The Yankees hope to continue their run of postseason success.
With just four weeks left in the Major League Baseball season, fans can feel the tension in the air. It's all coming down to these last few games and series. Who will punch a ticket into the postseason, and who will be sent packing?
At present, a full half of MLB's 30 teams still have a shot of reaching the playoffs. With all that baseball, what to watch in the weeks ahead?
We run down the can't-miss matchups to help serious fans get the most out of this intense rush to the postseason.
The Orioles and Rays are fighting the Yankees and each other for control of the AL East.
9/11-9/13: Tampa Bay at Baltimore
In a matchup of the two toughest teams in the NL Central, Pittsburgh’s got to at least take this series if it's going to have any hope of remaining in contention for what once looked like a lock on a 2012 playoff berth.
Just one game behind the White Sox in the AL Central, Detroit will be hoping to pull into the lead with an away series against the slumping White Sox (3-7 in their last 10 games) at US Cellular Field.
The big-money Angels are 2.5 games back of the money-ball Oakland A’s. A four-game sweep would move the Halos into second place in the AL West and might earn them a wild-card playoff berth as well. Can the underperforming Angels rotation pull off a string of victories over this A’s team who, despite their strong record, have already lost three straight?
The Cards and the Dodgers battle for an NL wild-card slot.
9/14-9/16: St. Louis at L.A. Dodgers
St. Louis has a one-game lead over the Dodgers for the second NL wild-card slot. If the Dodgers can at least win their series at home—and the team’s new ownership certainly expects it to—they can snatch at least a share of a wild-card slot for the first time since the Giants passed them in the NL West standings in mid-August.
9/14-9/16: Tampa Bay at NY Yankees
The Rays follow up one tough intra-division series with another, as they go from playing away against the Orioles to away against the Yankees, their two competitors for the top slot in the AL East.
9/14-9/16: Washington at Atlanta
The best team in the majors travels south to take on Chipper Jones and the Braves. Winning two at home against the toughest team in the bigs will probably provide enough momentum for Atlanta to shore up its control of the first NL wild card...but if they get swept, the Braves will be vulnerable to advances by the Cardinals, Pirates and Dodgers, all of whom are nipping at their heels.
9/14-9/16: Baltimore at Oakland
Boy, do the Orioles have a tough schedule. This week will be their proving ground. Facing back-to-back series against AL wild-card contenders, can the Orioles hold onto their lead in the AL East? Note: There’s no travel day scheduled between the last game of the Orioles’ homestand against the Rays and their first away game in Oakland. Look for the O’s to be sluggish on Friday night against the A’s.
The Rangers and Angels will push each other to the brink in the AL West.
9/18-9/20: Texas at L.A. Angels
The Angels walked into this season as favorites to win the AL West. Someone forgot to send the two-time-AL-defending-champion Rangers that memo.
This will be the first of two late-season meetings for these teams. Manager Mike Scioscia will be pushing his boys hard in one of the last series of the year in Anaheim for the Halos.
9/18-9/20: Oakland at Detroit
The A’s are managing to win without much offense—they’ve got Chris Carter, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes and not much else.
Look for the Tigers to try to use this series to make a statement.
9/18-9/20: L.A. Dodgers at Washington
The Dodgers have beaten the Nationals every time the two teams have met this year. Of course, that was just three games back in
The Nats are pushing hard to make the playoffs and take the NL East for the first time in the franchise’s history (the ’94 Expos lost the end of their season to the players’ strike), so they’ll be looking to avenge their early-season losses.
The White Sox and the Angels are both fighting to stay alive in 2012.
9/21-9/23: Chicago White Sox at L.A. Angels
Fans will be able to watch sluggers Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols fight it out to see who’s the better home-run hitter.
Dunn was recently passed by the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton for the lead in the AL home-run race—but Dunn is still leagues ahead of any challengers in walking away as the season’s strikeout king. In fact, Dunn is on pace to set the all-time single-season record for whiffs.
9/21-9/23: Oakland at NY Yankees
When Rickey Henderson watches series like this one, who does he root for?
Look for former A’s draftee Nick Swisher—whose salary this year is 25 times what he made in his last season in Oakland—to put on a show.
9/21-9/23: L.A. Dodgers at Cincinnati
The Dodgers and Reds are behind only the Cardinals and Giants as the winningest NL World Series franchises of all time. Either one has a shot at the crown again this year—this series could be a preview of the NLCS.
The A's hope to take the Rangers down a peg in this late-season series.
9/24-9/27: Oakland at Texas
It's the calm before the storm, as this AL West divisional matchup is the sole serious series to watch in the first half of the penultimate week of regular-season baseball.
With five straight series against tough teams trying to snatch their playoff spot (and four of them on the road), the Oakland A’s have one of the roughest roads to the postseason of any team in contention. If they hope to play their way into the playoffs, they'll have to perform well against Texas in these four crucial late-season games.
Even without La Russa at the helm, the Cardinals will try to repeat.
9/28-9/30: Washington at St. Louis
Can the Nats hold on to the top spot in the NL and the best record in the bigs? Can the injury-riddled Cardinals scrap their way back to the playoffs and properly defend their 2011 World Series title?
9/27-9/30: Tampa Bay at Chicago White Sox
This will be the last home series of the year for the White Sox, and it will be the last chance they’ll have to push the Rays’ heads under the water.
9/28-9/30: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
In early August, this series would have been a matchup to determine who took the NL Central. Now, though, the Reds are so far ahead that it’s likely to be a contest to see if the Pirates can still hold on to the last snatches of their dream turnaround season.
9/28-9/30: L.A. Angels at Texas
The Rangers will hope to make a statement here by notching quality wins against one of their scrappy division rivals before ending their regular season in Oakland.
The Giants will play the Dodgers to close out the season.
The final week of the regular season is only a half week: It starts on Monday, Oct. 1 and ends Wednesday, Oct. 3. And then it’s playoff time! This will be the last chance for a number of teams to punch their dance cards.
10/1-10/3: San Francisco at L.A. Dodgers
Astute readers will note that this is the first time the San Francisco Giants have shown up on this list. Their end-of-season schedule is full of cupcake teams—lucky them. Unless the Dodgers pull off something special (or the Giants crumble something fierce), this series may be most exciting simply for the storied rivalry between these two squads.
10/1-10/3: Atlanta at Pittsburgh
This end-of-season series will serve as a rematch of both the ’91 and ’92 NLCS, both of which were claimed by Atlanta…think Sid Bream will be in attendance?
10/1-10/3: Baltimore at Tampa Bay
This final O’s-Rays series may well determine who makes the playoffs from the AL East and who goes home crying.
10/1-10/3: Cincinnati at St. Louis
With back-to-back away series against their top-two division rivals, the Reds will be pushed to the brink before the playoffs begin. Good thing for them, it’s likely they’ll have a few days of rest before their postseason starts.
10/1-10/3: Texas at Oakland
Six of the A’s final seven season series are against playoff-contending teams. That’s likely to put an even greater damper on spirits in the Bay Area than the fabled Northern Californian weather.