Eight Weeks To Go In Push For MLB Playoffs

At the conclusion of Sunday’s games, we’ll have exactly eight weeks left in the regular season with the non-waiver trade deadline behind us. That marks a swing point in the baseball calendar, as August and September are when the sport can take on a football-like intensity. Look at this way—teams usually play two series a week. If each series were treated as a single “game”, then there are 16 matchups left—the same as an NFL schedule. Yes, it speaks volumes to how many baseball games there are that we’ve had to play four months to reach this point and still have to treat a three-game entity as a single match, but there’s no question that it times to ratchet up the game-by-game intensity. TheSportsNotebook summarizes the landscape as we turn the corner…

New York’s got the division all but wrapped up, with a 6 ½ game lead over Baltimore and 7 ½ game cushion over Tampa Bay. The interesting battles are whether the Yankees can outlast the AL West winner for the #1 seed in the American League playoffs. The Orioles and Rays are part of a five-team group that’s packed within a couple games of the two wild-card berths. Baltimore, with a record of 57-51 is pursuing its first winning season since 1997, an achievement that the Orioles can’t lose sight of, even if they don’t stay in the playoff race. And speaking of 1997, that was the last time Boston finished sub-.500, a spot they are right now at 54-55.

We all waited for Detroit to assert itself and create some space between themselves and the Chicago White Sox. We waited…and waited…and waited. Though the Tigers began to play better in the latter half of June, the White Sox continued to play better and now with dreams of October glory, have made some significant additions for the stretch drive, from Kevin Youkilis to Brett Myers to Francisco Liriano. Chicago holds a narrow game and a half lead, though Detroit would sneak in as the second wild-card if the season ended today. The big surprise since the All-Star break is the collapse of Cleveland. I didn’t expect the Indians to win this division, but nor did I think they’d melt down in a couple weeks. The Tribe is now on pace for just 75 wins.

And speaking off disappointing win paces, the Kansas City Royals are currently playing at a 68-94 clip. The Royals were a team expected to finish .500 this year, based on the Over/Under win props in Las Vegas, which posted their number at 80.5. If form holds, and they finish twelve games below their number, they’d be the most disappointing team in the American League by this measurement, including Boston, who is 10.5 games under.

If Kansas City, Boston and to a lesser extent Tampa Bay & Detroit, are the disappointments, the slack is getting picked up somewhere. That somewhere is the American League West, where the Oakland A’s are on a clip to win 88 games, beat their Over/Under by seventeen games and host the first-ever American League wild-card game. Texas, just days after I questioned if they would even make the postseason, suddenly started righted the ship, while Los Angeles started losing. After pulling as close as three games, the Angels are now six back. They have the best team in baseball, but if they don’t win this division, that one-game wild-card shootout  (which, by the way, they would also finish a game out of) gets awfully scary.

The debate over Stephen Strasburg is only going to intensify, as Washington holds its lead on Atlanta, three games at this writing, and the Nationals are good enough to win the World Series with their ace in the rotation. If Strasburg is shut down, the Braves can make a move. I haven’t been sure all year what to make of Atlanta. Maybe that’s a good thing because I was very sure Tampa Bay would run away with the AL East after Mariano Rivera went out of the year. But the Braves have been up and down, and with that shaky starting pitching, have seemed on the brink of trouble numerous times. But Ben Sheets, of all people, has given the staff some needed quality and Atlanta has the bullpen depth. On a 93-win pace, Atlanta would host the NL wild-card game based on today’s standings. The rest of the division is out of it, with Miami and Philadelphia shipping off key pieces around the country at the trade deadline. New York has slumped and is under .500, but the Mets were only projected to win 72 games in the early Over/Unders and a winning season and beating the number by ten would be a nice achievement for this team.

Who would have thought the Cincinnati Reds would have the best record in baseball coming into the stretch drive? They’re on a 99-win pace in spite of playing without Joey Votto and  in spite of having a depth-challenged everyday lineup. They’ve got pitching and a terrific manager in Dusty Baker, plus Johnny Cueto, the National League pitcher that would be my first choice to start Game 1 of a postseason series. Pittsburgh continues to hang tough, on a 92-70 pace that would put them in the wild-card game, but how much longer can Andrew McCutchen carry this lineup? There’s pack mules who carry lighter loads than McCutchen.

St. Louis was quiet at the trade deadline, but they are lurking in the wild-card race and have only to beat out the NL West runner-up and the Pirates to sneak into the playoffs again. The bottom of this division is awful. Houston has completely fallen apart is on a pace to miss their 64-win projection in Vegas by more than ten games. The Cubs are predictably on a clip for 66-96. And now that the Brewers have traded Zack Greinke, their downward spiral will continue. Milwaukee, on a 76-win pace at the All-Star break, is now down to a 73-win clip and that number’s going to get worse.

This is going to be a tremendous race, with San Francisco, Los Angeles and Arizona all having a real shot. Furthermore, the odds are good that the wild-cards will come out of the East & Central, so this could be a three-team fight that has no room for error. Arizona is coming on strong and this is the point in the schedule where they made their move a year ago. The Dodgers are being short-sighted in loading up in veterans, Joe Blanton being the latest example. But short-sightedness does generally help in…well, in the short-term. Frisco made a great addition to their lineup in getting Hunter Pence. Every one of these teams has reason to believe they can win it.

If there’s a case for the West getting at least one wild-card it’s the presence of San Diego and Colorado. The Rockies are on a pace to miss their Vegas win projection by 22 games, the most in baseball. The Padres are underachieving and they had almost no expectations to begin with. A steady diet of games against the Pads and Rocks will pad the win totals of the three contenders.

Unless New York’s lead in the AL East slips to 4-5 games, that one’s not really up for grabs. By the same logic I have to conceded Texas in the AL West. I really thought the Rangers were in trouble and the Angels were ready to take over, and they still may. But a six-game margin with eight weeks left can’t be casually overlooked. I’m still looking for Detroit to push past Chicago in the Central, and I’ve got Los Angeles and Tampa Bay slotted for wild-cards. The pitching depth of both starting rotations would make the wild-card winner in this scenario very scary.

I’m not ready to believe Atlanta’s pitching can push them into the playoffs, and in the case of Washington, they have enough to survive a Strasburg shutdown and hang on. Cincinnati will gradually pull away in the NL Central, but I like Pittsburgh’s pitching and Clint Hurdle’s managing enough to think the Pirates sneak out a wild-card slot. Arizona’s coming hard and takes the NL West, while San Francisco hangs on for a wild-card, while the Dodgers and Cardinals narrowly miss out on the postseason.

For World Series picks, I’m staying with my preseason choice of the LA Angels to win the whole thing. As scary as that one-game wild-card battle is, the starting pitching is so deep that as long as they make the Division Series, they’re going to be the team to beat. The National League depends on whether sanity prevails or not. With Strasburg, the Nats take the pennant. Without him, it’s anybody’s game. For now I’m betting on sanity holding firm and setting up a Washington-LAA battle in the Fall Classic.