The biggest series in major league baseball this coming weekend is going to be the NL Central showdown between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals are playing some good baseball right now, coming off series wins over Atlanta and Cincinnati. The Pirates are sluggish, having lost series to San Francisco and Milwaukee.
These recent developments have given fuel to those who believe St. Louis’ experience is going to prevail in this division, and that Pittsburgh’s own negative experience is still going to bite them.
TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage agrees with this proposition regarding the Cardinals—I’ve had them as my NL representative in the World Series without wavering all year. But it’s not an anti-Pirate statement—I became a believer in Pittsburgh in July because of their pitching and still believe that’s going to see them through to hosting the wild-card game.
Cincinnati remains the third wheel in this NL Central race and the toughest to predict. One week we’re thinking they just need to focus on the wild-card, a race they still have a six-game cushion on. Another week they’re back in the NL Central race. After their losses in St. Louis this week, the Reds are now somewhat in between. They aren’t home free over Washington and Arizona to make the playoffs, but at 3 ½ out in the division, first place is still viable.
The big concern for the Reds is injuries. Jonathan Broxton hit the disabled list last week, and now word has come that the setup reliever will need season-ending surgery. Cincy’s bullpen depth is their Achilles heel and that wound is now exacerbated. Tony Cingrani was red-hot in the rotation before making his own trip to the DL, although the hope is for him to be back in the next week.
And while staff ace Johnny Cueto has begun a throwing program, he’s not actually working off a mound. I’m no medical expert, but I’ll take a wild guess that working off a mound is kind of prerequisite to becoming a healthy starting pitcher again.
Elsewhere on the injury front, Atlanta and Los Angeles are hoping for good news on their star outfielders, Jason Heyward and Matt Kemp for the playoffs. The Braves and Dodgers have each blown open their division races and can just think about health for the postseason. Heyward is hoping to come back in late September from jaw surgery, while Kemp starts a minor league rehab tour this weekend to strengthen his ankle.
If you were hoping for some increased drama in a dry National League playoff race, then this past week was a disappointment. TheArizona Diamondbacks visited the Cincinnati Reds with a chance to tighten up the wild-card picture. The four-game series on the banks of the Ohio River ended with three wins for the Reds and the increasing certainty that we already know the five teams that will be involved in postseason play.
Arizona is now seven games back of Cincinnati for the second wild-card spot, and the Diamondbacks are nine and a half games back of the Los Angeles Dodgersfor the NL West. I’m not ready to call either race just yet, but I can’t say I’d fault anyone who would, particularly the Dodgers. After a three-game series with Boston this week, Los Angeles promptly resumes its easy schedule with a set against the Chicago Cubs early next week.
Cincinnati’s success in getting back into the race for first place in the NL Central has been the most significant development in recent weeks, and that was chronicled last week here in TheSportsNotebook. The health of the Reds’ pitching is perhaps the second-biggest storyline.
Jonathan Broxton has returned to the disabled list as fast as he came off, with right flexor strain. Tony Cingrani, who has been lights-out in replacing Johnny Cueto in the rotation, is day-today with a back problem.
And Cueto, who has endured a lost season with various ailments? He’s finally been cleared to begin a throwing program, and the hope is he can come back some time in the latter part of September.
Cincinnati is 2 ½ games back of Pittsburgh in the division race. The Reds host Milwaukee this weekend and then get set for a big three-game series in St. Louis starting Monday. The Cards, a game back in the division, are hosting Atlanta this weekend.
The Pirates righted a slumping ship by taking two of three from San Diego this week and winning a series opener last night in San Francisco. Pittsburgh’s injured closer Jason Grilli threw a bullpen session yesterday and is on track for a September return. And a week from today they start a huge stretch of home games against the Reds and Cards.
One team that has nothing to worry about is the Atlanta Braves, still 14 games up in the NL East and I think it’s safe to say, in the parlance of political commentators, that we can call this race over. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage has an upcoming feature breaking down exactly how the Braves blew open this division.
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.