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5 must-watch series as playoff races heat up

@RichardJustice
September 15, 2019

When Astros manager AJ Hinch was asked how much scoreboard watching he’d been doing during games, he did not hesitate. “It’s right there in front of me,” he said, pointing toward the left-field out-of-town scores at Minute Maid Park. “Of course I’m watching. We’re all watching. We know what’s going

When Astros manager AJ Hinch was asked how much scoreboard watching he’d been doing during games, he did not hesitate.

“It’s right there in front of me,” he said, pointing toward the left-field out-of-town scores at Minute Maid Park. “Of course I’m watching. We’re all watching. We know what’s going on and what’s at stake.”

That’s especially true now with six National League teams jockeying for two Wild Card berths and three American League teams fighting for two spots.

Don’t mention playoffs to the teams fighting to make the playoffs because they’re playing what surely feels like do-or-die games. Every game may not be mathematically a must-win, but it feels that way.

That’s especially true of teams like the Phillies and Mets who have been pushed right to the brink. The Brewers may have felt some of that pressure when they were one strike away from losing a game and a series to the Cardinals on Sunday.

That’s when Ryan Braun’s grand slam gave the Crew a 7-6 victory over the Cardinals and tightened the NL races. In Arlington, A’s manager Bob Melvin again threw his top pitching prospect into the middle of a playoff chase.

Lefty Jesus Luzardo, summoned from the Minors for his Major League debut last week, pitched his second straight three-inning relief stint to help nail down a 6-1 victory over the Rangers.

Even teams like the Astros, clubs with their playoff ticket virtually punched, are in a near dead heat with the Dodgers and Yankees for postseason home-field advantage.

Postseason tiebreaker scenarios

Some series will get more of our attention: Nationals-Cardinals, Rays-Dodgers, etc., but pressure is spread all around. The Yankees have a six-game homestand against the Angels and Blue Jays this week and will be scoreboard watching the Astros and Dodgers.

Welcome to baseball’s new normal. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, we could have a 40-percent turnover rate in the playoff field.

As the week begins, the Twins, Cardinals, Rays and Nationals are poised to replace the Red Sox, Brewers, Rockies and Indians from the 2018 field. To put it another way: Stay tuned. Here are five series (in no particular order) in which the stakes could hardly be higher:

1) Nationals at Cardinals
The Cardinals' lead in the NL Central is down to two games over the Cubs and three over the Brewers. The Cardinals also have the NL’s toughest remaining schedule: three games apiece against the Nationals and D-backs and seven against the Cubs. For the Nationals, they’re still holding the top spot in the NL Wild Card race despite losing seven of their last 11.

2) Cardinals at Cubs
The Cubs keep telling themselves that five disappointing months don’t matter because these final two weeks offer all sorts of opportunity for salvation, and they should be feeling good about themselves after scoring 47 runs in a three-game weekend sweep of the Pirates. Anthony Rizzo's ankle injury is a tough blow. However, Kris Bryant homered three times and hit .583, and rookie Nico Hoerner had seven hits in three starts at shortstop. After three games against the Reds this week, the Cubs play the the Cardinals seven times in the final 11 days of the regular season.

3) Phillies at Braves
The Phillies, Mets and Indians have been pushed to the edge of the cliff. The Braves have an outside shot of catching the Dodgers for the NL’s best record, but even if they don’t, they’re playing their best at the right time of the year. The Phillies slipped into fourth place in the NL East with another loss to the Red Sox on Sunday.

4) Rays at Dodgers
If this postseason is going to be dominated by bullpens, the Rays are going to be in great shape since they have the best one on the planet at the moment. As the Dodgers put the finishing touches on their season after clinching a seventh straight division championship, they’ve still got some things to work out regarding bullpen roles and the lineup. They’ve been the NL’s best team all season and almost certainly will begin the playoffs as the consensus favorite to make a third straight trip to the World Series.

5) Phillies at Indians
This weekend series could be a World Series preview, or a matchup featuring two teams playing to avoid elimination. The Indians have a rotation that could make them a formidable October opponent, but a tough weekend series against the Twins has made this week’s three-game series against the Tigers critically important.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.