Friday September 2nd, 2011

The start of September should be the time of year that the pennant races are heating up, but with an average of just 25 games left on each team's schedule, only one playoff spot is currently being decided by less than 5 ½ games, leaving the pennant races lukewarm at best. For all intents and purposes, the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Braves and Brewers have their postseason spots locked up, each exceeding a 98 percent chance of a playoff berth per Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds.

Still, no team has clinched, or is particularly close to doing so (the lowest magic number is 18), and baseball history is littered with late-season collapses and comebacks, so there's still reason for the fans of second-place or, in some cases, even third-place teams to hold out hope. As a wise man once said, it ain't over 'til it's over. So, here's a look at the races for the eight playoff spots, starting with the National League West, where the defending World Series champions have what might be their last, best chance to get back in the race.

First place: Diamondbacks Second place: Giants, 6 games behind

It's telling that the most compelling race remaining in the National League involves two teams separated by six games. The Diamondbacks and Giants have six head-to-head games remaining, three of them to be played on the Bay this weekend, and three coming in the desert in the penultimate series of the season. The Giants are 8-4 in the season series to date, but these are two teams moving in opposite directions. The Diamondbacks played .655 ball in August and bring an active nine-game winning streak into this weekend's series, while the Giants, wracked by injuries, played .379 ball in August and have gone just 5-7 against the lowly Cubs, Astros, and Padres over their last four series. The last time these two teams met, in the opening series of August, the D-backs took two of three.

The Giants' remaining schedule consists entirely of home and away series against the other four teams in their division. The same is nearly true for the Diamondbacks, except their home set against the Rockies is replaced by three games against the Pirates, a team with comparable road and overall records to Colorado's. In recent days, San Francisco got outfielders Carlos Beltran, Andres Torres and Pat Burrell and set-up man Sergio Romo back from the disabled list this week, but both Torres and Beltran have been disappointments thus far, and the Giants are still without hirsute closer Brian Wilson and lefty starter Jonathan Sanchez.

Indeed, injuries are coming to define the Giants' season, the most significant being the broken leg suffered by sophomore catcher Buster Posey in May. That bad break, combined with the teams' inability (or unwillingness) to establish Brandon Belt in their lineup, seems likely to have been their undoing. Still, per Baseball Prospectus's Postseason Odds, no team not currently in a playoff position has a better chance of reaching the postseason than the Giants, a projection based largely on the fact that the Diamondbacks have out-played their third-order record by ten games.

First place: Brewers Second place: Cardinals, 7 ½ games behind

As recently as late-July, the NL Central looked like it would be hands-down the best race in baseball this year, with the Cardinals and Pirates tied for first, the Brewers a half-game back and even the Reds just four out. But Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both faded and are now 13 ½ and 18 ½ games out, respectively, and the Cardinals followed them into oblivion in August. Of course, that had a lot to do with the fact that the Brewers hit hyperdrive, playing .593 ball in July and going 21-7 (.750) in August. The Cardinals did sweep the Brewers over the last three days, in Milwaukee no less, where the Brewers had gone 50-16 (.758) prior to that series, but that only got St. Louis to within 7 ½ games, the biggest deficit of any second-place team in baseball. The Cardinals only have three more games against the Brewers this season and have the tougher overall schedule, with three games against the playoff-bound Braves while the Brewers won't play a team with a winning record after Sept. 11.

First place: Phillies Second place: Braves, 7 ½ games behind

Officially the least interesting race in baseball, the Braves have a comfortable edge in the wild card. This is the AL East minus the jockeying for seed position.

Leader: Braves Closest pursuers: Cardinals, 8 ½ games behind, Giants, 9 ½ games behind

The Cardinals have three games left against the Braves next weekend and a soft final nine games (hosting the Mets and Cubs, then visiting the Astros), but for all intents and purposes this race, like it's AL equivalent, is over. The Giants, would win the West before they won the wild card, bumping the Diamondbacks, currently 3 ½ games worse than the Braves, out of the playoff picture in the process.

First place: Rangers Second place: Angels, 3 ½ games behind

This is the most compelling race in baseball. The Rangers have the slimmest lead of any of the eight teams currently in a playoff position, and these two teams will finish the season with three head-to-head games in Anaheim that could well determine the division. The Angels have the easier remaining schedule; all matchups are essentially the same except that Los Angeles gets to face the last-place Orioles while the Rangers face the Rays, who are almost 20 games in front of Baltimore in the AL East. However, the Angels also had the weaker August and have only been more than two games above .500 during one month of this season (July), while the Rangers have gone 35-21 (.625) since the start of July. What's more, Texas won five of the seven head-to-head contests between the two teams in August, including three of four in Anaheim. The Rangers did just lose their top power hitter, Nelson Cruz, to yet another hamstring injury on Tuesday, but they also got slugging third baseman Adrian Beltre back from a hamstring injury of his own on Thursday and remain the clear favorites to win the division.

First place: Tigers Second place (tie): Indians and White Sox, 5 ½ games behind

If either second-place team has a fighting chance here it's the White Sox. In the last week, the Indians have lost outfielders Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Brantley and starter Josh Tomlin to injury, Brantley for the season with hamate surgery in his right wrist. In addition, the White Sox who hold a 7-3 lead on the Indians in their season series and have had a better record than the Indians in every month but April. The White Sox's pursuit begins, and could very well end, with a three-game set in Detroit this weekend.

The Indians have gone 36-46 (.439) since the start of June, while the White Sox have gone 42-35 (.545) over the same stretch and enjoyed their best month in August. Both teams have six games remaining against Detroit, but the Tigers' other four series are all against patsies (the Twins, A's, Royals and Orioles), while Cleveland and Chicago face each other eight times (in place of one of the six-game sets Detroit has against one of them). Chicago finishes the season with three against the Blue Jays, who have a comparable record to the ChiSox entering the home stretch, and the Indians have three against the AL West-leading Rangers. The Tigers are 7-5 in their season series against Chicago, and while their season set against Cleveland is knotted at 6-6, Detroit is 6-3 against the Indians since April. Cleveland finishes the season with three games in Detroit, but the Tigers likely will have iced the division by then.

First place: Red Sox Second place: Yankees, ½ game behind

This is the closest race in baseball but also among the least suspenseful as both of these teams are going to make the playoffs regardless of the order in which they finish. The third-place Rays are nine games behind Boston and a non-factor (see below). Still, if the overall league standings remain as they are now, the winner of this division will have to face the Tigers in the first round, a scary proposition in a best-of-five series in which Justin Verlander could pitch twice for Detroit. However, the division champ will also get home field advantage in a potential American League Championship Series matchup. So, there's at least something for these two teams to play for besides bragging rights in their ongoing rivalry.

Leader: Yankees Closest pursuers: Rays, 8 1/2 games behind; Angels, 9 games behind

The Rays play the Yankees six times in the final nine games of the season, but they have a losing record in their season series against New York thus far and their other 16 remaining games include seven against the Red Sox and three against the Rangers. It's very possible that the Yankees could clinch the wild card before the first of those six remaining games against the Rays. As for the Angels, if they win enough to threaten the Yankees, they'll vanish from this race by virtue of taking over the lead in their own division, demoting the Rangers, whose record is currently 5 ½ games worse than the Yankees', to a wild card runner-up.

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