Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Yes, the Angels are 2 1/2 games back of Oakland in the American League Wild Card race, and there are only nine games remaining on the regular-season schedule. But stranger things have happened, and the Angels are showing signs of a season-ending surge. They are coming off a weekend sweep of the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, and MLB.com reported on Sunday that owner Arte Moreno confirmed that manager Mike Scioscia will return in 2013 for his 14th season, lifting that uncertainty that had been hanging over the Angels.
Meanwhile, the A's are facing a new challenge. They open a four-game series at Texas on Monday night having not only lost four of the first six games on this road trip that took them to Detroit and Yankee Stadium prior to Texas, but also having lost the lone non-rookie in their rotation, Brett Anderson, for the rest of the regular season, at least, with a strained oblique. Anderson had given the A's a late perk. Sidelined for 13 months by Tommy John surgery, Anderson rejoined the A's active roster on Aug. 2, won four of his first five starts -- compiling a 1.93 ERA -- and then had to depart in the third inning of his start at Detroit on Wednesday.
The Angels finish up their home schedule with a three-game visit from Seattle and then head to Texas next weekend, but the regular season ends with three games at Seattle. Oakland faces the opposite challenge, finishing up with Texas at home after a weekend visit from Seattle. The A's split their first 12 games against the Rangers this season, but have won nine of 16 from the Mariners.
Better late than never. Arizona has rebounded and is making a run at the Cardinals for the second National League Wild Card. Lefty Wade Miley has provided a rotation lift, picking up his 16th win on Friday at Colorado, matching former Rockies right-hander Jason Jennings (2002) for the most wins by an NL rookie since Dwight Gooden's 17 wins in 1984. The D-backs also have received a major boost from offseason free-agent addition Jason Kubel, who leads the team with 29 home runs and shares the RBI lead of 88 with Miguel Montero and resurgent second baseman Aaron Hill, a .303 hitter since his rescue last year from Toronto.
The Dodgers put on a happy face when lefty Clayton Kershaw, who had been sidelined with a hip injury, returned to the rotation in Sunday's win at Cincinnati. But what can't be ignored is the five innings were more about determination than domination. While he gave up only one run, he allowed 10 baserunners, walking five. In Kershaw's last four starts, he has issued 14 walks in 25 innings, a ratio of 5.01 per nine innings compared to a 2.1 walks-per-nine-innings ratio in his first 27 starts of the season.
The Dodgers have a three-game series at San Diego remaining this week before returning home for their final six games, three each with Colorado and San Francisco, with the Giants tuning up for the postseason. Arizona, meanwhile, finishes up a bid for a four-game sweep at Colorado on Monday and then heads to San Francisco for three games before finishing the season at home with three games each against the Chicago Cubs and Rockies.
New York Yankees
The Yankees have a one-game edge on Baltimore in the battle between the two teams for the AL East and Wild Card leads. Baltimore, meanwhile, has a one-game edge on Oakland, which is trying to hold onto the second AL Wild Card spot, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lurking 2 1/2 games behind the A's and a game ahead of Tampa Bay.
The Yanks have rebounded from blowing a 10-game lead in the division to win seven of their last eight games -- nine of the last 11 -- and return to the top of the division. And even though the next two series are on the road, they do finish against the AL dregs with three games at Minnesota, four at Toronto and then returning home for the final three against Boston. They are 21-12 against those three teams this year, including 10-5 against Boston and 9-5 against Toronto. One warning: Hiroki Kuroda is in line for two more starts, and he has a 5.63 ERA in four September starts.
The Orioles enjoy home series with Toronto and Boston, but then finish the regular season with three games at Tampa Bay, which continues to hang on the fringe of the postseason chase. The O's have to hope that by the time they get to Florida, the Rays will be talking about next year. Heading into the regular season's final nine games, the Tragic Number for the Rays' postseason elimination is seven (combination of Tampa Bay losses and Oakland wins).
Postseason hopes? Well, the best way to summarize the plight of the Pirates is that a team that was leading the NL Central on July 18 and only 2 1/2 games out of the division lead on Aug. 9, has to win eight of its final 11 games to avoid extending its professional sports record losing streak to 20 consecutive seasons. Eight wins? That's three more than the Bucs have been able to come up with in their last 21 games. They did, after all, have to win on Sunday to avoid being swept in a three-game visit to Houston, reducing the Pirates number for official elimination from any postseason opportunity to four.
Sunday's 8-1 victory at Houston underscored the struggles of the Pirates. A.J. Burnett became the first Pittsburgh pitcher to win 16 games since 1991 when Zane Smith (16-10) and John Smiley (20-8) both did it. It was, however, his seventh shot at No. 16, even though he allowed two or fewer runs in his each of his five previous starts. The Astros had a four-run fifth inning, which was more runs than they scored in 14 of their 21 previous games. And their 18 hits were the most since July 2, which also happened to be a game against the Astros that Jordan Lyles, Sunday's Houston starter, started.
Now comes the stretch run in an effort to at least unload the burden of losing seasons. The Pirates open a four-game visit on Monday to New York to face the Mets, who needed a weekend sweep of Miami to improve their Citi Field record since the All-Star break to an alarming 8-26. Then the Bucs return home to conclude the season with three-game visits from St. Louis and Atlanta, the two Wild Card holders who could be fine-tuning for the postseason more than anything else by the time they show up at PNC Park.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox were swept in a weekend series against the Angels, extending their losing streak to five games, during which they scored eight runs total. They did not, however, lose their lead in the AL Central, with Detroit stumbling as well. The Tigers were swept in a doubleheader on Sunday by a Minnesota team that was able to climb out of the AL Central basement while denying the Tigers the chance to climb atop the AL Central standings. Bad? Well, even with that doubleheader sweep, the Twins have the worst home-field record (29-46) in the Major Leagues.
The White Sox are looking for the comforts of home to give them a boost, particularly for the Nos. 2-4 hitters, Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, mired in a combined 9-for-72 slump. Their next seven games are at U.S. Cellular Field, beginning with a three-game series against Cleveland and then a four-game weekend visit by Tampa Bay. They close the season at Cleveland, against whom the White Sox are 8-4. And yes, Tampa Bay is still alive in the AL Wild Card race, but the White Sox know they can compete with the Rays, having swept a three-game series in St. Petersburg earlier in the season.
Detroit, meanwhile, faces the challenge of playing six of its final 10 games on the road, including a visit to Minnesota next weekend and a season-ending series in Kansas City. First, though, the Tigers finish off their home schedule with a four-game visit by the Royals beginning on Monday.
The concern? The Tigers are 34-41 on the road, the worst road record of any AL team with a winning record. Milwaukee, 33-44, is the only NL team with a winning record that has had more road problems. The hope? Not only is Miguel Cabrera a legit candidate to claim the Triple Crown, but there is renewed hope for 16-game winner Max Scherzer. After leaving his Sept. 18 start after two innings because of a right shoulder fatigue, he returned on Sunday and worked five innings, encouraging enough to be slotted into the rotation for the rest of the season, which sets up Justin Verlander to pitch in a possible one-game tiebreaker against the White Sox or the Wild Card game.
OK, the Astros did win back-to-back weekend games against Pittsburgh, the second time they were able to win two in a row in the last 38 games. That's the kind of season it has been for the Astros, who are focused on finding a new manager right now, which is just as well.
With three games at home against St. Louis this week, the Astros then head out on the road for their final six games, playing three at Milwaukee and three against the Cubs in Chicago. They need to win four of those games to avoid becoming only the fourth team to not win at least 20 road games in a season since the advent of the 162-game schedule in 1961. The Astros are currently 16-59 on the road, which is one fewer road win than the 1963 Mets and 2010 Pirates, and two fewer than the 1962 expansion Mets.
Those aren't the only numbers of concern. With a 50-103 record, they are three losses shy of the franchise record set last season, the only other time in franchise history they lost 100 games. They are 42 games behind NL Central-leading Cincinnati, five games shy of the biggest deficit in Major League history, which was set by the 43-119 Detroit Tigers of 2003. And they rank along with Tampa Bay as the only Major League teams with an attendance average of fewer than 20,000 a game. Last year's average 25,518 was the previous lowest attendance average since the team's 2000 move into Minute Maid Park, where the Astros averaged more than 30,000 in each of their first 10 seasons, finishing among the upper half of Major League teams in attendance each of those 10 seasons, six times in the top 10.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.