Plenty on the line in final week

BY foxsports • September 26, 2012

One week from today, we’ll know.

We’ll know if baseball stages an encore to last year’s Game 162 magic.

We’ll know if Miguel Cabrera becomes the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.

We’ll know if the storybook seasons of the A’s and Orioles stretch into the playoffs.

We’ll know if the Angels or Rays shatter the odds and snare a wild-card berth.

We’ll know if Thursday, Oct. 4, will mean tiebreakers noon to night — or the quiet hum of airplane engines on cross-country flights, in preparation for the Oct. 5 wild-card round.

One week from today, we’ll reflect on the 2012 regular season and make bold World Series picks. But there’s no time for that now. There are too many games to watch — and too many of them mean something.

Barring ties and weather delays, the final pitch of the regular season will be thrown shortly after 11 p.m. ET next Wednesday. By then, the players, coaches, managers and club officials who reported to spring training seven months ago will know if their work was good enough. This is the lightning round — tormenting, captivating, entertaining … baseball at its best.

“We work the whole season,” Cabrera said Tuesday after his Tigers pulled into a first-place tie, “for this moment.”

Here are the burning questions that must be answered over the next week.

… Are we headed for more Game 162 drama?

Sept. 28, 2011, was an indelible day in baseball history: heartache for the Red Sox and Braves, champagne for the Rays and Cardinals, star turns for Dan Johnson and Robert Andino, all over the same few hours.

We’re unlikely to see anything quite like it in both leagues this year. The Cardinals – in a much more favorable position than at this point last season – should have the National League’s second wild card wrapped up by then. That would leave the American League, where the potential for baseball theatre exists again.

The AL has a story that can intrigue even the most casual fans: The Baltimore Orioles (no playoffs since 1997) and Oakland A’s (no playoffs since 2006) are holding down the two wild cards, with the more experienced Angels (two behind Oakland) and Rays (three behind Oakland) stalking them at close distance.

Even better: The Rays host the Orioles for three games to finish the season. As long as the deficit is three games or fewer as of next Monday morning, Tampa Bay will be within sweeping range of a one-game playoff at the very least.

Speaking of tiebreakers, we could have one-game playoffs in the AL Central (Tigers and White Sox are tied for first) and the wild card next Thursday in the event of two or three wild-card contenders finishing with the same records. If the 2012 season is going to make history in a way that 2011 did not, that would be the way: Major League Baseball has never had multiple tiebreaker playoffs in the same season.

And rest assured, MLB has plans for a three-team, two-day tiebreaker among the wild card contenders next Thursday and Friday if it comes to that.

… How will the early clinchers keep their edge?

Four NL teams – the Nationals, Reds, Giants and Braves – have secured postseason berths. Already, the debate is on about what each manager should do: keep the players sharp or rest them periodically in preparation for the first round.

The correct answer might be somewhere in between. Either way, it’s not the advantage you might think: According to STATS LLC, the 1998 Yankees were the last team to clinch the majors’ first playoff berth and win the World Series. (Cincinnati earned the first bid this year.)

For the record, the Nationals and Reds are playing for something: the NL’s best record, home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and the chance to avoid the pitching-rich Giants in the first round. Washington and Cincinnati entered Wednesday tied for the best record in baseball at 93-61.

There’s no such dilemma in the American League. As of Wednesday morning, no team was assured of a playoff berth.

… How soon will Dusty Baker return to the Reds’ dugout?

Baker, the popular Cincinnati manager, was hospitalized in Chicago last week for an irregular heartbeat, and it was later revealed that the 63-year-old suffered a mini-stroke.

Baker is out of the hospital and back in Cincinnati, but he has yet to return to his in-game managerial duties. The Reds remain hopeful that he will be back before the end of the regular season.

Baker has long been one of the game’s most lively personalities, and many around baseball are thinking about his health during these crucial days of the season. Chris Speier has served as the Reds’ interim manager; Baker’s return, whenever it occurs, will undoubtedly be an emotional moment for the franchise.

… Which team has the best chance to be this year’s Cardinals – make it at the wire, spray champagne in the end?

The Angels.

The American League has two similar candidates – the Rays and Tigers, because of their starting rotations – but the Angels might be the most dangerous team in baseball if they reach the postseason. Starters Zack Greinke (3-0, 1.53 ERA this month) and Ervin Santana (2-1, 2.03) are rolling in addition to ace Jered Weaver, and Kevin Jepsen has stabilized the bullpen.

The Angels have become the team so many of us thought they would be all year. The only question is whether they have enough time to make up for their inconsistency of the first five months.

 ... How many flight plans will be in doubt at this time next week?

I don’t envy the Texas Rangers’ traveling secretary.

The Rangers finish the regular season next Wednesday in Oakland. If they capture the AL’s top overall seed, they will meet the wild-card winner in the first round. Because of this year’s 2-3 format – instituted to compress the schedule and minimize days lost to travel – Texas would begin that series on the road … possibly in Oakland.

Should the Rangers hang around the Bay Area for a couple days, on the chance that they will start the series there? Or fly home knowing they might turn the plane back around 48 hours later? (These are good problems to have.)

Another potential itinerary: The Angels could play four games in four cities over five days – that is, if they keep winning: Wednesday’s scheduled finale in Seattle, Thursday’s wild-card tiebreaker (in Oakland, let’s say), Friday’s wild-card game (in Baltimore, perhaps) and Sunday’s ALDS Game 1 at home.

Keep this in mind: Teams may have separate 25-man rosters for tiebreaker games, the wild-card round and division series. That will allow discerning managers to effectively play with expanded rosters during the tiebreaker and wild-card games, since the starting pitchers for future games don’t need to be active.

… Can Miguel Cabrera do it?

It won’t be easy, but the Tigers’ superstar third baseman has a chance to become baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. (As you might have heard, he’s in a hotly debated MVP race with Angels dynamo Mike Trout.)

Entering Wednesday, Cabrera had a narrow lead in the batting race (.329 to .326, over Minnesota’s Joe Mauer) and comfortable advantage in the RBI rankings (133 to 124, over Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton). But now Hamilton has moved ahead of Cabrera in the home-run tally, 43 to 42, with Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion close behind at 41.

In general, Hamilton, Dunn and Encarnacion have better hitting conditions – ballpark dimensions and weather – than Cabrera over the remainder of this season. Mauer, as a three-time batting champion, is a legitimate threat to finish with a higher average.

But it’s newsworthy that Cabrera is still in the chase at all: When he led in all three categories until a few days ago, he was the first player to do so in September since Dick Allen in 1972, according to STATS LLC.