When it comes to must-see regular-season baseball, there's no month like September. As we head into the season's final month, there are four races in which fewer than four games separate the team currently in a playoff position from its closest challenger. The five series below feature the leaders and top challengers in all four of those races.
September 6-8: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals
The Pirates and Cardinals have occupied the top two spots in the National League Central since June 21 with Pittsburgh spending 34 days in first place, St. Louis spending 28 days in first place, and the two teams tied for a total of five days over that span. The Cards passed the Pirates on Monday but their lead over the Bucs heading into a three-game series in Pittsburgh this weekend is just one game. This set, in St. Louis the following weekend, will be their final head-to-head confrontation in the regular season. Thus far, the Pirates hold an 8-5 lead over the Cardinals in the season series and the two teams have split their previous six games in St. Louis this season.
The pressure here is on the Pirates because St. Louis' schedule goes soft after this series. The Cards finish with six games against the Brewers, four against the Rockies and three each against the Nationals, Mariners and Cubs. Of those five teams, only the disappointing Nationals have a winning record as of this writing, and they're just three games over .500. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, follows this series with three games against the American League West-leading Rangers in Texas and plays six of its final nine games against the rival Reds, the third team in the NL Central race (see below).
September 10-12: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
The Red Sox have been in first place in the American League East since May 26 with the exception of four days in late July, a month in which the Rays went 21-5. However, for three days last week, Tampa Bay pulled even with the Sox, and heading into the weekend, Boston's advantage is just 2 ½ games. This mid-week set at Tropicana Field is the their final meeting of the regular season and stands as the Rays' last best chance to make a move for the division as well as the Red Sox' best chance to ice it. Boston leads the season series 10-6 and has taken four of their six previous games this season in the dome.
September 13-15: Oakland A's at Texas Rangers
The A's and Rangers have occupied the top two spots in the AL West since April 4. While Texas has been red-hot since the end of July, going 22-6 since July 29, Oakland, which had a six-game lead in the division when that hot streak started, is still just three games behind. The two teams will face off six times between now and the end of the season, the first three starting next Monday in Oakland and then this three-game set in Arlington less than two weeks later. After that, the A's don't have any games scheduled against teams currently boasting a winning record.
The Rangers, meanwhile, host the Pirates for three in between the two series with Oakland, and head to Tampa for a four-game set after this series ends. That said, the Rangers are not only hot right now, but they have an 8-5 lead in the season series against Oakland.
September 20-23: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays
The Orioles trail the wild-card leading Rays by four games and would do well to keep that deficit from growing by the time this four-game set, scheduled for the season's penultimate weekend and wrapping around to that Monday, rolls around.
In order for this series to matter, however, Baltimore is going to have to pull out of its recent funk. The O's have gone 14-18 (.438) since July 23. However, 10 of those loses have been by just one run (two in extra innings) and they have outscored their opponents by 19 runs in August while posting a .500 record for the month. That suggests a run of bad luck which, while perhaps karmic given their success in close games last year, should correct itself. The Rays lead the season series 9-6, but the two teams have split their previous six games in Florida.
September 27-29: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds
Only three series on the season's final weekend feature two teams currently boasting winning records. Of those three, the Nationals at Diamondbacks series, despite Washington's late-August surge against weaker teams, seems likely to feature two teams already eliminated from the postseason. One of the other two will involve the Red Sox at Orioles, which could impact both the AL East and AL wild-card races, as well as the playoff seeding, and gives Boston the opportunity to return to the scene of its collapse in 2011 to potentially clinch its first playoff berth since 2009. Still, if I could only attend one series on the season's final weekend, I'd make it this one between the Pirates and Reds.
These two teams, both of whom are currently in playoff position, could be playing for the NL Central crown or for home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game. If the latter, this series would give us a three-game preview of that all-or-nothing contest.
Whatever happens, it seems very likely that these three games will mark the first time since 1992 that the Pirates will not be playing out the string as yet another eliminated team with a losing record. Pittsburgh is five wins away from clinching a winning record, and most likely will have secured a postseason berth by the time of this series (if the Nats and D-backs are out, the Pirates will be in). It's impossible to predict exactly when or where those events will take place, but if you're in Cincinnati on Sept. 29, you will likely see the regular season end without taking the Pirates' season with it for the first time since George H.W. Bush was president.