewers, the A's, the Blue Jays and the smarting members of all the other teams which have spent most of the season behind baseball's proverbial shed.

It is time for them to give as good as they have gotten. It is hurtin' time, too, in the Spoiler Lounge.

Contenders will tread an ambush-lined road toward October, wary of also-ran teams that are jazzed to trip them up, to come through in the national spotlight, to create feel-good moments that they can build on and share with their fans.

Who are these wolves in sheep's clothing?

You can probably take crumbled contenders out of the equation. The Cubs, Tigers, Dodgers and Mets of the world are too bummed out over their own fates to groove on spoiling it for others.

Disappointment is a tough emotion to overcome within yourself. But uppity enthusiasm is a tough emotion for outsiders to suppress.

So watch out for Buck Showalter's Orioles. Or, as some giddy Baltimore fans have already christened it: The Show Buckwalter. The Birds began this week with a 12-8 record since he took over as skipper -- the best in the American League East and second-best in the entire league.

"We know they're going to be hunting for us," said Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena, whose club has six games remaining against the Orioles, and is particularly vulnerable to spoilers with a schedule teeming with sub-.500 clubs. "Every team we go after, we try to do the best we can to beat them. So there's not going to be any letting down, or trying to be comfortable. We're trying to win, because on any given day, any team can beat any other team. We know that, so we're not taking anything for granted."

However, with mostly an intra-division schedule remaining, the Orioles can make only an in-house difference -- six games each against New York, Boston and Tampa Bay, in addition to a three-game series with the AL Central's White Sox.

For equal-opportunity spoilers, give it up for the A's and Blue Jays in the AL, and for the Rockies and Brewers in the NL. Those four clubs have games remaining against contenders in each of the three divisions in their respective leagues.

That's a lot of headaches to spread around. And those teams bring tangible threats: The A's pitching staff has the AL's lowest ERA and the Jays lineup has the league's most homers; run into the Rockies and chances are you'll have to cope with Ubaldo Jimenez, or come across the Brewers and deal with the only NL lineup with a quartet of 20-homer guys (Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee).

Managers of front-runners detest the uneven playing field that in September often tilts in the underdog's favor. And not only because the spoiler's bark is loose, while the contender's pups may play a little tight.

Players on also-ran teams can afford to, without guilt, play for their next contracts -- a very powerful motivator. To Reds manager Dusty Baker, in fact, "spoiler season" is really "salary-drive season."

"I don't think there are spoilers," Baker said. "I think that it's a salary drive. If you're Ryan Braun with 24 or 25 home runs, you're looking to get to 30. Whoever you're playing is trying to get to .300 or 15 wins. When you're in that position and you know you have 48 at-bats left, you're going to make every one of them count. You're going to concentrate and buckle down harder."

Also, teams with their eyes on the future take greater advantage of September's expanded rosters, loading up with eager young prospects on whom contenders have short scouting reports -- to the consternation of managers who may have to deal with them in crunch time.

Joe Torre's Dodgers are fading out of the 2010 title picture, but he gnashed his teeth over that dilemma while managing into 14 consecutive postseasons.

"I think it's unfair," Torre said. "There are some clubs that will bring up a handful [of prospects]. ... I think we all do that. And then there are other clubs. ... It's very tough playing against those teams, especially in our league, where part of it is you're trying to run your opposition out of players. Basically, people get knocked out of the pennant race by people who have played Double-A ball and maybe [have] four at-bats in the big leagues."

Jim Palmer -- the former Orioles pitching great and current Orioles voice -- always talks about climbing the ladder of contention. The final rung is standing up to the big boys in September, then using the confidence gained as a catapult into the ensuing season.

It makes sense in theory, and the latest to put it into practice have been the Padres and the Reds. Collectively, the two clubs finished the 2009 season 33 games out and 18 games under .500.

But from Aug. 25 on, they played cumulative .649 (48-26) ball. And this season both the Padres and the Reds have healthy division leads in the NL West and NL Central, respectively.

Which, of course, now makes them potential spoil subjects. What goes around ...

The tables have also turned for the Rays, who started a similar climb out of the cellar in 2007: Their 24-26 finish was quite uplifting for a club that had never finished closer than 21 games to .500, as was the experience of seven of those victories coming over the playoff-chasing Red Sox, Yankees and Indians.

"It's fun to shoot for the top," Pena recalled. "Teams love to play spoilers. I know how it goes."

Added his longtime teammate, Carl Crawford, "Everybody figured you were going to lose anyway. You just went ahead and played as hard as you could and saw what happened at the end."

Coming around for the Reds are the Brewers and the Astros -- both of whom they swept during their furious finish last season. And for the Padres, here come the Rockies -- whom they beat in four of six September games, costing Colorado an NL West flag as the Dodgers won by three games.

Getting into the ring with a potential spoiler is like the late rounds of a heavyweight fight which the big puncher hopelessly trails on points. He's coming with roundhouses.

"You can't take them lightly," Crawford said. "Those teams have nothing to lose. So they're really dangerous when they play like that."

It can also make them really disliked. In the chill of the offseason, the heat of battle often dissipates and everyone again becomes chummy. But not always.

As such, one of the Spoiler Lounge's main stages will be AT&T Park for the Sept. 17-19 series between the Giants and the Brewers. Perhaps you recall their most recent September get-together -- last Sept. 6 in Miller Park -- when Fielder bowled over the Giants' playoff hopes.

At the end of running out the 12th-inning home run that gave Milwaukee a 2-1 win and dropped the Giants two lengths behind Colorado in the NL Wild Card race, Fielder stomped atop home plate and spread his arms to topple the teammates/pins surrounding him.

The Fielder follies did not sit well with the Giants, who replied six months later with a Spring Training plunking of the first baseman. But the opportunity for real assertion will come in a few weeks -- when Fielder and the Brewers will have the chance to treat the Giants to another spoiling act.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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