Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The playoff run-in

WHGB11It’s that tough time of year where you log onto MLB.com, go to the standings and see your team’s elimination number has changed from a digit to the dreaded ‘E’.

The Houston Astros were officially eliminated back on 22 August on their way to a 100+ loss season, while it happened to my team, the Oakland A’s, last Sunday.  You know it’s coming, but it’s still a depressing moment; a sudden stab of reality where your hopes for the year have been officially consigned to the toilet.

Fans of 22 teams will go through this emotional process and 18 fan bases are already coming to terms with it (technically it’s 19, but the Braves’ ‘E’ is countered by their NL Wild Card hopes).   The other 12 will see their future decided over the next ten days. 

National League

Fredi Gonzalez does not want a late season collapse in his first year in charge of the Atlanta Braves.  There have been some signs that the team, particularly the young pitching, is wearing down a tad; however they have three games away to Florida (the team that unceremoniously dumped Gonzalez not long ago, don’t forget) followed by three in Washington to steady the ship.  Hopefully for the Braves their season finale at home to the Phillies will simply be a possible NLCS prelude rather than a nervy affair to secure their playoff spot.

As for those Phillies, with their fifth consecutive NL East title already in the bag, they will be getting ready for the postseason (the NL East was never their goal, they expect to get to the World Series) while putting three digits in the win column.  The Phillies have had two 100+ win seasons in their history, earning 101 victories in both 1976 and 1977.  Mind you, they were knocked out in the NLCS in both those years. Best aim for 102 wins just in case there’s something spooky going on there.

The Milwaukee Brewers should ride their 21-7 August into the postseason. After three games at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, they finish up with a six-game homestand against the Marlins and the Pirates (3 games against each).  Those contests at Miller Park are likely to be the last regular season home games Prince Fielder makes in a Brewers uniform, as most expect him to leave as a free agent over the offseason.  Whether another NL Central first baseman is coming to the end with his current team is more up for debate.

The St. Louis Cardinals end the season with three games in Houston, but prior to that they have three home games against the Mets and then three at home to the Cubs.  If Albert Pujols does leave the Redbirds, their bitter rivals from Chicago are one of the teams that have been mentioned as a possible contender for his services.  Those rumours will add an extra subplot to that home series.

In the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks are hoping that their recent losing streak will turn out to be a minor blip.  They are 45-27 at Chase Field this season and end the year with a nine-game homestand.  The middle three games are against the Giants and they could prove to be decisive. 

The Giants have three games at Dodger Stadium before travelling to Chase Field and then finish up the regular season at home against the Rockies.

American League

The Boston Red Sox have not had a great September so far; however the rest of their schedule looks quite favourable.  Seven of their remaining ten games will be against the Baltimore Orioles, against whom they have an 8-3 record so far this season.  Boston’s other three games are the small matter of a series in New York against the Yankees, but by then their rivals could have done them a big favour.

The Tampa Bay Rays now have a four-game series in New York and the Yankees could effectively knock them out of the running, sealing the Red Sox’s Wild Card spot. 

But it might not work out that way. 

If the Rays win that series and the Red Sox slip up against the Orioles, we’d be in a position of Boston having three tough games in New York while the Rays play three games at home against the Toronto Blue Jays, who they are 10-5 against so far this year.  The Rays’ final three games are at home against the Yankees and if the Bronx Bombers have secured their place in the postseason by then (which is likely to be the case in this scenario) then Tampa Bay could be in the driving seat.

There a few ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’ in there and the stark fact that the Rays will face the Yankees in seven of their last ten games makes it a very tough task for them. 

The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels are scheduled to end the season with a three-game set at Angels Stadium.  The question is whether L.A. could turn that into a grandstand finish or if the Rangers would have won the division already by then. 

Texas now has three games in Oakland, who they have absolutely dominated recently, before three at home against Seattle.  The Angels have four games on the road against the Blue Jays and then end with a six-game homestand against the A’s and the Rangers.

The Detroit Tigers have two games in Kansas City and then finish up with a seven-game homestand against the Orioles (4 games) and the Indians (3).  That’s a very favourable run-in, but the Tigers don’t need to rely on that now they have been crowned AL Central champs.

2012 Regular season schedule released already

We haven’t finished this season yet, but the 2012 regular season schedule has already been announced

The Florida – soon to be Miami – Marlins’ first game in their new ballpark was always going to be the highlight of the opening schedule, but I didn’t think it would stand out quite so much as it does.  The Marlins will play a single game against the Cardinals on Wednesday 4 April before both teams have Thursday off and then head out onto the road, with the Marlins facing the Reds and the Cardinals facing the Brewers.  That seems a bizarre way to launch a new ballpark.  ‘It’s here at last and, oh, we’re off again’.

Currently the Cardinals-Marlins game is the first scheduled contest of the year, but if that is the thinking behind the odd scheduling then it could be undone by the Mariners and A’s.  Talks are ongoing to move their opening series to Japan, which would make for a great event if Hideki Matsui re-signs with the A’s and therefore leads the team against fellow Japanese hero Ichiro.  When the A’s played two games against the Boston Red Sox back in 2008, they were brought forward to 25-26 March so that the teams could get over the jet lag before getting into the grind of the season.

The schedule is still subject to change – beyond the M’s-A’s series – however it’s unlikely to be altered to any great extent.  That surely means the plans for an extra Wild Card will now not become a reality until 2013 at the earliest.  Even without making a gap for the extra round (which might just be one extra game in each league if it’s a single-game Wild Card showdown), the World Series would already nudge into November if it goes the full seven games.

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