MLB pennant races heat up

With less than four weeks remaining in major league baseball's regular season, we're happy to report little is settled when it comes to the postseason chase. On Labor Day, 14 of the game's 30 teams were within five games of the playoffs.

Just how the schedule-makers drew it up, right? Maybe not.

Because while things are sure to heat up in the next few weeks, teams that we see as favorites and dark horses will be finished playing each other well in advance of the final weekend.

So much for high drama.

Then again, the A's and Giants were reduced to merely playing out the season long ago.

Here is a look at the division races:

AL East Favorite: Boston Red Sox. Echoes of Boston's epic collapse of 1978 were starting to be heard throughout a nervous New England, especially with last week's three-game sweep in New York. The Red Sox, though, have a much easier schedule down the stretch and should hold off the Evil Empire.

Key series: Yankees-Red Sox. What else? The long-time rivals face each other for the final time in a three-game set at Fenway Park, Sept. 14-16. The Red Sox then close with Toronto, Tampa Bay and non-division also-rans Oakland and Minnesota.

AL Central Favorite: Cleveland Indians. Its youth has matured nicely. With a near perfect blend of pitching (sixth in the AL) and hitting (seventh), Cleveland is as balanced as it gets. How will they react, though, when the pressure intensifies?

Key series: Tigers-Indians. A three-game series at Cleveland, Sept. 17-19, will decided whether the Tigers, who have already dropped nine of 15 to the Indians, remain in contention for both the Central and wild card. The Indians are also in Seattle for three the last week.

AL West Favorite: Los Angeles Angels. The Angels are starting to peak, as shown by their sweep in Seattle last week. This is a more complete team than the one that beat the Giants in the 2002 World Series, even if it is still missing a right-handed power threat to complement Vladimir Guerrero.

Key series: Angels-Mariners. A four-game set at Anaheim, Sept. 20-23, will go a long way toward deciding the division, as well as whether the Mariners are still relevant in the wild-card race.

NL East Favorite: New York Mets. Carrying themselves with an air of arrogance since spring training, the Mets have been humbled a bit of late, courtesy of the four-game beating handed down by the Phillies last week.

Key series: Mets-Phillies. The Mets can redeem themselves with a three-game series against the Phillies at Shea Stadium, Sept. 14-16.

Plus, it comes on the heels of three home games against the Atlanta Braves earlier in the week, which can give them some breathing room.

NL Central Favorite: Chicago Cubs. Finally playing like a team that added more than $300 million in contracts over the winter, the Cubs are aching to shed the losers label. Assuming first place Aug. 1 after being 8½ games behind June 23, fiery manager Lou Piniella has them thinking positive.

Key series: Cubs-Cardinals. With the Milwaukee Brewers fading, the Cubs at the Cardinals for three, Sept. 14-16, will prove an entertaining and pivotal series. Only one team from the weaker central should qualify for the playoffs so it's a division title or nothing.

NL West Favorite: San Diego Padres. Having just taken three of four from the division-leading and young Arizona Diamondbacks, who are due for a fade, San Diego and its stingy pitching staff is ready to defend its division title.

The Padres are in Arizona for three this week.

Key series: Dodgers-Giants. Yes, we know the Dodgers are dark horses and the Giants are also-rans, but strange things happen when these two get together to end the season, as they do Sept. 28-30 at Chavez Ravine. Think 1982 (Joe Morgan), 1993 (Mike Piazza) and 2004 (Steve Finley).