Division races all but decided already
Major League Baseball’s creation of three divisions and the addition of the wild card in each league in 1995 has served its purpose well — until this year.
It has expanded the field of teams that play meaningful games in September, adding to the focus of fans at a time where football is starting to take center stage — until this year.
This year is baseball’s outlier.
It’s Labor Day and not only have the divisional races lost their luster — Boston’s 1-1/2-game deficit to New York in the AL East is the tightest of the six divisional races — but both teams are all but assured of playoff berths already. The next closest race is the Rangers' 3-1/2-game lead over the Angels.
And the wild-card races are blowouts. Consider that Atlanta goes into Monday 8-1/2 games up on St. Louis and 9-1/2 up on San Francisco in the NL wild card, and Boston is eight games up on Tampa Bay in the AL wild card.
So much for compelling drama. Things are so bad that Colorado and Los Angeles, two teams battling for third place in the NL West who haven’t seen .500 in months, played one of the games featured on national television on the last weekend in August.
Oh, there could be late-season surprises — like 2007, when the Rockies won 14 of their final 15 regular-season games, including a play-in matchup with San Diego, en route to the NL wild card. That rally by the Rockies was a poster-boy moment for baseball’s effort to create Septembers to remember.
It was one of six times since the three-division, wild-card format was adopted in 1995 that there has been a game No. 163 necessary to decide a final playoff berth. That’s something that happened only seven times in the previous 94 years.
This year? Well . . .
Along with Texas holding a 3-1/2-game lead on the Angels in the AL West, Arizona goes into Monday seven games up on San Francisco in the NL West. Milwaukee has a 9-1/2-game edge on St. Louis in the NL Central, Philadelphia leads Atlanta by 7-1/2 in the NL East.
Detroit is 6-1/2 in front of Cleveland and 8-1/2 up on Chicago in the AL Central after routing the White Sox Sunday night.
The Yankees are only 1-1/2 ahead of Boston in the AL East, but does it really matter, other than bragging rights? Those two teams are merely battling down the stretch to figure out which team gets the home-field advantage in the postseason and which is the AL wild card.
Arizona will attract the most attention because the Diamondbacks are the most surprising contender. They are attempting to become only the third team to go from 97 losses one year to a division title the next. Arizona also did that in 2000 and Atlanta in 1991.
San Francisco, the defending world champion, tried to provide a wakeup call with a 6-2 victory against the Diamondbacks at AT&T Park on Friday night. Carlos Beltran, finally healthy, provided the offensive boost the Giants envisioned when they made the late July trade to acquire him from the Mets, equaling his August total for home runs (one) and RBI (three) in the first game of September. But the D-backs came back to beat the Giants Saturday and Sunday to increase their lead to 7 games in the NL West.
But, Friday was a much-needed offensive boost for a Giants team that scored only 78 runs in a dismal 11-18 August.
In the past couple of days, the Giants also regained a healthy Andre Torres, Pat Burrell and Sergio Romo, but remains without closer Brian Wilson and lefthander Barry Zito, along with catcher Buster Posey, who suffered a season-ending broken leg in May.
There’s no particular edge in the remaining schedule. The only games Arizona and San Francisco have left against teams with a winning record are against each other.
They have a three-game showdown in Arizona Sept. 23-25.
The Giants and Diamondbacks both have home-and-away series remaining with the Dodgers and San Diego. And while the Giants also have home-and-away matchups with Colorado, Arizona has a three-game series at Colorado, and will host Pittsburgh in three games.
Yes, the Brooklyn Dodgers blew a 13-1/2-game lead in the final weeks of the 1951 season, but that had more to do with the way the New York Giants played — winning 37 of the final 44 games, including 16 in a row at one point — than what the Dodgers’ didn’t do.
Milwaukee was a half-game back of St. Louis and Pittsburgh and 3-1/2 ahead of fourth-place Cincinnati on July 26. That day the Brewers embarked on a 27-5 run that allowed it to build a 10-1/2-game lead on St. Louis.
And even though they were swept last week by the Cardinals, they still go into Monday 9-1/2 games up on St. Louis, 14-1/2 in front of Cincinnati and 19-1/2 ahead of Pittsburgh.
The Brewers' remaining challenge is this week. They travel to St. Louis for three games beginning Monday and then return home to host Philadelphia in a four-game series next weekend. What’s more, they have 12 of their final 22 games at Miller Park, where they are 50-19, the best home-field record in baseball.
Yes, in 1969, the Amazing’ Mets rallied from a 9-1/2-game deficit on Aug. 14, but that was to the Cubs, the loveable losers, who went into the late-season fade that resulted in them actually finishing eight games out of first place.
NL East/NL Wild Card
Philadelphia’s remaining challenge is trying to break the franchise’s record of 101 wins in a season, accomplished in both 1976 and 1977.
While Hurricane Irene created a schedule that sees them playing 33 games in the final 31 days of the season, they go into Monday with an 88-48 record, needing to play .500 in their final 28 games to reach the coveted 102-victory total.
Atlanta, meanwhile, embarks on an eight-game road trip on Monday that begins with a three-game visit to Philadelphia and ends with three games at St. Louis next weekend with a makeup doubleheader at the New York Mets in between.
They play only nine of their final 23 games at home, including a season-ending visit by the Phillies. Neither the Giants nor the Cardinals, however, have shown an inclination to go on a late-season run.
After climbing a season-best nine games over .500 on Aug. 7 (62-53), the Cardinals were just a game over .500 (12-13) since. The Giants, meanwhile, go into Monday having lost 23 of their past 35 games.
There’s nothing about that setup that portends a repeat of the Phillie Phade of 1964 when the Phillies saw a 6-1/2-game lead with 12 games to play turn into a second-place finish, one back of St. Louis.
The Rangers and Angels meet for a season-ending, three-game series at Anaheim. But will it matter?
Texas has growing concerns about its rotation, which was 10-7 with a 5.06 ERA during August. Nine times during that month a starter failed to get through five innings. Converted reliever Alexi Ogando’s ability to handle the season-long load in the rotation is enough of a concern — he is 5-7 with a 5.47 ERA his past 14 starts — that he is being skipped from a Monday start in Tampa Bay.
The Angels are getting a lift from wunderkind Mike Trout (they are 15-4 in games he has started), but the concerns about the Rangers were serious enough that Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver both started on short rest in a series at Texas the last weekend of August, when the Rangers won two out of three. And the Angels bullpen continues to create worries. The Angels not only lead the AL with 22 blown saves, but the team lost 18 games in which it had a lead or was tied after seven innings.
Angels fans can cling to hope because they are still haunted by the 1995 season in which a 12-27 finish saw them blow an 11-1/2-game lead on Seattle, forcing the Angels to win the final five games of that season just to force a playoff game with Seattle, which the Mariners won.
Justin Verlander has shown the Tigers the way to the top in the AL Central. Face it. The White Sox go into Monday a game below .500, having shown no consistency to make a late surge, and Cleveland was a feel-good story in the first couple months of the season, but the Indians went into Saturday having lost 25 of their past 48 games.
Detroit spent 164 days in first place in 2009, and carried a three-game lead over Minnesota with four games to play only to find itself forced to meet the Twins in a play-in game, which Minnesota won, leaving the Tigers out of the postseason. But that couldn’t happen again. Could it?
AL East/AL wild card
There is the pride factor in the fierce rivalry of the Red Sox and Yankees that will keep both these teams pushing to win the division title. And there is that home-field edge. The team that wins the division will have the home-field advantage in both the division series and ALCS. The runner-up gets the wild card, which always opens on the road in the postseason.
There won’t even be a playoff if the two teams were to tie for the division lead. The team with the best record in head-to-head competition will advance as the division champion, and the other team gets the wild card.
So there’s no reason to dream of another moment like Bucky Dent’s home run that lifted the Yankees past Boston in the 1978 playoff — a year in which the Red Sox, after blowing a 7-1/2-game lead with 32 games to play, had to win their final eight regular-season games to force the playoff.