MLB Playoff Picture: Detroit Looks Home Free In AL Central

The AL Central race is all but over after this weekend, and it’s because Detroit’s pitching come through, while Chicago’s big hitters did not. The Tigers won a series over the Twins, while the White Sox dropped three of four from the Rays. The end result is that Detroit is plus-3 games with the same number left.

Detroit got the usual stellar outing from Justin Verlander on Saturday, who pitched seven innings and allowed just an unearned run. Less expected was great work from Drew Smyly on Friday and Anibal Sanchez on Sunday. Though neither went deep into the game—they combined for 11.2 innings—both starters shut down the Minnesota bats, and though Friday’s opener ended up in Twins’ hands, the Tiger bullpen—with help from a big home run by Prince Fielder—delivered the Sunday victory that all but sealed this division title.

Chicago’s bats had a tough task in taking on Tampa Bay in the Trop, and the White Sox hitters certainly didn’t do anything to exceed expectations. The 2 thru 7 hitters on this team are Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and A.J. Piersynzki, and together they have given Chicago a consistent offense. Over the last four games in Tampa the quintet combined to 14-for-66, a collective batting average of .212. If we mix in the few walks they drew, the on-base percentage is still a terrible .278. Was there any power you ask? Other than a Rios home run, the other hits were all singles. That’s a good way to hit your way home for October and that’s what happened to the Southsiders.

Detroit needs one more win or one more Chicago defeat to make this official. The Tigers are in Kansas City, while the White Sox go to Cleveland for the final series. Let’s note this is the same Indians’ team that just took two of three in Chicago and now needs only one win to end their rival’s season. Let’s further note that if the miracle happens and the White Sox pull back even, it still just means a one-game playoff. And by the way, Verlander would be on full rest to pitch that game. I don’t think it’s jumping the gun to plan on watching the Tigers in action this coming Saturday when the Division Series begins.

Around the rest of the MLB playoff picture…

*Baltimore & Oakland both came up with weekend sweeps. The Orioles pulled even in the AL East with the Yanks and clinched at least a wild-card. The A’s are on the verge of doing the same, holding a three-game cushion on the Angels & Rays with three to play. Coco Crisp came up big for Oakland, with seven hits in the first two games of the wins in Seattle, Brandon Moss had a big five-RBI game on Saturday and Josh Donaldson hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning that same day, a tying blast that set up a later three-run jack by Moss.

Baltimore’s sweep of Boston was aided considerably by Chris Davis, who homered on Friday night and had two hits both Saturday and Sunday. And Jim Thome got two starts in the series and had multiple-hit games both times. The Birds’ sweep went in conjunction with New York splitting four in Toronto and allowing the Orioles to wipe out a 1.5 game deficit. The Yanks had a scare when Robinson Cano needed his hand X-rayed, but they came back negative. Cano otherwise spent the weekend giving Toronto pitching a scare, with a 10-for-16 run through the four games.

Thus, we can realistically conclude that we know the five teams that will be in the American League playoffs. Baltimore, New York and Texas are all clinched. Detroit and Oakland are right on the brink of doing so. But the brilliance of the new playoff format is now shining through, because we don’t yet know who will win the AL East & AL West. The Rangers should take care of business in the West, but they’re still only up two on Oakland and the teams go head-to-head out west. You’d like to say with certainty that Texas will pick up the one win they need to clinch, but they have inconsistent starters Martin Perez and Ryan Dempster scheduled for Monday and Wednesday. And if the Rangers do clinch, they still need to keep an eye on Baltimore/New York, whom they only lead by a game for homefield advantage.

New York and Baltimore both have tougher challenges, particularly the Orioles who go to Tampa. The Yanks theoretically have it easier with a home series against Boston, but the Red Sox have Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz set for Monday and Tuesday and all it takes is either pitcher to perform to his ability one time and the Yanks could find themselves in a one-game showdown come Friday. As a Red Sox fan, hoping for such an outcome is all I have left this season.

Over in the National League, Washington isn’t quite there in the NL East, but they are up three on Atlanta. The Braves are playing Pittsburgh, a dead team walking, so Washington likely needs to take care of its own business one time against Philadelphia at home. The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the top overall seed, a factor that can impact pitching decisions on Tuesday and Wednesday if the NL East doesn’t get settled tonight. The #1 seed doesn’t open Division Series play until Sunday, while the #2 seed plays on Saturday.

The only postseason berth really left up in the air is the final NL wild-card, which has been narrowed to St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Cards are still in firm control with a two-game cushion. They play at Cincinnati, while the Dodgers host San Francisco. In theory, both division leaders can spoil the postseason hopes of a rival they hate. In practice, Johnny Cueto for Cincy pitched yesterday and won’t see the mound in this final series.

If Los Angeles can push this race to the final day, they have Clayton Kershaw set to pitch on Wednesday against a San Francisco team that is all but locked into the #3 seed. Still, making up two games realistically requires a sweep and with Matt Cain making his last regular season start tonight that’s a lot to ask. I know it’s not over, but I’ve already started to look forward to a Cardinals-Braves wild-card game on Friday.