The Road to October: Sept. 16, 2011

The Road to October: Sept. 16, 2011

The Road to October: Sept. 16, 2011
It isn't just about the American League Wild Card for the Red Sox.

After defeating the Rays, 4-3, on Friday at Fenway Park, the Red Sox not only enter play Saturday with their Wild Card lead at four games over Tampa Bay, but they sit within 3 1/2 games of first in the AL East. But before looking too far ahead, the Red Sox remain focused on the Rays, against whom Boston continues its crucial four-game series this weekend.

Despite being nine games out of playoff contention on Sept. 2, the Rays never gave up hope. Now, they're exactly where they want to be.

"It's here. These games definitely mean something," said Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann, who will start Saturday opposite Jon Lester. "I look forward to going out there and seeing what I can do, and hopefully I turn in a quality performance."

The playoffs might not officially start until October, but Niemann -- who has allowed two runs and struck out 20 in 17 innings against the Red Sox this season -- knows Saturday's game will feature a win-or-go-home feeling.

"Looking forward to it," Niemann said. "The atmosphere is going to be awesome. Look forward to going out there experiencing that and feeling those kinds of juices."

While the AL Wild Card race has taken center stage this weekend -- and rightfully so with the Rays and Red Sox battling head to head -- the National League race has proven to be just as thrilling.

The Cardinals' 4-2 extra-inning win against the Phillies on Friday, coupled with Atlanta's blowout 12-2 loss to the Mets, cut the Braves' lead over the Cardinals to 3 1/2 games. Atlanta has struggled lately, winning only seven of its past 18, and on Saturday, it will try to get back on track behind right-hander Tim Hudson.

The Wild Card races are heating up, but the AL Central race is over. The Tigers, 3-1 winners against Oakland on Friday, became the first team in the Majors to clinch its division, Detroit's first Central title and first division crown since 1987.

"Especially the month of September, this has been a fun ride," said Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello, who starts on Saturday. "Kind of the way we took off with that streak that we had right there, just the way things really started clicking once we got down to crunch time here. That's been nice. That's how we felt we were capable of playing. We just want to continue to build off of that."

Detroit's work is done as far as clinching a postseason berth, but the Tigers are still in the hunt for the top overall seed in the AL. The Tigers trail the Yankees by three games for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

While the Tigers have already popped the champagne, the Phillies will try again Saturday to clinch their fifth straight NL East title against the hot Cardinals behind right-hander Roy Oswalt.

Like the Phillies, the Brewers and D-backs continue their quest to win their respective divisions.

Milwaukee is seeking its first NL Central title in Cincinnati behind right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who fanned 12 his last time out. But don't expect the reigning division champion Reds to let the Brewers clinch the division without a fight, however. Cincinnati has won 19 of the past 28 meetings against the Brewers and also has tagged Gallardo for eight runs in 11 innings this season.

With their loss Friday, the D-backs lost the No. 2 seed in the NL to the Brewers, with Milwaukee now leading Arizona by one game in that race. Arizona starter Josh Collmenter takes the hill to help the D-backs once again surpass the Brewers for home field in the first round and extend Arizona's NL West lead of six games over the Giants, winners of six straight.

The AL West race heads into Saturday just like the day before, with the Rangers leading the Angels by 3 1/2 games after both teams lost Friday. Right-hander Ervin Santana is looking to rebound from two straight losses to help the Halos become the first AL team to win a division when trailing by 3 1/2 games with 12 games remaining.

"It's doable, right?" Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Our focus is to win ballgames, win games. If we win games and get to a certain point and keep winning games the last three games against them, we're going to reach our goal."

Back in the AL East, the Yankees look to keep safe distance between themselves and the Red Sox as they look to rebound from Friday's 5-4 loss against the Blue Jays. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez is expected to return to the lineup after missing eight days with a right thumb injury.

If the postseason started today

Rangers (3) at Yankees (1)
Red Sox (Wild Card) at Tigers (2)

D-backs (3) at Phillies (1)
Braves (Wild Card) at Brewers (2)

Today's key games to watch

Yankees (Bartolo Colon, 8-9) at Blue Jays (Henderson Alvarez, 1-2), 1:07 p.m. ET Preview
The Yankees lead the AL East by 3 1/2 games. Their magic number to clinch a postseason berth is six.

Tigers (Rick Porcello, 14-8) at Athletics (Gio Gonzalez, 13-12), 4:05 p.m. Preview
The Tigers have clinched the AL Central championship. They sit three games behind the Yankees for the best record in the AL.

Mets (R.A. Dickey, 8-12) at Braves (Tim Hudson, 14-10), 4:10 p.m. Preview
The Braves lead the Cardinals by 3 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card. Their magic number to clinch the Wild Card is nine.

Rays (Jeff Niemann, 10-7) at Red Sox (Jon Lester, 15-7), 4:10 p.m. Preview
The Red Sox lead the Rays by four games in the AL Wild Card, with two games remaining in their four-game series. Boston also trails the Yankees by 3 1/2 games in the AL East.

Angels (Ervin Santana, 11-11) at Orioles (Zach Britton, 9-10), 7:05 p.m. Preview
The Angels trail the Rangers by 3 1/2 games in the AL West and the Red Sox by five games for the AL Wild Card.

Cardinals (Jake Westbrook, 12-8) at Phillies (Roy Oswalt, 7-9), 7:05 p.m. Preview
The Phillies have already clinched a playoff spot and have had their eyes on a division title. Their magic number for an NL East championship is one. The Cardinals trail the Braves by 3 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card race.

Brewers (Yovani Gallardo, 16-10) at Reds (Edinson Volquez, 5-5), 7:10 p.m. Preview
The Brewers' magic number to clinch a postseason berth is seven. Milwaukee also has the edge over Arizona for the second seed and home-field advantage in the first round of the NL Division Series.

Rangers (Colby Lewis, 12-10) at Mariners (Anthony Vasquez, 1-3), 7:10 p.m. Preview
The Rangers lead the Angels by 3 1/2 games in AL West, and they trail the Yankees by five games for the best record in the AL.

Giants (Eric Surkamp, 2-0) at Rockies (Drew Pomeranz, 1-0), 8:10 p.m. Preview
The Giants trail the D-backs by six games in the NL West.

D-backs (Josh Collmenter, 9-9) at Padres (Wade LeBlanc, 3-5), 8:35 p.m. Preview
The D-backs lead the NL West by six games and trail Milwaukee by one game for the second seed in the NL.

Postseason 101

Magic numbers

To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining on the schedule and add one. Then subtract the difference in the loss column between the team and its closest pursuer.

Yankees: 6 to clinch postseason.

Tigers: Clinched AL Central.

Rangers: 9 to clinch a postseason berth and AL West.

Red Sox: 9 to clinch the AL Wild Card.

Phillies: Clinched a postseason berth, 1 to clinch NL East.

Brewers: 7 to clinch NL Central.

D-backs: 6 to clinch postseason and NL West.

Braves: 9 to clinch the NL Wild Card.

Tiebreaker scenarios

If two teams are tied atop the division and both are assured of making the postseason, head-to-head record would be used to determine which team is the division champ and which falls to the Wild Card.

If two teams are tied atop the division and share the Wild Card lead with another club, the ties will be broken in the following fashion:
• The teams tied atop the division will play, with the winner taking the division.
• The losing team will then play the remaining Wild Card contender, with the winner making the playoffs.

If three clubs are tied atop a division or Wild Card standings, each club would be designated in one of three slots, "A," "B," or "C." Clubs get to choose their designation based on head-to-head records. Tiebreaking games would then proceed like this:
• Club A hosts Club B on Thursday, Sept. 29
• The winner of the first game hosts Club C on Friday, Sept. 30, with the winner declared champion.

If two division winners are tied for the highest winning percentage, the following tie-breakers will be used to determine home-field advantage in the Division Series:
• head-to-head record

• highest winner percentage in intraleague games

• Highest winning percentage in the last half of intraleague games

• If the Clubs remain tied, then the tied Club with the higher winning percentage in the last half plus one of intraleague games during the championship season. This process will be followed game-by-game until the tie is broken.

Remaining schedules
Vs. Cardinals (Saturday-Monday), vs. Nationals (Sept. 20-22, with doubleheader Sept. 20), at Mets (Sept. 23-25), at Braves (Sept. 26-28)

At Reds (Saturday-Sunday), at Cubs (Sept. 19-21), vs. Marlins (Sept. 23-25), vs. Pirates (Sept. 26-28)

At Padres (Saturday-Sunday), vs. Pirates (Sept. 19-21), vs. Giants (Sept. 23-25), vs. Dodgers (Sept. 26-28)

Vs. Mets (Saturday-Sunday), at Marlins (Sept. 19-21), at Nationals (Sept. 23-25), vs. Phillies (Sept. 26-28)

At Phillies (Saturday-Monday), vs. Mets (Sept. 20-22), vs. Cubs (Sept. 23-25), at Astros (Sept. 26-28)

At Rockies (Saturday-Sunday), at Dodgers (Sept. 20-22), at D-backs (Sept. 23-25), vs. Rockies (Sept. 26-28)

At Blue Jays (Saturday-Sunday), vs. Twins (Sept. 19), vs. Rays (Sept. 20-22 with doubleheader Sept. 21), vs. Red Sox (Sept. 23-25), at Rays (Sept. 26-28)

At Athletics (Saturday-Sunday), at Royals (Sept. 20-21), vs. Orioles (Sept. 22-25), vs. Indians (Sept. 26-28)

At Mariners (Saturday-Sunday), at A's (Sept. 20-22), vs. Mariners (Sept. 23-25), at Angels (Sept. 26-28)

Red Sox
Vs. Rays (Saturday-Sunday), vs. Orioles (Sept. 19-21, with doubleheader on Sept. 19), at Yankees (Sept. 23-25), at Orioles (Sept. 26-28)

At Red Sox (Saturday-Sunday), at Yankees (Sept. 20-22, with doubleheader Sept. 21), vs. Blue Jays (Sept. 23-25), vs. Yankees (Sept. 26-28)

At Orioles (Saturday-Sunday), at Blue Jays (Sept. 19-22), vs. A's (Sept. 23-25), vs. Rangers (Sept. 26-28)

2011 Postseason schedule

American League Division Series: Sept. 30 - Oct. 6
National League Division Series: Oct. 1-7
American League Championship Series: Oct. 8-16
National League Championship Series: Oct. 9-17
World Series: Oct. 19-27
Full postseason schedule

Cash Kruth is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.