With 7 AL and 9 NL teams still alive for a playoff berth entering the season’s final week, there will be a mix of intrigue and disappointment as the field narrows each day,
If you want to agonize over what might have been, by all means re-visit last week’s Phillies notebook, which presented the five games the Phillies would like to have back in 2012 in gruesome detail.
If you’d rather concede the inevitable and follow the pennant races as more of a dispassionate observer, here’s your guide to the season’s final 6 games:
The NL East is not fully settled, though the Nationals hold a 4-game lead over the Braves with 6 left to play.
Cincinnati has clinched the NL Central, and is one game behind Washington for the best record in the NL, which brings with it the opportunity to face the wildcard play-in winner and also have home field throughout. The Nationals have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge, 5-2, (and 5-1 over the NL West champion Giants, who trail the Nats by 4 games) so their magic number for first overall is 5 relative to the Reds and 2 relative to the Giants.
In the race for the second wildcard, the Cardinals have a 3-game cushion on the Dodgers and a 4-game edge on the Brewers. The Phillies and Diamondbacks are down to a tragic number of 1. Everyone else is out – including the Pirates, who after another year of leading the NL Central at or after the all-star break, are 2 losses over their final 6 games away from their 20th straight season with a losing record.
The Cardinals host the Nationals for 3 and then host the Reds for 3. As long as those opponents have something to play for, St. Louis will have their work cut out for them to reduce their magic number from 4 relative to L.A. (who close out their season hosting the Rockies, then the Giants) and 3 relative to Milwaukee (who host a pair of teams who have combined for 187 losses – the Astros and the Padres).
If there are any ties, there will be play-in games before the wildcard play-in game.
In the American League, all 3 divisions are up for grabs, with the wildcards more likely to be consolation prizes than a spot a team has fought for the way the second wildcard is playing out in the NL.
The AL East is a throwback to the mid 70′s and early 80′s where the Yankees and Orioles are slugging it out. With 6 games left, the Yankees have a one-game lead and play at Toronto before hosting Boston. The O’s host the Red Sox before traveling to Tampa to play the Rays, who are still very much alive, 3 games behind Baltimore.
If the Rays can stay even with the O’s this weekend while playing at the suddenly struggling White Sox (who have lost 8 of their last 9 games, including Thursday to the Rays), Tampa Bay will control its own destiny and can pull even with Baltimore with a sweep of the final series, likely forcing a one-game playoff, depending on where the A’s and Angels end up.
If Tampa Bay and Baltimore end up tied but both are the wildcard teams, home field is decided by tiebreaker. The Rays would only potentially get home field by sweeping the Orioles, since the Orioles right now have the edge in the season series, 9-6. The next tiebreaker is divisional games, where the Orioles would in turn need to sweep the Blue Jays to get to the third tiebreaker, which is the better winning percentage in the last half of games vs. AL teams. In that tiebreaker, the Rays are 43-32 plus they have to make up 3 games on the Orioles to get to the tiebreaker, while the Orioles are 45-30, but would have to be a game behind the Rays for this tiebreaker to apply – which boils down to if a Rays sweep of the Orioles forces a tie and those 2 teams are the wildcards, the Rays host the wildcard game.
In the Central, the Tigers have, to coin a NASCAR term, been drafting right behind the White Sox just about all season, but with Chicago’s recent swoon, Detroit has opened up a 2-game lead. The Tigers, with a magic number of 5, visit the Twins and Royals, while the White Sox have 3 more at home with the Rays and then finish at Cleveland.
If the teams end up tied, there will a be a play-in game for the Central title. Both teams are neariy eliminated from wildcard contention – only a 6-0 finish by the White Sox, combined with an 0-6 finish by the A’s, a 4-2 or better finish by the Tigers and a 2-4 or worse finish by both the Angels and Rays even puts the White Sox in the wildcard mix. If all those happen exactly, there will be 5 teams tied for 2 playoff spots – and we think the tiebreaker is a poker game in Bud Selig’s basement, but we’re still researching that.
Finally, in the AL West, the Rangers, with the exception of the season’s second and third day, will try to go wire-to-wire. But they haven’t quite yet put away the Angels, whom they host for 3 with a magic number of 1, or the A’s, with the final series being at Oakland and the Rangers’ magic number there at 4.
The A’s host the Mariners before hosting the Rangers, and can clinch a wildcard berth with 5 wins, or a combination of 5 Oakland wins plus Tampa Bay losses, plus 5 Oakiand wins plus Angels losses. If Oakland can make up two games on Texas in the next 3, they can clinch the AL West with a sweep of the Rangers (plus one loss by the Angels); if they make up one game, a sweep leads to a fourth game to determine the AL West winner.
The Angels can only win the West by winning out at Texas and at Seattle, having Seattle sweep Oakland and then needing Oakland to sweep Texas.
They have a much better shot at a wildcard, needing to make up either 2 games on Oakland or 3 games on Baltimore to force a play-in situation.
How will it turn out?
We’ll know on Wednesday night…but here’s a prediction:
For the second year in a row, the Rays come from nowhere to rally past a divisional foe at home in the season’s last series. They may need a play-in game, too.