MLB Playoff Race: Final Showdown Starts In AL West

The AL West has been teasing us with the promise of a heated race all season long, but Texas has held steady with leads sticking comfortably in the range of the 4-game margin they currently hold. Whether it was a midsummer push by Los Angeles, or the current landscape which as Oakland on their heels, the Rangers have been like that political candidate that looks beatable but just holds their position in the polls. If I might continue the political analogy, the AL West’s version of the debates start tonight when the A’s visit the Dallas area for four games. This series, along with a season-ending three-game set in Oakland a week from now give the challenger one last chance to deliver a punch.

Oakland’s got bigger problems than just catching Texas though, and it’s that the Angels will not go away. Prior to the weekend series, TheSportsNotebook noted how both Los Angeles and Tampa Bay faced must-win moments. Each responded with a series sweep, while the A’s were dropping two of three in New York, including a crushing Saturday defeat when they coughed up a 9-5 lead in extra innings and let the winning run score on an error. The end result is that Oakland’s lead over LAA is down to 2.5 games and they are just 3.5 up on Tampa, both smaller numbers than the deficit they are facing against Texas. Furthermore, Oakland has slipped behind Baltimore by a game for the top wild-card and right to host the one-game shootout that will settle a Division Series berth next Friday. Thus, while we focus on the AL West and surely Oakland’s got catching Texas in their mind, they face a bigger threat from the rearview mirror.

Texas has held steady in September because of pitching and three of the starters they’ll use in this series—Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison—all have ERAs under 2.40 for the month, with Darvish a dazzling 3-0 with a buck-80 ERA. The Rangers aren’t hitting the ball great—Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are in slumps at the top of the order, and Nelson Cruz is struggling in the middle. But Michael Young and David Murphy are each batting over. 300 for the month with three home runs. And Josh Hamilton? Don’t be fooled by the .231 batting average in September. With his proficiency at drawing walks, the on-base percentage is a productive .355 and with six home runs his monthly slugging is an MVP-caliber .635.

Conversely, Oakland’s meal ticket, Josh Reddick is struggling, with a .138 average in the final month. Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp has started to cool down. The offense is being kept afloat by decent months from Seth Smith, Cliff Pennington and Josh Donaldson and a hot September from first baseman Brandon Moss, who has a .411/.640 slugging. Normally that would be enough for the A’s to keep winning games, but the pitching has started to cool off a bit. Dan Straily, who gets the ball for tonight’s opener has a 5.56 September ERA. Tommy Milone, who has to battle Darvish on Wednesday is up at 4.95. Only Jarrod Parker, who pitches the Thursday finale is really locked in right now at 1.86 for September.

If you look at both teams overall September numbers, they’re roughly equivalent—a little below average in scoring runs, a little above average in pitching. Given the disparity of the parks they play in—Texas is a hitters’ haven, while Oakland is a pitching paradise—that means the Rangers are pitching better and the A’s are hitting better. But pitching is what wins championships and the final battle towards settling at least an AL West championship starts tonight in Dallas.

Around the rest of the playoff races…

*Does anyone want the AL Central? The White Sox were the Angels’ victims this weekend, but the Tigers dropped two of three in Minnesota keeping the Chicago lead at one game. The ChiSox host Cleveland and Detroit hosts Kansas City. We might say both contenders are in position to get wins, but they way both are backpedaling to the finish line, who knows.

*St. Louis has to smell the moment when it comes to clinching the National League’s final wild-card spot alongside the NL East runner-up (presumably Atlanta). The chasing Brewers remain hot, taking two of three in Washington and concluding the series with a Monday afternoon wraparound. But the margin is still 2.5 games and while Milwaukee visits Cincinnati, St. Louis will play 103-loss Houston. By Friday, the half-game will be off the board (Milwaukee plays each of the next four games, St. Loo has Thursday off) and the schedule will flip, with the Brewers going home to face the Astros & Padres, while the Cards deal with the Nationals and Reds. St. Louis’ chance to put it away is right now. And I haven’t forgotten Los Angeles, who’s three games off the pace, but they have a scary series in San Diego. The Padres have plugged along, with a respectable 73-80 record and having split the last ten. If I’m a rival team that’s contending, I don’t know that I want to play them on the road.

*Atlanta has the top wild-card all but wrapped up, but still has Washington in their sights in the NL East, with the margin at 4.5 games. The Braves play a dead Miami team, while Washington—after finishing up with Milwaukee today—goes to Philadelphia. The Phils’ playoff push has crested, but this is still a veteran team with pride and playing decent baseball. Another road trip you hate to deal with as a contender.

*In the AL East, New York couldn’t shake Baltimore, as the Orioles went 6-3 on a nine-game road trip and prevented the Yankees’ recent hot streak from increasing their one-game lead in the division. Baltimore’s at home to play Toronto, who rolled over for Tampa this weekend. New York goes up to Minnesota, which showed some spunk in knocking off Detroit. Both contenders were prevented from pulling away with a wild-card spot by the weekend sweeps of the Angels and Rays.

*And speaking of the Angels & Rays, Los Angeles faces Seattle, who’s been the AL version of the Padres the entire second half, and were again this weekend, in beating Texas two of three. Tampa Bay goes to Boston. The teams split four in the Trop last week, a de facto defeat for the Rays. The Red Sox can now hope to put a knockout blow on the team that ripped their heart out last September.

*Finally we conclude with congratulations to Cincinnati and San Francisco who have clinched their NL Central and NL West respectively. Over the last couple weeks, TheSportsNotebook has broken down how each team blew open what was supposed to be competitive division races. If the playoffs started today they would meet in the Division Series, though Cincy is just a half-game back of Washington for the top seed in the National League.