160 games played, 2 more to go. Fans of the Braves, Cardinals, Rays and Red Sox are being put through the wringer by their teams and the tension could be at its height on Tuesday night in the States.
The results from Monday’s games have left the Red Sox and Rays locked together in the American League Wild Card race, while the Braves hold a one-game lead in the National League over the Cardinals.
Atlanta could clinch the NL Wild Card tonight with a victory accompanied by a St. Louis loss, distilling the excitement down to one league on Wednesday.
However, it’s just as likely that the NL Wild Card will still be up for grabs, so we might yet have another full day of nervous excitement.
The MLB schedulers have inadvertently produced a fascinating climax to the season. In both Wild Card races, we have a team ending the regular season with a series against the best team in their league, accompanied by a team playing one of the weaker sides.
In the case of the National League, the race-leading Braves are the team with potentially the toughest task.
Atlanta are hosting the Phillies, holders of the best win-loss record in baseball this season and fuelled by a desire to enter the postseason on the back of some good performances following a recent eight-game losing streak. Their rivals in the Wild Card race, the Cardinals, are matched-up with the team with the worst record in baseball: the Washington Nationals.
Put the two cases together and logically you would expect the Cardinals to take full advantage; however we all know that sport and logic often sit at odds with one another.
You could even argue that the Cardinals are in a more pressurised position than the Braves. With the greatest of respect to the Astros, St. Louis knows that the Wild Card is there for the taking. To see the Braves lose on Monday, only to then slip up against Houston must be especially demoralizing.
The roles are reversed in the American League. Here, it’s the chasing Rays that are ending the regular season against the New York Yankees, while the Boston Red Sox face the lowly Baltimore Orioles.
One again, the win-loss records counted for little on Monday night as the Red Sox continued their miserable September form with a 6-3 loss, while ‘Big Game’ James Shields pitched the Rays to a victory over the Bronx Bombers.
All of which leads us to the Tuesday night games.
The Red Sox will send veteran Erik Bedard to the mound at five past midnight UK time in what the MLB.com ‘Probable Pitchers’ guide describes as a “playoff audition”. If Bedard flunks his lines, as he did last time out against the Orioles, the ‘Red Sox 2011 Postseason Show’ may be a production that never actually opens.
Just five minutes later, the Rays’ rookie Jeremy Hellickson will come out of the dugout at Tropicana Field ready to face the Yankees, while the much more experienced Derek Lowe takes the mound at Turner Field for the Braves.
And then at 01.05 BST, the Cardinals will begin their game against the Houston Astros. Right-hander Jake Westbrook gets the start for the Red Birds knowing that he could either pitch his team into a great position, or pitch them out of contention.
Us neutrals will hope that Tuesday’s games set up a thrilling final day on Wednesday, with the potential of a tie-breaker game or two on Thursday just for good measure.
ESPN America is showing the Yankees-Rays game from midnight. All of the action is available to MLB.TV or Gameday subscribers at MLB.com.