The Road to October: Sept. 26, 2011

The Road to October: Sept. 26, 2011

The Road to October: Sept. 26, 2011
The Rays are surging toward the finish line, but they still haven't put their noses in front of the Red Sox.

The Braves, meanwhile, are going all-out to hold off the rallying Cardinals.

They aren't called pennant "races" for nothing, and right now both Wild Cards are packing serious late-September drama as the regular season enters its last three days.

A whirlwind weekend in the ballparks of the American and National Leagues gave us complete clarity as far as division winners and possible postseason pairings were concerned, but those wacky Wild Cards are keeping us riveted to the daily scoreboard.

On Sunday, the Rays did what they've been doing a lot of lately -- taking care of business and gaining ground on the struggling Red Sox. Tampa Bay beat Toronto, 5-2, behind solid pitching by starter Wade Davis and a four-homer barrage. The Red Sox lost the first game of a doubleheader to the Yankees but prevailed just before midnight in a 14-inning nightcap, winning on Jacoby Ellsbury's home run, his third long ball of the twin bill.

This means the Rays gained yet another half-game on the Red Sox and now trail Boston by one game in the Wild Card standings with three games to play. The Rays will get the Yankees at home, and the Red Sox will travel to Baltimore to take on the Orioles.

Meanwhile, the Braves and Cardinals are experiencing a similar storyline in the NL Wild Card race.

On Sunday, the Cardinals got a dramatic eighth-inning homer from Trade Deadline pickup Rafael Furcal and rode it to a 3-2 victory over the Cubs, and since the Braves had already lost, 3-0, to the Nationals in Washington, St. Louis closed the Wild Card gap in the NL to a single game.

For Tampa Bay, which has won two straight and has gained eight games on the Red Sox since Sept. 2, the momentum seems to keep building.

"It's great, especially where we were and where we are right now," Rays veteran Johnny Damon said. "We're pretty much in control of our own destiny, but we can't control what happens with Boston, so we just have to keep going out there playing and hopefully keep winning."

As for Boston, perhaps Sunday night's victory will do something to embolden the beleaguered club.

"It's not a good feeling," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said before the nightcap. "You've got a pit in your stomach. It's not fun. We've got to stop worrying about what's happened the last three weeks and come out and ... play hard the rest of the way."

The Braves and Cardinals are certainly looking to do the same, and they did it Sunday, but again, the team from St. Louis is playing better baseball right now and keeping their target in clear view.

"I was looking from the get-go," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of watching the out-of-town scoreboard at Busch Stadium. "Yeah, that's the fun of it. The fun of it is watching. Only thing is, you can't get distracted watching it. ... But we all were. That's part of the fun."

"We're thrilled. Considering a month ago we may not have any fun this time of year, we're having fun. And we know exactly what we've got to do."

The Braves do, too, but they haven't been doing it.

Atlanta entered September leading the NL Wild Card race by 8 1/2 games, but it's having a hard time putting it all together lately. Two of their top starters, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, have been down with injuries, and now they find themselves with a one-game lead and three to play.

"We've backed ourselves against a wall," veteran outfielder Eric Hinske said. "We're still going to have a lead [entering Monday] ... but it's no secret that we're not playing well right now. If we don't start winning games, we're not going to make the playoffs."

The Cardinals now head to Houston to play their final three games of the season against the Astros, while the Braves will head back home to take on the Phillies -- including Cliff Lee on Monday night and Roy Oswalt the next.

"There could be a little bit of pressure," Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said.

"But all of the pressure is on St. Louis, because if they don't win, they can't go anywhere. Even if we do lose, they have to win."

As for the rest of the remaining would-be Wild Card contenders, the Angels were dealt what could be a crippling blow. Closer Jordan Walden blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning at home against Oakland. The Angels lost, 6-5, and trail the Red Sox by three games.

"We've still got life," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "This game hurts, but at the same time, we're still breathing."

The other teams that are breathing are doing it a bit easier than the Wild Card wannabes.

The main point of intrigue among the division champions in the NL is whether the D-backs or Brewers will clinch the No. 2 seed and earn home-field advantage in the Division Series against the Wild Card team, relegating the other club to hit the road to meet the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

On Sunday, both teams held serve, with the Brewers beating the Marlins and the D-backs beating the Giants, so Milwaukee (94-65) maintained its one-game lead over Arizona (93-66) in that race.

"We're playing well," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "Everything's working well. We're in a spot where I think we need to be playing good ball going into the playoffs. Whether we win them or lose them, these next three games, we're going to go after. But these next three games, we need to play well going into the playoffs."

And a similar situation is playing out in the AL, where the Central champion Tigers and West champion Rangers both won Sunday, leaving Texas (93-66) with a one-game lead over Detroit (92-67) for the No. 2 seed in the AL.

"I'm really proud of them, and I can honestly say I'm going into the postseason very optimistic," Rangers CEO and president Nolan Ryan said. "I think this thing is gaining momentum, and I'm quite excited about it."

If the postseason started today

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

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

Today's key games to watch

Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 13-6) at Orioles (Tommy Hunter, 4-4), 7:05 p.m. ET Preview
The Red Sox lead the Rays by one game for the AL Wild Card. Their magic number to clinch a postseason berth is three.

Indians (Ubaldo Jimenez, 10-12) at Tigers (Doug Fister, 10-13), 7:05 p.m. Preview
The Tigers are one game behind the Rangers for the AL's second-best record and home-field advantage in the ALDS.

Phillies (Cliff Lee, 16-8) at Braves (Randall Delgado, 1-1), 7:10 p.m. Preview
The Phillies have clinched the NL East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Braves hold a one-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card standings; their magic number is three.

Yankees (Bartolo Colon, 8-10) at Rays (James Shields, 15-12), 7:10 p.m. Preview
The Yankees have clinched the AL East and home-field advantage through the first two rounds. The Rays trail the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card lead by one game.

Cardinals (Jaime Garcia, 13-7) at Astros (Wandy Rodriguez, 11-11), 8:05 p.m. Preview
The Cardinals have cut their deficit in the NL Wild Card race to just one game.

Pirates (Charlie Morton, 10-10) at Brewers (Shaun Marcum, 13-7), 8:10 p.m. Preview
The Brewers clinched the NL Central on Friday night. Milwaukee is also one game ahead of Arizona for the NL's second seed and home-field advantage in the NLDS.

Dodgers (Dana Eveland, 2-2) at D-backs (Daniel Hudson, 16-11), 9:40 p.m. Preview
The D-backs have clinched the NL West. Arizona is also one game behind the Brewers for the NL's second seed.

Rangers (C.J. Wilson, 16-7) at Angels (Dan Haren, 16-9), 9:40 p.m. Preview
The Rangers have clinched the AL West and are one game ahead of the Tigers for the AL's second seed. The Angels are three games back in the AL Wild Card race.

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: Clinched the AL East and home-field advantage for the ALDS and ALCS.

Tigers: Clinched the AL Central.

Rangers: Clinched the AL West.

Red Sox: 3 to clinch the AL Wild Card.

Phillies: Clinched the NL East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Brewers: Clinched the NL Central.

D-backs: Clinched the NL West.

Braves: 3 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. Pirates (Monday-Wednesday)

Vs. Dodgers (Monday-Wednesday)

Vs. Phillies (Monday-Wednesday)

At Astros (Monday-Wednesday)

Vs. Indians (Monday-Wednesday)

At Angels (Monday-Wednesday)

Red Sox
At Orioles (Monday-Wednesday)

Vs. Yankees (Monday-Wednesday)

Vs. Rangers (Monday-Wednesday)

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

Doug Miller is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.