Three Strikes: Wild finish coming in host of American League races
The big story in baseball on Sunday was Kendrys Morales, and if this space were titled "Three Home Runs," we might spend a thousand words talking about how this much-criticized free-agent signing has been an above-average DH, a key part of the Royals' big season and a bargain, all at once. Morales's huge day in Detroit Sunday, in which he hit three bombs, underlined how productive the 32-year-old has been this year. His contributions Sunday helped the Royals lower their magic number to three and stretch their lead in the race for the AL one seed to two games over the Blue Jays.
Alas, we're "Three Strikes," so we'll nod to Morales and move on to pressing matters closer to the cutline. With two weeks to play in the season, eight of the ten playoff teams are fairly well-known. Seven teams have less than a 1% chance of losing their invitation to the dance, and another, the Yankees, sit just above the threshold. With apologies to the Nationals, who sit six games behind the Mets with 13 games to play, there are three races left to talk about.
In the AL East, the Blue Jays hold a 2 1/2-games lead in the division and a nine-game lead over the third team in the wild-card chase. They're going to be in the postseason, but there's still a chance it could be in the Coin Flip Round. It's not likely, however; even missing Troy Tulowitzki, out for a while longer with a shoulder injury, the Jays are in better shape than the Yankees, who are one injury from calling David Cone down from the YES booth to start Friday. Masahiro Tanaka's hamstring strain will force him to miss his start in Toronto this week, leaving the Yankees to try to close the gap with homegrown starters Luis Severino, Adam Warren and Ivan Nova. That's 62 career wins and 126 career starts, combined. The Yankees probably have to take two of three in Toronto to continue holding out hope that they can catch the Jays.
AL East race
Regardless, the Yankees can probably count on at least one extra game in October They hold a 6.5 game lead over the Angels and Twins for a wild-card slot, benefiting from the two teams' playing each other over the weekend. The Astros and Angels play three more times, the Astros and Rangers play three more times, the Angels and Rangers play four more times, the Twins and Indians play six more times. All of those games among the group mean it will be hard for any two of these teams to catch the Yankees, which is what it would take for them to fall out of the postseason. The Yankees may be a hobbled shell of themselves come October, but they'll be a postseason hobbled shell, for the first time since 2012. (This is the first time since 2012 that Alex Rodriguez has played a full season, too. Hmmm.)
AL West race
That leaves, in effect, two slots for the Rangers, Astros, Angels and Twins; one the AL West title and the other the second wild-card slot. The Rangers gave back a game to the Astros over the weekend, leaving them a 1 1/2-game lead over their Texan rivals and a four-game cushion over the Angels in third (and the same distance between them and the Twins). The AL West will be where all the action is over the season's final two weeks:
Sept. 21-23: Angels at Astros
Sept. 25-27: Rangers at Astros
Oct. 1-4: Angels at Rangers
Each of those three teams will have the chance to win the division, rather than wait for the other teams to lose it back to them.
AL Wild Card
Because of all that intramural play, with the certainly that three of the teams they're chasing or tied with will combine for at least ten wins down the stretch, it will be very hard for the Twins or Indians to put a dent in their deficits. The one chance either has is by going 6-1 or 7-0 in the games left between the two, starting Tuesday in Minneapolis, and continuing the following week in Cleveland. The Indians, SI's cover boys, have quietly climbed back to .500 and within four games of the wild-card lead, but it won't be enough without a closing kick because of all those games among the AL West contenders. Only sweeps will do. The Indians, with maybe the best double-play combination in the AL right now in Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, are the only team far enough off radar to be a late-September surprise that upsets the apple cart.