Contending teams will be scoreboard-watching in final full week
The past week saw three teams clinch playoff spots — including division titles for the Reds and Giants — as well as plenty of battles between contenders. As the season heads into its final full week, the upcoming schedule features far less in the way of head-to-head action between such teams. Instead, the storylines are going to include a whole lot of scoreboard-watching.
The closest thing between a head-to-head battle between contenders is Monday afternoon's first game at 1:05 p.m. Eastern, pitting the surging Brewers (24-7 since August 20) against the Nationals, who clinched a playoff spot last Thursday but still have a magic number of six to clinch the NL East. The Brewers — who have all of an 8.9 percent chance of making the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report — took two out of the first three games of the series over the weekend, and while they're still running third in the NL wild-card race, they're 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals. Marco Estrada takes the ball for Milwaukee; pressed into the rotation by Chris Narveson's injury, the 29-year-old journeyman has been one of the season's great surprises, delivering a 3.56 ERA while striking out 9.2 per nine in 126 1/3 innings. While he has just 10 quality starts out of 21, he left one of them after an inning due to a hip injury sustained while running the bases, costing him five weeks; since returning, he's pitched like a front-of-the-rotation starter, with a 3.19 ERA backed by a 2.87 FIP, and nine quality starts out of 15.
For the Nats, who remain half a game ahead of the Reds in the race for the league's best record, the call goes to Jordan Zimmermann, who has shaken out of a funk — 15 runs allowed in 13 2/3 innings over three starts — by allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last three starts. With 182 2/3 innings, the 26-year-old righty has set a career high, so expect him to be on a short leash as Washington looks ahead. Following this series, the Nats will travel to Philadelphia for a three-game set, one of the few this week that involves two contenders — if the Phillies (77-76) can be called that given that they're sixth in the wild-card race, five games back. The Brewers will head to Cincinnati to face the Reds, who because of their quest for home-field advantage don't have the luxury of easing off the throttle, division flag or no.
• Oakland A's (86-66) at Texas Rangers (90-62)
Believe it or not, the AL West flag is still in play, with the upstart A's capable of closing the gap if they sweep this four-game series in Texas — a longshot scenario to be sure. The A's have lost five out of their last seven, but they did beat the Yankees in the Bronx on Sunday, and still have a 2 1/2 game lead over the Angels for the second wild-card spot. Both they and the Rangers are 12-9 this month, and the two teams are 6-6 in head-to-head action this year. The Rangers appear to have the edge in terms of pitching matchups; they will throw Yu Darvish in the second game of the series, and Matt Harrison in the fourth, interspersed with Derek Holland and rookie Martin Perez; the banged-up A's turn to Dan Straily, Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker and Travis Blackley; Parker, the team's top starter given the injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson, was the only one to last even five innings in his most recent turn.
• Brave new berth?
The next team to clinch a playoff spot will likely be the Braves (88-65), whose magic number to clinch a wild-card spot is down to two. They'll face the dead-in-the-water Marlins (66-87, including nine losses in their last 12 games) in Miami for a three-game series starting on Tuesday.
• The slimmest of margins
With the Yankees (88-64) and Orioles (87-65) both losing on Sunday, the two teams remain just one game apart atop the AL East, and they've now entered the record books. Since September 3, the pair haven't been more than one game apart in the standings; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the longest any two first- and second-place teams have been separated by one game or less since 1951. That year featured Bobby Thomson's famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to climax a three-game tiebreaker between the Giants and Dodgers, but it was the Yankees and Indians who spent 27 days — from August 25 through September 20 — shadowing each other before the Yankees pulled away over the season's final nine games.
After playing sloppily and losing t to the A's on Sunday to snap a seven-game winning streak, the Yankees are in Minnesota to face the Twins (64-89) at the start of the week, and Minnesota, as noted above, has been playing better baseball lately. Andy Pettitte opens the series on Tuesday with his second start since returning from a broken fibula; he threw five shutout innings against Toronto on September 19. The Orioles, whose six-game winning streak came to an end against the Red Sox on Sunday, host the Blue Jays (66-85) in a four-game series that kicks off with a doubleheader on Monday, with rookie Steven Johnson facing Henderson Alvarez in the 4:05 pm. EDT opener, and then Wei-Yin Chen going against the hapless Ricky Romero in the 7:05 p.m. nightcap.
• Hello, Central?
Given the number of strong contenders elsewhere in the league, perhaps the AL can just ditch the requirement that they include a team from the Central division, as none have been playing good baseball lately. Since the calendar turned to September, the division's best records have been put up by the Twins and Royals, both 11-11. The Tigers have gone 10-11, though at least they've outscored their opponents (93-80), while the White Sox have gone 9-12, including five straight losses to the Royals and Angels.
The Royals (70-82) go to Detroit for a four-game series against the Tigers (80-72), who remain just one game behind the White Sox but have fallen to fifth place, six back in the wild-card standings. Monday's game is actually a makeup of an April 30 rainout. Though Detroit has won seven of the 11 head-to-head matchups between the two teams, the Royals are a division-best 28-22 since the beginning of August, a full win better than the Tigers, and they beat Detroit in three straight at the end of August. Detroit's best chance comes in Monday's game, pairing Justin Verlander against Luke Hochevar. Verlander, the defending AL Cy Young and MVP winner, hasn't allowed a run in his last 15 innings dating back to September 8. He's first in the league in innings (223 1/3), second in strikeouts (223), third in ERA (2.74) but just eighth in wins (15); the main differentiators between this season and last have been the support of his teammates:
The Royals' best shot for a win in this series is probably with Jeremy Guthrie, who has delivered a 3.00 ERA in 12 starts since being acquired from Colorado; he pairs off with Rick Porcello on Wednesday. This series won't be the end of things between the two teams, as they'll face off in the season-ending three-game series as well.
As for the White Sox, their five-game skid cancels out the five-game winning streak that preceded it. Despite their recent mediocrity, they've held or shared first place continuously since July 24. The Sox hold an 8-4 season series advantage against the Indians, whom they'll face in a season-ending three game series in Cleveland at season's end, with a four-game set with the Rays in between. Chicago has ace Chris Sale going against the Indians' most consistent starter, Zack McAllister, in Monday night's opener at US Cellular. Sale has shown a surprising home/road split with a 1.72 ERA at home versus 3.77 on the road; the big difference there is a .236 BABIP versus a .320 one. Elsewhere in the series, Francisco Liriano and Jake Peavy draw the less effective Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, respectively.
• Bums versus contenders As with the aforementioned matchups involving AL East and Central teams, there are a few other key series pitting a contender against a sub-.500 team: the Cardinals (82-71) at the Astros (50-103) for a three-game set starting on Monday night, the Dodgers (79-74) at the Padres (73-80) for a three-game set starting on Tuesday, and the Angels (84-69) hosting the Mariners (72-81) for a three-game set starting on Tuesday. Despite taking two out of three from the Reds, the Dodgers' playoff odds are down to 5.0 percent according to BP, while the Angels are hanging tough at 20.0 percent; the Cardinals are sitting pretty at 84.0 percent.