Playoff Chaos: What to Watch for in MLB's Final Weekend

As the regular season comes to a close, the postseason picture is far from clear.
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The final weekend of the regular season is already here, with so much left to play for in the next three days. This year, because of the 60-game season and the 16-team playoff format, there has been less time for teams to pull away from others and more postseason spots available.

In the National League, eight teams remain in contention for the four open positions. Seven American League teams have clinched playoff berths, with two teams vying for the second AL West slot. But the new best-of-three wild-card series, in which the lower seed hosts all three games, adds a new layer of excitement for the next three days—teams are competing for the top four seeds in each league, which would allow them to play three home games before heading to the bubble.

Whether you’re locked in on these postseason races or AL MVP battle, Sports Illustrated’s final weekend viewer’s guide has you covered. Here are three things to watch for as the 2020 regular season comes to a close.

A Brewers batter strikes out looking

1. NL Central and wild-card madness

For the first time ever, four teams from one division, the NL Central, could make the playoffs: the Cubs, Cardinals, Reds and Brewers. As it stands, Chicago holds a 2.5-game lead over St. Louis for first place, and is the only one of the four that has clinched a postseason spot. The Cardinals sit a half-game ahead of the Reds for the No. 2 NL Central berth. Cincinnati has the first of two wild-card spots, while the Brewers are one game behind the Giants for the other wild card. Keeping up?

St. Louis beat Milwaukee, 4–2, Thursday night in the first of five games in four days between the two teams. The Cardinals (28–26) almost have made it through their brutal schedule, which was adjusted after they had a COVID-19 outbreak and could not play for 16 days, and appear the most likely NL team yet to clinch to make the postseason. The one possible wrinkle left for the Cardinals is they might have to play a doubleheader Monday in Detroit if the postseason bracket is not decided Sunday—St. Louis’s revised schedule included a total of 58 games unless those two additional games impacted the playoff picture.

The Brewers are two games behind the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central. With all four of their remaining games against the Redbirds, they still have time to make up the ground; Milwaukee would tie St. Louis with a sweep in Friday’s doubleheader.

With their final three games against the Twins, the Reds don’t have the luxury the Cardinals and Brewers do of playing one of the teams they are competing with for a playoff spot. The Twins (more on them later) surely won’t roll over for Cincinnati, either. Minnesota is playing for home-field advantage during the wild-card series

And then there are the Cubs. Coming off two straight losses to the lowly Pirates, the Cubs have a three-game set against the White Sox. Like the Twins, the Pale Hose are playing for home-field advantage, giving them more to compete for than they’d otherwise have in this rivalry series.

After a heartbreaking loss to the Rockies in 11 innings Thursday, the Giants are barely hanging onto the final wild-card berth. They host the Padres for a four-game series this weekend, with the first two of those games coming Friday.

It should be illegal to have a bullpen as bad as the Phillies', but they are still just one game out of a playoff spot. That’s how good their lineup is, with Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Didi Gregorius, among others. It will be well earned if they make the postseason; their final three games come against the Rays, who have the AL’s best record, in Tampa.

Finally, two other NL teams—the Mets and Rockies—are still alive in the wild-card hunt, though each of their tragic numbers is one. Rocktober will have to wait until next year, and the Mets will have a new owner the next time they make the playoffs.

A Cleveland Indians player is splashed with water

2. AL Central standings

Three AL Central teams are going to the postseason this year—the Twins, White Sox and Indians—though the order in which they’ll finish has yet to be determined.

Since becoming the first team in the division to clinch a playoff berth, the White Sox have lost five consecutive games and six of their last seven, including four straight losses to Cleveland. Minnesota (35-22) now leads the White Sox by one game in the Central following Chicago’s skid, and the third-place Indians have pulled within one game of the White Sox. This sets up an exciting final weekend.

On paper, at least, Cleveland should have the most favorable weekend series, with three games at home against Pittsburgh. But the Indians should not overlook the Pirates. Just ask the Cubs how their last few days went.

Speaking of the Cubs, the White Sox can lock up home-field advantage in the wild-card round if they return to form against the North Siders. For the Twins to win the division, the Bomba Squad will have to explode against a strong Reds pitching staff, with Cincinnati’s season on the line.

3. AL MVP race

When I checked in on the AL MVP race less than two weeks ago, José Ramírez didn’t crack my 10-player ballot. Now, as his absurd September stretch has propelled Cleveland to the playoffs, Ramírez is one of the front-runners to win the award.

Meanwhile, White Sox first baseman José Abreu, who’s been the favorite to win the MVP since the White Sox started winning in mid-August, could lock up the award with a strong final series against the Cubs. The first time the South Siders played their cross-town rivals, Abreu went 7-for-12 (.583) with six home runs and nine RBI; four of those homers came in consecutive at-bats over a two-day span. An encore half as good as the first performance would be more than enough for the 33-year-old to be named the MVP.

The other players contending for the MVP are: Shane Bieber, RHP, Indians; Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox; DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Yankees; Luke Voit, 1B, Yankees.

Mike Trout wearing a mask

Best of the rest

• The Angels have won six of their last seven games and are three games behind the Astros for second place. Of course, with three games left this season, all against the Dodgers, the Halos have no room for error, and they need the Rangers to beat the Astros in each of their next three games. This almost certainly is not going to happen, but it's fun to dream about Mike Trout's October return.

• LeMahieu could become the first player in MLB history to win the batting title in both leagues. He first won it when he hit .348 with the Rockies in 2016. Entering Friday, he leads the AL with a .355 average, 17 points ahead of Anderson, who beat out LeMahieu for the batting crown last year.

An interesting quirk regarding LeMahieu’s bid to make history: Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty originally was the first player to win a batting title in both leagues but lost that honor when later research showed Nap Lajoie had a few hits that were unaccounted for that boosted his average above Delahanty’s, taking the crown away from Delahanty long after his mysterious death at Niagara Falls in 1903. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, by today’s standards the batting title would have gone to Delahanty anyway, because Lajoie did not register enough at-bats.

• In his first year with the Dodgers, Mookie Betts is one of the front-runners to win the NL MVP award. If he does win it, he’ll become the second player to win the MVP in both leagues, joining Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who won it with the Reds in 1961 and Orioles in 1966—his first season in Baltimore after Cincinnati traded him. Sound familiar?

• About that NL MVP race, it looks like Manny Machado, not Fernando Tatis Jr., will be San Diego’s top candidate for the award. Tatis, still undoubtedly one of the most exciting players in baseball, has struggled over his last 12 games (.387 OPS) while Machado has stayed hot (1.042 OPS) over that span. Regardless, the MVP might go to first baseman Freddie Freeman, who is hitting .338 with a 1.084 OPS for the first-place Braves.