Teams on the brink as final week begins
This weekend's baseball action offered no shortage of excitement via a smorgasbord of games relevant to the postseason. Some matters were cleared up; when the Angels' Kendry Morales fouled out to Rangers catcher Mike Napoli to end Sunday night's doubleheader nightcap in Texas, three American League teams simultaneously clinched a playoff spot. But with three games to go on the schedule, the potential for chaos remains. No less than 14 teams are still in the running for a postseason spot, and not a single matchup is set. Returning to the metaphor I introduced here last week, there's plenty of entropy in this system, and while it may not produce quite the same level of chaos as last year's once-in-a-lifetime finish, fans of maximum baseball — including the powers that be at Major League Baseball and their broadcast partners — should have little to complain about.
On Sunday, the Yankees (92-67), Orioles (92-67) and Rangers (93-66) all clinched playoff spots with the Angels' loss to the Rangers, but their seeding remains in complete flux, and eight teams retain at least some chance of a postseason berth. Matters are actually most settled in the AL Central, where the Tigers (86-73) took two out of three from the Twins over the weekend and now hold a three-game lead over the White Sox (83-76), who lost two out of three to Tampa Bay. Both teams have been eliminated from wild-card contention, and with Chicago having lost 10 out of 12, Detroit's magic number is down to one. Either a win against the Royals in Kansas City — on the heels of the Tigers having taken four straight from them in Detroit — or a loss by the White Sox in Cleveland puts the Sox out of their misery. The BP Odds give Chicago just a 1.0 percent chance of staying alive, a stunning turn of events for a team that had better than an 80 percent chance just two weeks ago, and almost a 70 percent chance just one week ago.
The AL East race has been simplified by the elimination of the Rays (88-71) from contention for the division flag. Tampa Bay is on the ropes, with an elimination number of one, as they play host to the Orioles for their final three games; for what it's worth, they've lost nine out of 15 to Baltimore this season, and their odds are down to 1.0 percent. The O's swept the Red Sox over the weekend and moved back into a tie for first place with the Yankees, who came back from a 5-1 deficit over the final three innings on Sunday to secure a split of their four-game series with the Blue Jays in Toronto. The Yankees finish the regular season by hosting the dead-in-the-water Red Sox, who have lost nine out of 10 and 28 out of 38. The BP Odds machine gives the Yanks a 62.7 percent chance of winning the division, with an average win total of 93.9 to the Orioles' 93.1. With Baltimore and New York 9-9 against each other this season, a tiebreaker to determine the division winner would be hosted by the team with the better intradivision record; the Orioles (42-27, .609) have clinched the upper hand on the Yankees (38-31, .551) in that matter. More importantly, they've secured their first playoff spot since 1997, and they've even pushed their run differential to +11. With Saturday's narrow 4-3 win, they also ran their record in one-run games to an all-time best 28-9.
As for the AL West, the Angels (88-71) took two out of three in Texas, including a ninth-inning comeback during the first game of Sunday's doubleheader (necessitated by Saturday night's rainout), but they have nonetheless been knocked out of the division race, and their elimination number is down to one. They face the Mariners in Seattle, and their odds of winning a wild card spot are just 0.5 percent. The A's (91-68) just swept the Mariners in Oakland, and now they'll play host to the Rangers; if they sweep the series, they win the AL West (something the BP Odds give a 13.1 percent chance of happening). If they win at least one game — or if the Angels and Rays both lose one game — they clinch the remaining wild card spot for their first playoff berth since 2006; their odds of that are 85.4 percent. The Rangers can clinch the division with one win over the A's, while their magic number to clinch home field advantage through the Division and League Championship series — and to face the wild-card winner in the former — is three. In a tiebreaker scenario, they hold a 5-2 advantage over the Orioles, but are at a 3-4 disadvantage against the Yankees.
In the grand scheme, while the Senior Circuit's playoff picture was cleared up somewhat, very little was actually settled over the past three days and nights. Four teams — the Nationals, Reds, Giants and Braves — have clinched spots, while the second wild-card slot remains up for grabs. The Phillies were eliminated from contention on Friday night when they lost to the Marlins — not exactly a dignified exit — while the Diamondbacks were eliminated even as they beat the Cubs, thanks to a Cardinals victory. The Brewers departed the race in undignified fashion as well with a 7-0 loss to the lowly Astros on Sunday.
Those ousters have pared the remaining field of wild-card contestants to the Cardinals (86-73) and Dodgers (84-75). The former took two out of three from the Nationals over the weekend, pounding them 12-2 on Friday and 10-4 on Sunday to make up for a 10-inning 6-4 loss on Saturday. Though their three remaining games are against the Reds (96-63), the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give them a 95 percent chance of holding on; their magic number — any combination of Cardinal wins and Dodger losses — is two. The Dodgers have won five straight and seven out of their last nine; they held the hapless Rockies to one run in three games over the weekend, with Clayton Kershaw tossing eight scoreless innings on Friday, and Matt Kemp bashing two homers on Saturday and another on Sunday. Those performances should assuage fears that the team's two biggest stars could be sidelined at this critical time, but Los Angeles has just a 5.0 percent chance of making the postseason, and it still has to face the Giants (93-66) to finish out the season. On paper, Monday's matchup (Aaron Harang versus Matt Cain) looks like a nail in the coffin, though the Dodgers did outlast Cain the last time they faced him on Sept. 8.
Meanwhile, the NL East flag remains in play, but just barely, as the Nationals (96-63) lead the Braves (93-66) by three games. Washington, which lost two out of three in St. Louis, needs either one more win against the Phillies at home, or one more Atlanta loss against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. With their 82nd loss of the season on Sunday, the latter — who were no-hit by the Reds' Homer Bailey on Friday as well — clinched their 20th consecutive losing season. Meanwhile, the Braves spent the weekend taking two out of three from the Mets, losing on Friday night as they paid tribute to Chipper Jones upon the kickoff of the final regular season home series of his career, but winning the final two games. Despite their advantage in matchups, the Braves have just a 0.9 percent chance of winding up on top according to the BP Odds machine.
Furthermore, the Nats and Reds are still battling for the league's best record and thus not only home field advantage throughout the playoffs but also the right to play the wild-card winner. The BP Odds give Washington the upper hand there; in their Monte Carlo simulation, which plays out the rest of the season a million times, the Nats wind up with an average of 97.8 wins to the Reds' 97.3 wins. In summary, this season's final stretch may not create quite the logjam of yesteryear, but the new format with two wild cards in each league has kept the excitement alive going into the final series of the season; Team Entropy is still in this race. For whatever quibbles one may have about the structure of the playoffs — and brothers and sisters, we have 'em — that has to count as a win for MLB, and for fans of the 14 teams that retain some shred of hope.