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September 13, 2012

What You Need to Know

Thursday, September 13

by Daniel Rathman

The Wednesday Takeaway
Yogi Berra, describing a St. Louis restaurant called Ruggeri’s, once said, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” He might as well have been talking about the National League wild-card race.

The favorites—the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates—all lost on Wednesday, running their respective skids to three, three, three, and six. Meanwhile, the challengers—the Brewers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Padres—all won, bringing their respective surges to three, seven, two, and four. Nobody wants to lock up either of the two wild-card spots; there are too many teams pursuing them.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a look at the mess the aforementioned convergence has wrought: 

The Braves, 6 ½ games ahead of the field with a league-low 18 remaining, seem safely penciled into one of the two spots. Stranger things have happened—*cough*, 2011, *cough*—but with Atlanta’s odds higher than 95 percent, let’s give Fredi Gonzalez’s team the benefit of the doubt.

The Padres, 6 ½ games behind the head of the pack with a league-low 18 to go, are unlikely to march past six of the seven teams in their way. Bud Black’s squad just swept the Cardinals and has bested all of its rivals with a 35-22 ledger since the All-Star break, but with its odds still around zero percent, it’s probably safe to assume that second-half run will be too little, too late.

The three divisional races are virtually sealed up, with the Giants seven games ahead of the Dodgers, the Nationals 8 ½ up on the Braves, and the Reds 11 ½ away from the Cardinals. Hence, the wild-card hopefuls do not have an alternative route to the postseason.

That means we have six teams fighting for one berth, most likely a chance to visit the Braves in a one-game playoff at Turner Field. And, in part because of Major League Baseball’s emphasis on loading the September schedule with divisional matchups, those six teams won’t see much of each other the rest of the way. Here’s a quick rundown of their remaining dockets:

Team

Home/Away

Against Over-.500 Opponents

Against Other 5 Wild-Card Contenders

St. Louis

9/10

10 of 19

at LAD, Sept. 13-16

Los Angeles

10/9

13 of 19

vs. STL, Sept. 13-16

Pittsburgh

9/11

9 of 20

vs. MIL, Sept. 18-20

Milwaukee

9/10

10 of 19

at PIT, Sept. 18-20

Philadelphia

6/13

9 of 18

None

Arizona

12/7

6 of 19

None

As shown in the table above, only a pair of series will pit two of those six teams against each other between now and Oct. 3. One of them begins tonight, when the Cardinals and Dodgers kick off a four-game set at Chavez Ravine. The other takes place during the middle of next week, when the Brewers and Pirates will duke it out for three games at PNC Park. Those teams have some control over their destinies; the others are completely on their own. If either St. Louis or Los Angeles earns a sweep this weekend, the other five contenders’ hopes may quickly be dashed. A split, on the other hand, could breed all manner of chaos.

The top three teams in that table are the coldest; the bottom three are the hottest. The Dodgers, arguably the most talented team in the mix, face the toughest road ahead; the Diamondbacks, the only team of the six that is still below .500, have the easiest, both in terms of opponents and home cooking. Then again, Kirk Gibson’s team is only 35-34 in the desert this season, and the Phillies, who will do the most traveling, have posted that exact same record on the road.

Two months ago, commenting on the effects of the new, two-wild-card format during an All-Star break interview, Bud Selig said, “I was going through all the division races and Wild Card races today and the numbers are staggering. We’re going to have a great last three months of the season.”

Three months? Try three weeks. Or, if the dearth of head-to-head showdowns enables that wild-card table to remain as crowded as it is today, it may all come down to three days at the beginning of October.

What to Watch for on Thursday
That’s enough about the National League picture. Today’s slate is all about the American League. And if you can manage to clear your entire afternoon of work, school, kids, and all other distractions, well, do it.

  • Then, start with the Rays and Orioles in Baltimore, where the home team will try to finish off an impressive sweep. Manny Machado and Nate McLouth sandwiched two singles around Robert Andino’s sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning on Wednesday night, and the latter delivered a 3-2, walk-off victory, giving the O’s a three-game edge on the Rays with 20 games to play. Tampa Bay will try to bounce back behind Jeremy Hellickson, who has logged a 3.42 ERA and a 22-to-6 K:BB in 23 2/3 innings over four starts against Baltimore this year. Buck Showalter will counter with Wei-Yin Chen (12:35 p.m. ET).
  • If the Rays and O’s play a tidy game, they should finish just in time for first pitch at Angel Stadium, where an even better pitchers’ duel—Brett Anderson and Jered Weaver—is on tap. The Angels swept the Athletics at the Coliseum last week, but Oakland has a chance to return the favor, and Bob Melvin’s team is currently riding a 12-game road winning streak. Anderson has been one of the league’s best starters since returning from Tommy John surgery on Aug. 21, allowing no more than one run in each of his four outings, en route to four victories and a 0.69 ERA. Of course, the 24-year-old southpaw has benefited from a cakewalk schedule, facing the Twins, Indians, Red Sox, and Mariners, and a date with Weaver in Anaheim is no picnic. Anderson will need to look out for Torii Hunter, who has gone 5-for-13 with a home run in their past encounters, to make it five straight (3:35 p.m. ET).
  • Assuming the A’s and Angels move at a brisk pace, you’ll have time to grab dinner before the grand finale: Tigers at White Sox in the last head-to-head regular season meeting between the teams, game four of a four-game series that Detroit leads two games to one. Best of all, it’s Justin Verlander and Chris Sale in a rematch of their duel at Comerica Park on Sept. 2, when Detroit’s ace tossed eight innings of one-run ball and fanned 11 to outfox Chicago’s in a 4-2 final. With only a game now separating the first-place White Sox from the second-place Tigers, and Jim Leyland’s team enjoying an easier 18-game sprint to the finish line, this one might be for all the marbles (8:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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