The postseason chase has reached its most critical stage. With a little more than a week remaining in the regular season, the time has come for contenders to finish strong and punch their tickets to October baseball.
For some, the road looks a bit more difficult. That’s because of the schedule, which may even out over the course of the season, but not necessarily during these dramatic final days.
The caveat here is that a schedule that appears favorable doesn’t always turn out that way. This is still the Major Leagues, and anything can happen, even against a team playing out the string with a lineup filled with September callups.
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“‘Favorable’ is for everybody else to figure out,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, heading into a series against the fourth-place Padres that will wrap up Thursday. “We have a game in front of us. It’s hard to win them, and we have to do everything we can to win them.”
Still, the season-ending schedule can provide some clues as to how these races might shake out. Here then is a look at which teams -- among those still on the postseason bubble -- have the most challenging slates. This is based on each team’s final three series, which will begin either Thursday or Friday.
Teams are listed in order of the most difficult schedules.
1) Indians: 3 vs. PHI, 3 at CHW, 3 at WSH
At four games behind the Twins in the AL Central, Cleveland’s best chance for a postseason berth will come in a tight Wild Card race in which it trails Tampa Bay by a half-game for the second spot. Unfortunately for the Tribe, there will be no more games after Thursday against AL cellar-dwellers such as the Tigers (17-1), Royals (12-7), Mariners (5-1), Angels (6-0) and Blue Jays (6-1). Cleveland is well below .500 against the rest of MLB, including 23-35 when facing winning clubs. The Phillies and Nationals both fall into that category, and the White Sox have won nine of 16 against the Indians this season. Assuming that Washington also is playing meaningful baseball until the bitter end, that final series could be huge.
2) Rays: 4 vs. BOS, 2 vs. NYY, 3 at TOR
The Red Sox have fallen out of the race with a sub-.500 record so far this month, with Mookie Betts hobbled, and Chris Sale and David Price out for the year. The Rays have handled them this season (9-6) and will miss Eduardo Rodriguez -- currently Boston’s best pitcher -- who is starting Thursday against the Giants. A series with the Yankees isn’t ideal, but at least it’s only two games. The Rays finish against a Blue Jays team they swept in four games earlier this month at Tropicana Field.
3) A’s: 3 vs. TEX, 2 at LAA, 4 at SEA
This stretch of games would have looked tougher earlier in the season. But the Rangers haven’t sustained a strong start, and are well under .500 in the second half. The Angels have lost Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton to injuries and are stumbling to the finish with a makeshift lineup and one of MLB’s five worst records since Aug. 1. The Wild Card-leading A’s finish with four games at last-place Seattle, which has struggled ever since its 13-2 start.
The Twins’ quest to clinch the AL Central should get a boost from playing their final 10 games against the Royals and Tigers. Meanwhile, in the neck-and-neck battle for the AL’s top seed, the Astros might have a slight edge by getting seven against the Angels and two against the Mariners, while the Yankees have two against the contending Rays in addition to facing the Blue Jays and Rangers.
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1) Cardinals: 4 at CHC, 3 at ARI, 3 vs. CHC
St. Louis is going to have to earn that division title, with its three-game lead over the Cubs and Brewers put to the test by seven games against arch-rival Chicago. The fun begins with a four-game set at the unfriendly (for them) confines of Wrigley Field on Thursday. Making matters worse, the Cubs have MLB’s fifth-best home record, while the Cardinals are sub-.500 on the road. The good news for the Redbirds? Their destiny is firmly in their hands.
2) Phillies: 3 at CLE, 5 at WSH, 3 vs. MIA
If Philadelphia can somehow keep its faint postseason hopes alive until the last weekend, a home series with the Marlins would provide a great chance to finish the comeback. With that said, the Phillies are facing an uphill climb in the standings. And after finishing a series against the first-place Braves on Thursday, they must continue an 11-game road trip at Cleveland and Washington, including in a doubleheader next Tuesday at Nationals Park. Those series mean matchups with the Indians’ Shane Bieber, and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
3) Nationals: 3 at MIA, 5 vs. PHI, 3 vs. CLE
While Washington has essentially the same remaining schedule as Philadelphia, it gets the benefit of playing that five-game series at home. The Nats also have a chance to bank some wins against last-place Miami -- which has the NL’s worst record -- before what could be a difficult last eight games, as the club tries to hold on to its lead in the Wild Card race.
4) Cubs: 4 vs. STL, 3 at PIT, 3 at STL
Are the seven games against the Cardinals a bad break or a good break? On one hand, St. Louis is a much tougher opponent than a foundering Pittsburgh club, which the Cubs just outscored 47-15 in a three-game series at Wrigley. On the other hand, playing the Cardinals head-to-head is Chicago’s most direct path to an NL Central title. It’s an opportunity, but not an easy one, especially with the red-hot Jack Flaherty starting Thursday night’s series opener for St. Louis.
5) Mets: 3 at CIN, 4 vs. MIA, 3 vs. ATL
The Reds are 40-35 at home, have a positive overall run differential, just won a series from the Cubs, and will put Luis Castillo on the mound to counter Jacob deGrom in Friday’s series opener. So the Mets can’t expect an easy time at Great American Ball Park as they try to close a three-game deficit in the Wild Card race. Conversely, four home games against the Marlins represent a big opportunity. The Braves are a tough final-series opponent, although they might be more worried about getting ready for the Division Series by that point.
6) Brewers: 3 vs. PIT, 3 at CIN, 3 at COL
This is part of a closing, 20-game stretch in which the Brewers play only three games against a winning team (a series win at St. Louis over the weekend). Things set up well for Milwaukee, which is tied with the Cubs for the second NL Wild Card spot, and three games behind the Cardinals in the division. Still, the Reds are a tougher team than their record indicates, and the Rockies are a completely different opponent at Coors Field, where they are over .500. The Brewers’ pitching depth will be tested during that final road swing at two offense-friendly parks.
7) D-backs: 3 at SD, 3 vs. STL, 3 vs. SD
A 3-8 stretch has left Arizona’s hopes hanging by a razor-thin thread. The club did just take two of three from Miami, and now will need to clean up against the fourth-place Padres to have any hope of a comeback. San Diego has played Arizona tough, however, going 7-6 in their matchups this year.
The Dodgers already have a solid edge on the Braves for the NL’s top playoff seed and will finish against the sub-.500 Rockies, Padres and Giants. Atlanta also faces San Francisco and goes to Kansas City before finishing against the Mets.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.