After last night's action, six teams know for sure that they're headed for the playoffs, and with three postseason races left to watch, the teams involved have either four or five games remaining on their schedules. Let's sum up what we know on Wednesday morning, and what the teams in the hunt need to do to reach the playoffs.
The Rays and Yankees have spent much of the past two months within a game of one another, and even now, neither team can manage to pull away. Over the past ten games, the Rays are 5-5 with a +9 run differential, and the Yankees are 4-6 with a -8 run differential. If these teams finish tied, the AL East will go to the Rays and their superior head-to-head record, and the Yankees will enter the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
Since neither team has much momentum to speak of at the moment, pitching match-ups and strength of schedule appear likely to be the deciding factors in this race:
The Rays' remaining games:
Wednesday (Jeff Niemann) at home vs. Orioles (Kevin Millwood)
Thursday (Matt Garza) at Royals (Zack Greinke)
Friday (James Shields) at Royals (Bruce Chen)
Saturday (Wade Davis) at Royals (Kyle Davies)
Sunday (David Price) at Royals (Sean O'Sullivan)
The Rays certainly have an easier remaining schedule than the Yankees, but it's important to note that at 36-40, the Royals are nearly a .500 team at home. Winning just three of these remaining five games would force the Yankees to win each of their four remaining games, which won't be easy.
The Yankees' remaining games:
Wednesday (Javier Vazquez) at Blue Jays (Brett Cecil)
Friday (Ivan Nova) at Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzaka)
Saturday (Phil Hughes) at Red Sox (Clay Buccholz)
Sunday (A.J. Burnett) at Red Sox (John Lackey)
Four road games against division rivals that have been dangerous this season. The Yankees must either win all of them or hope that the Rays self-destruct. The Rays' half-game lead is deceptively large. The division loser (and Wild Card winner) would have to play an ALDS against the Twins, who will have home-field advantage. Not an attractive prospect.
The Padres have dropped their last three games, having been outscored 18-4. If they can wake up, play well against the Cubs, and keep their deficit in the NL West to two games or fewer, they'll set themselves up for a dramatic three-game series against the Giants.
Even if they do, though, said series will be played in San Francisco, where the Giants are 46-30 this season. They're lucky to have such an opportunity to begin with, as teams that lose 23 of 32 games over a stretch in August/September rarely have a chance.
The Giants-Padres series is great news for the Braves, since it guarantees that its competitor in the Wild Card race will finish with no more than 91 wins, and likely 89 or 90. The Braves have 89 wins themselves. They play the final game of a hard-fought series against the Marlins on Wednesday night before heading home for a three-game series against the Phillies -- the best team in the National League.
The Phillies currently have Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay penciled in as starters for the final two games of the season. The Braves surely hope that Charlie Manuel will opt to rest his starters before the playoffs.
This is an especially interesting race. It could be effectively over by Thursday night, or it could end with a dramatic season-ending series between division rivals.