Wednesday September 1st, 2010

Like clockwork the last few years, the American League Central has been decided on the season's final day, by a single game, in three of the last four seasons. In 2008 and '09 the division even required an extension to the regular season for a one-game playoff that determined the Central champ.

Again in 2010, the Central -- where the Twins have a four-game lead over the White Sox and 11-game lead over the Tigers -- is the AL's best bet for an intriguing playoff race, even if it is a long shot. It represents the lone race that's in any kind of doubt, though Baseball Prospectus assigns just an 10.4 percent chance of a team other than Minnesota claiming the division crown.

The unknown variable in all of this is, of course, Manny Ramirez, the beleaguered slugger just acquired by the White Sox in a waiver claim. When healthy, Ramirez remains one of the game's best hitters, even if his power has waned since he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug last season. Since his suspension, he has he has batted .287 with an even .500 slugging percentage in 456 at bats, with one home run every 21.7 at bats. That's certainly an upgrade over Chicago's current stable of designated hitters, who have hit .243, slugged .408 and homered once every 28.8 at bats this season. But it's probably not enough.

Elsewhere in the AL, the Rangers have all but won the West, and in the East the Rays and Yankees have effectively claimed the division championship and the wild card with only the order lying in the balance. The Red Sox sit on the periphery of the race, needing a minor miracle to make up their eight-game deficit within the division and the seven games by which they trail in the wild card.

And so the Soxes, both Red and White, are the two only teams with even a faint chance to crash the otherwise predetermined playoff picture. As it happens, they still play each other seven times, including this weekend when Boston hosts Chicago in Ramirez's second return to Fenway Park this season. The Sox swept his Dodgers in three games back in June, but this time the stakes are higher, as both clubs see their playoff chances teetering on the edge.

First place: Yankees Contenders: Rays (1 GB) Red Sox (8 GB)

If the AL East race were a basketball game, at the bottom of the boxscore would be a stat line for "Lead Changes: 9; Days Tied: 23." It's been an up-and-down game with both the Rays and Yankees employing the full-court press.

But at the end of the day Tampa Bay and New York have played like equally sized children on opposite ends of a seesaw, who, try as they might to forcefully push up and dislodge the other one, they keep returning to a level position of equilibrium.

While some could argue that the wild card has robbed baseball fans of a gripping pennant race between the game's two best teams, it could also be said that the wild card simply ensures that neither team is penalized on behalf of its geography. Plus, the smart money is that these two clubs square off in what could be a thrilling American League Championship Series.

The race, as it were, of avoiding third place in the division was just about finalized in Sunday night's sixth inning when the Rays scored three runs to overcome a 3-1 deficit and go on to defeat the Red Sox 5-3, pushing Boston 6 1/2 games back in the standings with 32 games to play. But the Sox have really been done for longer, struggling to stay in the race ever since falling to third on July 5, a week after being decimated by injuries on consecutive days to Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz and Victor Martinez, each of which required time on the disabled list. The Sox only spent two days in first place all year -- April 4 and 5, the season's first two days.

So who of the Rays and Yankees will edge out the other for homefield advantage in an expected ALCS? While the Rays' offense has had its struggles getting on base (.336, sixth in the AL) and in making contact (1,038 strikeouts, most in the AL), the Yankees' starting rotation desperately yearns for the return of Andy Pettitte from a groin injury and more consistency from A.J. Burnett, Javy Vazquez and, to a lesser extent, Phil Hughes.

The Rays even have more helpful September call-ups at their disposal, but New York has the majors' best offense -- by 54 runs, no less -- and its sluggish play of late has been due to injuries (Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez), not to ineffectiveness (the season-long slumps of the Rays). When the defending World Series champions are healthy, the Yankees are baseball's best.

Prediction: Yankees over Rays by two games.

First place: Twins Contenders: White Sox (4 GB)

The two contenders play each other in one more series, a three-game tilt in Chicago from Sept. 14 to 16. Certainly a White Sox sweep could make the divisional race very interesting, but the differing strengths of schedules may make it moot.

Minnesota has a somewhat easier road in September, primarily because it has more games against the soft part of the division -- six each against the Indians and Royals, against whom the White Sox only play four and three times, respectively. The Twins' opponents have a winning percentage of .477; the White Sox's foes are at .497 overall.

The non-division slate of games also favors the Twins, who play the Rangers three times (at home) and the Blue Jays four times (also at home). In fact, the Twins don't play another road game outside the division. The White Sox, meanwhile, have their full complement of seven games against the Red Sox remaining, and though Boston will likely miss the playoffs, it still has the same winning percentage as Texas. Chicago also has three games in Anaheim.

Minnesota got off kilter from June 1 through July 15, a six-week stretch in which it went 15-23 and went from having a 4 1/2-game lead to a reciprocal 4 1/2-game deficit. It was during that time that Chicago played the bulk of its interleague schedule, in which it went 15-3. Through Monday night, the White Sox actually remained below .500 (56-57) in games against AL opponents.

The Twins proved it could make a late-season push without Justin Morneau last season, when the first baseman was suffering from a stress fracture in his back. There's no reason it will collapse without him a year later, even as Morneau continues his prolonged absence after suffering a concussion in early July. And while the Twins bolstered their bullpen this summer with trades for Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes, the White Sox have had occasional struggles from Bobby Jenks and recently lost their best two relievers, J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton, to the disabled list.

Ramirez might be worth an extra win or two for the White Sox, but in this race that won't be enough.

Prediction: Twins over White Sox by three games.

First place: Rangers Contenders: Athletics (8.5 GB); Angels (10.5 GB)

The contenders line could safely say "none" as the Rangers have built a nearly insurmountable lead with 29 to 31 games left per team. In fact, Texas' magic number for clinching a playoff spot is 23, the smallest of any club in the majors.

This race was essentially won in mid-June. The Rangers finished May a half-game behind the A's, but then reeled off an 11-game winning streak beginning on June 12, as part of a 21-6 record for the month, to enter July with a 4 1/2 game lead. That was even before acquiring ace Cliff Lee on July 9; Lee has gone just 2-5 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 starts since the trade.

The Rangers are only 53-52 when the calendar hasn't said June, but that hot month set them apart. They've been able to coast because of a balanced attack that includes the AL's third-best pitching staff by ERA and fourth-best offense by runs scored, marks that rank second and first, respectively, in the AL West.

No other club in the division has distinguished itself very much, save Oakland's pitching staff. But the A's have an anemic offense. The Angels' rotation behind Jered Weaver has been disappointing, and the team never adequately replaced the offense lost when Kendry Morales got hurt. And the Mariners? Well, they've had a general failing with the bats, ranking last in the majors with just 429 runs scored, an average of 3.3 per game.

Prediction: Rangers over Athletics by 10 games.

First place: Rays Contenders: Red Sox (7 GB); White Sox (0 GB)

The wild card is really just a reprise of the AL East race. Even if the Red Sox go 22-8 in their final 31 games -- a .733 winning percentage, roughly matching their best stretch of the season, a 21-7 record (.750) from May 22 to June 20 -- Tampa Bay would have to go 15-15 just for Boston to force a one-game playoff to determine who wins the wild card.

Prediction: Rays over Red Sox by six games.

CORCORAN: NL pennant race predictions

GALLERY: Greatest pennant races of all time

SHEEHAN: Seven things to watch for in September

MARCHMAN: Beware the September spoilers

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