8 Things to Watch in Weekend's Critical MLB Pennant Race Action

Ely Sussman@@MrElyminatorCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2013

8 Things to Watch in Weekend's Critical MLB Pennant Race Action

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    With a big weekend, Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates can slide safely into the playoffs.
    With a big weekend, Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates can slide safely into the playoffs.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Major League Baseball provides its fans with plenty of intriguing things to watch during this penultimate weekend of the regular season. From coast to coast, critical matchups will dramatically influence the pennant races.

    It's important to focus on contending teams, particularly those barely clinging to life in the wild-card races, like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals. Also, we ought to closely observe Jesse Crain, Starling Marte and other impact players coming back from injuries.

    In this era of increased multi-tasking, you talented fans are more than capable of splitting your attention among a handful of huge matchups.

    *Stats provided by FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Updated through the games of Sept. 19.

Clay Buchholz, Jesse Crain Try to Shake off Rust in Time for October

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    Two of baseball's most dominant pitchers earlier this season, Clay Buchholz and Jesse Crain, did not impact the American League pennant race during July and August. That's because both of them spent those months on the disabled list with muscle strains.

    Buchholz had an unblemished win-loss record and AL-best 1.71 ERA prior to his injury. In his first 11 innings pitched (two starts) since returning to the Boston Red Sox rotation, the 29-year-old has posted more outstanding stats (0.00 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, .147 BAA).

    However, his velocity is down through two starts this September, according to Brooks Baseball, and he has yet to push himself past 100 pitches.

    Saturday's matchup against the Toronto Blue Jays looks to be an important test as the right-hander tries to find his All-Star form.

    Crain, on the other hand, has yet to make an appearance for the Tampa Bay Rays since being acquired by them at the non-waiver trade deadline.

    His shoulder finally feels better, tweets Andrew Astleford of FoxSportsFlorida.com, suggesting that the veteran right-hander could get in a game this weekend.

    If close to 100 percent healthy, Crain will be a huge addition to the bullpen. He boasts a career-best 0.74 ERA and 11.29 K/9 this summer.

Starling Marte Getting His Timing Back as Pittsburgh Pirates Chase Cardinals

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    Despite collecting a few weeks of dust on the sidelines, Starling Marte hasn't forgotten how to roam the outfield. That comes as a relief to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who clearly benefit from his defensive efforts.

    Of course, the 24-year-old is equally valuable as their leadoff hitter, and his reaching base at an acceptable rate hinges on him swinging the bat effectively.

    Marte was activated from the disabled list on Sept. 9, but due to persistent pain in his hand, he spent the first week as only a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. The speedster only rejoined the starting lineup against the San Diego Padres earlier this week. In two full games, he went 1-for-7 with three strikeouts.

    Run-scoring has been a challenge for the Bucs in Marte's absence. During the 12 games prior to Thursday's outburst, they averaged barely two-and-a-half runs each night. Pittsburgh will need as many scoring chances as possible to leap-frog the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and avoid the dreaded win-or-go-home wild-card game.

    Jason Heyward fills a comparable role for the Atlanta Braves, although MLB.com's Mark Bowman tweets that he's more likely to return Monday, rather than this weekend.

New York Yankees, Andy Pettitte with Their Backs Against the Wall

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    Although they're not technically eliminated from postseason contention, the New York Yankees currently look up at a handful of teams in the American League wild-card race.

    Surviving into the season's final week likely requires sweeping the San Francisco Giants, and southpaw Andy Pettitte will pitch Sunday to help them accomplish that.

    He heads into the series with a streak of seven straight quality starts. In that span, the 41-year-old has posted a 2.01 earned run average.

    There's a sentimental angle to this, as this will be the 216th—and perhaps, final—career start in the Bronx for the franchise's all-time strikeout leader. Pettitte's next pitching opportunity comes during New York's season-ending road trip to Houston.

    By performing well this weekend, Pettitte would give himself a better chance of returning to the stadium mound in October.

Washigton Nationals Still on the Fringe of NL Wild Card Race

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    Stephen Strasburg.
    Stephen Strasburg.Chris Gardner/Getty Images

    In their pursuit of the National League's second Wild Card, the Washington Nationals trail the Cincinnati Reds by five games with only nine left to play. Executing a comeback looks improbable, and even using that adjective is a bit generous.

    Amanda Comak of The Washington Times has the latest on star right-hander Stephen Strasburg:

    Stephen Strasburg did not appear to have any significant issues during his flat-ground session of catch on Thursday afternoon, but his start on Saturday remains at least slightly tentative until the right-hander can get through his throwing on Friday also without incident.

    “He’s feeling good,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He was going to go run and do flat-ground (when I talked to him). If he does that again (Friday) and has no tightness or nothing (he’ll be good to go.)

    The back end of Washington's rotation is already shaky. The last thing the desperate Nationals need is another start from journeyman Ross Ohlendorf in place of Strasburg.

    After underachieving for most of the summer, this team has virtually no margin for error, so even the lowly Miami Marlins aren't being taken lightly.

    Strasburg or no Strasburg, the Nationals still have life thanks to surging offense.

    Denard Span is coming off of a 29-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors this summer, while Ryan Zimmerman has 10 home runs so far in September. Although their recent production is modest by comparison, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth have similarly chosen the right time to heat up.

Orioles and Rays Clash with AL Wild-Card Spots Up for Grabs

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    After leading the American League Wild Card race for months, the Tampa Bay Rays are at risk of being booted out of the driver's seat by a familiar foe. The Baltimore Orioles descend on Tropicana Field for a four-game series, needing just three victories to pull even with the Rays in the standings.

    Joe Maddon's crew has played significantly below .500 over the past four weeks, and who can blame them? The recent schedule has rarely afforded them time to think, let alone rest.

    During the 28 days leading into this weekend, Tampa Bay has taken the field 27 times, including three extra-inning contests. Even with an expanded active roster, such a stretch is rough for a club with a win-now mentality.

    Maddon finds himself in the tricky position of charging toward October yet trying to keep his impact players fresh for a potential playoff run, so it should be interesting to see how he uses his regulars.

    Obviously, Baltimore's success has been fueled by Chris Davis, Adam Jones and other formidable bats, but the pitching staff is suddenly peaking. The O's have limited their opposition to five runs or fewer in six straight games.

    Although closer Jim Johnson has had some difficulty against Tampa Bay in 2013, he enters this clash with a dozen consecutive scoreless appearances overall.

Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers Also in AL Wild Card Mix

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    Kansas City's James Shields and Salvador Perez.
    Kansas City's James Shields and Salvador Perez.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The Kansas City Royals have been presented with a golden opportunity.

    Already 13-6 this month, they'll spend this weekend hosting the Texas Rangers with the top of the rotation—Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and James Shields—scheduled to pitch. By completing the sweep, K.C. could pull even with them in the standings.

    There's a fascinating contrast between these teams in terms of playoff history.

    Texas has competed in three consecutive Octobers, advancing to the World Series in both 2010 and 2011. On the other hand, Kansas City is 28 years removed from a postseason berth, which amounts to the longest such drought in Major League Baseball.

    Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre hopes to emerge from a brutal September slump, while Royals catcher Salvador Perez aims to stay in a terrific groove (1.110 OPS, 26 RBI in last 24 games).

Oakland Athletics with Chance to Clinch AL West on Final Homestand

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    The battle for the AL West title once again involves the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers.

    However, it isn't going down to the wire like it did in 2012. The A's could actually clinch first place this weekend with some good luck and several victories against the visiting Minnesota Twins.

    The Twins were beaten 8-6 on Thursday night, and they've now lost 17 of their past 25 games.

    The rest of the series couldn't be set up much better for Oakland with Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray scheduled to take the mound. Moreover, Josh Donaldson will get to feast on Minnesota lefties Andrew Albers and Pedro Hernandez. The third baseman has a monstrous .335/.412/.641 batting line against southpaws this season.

    For the first time since 2002-03, this franchise aims to secure back-to-back division crowns.

Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds Face Off, Eye Wild-Card Berth

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    Francisco Liriano.
    Francisco Liriano.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    There shouldn't be any empty seats in Great American Ball Park this Friday through Sunday as the Cincinnati Reds (87-66) host the Pittsburgh Pirates (88-65).

    Not only are these competitive teams and division rivals, but a few lucky breaks could allow one of them to spew champagne by the end of the weekend.

    The NL Central title is still in play for both the Reds and Pirates, but this upcoming matchup is all about the wild-card situation.

    They'll kick off the series with "magic numbers" of five and four, respectively. That means whoever wins the three-game set could lock up an October berth if the Washington Nationals struggle.

    Sub-plots abound, including Andrew McCutchen's candidacy for the league batting title and MVP award, Jason Grilli's ongoing attempt to regain his midseason form, rookie speed demon Billy Hamilton testing Russell Martin's arm and the abundance of strikeouts we're sure to see when A.J. Burnett and Homer Bailey duel on Saturday night.