Setting the stage for baseball’s final week
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 03:09
The Major League Baseball season is a long, grueling process. With 162 games spread out over an entire spring and summer, it’s easy for the season to drift in and out of focus with the postseason always seemingly so far away.
But the time for putting off following baseball is over because the end of September is finally here. Playoff chases are coming down to the wire, and October is less than a week away. So for those of you who may have struggled to pay attention to the standings all summer long, here’s some fill-in and a primer for the final week of the MLB regular season.
The Red Sox and Athletics have already sewn up the American League East and West, respectively, with more than seven games separating them from their closest division rivals.
Boston clinched the AL East on Friday, the team’s first division crown since its World Series win in 2007, outpacing Tampa Bay over the last month of the season to take the title. The Red Sox have ridden their dynamic hitting to the top of the American League, finishing first in the MLB in runs and slugging percentage and second in batting average and on-base percentage. With their unmistakable beards in tow, this team that managed just 69 wins last season is likely to enter the postseason as the favorite out of the American League.
But with five games to go, the Athletics continue to lurk in their attempt to snatch the best record in the league away from the Sox, as they sit just one game back entering this final stretch. Last year, the A’s snuck past the Rangers in the final week of the season to eke into the playoffs, but this year, general manager Billy Beane’s squad made its move early in September, blowing by the collapsing Rangers on the back of its 3.58 team ERA, which ranks second in the AL.
With a strong collection of pitchers, the Athletics are primed for postseason success, particularly if third baseman Josh Donaldson can continue on his torrid pace from the regular season — he has compiled a WAR (wins above replacement) of 8.1, second only to Mike Trout in the American League. A year ago, the A’s snuck into the playoffs and were bounced in the ALDS by the Detroit Tigers. This time, they’ll be looking for more.
In the National League it’s the Braves and the Dodgers that have clinched divisional titles.
The Braves lead MLB in ERA and have used those arms, along with a relatively easy division schedule, to carry them to their first NL East title since 2005. Atlanta had won its division for 11 consecutive years from 1995 to 2005.
With an incredibly ordinary offense, the Braves have been carried by pitching and defense, sporting an MLB-leading 3.20 ERA entering Tuesday’s game. They are also second in the majors in WHIP and have arguably the best bullpen in the game. While other teams in the NL have relied much more on big hits, the Braves’ pitching staff could be an X-factor in the postseason when home runs are far harder to come by.
Out west, the Dodgers looked like a team full of albatross contracts to start the season, but they turned in one of the most incredible stretches of baseball ever seen with their 42-8 run midway through the season. That push saw the Dodgers blow past the Diamondbacks in the standings and never look back, becoming the first team in the majors to clinch their division this year.
The Dodgers’ roster is stocked with playmakers, but there are two players that will make Los Angeles one of the most intriguing teams in the postseason: Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw.
Puig, the star rookie, the Cuban defector and the man with a cannon for an arm, has been better than advertised and worth every penny the Dodgers spent to acquire him last offseason. He is hitting .327 with an OBP of .397, and in his first year in the majors could put a major stamp on a playoff series. But it’s on the other side of the ball where the Dodgers have as close to guaranteed playoff dominance as possible in Kershaw. By far the best pitcher in the majors this season, Kershaw has an ERA of just 1.88, a WHIP of 0.92 and an astronomical WAR of 7.6, and he will be given the ball to start the playoffs in hopes that he can get the Dodgers rolling.
The AL hunt
Two years ago, this would have been one of the most thrilling Wild Card chases possible, with the Rays and Indians duking it out for the final spot in the playoffs. But with two Wild Card spots up for grabs, it’s Tampa Bay and Cleveland who look set for the play-in game, though Texas lurked just one game back as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Rays have been perched at the top of the Wild Card standings throughout the season with their usual blend of outstanding pitching, brilliant decision-making and timely hitting propelling them to the top. They struggled at the beginning of the month and let other teams in the AL creep back into the race, but now that they are back in control, it would be a shock to see them fall out of the postseason.