This space on TheSportsNotebook has customarily been used for looking at the sports fans’ daily sports options on TV. We’re going to make a temporary change here—while you can still get a concise summary of what your viewing options are each night here, the primary purpose of this spot on the home page will be daily MLB coverage on the baseball playoff push, all the way through both wild-card games and the beginning of Division Series play on Thursday, October 3.
There are three races that call for daily check-ins during the final two weeks of the regular season, and those are the wild-card pushes in both leagues, as well as touching base with the St. Louis-Pittsburgh race in the NL Central, where each team is going to qualify, but one will be subjected to the one-game elimination knockout on October 1 (the AL wild-card game is October 2).
We can safely call Atlanta and Los Angeles as division champs in the National League, and Boston in the American League. And while it’s too early to “call the race” in the AL Central or AL West, Detroit still has a manageable five-game lead over Cleveland in the Central, with Oakland’s sweep of Texas this weekend giving them command of the West at 6 ½ games.
With all that said, here are the contenders and what they did this weekend, followed by a look at tonight’s games…
AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD-CARD (top 2 qualify)
Tampa Bay 81-67: The Rays took two of three at home from Minnesota to stop the bleeding after a rough stretch of games.
Texas: 81-67: Texas, as prophesied here at TheSportsNotebook just a couple weeks ago, has hit the skids and lost 12 of 15, including losing all three at home to Oakland this weekend.
Cleveland: 81-68: Tito’s Tribe have taken full advantage of the recent slides of both the Rays and Rangers, and Cleveland swept lowly Chicago four straight.
Baltimore: 79-70: Another struggling team of late, the Orioles got well by taking two games in Toronto over the weekend, and Chris Davis hit his 50th home run.
NY Yanks: 79-71: The Yanks lost three straight in Fenway, culminating a 1-6 stretch against their archrivals over the past week and a half.
Kansas City: 78-71: KC dropped two of three in a difficult home series against Detroit.
Those are the six contenders. Showdown time starts tonight, and it begins with Texas-Tampa in a three-game series at the Trop. The fact the leaders spend the next three nights playing each other means that all the chasers know they can make up ground with a win.
Two of those challengers face each other, however, as Cleveland is in Kansas City. That leaves the Orioles and Yankees as the teams with truly “clean” chances to gain group. Baltimore has to go into red-hot Boston, a series that starts tomorrow. New York goes to Toronto, the place the AL East travels to get healthy.
That puts the Yankees on the spot in the first part of this week. As rough as this stretch against the Red Sox was for them, if they sweep the Jays, they’re going to move up and get right back on the threshold. Here are tonight’s games..
Texas-Tampa: If there was ever a time for Matt Garza to show the Rangers why they acquired him at the trade deadline, it’s now. He faces Alex Cobb. This game will be the feature on the MLB Network at 7 PM ET.
Cleveland-KC: The same goes for James Shields and the Royals, as the ace gets the ball against the revived Scott Kazmir.
NYY-Toronto: It’s the battle of the old-timers, with Andy Pettite and R.A. Dickey on the hill.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WILD-CARD (race to face St. Louis/Pittsburgh runner-up)
This wasn’t supposed to be a race at all. The Cincinnati Reds had it in hand, and were a part of the NL Central joust for first place. But Cincy stumbled just a bit, and the Washington Nationals took advantage, charging to within four games in the loss column.
Cincinnati: 84-66: To be fair to the Reds, they’re still closer to first place in their division (3 ½ games) then they are to elimination (4 ½ games). But they missed a chance this weekend, dropping two of three in Milwaukee.
Washington: 79-70: The Nats grabbed two wins from Philadelphia over the weekend.
Tonight’s games are…
Cincinnati-Houston: We get a Johnny Cueto sighting. The Reds’ ace, after a lost summer that included three trips to the disabled list, makes his long-awaited return. Cincy can only hope he’s as sharp as Boston’s Clay Bucholz was after a similar layoff.
Atlanta-Washington: How badly do the Braves want to knock out their divisional rival? The Nats will see Atlanta ace Mike Minor, while Dan Haren tries to salvage a rough year.
Both St. Louis and Pittsburgh held serve in winnable spots this weekend. The Cards won two of three from Seattle, while Pittsburgh took three of four from the Cubs. Both have winnable spots again tonight.
The Cardinals are in Colorado, albeit with inconsistent Lance Lynn on the mound. The Pirates host the Padres, with the hosts sending out veteran A.J. Burnett. St. Louis and Pittsburgh are each 87-62 and they both passed the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend.
This means that, as the bracket currently stands, the NL Central winner gets the 2-seed, and homefield advantage in the Division Series. The loser puts it all on the line in one game. It’s that kind of change, more than any other, that made the second wild-card so good for the sport.
AND SPEAKING OF PITTSBURGH & CINCINNATI
Both cities might be have their eyes on October for baseball, but they have a pretty healthy football rivalry going to. Monday Night Football is the TV highlight in sports tonight, with the Steelers traveling to play the Bengals. Both teams started 0-1, as did the entire AFC North, but Baltimore got a win over Cleveland yesterday. Winner tonight stays tied for first and kickoff is 8:30 PM ET on ESPN.