MLB Playoff Race: Brewers-Pirates Battle Starts Week

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t won a series in September. The Milwaukee Brewers haven’t lost one since the August 17-19 weekend, and the two teams moving in opposite directions have finally crisscrossed in the standings. The Pirates dropped two of three in Wrigley Field over the weekend, while the Brewers rebounded from a Friday night loss to capture a home series with the New York Mets. Milwaukee has moved a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh in the NL wild-card race, with both teams having to catch Los Angeles and St. Louis.

With 2 ½ weeks to go in the MLB playoff race it’s fair to say the Brewers-Pirates three-game series in Pittsburgh starting Tuesday is virtually an elimination series. Milwaukee’s scoring more runs than any National League team for the month of September and Pittsburgh pitching is giving up more. Clint Hurdle turns to A.J. Burnett in the opener and then to Wandy Rodriguez in the matinee finale on Thursday to see if he can turn the tide, in what will be the biggest series in baseball between now and the weekend, and the biggest matchup between these two sports markets since the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl following the 2010 season.

Pittsburgh might be discouraged with their September pitching, but perhaps no team has more reason to be surprised by September results than the Los Angeles Dodgers do with their offense. In spite of adding Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers have the worst offense in the NL this month. They managed to split four with St. Louis and are still only a game out of the wild-card, but now they make a road trip to Washington to start the week. The Dodgers won’t have to face Gio Gonzalez, the new Nats ace now that Stephen Strasburg is shut down, but now they have to worry about Clayton Kershaw’s health after he was scratched from his start against St. Louis. LA is only a game and a half up on Milwaukee right now and with the way the Brewers are playing, it seems like a matter of time before the Dodgers finally give way.

Los Angeles’ other team, the Angels, is still hanging in. The Halos rebounded from a disastrous series against Oakland last week to pick up a couple weekend wins over Kansas City and hanging within 2.5 games of Baltimore for the final wild-card spot, and Los Angeles has moved past Tampa Bay and Detroit, albeit not by much. Now they take on AL West-leading Texas and have the rotation set for Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Zack Greinke to go. If LAA wins, it tightens up the wild-card race and may also further tighten the AL West race. While the Angels aren’t a factor there, Oakland continues to keep on Texas’ heels. The A’s won a big weekend series over the Orioles at home remain just three games back for a division title that likely also carries the #1 seed in the AL playoffs with it.

Oakland takes on Detroit in Comerica Park starting Tuesday night. The Tigers faced must-win time on the road last week and responded, going 4-2 in Chicago and Cleveland and are still two games out in the AL Central. Before getting to the Oakland series though, the Tigers play a makeup game with the White Sox on Monday afternoon, a makeup of last Thursday’s rainout. Detroit sends Doug Fister, who beat Chicago last Wednesday to the mound this afternoon and will have Justin Verlander lined up for Wednesday night back home. For their part, the White Sox swept three in the Twin Cities with a shutout from Chris Sale on Friday and Francisco Liriano taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday. Chicago plays three against Kansas City starting Tuesday, with Sale set to pitch the finale.

Other series involving contenders are…

Boston-Tampa Bay: It was a disastrous road swing for the Rays as they lost five of six to Baltimore and New York and are now five out in the AL East and four back in the wild-card. The good news? Four home games with Boston start a nine-game diet of Red Sox & Blue Jays that are just the ticket for a team that needs to win a lot of games in a hurry.

Toronto-NY Yanks: All eyes are on Andy Pettite as he returns to the mound for the opener on Tuesday night in the Bronx. Last week was a survival one for the Yanks, who played six close games against Boston & Tampa and managed to win four. But one of the losses came when C.C. Sabathia was roughed up and further underscored how much the Yanks need a big-time pitcher to step up right now.

Baltimore-Seattle: Prior to last weekend in Oakland, the Birds hadn’t lost a series since August 20-22 in Texas. But even just taking one game in Oakland clinched Baltimore’s first winning season since 1997. Now they continue a nine-game road swing with Felix Hernandez awaiting them on Wednesday night.

Houston-St. Louis: Was anything more unexpected this past weekend than Houston taking three of four from Philadelphia? Now the 48-99 Astros take the spoiler game to St. Louis, whose split in Los Angeles salvaged a tough West Coast trip and kept them in the wild-card lead.

Atlanta-Miami: The Braves swept the Nationals this weekend, keeping themselves at least breathing in the NL East race, at 5.5 games back and in complete command on securing at least one wild-card spot. Atlanta also activated Ben Sheets from the disabled list, though he won’t pitch in this series. Kris Medlen will though, as the red-hot starter goes in Wednesday’s finale.

Cincinnati-ChiCubs: Cincy couldn’t take advantage of Miami this weekend, losing two of three, though they remain 4.5 games up on NL West-leading San Francisco for homefield advantage in what would be a Division Series matchup if the season ended today. And even one win for the Reds nudged them closer to Washington for the top seed and right to play the wild-card game winner in the divisional playoff round. The Reds send Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto to the hill on Wednesday.

Colorado-San Francisco: The Giants are pretty well coasting to the finish line and send Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain to the mound against a Colorado team that shows zero signs of wanting to play spoiler.

Philadelphia & Arizona both lost weekend series, to  Houston and San Francisco respectively. The Phils and Diamondbacks are 4 and 4.5 games out, a number that by itself is doable, but the Pirates, Brewers, Dodgers and Cardinals all to catch—in addition to beating out each other, and given the fact that both Philly and Arizona are sub-.500, they both should be moved off the playoff radar screen unless they sweep to start the week. The Phils are in Citi Field to play the Mets, while the Diamondbacks host the Padres.