Who Has the Schedule Edge in Final Days of the MLB Playoff Chase?
MLB contenders have just six games to play in the 2012 regular season as they jostle for the remaining playoff berths.
At this late stage of the season, we determine the strength of each team's schedule by individual matchups. Between pitchers and batters, catcher and baserunners, outfielders and ballpark dimensions, etc.
My focus is on the playoff chase, so let's ignore the four National League clubs that have already punched their tickets to the postseason. Also, the AL's Texas Rangers can taste the champagne with the potential to lock up a spot on Friday night.
But that still leaves 10 others vying for five openings.
The first few contenders you'll see face great challenges, while the final mentions possess the schedule edge.
Los Angeles Angels
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Schedule: Sept. 28-30 at Texas Rangers, Oct. 1-3 at Seattle Mariners.
The Los Angeles Angels have won 24 of their past 34 contests to return to relevance as the season dwindles. But the odds aren't in their favor.
Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, two of the league's hottest starting pitchers, will take the mound against them. These MLB rookies have overwhelmed the Halos in 2012 (6-1, 3.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in 9 G).
And let's not forget about Felix Hernandez, who has limited right-handed batters to a .214/.273/.294 triple-slash line. That's bad news for Torii Hunter, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo, all of whom swing from that side of the plate.
L.A. is 40-35 in road games, which is worst among AL wild-card contenders.
Tampa Bay Rays
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The White Sox have the personnel to give David Price some headaches this weekend. Though slugger Adam Dunn won't be a factor, Chicago's Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and Kevin Youkilis see the ball well out of his hand (18-42, 3 HR, 12 RBI).
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays match up poorly against southpaw Chris Sale. He mowed down 15 of their batters on May 28.
Back at Tropicana Field, they'll be greeted by Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman. The former has stifled them in two straight outings, while Tillman looks very comfortable in the O's starting rotation.
Baltimore continues to get much-needed offense production from midseason acquisitions Nate McLouth and Jim Thome.
St. Louis Cardinals
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The St. Louis Cardinals are fortunate to have a three-game cushion in the race for the No. 2 NL Wild Card. With the two winningest teams in baseball set to visit Busch Stadium, they could use some margin for error.
Adam Wainwright, the coldest member of their five-man rotation, will pitch twice in the coming days. Barely half of his 2012 outings have been quality starts. I don't trust him against lineups with considerable left-handed power.
Cincinnati's bullpen is back at full strength now that Aroldis Chapman has mended from shoulder fatigue. Late-game comebacks won't be realistic in that season-ending series.
At least Carlos Beltran and Jon Jay get to patrol their home outfield.
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Schedule: Sept. 28-30 vs. Boston Red Sox, Oct. 1-3 at Tampa Bay Rays.
Even All-Star backstop Matt Wieters is powerless versus efficient base-stealers like Jacoby Ellsbury and B.J. Upton. Pitching around those individuals is like giving up a double.
With the exception of J.P. Howell, Tampa Bay's relievers are in top form. Nobody wants to see Fernando Rodney, who has yielded five earned runs all season!
The Baltimore Orioles, however, are excited for a rematch with Felix Doubront. Though he dominated them last weekend, he's ordinarily a far less capable strike-thrower.
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A four-game winning streak has propelled the Detroit Tigers into first place. Both the Twins and Royals are far below the .500 mark.
But this schedule won't be a cake walk.
One challenge will be the start times for their weekend series. In order, they are 8:10 PM ET, 4:05 PM and 2:10 PM. It's unlikely that primary catcher Alex Avila can start each of those with less than 24 hours of recovery time, and soon-to-be 33-year-old Gerald Laird is a defensive liability.
Also, Kansas City's Jeremy Guthrie could frustrate the Tigers' lineup. His fly-ball style is well-suited for Kauffman Stadium. On August 30, for example, he induced lots of harmless contact and only allowed one run.
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Schedule: Sept. 28-30 vs. Seattle Mariners, Oct. 1-3 vs. Texas Rangers.
By chance, the Oakland Athletics will evade the accomplished power pitchers on both opposing staffs. That's a huge relief for the lineup that leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts.
The Mariners and Rangers each employ competent closers, but the A's won't have to worry about that if they build early leads.
Hot hitters that could cause trouble: Seattle's Michael Saunders (.283/.368/.533 this month) and Texas' Adrian Beltre (17 HR and 37 RBI since August 1).
Los Angeles Dodgers
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The Rockies get hit hard at any altitude and simply lack the pitching ability to compete in the penultimate series.
Specifically, Tyler Chatwood and Jeff Francis won't replicate their good results from late August meetings between these teams. Corner infielders Adrian Gonzalez and Luis Cruz have been putting balls in play at an insane rate recently.
Leapfrogging the St. Louis Cardinals will depend on how the Los Angeles Dodgers fare against their chief NL West rival.
With the division already wrapped up, San Francisco's Bruce Bochy will ease off the gas a bit and occasionally rest his regulars. He let a handful of reserves see the field in a loss last Sunday.
But the Dodgers have the tough task of opposing Matt Cain on October 1.
New York Yankees
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Schedule: Sept. 28-30 at Toronto Blue Jays, Oct. 1-3 vs. Boston Red Sox.
The New York Yankees will attempt to score off several big-name starting pitchers, though all of them have underachieved in 2012.
On the other side, CC Sabathia should manhandle the Red Sox. All the batters who gave him trouble in July are either injured, regressing or playing elsewhere.
Reporting for the Providence Journal, Brian MacPherson writes that Jacoby Ellsbury might not play again this season. If that's the case, the Yankees could easily coast into the playoffs with a sweep.
Chicago White Sox
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Schedule: Sept. 28-30 vs. Tampa Bay Rays, Oct. 1-3 at Cleveland Indians.
Most players in the Rays batting order have tendencies to swing and miss, which bodes well for Chris Sale and Francisco Liriano.
Jeff Keppinger is a notable exception, but I anticipate him falling into a mini-slump. His .340 BABIP this season is way out of line with his career norms. Keppinger's luck has to run out eventually.
The Indians are a train wreck without a manager.
Their lineup has more holes than a strainer. Cleveland's pitching is vulnerable during innings one through seven (prior to Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez). Adam Dunn should be a nightmare for the righty-laden staff.
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To be frank, the Milwaukee Brewers need a miracle.
Their remaining schedule is unimposing, but anything worse than 6-0 won't suffice. There's even a possibility that finishing perfectly won't earn them a playoff berth!
Houston's lineup has zero plate discipline and the Padres are devoid of power. Conveniently, Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo will pitch against each of them.
Milwaukee is catching a break with Carlos Quentin, whose knee may prevent him from starting another game. Also, San Diego's closer Huston Street has yet to regain his pre-injury form.
Behind the scorching bats of Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy, the Brew Crew should be contending into early October.