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All but one of the 15 major league games played on Sunday carried playoff implications. The six-division, two-wild-card format, designed to maintain fan interest and maximize club profitability for as long--and in as many cities--as possible, has never worked better in its 11 seasons. Nor have its results been more bizarre.
You want wild? At week's end a last-place team (the Nationals) was just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot; the team with the 25th-best record in baseball (the Giants) was considering printing playoff tickets; the team with the 16th-best record (the Padres) was a virtual lock for the postseason; and 17 of the 30 teams were fewer than six games out of a playoff spot.
In an era in which the three most recent world champions were second-place teams, analyzing pennant races has never been more difficult. Aided by 10 years of wild-card history, however, here's what we do know.
?The Cardinals (14 1/2 games up in the NL Central at week's end), the Padres (+5 1/2 in the NL West) and the White Sox (+8 in the AL Central) are most likely safe. In the past 10 years only one of the 45 first-place teams that had a lead of more than three games on Aug. 28 has failed to make the playoffs: the 1995 Angels.
?The Giants, seven games out in the NL West, would be wasting a lot of ink. All but three of the past 80 playoff teams were within 2 1/2 games of a playoff spot on Aug. 28--with the 2004 Astros, who were five back, being the outer limit.
?The wild-card leaders in your Monday-morning newspaper (the Yankees and the Phillies) are likely to remain so in your Oct. 3 edition. Of the 20 teams to win wild-card berths, 15 either led or were virtually tied for the spot on Aug. 28.
With those lessons in mind, here are the 12 teams with a fighting shot at one of the five playoff spots still up for grabs, ranked in order of their chances.
1. ANGELS Only the Red Sox have been better at getting hits with two outs and runners in scoring position (.273). Los Angeles needs injured righthander Kelvim Escobar to come back and reinforce a gasping bullpen (4.71 ERA over the past 32 games), but with 16 of their final 20 games against losing teams, the Angels should overtake the A's, a half game up at week's end, and win the AL West.
2. RED SOX Boston is a throwback team: It gets leads, and its bullpen throws them back. The Red Sox' 5.42 ERA in relief is the worst in baseball except for that of the Diamondbacks, so Boston needs closer Keith Foulke back and effective after knee surgery. The Red Sox' formidable offense should sufficiently outslug opponents to win the AL East, but that is rarely a successful postseason strategy.