The American League Playoff Race Will Be Down To The Finish
BY: Dic Humphrey
Three-fourths of the MLB season is in the books, and the races for American League playoff spots have taken shape. It’s not too early to say that the addition of a second Wild Card team is a rousing success. With about six weeks remaining in the season, only four American League teams are 10 or more games out of a playoff spot. There aren’t many games remaining to be played that won’t have an effect on who gets in and who doesn’t. It should be a marvelous finish.
Texas is virtually in as West Division champion, holding a six game lead over Oakland. It will take a monumental collapse to keep the Rangers out of post-season play. The Rangers are an offensive juggernaut statistically, leading the Major Leagues in batting average and runs scored. The offense has been inconsistent though. On last week’s seven game road trip, they lit up the opposing pitchers twice for a double-digit run total, but scored just eight runs in the other five games. They were very fortunate to find three wins.
In the West, the Angels’ goose is almost cooked. One national writer said in spring training that the Angels may have too many good players. ESPN’s Time Kurkjian awarded Los Angeles the West Division championship when they completed the trade for Zach Greinke. Well surprise! The games are played on the field, not on paper; and the Angels simply haven’t performed. They have won one series since adding Greinke and find themselves in third place 9.5 games behind the Rangers, 10 in the loss column. In fact, they are only 3.5 games ahead of Seattle for the division’s basement.
Commentators have said all year that the Angels have a better pitching staff than the Rangers, but it’s a myth. Certainly, Jered Weaver is one of the top pitchers in the game, but even Weaver has turned in three sub-par starts in a row. C. J. Wilson is 0-5 in his last 10 starts, including last Saturday’s game in which the Angels’ offense served up an 8-0 lead going into the fourth inning, and Wilson could not complete the required five innings to qualify for a win. Tampa Bay came all the way back to win that game 10-8. Dan Haren is an ace on occasion, but there aren’t many occasions; and Ervin Santana is no longer a top flight starting pitcher. The bullpen is almost a mine field.
The Rangers’ magic number to eliminate the Angels is down to 32. (Any combination of Ranger wins and Angel losses adding up to 32 eliminates L. A. from the division championship.) Rumors are swirling that even Mike Scioscia’s job may be in jeopardy. Adapting a Yogi Berraism, it’s gotten late early for the Angels.
The Athletics have hung in much longer than anyone anticipated. Their young pitchers have kept them afloat. Their staff ERA is second in the league to the Rays. Somehow there has been enough offense to stay competitive. Amazing as they rank 30th in batting average and 13th in the A. L. in runs scored. They trail Texas by six games, but are solidly in the mix for a Wild Card playoff slot. The Rangers’ magic number for the A’s is 36.
Oddly, one favorable development for Texas is the revival of the Mariners, who have played very good baseball since trading Ichiro Suzuki. With the unbalanced schedule, The Angels and Athletics will have to deal with Seattle in order to gain ground on Texas.
Texas plays their final 19 games – six series over the season’s final three weeks against their West Division foes. The one four-game series is in Arlington against Oakland.
In the Central, there is a delightful two team race for the division championship between the White Sox and Tigers. All the experts predict the Tigers to win out. They won last year, and their 3-4 combo in the batting order of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder is as good as it gets in the Major Leagues. They have the starting rotation to do it, led by the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner – Justin Verlander. They are a terrible defensive team and give up loads of unearned runs.
On the other hand, the White Sox weren’t supposed to be in the race at all, but as September approaches, the pale hose is still leading. They are a well-rounded team with great speed, solid pitching, good defense and enough offense. This team has responded well to Robin Ventura’s laid back managerial style. They are not going away soon and perhaps not at all.
In the East, the Yankees should win, but they continue to have injury problems. Alex Rodriguez is on the disabled list and is expected back before the playoffs begin. CC Sabathia is also disabled, but should return soon. The offense is akin to Texas – a juggernaut, though it’s basically one-dimensional. More than half the runs they score are driven in via home runs. They have a huge lead in home runs and are second to Texas in runs scored among the 30 Major League teams.
On the pitching side, Ivan Nova has been their best starter after Sabathia, but Hideki Kuroda has been hot of late. Their bullpen has not only survived the loss of Mariano Rivera, but thrived. Rafael Soriano has stepped into the closer’s role with 31 saves in 33 opportunities, and David Robertson (2.45 ERA in 41 games) has been tremendous as the eighth inning set-up man.
The Yankees should be in the driver’s seat, except for the Rays. Tampa got Evan Longoria back from injury which ignited their offense. Their lead starter David Price (a Vanderbilt man!) leads the league in wins. Matt Moore is fulfilling the promise that made him one of the top three prospects in baseball after last season. He’s 4-0 in his last five starts. They are led by Joe Maddon, now recognized as one of the top managers in the game. Tampa Bay has cut the Yankees’ lead in the division down to four games, after sweeping the Angels in Anaheim last weekend.
The East should be a great race. The Rays and Orioles are the current leaders for the two Wild Card slots, and even Boston is just seven games out. With a healthy dose of divisional play over the final weeks of the season, there won’t be many laughers in the East.
After Tampa Bay and Baltimore, Oakland and Detroit are the next two teams in the Wild Card race. The likelihood is that these four teams or the teams they displace as division champions if they overtake the current division leader will take the two playoff spots.
As for the playoffs themselves, the Yankees and Rangers should be the favorites, but there is a question whether these two teams are built better for the long haul of a 162 game schedule as opposed to the short haul of five and seven game playoff series. The Rays with their strong starters will be especially dangerous in the playoffs. All season; there has been a feeling with the Rangers that the team could play considerably better than they have. If they can get on a roll going into the playoffs, the third time in the World Series could be the charm.