Minnesota's ace, Johan Santana (Getty Images)
This is the week baseball fans live for. Nevermind that the Mariners have been out of the race since late April, the playoff races are tight and the excitement is high as Major League Baseball heads into the final week of the regular season. InsidethePark's Ian Levin breaks down all the playoff races, and tells you which teams to expect to rise above the rest.
American League East:
New York Yankees: First place, 97-59, 5-5 last 10, clinched playoff spot
Boston Red Sox: 3.5 GB, 93-62, 5-5 last 10
American League Central:
Minnesota Twins: First place, 90-66, 4-6 last 10, clinched division
American League West:
Oakland Athletics: First place, 88-67, 4-6 last 10
Anaheim Angels: 1 GB, 87-68, 5-5 last 10
Texas Rangers: 2 GB, 86-69, 6-4 last 10
American League Wild Card:
Boston Red Sox: --
Anaheim Angels: 6 GB
New York Yankees:
In the biggest series of the year, the Yankees faced the Red Sox in Boston and did just enough to secure the Division Championship. The Bombers took the first game of the series, beating Pedro Martinez and the Sox 6-4. Two runs in the eight off Martinez sealed the deal and put the Yanks up by 5.5 games in the division. Even after getting pounded in the next two games by a combined score of 23-9, they are ahead of the Sox by 3.5 games. With just six games remaining for the Yanks, their magic number is down to four.
Boston Red Sox:
Even though their Division Championship hopes are now all but gone, the Red Sox have to be pleased with their series against the Yankees. By taking two of three, they were able to increase their Wild Card lead to six games over the Angels and decrease their magic number to just two. Barring a complete collapse, the Sox should spend this last week preparing themselves for a first round matchup with the Twins.
It turns out he actually is human. Entering his last start against the Tribe, Johan Santana had not allowed a run in September. He had a 30 inning scoreless streak and extended it to 33 complete innings before finally allowing a run on a double by Josh Phelps. Even with this dreadful performance, Santana managed to win his 20th game overall, 12th consecutive start, and 13th consecutive decision. He is the best pitcher in baseball right now and it would be a crime if he does not win the Cy Young Award.
The A’s are lucky. They just finished a week in which they went 1-5 while facing the Rangers and Angels. Even with those struggles, they lost just one and a half games in the standings. They entered the week 2.5 up on the Angels and are now just one game up. Maybe they are just lucky as we said, or maybe there is a deal behind the scenes. Whatever it is, the A’s must thank the Mariners. While the A’s lost five of six from the two teams chasing them, the M’s won four of six from them. They are the reason the A’s are in first and with four games against them this week, they could soon be the reason the A’s are in third.
They had it. It was exactly as they had hoped. The A’s got swept by the Rangers and they had a chance to take the lead in the division while facing the lowly Mariners. However, they forgot that they had to win to gain ground. The Angels won the first game of the series but lost the next two. Now the Angels needed to sweep the A’s to tie them for the division lead but they lost the first game of the series. All hope is not lost, though. With seven games remaining, three against Oakland, the Angels are in good shape. Expect this one to come down to the last game.
One week ago we were ready to put the nail in the Rangers’ coffin. This week they’re ready to break the door wide open. They won four of six games this week to get within two of the division lead. They swept the A’s but lost two of three to the Mariners. This week, they do not get to face the A’s and have three against the M’s. If they are able to continue this late push, they’ll need to find a way to win at least five of their remaining seven games.
National League East:
Atlanta Braves: First place, 92-64, 6-4 last 10, clinched division
National League Central:
St. Louis Cardinals: First place, 103-52, 8-2 last 10, clinched division
National League West:
Los Angeles Dodgers: First place, 89-66, 5-5 last 10
San Francisco Giants: 2.5 GB, 87-69, 6-4 last 10
National League Wild Card:
Chicago Cubs: -- (87-68, 7-3 last 10)
San Francisco Giants: .5 GB
Houston Astros: 1.5 GB (86-70, 7-3 last 10)
San Diego Padres: 2.5 GB (85-71, 6-4 last 10)
Considering their position, the Braves are taking the end of the season in a very careless way. While they need to make sure the players are rested and ready to go for the playoffs, they are just two games ahead of the Dodgers in the “Don’t play the Cards in the first round” race. Any team would rather face the Wild Card winner and allow the other team a chance at knocking out the Cards. The Braves appear to be content with just limping into the playoffs and letting the chips fall as they may. If they end up in St. Louis in the first round, that could severely come back to bite them.
St. Louis Cardinals
If there is one team that has the luxury to limp into the playoffs, it is clearly the Cardinals. They have virtually nothing left to play of in the regular season. They have clinched the division and the best record in the league. They know they will be at home to open the playoffs no matter what happens. The only thing they can do is significantly hurt the Astros’ chances of making the playoffs. If they don’t pack it in, the Astros will have the toughest opponent during the last week. Either way, they need to get healthy and get Scott Rolen back.
With seven games remaining, the Cubs have the easiest schedule of the remaining Wild Card contenders. After four games at home against Cincy, the Braves come to town. With three games left in the season, unless the second-best record is still at stake, the Braves will be resting nearly every regular. With Mark Prior apparently back and Greg Maddux pitching as good as anyone, the Cubs appear close to full strength. They have all the tools to get it done and take the crown.
The Astros are still very much in the Wild Card race as well. After going 3-3 on the road this past week, they have six home games remaining. Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens will each get a start in the first series against the Cardinals. Oswalt is guaranteed to make another start on October 2 at home against the Rockies. If the game matters on the last day of the season, expect Roger Clemens to come back on three days rest and start. That may hurt their playoff rotation significantly, but what good is a playoff rotation if you’re not in the playoffs?
Los Angeles Dodgers:
Even though they are up just 2.5 games in the division, the Dodgers are in good shape entering the last week. They will play seven home games, four of which against the Rockies. If they are able to win even three of the four, they will have at least a three-game lead on the Giants entering the showdown at the end of the week. With Odalis Perez starting on September 29, they have the ability to start him on the last day of the season if necessary.
San Francisco Giants:
Considering the schedule, it would take a miracle for the Giants to get back on top in the NL West so they must turn their attention to the Wild Card. They have the toughest schedule remaining with three at the Padres and three at the Dodgers. Both of these teams have something left to play for, unlike at least one of the opponents for the other contenders. With Jason Schmidt scheduled to make two more starts, that improves their chances. However, even though they are just a half-game out, they may have the least chance of any of the four.
San Diego Padres
One thing will be known by Thursday. Either the Giants or the Padres will be out of the race. If the Padres are able to survive the series and take two of three from the Giants, they would have an outside shot at the Wild Card. By taking two of three and with a little luck, they could be two games back entering the final series of the year. With the pressure on the other teams, anything could happen. It looks as if the Wild Card winner will come from the NL Central but you never know.