October nears, playoff races heat up
As the 2012 MLB regular season draws to a close and the hunt for October intensifies, both new and familiar faces are taking over the national spotlight. In a season that has not disappointed, there have been the usual story lines — such as the Yankees buying their way into the playoffs — as well as some pleasant surprises beginning with the once-hapless Nationals and Orioles surging into contention.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire 2012 saga is that the Washington Nationals sit atop the majors with just more than a week left in the regular season. The Nats lead the MLB with a record of 93-61 and have already clinched the franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth since moving to Washington in 2005. For the first time since 1933 there will be postseason baseball in the nation’s capital, a fact not lost on Washington fans. Save for a few $315 party tickets, Nats playoff tickets sold out within an hour of going on sale, and as the potential top seed in the National League, expectations are high for the young squad.
Lying four games behind the Nats in the NL East, but with a sizable lead in the wild card race, the Atlanta Braves punched their playoff ticket Tuesday in walk-off fashion against the Marlins. The Braves are unlikely to overtake the Nationals for the NL East title, as Washington’s magic number is down to just five games, but they too are a legitimate contender. Atlanta looks to be far and away the best team in the wild card race, and in Chipper Jones’ final season, I believe they will likely defeat whomever they face in the new one-game Wild Card Showdown play-in round.
Speaking of which, I really dislike the new Wild Card Showdown, as well as this year’s 2-3 format of the divisional series. I think it distorts the incentives and significance of the regular season. But if the Nats finish with the best record in the NL and the Braves win the Wild Card Showdown, we could be in for a great grudge match in the National League Division Series. With the lower-seeded team playing the first two games at home, upsets in the divisional round will be a very real possibility with underdogs having the chance to jump out to 2-0 leads.
Cincinnati and San Francisco clinched the NL Central and NL West, respectively, in the past week, and if the season ended today the two squads would meet in the NLDS. But with the Reds moving into a first-place tie with the Nationals Tuesday and the Giants 3.5 games back entering their game late Tuesday night, any of these teams could end up playing each other. The Reds look especially dangerous with the recent return of All-Star first baseman Joey Votto, who is batting .338 on the year and .314 in September after his return from multiple knee surgeries.
After winning the World Series as a wild card team last year against the Rangers, the St. Louis Cardinals entered Tuesday’s contests 3.5 games ahead of the Brewers and the Dodgers for the last wild card spot. This year’s Cardinals team, now void of slugger Albert Pujols and retired skipper Tony LaRussa, won three straight heading into Tuesday and look to be in the driver’s seat. But they haven’t locked up their spot by any means. They still have series against two division-leading teams, the Nats and Reds, remaining.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers won their recent series against the Reds and have the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams, so it would be premature to rule out postseason baseball in Los Angeles, or Milwaukee for that matter.
Speaking of postseason baseball in Los Angeles, AL Rookie of the Year shoo-in Mike Trout and the Angels are also still in the hunt. Two games back from division-rival Oakland for the second wild card spot in the AL entering Tuesday, every game is a must-win for the Angels. Relentless Tampa Bay also lurks just three games behind the A’s.
With Texas holding a five-game division lead, the Rangers are on pace for their third consecutive AL West title. After losing two straight World Series — last year’s in a heartbreaking Game 7 — the Rangers might be seeing their window of opportunity slowly begin to close. There is undoubtedly a sense of urgency in Arlington to close out the season strong and clinch the top seed in the AL in hopes of capturing the franchise’s first World Series.
As Billy Beane’s Moneyball-constructed Athletics cling to their wild card lead, they have a less than desirable end-of-season schedule, with six of their final nine games against Texas. If Texas plays its starters the entire way, Oakland could see its first playoff berth since 2006 slip away to the Angels or Rays.
The AL Central features the tightest division race, as the Detroit Tigers pulled even with the Chicago White Sox Tuesday. The Tigers, led by AL Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander, and the slumping White Sox, who have gone 1-6 in the last week, are all but eliminated from the second wild card spot, so their best hope to sneak into the playoffs is by seizing the division crown. With eight games left against the Royals and the Twins, Detroit has a slightly easier schedule than Chicago, which has both home and away games remaining against the forsaken city of Cleveland but also must play host to the wild card-contending Rays for four games.
Finally, we wrap up with the AL East, home to the largest payroll in baseball and possibly the most interesting postseason race of all. Although the Yankees looked to be completely in control of the division for much of the summer, the Orioles have clawed their way back. The O’s refuse to go away. Holding the first wild card spot and trailing the Damn Yankees by 1.5 games before Tuesday’s games, Baltimore will have to rely on the Buck truck to carry them through a critical three-game series in Tampa Bay to close out the season if they hope to win the AL East title, or at least maintain their wild card bid.
Raised to love the O’s and hate the Yankees — though I later adopted the imported Nationals — I can only pray that the perennial losers finish strong to make the playoffs for the first time since 1997 and topple the largest and most obnoxious bandwagon in baseball.
And if your favorite team’s playoff prospects aren’t looking as good as mine — Natitude, baby — just remember this: In a pleasant twist of fate, the Red Sox are 20.5 games back in their division and will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. And if you’re a Boston fan, sucks to suck.