This is not about playoff possibilities as in a team losing the last seven games of the season with the team pursuing them winning the last seven to forge an inexplicable comeback. Nor is it about unrealistic scenarios. It’s about evenhanded reality and viable opportunity.
Let’s take a look.
New York Yankees
Schedule: 4 games at Blue Jays in Toronto, Sept. 23, 24, 25, 26; 3 games vs Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, Oct. 1, 2, 3
How they’re playing: The Yankees righted the ship after the beginning of September when a collapse looked imminent. If the Yankees somehow fall out of the division lead or the playoffs entirely, it won’t be due to a prototypical collapse as we saw with the Red Sox last season.
What they need: 5 wins would pretty much guarantee the division title. They do not want to find themselves looking at the scoreboard on Monday and wondering what the Angels, A’s, Rangers, Orioles and whoever are doing.
What will happen: The Blue Jays want to get the season over with and are playing like it. They showed nothing against the Yankees last week and the only reason they won two games against the Orioles this week was because the Orioles didn’t capitalize on what the Blue Jays were repeatedly handing to them.
The Yankees are going to the playoffs, but could still blow the division and it wouldn’t be due to a collapse.
Schedule: 3 games vs Red Sox in Baltimore, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games at Rays in Tampa Bay, Oct. 1, 2, 3
What they need: To have a chance at the division title, they’ll have to go 5-1 and hope the Blue Jays and Red Sox want to stick it to the Yankees and show up to the games trying to win and not get them over with so they can go home, and that the Red Sox and Rays would also like to stick it to the Yankees to the point that they don’t go all out against the Orioles.
All possible I suppose, but unlikely.
4 out of 6 wins should get them in.
What will happen: The Orioles will take care of business against the Red Sox and Rays and get at least those 4 wins and hope the nightmare scenario that I’m going to discuss doesn’t happen in the AL West. If they’re eliminated, the Rays may not even pitch their main starters in those last three games and if the Orioles lose 1 or 2, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. The nightmare scenario affects the Yankees as well.
Tampa Bay Rays
Schedule: 3 games at White Sox in Chicago, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Orioles at Tampa Bay, Oct. 1, 2, 3
What they need: The Rays have won 7 straight, have to sweep the White Sox—who are fighting for their division title—and hope they’re still alive when they get to Monday against the Orioles. Very, very difficult.
What will happen: The Rays will be done by Monday and have to decide how hard to push to keep up the “integrity” of the pennant race in those last three games. I have a hunch Joe Maddon will play to win without overstressing his young arms.
The Nightmare Scenario
I’ll examine the AL West all at once.
Schedule: 1 game vs Athletics in Texas, Sept. 27; 3 games vs Angels in Texas, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Athletics in Oakland, Oct. 1, 2, 3
Schedule: 1 game vs Rangers in Texas, Sept, 27; 3 games vs Mariners in Oakland, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Rangers in Oakland, Oct. 1, 2 ,3
Los Angeles Angels
Schedule: 1 game vs Mariners in Anaheim, Sept. 27; 3 games vs Rangers in Texas, Sept. 28, 29, 30; 3 games vs Mariners in Seattle, Oct. 1, 2, 3
The Rangers are leading the American League in wins with 91, but their division lead is now at 3 games over the A’s and 5 over the Angels. Their problem is that they’re playing two teams that are chasing them. The A’s and Angels have a sense of urgency that I don’t get the impression that the Rangers have had recently. Their playoff spot is not assured as the division winner or as the Wild Card. For them it would take a collapse to miss the playoffs, but it could happen.
Let’s say the A’s win today over the Rangers then beat on the Mariners this weekend. And let’s say that the desperate Angels who are taking every game like a playoff game and have 4 remaining with the playing-out-the-string Mariners win 6 of 7 including 2 of 3 vs the Rangers.
What if we get to Monday and the A’s are either tied with the Rangers or a game behind and the Angels are 2 out with 3 to play? There’s a possibility that the Rangers will enter Monday with 92 wins; the A’s with 91; and the Angels with 89. What if the A’s sweep the Rangers and the Angels sweep the Mariners? The Rangers and Angels would be tied. What if the Rangers sweep the A’s and the Angels sweep the Mariners? The A’s would be either out or hoping that the Yankees or Orioles came undone.
Because the AL West will simultaneously be beating on each other and the Mariners when they’re not beating on each other, the Yankees and Orioles are relatively assured of at least a playoff spot and have to determine who’s going to win the division. But the Rangers could very easily find themselves on the outside looking in with the A’s and Angels either passing them entirely or face the hell of a one-game playoff prior to the Wild Card play-in game.
What will happen: The Rangers will survive and hold onto the division. What will be most interesting will be how they try to manipulate which teams are in the playoffs. Of all their potential playoff opponents, the last ones they want to see are the Angels. If the Angels somehow make it in—relieved to have salvaged a season that looked shot in August and on a blazing hot streak with a deep starting rotation and star bats—they could conceivably make the playoffs and blow everyone away.
The team the Rangers presumably fear least is the Yankees when considering that they’ve beaten them before, the Yankees have rotation questions, and worry as to whether Soriano can handle the post-season. But the Angels have massive obstacles to overcome and it might be too late.
The most probable scenario: The Yankees win the AL East; the Orioles and Athletics take the Wild Cards; the Rangers win the AL West.
Of course, as the last day of the 2011 season showed, this is all subject to change at the whim of the Baseball Gods, closers who can’t close, non-contending teams that want to have company in their misery (see the Red Sox of Boston) and massive managerial blunders.