Keys for Every Team on the 2013 MLB Playoff Bubble

Chris Stephens@@chris_stephens6Correspondent IISeptember 16, 2013

Keys for Every Team on the 2013 MLB Playoff Bubble

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    We are now two weeks away from the end of the MLB regular season. 

    The Red Sox, Tigers, Athletics, Braves, Pirates, Cardinals and Dodgers are close to clinching spots in the playoffs. Teams like the Rays, Orioles, Yankees, Indians, Royals, Rangers and Nationals still have work to do.

    But each of those bubble teams can make the playoffs as long as they take care of a few things on their end.

    Here's a look at three keys for every team on the playoff bubble.

Tampa Bay Rays

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    The Tampa Bay Rays haven't been playing their best baseball as of late. Having lost six of their last 10 games (although three of last four were wins), the Rays went from having a good lead in the wild-card race to now fighting for their lives.

    Luckily for them, nobody else in the American League wants to take their spot.

    But, this can't continue for Tampa Bay if it wants to make the playoffs.

    Take Three Games in Both Four-Game Series

    The next two series are four-game sets involving the Rangers and Orioles. With both of those teams in the playoff hunt as well, splitting won't do, especially with the Rangers.

    With the way the Indians are coming on as of late, it may be the Rays and Rangers fighting for that second spot in the wild card.

    By taking three of four, the Rays will show they're up to the challenge and the slump is behind them.

    Evan Longoria Has to Step Up

    When a team is struggling, the leader has to step up on the field. For Evan Longoria, that's not happening.

    The Rays third baseman has only one home run and four RBI in 53 at-bats in September. August was a little better, but not by much. He batted .245 with seven home runs and 14 RBI. 

    Through the first half of the season, Longoria was batting .278 with 18 home runs and 52 RBI. He wasn't an MVP candidate, but he was getting the job done for his team.

    Now is the time for Longoria to step up once again and be the leader on the Rays. And the best way to be a leader is to do it on the field.

    Bullpen Has to Stop Giving Up Late Runs

    In the last 10 games, the bullpen has given up 13 runs in late innings, and three of those directly resulted in losses.

    Joel Peralta may have 37 holds on the year, but he's blown two leads the Rays have had in the last 10. He gave up four runs to Minnesota (Sunday) and two runs to Boston (Sept. 11)

    It must be noted the two runs given up to Boston came in extra innings. Regardless, in the midst of the playoff race, the back end of the bullpen has to be lights-out. Peralta and closer Fernando Rodney should not be giving any leads away. It's not the time for it.

Baltimore Orioles

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    The Baltimore Orioles are 5-5 in their last 10 games, but three of those losses came to the Yankees.

    Had the Orioles taken at least two of those games, the Yankees just might be out of the race. Instead, that's just another team Baltimore has to contend with.

    Left on the schedule is six games with Boston, four games with Tampa Bay and three games with Toronto.

    Chris Davis Has to Step Up

    Davis may have joined the 50-home run club over the weekend, but that's in large part due to his first-half effort. 

    In 53 games since the All-Star break, Davis has batted .256, only hit 13 home runs and driven in 38 runs. Compare that to the first half, when he hit .315 with 37 home runs and 93 RBI. 

    During that stretch, the Orioles were 10 games over .500. Since then, they've played one game under .500. Coincidence?

    Gotta Win the Close Games

    The Orioles haven't exactly had much success in close games, going 16-28 this year. Against the teams left on their schedule (Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto), the Orioles are 7-9 in one-run games.

    That means 38 percent of their games with those three teams have come down to one run. So, if the statistics hold up, then five of the last 13 games will be decided by one run.

    Imagine if the Orioles can take even four of those. What kind of a difference would that make for the AL Wild Card, especially if the Rays are on the losing end of a few of those?

    Close It Out at Home

    Boston and Toronto will visit Camden Yards to end the season. This is an advantage for the Orioles because the Red Sox will likely be resting up for the playoffs, while the Blue Jays could be giving some young guys a chance to prove themselves.

    Baltimore has to take advantage of both of those situations, adding to its 42-33 home record. While it's not the best in the world, the O's are 8-5 against both of those teams at home this year.

    They've had success against those teams at home, and with the playoffs on the line, they're going to have to do the same again.

New York Yankees

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    The New York Yankees were doing so well, having gotten to within one game of the second AL Wild Card. But then things suddenly started going against them.

    The Yankees are 4-7 in their last 11 games, including six losses to the rival Red Sox. While Boston is a good team, there's no excuse for losing that many games by 24 combined runs.

    Things are going south quickly, and the Yankees have to do something to fix it.

    Curtis Granderson Has to Step Up

    With the loss of Brett Gardner, Granderson was forced into the leadoff spot, where he's gone 2-for-12 with a double and a triple.

    The two hits came Saturday, but outside of that, Granderson has struck out five times.

    Gardner was batting .274 from the leadoff spot this year, and his loss has shown to hurt the Yankees. Still, Granderson has had success in that role before, carrying a lifetime .271 average from the first spot.

    Keep Winning the Close Games

    The Yankees have a 27-15 record in one-run games this year. With Toronto, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Houston left on the schedule, they'll have the advantage.

    Against the teams left of their schedule, they're 8-1 against them in one-run games this year. So, they've played the teams tough and need to keep doing more of the same.

    The other four teams are 83-102 in one-run games, with the Rays being the only team with a winning record, which is one game above .500.

    Next Week's Pitching Matchups Prime for the Picking

    Over the next week, the Yankees will face R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ, Todd Redmond, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit.

    All six pitchers are ones the Yankees can take advantage of. 

    This year, Dickey is 1-2 against the Yankees with a 3.38 ERA, while Happ is 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA. Redmond went 5.2 innings, giving up two runs in his only start against New York, but he still doesn't have a lot of experience.

    Lincecum has struggled all year, although he has shown flashes of brilliance. Vogelsong isn't even close to what he was last year, and Petit has never had long-term success in the big leagues. Coming into this year, he had a 5.54 ERA across five seasons.

    There will be a few challenges with each of these starters, but the Yankees have matchups that they can easily exploit.

Cleveland Indians

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    The Cleveland Indians have been one of the hottest teams in baseball, having won seven of their last 10.

    They currently sit one-half game behind Texas and Tampa Bay in the wild-card race, and you have to like their chances considering what they have left in front of them.

    However, they haven't won anything yet and still have some work to do.

    Win 10 of Last 13 Games

    Asking a team to win 10 of its last 13 games is a little too much to ask, unless you're asking the Indians to do so after looking at the rest of their schedule.

    Left on the schedule is three games with the Royals, four games each with Houston and Minnesota and two games with the White Sox. If that's not the best schedule of all teams on the playoff bubble, then I don't know what is.

    The Indians did drop two of three to the Royals last week, so they have to put that out of their mind.

    They've put up 32 runs in their last four games, and with these teams left on the schedule, that average can be held through the rest of the year.

    Cut Down on the Strikeouts

    While teams like Boston and Atlanta have succeeded with the all-or-nothing approach at the plate, Cleveland doesn't have that same luxury being in a playoff race.

    The Indians currently rank eighth in baseball with 1,191 strikeouts, and 56 of those have come in the last seven games.

    Sure, every team is going to be throwing its best at you, but the Indians have to put the ball in play. 

    Put it this way: James Shields is the only pitcher the Indians will face in the next week who is a true strikeout pitcher. Danny Duffy, Bruce Chen, Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens and Erik Bedard don't make a living getting strikeouts. This next week is not the time to allow any of them to start.

    Drew Stubbs Has to Step Up

    While in most games Stubbs is at the bottom of the lineup, his role is just as important as anyone's in the middle of the lineup.

    Generally batting ninth, Stubbs can give guys like Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Jason Kipinis more opportunities with runners on. Consider Stubbs' speed with Bourn at the plate. The pair could do a lot in hit-and-runs or bunts to try and get more runners on base for Swisher and Kipinis.

    But, that won't happen as long as Stubbs continues to bat .233 from the ninth spot in the order. Cleveland believed in him when it traded away Shin-Soo Choo in the offseason, and now he has to prove his worth.

Kansas City Royals

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    The Kansas City Royals are 3.5 games out in the AL Wild Card and are hanging on by a thread.

    They've done well in their last 10, going 6-4, but it hasn't been enough.

    The Royals get to have fun this next week with Cleveland and Texas coming to town, before they travel to the Mariners and White Sox to close out the season.

    Unfortunately for Kansas City, without a good showing this week, the advantages of ending with Seattle and Chicago won't matter.

    Mike Moustakas Has to Get Out of His Funk

    The Royals need Moustakas more than anything in these last two weeks. Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler need more help.

    Moustakas is batting .163 in September and has really hurt the Royals. They've been able to win despite him, but to get over the hump they need him now more than ever.

    He's taking up a spot in the middle parts of the batting order and doing horribly.

    Maybe what the Royals need to do is move him to eighth or ninth in the order. Sure, you don't want to move his power potential too low, but what good is the potential when that's all it's been this season?

    Throw Out the Kitchen Sink

    Kansas City has to throw everything at its opponents. Whether it's hit-and-runs, trying to take the extra base, etc., the Royals have to be willing to take chances.

    The Royals lead the league with 142 stolen bases. It could be tough to run on Yan Gomes, who has nailed 45 percent of would-be base stealers. A.J. Pierzynski is a different story, only catching 33 percent of runners.

    Taking chances in close games is not in the best interest of the Royals, although those games tend to favor teams that run more. 

    Taking chances will be the Royals' only way of making up 3.5 games over the next two weeks.


    It sounds simple enough, but that's what the Royals have to start doing. Every loss they have makes it that much harder to make the playoffs. 

    While other teams in the playoff race haven't been winning either, they have the luxury of being up and seeing the magic number decrease when the Royals lose.

    Kansas City took two of three from Cleveland last week and need to do the same this week. Texas is another team it must take at least two games from. A failure to win those series, and the Royals can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.

    However, if they do win, then all bets are off in the final week when they play Seattle and Chicago, two teams they have a combined 10-9 record against this year.

Texas Rangers

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    The Texas Rangers are once again on a slide late in the season, and it's hard to tell if they'll recover from it.

    To be fair, the Rangers have played the Athletics and Pirates in nine of their last 12 games. However, those games count just as much as the ones against the Astros, Mariners and Angels do.

    Texas has the Rays, Royals, Astros and Angels to close out the season. Like the Royals, if Texas doesn't take care of business this week, games against the Astros and Angels next week won't matter.

    The Rangers are currently tied for both spots in the wild card with the Rays, and the Indians are nipping at their heals.

    Win a Close Game

    In their last 15 games, the Rangers have gone 2-9 in games decided by two runs or less. There is simply no clutch factor in the lineup.

    From 1-0 losses to 9-8 losses, the Rangers just can't seem to get the big hit when they need it late in the game.

    The Rangers did take two of three each from the Rays and Royals earlier this season. But with both teams fighting for a playoff spot, every hit and every run counts. The Rangers can't depend on guys like Yu Darvish and Matt Garza to pitch shutouts every time. Darvish nearly did on Saturday, but still lost 1-0.

    Top of the Lineup Has to Step Up

    For any team, the top two in the order have to set things up for the big boppers. That's something Ian Kinsler hasn't done as of late from the leadoff spot.

    In the last 10 games, Kinsler is batting .232. Of course the question would then be who would you move to leadoff. Elvis Andrus is batting .358 in his last 10 games from the No. 2 spot, so you don't want to mess with that.

    How about putting Jurickson Profar in that spot, thus putting him into the lineup more often? Or how about Leonys Martin?

    Something has to change, because Kinsler simply isn't cutting it from the leadoff spot.

    Stop with Five-Man Rotation

    The Rangers are struggling, yet they have two horses in Garza and Darvish who are still pitching every fifth day. Why not have them pitch every third or fourth day?

    The way things are going, the Rangers will not make the playoffs. They're getting good performances from the pair (for the most part) every time out.

    Darvish has lost two-straight 1-0 games, while Garza has struggled as of late but is still an ace-type pitcher nonetheless.

    Nothing against Nick Tepesch, but there's no reason for him to be pitching this late in the season. The Rangers need experience out there, and that's exactly what Darvish and Garza give them.

Washington Nationals

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    Once thought to be out of things all together, the Washington Nationals are still hanging on by a thread.

    Currently four-and-a-half games behind the Reds for the second NL Wild Card, the Nationals have a lot of work to do and not much time to do it in.

    This week is important for the Nationals, as they have the Braves and Marlins coming to town.

    The Braves would love nothing more than to end the Nationals' playoff hopes, and you can't count out the Marlins with their young pitching.

    Six-Man Rotation...Really?

    The Nationals are in a fight for their playoff lives. With a six-man rotation, that means there are six days between starts for Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

    What part of that is smart?

    And why do you have Dan Haren scheduled for two starts this week? He may have given up one hit and no runs against the Mets in his last start, but he also gave up 16 runs in his previous three starts.

    He had one good game and that was it.

    Instead, your aces need to be the ones taking the hill for you more often. I'm not crying for a three- or four-man rotation, but having your aces only pitch once during the most important week of the season is bad if you're trying to make the playoffs.

    Dan Haren Has to be Huge

    With Haren starting two games this week, he has to have the biggest week of his life. He needs to have two starts like he did in the previous one against the Mets.

    If he has a start like he did against Miami in the previous one (five earned runs in three innings), Washington is in big trouble.

    I don't understand why Haren is going twice this week, but since he's there, he might as well do the job well. 

    He did have a complete-game, one-run performance against the Braves earlier in the year, but has a 5.40 ERA in three starts against the Marlins.

    Keep Putting Up Runs

    When going through Washington's last nine games, the number of runs scored is astounding. The Nationals have scored 61 runs during that time-frame, having only lost one of those games.

    That's a big reason why they are still in the playoff hunt—the offense has come alive.

    Denard Span is getting on base at the top of the lineup, with at least one hit in his last 26 games. Then there's Ryan Zimmerman in the No. 2 hole, who is doing equally as well, getting on base in eight of his last 10 games.

    That's setting up guys like Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to do damage in the middle of the lineup.

    As long as the Nationals can do that, then they'll have a chance to catch the Reds.

Cincinnati Reds

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    While I think the Cincinnati Reds will make the playoffs, they're still on the bubble (slightly).

    But if they take care of business this week against the Astros and Pirates, they can move off the bubble and firmly into the playoffs.

    So, what do they need to do?

    Sweep the Astros

    The Astros are the worst team in the league, and the Reds need to start the week out on a mission.

    Even if the Nationals also sweep the Braves, it will still take Cincinnati's magic number down to six games. With every future win or Nationals loss, that brings the magic number down by one more, getting them ever closer to the playoffs.

    The Reds are scheduled to throw Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Greg Reynolds against the Astros, which should set them up nicely for the series against the Pirates.

    Starting Pitching Has to Dominate

    The Reds are set up in a six-man rotation this week, which isn't a bad move considering how close they are to the playoffs.

    However, that means those pitchers will have had one extra day of rest and need to be on top of their game. With each starter likely only having one more start after this week, they can afford to go a little extra.

    By doing that this week, that can ensure they will only need to go a few innings in their next start just so they can get some work in. That will mean the Reds clinched and can get ready for the playoffs.

    Score Early

    The best thing the Reds can do, especially against the Astros, is to score early. They've been able to do that over the last 10 games, but have had times where they've given up that lead.

    Still, it doesn't take away the importance of getting on the board before many fans have even found their seats.

    Bronson Arroyo got three early runs Sunday against Milwaukee and was then able to relax, only giving up two runs in 6.1 innings. It's definitely easier to pitch when you're ahead in the game.