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Three-day wild ride to the playoffs
As you finalize your easychair baseball schedule for the next three days, please consider the following advice:
• Avoid comparing this week’s finale to last year’s Game 162, as a means of judging the entertainment value of the expanded playoff format. It’s not fair. We won’t see Sept. 28, 2011, again. These games could be equally captivating, just in a different way.
• Even if your stomach spins like a David Price curveball as you contemplate how your team could stumble in these final days, try really, really hard to appreciate the chaos. We’ve waited six months — 12, actually — to see baseball like this.
Welcome to perhaps the most enjoyable, pressure-packed week of baseball all year. In some respects, these days hold more urgency than the early days of a division series. Plus, more teams are involved now than during the playoffs. Entire seasons are distilled to one game, one inning, one pitch, one inch, one call. The fates of players and managers hinge on whether they secure a run here, an out there. Don’t believe me? Ask the chicken-and-beer 2012 Boston Red Sox what another victory would have done for them.
Fifteen games are scheduled in the majors Monday, and a whopping 10 involve teams still in contention. Since our job is to inform, here’s a summary of the action, AL first. Contenders are listed in CAPS, all times Eastern.
American League: Red Sox at YANKEES, 7:05 p.m.; WHITE SOX at Indians, 7:05 p.m.; ORIOLES at RAYS, 7:10 p.m.; TIGERS at Royals, 8:10 p.m.; RANGERS at ATHLETICS, 10:05 p.m.; ANGELS at Mariners, 10:10 p.m.
National League: BRAVES at Pirates, 7:05 p.m.; Phillies at NATIONALS, 7:05 p.m.; REDS at CARDINALS, 8:15 p.m.; GIANTS at DODGERS, 10:10 p.m.
As you might have guessed, I won’t fall asleep before the 5 a.m. traffic reports.
Most of the intrigue is in the balanced AL, where all three division titles remain unclaimed after 159 games. That is a first for the American League during the wild-card era, according to STATS LLC. (It occurred twice in the National League, 2001 and 2007.)
The main attraction is the AL East — and not in a way even Ripken, Robinson or Weaver could have imagined when the season began. The Baltimore Orioles are tied with the New York Yankees atop the division. Both have clinched at least a wild-card spot. (The Orioles received the good news around the time their flight made an emergency landing Sunday night, en route to a safe arrival in Tampa Bay. As 16 extra-inning victories would suggest, there’s nothing routine about the 2012 Orioles.)
Neither Baltimore nor New York is content with the wild card. The division title is the bigger prize, because it guarantees a trip to the division series. If the Orioles and Yankees are even after 162 games, they will play a tiebreaker Thursday at Camden Yards.
The subplots between the teams are rich. The Orioles are in the playoffs for the first time since 1997, one year after the Derek Jeter/Jeffrey Maier home run propelled the Yankees to an ALCS victory over Baltimore — and, some argue, sent the two franchises spinning on different trajectories. After 15 empty seasons, the Orioles are back — with a devastating bullpen, power-laden lineup and incalculable charisma.
Almost eerily, the same four teams — the Orioles, Rays, Yankees and Red Sox — are involved in a decisive final-series matrix for a second straight year. Last season, the Orioles stunned Boston with the Game 162 loss that hastened the departure of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. (In retrospect, that night foreshadowed the 2012 season for each club.) The Rays earned their 2011 postseason bid the same night with a dramatic win over the Yankees, who were resting their best players in preparation for the playoffs.
This time, no one is coasting. The Orioles and Yankees are competing doggedly for the division title, in an effort to avoid Friday’s capricious wild-card round (probably against the A’s, with the Rays and Angels holding on to fading hopes). Baltimore has more momentum (AL-best 19-9 September record) but the tougher opponent to finish the regular season; the Rays are still playing for something and have been one of baseball’s hottest teams down the stretch (as usual). The Yankees, meanwhile, get the Red Sox — their roster hollowed out by the blockbuster trade, their front office probably days away from firing manager Bobby Valentine.
All that’s left for the Red Sox is to ruin the Yankees’ chances at a division title … which, if they have any pride left, should be motivation enough. The Yankees are vulnerable, coming off a series against the out-of-contention Blue Jays in which not one New York starter finished the sixth inning. The Yankees salvaged a split with Sunday’s come-from-behind win, but they won’t be able to get away with a lackluster rotation in October. Also, they are venturing into the postseason without Mariano Rivera in their bullpen for the first time since 1981.
The Rangers will endure some tense moments in Oakland this week — although they spared themselves a lot of stress by rallying to win Sunday’s nightcap of a high-stakes doubleheader with the Angels. Texas lost Game 1 on Torii Hunter’s two-run double in the top of the ninth and fell behind, 4-0, in the first inning of Game 2; a loss would have cut the Rangers’ lead in the West to one game over Oakland while giving new life to the Angels in the wild card race.
But the Rangers slugged their way back — Mike Napoli homered twice — and closer Joe Nathan recovered from the blown save in Sunday’s matinee to preserve the 8-7 win. Now the A’s, who are two back, must sweep the three-game series to win the division. (The opposite result — Texas sweeps Oakland — is necessary for either the Angels or Rays to reach the playoffs.) One significant concern for the Rangers: Reliever Mike Adams, a stalwart in the Texas bullpen last October, is out for the start of the postseason (and probably longer) with thoracic outlet syndrome, a circulatory ailment that generally requires surgery.
The American League Central has absorbed its share of punchlines lately, as the first-place Tigers have fewer wins than two teams — the Rays and Angels — who likely won’t make the playoffs. And yet Detroit could become the first AL team to clinch a division title; the next Tigers win (or White Sox loss) will do it. A division title should help manager Jim Leyland, unsigned after this season, to stay on the job another year. Reigning MVP Justin Verlander makes the Tigers a dangerous playoff opponent, but there are fresh concerns about key pitchers Max Scherzer and Joaquin Benoit.
Oh, right: Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera — with a .325 batting average, 43 home runs and 136 RBI — is in position to win the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. He enters the final three games with a lead in all three categories, although only barely over Joe Mauer in the batting race. He’s also tied with Josh Hamilton for the league lead in home runs.
National League: The playoff scenarios here aren’t nearly as complicated, with four teams assured of postseason trips: Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta. But don’t sleep on the Senior Circuit. The Dodgers, despite their pathological inability to score earlier this month, are only two games behind the Cardinals for the NL’s second wild card. Interestingly, the Cardinals (vs. Reds) and Dodgers (vs. Giants) will play a strong rival that already clinched its division.
How aggressively will the Reds and Giants play those games, knowing their primary obligation is to get rested for the Division Series? And will the Nationals or Reds — now tied at 96-63 — finish with the No. 1 seed, which likely means avoiding the pitching-rich Giants in the first round?
For months, we’ve asked questions of that ilk. Soon the answers will be known to all. So enjoy these last days of uncertainty, even if it means staying up past 1 a.m. to see if the Rangers clinch in Oakland. The theater will be worth it. Anyway, sleep is overrated — especially in October.