Friday, September 6, 2013

Down the Stretch They Come!

For hardcore baseball fans like myself, this is the most wonderful time of the year. The weather will begin to turn cooler, daylight will fade faster, but the pennant races will be heating up and the stars will come out to shine as the MLB regular season comes to a climax this month.

Tonight, those races really begin to get going with tremendous matchups that have post-season implications for both teams involved taking place in four cities, and with games involving potential playoff contenders also happening in at least a half dozen other locales.

Perhaps no more directly important series of games will be taking place this weekend than the 3-game set at Busch Stadium between the host Saint Louis Cardinals and visiting Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh enters the series in first place in the National League Central Division, a game and a half in front of the second place Cards. So the battle for that title is a head-to-head one, fairly clear-cut. But not totally clear-cut, since the Cincinnati Reds sit just three games off the pace. The Reds will take part in another of those big weekend series, as they host the NL West Division leaders, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Those are by far the two biggest series taking place this weekend in the NL, and there are also a pair of biggies in the American League. At new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, the Yanks will be hosting their longtime divisional and emotional rivals, the Boston Red Sox, in what is always a marquee baseball battle. Boston has had a tremendous season to this point, and leads 3rd place New York by 9 full games. However, the Yankees have just begun getting healthy, and have crept within range in the Wildcard playoff race. This weekend will thus be full of drama for fans of both clubs.

The other big AL battle is taking place this weekend in the AL Central, where the defending champs and front-runners, the Detroit Tigers, will visit the upstart Kansas City Royals. Detroit currently holds a 6 1/2 game lead on second place Cleveland, with the Royals now 8 games out. But again, the Royals are squarely in that AL Wildcard race as well, have been hot, and would love to use an emotional home series win over the Tigers to spur themselves to a strong finish.

I mentioned those Wildcard races, and the American League is shaping up to be especially dramatic. No fewer than a half dozen teams are within 4 1/2 games of the Wildcard playoff spots as we head to the final 3+ weeks of the season. Right now, Oakland owns the top WC spot, with Tampa Bay holding the cherished 2nd and final slot. The Yankees are 2 1/2 out, Baltimore and Cleveland are each 3 back, and KC is 4 1/2 behind. Oakland is still in their Divisional race, with the A's trailing the first place Texas Rangers by just a half game in the AL West.

The National League's overall playoff picture is not quite as complicated or crowded into these final weeks. In the NL East, the Atlanta Braves have built up a near-insurmountable 14 game lead on the Washington Nationals. In the NL West, the Dodgers lead second place Arizona by a dozen games. Even the Wildcard race is not close right now. The Cardinals hold the top spot, the Reds the 2nd spot, and it's a deep 7 game drop to both Arizona and Washington as the best chasers.

It would appear right now that the NL Central is the single most exciting battle to watch in all of baseball, with the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds all within those 3 games of one another. Whichever wins the division, also wins a bye into the Divisional Round of the MLB playoffs. The two who finish in the Wildcard slots will have to face a tense, winner-take-all, one game playoff to advance. Thus, you can see the importance of their head-to-head matchups, including the one beginning tonight in Saint Louis.

Over the next few weeks the Major League Baseball races will play out to near nightly drama on diamonds across the country, covered regularly by MLB Network, ESPN, Fox, and local TV networks. With the NFL and EPL now underway, many eyes will be diverted to other sports and other games. But not mine, and not millions of true baseball fans, who know that these weeks are just the appetizer drama to the October post-season main course. Strap yourself into your seats, baseball fans, and hold on tight, because down the stretch they come!

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