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Athlon breaks down the NL and AL playoff pictures
At the end of the week the calendar will flip over into September. As the leaves begin to turn orange, yellow, and red, baseball prepares to head down the final stretch before the playoffs. Recently, September baseball has been high drama.
While it appears that the Braves and the Dodgers have their divisions well in hand, other division races are tight, with several playoffs spots to be had. The most interesting race is the three-team pileup happening in the NL Central between the Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals.
The American League also provides some intrigue, as both the AL West and AL East are close. With Tampa Bay (5.5 GB) and Baltimore (7.5 GB) nipping at Boston’s heels and Oakland and Texas deadlocked atop the West, the AL playoff picture still hasn’t come into focus.
NL Central Race:
This is the most top-heavy division in baseball and, outside of the AL East, is probably the toughest division. This race includes the Reds, winners of two of the last three NL Central titles; the Cardinals, the longtime class of the division; and the Pirates, who have finished sub .500 every year since 1993. It appears safe to assume that all three teams will make the playoffs; however, things could look very different depending on how this final month unfolds. The two teams that fall short of the division will be relegated to the Wild Card Game, a one game winner-take-all situation. With each team posting over .620 winning percentages at home, home field advantage is critical. This becomes even more interesting when we consider that there are still 5 series of 16 total games to be played between the three division rivals.
By far, St. Louis has the easier remaining schedule, facing teams with a combined .490 winning percentage. On the other hand, Cincinnati (.501) and Pittsburgh (.500) both have a challenging final month. The Cardinals will play two series against the Pirates and two against the Reds, all coming between August 30 and September 8. The Pirates and Reds will have plenty of chances to knock off the Cardinals, but if St. Louis comes out of that critical stretch still in first place, then expect them to coast to the finish line.
Pitching will be critical down the stretch and these three ball clubs have three of the top five team ERA’s in baseball. The Pirates are No. 2 (3.20) ahead of the No.4 Reds (3.40) and No.5 Cardinals (3.51). Each team has a legitimate ace. The Pirates have gotten an excellent season from once washout pitchers AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano, while seeing the young Jeff Locke develop into a reliable starter. In Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller the Cardinals have the best 1-2 punch in the National League, short of the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. All five starters in the Cincinnati rotation have an ERA under 4.00. The Cardinals and Reds are very comfortable with their 9th inning situations as Aroldis Chapman and Eward Mujica have been two of the National League’s best closers in 2013. The Pirates will be at a disadvantage at the end of games as their All-Star closer Jason Grilli has been on the DL since injuring his arm on July 22. While Grilli should be back for the last few weeks on the season, he will miss the rest of the games against St. Louis.
Over the past two years the Pirates late season struggles have been well documented. Their September record in 2011 and 2012 was a dismal 17-37. On the other hand, the Cardinals are an impressive 33-20 over that span in September, while the Reds are stuck in the middle with a 27-25 record. The Pirates look to turn this around with the aggressive acquisition of Justin Morneau to bolster the offense.
Due to their overall experience, strong play at the end of the season, and easy schedule the Cardinals are the pick to win the NL Central. The Reds and Pirates will be neck and neck to see who gets home field advantage for the Wild Card Game, but the Pirates are in the best position to take the top Wild Card spot as they have played the most consistently all year long.
Once again, the scrappy Athletics look to steal the division from the Texas Rangers. Moneyball appears to be working once again as the A’s are on pace for another 90-plus win season. While the A’s roster is filled with virtual unknowns, the Rangers are full of superstars, led by the dominant moundwork of Yu Darvish. Texas has a deep and talented pitching rotation with Darvish, Martin Perez, Derek Holland, and Alexi Orando all posting sub-4.00 ERAs. Additionally, the Texas bullpen has been nearly unhittable as they stand second in the AL in ERA (2.93), with hitters batting .234 against them. They also will lean on midseason acquisition Matt Garza. Adrian Beltre (.327, 28 HR , 82 RBI) may be the most underrated player in all of baseball. While Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus have struggled with consistency this season, they are proven players that boast a bevy of big game experience.
Oakland has remained resilient all season despite a less star-powered roster. Their offense has been extremely efficient, averaging a run scored every 7.5 at-bats and having five regulars posting over .330 OBP. However, the key for Oakland has been stellar pitching. Currently, they are third in the AL in ERA at 3.63. Oakland has relied on a number of starters; however, their ace, Bartolo Colon was activated from the DL on Aug. 29. Like Texas, the A’s also have a strong bullpen that has posted 40 saves and has held opponents to a .236 batting average. The teams will have control over their own destiny as the play each other six times in August.
After missing out on October baseball last season, Boston has been extremely proactive in adding veteran starter Jake Peavy and premium defender John McDonald talent via trade. While the Yankees have had a tremendous August, they still find themselves eight games back. Last year’s division champion Orioles are 7.5 games back as they have struggled with consistency at the closer position, while the Rays have dropped eight of their last 10 contests. The Red Sox can’t have a repeat of the 2011 meltdown because they have a division-heavy September schedule. Boston has six games against Baltimore, seven against New York, and three against Tampa Bay. John Farrell’s club, the AL’s second-best run scoring offense and fifth-best team ERA, are a confident and well-rounded group primed to take the East. The Rays are trending downward and the Orioles should be able to catch them to grab the second wildcard spot.