Baseball's contenders are working tirelessly toward the same goal these opening days of September, and that's to ensure they're on the job when the regular season's final month has run out, giving way to October's postseason party.
On Monday, one last holiday of daytime games under the summertime sun provided another glimpse at just how much work there is to do before we know who will make up the postseason field. By the end of Labor Day's slate, races in the Amerian League West, AL Wild Card and National League Central got tighter, and the overall postseason picture got just a little bit murkier.
With the Pulse of the Postseason beating into the first week of the final month, there's a sense that this labor of love, this quest for the playoffs is only just beginning. Better bring your lunch pail, because this is going to be one long month at the office, at least if the last holiday milestone of the season is any indication.
In Pittsburgh, the Pirates are toiling for something bigger than their 80th win Monday -- bigger than one more win giving the team its first season .500 or better since 1992, bigger even than seeking the NL Wild Card berth for the first playoff spot in two decades.
"Our vision is to win the division," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Monday.
Jumping one win ahead of last year's 79-83 finish, the Pirates took a step toward that goal by taking a one-game edge over the Cardinals. The Pirates won No. 80 behind a 1-2 punch of Jose Tabata and Neil Walker at the top of the order and Charlie Morton's work on the mound, beating the Brewers, 5-2.
One more win will mean, well, one more win, to Hurdle and the Pirates, even if others might think it more significant.
"We haven't been here 20 years. We honor the angst, but we don't want to carry that baggage around," Hurdle said.
It wasn't just in Pittsburgh that the NL Central was on center stage early Monday with the Cardinals visiting Cincinnati, where the Wild Card race got tighter with the three NL Central teams currently in postseason position shifting playing partners. Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto both went deep off Adam Wainwright, and the Reds pulled away for a 7-2 victory that keeps them 3 1/2 games behind the Pirates in the division and 2 1/2 behind the Cards for the top Wild Card spot, positions that set up an NL Central postseason trifecta.
Also in early action, two American League division leaders squared off at Fenway Park, the AL East's Red Sox playing host to the AL Central's Tigers. With Doug Fister and the Tigers bullpen silencing the Boston bats, the Tigers took a 3-0 win as Detroit center fielder Austin Jackson did just about everything.
He had a double, he scored a run, he had a steal, he . . . got in a little workout.
Austin Jackson decided to do push ups in the middle of the game. Totally normal. GIF: http://t.co/H2XWaHvfZY- MLB (@MLB) September 2, 2013
The new normal is that the Tigers are in the safest spot of any division leader in the AL, now up by 8 1/2 over the Indians in the AL Central. But what's really new is that they're only a half-game behind the Red Sox for the league's top record, and the top seed in the playoffs. The Red Sox still have themselves a solid cushion in the AL East, but all three teams pursuing them are factors in the Wild Card race, so that remains a division to watch.
While early East Coast games were concluding, the Yankees' home game with the White Sox was ongoing, thanks to a rain delay of about two hours. When things dried up, the Yankees' bats mopped up the joint, bringing 13 hitters to the plate in an eight-run fourth inning of a 9-1 victory.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Orioles continued their parade of games against postseason contenders, taking a 7-2 victory behind Bud Norris' solid outing and Nate McLouth's three RBIs. The Indians, who saw ace Justin Masterson leave the game in the first inning with a side injury, have lost seven of their last 10, and at least one of their players thinks it's time for them to find their focus.
Why was Bud Norris so effective vs. Indians? Said Jason Kipnis: "He had a scheduled start against our offense."- Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 2, 2013
Kip: "We're digging our own hole right now. ... We want to hit that 5-run home run with nobody on. We're just going about it the wrong way."- Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 3, 2013
As games reached the West Coast, there was a sense of déjà vu.
For one thing, there was the Dodgers winning -- their 10-8 victory at Colorado combined with Arizona's 4-1 loss to Toronto giving them a season-high 12 1/2-game lead in the NL West, their largest lead since 1977. For another, there was Yasiel Puig being involved in some sort of drama -- first trying to break up a double play by using the old interference technique, then coming out of the game with a sore right knee just after plowing out infield dirt going first to third.
Here's more scary news about the team that somehow will have to find a way to get would-be 2011 MVP Matt Kemp into the outfield lineup:
Andre Ethier becomes first Dodger in franchise history to reach the 30-double mark in seven consecutive seasons -- no other Dodger with 6.- Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 2, 2013
As for the AL West race, it was found right where it ended last September -- in Oakland, with the Rangers holding a slim lead over the A's. After Monday's 4-2 victory, the A's are now tied with the Rangers for the top spot in the division, both teams holding the AL Wild Card lead.
Coco Crisp's two-run homer in the fifth wound up being the difference, caroming a off the foul side of the left-field foul pole, as video showed the umpires who reviewed it.
The Rays, who left Oakland on the wrong end of a three-game sweep, entered their Labor Day workday knowing they needed to win to keep some Monday winners at bay. But the Angels broke out the bats in a big way, handing Tampa Bay a loss that tightens up the race for the second Wild Card, with the Orioles moving to two games behind, the Yankees 2 1/2.
With that, another day at the office was in the books for those teams hoping to work a little overtime in October.
Tuesday's key games to watch (all times ET)
Orioles (Tillman, 15-4) at Indians (Jimenez, 9-9), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
The O's won the opener, but Wild Card positioning is still at stake in this three-game set.
White Sox (Sale, 10-12) at Yankees (Kuroda, 11-10), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
The Yankees seem to be getting hot at the right time, but they have a mountain to climb.
Nationals (Gonzalez, 8-6) at Phillies (Martin, 2-3), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
Monday's loss left the Nationals 7 1/2 games out in the Wild Card race. For reference, they were leading the NL East by 7 1/2 through 136 games a year ago.
Tigers (Scherzer, 19-1) at Red Sox (Lester, 12-8), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
Max Scherzer makes his second bid for a 20th win with the top record in the American League at stake.
Mets (Torres, 3-2) at Braves (Medlen, 11-12), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
If the Braves can somehow keep this momentum going all the way into October, they'll be a force.
Cardinals (Wacha, 2-0) at Reds (Bailey, 9-10), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
The Cardinals have lost four of their last five, all against their NL Central foes.
Pirates (Cole, 6-7) at Brewers (Gallardo, 10-9), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
The .500 record that would come with this win wouldn't come close to satisfying the Bucs.
Mariners (Ramirez, 5-1) at Royals (Chen, 6-2), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
They have some teams ahead of them, but at five out of the AL Wild Card the Royals are closer than any NL team.
Dodgers (Nolasco, 11-9) at Rockies (Chacin, 13-7), 8:40 p.m. Preview >
The Dodgers are 35-8 since the All-Star break. The Rockies are 19-23.
Blue Jays (Redmond, 2-2) at D-backs (Miley, 9-9), 9:40 p.m. Preview >
The D-backs are leading the NL Wild Card pursuers, but they're seven games out of the hunt.
Rays (Moore, 14-3) at Angels (Vargas, 8-5), 10:05 p.m. Preview >
The Rays are now 0-4 on their West Coast road trip and have lost eight of nine. Footsteps.
Rangers (Perez, 8-3) at Athletics (Colon, 14-5), 10:05 p.m. Preview >
At some point, the Rangers need to get this green-and-gold monkey off their back. Or, well, not.
If the postseason started today ...
Wild Card: Rays at A's/Rangers
Division Series: Wild Card at Red Sox | A's/Rangers at Tigers
Wild Card: Reds at Cardinals
Division Series: Wild Card at Braves | Pirates at Dodgers
To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining and add one. Then subtract the difference in the number of losses between that team and its closest pursuer.
A tiebreaker game will be played to determine a division winner, even if the tied clubs are assured of participating in the postseason. If a division championship tiebreaker is necessary, the head-to-head record between the clubs will determine home-field advantage. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.
If two clubs are tied for the two Wild Card berths, home-field advantage will be determined by the head-to-head record between the clubs. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.
2013 postseason schedule
Wild Card playoff games: Oct. 1
World Series begins: Oct. 23
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.