American League Wild Card Race Sets MLB Weekend Tone

The American League playoff outlook in general and the wild-card race in particular seem to be getting tighter, not looser, with each passing day and you have two big head-to-head series going down featuring four of the five contenders. Tampa Bay, who holds the top spot right now started a series with Oakland last night in the Trop. And Detroit, who is tied with Oakland and Baltimore for the second wild-card berth, plays host to the Los Angeles Angels who are just 2.5 games out. TheSportsNotebook looks at these series, and the rest of the weekend matchups involving contenders…

Oakland-Tampa Bay: The Rays are now 2.5 games up on the field in the wild-card picture and that’s also the same number they now trail the New York Yankees by in the American League East. With Evan Longoria finally back in the lineup, the Rays have taken off and the expectation in this corner is that they’ll keep pulling away for one wild-card and make the final month about AL East supremacy. Even with David Price not scheduled to pitch in this series, they won the opener behind fourth starter Alex Cobb in a 5-0 shutout. That’s rotation depth when you’re #4 man delivers like that in a playoff race and though the A’s aren’t renowned for their hitting, it’s not as though they are in a slump, having won five of six on a homestand prior to this series.

Tampa’s concern has to still be the ability of their offense to completely disappear. They lost a game in Kansas City 1-0 in extra innings. To not score against the Royals in extra frames is probably more embarrassing than having  perfect game tossed at you by Felix Hernandez. Tampa can’t waste their pitching with showings like this if they want to catch the Yanks. Note that this series is still a three-game set and ends on Saturday, with preparations for next week’s Republican Convention beginning on Sunday at the dome.

LA Angels-Detroit: Both contenders swept reeling AL East teams this week. The Tigers did it to Toronto taking the last two by 3-2 counts, one in extra innings. The Angels broke out the brooms in Fenway, including last night’s stunner when they were down to their last strike and then won 14-13. The stars won’t be out in this series. Justin Verlander’s turn isn’t up and Albert Pujols is day-to-day with an inflamed calf. Pujols sat on Thursday and the team scored two touchdowns without him, so Mike Scoscia has no reason to rush anything in spite of the playoff race urgency. Miguel Cabrera is out with an ankle sprain and awaiting an MRI. And though the Doug Fister isn’t in a category with the first three names, Detroit’s #2 starter will miss his scheduled start on Saturday.

Two showdown series go in the National League…

St. Louis-Cincinnati: The Cards are still seven back of the Reds, but they bounced back from last weekend’s disappointment against Houston to sweep Houston. Cincy split four with Philly and with their divisional lead are probably more focused on catching Washington for the top seed in the National League playoffs. Johnny Cueto’s not scheduled to pitch this weekend, while the improving Adam Wainwright is for St. Louis. Tonight’s opener will be on the MLB Network and tomorrow’s game will be part of the Fox Saturday collection.

Atlanta-San Francisco: Atlanta’s getting as good a pitching as they have all year, but it’s not translating into success against contenders. They lost two of three in Washington and lost the opener here last night. The positive is they won’t see a contender until September 14 once they’re out of Frisco. The Sunday game is prime-time on ESPN and features Tim Lincecum against Tim Hudson, with the former trying to right his own ship before its too late. His teammates bought him some time with a surprising sweep of the Dodgers in LA and built up a three-game lead in the NL West.

Other series involving contending teams…

NY Yanks-Cleveland: C.C. Sabathia makes his return to the Yankee rotation at an appropriate site, since he built his reputation at Jacobs Field. If ever the big fella was to live up to the term “stopper”, now is it. The Yanks are eight in the AL in ERA in August, they were swept in Chicago and the Rays are charging hard. But Cleveland ‘s utter meltdown continues unabated, so it’s good spot for the Yanks and their ace to get well.

Toronto-Baltimore: The Orioles fought out a split of a six-game road swing through Detroit and Texas and now come home. With games against the White Sox and Yankees looming next week, this would be a big series to win and it would be even bigger if Baltimore finally got something from Friday night’s starter Zach Britton. As mentioned above, the Blue Jays are a reeling team and catcher J.P. Arencibia is hitting the disabled list. But Jose Bautista is coming off and we’ll see if his power snaps back now that the wrist is healthy.

Minnesota-Texas: Ryan Dempster finally turned in a good outing in beating Baltimore this week and he goes on Saturday against the Twins. The Rangers are still plus-six in the AL West and the Twins are down to 51-73 and playing almost as bad as they did in April.

Seattle-ChiSox: The Mariners have had their moments in the second half of the season and they’re hot again right now. At 61-64, they’ve got a shot to finish .500, which would be a major achievement for a team with no expectations that trades it’s most recognizable, albeit unproductive, player in Ichiro Suzuki. This won’t be a case of a last-place team rolling over the hot White Sox, who are coming off the aforementioned sweep of the Yankees and lead Detroit by a game and a half in the AL Central. S

Milwaukee-Pittsburgh: Wandy Rodriguez was acquired by the Pirates to win games like tonight’s opener. Pittsburgh was swept in San Diego, fell a game back of St. Louis for the last wild-card spot and the pitching is a mess. Pittsburgh’s ERA is 13th in the National League for August and since trading Zack Greinke the Brewers have at least treaded water.

Washington-Philadelphia:  Washington kept their comfy lead in the NL East, starting off this weeks’ big series with Atlanta with an extra-inning win, taking the series and being in the top two in the National League for both runs scored and ERA in August. With the Stephen Strasburg situation—will he be shut down or won’t he?—building to a head, the Nats need to keep winning.

San Diego-Arizona: The D-Backs have won five of the last seven, crawled to within 4.5 games of St. Louis in the playoff race and start a six-game homestand. But San Diego just swept Pittsburgh and the next series up is against Cincinnati.

Miami-LA Dodgers:  I don’t know that anyone outside the most diehard Giants’ fans were expecting what happened to the Dodgers this week with the sweep. Now Los Angeles turns to Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw on Friday and Saturday night. Miami may be out of the picture, but they’re not in meltdown, having split their last ten games. And in our silly storyline of the week, is this Miami-Los Angeles battle a  prelude to the two cities going toe-to-toe in the NBA Finals, now that Dwight Howard’s a Laker?