10 Keys to Deciding the MLB Playoff Races over the Season's Final 10 Games
There are now just 10 days remaining in the 2012 MLB season, and intrigue still abounds.
While division races in the National League are all but decided, the Wild Card race promises to be a fight to the finish.
In the American League, all three divisions are still up for grabs, and eight teams in all still have a fighting chance for a postseason berth.
Many key matchups will help decide each team's fate. Here are 10 keys that could very well help decide who is in and who is going home.
1. Ability of Young Oakland Athletics Pitching Staff to Come Through in Clutch
The Oakland A's travel to Texas on Monday to start a crucial four-game series against the Rangers.
Dan Straily will open for the A's in lieu of Brandon McCarthy, out for the season after taking a line drive off the head two weeks ago. Straily has struggled in his last two starts, giving up seven runs in 11.1 innings while walking six and surrendering four home runs.
Tommy Millone (13-10, 3.86 ERA), Jarrod Parker (11-8, 3.40) and Travis Blackley (5-3, 3.48) follow Straily in the rotation.
With the A's holding a slim 2.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels for the final Wild Card slot, the young quartet of pitchers will need to deliver when it most matters.
2. The Health of Josh Hamilton
The Texas Rangers stumbled through their last four games without star slugger Josh Hamilton in the lineup.
Scoring only nine runs in those games, the Rangers were bolstered by strong pitching performances from Yu Darvish and Ryan Dempster in picking up two wins. However, trouble could be ahead if Hamilton is unable to return to the lineup.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported on Sunday that the Rangers are unsure when Hamilton will return. A sinus infection causing migraine headaches and blurred vision has kept Hamilton sidelined for five games.
Coming into the most crucial series of the season for the Rangers, not having Hamilton's bat in the lineup could very well have a major impact on the race for the AL West Division title and carry possible Wild Card implications as well.
3. New York Yankees Abilty to Beat Up on Lesser Teams on the Road
The New York Yankees open the week with a slim one-game over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East Division. In order to hold that lead, they'll have to do it on the road.
The Yankees start off in Minneapolis for a three-game set against the Minnesota Twins before traveling to the Rogers Centre to take on the Toronto Blue Jays in a four-game series.
The fate of the Yankees could well be decided by how they fare against teams who are just playing out the string.
The Yankees have split four games with the Twins thus far in 2012 and are just 2-3 against the Jays at Rogers.
With the Orioles playing in the friendly confines of Camden Yards all week, this week is crucial for the Yankees.
4. Can Baltimore Orioles Take Advantage of Favorable Schedule?
The scheduling gods were good to the Baltimore Orioles for the end of the 2012 regular season.
The Orioles begin a six-game homestand on Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays and will face the Boston Red Sox later in the week.
The Orioles have a combined record of 19-10 against these divisional rivals, including a 7-3 record at home. The O's will need to capitalize on their dominance over both in order to have any chance of capturing the AL East Division title.
5. The White Sox Ability to Bounce Back from Disappointing Road Trip
The Chicago White Sox return home to US Cellullar Field this week licking their wounds.
The White Sox were 1-5 on their road trip, failing to put any space between themselves and the Detroit Tigers in the tight AL Central Division race.
They will have the opportunity to create that space this week as they take on the reeling Cleveland Indians in a three-game series at home on Monday night.
The Tampa Bay Rays are their next opponents after traveling from Boston following a two-game set at Fenway Park.
The White Sox haven't been completely dominant at home—a 43-31 record thus far—but after their recent experience on the road, good old-fashioned home cooking could serve them well in the coming week.
6. Brewers Sluggers Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez Need to Stay Hot
The Milwaukee Brewers have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the past six weeks, winning 27 of their last 36 games to climb back into playoff contention.
The young starting rotation has come up huge for the Brewers, but it's also helped that sluggers Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez have surged to fuel the offense as well.
These two veteran bats will be crucial for the Brewers as they look to erase a 2.5-game deficit in the Wild Card standings over the final 10 days.
7. Los Angeles Angels Need to Win out and Hope for Best
The Los Angeles Angels kept themselves in the hunt for a Wild Card berth with a weekend sweep of the Chicago White Sox.
Now, they need to win out to have a chance.
At least those were the words of centerfielder Mike Trout following Sunday's victory.
"We have to win out, personally," said Trout. "Take it one game at a time, but we're going to do our job, and that's win games. Whatever happens at the end of the year, that's the way it goes."
The Angels close the season with six games against the Seattle Mariners along with a tough three-game series against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. The final six games are on the road, making the road that much tougher for the Halos.
8. Ability of Los Angeles Dodgers Veterans to Step Up in Final 9 Games
The Los Angeles Dodgers got a much-needed win on Sunday, spurred by the emotional return of the ailing Clayton Kershaw and the bat of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Gonzalez smashed two homers in the Dodgers' win over the Cincinnati Reds. Gonzalez hadn't homered since his first game with Los Angeles following his trade from the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 25.
Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino all need to contribute mightily in the next 10 days if the Dodgers are to have any hope of catching the St. Louis Cardinals for the final Wild Card slot in the National League.
Thus far, none of them have been major contributors, so a turnaround when it most matters will be crucial to the Dodgers' chances.
9. St. Louis Cardinals Need to Start Week Strong Before Unfavorable Schedule
The St. Louis Cardinals control their own destiny in their fight for a postseason berth in 2012.
With a 2.5-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the battle for the remaining Wild Card slot, the Cardinals start the week by facing the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
The Cardinals will need to take care of business against the Astros because their remaining six games are against the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds.
The Cardinals have split six games with Houston at Minute Maid Park this season, and on Monday, starter Lance Lynn will look to remain dominant over Houston this season (2-0, 1.46 ERA).
Considering they're facing two division leaders to end the season, a sweep in Houston might be in order.
10. Tampa Bay Rays Need to Run Table and Hope for Help
The Tampa Bay Rays are once again surging, similar to their incredible comeback last season.
With a five-game winning streak in hand, the Rays still find themselves 3.5 games out of a possible Wild Card berth with nine games remaining.
At the same time last season, the Rays were two games behind the Boston Red Sox in the race for the Wild Card before winning six of their last seven games to overtake the Sox on the final day of the season.
This year, however, the Rays will likely need to run the table in order to repeat last year's miracle.
They'll have to do so with six games on the road against the Red Sox and Chicago White Sox before returning home to face the Baltimore Orioles to end the season.
If the Rays somehow manage to make the postseason again, it would be even more remarkable than last year, considering their remaining schedule.
Considering last year's finish, Tampa Bay can't be counted out quite yet.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.