Down the stretch they come! With thirty days left to the end of the MLB regular season, 15 teams are in legitimate contention for a playoff berth and four of the six division titles look genuinely up for grabs. With Labor Day baseball about an hour away as this goes online let’s take a look at the landscape for the MLB playoff race.
NY Yankees: 76-57
Tampa Bay: 73-61
LA Angels: 71-63
Tampa Bay: 1.5 back
AL Central runner-up: 2 back
LA Angels: 3.5 back
The surprises that are the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles can be summarized by this—if you were in Las Vegas this March, and stepped up to the window to bet either team to go Over their preseason win projections, you are already eligible to collect. The A’s and O’s have already exceeded informed expectations and not only would they be the wild-card game if the season ended today, each has improbably launched pushes at the division crown. Oakland has won nine in a row to put the heat on Texas, while Baltimore captured a weekend series in New York to close within two games of the Yanks.
New York or Texas each has significant question marks in their starting rotations, meaning we can’t just assume they’ll right the ship in September. Certainly the Yanks and Rangers have the offense and they have the crunch-time experience that they can step it up and pull right back away. But when you don’t have confidence in what you’re going to get from the starting pitching, nothing is for certain. I already felt like this would turn the AL playoffs into a shootout where anyone had a chance, but I can’t say I was expecting the AL East and AL West races to tighten. With the Yankees opening the week by playing three games in Tampa, then closing with four more in Baltimore, crunch time is certainly here for Joe Girardi’s team.
We might further add that given how tight the wild-card race if New York or Texas slips from their perch, even the one-game showdown is not a guaranteed fallback. Detroit swept Chicago to pull even in the AL Central and it also means the two teams are each right in the wild-card race. Tampa Bay is right there. And the Angels, with all that talent in the everyday lineup and the starting rotation can at least know that the shorter the season becomes the less that bullpen depth—the Halos’ big flaw—matters.
The Yanks-Rays is the highlight series of the early week and will be on MLB-TV this afternoon and ESPN tomorrow night, but don’t overlook the Angels-A’s battle out west. The AL Central rivals play the bottom of the division, as the Tigers host Cleveland and the White Sox have Minnesota coming to town. Kansas City, another AL Central also-ran, hosts Texas. And Buck Showalter’s Orioles have to keep their focus after the emotional weekend in New York when they go to Toronto. With these games sandwiched in between the seven battles with the Yanks it’ll be interesting to see how the youthful Birds do with keeping focus on the road.
St. Louis: 72-62
San Francisco: 76-58
LA Dodgers: 72-63
LA Dodgers: 0.5 back
Pittsburgh: 1.5 back
If the postseason started today the wild-card game would be St. Louis visiting Atlanta. This would be a one-game battle that brought together the two teams involved in last year’s crazy race to the finish line, with the Cards completing a historic comeback from 10.5 games back in late August. It would involve the defending World Series champions. And, by the way, it would be played in Atlanta for potentially the final game of Chipper Jones’ soon-to-be Hall of Fame career. At that point I think Bud Selig gives himself a pat on the back and says “Yes, I like this new concept.”
The Dodgers have slumped since the mega-trade with Boston and allowed San Francisco to open up some room in the NL West, but just a half-game off the pace set by St. Louis, and with the best pitcher of any National League contender in Clayton Kershaw, plus Josh Beckett, the Dodgers have the rotation best suited to playoff-type games—at least among the wild-card teams. Now it’s going to be about whether the Adrian Gonzalez/Matt Kemp/Andre Ethier trio can produce the runs and if Don Mattingly can manage his way through the late innings now that Kenley Jansen is gone for the year.
Most fans probably heard the announcement yesterday that September 12 is now official as the shutdown date for Stephen Strasburg. With Washington comfortably ahead in the NL East race this likely doesn’t cost the Nats the division title, but the combination of Strasburg sitting down and Joey Votto returning means you have to pencil in Cincinnati for the top spot in the NL playoffs.
As far as matchups go the early part of this week, it’s kind of blasé. None of the seven teams contending go head-to-head with each other. Pittsburgh is the one I’d circle as facing the must-win spot. They’ve got struggling pitching, they’ve got both the Dodgers and Cardinals to beat out and they’ve got the Astros coming into the Steel City. If ever there were games you had to win, the next three days with woeful Houston have to qualify.
AL EAST: Tampa Bay—When Mariano Rivera got hurt, I thought the Rays would take off as soon as Evan Longoria got back. I didn’t think that would take all summer, but Longoria is back, the margin is still 3.5 games and the Rays’ starting pitching is the best in baseball.
AL CENTRAL: Detroit—After all the ups and downs, the Tigers are back to even with the superstar talent in the lineup (Miguel Cabrera/Prince Fielder) in the rotation (Justin Verlander) and in the dugout (Jim Leyland), you have to like them to finally fulfill preseason expectations.
AL WEST: Texas—Having won nine straight, Oakland is too hot not to cool down for just a few days and that’s all it will take to give the Rangers the breathing room they need to hold off the charge. Texas also takes the #1 seed in the AL playoffs.
WILD-CARD GAME: Oakland-NY Yanks—I really want to pick Baltimore, and they’re starting pitching is getting better as the season wears on, but I’m really curious how they react to this sandwich series against Toronto and then having all the expectations of the home crowd coming up in the four-game set with New York over the weekend.
NL EAST: Washington—the margin’s too big to think otherwise.
NL CENTRAL: Cincinnati—Ditto.
NL WEST: San Francisco—Close to ditto. 4.5 games is not insignificant at this point in the year and the pitching of Frisco guards against a sustained losing streak.
WILD-CARD GAME—LA Dodgers-Atlanta—As much I like the Cards-Braves scenario outlined above, I like Beckett to pitch better down the stretch and form a 1-2 punch with Kershaw that gets the Dodgers over the top.