For Barry Bonds, Ichiro Suzuki and half the teams in the major leagues, Labor Day means one thing: Be it playoff races or record chases, there's still a lot of work to be done.
Ray Durham, for one, is eager to begin the stretch drive.
''The month of September is fun,'' the San Francisco leadoff man said. ''I've always heard people say they don't really watch the first half of the season anyway because the most exciting time in baseball is after the All-Star break. It's true.
''I think a bad week or so can definitely kill a team that's in contention. Or vice versa, a team can have a good week or a good two weeks the last month of the season and could win the wild card like the Marlins did. It propelled them into the playoffs and into the World Series,'' he said.
What a wild card scramble it is this year, heading down to the final regular-season game on Oct. 3. And for good reason baseball's last two champions, Anaheim and then Florida came from that extra postseason slot.
World Series MVP Josh Beckett and Florida are now making a late push in the NL, so are Roger Clemens and his Houston Astros, and San Diego is in it, too. So is Mr. Bonds, with his 697 career home runs and a shot at a seventh MVP award.
Going into the weekend, those teams were all within three games of the NL wild-card leaders, Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs. That's good news for the pursuers, based on recent history.
No club has ever overcome a September deficit of more than three games to win the wild card, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 2001 Cardinals and 2002 Giants were both exactly three games back early in the month before earning their way in.
''It's almost like it was last season we know we can come back,'' Marlins manager Jack McKeon said.
Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and the Boston Red Sox showed signs of pulling away for the AL wild card as they won nine straight going into the weekend, dropping back Anaheim and Texas.
With six games left against the New York Yankees, the Red Sox still were within striking range of their age-old rivals. Then again, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield the Yankees are looking for a lot more than the wild card, despite a rotation that's been shaky of late.
Only another championship will satisfy George Steinbrenner and anyone else who takes pride in the pinstripes.
''The Boss is always going to give you the opportunity to get there because he's going to spend the money to put people in your clubhouse. I think everybody is very disappointed if the ultimate doesn't happen,'' Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
Atlanta, aiming for its 13th straight division title, St. Louis, Minnesota and Los Angeles all held comfortable leads going into the weekend.
''Our best baseball is ahead of us. I really believe that,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and newcomer Larry Walker have given St. Louis the best record in the majors. The Twins, led by Cy Young candidate Johan Santana, held a big edge in the AL Central.
''I hate to be cocky, but if we lose this lead right here I don't think we should have a team,'' showy center fielder Torii Hunter said.
The Twins led Cleveland by nine games as the weekend approached. According to Elias, no major league team has ever overcome such a large edge in September to win a division or league title.
The Cardinals made up an 8 1/2-game gap in September 1964 to win the NL pennant, helped by Philadelphia's infamous collapse under manager Gene Mauch. This year, the Phillies' fold may cost manager Larry Bowa his job.
Boosted by Rich Harden's addition to a rotation that includes Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, the Oakland Athletics were holding off Anaheim and Texas in the AL West.
Seattle is the only team in the AL West out of contention, a tough way for Edgar Martinez to go out in his final season.
But Suzuki is on a tear for the Mariners. With 218 hits through Friday, he had 28 games left to break George Sisler's record of 257 hits done in 1920 with the St. Louis Browns.
''He's on the verge of doing something nobody else has ever done in this game,'' Mariners manager Bob Melvin said. ''Even in Little League, you don't see numbers like this. It's ridiculous.''
With their hefty stats, Boston sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, Anaheim star Vladimir Guerrero and the Yankees' clutch-hitting Gary Sheffield are smack in contention for the AL MVP award. Adrian Beltre of the Dodgers is right there for the NL honor.
For some clubs, 2004 is not going to be their year. The Montreal Expos might not even be around next season no decision yet from Bud Selig.
Colorado pitcher Jamey Wright can still find some positives in September, even though the Rockies are out of it.
''For a team to come in and finish strong in September gets everybody excited about the next year, whether you're in the race or not,'' he said.
And then again, some things just won't get settled this year.
In their final meeting this season, the Astros and Cubs got testy at Wrigley Field. A pitch to Lance Berkman sailed close to his helmet and he went to the ground Berkman said ''it didn't hit me square,'' and the Cubs accused him of faking it.
Chances are, the Astros and Cubs and all of their hard throwers will square that squabble in 2005.
AP Sport Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this story.
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