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Braves, Tigers, A's positioned well for strong finishes Columnist @TracyRingolsby

It's crunch time for the Braves. They want to make amends for last September, and they want to send Chipper Jones off with a final October moment. A year ago they saw an eight-game Wild Card lead shredded in the final four weeks of the season. This year, they went into Monday with a 3 1/2-game margin for error. That's how big their lead was over Los Angeles, which is third in the battle for the two Wild Card spots. Pittsburgh was 4 1/2 back.

The Braves' offense has sputtered. They entered their game against the Rockies with five wins in their previous 15 games, and having scored two or fewer runs in eight of those games. But Colorado is in Atlanta for four games, and that usually means a chance for the Braves to get healthy. No team from outside the National League West has beaten the Rockies more often in their history than Atlanta, which was 101-59 against the Rockies, and no town has been tougher on the Rockies, who entered the day 23-53 all-time in Atlanta.

Jones gave the Braves a lift on Sunday with his walk-off, three-run home run that beat the Phillies, 8-7. Philadelphia led 7-1 at one point. It was Jones' second walk-off of the year, allowing him to join Andres Galarraga of the 2001 Giants as the only players to have two walk-off home runs in a season after turning 40. It also was the ninth walk-off homer of Jones' career, breaking the franchise record previously held by Hank Aaron, who had two for the Milwaukee Braves and six for Atlanta.

The Tigers served notice over the weekend that they are definitely an AL Central factor. They swept their way into a first-place tie with the White Sox, sweeping Chicago in a three-game series at Comerica Park. It was the first time Tigers held first place or a share of it since late July, after they swept a three-game series at home against -- you guessed it -- the White Sox. The momentum, however, disappeared in a hurry. Three days later the Tigers were back in second place, losing two of three at Cleveland. They opened a series at home against Cleveland on Monday.

If they can avoid another lapse, the remaining schedule would seem to slightly favor the Tigers. They have only 10 games remaining against teams with winning records, and four of those are at Chicago, against which the Tigers are 10-4. They also have three in Anaheim against the Angels, against whom the Tigers are 5-2, and three with Oakland at Comerica Park. They have split four games against the A's. The White Sox, meanwhile, have the four left with Detroit, four with the Rays, against whom they swept a three-game series earlier this year, and three on the road against the Angels, against whom they are 3-2.

The White Sox do have a health concern. Adam Dunn missed the final two games in Detroit because of a strained right oblique. He said he wants to play through it, but there is enough concern that manager Robin Ventura declined to call on him to hit in a game-tying situation in the ninth on Sunday. Dunn is their big bat, leading the team with 38 home runs and 88 RBIs.

The A's went into Monday with a nine-game winning streak, their longest since 2006. Big deal? Real big. That's the last year in which the A's went to the postseason and had a winning record. They are in position to accomplish both goals this year. Not only did they go into the week with a 3 1/2-game lead on Tampa Bay, which is third in the AL Wild Card race, but they are only three games back of AL West-leading Texas.

And while pitching has been their calling card, the A's have been on an offensive tear. They have outscored the opposition 72-22 in the nine games, including a 33-5 humbling of Boston in a three-game weekend sweep. Brandon Inge delivered a two-run double in the bottom of the third against Boston on Saturday before admitting he had aggravated his injured right shoulder on a throw in the top of the inning.

The A's opened a series against the Angels on Monday, but the real test for them will be Sept. 18-27, when they hit the road to face three current division leaders, playing three at Detroit and New York and four at Texas. One thing about the A's to keep in mind: They have a losing record against only one AL team: 6-7 against Seattle. And after that 10-game challenge later this month, they return home to host the Mariners.


Red Sox
Before too much is heaped on manager Bobby Valentine for the follies of the Red Sox, remember it was the September demolition of the franchise a year ago -- a 7-20 finish and blown Wild Card berth on the final day -- that led to the departures of manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein. Boston opened a series against Seattle on Monday with a 69-93 record since Sept. 1 of last year. Red Sox Nation was starting to feel better about its franchise in the opening months of this season when the Red Sox rallied from an April challenge and actually found themselves five games over .500 on July 1. And then came a second-half reminder of the nightmare that was last September.

Swept in Oakland, the Red Sox entered Monday having lost 41 of their previous 61 games. After the Seattle series they'll be finished with the AL West, which brought a combined 22-7 record against Boston into the week. That, however, might not be comforting to the Red Sox, who will have eight series remaining -- one home and one away against each of the four other AL East teams.

General manager Ben Cherington and owner John Henry were concerned enough that they joined the team in Seattle on Monday. Cherington, however, told multiple news sources in an email that "nothing is up" when asked if his visit is reason for concern for Valentine. But it's difficult to ignore that the team had a 7.08 ERA in 13 games since pitching coach Bob McClure was let go or that Saturday's 20-2 loss at Oakland was the team's worst since a 22-1 loss to the Yankees in 2000 or that the Red Sox are in jeopardy of a last-place finish for the first time in two decades.

Arizona had a brief hope of making a late-season surge to return to the postseason. So much for that idea. The last two weeks have undone any good the D-backs thought they created. They went into Monday 4-10 in the previous two weeks, having faded from 5 1/2 back in the NL West to 10 1/2 out. They also have slipped 6 1/2 games out of the second NL Wild Card spot.

The offense has been offensive. In the 14 games, the D-backs scored 38 runs. The only NL team with fewer during that time was Houston with 30. The D-backs hit .213. The only NL team with a lower average was Houston at .205. And the four wins? Well, Pittsburgh has won three, Houston two, and the NL West-leading Giants have won 10.

How much of a mess is Arizona in? Well, if St. Louis, which currently has the edge for the second NL Wild Card spot, were to play .500 the rest of the season, Arizona would have to go 20-7. Arizona also would have to jump over Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, both of which are currently between Arizona and any remaining hope.

The Cubs are getting close to becoming the second team, the first being Houston, to mathematically be eliminated from a postseason opportunity. Epstein left the mess in Boston and inherited one in Chicago, where he has undertaken the task of tearing apart a dysfunctional team and rebuilding it from the ground up. He has said it's going to take time, and nothing this season has given any reason to believe there may be a shortcut.

The Cubs clinched a losing season on Sunday and are on pace for only the third 100-loss season in their history, the first two being 1962 and '66. Not only do the Cubs share the bottom two spots in the NL Central standings with Houston, but the two teams ranked last (Houston .237) and next-to-last (Chicago .240) in hitting, and ahead of only Colorado and Houston in ERA, checking in with a 4.48 mark.

The Cubs embarked on a 10-game road trip that opened in Washington, boasting baseball's best record, then goes to Pittsburgh, which is battling for a postseason spot, and ends in Houston. The Cubs opened against the Nats having lost 23 of their last 30 games on the road, where they had only 17 wins, fewer in the Majors than any team except -- that's right -- Houston, which has 13 road victories.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for