It's been a long, long, road for the Milwaukee Brewers to get to September within shouting distance of the .500 mark. Their 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh on Sept. 1 moved the Brewers to 64-68, the first time the team has been that close to level since July 18, when they were 44-47.
Following Tuesday night's game against Miami, the Brewers sit at 66-69.
Sure, there can be dreams of making a wildcard run here over the next four weeks, but the real race of interest is Ryan Braun and the quest for back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards.
Through Monday, Braun led the league in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, OPS (on base plus slugging) and total bases.
He trails New York Mets third basemen David Wright in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) by a hair – 5.9 to 5.8. He is sixth in the NL in batting average, hits and on base percentage.
Defensively, Braun leads all NL left fielders in range factor and is 15th among all outfielders in the league.
Is his season as good as last year's? In some statistical categories, yes. And no. Considering who else (and who isn't) in the lineup with him however, you can argue this is his greatest season.
The big question with MVP races – unless it's so clear cut there is no debate – is who else is competing for the trophy.
This year, the National League has a mess of players that could garner some MVP consideration. Let's take a look*.
The first place teams: Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco.
Stephen Strasburg: It's incredibly difficult for a pitcher to win the MVP as it is, but missing the final two and a half weeks of the Nationals' season knocks him out of consideration.
Johnny Cueto: The 26-year-old righty has been magnificent for the Reds, but no position player on his team has really stepped to the forefront. It's been a total team effort since 2010 MVP went on the disabled list back in mid-July.
Bob Gibson was the last NL pitcher to win the MVP, back in 1968. Sandy Koufax (1963), Don Newcombe (1956), Jim Konstanty (1950), Mort Cooper (1942), Bucky Walters (1939), Carl Hubbell (1936, 1933) and Dizzy Dean (1934) are the only pitchers to ever win the award in the National League.
Melky Cabrera: Woops. The All-Star game MVP was hitting a league-leading .346 along with 25 extra base hits and 60 RBI before being suspended for testing positives for PEDs.
So that leaves...
Buster Posey: The 25-year-old catcher is hitting .330 with 19 homers and 85 RBI with an OPS of .938 while handling a pitching staff that sports a team 3.72 ERA and four starters with 10 or more wins.
Posey would be in my top three down the stretch.
The wildcard teams: Atlanta, St. Louis
Chipper Jones/ Jason Heyward/Michael Bourn: Like the first place teams, the Braves have been getting it done as a team. These players have been their best, but none are having stand out, MVP-type seasons. Heyward has 24 homers with an .834 OPS. Jones may be a sentimental favorite in his final season, but he's hitting .302 with 14 homers and a .881 OPS. Bourn has 38 stolen bases. Neither are really carrying the team, however.
Allen Craig/David Freese/Matt Holliday/Carlos Beltran/Yadier Molina: All are having fine years, but again it's proving to be a team effort in St. Louis. Molina leads the team in hitting at .322, Beltran in homers at 28, Holliday in RBI at 92 and Craig in OPS at .922. Has one been more distinguished than the other? No.
Teams with winning records: Los Angeles, Pittsburgh
Matt Kemp: Kemp famously lost out to Braun last year, but injuries have limited him to just 82 games. He's hitting .326/.570/.965 with 18 homers and 55 RBI, but he just can't compare with a guy who has played 40 more games ...
Like his teammate Andre Ethier. The 30-year-old right fielder has the best case, hitting .293/.472/.834 with 16 homers, 32 doubles and 79 RBI. He's been the one constant threat in the Dodgers lineup all year long. He's just not that spectacular however.
Andrew McCutcheon: The first half favorite for MVP as the Pirates shot out of the gate, the 25-year-old centerfielder is still going strong despite Pittsburgh's backslide to mediocrity. He's going to challenge the suspended Cabrera for the batting title, hitting .341/.559/.964 with 24 homers, 80 RBI and 54 extra base hits.
This is the one player Braun will have the hardest time overcoming, especially if McCutcheon can get the Pirates to just 82 wins – the team's first winning season since 1992.
McCutcheon, along with Posey and Braun, are the three runaway contenders at this point.
There is only one real reason voters would look past Braun completely (or at least with key first place votes) is that the Brewers may finish with a losing record.
The MVP has been awarded to a player on a losing team five times in history and three times in the NL. Interestingly, all three of those winners were Chicago Cubs: Ernie Banks (1958, 1959) and Andre Dawson (1987).
Alex Rodriguez (2003) and Cal Ripken, Jr. (1991) won on losing teams in the AL.
But what if the Brewers keep up this trend and finish with a better record than the Pirates, climbing all the way back from 12 games under .500 on Aug. 15. That's when people will look closely at all the blown saves by bullpen – and that just a 50-percent conversion rate would have won the Brewers a playoff berth. That may be one of Braun's better defenses – the Crew missing the playoffs simply had nothing to do with him.
Sure, people will bring up the offseason "positive" test for PEDs, but count me in the camp that says if he was afforded the same privacy as every other player – suspended or not – no one would have known about the process in the first place.
True – you can't "un-know" what you know - but he won the appeal due to a tampered sample. That should be the end of that, but I know some stodgy BBWAA voters will not see it that way, or feel duped by voting for him in 2011.
Right now, I'd say Braun is running behind Posey for the award. I do feel that he has to go out and win it – maybe finish in the top three in batting average while finishing atop the other important stat categories. He'll have to make it impossible for voters to overlook him.
Perhaps the biggest question of all is this – can he do that all in four weeks?