On August 31, I broke down the races for all 10 of baseball’s playoff spots. There were then 34 days left in the regular season. Ten of those days have now passed, and with the exception of the Tigers losing ground in the wild-card, every race in the American League is tighter now than it was then. That sets the stage for this week’s action, in which six of the eight American League contenders (the division-leading Rangers and Yankees being the exceptions) play head-to-head games against a rival for one of those playoff spots.
Things kick off Monday night in Chicago, where the first-place White Sox will host four games against the second-place Tigers, who are two-games out, for a set that wraps up the season series between these two clubs. The Tigers trailed the Sox by three games on the morning of August 31, caught them by sweeping three games in Detroit that weekend, but won just one of their six games against the Indians and Angels since, averaging just 2 2/3 runs per game over that stretch and falling 4 ½ games behind in the wild-card race. However, the White Sox failed to capitalize on Detroit’s skid, merely splitting their six games against the Twins and Royals over the same period. As a result, the Tigers arrive in Chicago one game closer than they were 10 days ago.
The worst of Chicago’s losses this past week was an 18-9 defeat at home to the Twins, a game in which rookie starter Jose Quintana faced just 11 batters, four of whom made outs and seven of whom scored. That was Quintana’s second-straight disaster start (he allowed five runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Orioles in his previous start), yet he’ll be back on the bump against Rick Porcello on Monday night. The remainder of the series features the same three pitching matchups from the last time these two teams met, with Justin Verlander taking on Chris Sale in Thursday night's finale. The Tigers have gone 10-4 against the White Sox on the season, having swept the last two series between these two teams, but all six of those games came in Detroit. The two teams have split their eight previous games in Chicago this season, the last of which came way back on May 15.
Later Monday night, the wild-card-leading A’s open up a four-game set against the Angels at Anaheim. The Angels were 3 ½ games out of the second wild-card spot 10 days ago and six games behind the A’s, but they have won their last six games, all against wild-card rivals Oakland and Detroit, and have now won 11 of their last 12 and 15 of their last 18 to pull within 2 ½ games of the A’s and just one game of the Orioles, who hold the second wild-card spot. The Angels' surge has been largely due to their rotation finally living up to its billing. After a brutal August in which they allowed 6.1 runs per game, the Angels have held their opponents to an average of 1.8 runs per game over their last 11 contests, having not allowed more than three runs in any of those games. Speaking of which, Jered Weaver, who has been sidelined due to biceps tendonitis since being hit in the arm by a comebacker on September 2, will throw a bullpen on Monday in the hope of starting the third game of this series on Wednesday.
The Angels are the hottest team in baseball, but the A’s are right behind them. That sweep at the hands of the Halos last week accounted for three of the A’s five loses in their last 23 games, which is why they’re just 3 ½ games behind the Rangers in the West. However, this series in Anaheim kicks of a brutal closing stretch for the A’s in which they play 20 of their final 23 games against the Angels, Orioles, Tigers, Yankees and Rangers. Rookie Dan Straily will start Tuesday night’s game for Oakland in place of Brandon McCarthy, whose season was ended by a comebacker to the skull last Wednesday. With McCarthy recuperating and Bartolo Colon suspended, the A’s head into the homestretch with a rotation comprised of four rookies and 24-year-old Brett Anderson, who just returned from Tommy John rehab in late August.
Tuesday finds the Rays following the Yankees into Baltimore for a three-game set. The Rays, who have won six of their last eight against the Rangers, Yankees and Blue Jays, trail the Orioles by just one game for the second wild-card spot. Both teams are 23-13 since the start of August, but the Orioles lost rightfielder and leadoff hitter Nick Markakis for the rest of the regular season on Saturday when a CC Sabathia pitch broke his left thumb. On Sunday, Baltimore moved Nate McLouth into the leadoff spot, designated hitter Chris Davis into rightfield, and seem likely to fill the resulting hole with a platoon of Wilson Betemit and Lew Ford, the latter of whom could play the outfield in place of Davis against lefties. The Rays, meanwhile, had to skip David Price’s last start due to shoulder discomfort, but expect to have him back in the rotation when they visit the Yankees this weekend.
Over in the National League, very little has changed over the last 10 days, which is good news for the teams in playoff positions as they are running out the clock on their challengers. The biggest change in the senior circuit has been the Braves winning seven of their last eight and taking a commanding seven-game lead over the third-place team in the wild-card race (it was 3 ½ games on the morning of August 31). The flip side of that has been the Pirates losing ground in both the Central division, where their odds of winning were already below one percent, and the wild-card, where they have fallen an additional two games behind the second-place Cardinals. Being 2 ½ games out with 23 left to play is hardly a tough spot, but the Bucs are just 9-20 since the start of August, their saving grace being that four of those nine wins came against St. Louis. Coming off a sweep at home at the hands of the lowly Cubs, the Pirates need to stop their slide but will have to do so in a three-game series against the division-leading Reds in Cincinnati.
-- By Cliff Corcoran