Monday September 26th, 2011

Fears of a September without an interesting playoff race proved unfounded, as both wild cards remain up for grabs with three games left in the regular season.

All six divisions have been settled, with the Yankees and Phillies clinching homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in their leagues. The Rangers and Brewers have a one-game lead over the Tigers and Diamondbacks, respectively, for the No. 2 seed, though the Tigers and D-backs both hold the tiebreakers.

But the wild-card races are where the real action remains. The Red Sox hold a one-game lead on the Rays and a two-game lead over the Angels in the American League; the Braves are one game up on the Cardinals in the National League. Here's a summary of what to expect between now and the conclusion of the season on Wednesday.

Boston Red Sox

Standing: AL wild card leader by one game

September record: 6-18

Remaining series: 3 road games at Orioles

Season record vs. remaining opponent: 9-6

Series pitching matchups: Monday: Josh Beckett, Bos. vs. Tommy Hunter, Bal.; Tuesday: Erik Bedard, Bos. vs. Zach Britton, Bal.; Wednesday: Jon Lester, Bos. vs. Alfredo Simon, Bal.

Rarely do players and the manager admit the great importance of one regular-season win, but the Red Sox acknowledged that Sunday night's 14-inning victory over the Yankees was, in fact, significant: It kept the wild-card cushion at one game, stopped a bad, four-game losing streak and probably restored some confidence.

Their starters have averaged only 4 2/3 innings per outing with a 7.17 ERA this month while the offense has scored enough to win only two games in September in which they failed to score 12 runs. The Orioles could be what Boston needs to jumpstart its offense: Five Red Sox have at least 30 at bats against Baltimore this season with a batting average better than .325, led by Adrian Gonzalez (31-for-62, .500) and Jacoby Ellsbury (28-for-66, .424). Ellsbury, who hit three homers in the two games on Sunday, has four against the O's this year and has a 33-game hitting streak against them.

The Orioles aren't the same team they were most of the season, however. Baltimore beat Boston three out of four times last week at Fenway Park and is 12-7 since Sept. 7 while playing the Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays, Angels, Red Sox and Tigers -- six of the seven AL teams with a winning record this season.

Tampa Bay Rays

Standing: Trail Boston by one game for AL wild card

September record: 14-10

Remaining series: 3 home games vs. Yankees

Season record vs. remaining opponent: 6-9

Series pitching matchups: Monday: James Shields, T.B. vs. Hector Noesi, N.Y.; Tuesday: Jeremy Hellickson, T.B. vs. Bartolo Colon, N.Y.; Wednesday: David Price, T.B. vs. TBA, N.Y.

Tampa Bay is 14-10 this month, though 6-1 against the Red Sox and 8-9 against everyone else, including a 1-3 mark in four games at Yankee Stadium last week. In contrast with Boston, Tampa Bay has excelled largely because of the workload of its starting pitchers, who have thrown a league-best 1,039 1/3 innings and had averaged 6 1/3 per outing this month with a 3.61 ERA and .218 average against. The Rays have their two All-Stars (Shields and Price) and their AL Rookie of the Year contender set to pitch the final three games of the season at home, where Shields and Hellickson have sub-2.50 ERAs and Price is below 3.50.

Offensively, leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings and surprise batting-title contender Casey Kotchman have both cooled considerably in September but, just as was the case during the Rays' run to the World Series in 2008, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria are carrying the load. Each has five homers this month while Upton is batting .341/.426/.614 and Longoria has a .268/.413/.524 line. Since June 20 Longoria has led the majors with 76 RBIs.

The Yankees are formidable but will be sitting their ace, CC Sabathia, for the series and have been starting no more than five regular position players in their four games since clinching the AL East. Still, that strategy didn't stop them from taking two of three against the Red Sox over the weekend. Noesi will be making only his second start of the season (and second against the Rays), and Colon has had two horrible outings in a row.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Standing: Trail Boston by three games for AL wild card

September record: 13-10

Remaining series: 3 home games vs. Rangers

Season record vs. remaining opponent: 7-9

Series pitching matchups: Monday: Dan Haren, LAA vs. C.J. Wilson, Tex.; Tuesday: Ervin Santana, LAA vs. Colby Lewis, Tex.; Wednesday: Jered Weaver, LAA vs. Matt Harrison, Tex.

The Angels have their three stud starters lined up for the final series, but the deficit might be too steep to overcome after they wasted an opportunity Sunday afternoon. Closer Jordan Walden threw the ball away while trying to start what should have been a game-ending double play; instead, the error led to three runs, a loss and a two-game deficit with two teams ahead of them in the standings.

The good news for the Halos is that they are 58-41 (.586) when Haren, Weaver or Santana start and each of those three will get the ball this week. The bad news is that they are just 28-32 (.467) when anyone else starts and even if they get the sweep they need to have even a chance of forcing a one-game playoff, someone else would have to start that extra game. With a tragic number of one, any Angels loss or Red Sox' win in the final three games will eliminate L.A. The Angels last swept the Rangers in a three-game series in Sept. 2008 in Texas; their last home three-game sweep of the Rangers was in April 2007.

Atlanta Braves

Standing: NL wild-card leader by one game

September record: 9-15

Remaining series: Home vs. Phillies

Season record vs. remaining opponent: 6-9

Series pitching matchups: Monday: Randall Delgado, Atl. vs. Cliff Lee, Phi.; Tuesday: Derek Lowe, Atl. vs. Roy Oswalt, Phi.; Wednesday: Tim Hudson vs. Cole Hamels, Phi.

The Braves have suffered all the same problems as the Red Sox -- poor length from their starters, insufficient run support from the lineup and a nearly-blown September lead -- but they've done so in smaller doses and to less notoriety.

The rotation that rightfully gained such acclaim in the season's first half is reeling -- not unexpectedly -- without its top two members, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Only once in the month of September has a Braves starter gone past 6 1/3 innings of work. And while they'd normally benefit from facing a Phillies team that has already clinched homefield throughout the postseason, Philadelphia had lost eight straight games before beating the Mets on Sunday and may be more committed to playing its regulars to get back on track.

Offensively, the Braves went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position (RISP) on Sunday in Washington to continue their recent downward trend. The team's .251 average in such situations ranks 17th in baseball and is the worst among playoff contenders. It's gotten worse this month: Since Sept. 2 Atlanta is 36-for-187 with RISP, a .193 average with a .291 on-base percentage and .294 slugging. In those 22 games the Braves are 8-14.

Similarly, Atlanta has been the NL's most homer-dependent team this season (and second in the majors behind Baltimore). Its 170 home runs have accounted for 257 of its 635 runs this season -- that's 40.5 percent of the total. But the Braves have hit only 19 homers in 23 games since Sept. 1, which is their worst per-game rate in any month this season.

St. Louis Cardinals

Standing: Trail Braves by one game for NL wild card

September record: 16-7

Remaining series: Away vs. Astros

Season record vs. remaining opponent: 8-4

Series pitching matchups: Monday: Jaime Garcia, StL vs Wandy Rodriguez, Hou.; Tuesday: Jake Westbrook, StL vs. Henry Sosa, Hou.; Wednesday: Chris Carpenter, StL vs. Brett Myers, Hou.

The Redbirds have made this a race by having the best month of any NL team -- and they'd be tied with the Braves if not for a meltdown against the Mets on Thursday when they blew a 6-2 lead in the ninth inning.

The offense has scored 103 runs in September, the third-most in the NL, which is a particularly hearty number given that Matt Holliday missed nine games with an injured tendon in his right middle finger. Not surprisingly, it was Albert Pujols who picked up the slack. Playing in what could be his final year in St. Louis, Pujols has a .374/.416/.604 batting with line five homers this month; his 1.020 OPS is eighth among NL hitters.

Overall, the Cardinals have featured the best run-scoring offense in the league and conclude their season with three games against the Astros, who happen to have allowed the most runs in the NL. Kindling, meet match.

St. Louis also has its top three starters scheduled to pitch in the series, and it'll have the pleasure of attacking a Houston lineup full of rookies. The Cardinals' rotation has been impressive overall but especially in the 18 games since Sept. 6 . During that time the group has thrown 14 quality starts with a 2.15 ERA, helping St. Louis to a 14-4 record.

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