Playoff Races Heating Up

Bonds' Giants have LA in their sights (Getty)

The NFL season is heading into week three, and that means the baseball playoffs are right around the corner. With under two weeks left in the regular season, InsidethePark's Ian Levin breaks down the contenders in each division and tells you what each of their chances are down the stretch. Will the Giants catch the Dodgers? Who'll come out on top in the AL West? Find out right here at InsidethePark.com.

*STATS THROUGH MONDAY

American League East:
New York Yankees: First place, 94-56, 6-4 last 10
Boston Red Sox: 4.5 GB, 89-60, 5-5 last 10

American League Central:
Minnesota Twins: First place, 88-62, 8-2 last 10, clinched division

American League West:
Oakland Athletics: First place, 84-62, 6-4 last 10
Anaheim Angels: 2.5 GB, 84-64, 5-5 last 10
Texas Rangers: 5 GB, 82-67, 7-3 last 10

American League Wild Card:
Boston Red Sox: --
Anaheim Angels: 4.5 GB
Texas Rangers: 7 GB

AL East:
New York Yankees:
In the marquee matchup of the week, the Yankees faced off against the Red Sox in the Bronx. After a tough game Friday that saw the Yankees lose in the ninth inning, the Bombers took the next two by outscoring the Sox 25-5. The three-game series allowed the Yankees to extend their division lead to 4.5 games and significantly increased their chances of winning the division. However, with just one day off remaining and another series against the Sox yet to come, anything is still possible.

Boston Red Sox:
Just as beneficial as the series was to the Yankees, it was that painful for the Sox. The Yankees had a 3.5 game lead in the division entering the series and after the Sox won the first game, it was down to 2.5. The Sox had a chance to cut the gap to less than a game but failed to do so. The good news for Boston is that they have a series remaining with the Yankees and have an easier schedule for the last two weeks. They are still on top of the wild card standings so even if they miss the division, there is a nice consolation prize.

AL Central:
Minnesota Twins:
The Twinkies keep on rolling as they have officially clinched the Central division that was in a virtual dead heat in early August. They are tied for the best record in baseball over the last 10 games and Johan Santana has been the best pitcher in the league over the last 100 games. The Twins can now do whatever they please. Either put the rest of the regular season in cruise control and stay healthy or try to play spoiler when they play the Yankees next week. They are the only team in the American League that has nothing to worry about for the last two weeks of the season and that can work to their advantage come October.

AL West:
Oakland Athletics:
Oakland has been known recently for sprinting to the finish but this year they have been crawling there. After a hot streak in mid-August, the A's have lost a few games in the standings. The good news for the A's is that Octavio Dotel, after a rough start, has gotten on track and is pitching like the dominant closer he can be. With the great rotation the A's have, they need someone equally effective at the back of the bullpen.

Anaheim Angels:
While the A's have struggled recently, the Angels have done everything they can to get back into the race. Now just 2.5 games out of first, the Angels are a serious threat. Their explosive offense can ignite at any time, allowing them to put together a long winning streak. One player that has stepped up recently is John Lackey. He has just two wins in his last five starts but that doesn't represent the way he has pitched. He has a 2.67 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 30.1 innings pitched during those outings. Lackey played an important role in their 2002 World Series run and he is coming up big yet again.

Texas Rangers:
The window for the Rangers has just about closed. They have picked up a game on the A's over the last 10 games but that is not enough with just two weeks left. They remain five games back. They have one series remaining with Anaheim and one with Oakland so they control their own fate in a sense. However, when they are playing the Mariners for six games the Angels and A's play each other. While it means they can't lose too much ground in one night, it also means they can't pick it up. The Rangers will need to get hot and run into some good luck at the same time.


National League East:
Atlanta Braves: First place, 84-62, 6-4 last 10

National League Central:
St. Louis Cardinals: First place, 98-51, 5-5 last 10, clinched division

National League West:
Los Angeles Dodgers: First place, 86-63, 5-5 last 10
San Francisco Giants: 2.5 GB, 84-66, 8-2 last 10

National League Wild Card:
San Francisco Giants: --
Chicago Cubs: .5 GB (83-66, 7-3 last 10)
Houston Astros: 1 GB (83-67, 7-3 last 10)
San Diego Padres: 4 GB (80-70, 6-4 last 10)
Florida Marlins: 4.5 GB (79-70, 5-5 last 10)


NL East:
Atlanta Braves:
Even with the NL East crown all but locked up, the Braves have something important left to play for. They trail the Dodgers by 1.5 games for the second best record in the league. Normally, this wouldn't be too big of a deal but with the tight wild-card race and dominant Cardinals leading the way, it is. If the wild card winner comes from the NL Central, the second best record will play them at home with the other team facing the Cards. While the Braves will allow their regulars more off days in an attempt to keep them healthy, don't expect to see them completely tank it the rest of the way.

Florida Marlins:
The end is almost here for the Marlins. The 2003 World Series Champions had a chance to get right back in the mix but they failed to do so. They split a double-header with the Cubs which put them a half-game further behind the Giants and cost them an opportunity to gain ground on the Cubs. They have a difficult schedule remaining and do not have an off day. They finish the season with 10 straight on the road and don't have any games left against anyone ahead of them in the wild card race. Barring a miracle, this is the last time the Marlins will make an appearance in this column.

NL Central:
St. Louis Cardinals:
The only problems that the Cardinals have run into this year are injuries. Recently, Scott Rolen hit a ball off his shin and he has been sidelined with a strained calf. Rolen is arguably the team's and league's MVP and is an integral member of the team. If he is unable to return at full health the Cards won't be nearly as dangerous as with him. The offense is weakened, the defense has a hole, and in turn, the pitching staff takes a hit. The only thing to watch out for in St. Louis for the last few weeks is the health of the team.

Chicago Cubs:
The Cubs need some strong performances to get them into the playoffs. Mark Prior's problems have been well-documented, almost to the extent that they overshadow his amazing talent. This week, the talent came through and gave the Cubs an important victory over the Marlins. Dusty Baker may have made a mistake however. Considering the problems that Prior has been through this year, his arm should be treated very carefully. Instead, Baker allowed Prior to throw 129 pitches when the team had a four-run lead. If Prior just turned the corner, the Cubs are in good shape. However, he can't be allowed to maintain a high pitch count.

Houston Astros:
As Lance Berkman goes, so do the Astros. After a solid April and May for Berkman and the Astros, Berkman went into a slide for June and July. Not surprisingly, the team dipped below .500 for the season during those months. Once the calendar turned to August, Berkman heated up and not surprisingly, the team hit 13 games over .500. Now in September, the same theme has continued. Apparently, the hopes of making the playoffs for Houston lie squarely on the shoulders of Lance Berkman.

NL West:
Los Angeles Dodgers:
One week ago the Dodgers were up five games in the NL West. They were looking ahead to the playoffs because it appeared as if the Giants weren't going to catch them. Now with two weeks left in the season, the lead sits at just two and a half games. The two teams play each other six times in the remaining two weeks. The first of the two series' could decide the division, but don't be surprised if this one goes down to the last day.

San Francisco Giants:
The Giants have taken over as "The hottest team in baseball" this week. They have won eight of the last 10 and appear to be running on all cylinders. Now that Barry Bonds has gotten home run number 700 out of the way, he can focus more on hitting in general and be more of a threat at the plate. Jason Schmidt hasn't been himself recently, posting a 6.26 ERA over his last four starts. If he is able to get back on track, the Giants have two ways to beat you that most teams can't match.

San Diego Padres:
Like the Marlins and the Rangers, the Padres are hanging on for dear life. They have been hanging around all year, never fading out but never making a move either. During this pressure-filled time, that is not a great way to work. With so little time left and a lot of games to make up, they need to go on a huge hot streak but the team isn't built for that. They have a lot of talent and will be contenders again next year, but their time is almost up in 2004.

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