September is crunch time for teams on the bubble
Wild Card races in full swing as contenders ready for final month
DENVER -- A year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers woke up the morning of Sept. 1 tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for both the National League Central lead, and the second spot in the NL Wild Card race, two games ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
A month later, the Brewers were at home, watching the postseason, having finished eight games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, six games behind of the Giants and Pirates, the two NL Wild Card teams.
In each of the first three years of having two Wild Card teams per league, nine of the 10 teams that were in position for a postseason spot if the season had ended on Sept. 1 maintained their stature and got the chance to play in October.
And this year? The next 34 days will tell.
The Royals would seem a lock, entering Tuesday with a 13-game lead over the Twins in the American League Central with 32 games to play. The only other division leader with more than a five-game lead, however, is the Mets, up 6 1/2 games on the Nationals in the NL East. And while the Cubs are 5 1/5 games up on the Giants for second NL Wild Card berth, the Giants went into Tuesday night's game at Dodger Stadium 4 1/2 games out in the NL West.
Meanwhile, the Yankees were only 1 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East, but leading the AL Wild Card race, and five games ahead of Minnesota, which is sitting in third in the Wild Card, just a game behind the Rangers.
The Rangers, meanwhile, trailed the Astros by four games in the NL West.
Over the course of the final weeks of the season, however, strange things can happen.
The one given to come out of the first three years of two Wild Card teams advancing to the postseason, it's more about a team in command fading than necessarily being overtaken in its bid.
A year ago, Milwaukee was 7-19 after Aug. 31. Only Atlanta (7-18) and Arizona (7-19) had a worse finish among NL teams. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, went 17-9 to claim a Wild Card spot.
In 2013, it was Texas that went 12-16, losing a one-game playoff for the AL West title against an Oakland team that won 19 of its final 27 regular-season games. And the Rangers fell a game short in the Wild Card race to an Indians team that went 21-6.
And this year? Don't write off the Giants. They have won three of the past five World Series, not because they are the most talented team, but they are the best team. It's been a struggle this year with the injuries that they have dealt with, but there is hope.
Yes, starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are on the disabled list, but Madison Bumgarner is healthy and dominating. San Francisco also acquired Mike Leake from Cincinnati before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. And while right fielder Hunter Pence is back on the disabled list with an oblique strain, center fielder Angel Pagan and second baseman Joe Panik are on rehab assignments, meaning they will soon return to the lineup.
The Giants' upcoming schedule is kind. The four games this weekend against the Rockies are the only four games they play outside of the Pacific Time Zone, and their two series out of the division are against the Reds, who they have beaten three of four times this season, and A's, who they swept in a three-game series earlier.
But who is going to slide in front of the Giants? The Dodgers have the dominant 1-2 punch of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, and have a record-setting payroll, but they never did address the bullpen concerns that plagued them a year ago. The Cubs are in a postseason race a year earlier than anticipated, and not only play 17 of their final 32 on the road, but have home-and-away series against both the Cardinals and the Pirates, and also a makeup game against the Royals.
The most promising opportunity for an outsider to make a push into the postseason picture would come in the AL Wild Card race, where there are four teams within four games of the Rangers, who are holding down the second Wild Card spot -- the Twins (one game), Angels and Rays (3 1/2 games) and Indians (four games).
The Angels, however, came into September having lost their hold on the AL West lead by losing 22 of their last 33 games. The Twins, meanwhile, rebounded from losing 12 of 17 to go into Tuesday having won nine of 11.
The Twins do, however, have a few major tests, including a six-game road trip next week to play the AL West-leading Astros and AL Central-leading Royals. They also have a four-game series against the Angels at home later this month, and finish the season hosting the Royals in a three-game series.
While the Rays and Indians are both technically in the running, they also both have losing records. The Indians did finish August by winning six in a row, including Monday's victory against the Blue Jays and David Price, but they also have 16 of their final 32 games against teams with winning records (two against Toronto, and seven each against Minnesota and Kansas City). No other postseason hopeful has that big of a challenge.
The Rays' longest winning streak of the season was five games, and that was in April. They play 16 of their final 31 games on the road, and have home-and-home series remaining with the Blue Jays and Yankees. Can Tampa Bay run off a double-digit win streak?
It's all part of the mystery that will be answered over the next 34 days.