MLB playoff picture: Breakdown of 4 races left to watch as postseason approaches
Playoff positioning comes into focus in final week
DETROIT – The MLB playoff picture is coming into focus as most of the division races are over and only one more team has to be eliminated.
The Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins will be the division winners in the American League. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves have already clinched division titles in the National League.
The St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers will be the other three playoff teams in the NL.
That means eight of the 10 postseason seats have basically been filled, but there are still a few great races to keep an eye on.
AL wildcard race
Teams: Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians
Situation: Two get wild-card spots, one misses playoffs
By far the best race left in the season is the AL wildcard race, which features three teams battling for two spots.
The Oakland Athletics currently hold the top spot, but they're only a half-game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays, who hold the second spot. The Cleveland Indians are a half-game behind the Rays.
Tampa Bay has played an extra game, so its final off-day Thursday will either result in ties or one-game leads and deficits. This is the only race left that will eliminate a team from the postseason.
Oakland had a somewhat comfortable 2.5-game lead over the Rays two games ago, but back-to-back losses to the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels have made the situation much more precarious.
The A's won't play another game at home this season, with one more road game against the Angels before a four-game series on the road against the Seattle Mariners coming up.
Tampa Bay has a similar opponent to end the season, as it goes to Toronto for three games with the Blue Jays. Seattle and Toronto are the fifth- and fourth-worst teams in the AL, respectively.
First, the Rays have one last home game Wednesday against the first-place Yankees. It's a critical game for a team that won't play Thursday.
Cleveland has by far the most difficult remaining schedule, though its next two games at the Chicago White Sox -- the sixth-worst team in the AL -- shouldn't be overly daunting.
The Indians end the year with an inter-league road trip to Washington, where they'll play three games against the Nationals. Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer are scheduled to start the final two games for the Nats, so the final weekend will be a challenge.
Every game is critical in this race, as all three teams are separated by only a game. There's a chance all three could have identical records heading into the final three games of the season.
World Series, ALCS home-field advantage
Teams: Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers
Situation: Astros/Yankees battle for home field in possible ALCS matchup; Dodgers battle for home field in possible World Series matchup
The Astros, Yankees and Dodgers have had their divisions locked up for months, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to play for in the final five or six games.
If Houston and New York meet in the American League Championship Series, the team with the better regular-season record will have home-field advantage. As it stands, the Astros lead the Yankees by 1.5 games.
It might be hard for the Yankees to make up enough ground on the Astros. Houston plays a road game against the Mariners and four road games against the Angels. The Yankees have one more road game against the desperate Rays and three road games against the Rangers.
Houston also won the head-to-head series against New York, taking four out of seven games. That means the Astros would get home-field advantage if the two teams finish in a tie.
So even if the Yankees win their final four games and finish 106-56, the Astros would have to go 2-3 in five games against losing teams to surrender the top seed in the AL.
The Dodgers are a full two games behind the Astros, but only a half-game behind the Yankees, which is significant if the World Series is a matchup between two of these three teams.
Los Angeles has five road games left against losing teams -- two in San Diego and two in San Francisco. The Dodgers can make up that half-game deficit to the Yankees with a win Thursday.
If the two teams finished tied, however, the Yankees would have the edge after winning two of three from the Dodgers in Los Angeles last month.
Since the Dodgers and Astros didn't meet this season, the team with the better record in its own division would win the tiebreaker. Houston is six games better than Los Angeles against its own division with five games left for each team, so the Astros have locked up that tiebreaker.
That means even if Los Angeles wins out, the Astros would have to go 2-3 so surrender home-field advantage in a potential World Series matchup.
In other words, if the Astros win at least three of their final five games, they're guaranteed to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The race between the Yankees and Dodgers should be much more interesting.
NOTE: The Twins and Braves are separated by only 1.5 games, which could come into play should both make the World Series.
NL Central Division
Teams: St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers
Situation: One wins division, one gets wild-card spot
The only division race left in baseball resides in the NL Central, where the Cardinals hold a 2.5-game lead over the Brewers.
This has been a back-and-forth battle all season, with the Cardinals winning 10 of 19 head-to-head meetings and both teams red hot in their last 10 games.
In fact, the Cardinals have only lost four of their last 13 games, and two of those losses came at the hands of the Brewers.
Milwaukee has gotten back into the playoff picture by winning 16 of its last 18 games.
The Brewers have a chance to make up that half-game Thursday, but the Cardinals still have a significant edge with only four games remaining.
If Milwaukee goes 5-0 in its final five games -- two at Cincinnati and three at Colorado -- the Cardinals would need to lose two of their final four games -- one at Arizona and three at home against the Chicago Cubs.
If the teams finish tied, the Cardinals would host a tiebreaker game Monday, with the winner playing the Braves in the NLDS and the loser playing the Nationals in the wild-card game.
NL wild-card home-field advantage
Teams: Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, (St. Louis Cardinals)
Situation: Better record hosts wild-card game
Unless the Cardinals surrender their lead in the NL Central, this race is strictly between the Nationals and the Brewers.
As long as the Cardinals win the NL Central, the Nationals and Brewers will play in the NL wild-card game to determine who plays the Dodgers in the NLCS. The only question is where the game will be played.
Washington currently holds a one-game lead over Milwaukee with five games remaining for both teams. The Brewers won the season series, however, so a tie would bring the wild-card game to Miller Park.
The Nationals have a much more difficult schedule, with two games against the Philadelphia Phillies and three against a desperate Indians team.
The Brewers play five games against losing teams, as mentioned above.
Washington currently has a lead in the race, but there's no margin for error.
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