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Week Ahead: Nats are in, is the Tribe next?

Indians are inching closer to qualifying for postseason
MLB.com

The 2017 regular season is winding down, which means the postseason races are heating up. The Nationals on Sunday became the first team to claim a playoff spot and clinch their division with a 3-2 win over the Phillies in Washington and after the Braves topped the Marlins.

A number of teams will be looking to join them in the week ahead, while others continue to jockey for playoff positioning in battles that are sure to go down to the wire.

The 2017 regular season is winding down, which means the postseason races are heating up. The Nationals on Sunday became the first team to claim a playoff spot and clinch their division with a 3-2 win over the Phillies in Washington and after the Braves topped the Marlins.

A number of teams will be looking to join them in the week ahead, while others continue to jockey for playoff positioning in battles that are sure to go down to the wire.

The Indians, baseball's hottest club, are sure to dominant the spotlight for as long as their historic stretch continues. Cleveland hasn't lost since Aug. 23 and extended its franchise-record winning streak to 18 games with a win over the Orioles on Sunday night.

The Tribe will look to keep its momentum going with the final seven games of their homestand this week against the Tigers (three games) and Royals (four). Cleveland can match the American League record of 20 consecutive victories, set by the A's in 2002, this week. The 1935 Cubs own the Major League record of 21 straight wins.

Explaining postseason tiebreakers

The next seven days also presents more opportunities for teams to assert themselves among a muddled American League Wild Card field. As it stands entering Monday, there's eight teams contending for two spots with the Yankees hold the top spot, 3 1/2 games ahead of the Twins in the second spot, with the Angels (one game back of the Twins for the second AL Wild Card), Royals and Rangers (both 2 1/2 games back), Orioles and Mariners (3 games) and Rays (3 1/2 games) lingering just outside the playoff picture.

Wild Card standings

A number of those teams will battle head-to-head this week, including the Yankees, who will have to fend off two clubs pushing to join them in the AL's one-game playoff, as they face the Rays and Orioles. Tampa Bay and Baltimore will have to contend with New York's young stars Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, both of whom homered twice Sunday. Judge's 41 home runs are now the second-most by a rookie in MLB history behind only Mark McGwire's 49 homers in 1987.

Video: Must C Classic: Judge crushes two homers vs. Rangers

"It's incredible what these kids have done, and there's still three weeks to go," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "They'll continue to add to those numbers. But these kids are talented."

This week's other matchups between AL Wild Card contenders include Mariners at Rangers beginning Monday, and Rangers at Angels later in the week. Both the Mariners and Angels have their work cut out for them with matchups against the Astros, while the Royals must visit the surging Indians over the weekend.

The Nationals broke out the champagne Sunday to celebrate their fourth NL East title in the last six seasons, but the club's focus remains on the coming weeks as Washington tries to catch the slumping Dodgers for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The Nats have won 11 of their last 15 contests, while the Dodgers, who still own the best record in baseball, have dropped 10 in a row and 15 of their last 16. That skid and the Nationals' surge has closed the gap between the NL's top teams to just four games.

Video: PHI@WSH: Harper celebrates NL East championship

"There's still time to win as many games as we can, because a month ago, people thought catching the Dodgers was an impossibility," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Now we're a lot closer than we were before."

Washington will have a prime opportunity to gain ground on Los Angeles with a three-game series against the Dodgers in D.C. this weekend. The rest of the Nationals' 15 remaining games are against clubs with sub-.500 records.

Elsewhere in the NL, the Rockies and D-backs will clash for four games beginning Monday in a potential Wild Card preview. Both Arizona and Colorado have fallen behind in the NL West -- they enter the week trailing the Dodgers by nine and 14 games, respectively -- but are in line to compete in the NL's one-game playoff.

After their franchise-record 13-game win streak ended Saturday, the D-backs finished the weekend by dropping back-to-back contests against the Padres but still hold the top Wild Card spot with a five-game advantage over the Rockies. Colorado, meanwhile, is looking to fend off a pair of NL Central clubs, the Brewers and Cardinals, for the second spot. The Rockies are coming off their first-ever four-game sweep at Dodger Stadium.

Video: COL@LAD: Reynolds crushes a grand slam in the 8th

The Brewers and Cardinals are also making a push within the NL Central, which became the most tightly-contested division this weekend when the Brewers' three-game sweep of the Cubs coincided with three consecutive wins by the Cardinals. Both Milwaukee and St. Louis enter Monday trailing Chicago by just two games in the division.

"That was a big thing, coming here into their ballpark and showing we can compete," Brewers starter Zach Davies said. "It's going to make [the rest of] September very interesting and fun to play for."

This weekend features a pivotal series in that pennant race when the Cubs host the Cardinals for three games at Wrigley Field. Chicago opens the week against the Mets, while St. Louis hosts the Reds. The Brewers have six games against the Pirates and Marlins.

"September baseball is fun," Chicago rookie Ian Happ said. "The next few weeks will be a blast."

Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.