The regular season is down to its final 20 games or so over the next three weeks and two races will capture the fancy of the baseball public as the playoffs approach.
The first is the race for the American League’s second Wild Card. Five teams still have realistic chances of capturing that fifth and final playoff berth. In the National League three teams, all in the Central, appear headed for the playoffs with one of those teams winning the division title while the other two appear safe as wild card teams.
Boston, Detroit and Oakland are the three AL division leaders with Texas starting the week holding a three game edge for the first wild card, which carries with it the right to host the one-game playoff against the second wild card team.
Tampa Bay currently controls that second wild card but the Rays’ grasp is tenuous at best. Baltimore and Cleveland are tied with identical records just two games behind Tampa Bay. The New York Yankees are just a half game further back and Kansas City just one game behind the Bronx Bombers.
Thus there are five teams within only 3½ games of making the playoffs with three weeks remaining. Much can happen in three weeks, especially considering over the past month or so Tampa Bay has looked like anything but a playoff team.
The Rays have gone just 12-18 over their past 30 games, losing touch with Boston for the top spot in the AL East (they now trail the Red Sox by 7½ games) while allowing the other contenders to narrow gaps for the Wild Card.
After sweeping a three game weekend series from Pittsburgh, the St. Louis Cardinals are atop the NL Central with a game and a half lead over the Pirates. The Cincinnati Reds also swept a weekend series from the NL West leading Los Angeles Dodgers to effectively tie Pittsburgh for second place, also a game and a half behind the Cardinals. The Reds have just 18 games left to play whereas the Cardinals have 19 and Pittsburgh 20.
The final weekend of the season finds Cincinnati hosting the Pirates while St. Louis will be hosting the Chicago Cubs.
Atlanta and the Dodgers each have double digit leads atop their divisions. The Braves are up by 12 games over Washington and the Dodgers are 11 games up on Arizona.
To come full circle with the playoff picture Detroit leads Cleveland by 5½ games in the AL Central and Oakland’s lead over Texas is just 1½ in the West.
With football in full swing and media coverage tilted highly toward covering exploits on the collegiate and pro gridirons, the drama of the playoff races often gets lost in the football coverage, save for the final couple of days of the season.
But handicapping the final few weeks of the season carries some dangers, with many teams now looking to evaluate young talent with an eye toward 2014.
Rosters are expanded and managers now have more options in making in-game pitching changes that ordinarily would not be made in midseason. As such it makes sense to concentrate one’s attention on games that have playoff significance for at least one of the teams, if not both teams.
Even when a team is out of contention they often relish the chance to play spoiler and use such games as measuring sticks to provide optimism for next season. And managers of such teams will show respect for the game by managing as they would if their team were still in contention, thus reducing the “x” factor involved in the game in which nothing is at stake for either team.
Interestingly, none of the NL series this weekend involves two teams battling the make the playoffs. Yet in the AL there are three such series.
Here’s a look at those three series this weekend, plus a fourth that involves one of the more refreshing stories of the 2013 season.
CUBS/PIRATES: Pittsburgh have won 5 of 12 meetings this season with the OVER at 9-3. The teams have combined to average just 5.3 runs per game over the dozen games.
Recommended plays: Pittsburgh -140 or less in any matchup; Cubs +150 or more in a start by Travis Wood; UNDER 7½ or higher in a start by Wood; UNDER 8½ or higher in all other matchups.
ROYALS/TIGERS: Kansas City took 2 of 3 games this past weekend against the Tigers and actually lead the season series 9-7. The UNDER is 10-6. The teams have combined to average 7.4 runs per game.
Recommended plays: Kansas City +130 or more in starts by Shields, Santana or Chen not facing Detroit’s Max Scherzer; Kansas City +160 or more in starts by that trio against Scherzer; Detroit -130 or less in any matchup; OVER 8½ or lower in starts not involving Chen, Shields or Santana; UNDER 7.5 or higher if Chen, Shields or Santana opposes Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez or Doug Fister.
YANKS/RED SOX: Boston dealt a nearly fatal blow to the Yankees’ Wild Card chances by taking the first 3 of their 4-game weekend series in the Bronx before New York took Sunday’s finale. Boston has won 10 of 16 games against the Yanks. The OVER is 10-5-1.
Recommended plays: New York +150 or more in any matchup; Boston -125 or less in any matchup; OVER 9 or lower in any matchup, except in games started by Boston’s John Lackey (21-4-1 to the UNDER) or New York’s Hiroki Kuroda (19-7-2 to the UNDER).
A’S/RANGERS: Texas has won 9 of the prior 16 games between the teams. The UNDER is 9-6-1. The Rangers and Athletics have combined to average 8.3 runs per game.
Recommended plays: Either team +125 or more in any matchup; UNDER 9 or higher in any matchup; UNDER 8 or higher if Oakland’s Bartolo Colon or Sonny Gray oppose Texas’ Yu Darvish or Derek Holland.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]