August is the start of crunch time on the MLB schedule. The trade deadline has come and gone, and the line has been drawn between buyer and seller. The importance of every game between divisional opponents and wild-card contenders is now multiplied.
With that in mind, here is a list of the 10 series that are most likely to shape playoff matchups in October.
Every game matters. Here are the games which matter the most...
The Cards are trailing Pittsburgh in the NL Central divisional race by less than a game. The Reds are 5.5 games behind the pirates.
These two teams, as of right now, are the top two teams in the National League wild-card race. For now, however, each ball club has divisional title aspirations. Shelby Miller and crew destroyed the Reds last night with a score of 13-3. The projected pitchers for the remaining two games are as follows:
St. Louis—Jake Westbrook (7-5, 3.18) and Lance Lynn (12-5, 3.87)
Cincinnati—Tony Cingrani (4-1, 2.90) and Mike Leake (10-4, 2.59)
The Indians are trying to catch the Tigers in the race for the American League Central division. That, however, will be easier said than done as the season winds down. The Tigers have the batter with the highest batting average in baseball, Miguel Cabrera (.359), and the pitcher with the most wins, Max Scherzer (15-1, 3.01 ERA).
Of course, Scherzer isn't even the team's real ace as Justin Verlander, even during an off year, still holds that spot.
The Tribe's offensive stars, like Jason Kipnis (15 home runs, 65 RBI) and Michael Bourn (.281 batting average), will need to step up against the defending American League champions.
This matchup is between two of this year's biggest surprises. It is also between two teams that are fighting to get into the postseason.
Both the D-Backs and the Pirates are successful largely because of their superb pitching. If baseball fans are lucky, some or all of these pitchers will be on display. Pittsburgh has Jeff Locke (9-3, 2.36 ERA) and rookie/former first overall draft pick Gerrit Cole (5-5, 3.69), while Arizona's Patrick Corbin, a 24-year-old first-time All-Star, is 12-2 with a 2.24 ERA (fourth-best in the NL).
The Braves are lead by star first baseman Freddie Freeman, who is hitting .310, has driven in 71 runs and has an on-base percentage of .387. Thanks to Freeman, as well as a bullpen which includes Craig Kimbrel (31 saves so far in 2013), Atlanta leads the NL East by 11.5 games and has the third-lowest team ERA in the major leagues.
Washington is running out of time to catch the Braves, and it will need superb pitching from starters such as Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg has regressed slightly this season and is just 5-9 (although he still has a 3.04 ERA). Offensive wunderkind Bryce Harper (16 home runs, .372 on-base percentage) and shortstop Ian Desmond will also need to pick up some slack: Washington has the second-worst batting average in the National League, beating only Miami.
Both teams shocked the experts last season by making the playoffs, and both clubs are having strong season once again this year.
The O's boast the league's top home run hitter in 2013, Chris Davis, who has clubbed 40 dingers thus far and driven in a whopping 101 RBI. The A's, meanwhile, have the Home Run Derby champion, center fielder Yoenis Cespedes.
A young standout third baseman? Both clubs have one, with Josh Donaldson (16 home runs and a .297 batting average) playing his ball in Oakland. Manny Machado, a converted shortstop, should anchor the same position for years to come.
Its A's vs. O's, the battle of the overachieving vowels. Only one can win.
Baltimore is currently dueling with Cleveland and Texas for the top wild-card spot in the American League. The Yankees trail the Orioles by four games currently, and this series takes on a great deal of extra significance because the two teams are divisional foes.
The myriad of injuries (Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez) have started to catch up with the Yanks, but the Bronx Bombers are hoping that the return of shortstop and team captain Derek Jeter, who did this in his first at-bat back from the disabled list, can help to key a comeback.
Meanwhile, Chris Davis and the Oriole offense will look to support a pitching staff which has a 4.30 earned-run average ERA. The trade for starter Bud Norris from Houston should lower that number.
The Orioles currently lead the season head-to-head matchup between the two clubs, 7-5.
Both teams are fighting for divisional titles after a ridiculous run by the Dodgers has them in sole possession of the lead for the N.L. West. The Reds have lost their last three contests against the streaking Dodgers, and have ground to make up in the N.L. Central.
Whether or not the Reds will have made up any ground in the divisional race remains to be seen, as does whether or not the Reds will still be in position to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
The Reds, however, do have several excellent pitchers, including Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman (25 saves), and are eighth in the majors in on-base percentage.
L.A., meanwhile, is also stuffed with good pitchers like Zack Greinke (8-3, 3.43 ERA) and 26-year-old rookie Hyun Jin Ryu (10-3, 3.15 ERA). Oh, and 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who leads the majors with a 1.87 ERA.
The Dodgers' offense is strong with batting average of .265, sixth-best in the MLB.
It's unclear how many people had this as a possible World Series matchup when the season began, but both of these teams have been making pushes for October for most of the season.
The Rangers will be looking to pick up some key interleague wins here, whether they are still chasing the Athletics for the A.L. West lead, or if they are chasing a wild-card spot. (Texas is currently tied with Baltimore for the fifth and final spot).
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, will be looking to prove that least year's second-half debacle, when they went 31-46 after the All-Star break, will not be repeated. Part of this transformation from first-half wonder to October competitor involves proving that they can beat a top team from the opposing circuit.
This will be a classic battle of hitting against pitching. The Pirates are first in the majors in ERA (3.10) and opponent batting average (2.28), while the Rangers rank in the top 10 in slugging percentage, batting average and on-base percentage.
The Rays and Orioles currently hold the two wild-card spots in the American League, and there's a solid chance that both teams (the Rays lead the Orioles by 3.5 games right now) will still be fighting for either the final two playoff spots or a division title.
Both teams have been superb at home this season, with the Rays posting a 35-21 record at Tropicana Field and the Orioles going 33-23 in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. This four-game set would seemingly give the Rays the advantage, since they are at home for these matchups and they've won five of their last six games against the O's.
The Pirates and the Cardinals are locked in a back-and-forth race right now for the N.L. Central, with Pittsburgh currently leading the division by a half a game. The Reds, meanwhile, are currently in possession of the fifth wild-card spot in the National League, and only trail the Prates by 5.5 games.
Both of these teams have a lot of games still left to play within the N.L. Central (where they also have to face the Cardinals) and the National League's best in general. However, by the time this series rolls around, these teams could be fighting each other for a divisional title.
Three teams, each within 5.5 games of each other and each currently holding down a playoff spot if the season ended today. That's what makes the N.L. Central one of the best divisions in baseball this season.
After being swept by the Pirates in their first series of the season, the Reds have gone 6-4 against Pittsburgh. This series could go either way.