Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
As the regular season barrels down toward its eventual conclusion, so much of the postseason picture remains unsettled. We’re a decade into the most recent round of MLB playoff expansion (not counting the one-off 2020 postseason), and though there are certainly justifiable gripes about the format of the playoff system (will a 104-win Dodgers team really have to travel on the road in the divisional round?), adding one more wild-card team to the mix in each league has produced the desired effect of having more teams still in the hunt as the calendar approaches October.
With the margins between contending teams razor thin, each club fighting for its playoff life will rely on its entire roster to make it to the tournament. Taking a look at the American League, the division races are all but wrapped up, with all three leaders holding at least a seven-game advantage with no fewer than 17 games to play. As of this writing, that leaves five teams left to battle it out for two playoff spots, all within four games of each other: the Blue Jays, Yankees, Red Sox, A’s and Mariners.
Obviously, the performances of each team’s star players over the next two-and-a-half weeks will play significant roles in how the race shakes out. But role players will dictate who eventually emerges with the two playoff bids in hand. Here’s a breakdown of each team’s X-factor for the most critical stretch of the season.
Toronto Blue Jays: SP Hyun-Jin Ryu
82–64, tied for first wild-card spot
The Blue Jays are surging at the right time thanks mostly to their nearly unrivaled lineup, which has averaged 7.1 runs per game over their last 19 games. In that span, Toronto has gone 16–3. To make the postseason (and actually make some noise once they get there), though, the Jays will need their pitching staff to step up. Robbie Ray’s emergence as a Cy Young Award contender has been a welcomed surprise, but Ryu is the veteran in the rotation. He was expected to anchor this staff when he signed an $80 million deal before the 2020 season, and his current form has fallen short of expectations.
Ryu was roughed up to the tune of seven runs in 2 1/3 innings in his last start against Baltimore, and it was just the latest in a series of blowout outings in what’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde run for the lefthander. Ryu has allowed seven runs three times in his last seven starts, which has caused his season ERA to balloon from 3.22 to 4.11. He’s been mostly good aside from those three stinkers, and the Blue Jays will be relying on him to rid himself of that inconsistency down the stretch. Based on how the rotation is currently lined up, Ryu is slated to make four more starts over their final 16 games, including once on the road at Tampa Bay and a home game against the Yankees. How he pitches in those games will go a long way in determining if Toronto can fend off the rest of the pack.
New York Yankees: OF Joey Gallo
82–64, tied for first wild-card spot
Of the Yankees’ three Big Boy Outfielders, Gallo is the only one not currently pulling his weight at the dish. In 43 games since being traded to New York, the two-time All-Star is batting a woeful .148/.303/.380 with a 40% strikeout rate. Gallo isn’t the only Yankee slumping offensively at the moment, but his bat has the potential to be the most impactful, particularly at a time when the pitching staff is banged up and inconsistent.
Gallo has always been a hitter of extremes, but he’s leaned even harder into his career swing trends since joining the Yankees. His fly-ball rate has climbed to 55.7%, which is more than six percentage points higher than his full-season mark (49.2%); he's pulling the ball 49.3% of the time, compared to his 44.2% season rate. That makes him much easier to pitch to and shift against, and how quickly he’s able to adjust will determine how frequently his bat is in the lineup or relegated to a bench role, like he was in Wednesday’s 4–3 win over Baltimore.
Boston Red Sox: RP Adam Ottavino
83–65, tied for first wild-card spot
For the first half of the season, Ottavino was arguably Boston’s most valuable bullpen piece. Before the All-Star break, the 35-year-old had a 2.68 ERA and 2.62 FIP with 43 strikeouts and no home runs allowed over 37 innings, and he went 7-for-10 in save opportunities. Since then, however, he has a 5.40 ERA in 24 games. As a result, the Red Sox have been using him less frequently in high-leverage situations. He’s still a vital part of the operation, though, particularly with Boston’s starters not pitching deep into games, and he could be beginning to turn things around. He's pitched scoreless outings in 11 of his last 14 games, and he’ll be counted on to record some big outs for the stretch run.
Oakland A’s: 2B/LF Tony Kemp
78–67, 3.5 GB for second wild-card spot
Kemp has enjoyed a breakthrough year in his second season with Oakland, and he’s peaking at just the right time. He’s always had a superb command of the strike zone, particularly for a hitter with relatively little power threat before this season. His career slugging percentage prior to 2020 was .359, with an ISO of .124; this year, he's slugging .406 with a .136 ISO. Since the start of August, Kemp is batting a scorching .316/.386/.456 in 31 games, with eight walks and just two (yes, two) strikeouts in 88 plate appearances—call him the anti-Joey Gallo. The A’s would love for Kemp to keep up that form as their playoff hopes hang by a thread.
Seattle Mariners: SP Marco Gonzales
78–68, 4 GB for second wild-card spot
Seattle lost for the sixth time in nine games to the Red Sox on Wednesday, but Gonzales was not to blame. The southpaw struck out seven batters and allowed three runs over six innings, notching his seventh quality start in his last nine times out. The 29-year-old had been a pillar of consistency over the previous three seasons and was one of the most underrated starters in the league before getting off to a terrible start in 2021.
Gonzales was 1–5 with a 6.00 ERA in his first 10 starts, allowing 2.3 home runs per nine innings. Since then, he’s 7–0 with a 2.70 ERA, allowing three runs or fewer in 11 out of 12 starts. Seattle can’t afford to waste strong outings like Gonzales turned in on Wednesday, and he’ll only make three more starts on the year. His next is slated to come against Oakland, one of seven meetings between the two teams to close out the year. The Mariners will need to handle business in those matchups if they have any hope of ending their two-decade playoff drought.