Around this time of year in Major League Baseball, trying to keep your head on straight, while focusing on the playoff roulette that happens, gets to be very difficult.
On the plus side, with so much movement and so many storylines happening all around us, it gives everyone something to talk about on a nightly basis. We can dissect games, plays, moments, pitches, etc.
There is just one week remaining in the season, which means everything we see gets magnified 100 times. In anticipation of the slate of games taking place over the weekend, we are going to offer our best predictions for what each race will look like Monday morning.
We will go over some of the things that have already become official, but our main focus will be on the races still happening (AL Wild Card being the big one).
The Sure Thing(s)
Since these teams do deserve to be talked about since they are playoff teams, let's take a quick look at the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Red Sox locked up a playoff spot on Thursday with a victory over Baltimore. That win also put Boston's magic number to win the American League East at one, heading into a weekend series with the Toronto Blue Jays.
We know that the Red Sox are going to win the division. The only question is if it happens Friday night, Saturday or Sunday (or possibly later). Boston is sending Jon Lester to the mound against Esmil Rogers at Fenway Park on Friday.
Lester has been fantastic in the second half with a 2.38 ERA with a 62-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75.2 innings. He's also owned Toronto this season, posting a 2.80 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and one home run allowed in 35.1 innings.
Rogers gives up a ton of home runs (19 in 131 innings) and is going up against the deepest lineup in baseball. Boston is going to clinch the division Friday night. That's about as confident as I feel about any prediction.
For the Dodgers, there really isn't much drama left. The one thing left to be decided is which NL team gets home-field advantage in the postseason, but the top three teams (Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles) are separated by 2.5 games and won't settle anything this weekend.
The Braves have the easiest series this weekend, against the Cubs. But the Cardinals and Dodgers aren't going to be sweating, playing Milwaukee and San Diego, respectively.
I think the Braves will finish with the best record because, after this weekend, they finish with seven home games against Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
The Division Races
There are still four divisions left to be decided. Again, I am excluding Boston because they have 10 days to win one game or hope Tampa Bay loses one game.
However, we can theoretically drop this number to one because Detroit has a six-game lead over Cleveland, Oakland has a 6.5 game lead over Texas and Atlanta leads Washington by 8.5 games with nine games to play. (Texas and Atlanta have 10 games left, but Oakland and Washington have nine remaining.)
Even with Cleveland having the easiest schedule in the world with games left against Houston, Chicago and Minnesota, the Detroit Tigers aren't exactly going up against the '27 New York Yankees with series against the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Miami Marlins.
The Oakland Athletics close with Minnesota, Los Angeles and Seattle. Even with Texas having an easy slate after this weekend against Kansas City, including Houston and Los Angeles, that deficit is too great to make up with just over one week left.
Atlanta may not be able to clinch the division until Saturday with a magic number of two because the Washington Nationals have Miami for a four-game series that started Thursday. But it will happen this weekend because the Chicago Cubs aren't sweeping the Atlanta Braves, and I can see Washington losing one game this weekend, given how inconsistent the offense is.
I can't say with 100 percent confidence that all of these division races will be over on Monday, but the NL East is over, while the AL Central and AL West will be over early next week.
Predicted AL Central and AL West Standings after Sunday
The Real Drama
Here is where we get to the thick of the postseason chase. We are talking about the AL Wild Card, NL Central and wild card.
Drama is a relative term for the NL Central and wild-card spots because we know with near certainty that St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will be in the postseason. It's just a question of which two teams will be in the one-game playoff.
St. Louis is in prime position to finally put some distance between its two division rivals because the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates play each other this weekend. That could also give Pittsburgh some breathing room for the No. 1 wild-card spot and a guaranteed home game.
The St. Louis Cardinals shouldn't have a lot of problems this weekend with Milwaukee, so they can just kick off their shoes and watch their most direct competition for the division dismantle each other.
It's obvious, based on the pitching matchups, the Reds and Pirates are playing this series like it's a do-or-die scenario—Mat Latos vs. Francisco Liriano on Friday, Homer Bailey vs. A.J. Burnett on Saturday and Bronson Arroyo vs. Jeff Locke on Sunday.
In that scenario, I give the Reds a slight advantage because I can see a split in the first two games, and Arroyo, while not a dominating starter, is superior to Locke. It's not a huge advantage because one game in baseball provides the favorite maybe a 55-60 percent chance to win, but it is enough to put the Reds in a tie with the Pirates by the end of the weekend.
Predicted NL Central Standings after Sunday
Now we move to the AL wild card, where we could theoretically have two new teams in the top two spots by the end of the weekend. Tampa Bay and Texas have identical 83-69 records. Cleveland is one-half game back, at 83-70. Baltimore is two games back, at 81-71, and Kansas City is three games behind, at 80-73.
The Yankees are still in the mix, but they are too far behind, at 80-73, to move into the top two this weekend.
To me, based on the schedules, Cleveland is in the driver's seat. They have three more games with Houston, which would seem to guarantee the Indians at least two wins.
What also works in the Indians' favor is the teams around them have to play each other. Texas starts a three-game series at Kansas City, while Tampa Bay travels to Baltimore.
Like the Cardinals, the Cleveland Indians can just kick up their heels and see what happens as they play the worst team in the sport. However, given my paranoia about predicting sweeps and trusting other teams around them more, I don't think the Indians will pick up any ground over the weekend if they win three out of four from Houston.
I am increasingly intrigued by the Kansas City Royals, not because I think they are the best team top to bottom left, but they have a lot of pieces that are playing well at this particular moment, and Texas has really struggled against good teams in September with a 3-10 record against Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
But I think the Royals would have to sweep this series in order to have a real chance at making the playoffs because there are too many teams ahead of them. I almost never predict a team to sweep because it's so hard to do, especially against a good team like Texas.
Tampa Bay is the best team among this crop of wild-card contenders. There have been times when the Rays struggle to score runs, but the pitching and defense are so good they can get away with it. With David Price starting on Friday, it seems unlikely they will relinquish one of the top two spots before the end of the weekend.
Predicted AL Wild Card Standings after Sunday
What Next Week Holds
All of this will lead us into a final week with just one major race to be decided, as well as the three NL Central teams jockeying for position.
This year may not have the greatest amount of drama we have ever seen, but there are still so many fascinating things about where the AL wild-card race can go that it more than makes up for every division but one basically being decided.
The final week of the year is what we have been building toward. Teams with easy schedules have everything in their favor, but we have seen in the past what happens when we assume that a cupcake schedule guarantees you a playoff spot.
So just because the Indians seem like a lock, based on who they are playing, keep in mind, they are probably the weakest of the wild-card contenders and have overachieved even the most optimistic expectations this year.
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