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AL Central race headlines final weekend worth watching

With one weekend remaining in the regular season, baseball suddenly finds itself with the one thing it seemed almost sure to be without this year: pennant race drama, albeit a much more muted version than the high-stakes scenario that has played itself out so often through the years. For instance, with three games remaining, seven of the eight playoff spots are already taken, the American League matchups have been set (AL East vs. AL Central, AL West vs. wild card) and the series that might have been the most compelling because of its head-to-head nature (Rockies-Dodgers) instead will be not much more than a postseason warmup act for two teams who are already playoff-bound. 1951 it is not. That said, there are still several playoff plotlines yet to be determined.

Baseball's worst division this year is the only division in the game the past two years to not produce a single 90-win team, the first time that has happened in back-to-back seasons in the game's dominant league since the AL Central in 1997 and 1998. On the surface, this may seem like winning a lottery ticket to the lion's den that is Yankee Stadium, where the hosts have not only the best record in the game but the best home record in any ballpark's first year since the opening of Fenway Park in 1912. Yet the Tigers, who lead the Twins by two games after splitting their four-game set at Comerica Park, have the starting pitching to challenge the mighty Yankees, especially if they can get their staff in order heading into the Division Series opener.

To do that, they'll need to wrap up the division prior to Sunday, which is when ace Justin Verlander is scheduled to take the ball. Joba Chamberlain's continuing struggles in New York mean the Yankees are almost certain to choose the playoff series that gives them an extra off-day and therefore a three-man pitching staff. That would make Game 1 of the ALDS on Wednesday, October 7, and if Verlander pitches on Sunday in a do-or-die game, there's no way he'd be ready to pitch again in the series opener. But if the Tigers clinch early, then Verlander would get to start two of the first four games opposite CC Sabathia, a matchup that would bring some balance to an otherwise one-sided matchup that would involve teams separated by over 15 victories on the season.

The Tigers also have the benefit of playing the free-falling White Sox, who have been openly accused by both their manager and their general manager of giving up on their season, so it seems highly unlikely that the Sox will suddenly find the skill and will to fashion only their third three-game winning streak of the second half. Anything less than a sweep means the Tigers assure themselves of no worse than a tie for the division, and one loss for the Twins would give Detroit its first division title in 22 years.

While the Tigers are facing a team with nothing to play for, the Twins get to play the Royals, who may actually be motivated for selfish purposes beyond just the chance to play spoiler to the Twins. They enter the last weekend tied for last place with the Indians, and will try to avoid finishing in the AL Central basement for the fifth time in the past six years. Plus, they'll have Zack Greinke pitching on Saturday, and while all sane people should have already mailed their AL Cy Young ballots with Greinke's name at the top, a 17th win would ensure that he wins the award (only one pitcher, Arizona's Brandon Webb three years ago, has won the award in a non-strike year with only 16 victories). Greinke professes not to care much about the award, but he surely cares about pitching in the closest thing to a postseason game he's likely to get for some time, so expect him to deliver another gem on Saturday that could very well have him in the role of executioner. That's because on Friday, the Twins are forced to use Jeff Manship, a rookie who has made just four starts all year and has a 6.89 ERA in those games. Should the Twins make it to Sunday, their season would ride on either another rookie, Brian Duensing, who has been shelled to the tune of a 6.87 ERA his last two starts, or 33-year-old Carl Pavano, who would be pitching on short rest at the end of a season in which he has thrown more innings than he has over the previous four seasons combined.

If not for the safety net of the wild card, the Rockies and Dodgers would be preparing for the conclusion of an otherwise historic three-game season finale. Never before has a team come from as far back as 15 1/2 games to win a division, and no team has ever lost its last seven games with a chance to clinch a division. Yet a Rockies sweep in Los Angeles this weekend would make both of those once seemingly impossible scenarios a reality. Since bottoming out at 20-32 in early June, the Rockies have gone 71-36 and trimmed their deficit to two games. They were six games out in the West with seven games remaining on September 26, yet remarkably, can still win the division. The Dodgers have been alone in first place since April 15, and have spent all but six days this season atop the NL West. They are already assured of a postseason berth, but are trying to win their division in back-to-back years for the first time since the late 1970s, and are trying to ward off a slump that has come at the worst possible time.

Manager Joe Torre has been in this position before. In 2000 his Yankees were in first place every day in the second half, but lost 15 of 18 heading into the postseason. That team recovered to win the World Series, led by a both a pitching staff and position players that had serious championship credentials, having already won the previous two world titles and three of the past four. This year's Dodgers have neither of those lines on their resume, so this stunning losing streak, which includes dropping three of four to the last-place Pirates and two straight at the fourth-place Padres, is especially discouraging.

They also must figure out who will start in the postseason, and their options are not particularly enticing at the moment. Torre says the team has made no decision yet on which of their six pitchers will make the four starts in the division series, but one of them may not be Chad Billingsley, an All-Star who leads the team with 12 wins but is 0-5 with a 5.31 ERA in his past eight starts. Billingsley is currently in line to pitch the season finale on Sunday, but the Dodgers, perhaps in a telling sign, have not announced a starter for that game yet. Why does that matter? Because ...

Even if the Dodgers don't need to win on Sunday to wrap up the division, they may still need it to clinch home-field advantage. The continuing uncertainty in the National League is making it difficult on each of the four playoff teams to coast this weekend, knowing that they can't afford to give any games away when home-field advantage is yet to be determined. In fact, while the AL matchups are set, the NL matchups remain a complete mystery. Any of the four playoff-bound teams -- the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers or Rockies -- could wind up with the league's best record and thus, home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. In the wild-card era, having home field hasn't necessarily been much of an advantage. Since 1995, there have been 28 Division Series matchups in both leagues. Amazingly, in both the AL and the NL the results have been exactly the same: 14 times the victor has been the team with the worse record, 13 times it has been the team with the better record, and once in each league a series pitted two clubs with identical records.

Those numbers would seem to bear out what players say all the time, which is that home field doesn't matter much because every team has to win in the postseason. That is obviously true, but no team would prefer to open a series, or play a decisive game, on the road when they could play at home instead.

The one team in this quartet for whom opening on the road might be preferable is the Phillies, who have the worst home mark of the four, going 44-34, just one game better than the major league average after starting the year by losing 22 of 35 (and five of those 13 wins were against the Nationals). Conversely, the Phillies have the best road record in baseball, and they have the best head-to-head record of their playoff counterparts. The defending champion Phillies are 11-7 against their potential opponents, while the Dodgers are 6-8 (they are 12-3 against the Rockies this year, but they can't face a division rival in the first round), the Rockies are 11-17 (but 6-1 against the Cardinals) and St. Louis is 7-13, including a combined 2-10 against the Phillies and Rockies.

What does all this mean? That this weekend will be worth watching after all.

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