Previewing MLB's final weekend: Pennant races, awards chases
The final weekend of the 2014 baseball season is upon us, and while the pennant races have been underwhelming and Derek Jeter has already had his big farewell moment in the Bronx, the final three days of the regular season should still offer plenty worth watching. Here’s a quick look some of what is in store.
The National League field may be set, but the Pirates are still just one game behind the Cardinals in the Central, having crushed the Braves on Thursday night to shave a half-game off their deficit. The Pirates are in Cincinnati this weekend while the Cardinals visit the Diamondbacks. If Arizona and Pittsburgh both win two out of three, there will be a one-game playoff on Monday to determine the NL Central champion.
In the American League, Cleveland and Seattle are still clinging to playoff life with elimination numbers of one and two, respectively. With the Athletics still in freefall, don’t count the Indians and Mariners out yet. Oakland is finishing up in Texas against a Rangers team that has won 13 of its last 14; four of those wins, including Thursday night’s walk-off victory, have come against the A's, who have now lost three in a row. If the Rangers can sweep the weekend, the Mariners would need just two wins at home against the Angels to force a one-game playoff on Monday for the final wild-card spot, while Cleveland would be able to force a playoff with a sweep of the visiting Rays. Those are long shots, but they are very much in play.
A less likely scenario would have the Royals, who can clinch a playoff spot outright with a single win or a single Mariners loss this weekend, catching the Tigers in the AL Central. Trailing by two with three to play, the Royals finish up in Chicago against the White Sox while the Tigers are hosting the Twins. Kansas City needs one of those two series to be a sweep in their favor with two of the three games in the other set also going their way simply to force a playoff on Monday.
Home Field Advantage
The Angels haven't clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs just yet, as their losing record against the Orioles this season breaks that tie in Baltimore’s direction. But one more Angels win or Orioles loss will do the trick. Assuming that happens, the Orioles have clinched home field for their pending series against the AL Central champion.
Home field for the Wild Card Game remains wide open, with the Royals holding a mere one-game lead on the A's. But given what I wrote above about Oakland, it seems very likely that Kansas City will not only reach the playoffs for the first time since 1985, but also, like the Pirates last year, get at least one home game out of the deal. The Royals own the tiebreaker over the A's via a 5-2 record against Oakland this season.
Things are tighter in the NL, but the Nationals' two-game lead over the Dodgers and 4-2 record against L.A. this season mean they can clinch home field throughout the playoffs with one more win or one more Dodgers loss. L.A.'s 4-3 record against the Cardinals means they have already clinched home field advantage in a potential Division Series matchup against St. Louis.
Los Angeles' 2-5 record against the Pirates, however, means that Pittsburgh, which is three games behind L.A. heading into the weekend, could still technically win the Central and host the Dodgers in the Division Series. For that to happen, however, the Rockies would have to sweep the Dodgers in L.A. while the Pirates sweep the Reds, and the Cardinals would have to get out of the way as well.
Similarly, the Wild Card Game is most likely to take place in the city of the second-place team in the NL Central (the Pirates hold a one-game lead on the Giants and the tiebreaker in that matchup). But it is still possible for the Giants to wind up hosting either the Pirates or, yes, the Cardinals, as the Giants own the tiebreaker against St. Louis and are just two games behind them going into the weekend.
Derek Jeter had his big moment Thursday night, and he said after the game that he will play each of the Yankees' final three games in Boston out of respect for the Red Sox and their fans. He will not play the field however, and will thus end his Hall of Fame career with three games as a designated hitter. His final on-field moment will thus come at the plate or on the bases on Sunday afternoon.
Also playing his final three major league games this weekend will be long-time White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, who will finish his career with three games at U.S. Cellular Field after not appearing in a home game since Aug. 30 due to a hand injury. Konerko has been with Chicago for 16 years, was a six-time All-Star with the team, is second on their all-time home-run list with 432 round-trippers, and is the last remaining member of their 2005 World Series champions, so expect there to be a significant outpouring of affection, particularly on Sunday.
It’s also worth noting that if the A's do collapse completely and miss the playoffs, it will mark the end of Adam Dunn's career, as the Three True Outcome superstar has said that he will retire at the end of this season. Dunn has never reached the playoffs in any of his 14 major league seasons, leading all active major leaguers with 1,998 games played without a playoff appearance, adding an extra wrinkle of personal drama to the Athletics' fate this weekend.
As I wrote in my final regular-season edition of Awards Watch on Thursday, the winner of the AL Cy Young and NL Most Valuable Player awards could yet be decided this weekend. In the AL, the relevant players are Cleveland's Corey Kluber, who starts Friday night against the Rays with his team looking to skirt elimination yet again, and Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who is scheduled to start the season finale on Sunday. Hernandez seemed to have the Cy Young locked up as recently as the beginning of this week, but his disastrous start in Toronto on Tuesday night, which crippled the Mariners' playoff hopes, has combined with Kluber's recent dominance to put the award back in play. For his part, Kluber has gone 4-0 with a 1.39 ERA in his last four starts, including a complete game in which he allowed just one unearned run, and a career-high 14 strikeouts in each of his last two starts. Kluber has pitched at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs in each of those four outings.
In the NL, two of the three relevant contenders for the MVP award have already played their last regular-season game. Giancarlo Stanton had his season ended by a fastball to the face on Sept. 11, and Clayton Kershaw made his last regular season start on Wednesday night. The race is so close, however, that the red-hot Andrew McCutchen could yet steal it. McCutchen has hit .403/.506/.672 in 83 plate appearances over his last 19 games, with the Pirates going 15-4 in those games. If he has a big weekend and the Pirates manage to swipe the Central from the Cardinals, he would not only capture the narrative that often drives opinion in the voting, but would also deserve the award on an individual level as well.
Once again, there’s a compelling race for the batting title in the NL, with the Rockies' Justin Morneau and Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison dueling it out, an unlikely duo given Morneau's post-concussion struggles prior to this year and the fact that Harrison opened the season as a reserve for Pittsburgh. Harrison has a two-point lead heading into the final three games, .319 to .317, but don’t count out McCutchen at .314. Jose Altuve has a better handle on the AL crown, though Victor Martinez is just six points behind him.
In an age when most baseball fans know that on-base and slugging percentages are better measures of a hitter's value and impact, batting average doesn't carry the weight it used to. But there's still something to be said for getting a hit more often than anyone else in your league.