The Week Ahead: Contenders hit Crucial stretch
It's that magical time of year in baseball. Just ask the Baltimore Orioles, the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Angels. All three teams have such a huge division lead that their magic number is tiny. All three could clinch their division in the week ahead. All three are looking ahead to October glory.
As soon as Monday dawns across the cities of the American League and the National League, there will be only two weeks left in the regular season of 2014. That means the 162-game slate is short on time but long on drama, intrigue and nail-biting moments for the fans of the teams on the cusp.
We won't learn everything by Sunday, of course. The AL Wild Card situation is still a bit tricky, the AL Central, the NL Central and the NL West divisions could change, and the second slot in the NL Wild Card might be up for grabs, too.
Take a look at those Orioles again. Their magic number is down to three, which means they could be having a champagne party before the weekend even arrives.
For a team beset with major injuries (Matt Wieters, Manny Machado) and a recent suspension (Chris Davis), the good vibes keep rolling, as evidenced by their latest triumph, Sunday's come-from-behind walk-off win over the Yankees punctuated by a game-winning hit by the recently acquired Kelly Johnson.
"It feels like a first-place team," Johnson said. "[I] bounced around just a little bit now, and you just kind of get a feel that it's meant to be. Things find a way to happen; you find a way to win rather than ways to lose. It's been pretty cool. I haven't been here long, but I've seen some things I haven't seen before."
The O's will try to officially book their ticket to October baseball against the Blue Jays, and if that doesn't work, they'll still be home over the weekend to get it done against last year's AL East (and World Series) winners, the Red Sox.
Meanwhile, the Nationals have a magic number of only four in the NL East, and they get to play the team they need to beat to eliminate right away. That would be the second-place Atlanta Braves, who will start Ervin Santana against Washington's Stephen Strasburg on Monday at Turner Field. All the Nats have to do to get their name in the postseason books is beat Atlanta in two of the three games. If they get swept, they can try to complete the job in Miami, where they'll play a four-game set against the Marlins beginning Thursday.
"It would be nice to clinch it up and get all the regulars a day off," Washington outfielder Jayson Werth said. "Guys have been playing a lot here. It will give everybody a day just to relax. The sooner, the better.
"Things are kind of clicking on all cylinders. We are playing well, we have good energy, we have good life to us. Guys have really come into their own and are performing the way they can. It makes for fun baseball -- especially this time of the year."
The same can be said for the Angels, who have the best record in all of baseball and just saw a 10-game winning streak come to an end Sunday. Manager Mike Scioscia's team has a magic number of four over the Oakland A's, and they will take that number into a week-opening series against the Wild Card-contending Mariners, while the A's host the Rangers.
That doesn't mean the Halos are taking anything for granted, however.
"No one's using the word 'luxury' or anything like that around here," Scioscia said. "We're out here to win every game that we take the field, and hopefully, we'll start to get some momentum tomorrow."
The Mariners need that momentum, because they've fallen a game out of the race for the second Wild Card spot in the AL. The Royals hold that spot because they've fallen 1 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central. The A's, meanwhile, still hold the first spot in the AL Wild Card. Oakland sealed that by winning two of three in Seattle over the weekend.
"If there was a series we needed to win, it was this one," A's slugger Brandon Moss said. "You don't want to be sitting there a half-game up or whatever it might be on those guys, especially with Detroit and Kansas City playing the way they're playing.
"You can't depend on other people to take care of your business for you. You have to go out and win the games you're supposed to win. We did a good job of that this series."
In the Central early this week, the Tigers will travel to Minnesota to play the Twins, while the Royals begin at home against the White Sox. Both teams will want to take advantage of the fact that they're up against teams with sub-.500 records.
"Every day is like a fight," Detroit outfielder Torii Hunter said.
The Giants and Dodgers just got done battling in San Francisco, with Los Angeles maintaining its division lead and the Giants still sitting pretty with the top slot in the NL Wild Card race.
The Pirates have done their part lately, too, sticking near the Cardinals in the NL Central and pulling ahead of the Brewers for the second NL Wild Card slot.
This week, Pittsburgh gets its final six home games on the regular-season schedule: three against the Red Sox and three against the Brewers. After that, it's a seven-game roadie to close things out. The Bucs would love to win as many as they can at PNC Park and pull far ahead of the Brewers heading into Milwaukee.
After Sunday's win over the Cubs, which included a triple play, they appear to have momentum on their side.
"They're a very good ballclub," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "They've got the components of pitching and the offense, and they play really good defense."