1. Cleveland rocks
For a week, the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians marched in lockstep toward what seemed to be a showdown next week in the American League Wild Card Game. Both teams won seven games in a row and remained separated by just a scant single game in the wild-card standings. Yet if one team was more impressive during that stretch it would have been the Rays, who swept four games from the Orioles at home and then three from the Yankees on the road while the Indians were beating up on patsies like the Astros (three in a row in Cleveland), White Sox (likewise) and Twins.
On Friday, though, the Rays finally blinked, falling to the Blue Jays in Toronto. The Indians, meanwhile, pounded the Twins in a 12-6 slugfest that not only gave Cleveland eight wins in a row and improved its MLB-best record this month to 19-6 but enabled it to catch Tampa Bay atop the wild-card standings.
Every Indians starter had at least one hit on Friday and the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters -- Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana -- combined to go 7-for-14 with six runs scored. In all, Cleveland pounded out 17 hits and scored multiple runs in four different innings.
Things weren't nearly that comfortable for the Rangers, who beat the Angels 5-3 and are lurking just a game behind in this race. Texas has rebounded from a 2-14 start to the month to win five straight, but despite that, the Rangers still have the longest odds to a postseason berth. Their tragic number is down to two, meaning they could be eliminated as soon as Saturday night.
Actually, they could move to the brink of elimination starting far earlier than that. The first pitch of Saturday's game in Arlington has been moved up from 7:05 p.m. Central time to 11:05 a.m. to avoid a thunderstorm that is expected to hit the area later in the day.
Should the Rays, Indians and Rangers all finish tied for wild-card, under a scenario announced Friday afternoon by Major League Baseball, the Indians would host the Rays on Monday with the winner claiming one spot in the Wild Card Game and the loser playing the Rangers on Tuesday for the second spot. The Wild Card Game would then be played on Wednesday with homefield advantage in that game being determined by the head-to-head record this season of the two finalists.
Texas: 1-5 vs. Cleveland; 4-3 vs. Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay: 3-4 vs. Texas; 4-2 vs. Cleveland
Cleveland: 2-4 vs. Tampa Bay; 5-1 vs. Texas
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2. Cardinals clinch
With two days left, all the divisions have been settled. By virtue of a 7-0 shutout of the Cubs at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals wrapped up the NL Central and became the sixth and final team to clinch a division title, eight days after the Dodgers became the first to do so. St. Louis also kept pace with the Braves, who beat the Phillies in Atlanta, for homefield advantage throughout the National League playoffs.
It’s the first NL Central crown for the Cardinals since 2009 and their third straight postseason appearance. It also took the sting off the fact that the team announced cleanup hitter Allen Craig, who leads the team with 97 RBIs, will miss the Division Series with a sprained foot.
St. Louis didn’t miss Craig on Friday, getting hits from seven of the eight position players in its lineup en route to a total of 10 for the game. In fact, the Cardinals have kept on rolling ever since Craig went down in early September. Their 113 runs scored since he last played are the most in the National League, 10 more than the Washington Nationals.
3. Pirates strike back
Last weekend in Pittsburgh, the Pirates lost two of three to the visiting Reds and while their first postseason berth in 21 years was never really in danger of slipping away, the prospect of that long-awaited event coming and going without a game in the Steel City was. But with a 4-1 win in Cincinnati on Friday the Pirates moved two games up for homefield advantage in the NL Wild Card Game with two to play, and one more win over the weekend will mean that PNC Park, perhaps the most beautiful stadium in baseball, will finally host a postseason game, 12 years after it opened.
Friday was just one day removed from the one-year anniversary of Homer Bailey’s first career no-hitter, which came against the Pirates at Great American Ballpark. Yet on this night the Reds righty didn’t last past the fifth inning, surrendering four hits, four runs and perhaps his team’s best chance at staying in Cincinnati past Sunday.
His counterpart, Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett, managed a turnaround of a different sort. In his only other start in Cincinnati this year, back in July, Burnett had been raked for 10 hits and five runs without making it through the sixth inning. On Friday, he allowed just five hits and one run while completing eight innings, his third-longest outing of the season.
4. Advantage, Boston
Speaking of homefield advantage, that race in the American League has perhaps been the most overlooked chase of the month but it could wind up being the most impactful. The Red Sox, who lead the race by two games over Oakland, and the A’s both won on Friday night, and both teams beat division rivals in the process.
Why does that matter? Because this year, the first tiebreaker after head-to-head record (the A’s and Red Sox went 3-3 against each other this season) for homefield advantage is intradivision record. At the moment, the Red Sox are 44-30 against the AL East and the A’s are 43-31 against the AL West. One more Boston win or one more Oakland loss would mean that the road to a World Series title will go through Fenway Park, where the Red Sox had the best home winning percentage among any American League team (the A’s have the second-best mark, just one win worse than Boston).
The only way the two teams can both finish with 97 wins would be for the Red Sox to lose their final two games, both at Baltimore, while the A’s win their last two games, both at Seattle. That would enable Oakland to finish with a better intradivisional record – 45-31 vs. 44-32 – and thus homefield throughout the American League playoffs.
The consolation prize for the A’s is that their win combined with the Tigers’ loss to the Marlins clinched no worse than the No. 2 seed in the playoffs for Oakland. Even if the two teams finished with 95 wins, Oakland would win the head-to-head tiebreaker, 4-3.
5. Saturday scenarios
Here are the various relevant scenarios for each of the 11 teams still alive for the postseason heading into Saturday:
Red Sox: Have already clinched AL East. Can clinch homefield advantage with a win at Baltimore or an Oakland loss at Seattle
Tigers: Have already clinched AL Central and No. 3 seed in American League playoffs.
Athletics: Have already clinched AL West and at least No. 2 seed in American League playoffs by virtue of having won head-to-head series with Tigers.
Rays: Can clinch wild card with win over Toronto and a loss by Texas
Indians: Can clinch wild card spot with win over Minnesota and a loss by Texas
Rangers: Can be eliminated with a loss and wins by both Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Braves: Have already clinched NL East and at least No. 2 seed in National League playoffs. Can clinch homefield advantage with win and a loss by St. Louis.
Cardinals: Have already clinched NL Central and at least No. 2 seed in National League playoffs. Can not clinch homefield advantage on Saturday because they would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to Atlanta by virtue of their 3-4 record this season.
Dodgers: Have already clinched NL West and No. 3 seed in National League playoffs. Will open the postseason at either Atlanta or St. Louis.
Pirates: Have already clinched an NL wild-card berth. Can secure homefield advantage with a win at Cincinnati. Reds: Have already clinched an NL wild-card berth. In order to secure homefield advantage for the NL Wild Card Game they must beat the Pirates both Saturday and Sunday.