There are just two weeks left in the 2013 regular season, and while five of the six divisions have been effectively wrapped up, the National League Central remains tied, the American League wild-card race remains wide open with six teams vying for two spots, and the Nationals refuse to let the Reds put away the final playoff spot in the NL. Here's a look at the key games and matchups for the week ahead:
AL Wild Card
Four of the six teams in the AL wild-card mix open the next-to-last week of the season by facing their rivals. The more compelling of those two series has the Rangers in Tampa Bay for a four-game set against the Rays with both teams tied atop the wild-card standings. That duo is just a half game ahead of the Indians, who play three in Kansas City against the Royals, who bring up the rear of that group of six contenders, 3 1/2 games behind Texas and Tampa Bay.
The Rangers arrive in Florida with an active six-game losing streak, having just been swept by the division-leading Pirates and A's. Texas has also lost its last five series, going 3-12 over that stretch with series losses against the sub-.500 Angels and Twins among those five. For a team that held a 2 1/2 game lead in the AL West when that slump started and could fall out of a playoff spot with a loss and an Indians win Monday night, this is a full-on collapse.
The Rangers' struggles can be largely pinned on their offense, which has scored just 3.1 runs per game over that 15-game stretch (by way of comparison, Marlins' historically inept offense has scored 3.2 runs per game this season). Don't blame Nelson Cruz's suspension, though. Alex Rios has hit .333/.387/.561 as Cruz's replacement over those last 15 games. However, over that same stretch, Adrian Beltre (.241/.297/.259), Ian Kinsler (.215/.250/.262), Mitch Moreland (.088/.244/.294), Leonys Martin (.200/.259/.260), David Murphy (.190/.292/.381) and Craig Gentry (.231/.286/.308) have been of little help, leaving Rios, Elvis Andrus and A.J. Pierzynski to do the heavy lifting.
Texas' outlook is not improved by the fact that rookie Nick Tepesch is scheduled to start Tuesday's game. Tepesch, who owns a 4.84 ERA on the season, has started just one game for the Rangers since early July and he gave up two runs in 3 1/3 innings in that outing on Sept. 8. His last quality start in the majors was on June 1. He has started seven games since then.
The Rays were in a similar slump prior to this past weekend, but, from Thursday to Saturday, they won three games in a row for the first-time since Aug. 18 to 20. Throw in home field advantage, and Tampa Bay has to be considered the favorite in this week's showdown.
The Indians come to Kansas City having just swept the White Sox on the road and have won nine of their last 12. Two of those three losses came at home to the Royals, who went 7-2 against the Tigers and Mariners on their last homestand before taking two of three in Cleveland. The Royals have yet to suffer consecutive losses in September and have done so just once since Aug. 25, a stretch over which they have gone 14-7.
The Royals are a long-shot to move into one of the two wild-card spots given that there are five teams ahead of them, but Baseball Prospectus co-founder Clay Davenport's postseason odds give them a better chance of snagging a wild-card berth than the Yankees or Orioles. Baltimore, which opens a three-game set in Boston on Monday night, has by far the toughest remaining schedule of the AL wild-card contenders. The O's have just three remaining games against a sub-.500 team and three more against the first-place Red Sox on the season's final weekend. The Yankees, however, are clear of the toughest part of their September schedule and have nine of their final dozen games against the Blue Jays, Giants and Astros, starting with three in Toronto tonight.
The Pirates and Cardinals, who have identical 87-62 records, both open four-game sets on Monday against NL West opponents with 68 wins in the Padres and Rockies, respectively. Starting this weekend the Pirates play six of their final nine against the third-place Reds, while the Cards' three games against the Nationals next week are their only remaining games against a winning team. Given that, even a strong showing by Cincinnati in those six games against Pittsburgh seems unlikely to push the Reds, who are is 3 1/2 games back, into first place.
NL Wild Card
The Reds have a 93.3 percent chance of winning one of the two NL wild-card spots, per Davenport, but the Nationals keep applying pressure. Since Aug. 9, Washington has gone 25-10 (.714) to move from six games under .500 and nine games behind the Reds to nine games over .500 and 4 1/2 games behind. Of course, that means it has taken the Nats more than a month to reduce their deficit by the same number of games they now have just two weeks to make up, but they are also increasing their pace. Since Aug. 20, they have gone 18-6 (.750). Since Sept. 3, they have gone 10-2 (.833) and they have won eight of their last nine (.888).
Things get decidedly tougher for the Nationals starting Monday, however. Having not played a winning team since Aug. 25, they now face the Braves, Cardinals and Diamondbacks in nine of their final 13 contests, starting with three against the division-leading Braves on Monday while the Reds are in Houston to face the last-place Astros.
The Braves, Red Sox and Dodgers all have a magic number of four to clinch the NL East, AL East and NL West, respectively. Atlanta and Los Angeles open the week playing on the road against the second-place team in their divisions. Both could cut their magic number in half with a single win in that series and could clinch with two. The Braves will have three shots to get those wins against the Nationals this week. The Dodgers will have four against the Diamondbacks. All three division leaders seem likely to wrap up their crowns by the weekend.
In the AL West, the A's have a magic number of eight. Oakland, which will host the Angels for three games at the start of the week, enters Monday's contest with a five-game winning streak and wins in 16 of its last 20 games.