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MLB Power Rankings: AL Central Playoff Race Settles While Pujols Headlines NL

The Guardians clinched the division title, crushing the White Sox’ playoff hopes. Plus, Albert Pujols’s home run milestone gives life to the Cardinals despite falling to the Dodgers.

Another week, another team removed from our eliminator power rankings. This time, it’s the White Sox who join the ranks of the dearly departed. When the week began, Chicago had won eight of its past 11 games and trailed the first-place Guardians by just four games in the American League Central. Then, Cleveland came to town for a make-or-break three-game set, and everything fell apart. The Guardians swept the White Sox, then the Tigers did too, putting to bed any hopes of a late-season turnaround.

For the sake of inclusion, we’ve decided to keep the Orioles around for at least one more week. Baltimore trails Seattle by four games for the final wild-card spot with 10 to play, putting the team’s playoff hopes officially on life support. But hey, that’s better than any reasonable Orioles fan could have ever hoped for back on Opening Day, so maybe chalk it up as a moral victory.

14. Baltimore Orioles (Last Week: 15)

13. Milwaukee Brewers (LW: 13)

12. Seattle Mariners (LW: 10)

Barring a monumental collapse, the Mariners will make the postseason for the first time since 2001. But all is not rosy in the Pacific Northwest. Julio Rodriguez is on the injured list with a strained lower back, putting a huge question mark on his status for the playoffs. The Mariners have lost seven of their last 10 games to fall way behind in the race for home field advantage in the first round of the postseason, meaning they’ll play the entirety of their best-of-three series on the road. Sunday’s loss was the most egregious of them all, with Seattle holding an 11–2 lead over the lowly Royals in the sixth inning before a bullpen meltdown turned into a 13-12 defeat.

Replacing Rodriguez in center field is Jarred Kelenic, a former top prospect who shined alongside Rodriguez in the minors but has been totally overwhelmed by big-league pitching. Before being called up on Sept. 22, Kelenic hit .124 with 47 strikeouts in 123 plate appearances in the majors this season. He hit well at Triple A upon getting demoted, and since returning to the Mariners has gone 6-for-16 with a home run and three doubles in four games. It’s a small sample size, sure, but an encouraging one considering how awful things had gone for Kelenic at the plate earlier in the year.

Seattle doesn’t need Kelenic to replace Rodriguez’s production singlehandedly, but it will need him to at least somewhat produce. (The offense has been in a bit of a rut, Sunday’s outburst notwithstanding.) The Mariners have the worst batting average in the majors (.210) over the past month, with several regulars going through a bit of a slump. Mitch Haniger in particular has been off balance, as he’s posted a .529 OPS in September. Haniger was hot in August after spending three months on the injured list but has since been struggling to make contact, striking out in 26 of his last 80 plate appearances. That’s a far cry from what he did last September, when the Mariners fell achingly short of making the postseason. The right fielder had an .883 OPS that month, with 10 homers in 29 games.

Haniger isn’t alone among Seattle’s cold bats, as Jesse WinkerAdam FrazierSam Haggerty and Abraham Toro have all also been scuffling. The schedule down the stretch eases up considerably, with Seattle set to face Texas, Oakland and Detroit to wrap up the year, all at home. So fear not, Mariners fans: you should soon be celebrating a long-awaited return to the postseason, barring something totally unexpected and disastrous (you know, like blowing a nine-run lead in the … you know what, never mind).

11. Philadelphia Phillies (LW: 12)

10. Tampa Bay Rays (LW: 8)

Tampa Bay has seen its schedule beef up in the month of September, and the results have not been too encouraging. After winning six of their first seven games to start the month—including three out of four against the Yankees—the Rays have lost six of their last 17 games. During that stretch, they’ve played 14 games against teams that will be in the playoffs: New York, Toronto and Houston. They’re 4–10 in those contests, allowing more than five runs per game in that stretch.

Since returning from the injured list, ace Shane McClanahan hasn’t looked like his old self. He tossed five shutout innings against the Blue Jays in his first start Sept. 15, but over his next two outings he gave up a combined nine runs in nine innings, with four home runs allowed. Sunday’s outing was particularly rough, as the lefty was tagged for three home runs with just two strikeouts. His fastball velocity was down from his season average, and he didn’t get a single whiff on any of the 10 swings he generated against it. For the Rays to make a deep push in October, McClanahan will need to rediscover his form.

The end-of-the-year slate won’t ease up just yet, though. The Rays will play their final nine games on the road, beginning with three games apiece against Cleveland and Houston this week. A solid showing will create some positive mojo heading into the most important part of the year, though a continued slog won’t do much to instill confidence come October.

9. San Diego Padres (LW: 11)

8. Toronto Blue Jays (LW: 7)

7. Cleveland Guardians (LW: 9)

6. St. Louis Cardinals (LW: 6)

The Cardinals dropped two of three to the Dodgers over the weekend, but after Friday night’s milestone showing from Albert Pujols, does it really matter? The 42-year-old’s resurgence has been among the most incredible developments in recent years, and the celebration that’s followed has been fitting for one of the game’s all-time greats. St. Louis now has a chance to clinch the NL Central during its upcoming two-game series at Milwaukee before wrapping up the regular season with a whopping six consecutive games against the Pirates.

Albert Pujols stares in the air at the ball after hitting his 700th home run vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Pujols joined Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only players to reach 700 career home runs on Friday.

Aside from Pujols’ heroics, the team’s Southern California swing was a bit of a frustrating one. The Cardinals went a combined 2–4 against the Dodgers and Padres, scoring a total of three runs in the losses while getting shut out twice by San Diego pitching. In the two losses against Los Angeles, St. Louis went a combined 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, with 17 strikeouts and just two extra-base hits.

The recent cold stretch is coming off of a particularly fruitful run for the Cardinals’ lineup. Since the start of the month, nearly every regular has swung the bat well, and the team ranks fifth in the NL with 27 home runs. In the midst of the worst offensive season of his career, even Yadier Molina has started to pick things up: the 40-year-old backstop is hitting .306/.333/.551 this month, with three home runs in 51 plate appearances.

Of course, the Cardinals don’t need Molina or Pujols anchoring their lineup to succeed in October. But the fact that the team has a supporting cast that’s so deep means surrounding stars like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado make St. Louis among the most dangerous lineups once the postseason gets underway.

5. Atlanta Braves (LW: 4)

4. New York Yankees (LW: 5)

3. New York Mets (LW: 3)

Thank goodness for the NL East. Without it, there would not be a single compelling division race for the final two weeks of the season. We know both the Braves and Mets will qualify for the playoff field in 2022, but with the new postseason format guaranteeing each league’s top two seeds a first-round bye, that means there are real stakes for whichever side is able to outlast the other for the division crown.

A 4–2 week against the Brewers and A’s allowed the Mets to maintain their 1.5-game lead over Atlanta with eight games to play (the Braves have nine games left). New York will host Miami for two games beginning on Tuesday before a critical three-game set in Atlanta this weekend. That will likely determine the division winner, and as it stands now, the Mets will have their rotation set up perfectly for the occasion, with Chris BassittJacob deGrom and Max Scherzer currently in line to pitch.

Given how he seldom has a bad game, perhaps it’s a good sign for the Mets that deGrom struggled his last time out. Facing the A’s on Saturday, the two-time Cy Young Award winner gave up five runs with four walks and just five strikeouts across four innings in what eventually became a 10–4 loss. Prior to that, he had not allowed more than three runs in any game this season, and had posted back-to-back double-digit strikeout totals in his last two outings. deGrom has faced the Braves twice this season, allowing five runs on six hits in 12⅓ innings with 21 strikeouts. Perhaps he has another gem in store for Saturday night (provided that Angel Hernandez isn’t on the call).

deGrom posted a rare 2.93 ERA in four innings pitched against the A’s, bringing his for the month of September up to 4.50.

deGrom posted a rare 2.93 ERA in four innings pitched against the A’s, bringing his for the month of September up to 4.50.

2. Houston Astros (LW: 2)

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (LW: 1)