Today is September 1st, which marks the beginning of that most important time in a Major League Baseball regular season known as the ‘Stretch Drive’ to fans of the sport. The ‘dog days’ of August are over, in just three weeks summer will officially end, and this coming weekend is Labor Day here in the United States.

The ‘Stretch Drive’, or simply ‘the Stretch’ refers to that final stretch of games before the playoffs begin. It marks the final 2-3 dozen games of the regular season, a time when divisional rivals often square off against one another in what are frequently winner-take-all games and series that can determine the eventual playoff teams.

If your team wants to participate in the playoffs, now is the time to turn it on. For fans here in Philadelphia, these are unusual days indeed. Manager Charlie Manuel and the defending World Series champion Fightin’ Phils begin tonight’s series with the San Francisco Giants holding a 7 1/2 game lead on the 2nd place Atlanta Braves. That lead is 9 games when you consider the all-important ‘loss’ column.

The team’s ‘Magic Number’ for clinching their 3rd straight National League East Division crown is down to a manageable 26 games. This means that any combination of Phillies wins and Braves losses totalling that number 26 will give the Phils the NL East again, and punch their ticket into baseball’s post-season.

The Phils have been playoff contenders for most of this decade, and in the past two seasons they have been able to run down the New York Mets from behind. The Mets led going into September both years, by 2 games last season and by 3 games in 2007. In fact, in each season the Mets actually built their leads up even higher only to play poorly and watch the hot Phillies shoot past them in the final two weeks.

This particular year, each of baseball’s divisional leaders enter the month enjoying somewhat comfortable leads. The Phils have that 7 1/2 game cushion in the NL East. In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals have an even bigger lead of 10 1/2 games, the largest lead in all of baseball. In the NL West, the LA Dodgers lead is at 5 1/2 games over both Colorado and the Giants team that the Phils meet tonight.

Over in the American League, the Yankees hold a 6 1/2 game lead. In the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels enjoy a 6 game lead. In the AL Central, the Detroit Tigers hold the smallest edge, just 3 1/2 games up on Minnesota. Winners of these division titles receive entry into the post-season, but it’s not the only way. You can also make it as a ‘Wildcard’ team. Each league sends the 2nd place team with the best record into the playoffs, joining the three divisional winners.

In this year’s current Wildcard race, the Boston Red Sox hold a 4-game edge in the American League over Texas and a 5-game lead on defending AL champion Tampa Bay. In the National League, Colorado and San Francisco are tied, with Atlanta just 3 games back and Florida still in the race at 4 games out. Any one of these teams can get hot in September and either clinch that Wildcard spot, or even rundown one of the divisional leaders from behind.

The bottom line is that while every game matters, with games held way back in April counting just as much as today, the games of September take on a greater urgency. The schedule is drawing to an end. Teams are running out of chances to get hot and makeup ground if they are behind. Teams moving towards a title can perhaps sense the end and pickup the pace in order to put their divisional rivals away.

Another unique aspect of big league baseball ‘down the Stretch’ are the expanded rosters. On September 1st of each season, MLB clubs are permitted to add as many players as they like from their minor league systems to the parent club. During the rest of the season, teams have been restricted to playing with a 25-man ‘active’ roster which does not include injured/disabled players. This means that each game there are 25 players available, with usually an 8-man starting lineup, an 11 or 12-man pitching staff, and 5-6 players on the bench as substitutes/reserves.

With the expansion of rosters on September 1st, teams will often bring up a handful of players from their minor league systems to bolster the big club for that ‘Stretch Drive’ period. They usually promote 1-2 extra catchers, 2-3 extra pitchers, and perhaps a particular position player who offers a special skill, such as speed or strong defense. Some teams see this as an opportunity to reward a minor leaguer for having a strong season down on the farm, or give a veteran player another shot at the big leagues. In any event, Managers of contending teams often end up with increased player assets as in-game options with which to maneuver.

Tonight’s game between the Phillies and those San Francisco Giants, which my wife and I will be attending, will showcase all of ‘Stretch Drive’ baseball’s best elements. A champion Phillies team trying to remain in charge of it’s first place standing. A contending Giants team battling neck-and-neck for a Wildcard playoff berth, and possibly even to catch the Dodgers for first place in the NL West. All of it with expanded rosters in front of a sellout crowd in one of baseball’s most beautiful ballparks on a perfect weather night.

It’s time for ‘Stretch Drive’ baseball in the Major Leagues. A few teams will strongly position themselves for the playoffs in the coming final weeks, hopefully including another run by our Phillies. A couple of others will battle tooth-and-nail down to the wire of the final week to get into the post-season. Perhaps one of those currently comfortable division leaders will collapse, ala the Mets of the past two seasons. In any event, it will all provide plenty of drama leading in to the ultimate excitement of October baseball.