Spoiler alert: Non-contenders who could still impact races
It wasn't as fulfilling as battling for a playoff spot for the first time in 15 years, but last year's Orioles gained a measure of respect — and perhaps self-respect — for the role they played as spoilers in September. Though they finished with a dismal overall record of 69-93, those Orioles went 15-13 during the final month, and against tough competition to boot. They split six games against the Rays, four against the Yankees and four against the Tigers, all playoff-bound, and most notably went 5-2 against the Red Sox during the season's final two weeks, including a Game 162 victory that bounced Boston from what had appeared be a certain postseason berth.
Who will play the role of this year's spoilers? According to Expanded Standings at Baseball-Reference.com, the AL teams with the toughest remaining schedule are Seattle and Oakland, whose average opponent record at this writing is 74-61 (.548). The A's, with 74-60 record, currently holds a wild-card slot, so they don't count in the spoiler consideration. Of Seattle's remaining 24 games, a whopping 21 come against contenders: six apiece against the A's, Angels (74-63), and Rangers (81-55), plus three against the Orioles (76-60). Only a three-game set against the Blue Jays (61-75) lacks playoff implications.
The Mariners are just 67-71, running last in the AL West, but they have been on a 31-20 tear since the All-Star break, tied for the second-best record in the league. Granted, that record is padded by a 16-2 run against the Royals, Twins and Indians — three teams that are a combined 60 games below .500 — but in their current iteration, the M's aren't nearly the pushover that they were earlier in the year. And woe to the teams stuck facing Felix Hernandez, who has delivered four shutouts across his last 10 starts, one of them a perfect game. Hernandez is scheduled to start against the A's on Friday, and if he works every fifth game, his remaining turns would come against Toronto on September 13, Baltimore on September 18, Texas on September 23, Oakland on September 28 and Anaheim on October 3, the season's final day. Good luck with that, guys.
The third-toughest remaining schedule among AL teams, with an average opponent record of 72-63, belongs to the Angels, whose current 8-1 run has kept them on the fringes of the playoff picture at a time when it looked as though they may be headed for oblivion. They're in third place in the AL West, 7 1/2 games out, and fourth in the wild-card hunt, 2 1/2 games back. With six remaining games against the Rangers, four against the A's and three apiece with the Tigers and White Sox, they have plenty of opportunities to help their own cause. Another slump could turn them into spoilers, but with six of their final nine games against the Mariners, their potential in that category is limited.
The fourth-toughest remaining schedule, at 72-64, belongs to the Red Sox. With an 11-24 record since the beginning of August, this year's Sox can at best hope to be last year's Orioles, but in their post-blockbuster guise, with James Loney at first base instead of Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz back on the disabled list and an underachieving rotation — not to mention a manager who sounds more like a dead man walking with every passing day — it's difficult to see them mustering the same kind of showing that the Birds did under Buck Showalter. In any event, the schedule has the Sox playing six games apiece against the Yankees (77-59), Orioles and Rays (75-62), with six against the Blue Jays again their only break from playoff-relevant action.
Speaking of the Jays, who have been decimated by injuries, they have sputtered to a 10-23 record since the beginning of August, have a solid potential as a spoiler, with an average opponent record of 69-66. They play four games against the Orioles, seven against the Yankees, and three against the Rays. The other team deserving of mention in this category is the Royals; though their opponent average record is just 67-68, they have six games against the White Sox, seven against the Tigers and three against the Angels. Kansas City has gone 8-4 against the AL Central-leading Sox, and while it's 4-7 against the Tigers, it swept a three-game series from Detroit at the end of last month.
The potential spoilers in the National League don't quite rise to the same level in terms of schedules saturated with contenders. The toughest remaining schedule actually belongs to the Dodgers, with an average opponent record of 73-63. At 73-65 themselves, they're battling both for the NL West flag (where they're 4 1/2 out) and the wild card (tied for third at 1 1/2 out). The second-toughest schedule belongs to the Marlins at 72-64, but their spoiler potential looks low; aside from six games against the wild-card-leading Braves (77-60), they have three against the Nationals (84-52), who own a 7 1/2 game lead in the NL East, and three against the Reds (83-55), who are up by 8 1/2 in the NL Central.
Two teams are tied for the third-toughest remaining NL schedule, with an average opponent record of 70-66, namely the Mets (65-72) and Brewers (67-69). With eight wins in their past 11 games, the Mets have broken out of a freefall that saw them lose 30 of their previous 41 games. Beyond six against the Braves and three against the Nationals, their big series is a four-game one in which they host the Pirates. The Brewers, who are 20-13 since the beginning of August, have four games against the Nats, and three apiece against the Braves, Reds, Cardinals and Pirates. That may be particularly bad news for the Bucs, against whom they're 8-4; by contrast, they're 4-8 against the Redbirds.
The other spoiler of note in the NL is the Padres, who own the league's fifth-best record since the All-Star break at 30-21, behind the Reds, Nationals, Giants and Braves — all contenders themselves. Their average opponent record is 70-67, featuring six games against the Giants and three apiece with the Cardinals and Dodgers. The Padres are a combined 10-20 against that trio, but they did just deal the Dodgers a blow by taking two out of three in Los Angeles. With the addition of the second wild-card in each league, the two leagues' races should contain plenty of down-to-the-wire excitement. Key matchups among contenders during the season's final series include the Orioles visiting the Rays, the Rangers at the A's, the Reds at the Cardinals, the Braves at the Pirates and the Giants at the Dodgers. By then, some of those teams might have drifted out of the playoff picture and into the roles of spoilers themselves. But for now, those teams are all still attempting to help their own causes by dodging the teams that have nothing to play for except their own pride.