There's nothing quite like a pennant race in September, and there's nothing quite like the All-Star Game in July -- though they are completely different experiences. They are baseball staples.
The period in between -- the undistinguished and often understated month of August, the "dog days" dreaded by players and coaches alike -- is just as much a rite of the national pastime.
The term "dog days" originated in ancient Greece, corresponding to the time of the year when Sirius -- also known as "the dog star" -- was closest to the sun and brightest in the sky. It was believed to cause the heat of summer, and Romans would sacrifice a dog to appease Sirius.
In regard to baseball, if the season is a marathon -- and many within the game refer to it as just that -- the dog days are Mile 18. The end seems nowhere in sight, and yet the grind of the first few months has already worn down many players to the point where damage control is all they can hope for with their bodies.
"You play so many games with so little off-days," Padres third baseman Chase Headley said. "Then you throw in the travel and different time zones. Those things all just add up and make it very difficult. It seems like after the first couple days of the season, your body never really feels good."
For Headley, like most players, the preparation for the dog days begins in the offseason, when the August heat is barely an afterthought.
Headley, who leads the big leagues in games played this season, is a firm believer that proactive treatment -- stretching, lifting and visits to the cold tub and trainer's room -- are what best allows players to avoid being ground down late in the season.
"The guys that do a better job with that generally have more success with being able to stay on the field and being able to maintain in August and September, when your body is so tired," Headley said.
Perhaps the most difficult burden in dealing with the dog days falls on the shoulders of the managers. Not everyone can play every day, and a manager must balance proper rest for his players with fielding the best lineup possible.
"This is the epitome of dog days in August," Reds manager Dusty Baker said earlier this month. "I'm going to have to give some guys some time off in order to keep them strong. This is where you want a capable bench. This is where you want to have some interchangeable parts and you want some depth. If not, you'll just wear them right down. If you get worn out, there's no return."
The suggestions Baker gave his players for handling the heat and the grind of late-summer baseball were simple: "Eat a lot today, drink a lot of liquids, sleep late."
Managers are routinely faced with such dilemmas, in which the long-term health of a player takes precedence over the short-term results. Earlier this month, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had the option of starting a red-hot Adam Wainwright on normal rest because of an off-day. Instead, he gave his entire staff an extra day of rest. His reasoning?
"Obviously, any time you are in the dog days and you can get your guys some rest, it makes sense," Matheny said.
But the dog days eventually come to an end. For Pirates catcher Rod Barajas, the key was never to let them start.
"These games are just as important as the games at the end of September," Barajas said. "These games count just the same. We've been trying to play playoff baseball from the get-go."
But it's not always that easy, and Barajas acknowledged that energy has the potential to dip in late July and early August if players don't keep their focus.
For Padres outfielder Will Venable, the dog days came to an end last week, and now the season is entering its stretch run. He said the toughest part was the mental aspect, far more than the physical part.
"Every day you have, as a hitter, big league pitching to deal with, you have big league defenses against you in a game where you're already statistically set up to fail," Venable said. "The hardest part is just maintaining your positive relationship with the game."
Venable pegged Aug. 15 as the end of the dog days in his mind, and the beginning of the baseball season's stretch run. Technically, he's a few days off.
In Greek and Roman times, the "official" dog days -- dies caniculares -- typically ran from July 24 to Aug. 24. So, by that calendar at least, the last dog day of 2012 will be Friday.
Of course, that means baseball's pennant races are just now heating up.
AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.