How the Final Month's Schedule Will Shake Up the MLB Playoff Races

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How the Final Month's Schedule Will Shake Up the MLB Playoff Races
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Because the Major League Baseball season is 162 games long, the impact of the upcoming schedule often gets overlooked, if not entirely ignored. There are so many games to keep track of on any given day, the argument goes, that when players and coaches use the ol' "one-game-at-a-time" cliche, they're not simply spouting a tried-and-true expression. They're kinda telling the truth.

But once September starts, the intensity ratchets up a notch or three. Games don't actually mean more in the season's final month than they do in May, but it sure feels like they do. Why? Because everything has been condensed to a limited number of opportunities to hold off a rival or gain ground on the competition.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Robinson Cano and the Mariners took two of three from the A's in mid-July and hope to do that (or better) in their mid-September matchup.

Put another way: A three-game series between, say, the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners in mid-July, like the one that took place from July 11-13, might not exactly get the blood pumping. That same matchup in mid-September? There's going to be a little more meaning and weight when they meet from Sept. 12-14 considering those clubs are battling it out in the AL West as well as in the wild card.

Consider Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci's description of September:

Nothing in sport can bind your attention like a month-long pennant race. It's like Election Night times 30, with optimism and despair visiting irregularly depending on the latest precinct results from near and far.

With the season headed into September, it's easier to digest and evaluate the final month's schedule to see how it could affect contenders (i.e. any team within at least five games of a playoff spot as of Tuesday) during pennant races and playoff chases. Because it will.

Here's how.

 

Contenders' September Schedules

American League

AL Contenders: Home/Road Games, Opponent Winning % (Sept.)
TEAM HOME/ROAD OPP WIN %
Athletics 15/11 .471
Angels 10/16 .474
Royals 13/13 .479
Orioles 14/13 .487
Indians 17/10 .490
Tigers 16/10 .499
Mariners 9/18 .510
Yankees 17/10 .512
Blue Jays 13/13 .512

Baseball Reference

As the table shows, the Athletics have a pretty good September setup. Not only do they have the easiest opposition based on winning percentage (.471), they also get to play 15 of their final 26 games at the Coliseum. That's particularly helpful because the A's sport the best record at home of any team in baseball.

Thing is, they can't exactly just coast, because they are neck and neck with the Los Angeles Angels in the West—the most competitive division in the sport this year—and the Halos have the second-easiest draw down the stretch (.474).

Considering their easy schedules, this will be a battle down to the wire. In fact, there's a good chance that the last series between the two from Sept. 22-24—that's the final week of the season—will determine whether the Angels or A's, despite being the two best clubs for most of 2014, head to the do-or-die Wild Card Game.

Chris Carlson/Associated Press
The Angels' fate might come down to their final series against AL West rival Oakland during the last week of 2014.

On the flip side, the possibility of a late-season run from the Toronto Blue Jays (.512 opponent winning percentage) or New York Yankees (.512) certainly doesn't look promising, huh?

That won't stop soon-to-be retired Yankees captain Derek Jeter—a veteran of 16 Octobers in his 20-year career—from believing. "When you play the teams that are ahead of you, you don't have to look at the scoreboard," Jeter said to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "We play our division, so we need to have the approach that we have to win every day."

And the Mariners don't exactly have the schedule gods in their favor as they try to keep pace with the Detroit Tigers. Besides having a harder slate (.510 to .499), the M's also have to do most of their work on the road (18 of 27). Then again, they do sport the AL's top record away from home, so maybe that's for the better? 

 

National League

NL Contenders: Home/Road Games, Opponent Winning % (Sept.)
TEAM HOME/ROAD OPP WIN %
Dodgers 15/10 .470
Giants 10/15 .480
Cardinals 12/14 .484
Pirates 9/17 .485
Braves 13/12 .491
Brewers 14/12 .496
Nationals 13/14 .496
Marlins 13/14 .514

Baseball Reference

Like with Oakland in the AL, the softest schedule in the Senior Circuit goes to one of the top teams in the league, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have the luxury of both the lowest opponent winning percentage in all of baseball (.470) and one of the best home/road breakdowns around. Seems kinda unfair, doesn't it?

Especially when the Dodgers already have quite a lead on the San Francisco Giants out West. The good news for the 2010 and 2012 champs, though, is they have the second-easiest bunch of matchups in September.

Clearly, sharing a division with the lowly Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks—who have the worst and third-worst marks in MLB, respectively—has its perks when it comes to making a playoff push.

Ben Margot/Associated Press
Buster Posey and the Giants get to play the Rockies and Diamondbacks nine times in September.

On the other end of the September schedule spectrum, the Miami Marlins are facing a near-impossible climb. Barely hanging around .500 at this point, they also have to worry about what is the most challenging final month for any contending club.

As much as the Fish have been a pleasant surprise so far, they're not getting much luck—or that big of a break—from the folks who put the matchups together: 15 of their last 27 contests are against the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals, whom they play eight times in their final 11 outings.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Even MVP front-runner Giancarlo Stanton might not be able to help the Marlins overcome the toughest final-month schedule for a contender.

 

Contenders Who Play Their Competitors the Most

American League

AL Contenders: Most Games Vs. Competitors (Sept.)
TEAM GAMES OPPONENT OPPONENT
Mariners 13 7 vs. Angels 6 vs. Athletics
Tigers 13 7 vs. Indians 6 vs. Royals

Baseball Reference

Among AL contenders, the Tigers and Mariners both get 13 games against clubs they are battling and/or chasing down the stretch. As it happens, those two teams are also battling it out for the second AL wild card at the moment—and yet they don't see each other again.

The difference here is that Detroit actually has a realistic chance to win its division, as there isn't the same distance between the Royals and Tigers as there is between the M's and the class of the AL West in the Angels and A's.

Tom Olmscheid/Associated Press
Torii Hunter and the Tigers have more than enough games left against the Royals to regain the AL Central lead.

That makes it easier for the Tigers to catch up to Kansas City, whom they play six times in September—enough to make up the gap that currently exists. But Detroit will need to do its part to keep the also-in-the-hunt Cleveland Indians at bay, too, considering those two match up on seven occasions.

Seattle has enough head-to-heads left against both the Angels and Athletics to make up some serious ground, but the M's more or less would have to sweep their seven against L.A. or their six against Oakland to do so.

 

National League

NL Contenders: Most Games Vs. Competitors (Sept.)
TEAM GAMES OPPONENT OPPONENT OPPONENT
Braves 13 6 vs. Nationals 4 vs. Pirates 3 vs. Marlins
Cardinals 10 7 vs. Brewers 3 vs. Pirates

Baseball Reference

Over in the NL, the Braves have the best opportunity to seize their fate, even if they don't control their destiny right now.

Atlanta has 13 games overall against clubs it's directly competing against in the NL East and/or the wild card. No other Senior Circuit contender has more than 10 such contests, which could allow the Braves to make up ground in the division against the Nationals (six games), while also holding off the Pirates (four) and Marlins (three) in the shot at a one-game playoff.

The team with 10 games against fellow clubs in the postseason picture is St. Louis, which faces the Pirates three times and the NL Central-leading Brewers on seven occasions. Considering the Cardinals are 7-5 against Milwaukee so far, that showdown is far from over.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will need Adam Wainwright to be at his best if St. Louis is going to overtake the Brewers.

 

Which Club Could Be a September Surprise?

American League

Just last year, the Indians entered September with a 71-64 record, 4.5 games out of a playoff spot. Thanks in large part to a run of games against the lowly Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros—14 of their final 17 contests came against those clubs—the Indians went a staggering 21-6 in September and clinched the top wild-card seed in the AL.

Well, Cleveland's 2014 down-the-stretch schedule isn't quite that easy, but it just might be the best out-of-nowhere candidate to get to October. Again.

AARON JOSEFCZYK/Associated Press
Last season's big September surprise, the Indians might be set up for another playoff push.

The Indians could make things interesting because their opponents' winning percentage is just .490, what with 13 of 27 games against those same White Sox, Twins and Astros.

The Indians also have, as mentioned earlier, seven games against the Tigers, which gives them a way to make hay in the wild card—and specifically versus Detroit, against whom they are 7-5 already.

Oh, and Cleveland has the best home-road split in the Junior Circuit, with 17 of 27 games at Progressive Field, where it has the third-best mark in the AL.

"Every game is so important," Indians manager Terry Francona told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, "and every series."

 

National League

As for the most likely NL equivalent to the Indians as a team that is set up to join the postseason party despite not being in position right now, let's get back to the Braves.

Atlanta has those 13 games against direct competitors, which is a big part of this. The team still has six to tango against Washington, and the Braves are 9-4 versus the Nationals to date, which bodes well.

And in 12 of their other 19 September games, the Braves get to take advantage of the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Texas Rangers. So if Atlanta can continue to hold its own against the Nats and beat up on clubs it's supposed to, a third straight ticket to October would seem likely.

Al Behrman/Associated Press
Justin Upton has been powering the Braves offense lately, but can he get them to October.

 

Which Club Could Be a September Spoiler?

American League

Looking for some spoiler candidates? In the AL, the Rangers play all but three of their 26 September games against clubs in the playoff picture, but Texas also is the worst team in the majors, so maybe it's not the best bet to take out many (any?) potential postseason teams.

The White Sox and Twins, though, might have a better chance. Chicago has 25 games in the final month, 17 versus contenders, including three against Detroit and seven with Kansas City. While the Royals have gone 8-4 against Chicago, the Tigers are just 6-6 heading into this weekend's three-game set. Advantage K.C.?

Minnesota plays 26 September games, with 18 involving contenders, including seven versus the Tigers and six against the Indians. The Twins' records against those two teams to date? Try a very respectable 6-6 and 6-7, respectively. So maybe those series won't be as winnable as Detroit and Cleveland would hope. Double advantage Kansas City?

 

National League

The Central is also home to two possible spoilers in the NL.

The Cincinnati Reds play 19 of 25 against clubs fighting for October, with three coming against the Pirates, six against the Brewers and seven against the Cardinals. That might benefit St. Louis, who is 9-3 versus the Reds, whereas Pittsburgh is 4-9 and Milwaukee is 6-7.

The other team to keep tabs on? The Chicago Cubs, who take on top teams in 22 of their last 25 contests. Among those, they see the Cardinals three times and the Pirates and Brewers six apiece.

Another reason the Cubbies might be dangerous? They've been busy bringing up their prospects lately, with arms like Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada making their debuts, as well as bats like Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, who homered in his very first at-bat Wednesday night.

With the new young players being broken in and the increased intensity as contenders fight for the playoff lives, September can be a different animal indeed.

  

Statistics and schedule data are accurate as of Aug. 27 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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