We’ve reached the Labor Day checkpoint of the major league baseball season with two of the six division races all but over, a third that we can realistically call over, and a fourth that’s gotten some surprising space in it over the past week.
The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers are home free in the NL East and NL West respectively. Each has a lead of over 11 games, and for the Braves that bloated margin has been holding for a few weeks.
If this were Election Night and TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage was network headquarters, we’d look at the Detroit-Cleveland race in the AL Central and determine that it’s close enough to call. The Tigers just took two of three from the Indians and the lead is up to 7 ½ games.
While that lead isn’ t enough on its own to call a race—the equivalent of having enough votes to formally clinch—if you start to factor in things like the relative talent levels on each team and their expectations—the equivalent of projecting voting history, then it’s a different story. I think we can safely call the AL Central from Detroit.
The AL East promised drama and there’s a good chance we’ll still provide it, but the Boston Red Sox have opened up some space. It looked the Sox might be vulnerable a couple weeks ago, having lost a home series to the New York Yankees, amidst some backlash over whether Ryan Dempster should have plunked Alex Rodriguez.
Boston responded by winning consecutive road series over the Giants and Dodgers, came home and took a series from the Orioles and then swept the White Sox this past weekend. The Red Sox are now 5 ½ games ahead of slumping Tampa Bay, with the most difficult month—August—now in the rearview mirror. One important caveat though, is that the lead is still just four in the loss column. I’m a Red Sox fan and am still in batten-down-the-hatches mode, anticipating a fight to the finish.
TWO TIGHT DIVISION RACES
We have razor-tight races in both the NL Central and the AL West. The latter is the most consequential, because there’s no guarantee that Texas and Oakland will both make the postseason in either case. The Rangers are up a game, but a series loss to Minnesota this past weekend is just the latest example of Texas missing chances against a softer schedule.
Meanwhile, Oakland went 6-1 in a week that had Detroit and Tampa Bay on the schedule and the only loss was a rare ninth-inning meltdown by closer Grant Balfour in Detroit, when he gave up four runs, the last three on a walkoff by Tori Hunter.
Pittsburgh has righted its ship in the NL Central, and took two of three in a showdown series this past weekend against St. Louis. The Pirates pulled even with the Cards for first place, and Pittsburgh looks close to getting closer Jason Grilli back for the stretch drive.
In either case, both the Pirates and Cardinals are home free for at least the one-game wild-card shot. They each have 9 ½ game margins to qualify, so there is a cushion. Cincinnati remains in the division title picture, 3 ½ games back, but the Reds need to get their pitching healthy—Tony Cingrani on the disabled list and no timetable for Johnny Cueto’s return—and keep an eye on the rearview mirror where Arizona and Washington are within five and six in the loss column, in the push for that second wild-card.
THE AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD-CARD PICTURE
This remains one of the most intriguing races. Oakland’s weekend sweep of Tampa Bay gave them some needed cushion, as the A’s now have a 5 ½ game lead on at least making the playoffs. The Rays, even with their struggles are still three up for the second spot.
It’s the trio of New York, Baltimore and Cleveland that are in a joust for the right to be top challenger. The Orioles lost a weekend series in the Bronx, though it could have been worse, until a seven-run outburst late in the game yesterday averted a sweep. Now the Birds are on their way to Cleveland. These three teams are all within a half-game of the other.
New York recently lost a series to the Chicago White Sox, when Alex Rodriguez came back, and they can’t let that happen again with the White Sox return visit to the Big Apple to start the week.
THE WEEK AHEAD
It’s fitting that the AL West and the NL Central are where the action is, because that’s where the showdowns are. Oakland and Texas start a three-game set in the Bay Area, the same place where the A’s beat the Rangers three straight to close the season in 2012, confining Texas to the wild-card game where the Rangers subsequently lost.
In the Central, St. Louis is in Cincinnati. For the Cards, this is the third step in a four-series set where they play only their two division rivals and so far St. Louis is 3-3.
Another big battle, though not quite the same stakes is Boston-Detroit. It’s the start of an important week for the Red Sox, who first host the Tigers, then go to Yankee Stadium on the weekend.
THE PLAYOFF BRACKET AS OF TODAY
(5)Tampa Bay at (4)Oakland
(5)Cincinnati at (4)St. Louis/Pittsburgh (a one-game playoff breaks any ties, even if both teams are in the postseson).
Division Series Matchups
Wild-Card Winner at (1) Boston
(3)Texas at (2) Detroit
Wild-Card Winner at (1) Atlanta
(3)St. Louis/Pittsburgh at (2) LA Dodgers