The American League pennant race has reached the stretch, but there still isn’t much separation among the leaders. Eight teams are currently within four games of a playoff spot, and every division race is separated by three games or fewer. With only five seats available when the music stops, the final week of the season promises to be chaotic.
As recently as the middle of August, the Yankees were lapping the field, but a 15-15 record in the team’s last 30 games has allowed the rest of the contenders to narrow the gap. Now, not only has the Bronx Bombers’ lead in the A.L. East been narrowed to one, but its wild card cushion stands at only two games. As a result, the Yankees have been forced to expand their scoreboard watching beyond division revivals. However, with over half of the eight contenders’ remaining games involving a head-to-head match-up with another playoff combatant, choosing sides in each game has become a difficult task.
The Yankees would prefer to not worry about the wild card standings, but in order to avoid that concern, they’ll have to start playing much better. Luckily for the Bronx Bombers, their schedule seems set up to cooperate. Over the final three weeks of the season, the team will face opponents with a combined winning percentage of .474 (based on home and road records), which is on par with the White Sox and Tigers, but much lower than all of the other contenders. The Yankees will also play only six games against teams vying for the postseason (three versus the Rays and Athletics), all of which will take place in the Bronx.
Note: Opponent winning percentage based on weighted home/road records.
Among the eight playoff contenders in the A.L., the Rangers are sitting in the most advantageous position. Not only do the two-time defending champs hold a 3 game lead over the Athletics in the West division, but Oakland’s remaining schedule, which features an aggregate opponents’ winning percentage of .570, is easily the most difficult. The A’s will play 13 of their final 22 games on the road, and all of them will be against other teams vying for the post season. If the Athletics continue playing the best baseball in the A.L., they won’t need any help making the playoffs, but in order to accomplish that feat, Oakland will have to run through a daunting gauntlet.
Although not to the degree of the Athletics, the Rays and Angels also face a tough path to the postseason. Each team’s final slate features opponents with an approximately .520 winning percentage, including 12 and 13 games, respectively, against other contenders. Where the paths diverge, however, is the location of those head-to-head showdowns. Ten of the Rays’ playoff battles will take place on the road, while the Angels will play nine in Anaheim.
The White Sox and Tigers, who have played as poorly as the Yankees over the past 30 games, are both on the outside looking in at the wild card picture, but because of their relatively easier schedules, the team that loses out in the A.L. Central still has an outside chance of snagging a wild card. In particular, the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins promise to be easy foils for the White Sox and Tigers, which could be a cause of frustration for teams in the other divisions that are playing much more difficult opponents.
Most of the A.L. contenders have either a promising or intimidating schedule, but the Orioles’ remaining slate is split down the middle. With an opponent record just below .500 and nine games against playoff combatants, the Orioles’ schedule is not easy, but it does have a few soft landing spots. However, the Orioles’ travel burden doesn’t seem as friendly. Baltimore still has to make a trip out to the West Coast, which means the team will not only have to battle jet lag, but perhaps Felix Hernandez as well.
Aside from the eight contenders, two other teams could have a significant impact on the A.L. pennant race. The Mariners and Red Sox will each play 18 games against contenders, giving them ample opportunity to be a spoiler. But, will they be motivated to play that role on a daily basis? With King Felix making a late push for the Cy Young award and the Mariners playing .500 over the past month, Seattle figures to be the much more dangerous club. On the other hand, the Red Sox, who have gone an abysmal 8-22 over the last 30 games, might be too distracted by the continuing controversy surrounding manager Bobby Valentine to focus on wrecking someone else’s season. Having said that, the Yankees would be wise to take nothing for granted. After all, what better way for the Red Sox to salvage their season than by sending the hated Yankees home with the same infamy and shame that ended their season in 2011?
Based upon the entire playoff picture, what is the outlook for the Yankees? Considering the team’s 2 game lead for the final wild card slot and preferential schedule, the Bronx Bombers probably will be playing in October, but the team’s first taste of the postseason could come sooner than expected. In order for the Yankees to avoid the wild card playoff, they’ll need to take full advantage of their favorable slate. It would also help if the Rays and Orioles split their remaining six games, especially if the Yankees are able to clean up against Boston. However, if the wild card becomes the target, domination by the Rays is probably a better alternative. Although the Orioles have the easier schedule, based on opponent record, mitigating concerns, such as injuries and travel, make Baltimore more of a dark horse. Meanwhile, outside the A.L. East, Yankee fans would be advised to root for the Athletics and White Sox in the near term because Chicago already has a solid hold on the Central and Oakland faces an incredibly tough road ahead. Finally, the Yankees’ best interests would be served by the Angels losing every game. Not only do the Halos face a schedule of opponents unlikely to compete with the Yankees for the wild card, but if it comes down to a winner take all contest, the last place the Bronx Bombers would want to play it is Anaheim.
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