Pennant Race Update: Where things stand for contenders
With just three weeks remaining in regular season, there are three races that are nowhere near decided. Yet the identity of all but one of this year's 10 playoff participants appears to have been determined. Here's a look at how things stand heading into the season's antepenultimate week.
All three of these NL Central rivals are comfortably in postseason position (the third-place team in the wild-card race, the Nationals, is eight games behind the Reds with 20 to play), but only one, the division winner, will get a free pass into the Division Series.
St. Louis Cardinals: 83-60 (.580)
The Cardinals' sweep of the Pirates over the weekend broke a 2-6 slump and made them the favorites to take the division given their soft schedule down the stretch (other than three games against the Nationals, they face only sub-.500 teams). Adam Wainwright shook off concerns about his previous two starts with seven scoreless innings on Saturday, and that performance was bookended by another strong start on Friday by Joe Kelly (8-0, 2.10 ERA in 11 starts since joining the rotation in early July) and seven scoreless frames on Sunday from 21-year-old Michael Wacha, who has not allowed a run in 13 innings since being installed in the rotation at the start of September. St. Louis will look to expand its lead at home against the Brewers and Mariners this week.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 81-61 (.570), 1 1/2 games behind
On Friday, I wrote that the pressure heading into the weekend series against the Cardinals was squarely on the Pirates, and their inability to win even one game in that set may have cost them the division. While St. Louis welcomes the Brewers this week, the Bucs have to travel to Texas to face the Rangers, making it very likely that the Cardinals' lead will be larger by Thursday morning. Pittsburgh has gone 0-4 since winning its 81st game last Tuesday and has been outscored 35-13 in those games. The Pirates will get that elusive 82nd win eventually, but if it takes much longer, their chances of a division title could be dashed.
Cincinnati Reds: 82-62 (.569), 1 1/2 games behind
In their last seven games the Reds have gone 6-1 against the Cardinals and Dodgers, but four of those wins, including all three in Cincinnati's sweep of Los Angeles over the weekend, came by just one run, suggesting that the club has been as lucky as it has been good over that stretch. Still, those wins were crucial given that St. Louis also swept this weekend. The Reds now have a stretch of nine games against patsies (the Cubs, Brewers and Astros) before facing the Pirates six times in their final nine games.
Oakland A's: 83-60 (.580)
When the A's took two of three from the Rangers last week to tie up the division, I wrote that Oakland was in the driver's seat given its recent hot streak and relatively soft remaining schedule. The A's then swept the last-place Astros by a combined score of 16-8 over the weekend, running their record over their last 14 games to 11-3. Oakland and Texas have their final showdown of the regular season in Arlington this weekend, but the A's lead could be even larger by the time that series starts on Friday, given that they face the Twins this week. After visiting the Rangers, Oakland won't face another winning team in the regular season.
Texas Rangers: 81-61 (.570), 1 1/2 games behind
Texas went 20-7 in August, but has now lost four of its last five series, including sets against the lowly White Sox, Twins and Angels -- the last of those coming over the weekend. What's more, two of the Rangers' last three wins have come by just one run, and their offense has averaged just 3.2 runs over the last nine games. The series against the Pirates this week could jump start one of those two slumping contenders, but it's not clear which of the two it will be. The fact of the matter is that Texas is in more desperate need of the boost. Including Pittsburgh, the Rangers will play 13 games this month against teams with winning records -- and they have a three-game set against the A's over the weekend. A bad run could not only knock the Rangers out of the division race, but it could also put their playoff berth in danger.
AL Wild Card
Texas Rangers: 81-61 (.570), 5 games ahead of third-place Baltimore and Cleveland
Tampa Bay Rays: 78-64 (.549)
The AL wild-card race remains tight, but the AL East race is effectively over (the Red Sox lead by 7 1/2 games) because the Rays have fallen apart over the last two weeks, going 4-11 in their last 15 games as their offensive woes have continued. Tampa Bay showed no sign of breaking out of a team-wide slump in dropping two of three to the Mariners over the weekend, and has now scored just 2.7 runs per game in its last 15. Things aren't looking much better for the Rays with Boston, along with a healthy Clay Buchholz, coming to town this week. It's actually quite remarkable that none of the four teams chasing the Rays has caught up yet. That could be a sign that their rivals aren't up to the challenge.
Cleveland Indians: 76-66 (.535), 2 games behind the Rays
The Indians won four straight before falling 2-1 to the Mets and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- whom they had released earlier in the year -- on Sunday, a loss that raised doubts about the powers of the Rally Chicken. Still, the remaining schedule favors the Tribe as their six games against the Royals (three of which come this week) are their only ones remaining against a team with a winning record. Cleveland's last 10 games are against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. The big question is whether or not the Indians' poultry-powered offensive outburst late last week (23 runs in the first three games after the appearance of the Chicken) was a fluke or something that they can sustain down the stretch. That they were only able to push across one run against Dice-K doesn't bode well for the latter scenario.
Baltimore Orioles: 76-66 (.535), 2 games behind the Rays
The Orioles needed to fatten up against the last-place White Sox in their just-completed four-game series, and they did just that, winning three and validating their refusal to let that series be disrupted by the Super Bowl champion Ravens. From here on out, however, the O's have a much tougher road as their six remaining games against the Blue Jays, three of which come this weekend in Toronto, are the only ones they have left against a losing team.
New York Yankees: 76-67 (.531), 2 1/2 games behind the Rays
The Yankees open this week with four games in Baltimore and finish it with three against the Red Sox over the weekend. If New York can make hay against those division rivals, it could be in great shape for the remaining two weeks of the season. The Yankees' only remaining games against a winning team after Sunday are three at home against Tampa Bay. While the Orioles and Rays battle each other and Boston over those last two weeks, New York plays the Blue Jays, Giants and Astros. The key to making those games matter is a good showing this week. However, the Yankees are coming off of a bad series against the Red Sox -- New York lost the first three games despite scoring at least eight runs in each, had relievers David Robertson and Boone Logan sidelined with arm issues, lost Derek Jeter to more problems with his left ankle and saw Mariano Rivera blow two more saves.
Kansas City Royals: 75-68 (.524), 3 1/2 games behind the Rays
The Royals made a big statement by taking two of three from the Tigers over the weekend. They have now gone 11-4 over their last 15 games to thrust themselves into this race. The series against Detroit, however, was just the start of a 15-game stretch against the Indians, Tigers and Rangers. Kansas City's pursuit of its first winning season since 2003 (and its second since 1994) is a great story that has gotten lost amid the excitement over the Pirates. But at 75 wins, the Royals still have some work to do, making the next dozen games fascinating to watch.
In order of their magic numbers, here are the four teams who appear to have their divisions, and thus a trip to the Division Series, sewn up:
Atlanta Braves: 85-57 (.599): Magic number: 9
There's a very good chance that the Braves will clinch in Washington next week.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 83-59 (.585), Magic number: 10
The Dodgers have an 11-game lead and play the second-place Diamondbacks, who actually have a winning record against them this season, seven times in the next 11 games -- meaning L.A. can wrap this up very soon.
Boston Red Sox: 87-58 (.600), Magic number: 12
The Red Sox can knock that magic number way down with a strong showing in Tampa Bay this week.
Detroit Tigers: 82-61 (.573), Magic number: 15 The Indians got hot and carved three games off of the Tigers' division lead in the last week, as Detroit dropped series to both Boston and Kansas City. The Tigers' weekend set against the Royals, however, includes their only three remaining games against a winning team this season, so that 5 1/2 game difference isn't as close as it might seem, even though Cleveland's schedule is nearly as soft.