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Sizing up contenders' September schedules

Pirates have perhaps toughest road; Indians will face mostly losing clubs

No schedule, no matter what the opponents' records might suggest, is "easy." Just ask Terry Francona and Bob Melvin.

Francona's Indians have what is widely considered the most favorable September slate, which should help their push for an American League Wild Card spot. Melvin's A's will face mostly sub-.500 competition as well. But don't call the opposition "cupcakes" -- not to Francona, at least.

"Whoever said that hasn't played Major League Baseball, hasn't had to stand in the batter's box. So that doesn't carry much weight with me," Francona said. "There's not a whole lot of difference between [first- and last-place teams' records]. When you get to the Major Leagues, you've got to play."

"We know we have to play our best baseball every day, regardless of who we're playing. That's just the way it is," said Melvin. "Every game feels important to us, and it shouldn't matter who we're playing."

Still, as much as the standings reveal about the current postseason picture, the calendar can help fill in the blanks as October draws near. Here's a look at all the contenders' remaining schedules and how they'll impact the playoff races.

Red Sox (85-57, first in AL East)
What's left: at Yankees (3), at Rays (3), vs. Yankees (3), vs. Orioles (3), vs. Blue Jays (3), at Rockies (2), at Orioles (3)

The Red Sox will be well-rested, with four off-days between now and Sept. 27, and they'll need to be. After taking two of three from Detroit, Boston has four straight sets against fellow AL East contenders, and another one to end the year. But the Red Sox have done everything they've needed to do so far, building up a big division lead while posting the Majors' best run differential.

Tigers (81-59, first in AL Central)
What's left: at Royals (3), at White Sox (3), vs. Royals (3), vs. Mariners (4), vs. White Sox (3), at Twins (3), at Marlins (3)

Only six of the Tigers' remaining games will come against contending teams, and all of them will take place over the next 10 days against Kansas City. Between Boston's rough road and Detroit's season-ending stretch against four teams who've gone a combined 232-321, the Tigers could push for home-field advantage.

Rangers (80-59, first in AL West)
What's left: at Angels (3), vs. Pirates (3), vs. A's (3), at Rays (4), at Royals (3), vs. Astros (3), vs. Angels (4)

The bad news for the Rangers is that they have a tough four-series stretch from Monday through Sept. 22, and the three games vs. the A's could very well decide the AL West. The good news is those 13 games are sandwiched by 10 against the Angels and Astros, and Texas has gone 24-4 against those two clubs.

A's (80-60, first in AL Wild Card)
What's left: vs. Astros (3), at Twins (3), at Rangers (3), vs. Angels (3), vs. Twins (4), at Angels (3), at Mariners (3)

The worst is behind the A's as they battle it out for a second straight AL West title, with a prime opportunity to do so during a head-to-head series in Texas. Otherwise, it will just be about beating the teams they're supposed to beat. Everyone else Oakland will play is below .500.

Rays (77-62, second in AL Wild Card)
What's left: at Mariners (3), vs. Red Sox (3), at Twins (3), vs. Rangers (4), vs. Orioles (4), at Yankees (3), at Blue Jays (3)

How about 20 straight games, 14 of them against the Red Sox, Rangers, Orioles and Yankees? Tampa Bay has shown a flair for the dramatic comeback, and after a disappointing August, these Rays will need every bit of that late-season magic to handle their September slog.

Yankees (75-65, 2 1/2 games behind second Wild Card spot)
What's left: vs. Red Sox (3), at Orioles (4), at Red Sox (3), at Blue Jays (3), vs. Giants (3), vs. Rays (3), at Astros (3)

Everyone in the AL East has a tough schedule, and aside from the series against the Rays, the Yankees' gets easier toward the end. However, New York must withstand Boston (twice) and Baltimore just to get there.

Indians (74-65, three games behind second Wild Card spot)
What's left: vs. Mets (3), vs. Royals (3), at White Sox (4), at Royals (3), vs. Astros (4), vs. White Sox (2), at Twins (4)

Francona disagreed with the idea of an easy schedule, but this is about as close as it gets. Kansas City is Cleveland's only upcoming opponent with a winning record. The Indians will finish against the AL's three worst teams, so one could argue the Tribe just needs to hold steady until then.

Orioles (74-65, three games behind second Wild Card spot)
What's left: vs. White Sox (3), vs. Yankees (4), at Blue Jays (3), at Red Sox (3), at Rays (4), vs. Blue Jays (3), vs. Red Sox (3)

Those four games in St. Petersburg have become a lot more interesting as the Rays continue to slide, giving the Orioles a chance to vault up the Wild Card standings. Chicago and Toronto are winnable series, but they're essentially offset by four games against New York and six of Baltimore's last 13 coming against Boston.

Royals (73-67, 4 1/2 games behind second Wild Card spot)
What's left: vs. Tigers (3), at Indians (3), at Tigers (3), vs. Indians (3), vs. Rangers (3), at Mariners (3), at White Sox (4)

Already facing an uphill battle, Kansas City will play five straight series against contenders, four against division rivals Detroit and Cleveland. There's light at the end of the Royals' tunnel, but even those last seven games are on the road.

Braves (85-54, first in NL East)
What's left: at Phillies (3), at Marlins (4), vs. Padres (3), at Nationals (3), at Cubs (3), vs. Brewers (3), vs. Phillies (4)

It almost seems unfair that the team with the National League's best record will play only one winning club this month. But indeed, 20 of Atlanta's final 23 games will come against sub-.500 teams. That gives the Braves the best chance in the Majors at a 100-win season and home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series.

Pirates (81-58, first in NL Central)
What's left: at Cardinals (3), at Rangers (3), vs. Cubs (4), vs. Padres (4), vs. Reds (3), at Cubs (3), at Reds (3)

Currently atop the NL Central's three-team race, the Bucs might have the NL's roughest road. This six-game stretch will test their mettle, as will playing two of their final three series against Cincinnati. That makes cruising past the Padres and Cubs all the more important.

Dodgers (83-56, first in NL West)
What's left: at Reds (3), vs. D-backs (3), vs. Giants (4), at D-backs (4), at Padres (3), at Giants (3), vs. Rockies (3)

They've gone 53-14 since June 22, and Baseball Prospectus gives them a 100 percent chance to make the postseason. So don't get too worked up about their schedule. If the Dodgers are looking to beat the Braves for the top seed, they'll have to take advantage of a bottom-heavy NL West.

Cardinals (80-60, first in NL Wild Card)
What's left: vs. Pirates (3), vs. Brewers (3), vs. Mariners (3), at Rockies (4), at Brewers (3), vs. Nationals (3), vs. Cubs (3)

The Cards' biggest series of September is this weekend. After that, only one opponent (Washington) is above .500. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh will be fending off the likes of Texas and Cincinnati, which could swing the Central in St. Louis' favor.

Reds (79-62, second in NL Wild Card)
What's left: vs. Dodgers (3), vs. Cubs (3), at Brewers (3), at Astros (3), at Pirates (3), vs. Mets (3), vs. Pirates (3)

It's basically about surviving this weekend's Dodgers series and gearing up for two big meetings with the Pirates while holding off the sub-.500 teams along the way. Twelve of the Reds' 21 games will be at home, where they're 44-24 this year.

Nationals (71-68, seven games behind second Wild Card spot)
What's left: at Marlins (3), at Mets (4), vs. Phillies (3), vs. Braves (3), vs. Marlins (4), at Cardinals (3), at D-backs (3)

The Nats have to like the idea of piling up wins over the Marlins, Mets and Phillies to stay in the mix, but they'd still have to get past the Braves and Cardinals while overcoming long odds to earn a Wild Card berth.

D-backs (71-68, seven games behind second Wild Card spot)
What's left: at Giants (3), at Dodgers (3), vs. Rockies (3), vs. Dodgers (4), at Rockies (3), at Padres (4), vs. Nationals (3)

According to Baseball Prospectus, Arizona has a 0.7 percent chance to make the playoffs. Seven games against the Dodgers could be enough to do the D-backs in, but the rest of their schedule sets up well.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.