We’re down to 2 ½ weeks left in the regular season, and it’s time to survey the landscape and look at the weekend ahead. Starting on Monday, TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will be folded into our daily sports category—the spot that normally reviews the TV options for the sports fan each night, will update the game-by-game action in the final two weeks of the MLB stretch drive.
The Boston Red Sox took two of three from the Tampa Bay Rays, and it’s safe to call the AL East as over. Boston becomes the first American League team that, to use the parlance of political commentary, we’re calling as a division winner. The Red Sox join Atlanta and Los Angeles in the National League.
We can’t call Detroit as a winner in the AL Central yet—a six-game lead isn’t quite at that level, but I can’t think of any serious baseball observer outside the city of Cleveland that thinks this race is in serious doubt.
A similar race is for the last National League wild-card—Washington has won six straight and given itself a puncher’s chance at chasing down Cincinnati, with a five-game gap in the loss column, but that’s still a tough hill to climb. The Reds are still thinking NL Central title, something their series loss to the Chicago Cubs jeopardized this week, while Pittsburgh was sweeping Texas and St. Louis took a series from Milwaukee. The Cards and Pirates are tied for first, with the Reds 2 ½ games back.
It’s the collapse being put on by the American League wild-card leaders that has set up the most dynamic race of the final two weeks.
Just last week, TheSportsNotebook discussed whether the Rangers had missed their opportunity to put at least a wild-card berth away and if they’d struggle against a tougher schedule. Suddenly they’ve lost eight of ten and are closer to elimination (a three-game cushion in the wild-card) then to Oakland in the AL West (a 3 ½ game deficit). The Rangers and A’s meet this weekend, Texas’ final chance to play for something other than survival.
Tampa Bay’s two losses to Boston ended their hopes of a big push in the AL East, and they have just a one-game lead over the New York Yankees, although it’s two games in the loss column. The Yanks took three of four in Baltimore. The slumping Orioles still remain within 2 ½ games, as does surging Kansa City. Cleveland is a game and a half out.
The six teams fighting for the two wild-card spots in the American League are going to be our focus in the final two weeks, while we wait and see if the AL West has a race. We’ll of course continue to check in on the NL Central race, and at least keep our eyes peeled on the AL Central.
That’s what’s ahead starting Monday. For this weekend, the biggest matchups are divisional battles that involve wild-card hopefuls playing clear leaders. The Yankees-Red Sox play in Fenway, and it’s Tigers-Royals in Kansas City. We mentioned the AL West showdown with Oakland-Texas in Arlington, while Tampa Bay (at Minnesota), Cleveland (at ChiSox) and Baltimore (at Toronto) have to get road wins against beatable teams.
Washington hosts Philly, while Cincinnati is at Milwaukee in the National League. The Cardinals host the Mariners and the Pirates have the Cubbies at home. All of Cincy’s competition, both from behind and in front, has manageable home games, so the Reds have some pressure on them in Miller Park.
THE BRACKET AS OF TODAY
Tampa Bay @ Texas
Cincinnati @ St. Louis/Pittsburgh
Wild-Card @ Boston
Detroit @ Oakland
Wild-Card @ Atlanta
St. Louis/Pittsburgh @ Los Angeles