MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Week Ahead: Checklist for final seven days

Week Ahead: Checklist for final seven days

Welcome to the final week of the regular season, when there's unfinished business here, there and everywhere. Divisions are there to be won, Wild Card berths to be grabbed and home-field advantages to be gained.

Things can happen quickly now. Resilience will be tested. Hopes could rise and fall an inning at a time.

Baseball is usually about the long run, about enduring the ups and downs and continuing to push ahead. But this week is not like that. It's about approaching every game as if it's the most important one of the season, which it probably is. It may not have the urgency of postseason baseball, but it's the next-best thing.

Here's a checklist for this final week:

THE STORYLINES

1. National League Wild Card
It doesn't get any better than this. The Diamondbacks have locked up the top seed, and the Rockies lead the Brewers by two games and the Cardinals by 2 1/2 games in the race for the other spot.

To repeat: Three teams, one playoff berth, one week.

The Rockies have been one of the surprise teams this season, and they got a huge victory over the Padres on Sunday. The Brewers were dealt a setback by losing three of four at home to the Cubs this weekend. The Cardinals also had a tough Sunday, losing to the Pirates.

2. Settling the American League East
The Red Sox lead the Yankees by five games and have their magic number down to three as they close in on a second straight division title. They begin a seven-game homestand Monday to finish the regular season. The Red Sox are finishing strong, having won 14 of 17 thanks to a pitching staff that's one of the two or three best in the Majors. The Yanks have clinched a postseason berth, and while the division title is still within reach, they appear to be on their way to hosting the AL Wild Card Game.

If it's about the pitching, the Red Sox and Yankees could be playing a while. Boston has a 2.93 ERA this month, second only to the Indians. The Yanks are sixth at 3.62.

Red Sox's staff blanks the Reds

3. Settling the NL Central
The Cubs lead the Brewers by 5 1/2 games and the Cardinals by six and have their magic number down to two. They've had an impressive midseason turnaround: 44-23 since July 14, baseball's second-best record. Only the Twins have scored more runs since then, and the Cubbies' pitching has been solid as well.

Finals Week: Wild tests facing NL Central

4. AL Wild Card
The Yankees have locked up one of the spots, and the Twins are closing in on the other, with a five-game lead over the Angels and 5 1/2 over the Rangers and Royals.

If the Twins get across the finish line, it will be one of the more unusual postseason runs of recent years. They'd faded enough at the non-waiver Trade Deadline that All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler was traded to the Nationals and starter Jaime Garcia was dealt to the Yanks.

But the Twins got better despite the losses. They're 33-21 since the deadline with an offense that has been the second-most productive in the Majors. Their kid position players -- Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Eduardo Escobar and Eddie Rosario -- make them wildly entertaining to watch as well.

Twins' eight-run 8th inning

FIVE KEY SERIES

Cubs at Cardinals, four games beginning Monday
What could be better than this? The Cardinals have scratched and clawed their way back into contention and will begin the day in striking distance of a postseason berth. Meanwhile, the Cubs are on the verge of clinching a second straight NL Central title.

Twins at Indians, three games beginning Tuesday
The Indians have clinched the AL Central and are in a tight race with the Astros for best record in the AL and the Dodgers for best overall record. The Twins are on the verge of clinching the AL's second Wild Card berth and returning to the postseason for the first time in seven years.

Indians' four-homer game

Dodgers at Rockies, three games beginning Friday
The Dodgers could still be playing to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and it'll be interesting to see how hard they push through the weekend. The Rockies, meanwhile, could still be trying to secure the second NL Wild Card berth.

Brewers at Cardinals, three games beginning Friday
This could end up being the best series of the season, one in which two clubs are fighting for one playoff berth. Or it could be two teams already eliminated. Neither team has much margin for error at this point.

Astros at Red Sox, four games beginning Thursday
This one shapes up to be one of the stranger season-ending series in recent seasons since these two teams could very well open the postseason against one another in an AL Division Series. So do the two managers use their pitching staffs differently as they look ahead to the next series?

10 PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
He's expected to be back in the lineup Monday after missing 40 games with a knee injury. He's capable of transforming a really good lineup into a championship one.

2. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
Three home runs from becoming the sixth player to hit 60.

Stanton's 57th home run

3. Aaron Judge, Yankees
Tied and passed Mark McGwire's rookie homer record on Monday afternoon, hitting Nos. 49 and 50. Where will the record be at the end of the week?

4-5. Corey Kluber, Indians; and Chris Sale, Red Sox
Probably one start apiece to perhaps settle the AL Cy Young Award. At the moment, they're separated by an eyelash, if that.

Kluber's 18th win of the year

6. Corey Seager, Dodgers
Nursing a sore ankle, he's hitting .164 this month.

7. Yu Darvish, Dodgers
He has had back-to-back solid starts after a pair of shaky ones. The Dodgers' postseason hopes are built, in part, on a rotation that begins with Clayton Kershaw and Darvish.

8. Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
He began the month as the NL MVP Award front-runner. He's hitting .212 in September, but has three home runs and remains a feared presence.

Darvish's strong outing

9. Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox
He's hitting .188 with one home run this month. He's also capable of elevating the Red Sox offense if he gets hot at the right time.

10. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
He has been charged with seven earned runs in two of his past three starts. In two other starts this month, he was outstanding, allowing three earned runs in 14 innings. The Yankees need more of one and less of the other.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.