On Monday, I previewed September's pennant-race action, listing 16 teams with some remaining shred of hope of reaching the postseason. That doesn’t mean the other 14 teams have nothing left to play for, however. In fact, here are five teams that could have a significant impact on the pennant races in a spoiler role. It's a role that can often spur losing teams to play some of their best baseball of the year, particularly when they do it with the involvement of talented young players with an eye toward contending in the following season. These five spoilers are presented in order of their potential impact on the races.
Infused with young talent, the Cubs have gone 22-15 (.595) since July 28 and are coming off a three-game sweep of the Brewers in which they very much played the spoiler role, extending Milwaukee’s losing streak to nine games and allowing the Cardinals to open up a four-game lead in the NL Central. Of Chicago's 22 remaining games, only six come against teams currently more than a game and a half out of a playoff spot heading into Friday’s action. Three of those are against the Blue Jays, who are currently 4 1/2 games out of the AL’s second wild-card spot, and the other three are against the Reds, whom the Cubs now trail by just two games in the division and could very likely push into last place in that series, if not before.
If the Brewers can pull out of their skid and keep things tight atop the NL Central, the Cubs will have a significant role in determining the outcome of the division. Their final two series of the year find them hosting the Cardinals for three games, then traveling to Milwaukee for the last three games of the season. Chicago is now 9-7 against the Brewers on the season and 7-9 against the Cardinals, having been outscored by just one run by St. Louis across those 16 games. And while Starlin Castro is out for the year with a sprained ankle, the Cubs may have Anthony Rizzo, currently nursing a bad back, back in the lineup for those final two series.
The Astros have gone 17-14 (.548) since Aug. 1, making the timing of Bo Porter’s firing all the more curious. Houston is undefeated under interim manager Tom Lawless, however, having just swept a quick two-game series against the best team in baseball, the Angels. On Friday, the Astros begin a nine-game road trip that will see them play all three of the contenders in their division, traveling from Oakland to Seattle to Anaheim.
It’s the matchup against the Mariners that’s the key here, however, as Seattle is just half-a-game behind the Tigers for the second wild-card spot and is just 3-4 against Houston at Safeco Field thus far this season. The Mariners will face the Astros six times in total over the remainder of the season; given that, after this weekend, those six games represent Seattle's only remaining games against a team currently sporting a losing record, those games against Houston are must-wins for the Mariners.
San Diego Padres
Games remaining against contenders: Giants (7), Dodgers (3)
The Padres have gone 25-19 (.568) since the All-Star break and could be a key player down the stretch in the NL West, where the Dodgers are nursing a two-game lead over the Giants. The Padres took two of three from the Dodgers in San Diego last weekend, both wins coming in extra innings, and have thus far split their season series against the Giants, outscoring San Francisco by two runs in those games.
It will ultimately be that San Diego-San Francisco matchup that will be key here. The Dodgers will be done with the Padres after a three-game set at Dodger Stadium next week. The Giants, however, play seven of their last ten games against the Padres, finishing the season by hosting them for four games. San Francisco has its sights set on toppling the Dodgers, but is also mindful of the fact that it's only 4 1/2 games ahead of the fourth-place team in the wild-card race. The Giants will have to beat San Diego to accomplish their goals.
The Marlins gave gone 23-21 (.523) since the All-Star break and provide yet another challenge for the sinking Brewers, as well as for the Braves, who are currently tied with Milwaukee for the second NL wild-card spot and have played .467 ball since the break. Indeed, the Marlins are 8-8 against Atlanta thus far this season, having outscored the Braves by five runs in those games. Fortunately for the Braves, they will get the Marlins out of the way this weekend with a three-game set in Miami. The Fish then travel to Milwaukee for four games next week.
As for the Nationals, their seven-game lead in the NL East looks safe, but it’s worth noting that they have six head-to-head games remaining against the second-place Braves, who are 9-4 against Washington this season, after which eight of the Nats' final 11 games will come against Miami.
Tampa Bay Rays
Though they have been in a slump since mid-August, the Rays have still matched the cross-state Marlins with a 23-21 record since the All-Star break, and Tampa Bay will play all but six of its remaining 21 games against teams currently within five games of a playoff spot. It thus may be up to the Rays to convince the Yankees, whom they face in a pair of three-game series over the next two weeks and against whom they are 8-5 on the season, and Blue Jays, against whom they’ll play three in Toronto in between those two Yankees series, that this isn’t their year. By the time they get to the final series of the year against the Indians, however, Cleveland will likely have already received the same message.