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Weekend watch: Off to the races

John Jay, Matt Holliday and the wild-card-leading Cardinals got the jump on the Dodgers in Thursday night's opener of a critical four-game series. (AP)

Remarkably, 18 of the 30 teams in major league baseball are still within five games of a playoff spot with less than three weeks to go. This weekend should help clear up the picture at least a little bit, with many of the contenders facing off head-to-head. Here's a brief look at five series to keep an eye on over the next few days.

St. Louis Cardinals (76-68) at Los Angeles Dodgers (74-70)

The Cardinals occupy the second wild-card spot in the National League, and the Dodgers, who trail them by two games, are their closest challenger, but both teams entered this series Thursday night in the midst of miserable slumps. Both had lost six of their last seven coming into the series, with St. Louis having gone 4-11 over its last 15, and Los Angeles 7-14 over its last 21, both struggling to score runs. The Cardinals won Thursday night, but the 2-1 final score was more indicative of the teams’ offensive struggles than it was of the quality of their pitching. The Cardinals have now averaged 3.06 runs scored over their last 16 games, and the Dodgers, 3.14 runs over their last 22.

In a sense, this series is the worst thing that could have happened to the Brewers and Phillies, the second-half upstarts who snuck into contention this past week and now sit 3 1/2 and four games behind the Cardinals, respectively (the Pirates, who are three games back, have their own problems, though they’ll try to overcome them against the Cubs this weekend). Milwaukee (hosting the Mets) and Philadelphia (in Houston) could have continued to close ground quickly, but either the Cardinals or Dodgers will be winning every night this weekend. The result is that their series will likely put a freeze on the wild-card race while burning four games off the schedule, making it difficult for teams more than a couple of games back to close the gap over the season’s final days. With the Cardinals having won the first game on Thursday night to increase their lead to two games, it also seems unlikely that the Dodgers will be able to pull off the three consecutive wins they now need to finish this series ahead of St. Louis, particularly with Joe Blanton (1-4, 6.25 ERA as a Dodger) taking the mound on Saturday night.

Tampa Bay Rays (77-66) at New York Yankees (81-62)

Here’s another series that looks a lot less compelling now than it did a few weeks ago. Coming off a sweep in Baltimore, the Rays now trail the tied Yankees and Orioles, who are tied for the AL East lead and the second wild-card spot, by four games. That means the Rays could sweep New York this weekend without moving into a playoff spot, or, for that matter, knocking the Yankees out of one (the third-place team in the wild-card race, now the Angels, is 3 1/2 games behind Baltimore and New York).

That’s a drag for Tampa Bay as this series, the finale of its season set against the Yankees, could have been much bigger. The Rays hold a 9-6 advantage in the season series against the Yankees, including a 9-3 edge since being swept by the Bombers in the season’s opening series, and will have David Price back on the mound tonight after his last start was skipped due to some shoulder soreness. The Rays have also been hot since the end of July, going 26-14 (.650) in the 40 games prior to those three games in Baltimore and outscoring their opponents 121-69 in August, a performance that translates to a .755 Pythagorean winning percentage.

The Yankees, by comparison, have been scuffling. Before taking the last two games of their series against the gutted, last-place Red Sox this week, they hadn’t won consecutive games since August 14 and 15, when they had a six-game lead in the East. New York went 9-14 in the interim, including losing two of three to the Rays in Florida last week. After this series, the only games the Yankees have left against a winning team are three at home against the A’s next weekend. The Rays, meanwhile, play their final seven games against the White Sox and Orioles. Tampa Bay needs to sweep this weekend to keep their postseason hopes alive, but the Yankees haven’t been swept at home since June 2011.

Baltimore Orioles (81-62) at Oakland Athletics (82-61)

Last year, this would have been the key series in the battle for the lone AL wild-card spot. This year, both of these teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended today despite neither having a proper lead in their division. The Orioles just might pull out the division title (like the Yankees, they only have one series left against a winning team after this one, though that series comes on the road, against the Rays, over the season’s final three games), but if they don’t, this series could have an impact on which of these two teams hosts the wild-card play-in game.

Also, while these two teams are beating up on each other, the Angels, who are just 3 1/2 games behind Baltimore and New York, will be in Kansas City, trying to make a move by beating up on the Royals. And, of course, every game the Orioles play right now is crucial given their tie atop the East with the Yankees. Baltimore has spent six of the last nine days tied with New York in first place, but hasn't held that spot on its own since June 6.

Washington Nationals (89-54) at Atlanta Braves (81-63)

There are no real playoff implications in this series. The Braves are 8 1/2 games behind the Nationals and seven games up on the Dodgers, the top team not currently in a playoff spot. They are also five games up on the Cardinals in what’s really not a battle for home-field advantage in the wild-card game. Still, these are two of the top four teams in the league by record and a possible playoff preview that will end with a solid pitching matchup on Sunday night with Gio Gonzalez (19-7, 2.93 ERA) taking on Mike Minor (2.39 ERA since the beginning of July).

San Francisco Giants (81-62) at Arizona Diamondbacks (71-72)

The Diamondbacks aren’t going to catch the Giants int he NL West (they’re 10 games back), but at 4 1/2 games behind in the wild-card they’re not clearly out of the playoff picture just yet. They’ll need a sweep here to keep those miniscule hopes alive. That’s not impossible. Arizona swept the Giants in Phoenix in the season’s opening series, and took two of three from them in San Francisco last week, giving them a 7-5 advantage in the season series. The Diamondbacks have also won five of their last seven, including those games against the Giants, and two of the pitching matchups favor them: Wade Miley against Barry Zito on Saturday night and Patrick Corbin against Ryan Vogelsong (9.57 ERA over his last six starts). That makes Friday night’s Tyler Skaggs-vs.-Matt Cain matchup arguably the Diamondbacks’ biggest game this season.

-- By Cliff Corcoran
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