The Pittsburgh Pirates all but kissed their fading playoff hopes goodbye earlier this week when they lost three straight at home to the Milwaukee Brewers, and the “Buccos”, as the locals on the Allegheny River call them might get some more company in the coming few days as even the most optimistic observer of the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays recognizes that these teams are down to zero margin for error as we size up the MLB playoff race entering the weekend’s games.
Los Angeles dropped two of three at home to Texas, and Tampa Bay split four on their homefield with Boston, all the while New York and Baltimore were administering sweeps. The wild-card picture is perilously close to being pseudo-settled, as we pencil in Oakland against the AL East runner-up and with the Angels 4.5 games out and Tampa Bay a full five back, it will take something dramatic on both ends to alter that picture.
The Rays have a chance to do something bold this weekend as Toronto, fresh off getting beaten three straight in the Bronx pays a visit to the Trop, but the Angels have a tough weekend ahead. Chicago comes west, and the White Sox are still barely clinging to a two-game lead in the AL Central over Detroit. The Angels get a break in that they won’t face Chris Sale, but LAA’s temperamental bullpen continues to do them in, as Ernesto Frieri took the loss last night, and as we noted Wednesday in discussing this team in conjunction with the AL East, Los Angeles simply has given away any cushion it had for blown saves. With the Angel pen being the American League’s worst at closing saves, there’s no reason to assume they won’t cough up at least one more and at this point in the season that’s all it takes.
Another team that will be counting blown saves if they miss the playoffs is the Milwaukee Brewers, who have the worst save percentage in the National League, but Milwaukee is coming on because it’s a problem that seems to be in the past. John Axford nailed down all three wins in Pittsburgh and Francisco Rodriguez has started to pitch better. No one’s going to compare them to the 1990 Nasty Boys in Cincinnati (Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, Randy Myers) that won the World Series and turned Dibble into a brief celebrity on ESPN Radio, but Brewer opponents can no longer feel like they’re in command of the game if they trail 5-4 after seven. Milwaukee’s sweep of Pittsburgh has nudged them past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild-card race with only St. Louis still to catch.
The next week of games is going to be St. Louis’ opportunity to put the final playoff berth away. Milwaukee continues its road trip with four games in Washington, followed by three more in Cincinnati. Both teams still have divisions to clinch, particularly the Nationals who’s 5.5 game over Atlanta is comfortable, but not so much that a team will let its foot off the gas. Meanwhile, St. Louis plays road games against the Cubs and Astros, with Chris Carpenter making his return to the mound this afternoon in Wrigley.
If St. Louis can’t finish off Milwaukee and Los Angeles (who is in Cincy this weekend) by the time we get to next Thursday, the schedule flips in the Brewers’ favor. Then it’s St. Louis who’d been playing the Nats and Reds, while the Brewers host the Astros and Padres. While one might think St. Louis would play two teams who have nothing to play for, remember Washington and Cincy might not be resting starters. With the wild-card game there’s now an extra day off for division winners before their three-of-five series’ begins. Which means, for example, that Cincinnati could line up Johnny Cueto to pitch the opener of a three-game set against St. Louis and have him on normal rest for Game 1, and do the same down the line with Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo.
In other action this weekend, Baltimore finishes a nine-game road swing in Boston, with Oriole manager Buck Showalter reminding people that the Orioles spoiled the Red Sox’ playoff hopes in the season finale last year and that Boston would surely like to do the same. It’s a good motivational reminder from Buck, but speaking as a Sox fan, I can say that presumes this current Boston lineup is motivated by anything other than the desire for a new manager next year. And just as a fan, I’d much rather ruin the Yankees’ season in the final weekend at the Bronx. I think you always root for your own team, regardless of the consequences in the biger picture, but let’s just say if the Sox lost this series, I’d take it considerably better than any other loss in the last ten years.
Speaking of those dastardly Yanks, they are hosting Oakland, which is the last set of games New York plays against a contender. And Detroit hosts Minnesota. With the Tigers two games back, they have to be thinking about a home sweep in this spot and then if the Angels get two must-win games against the White Sox, it would bring the AL Central back to even.