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MLB Playoff Races Heating Up

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

The AL East and NL Wild Card races are likely going to come down to the wire.

MLB Playoff Races Heating Up

I am a child of the Wild Card era.  I never got the chance to experience a true "pennant race" like fans from that era did.  The movie Major League almost didn't conceptually make sense to me the first time I saw it because of the absence of a wild card.  Now, we have to settle for wild card and divisional races as more and more teams are in the hunt to play October baseball.

Last season, we were given one of the most exciting final days of baseball in recent memory, and with the new Wild Card system put in place, this September might have an even more exciting finish.  In the AL East, the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles are deadlocked at the top of the division (and are tied for the final Wild Card spot, consequentially) with the Tampa Bay Rays three games back.  In the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox cling to a one-game lead over the Detroit Tigers.  Both teams sit at least four games back of the final Wild Card spot.

The Oakland A's currently are in the Wild Card lead, sitting two games ahead of the Orioles and Yankees.  The other three teams in contention for the final two spots are the Rays (three games back), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (3.5 games back) and the Tigers (five games back).  

Over in the National League, the divisional races are pretty much wrapped up.  The closest division, the NL West, sees the leading San Francisco Giants ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers by seven games with just 19 left on the schedule.  The Wild Card is where things get interesting.  The Braves have a comfortable grasp on the first spot, leading the next best team (St. Louis) by 5.5 games.  The Cardinals hold a one-game lead over the Dodgers, a 2.5-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and see four other teams within at least 4 games of the final playoff spot. One of those teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a sub-.500 record at the moment.

The races have really taken shape in the last couple of weeks.  The Orioles have surprised everyone by staying in the hunt this long.  The team has sported a negative run differential for most of the season (it currently sits at negative 21) yet find themselves tied for first with a team that has the third-best run differential in baseball.  How have they done it?  Baltimore is 26-7 in one-run games (best in baseball) and 12-1 in extra-inning games (also best in baseball).  Their bullpen is one of the best in baseball this season.  And they have played the AL East extremely well this year.  The Orioles also have a fortuitous schedule down the stretch, as only seven of their final 20 games come against teams with winning records (the A's and the Rays) and finish the season with a pivotal three game set against Tampa.

The Yankees led the AL East by a whopping 10 games on July 18th, and it looked like smooth sailing from then on to October.  That's never the case though.  Injuries and slumps overlapped and never really stopped, and now the Yankees find themselves in the middle of a dogfight with even more roster issues than ever.  Mark Teixeira is injured.   Derek Jeter just hurt himself last night.  Yet despite all of that, they have never fallen out of first.  They get Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova back, but it's unclear how much they can help over the final 20 games.  Like Baltimore, the Yankees have a light schedule, playing just six games against teams with winning records (also the A's and the Rays), but have to end the season against the Red Sox who are in full spoiler mode.

The Rays, with their tremendous starting pitching, still are in decent position.  Their schedule is tough down the stretch, with over half of their games coming against teams with winning records.  But they have seven games left against the Yankees and Orioles, so they will have ample opportunities to make up ground.

While the Tigers and White Sox should have their focus on the division, the Angels are still in contention for that final Wild Card spot.  The team everyone thought would give Texas a run for its money underwhelmed at the start of the season while Oakland came out of nowhere in the second half.  Currently 3.5 games out, LA is on the verge of getting swept by the A's and is in a must-win situation tonight.  Their saving grace might be Oakland's difficult schedule, as they play 17 games against winning teams down the stretch.  

Over in the National League, the second wild card has kept teams that were left for dead (like the Phillies) in the playoff hunt.  Over their last 10 games (including a current seven-game winning streak), Philadelphia has gained six games on the Pirates (who have lost six straight), five games on the Cardinals (losers of three straight), and four games on the Dodgers (losers of three straight).  The Phillies are also blessed with upcoming games against the Astros and Mets, the Phillies should continue to stay hot and continue their improbable comeback.

Jay Jaffe chronicled the "wild" NL race for the second spot yesterday over at SI.com, and it looks like it's going to be a crazy finish.  If the goal of the second wild card was to create more meaningful games in September, that is definitely what is taking place in the National League.  As unpredictable and improbable as last September was, this year's hunt for October could put that one to shame.  And that's pretty exciting.

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