More than any other sport, baseball’s season feels like a marathon. Across six months and 162 games, teams ultimately prove themselves with a steady pace, with endurance, with consistency. But with the finish line in sight — the regular season comes to a close Oct. 1 — the undecided pennant races shift into all-out sprints.
There are three major contests for playoff positioning that could approximate a 100-meter dash over the next few weeks, and the starting gun sounds this weekend.
The AL East
The runners: Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays
The prize: No. 1 seed in the AL bracket, guaranteeing a bye into the Division Series and home-field advantage until the World Series
If we’re being honest, the American League runs through Houston until proven otherwise. But on paper, the winner of this race will have the league’s best record and the upper hand on reaching the World Series. That makes this weekend’s four-game series between the two teams in Baltimore a pivotal precursor to the postseason.
The splashy, young Orioles have been in first place since they took three of four the last time these two clubs met back in mid-July. Everyone is on board with the lineup, led by Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, but this will be a good test for Baltimore’s emerging postseason rotation options. Kyle Bradish, who goes Thursday, has looked awfully ace-like recently. Over his past 15 starts (dating to mid-June), he has posted a 2.33 ERA and gone at least six innings 13 times.
Still, the Rays have kept themselves within striking distance, despite a barrage of pitching injuries and without Wander Franco, the shortstop on administrative leave as MLB and authorities in the Dominican Republic investigate allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with underage girls. The Rays could reclaim the division lead this weekend if spotlight-loving outfielder Randy Arozarena kicks into October gear early.
The AL West
The runners: Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners
The prize: No. 2 seed in the AL bracket, guaranteeing a bye into the Division Series
Because the Minnesota Twins, presumptive AL Central champions, are wildly unlikely to surpass any of these teams, but the wild-card-seeking Toronto Blue Jays very well might, the AL West’s trio of contenders are running the highest-stakes race of all. Someone will get to skip the wild-card series and slot into the ALDS, someone will have to make it through the best-of-three wild-card challenge, and someone might wind up watching at home.
And boy, do the teams appear intent on taking that decision down to the wire. The Mariners surged to the top with a 21-6 August but have since squandered that position with a 5-8 September. The Rangers were in first place all season until Aug. 27; this week brought a rebound, in the form of a four-game winning streak, and a gut punch, in the form of an injury to Max Scherzer. Meanwhile, the de facto favorites and current division leaders, the defending champ Astros, just lost two in a row to the Oakland A’s.
Circle this on your calendar: The Mariners’ last 10 games are against their two rivals. That’s three in Texas, followed by three at home against Houston and four more at home to close the season against the Rangers. Photo finish incoming.
The NL wild card
The runners: Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins, San Francisco Giants
The prize: A ticket to October
This is an absolute scramble, and that’s assuming the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs can hold serve for the first two NL wild-card slots. The four contenders for the final spot entered Wednesday within 1.5 games of one another, all with negative run differentials far worse than that of the San Diego Padres, who are testing the limits of baseball physics by being eight games out. This is a collection of surprise teams playing with house money, and none of them is even over .500 since the trade deadline.
Led by NL Cy Young contender Zac Gallen and NL Rookie of the Year favorite Corbin Carroll, the D-backs are closest, bolstered (yes, bolstered) by a 7-5 September so far. Starting Friday, they have a crucial home stand that will bring the Cubs and Giants to Phoenix.
Whoever wins this demolition derby likely gets a shot at the Milwaukee Brewers in a wild-card series.