Season's final week will shape playoffs
Postseason spots and home-field positioning remain up for grabs
Welcome to the final week of the Major League Baseball season. Seems like only yesterday we were in Spring Training. OK, a couple of yesterdays.
This is a week for some teams to rest, heal and prepare for the postseason. For others, though, it's the last rounds of a tough, exhausting fight.
Did you check out the Orioles and Rays on Monday afternoon? That was your average little heavyweight bout. Two good teams went at one another for almost four hours in a game that was a mixture of some players coming up big and others making huge boneheaded mistakes.
When it was over, it was just about a death knell for the O's playoff hopes. James Loney's pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth gave the Rays a 5-4 victory to complete a four-game sweep.
There were games like that all over the place. The top three teams in the National League Central all won one-run games, so the Cardinals maintained their two-game lead over the Reds and Pirates.
All three are headed to the postseason, and even if Cincinnati and Pittsburgh end up in the NL Wild Card Game, they'd both like to host it.
That's where things get interesting. The Reds and Pirates finish the regular season with a three-game series in Cincinnati over the weekend. Their season series is tied 8-8, and that's important because it could end up deciding who hosts the win-or-go-home affair.
Does rest matter? Are the teams who have a few days to give their players time off and set up their pitching rotations at an advantage?
Every manager appreciates the opportunity to rest his injured players and line up his pitching for the postseason. On the other hand, plenty of tired teams have sprinted into the playoffs and kept right on going. That's what happened two years ago when the Cards clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the season and ended up winning the World Series.
Did the Oakland A's have an advantage last season because they didn't clinch a playoff berth until the 161st game? Their clubhouse celebration was so wild and so full of emotion that it was amazing to see them come back the next afternoon and win again to clinch the American League West.
This final week will decide some playoff berths, but for other teams, it's about having a chance to evaluate personnel. The Tigers, who head into Tuesday with a magic number of two to clinch the AL Central title, hope to get shortstop Jhonny Peralta back in the lineup for a couple of games this weekend after he finishes serving his suspension.
Likewise, the AL East-champion Red Sox may get center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who has been out since Sept. 5 with an injured right foot, back in the lineup on Wednesday. The Braves have wrapped up the NL East, but this last week will get them additional time to get leadoff hitter Jason Heyward, who returned from a fractured jaw on Friday, back into game shape.
The AL Wild Card race seems to have more clarity, with the Rays one game ahead of the Indians for the top Wild Card spot, and the Rangers one game behind Cleveland on the outside looking in. The Royals are three games back, the Yankees four and the Orioles five.
Tampa Bay appears to have a tougher final week than the Tribe or Texas, finishing with six games on the road, three apiece against the Yanks and Blue Jays.
As for home-field advantage, the Red Sox lead the A's by one game in the race for best overall record in the AL. In the Senior Circuit, the Braves and Cardinals both have 92 wins to the NL West-champion Dodgers' 90.
So pretty much every game matters, and every team would like to have home-field advantage. In short, plenty remains to be decided, and isn't that how it's supposed to be?
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.