Schedule plays in favor of some contenders

Schedule plays into favor of some contenders

Throughout a 162-game slate, every team is bound to experience its share of grueling stretches, but also have strings of games that aren't quite as difficult -- on paper, at least.

With a little more than three weeks remaining in the regular season, some teams battling for postseason positioning -- or to even reach the postseason -- will face some of those challenging runs, while others have already played through the most difficult parts of their schedules.

For the purpose of studying the strength of schedules, eight American League teams -- the Yankees, Rays, Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Athletics and Angels -- will be considered "contenders." Nine National League clubs -- the Nationals, Braves, Reds, Cardinals, Pirates, Giants, Dodgers, Brewers and Phillies (the latter two have rallied to move within five games of the second Wild Card berth) -- will receive that label.

With that in mind, the Athletics have by far the most brutal remaining schedule of any playoff contender. Including their current three-game set with the Angels, the Athletics play five straight series against playoff-contending teams.

In fact, 19 of the Athletics' final 22 games are against one of the other seven AL teams battling for the playoffs. The only exception is a three-game set against the Mariners in their penultimate series. Making matters worse, 13 of those 22 games will be played on the road.

On the other hand, the Angels -- who trail the Orioles by 1 1/2 games for a Wild Card spot entering the second tilt of their three-game series against the A's on Tuesday-- will play just 12 of their final 21 games against contenders and will also play 12 games at home.

WHAT'S LEFT
Some teams have fared better than others against the teams remaining on their schedules. Here's a look at each contender's record this season against the clubs it still has to face.
Team Record Win pct.
Orioles 31-19 .620
Nationals 33-21 .611
Braves 39-26 .600
Giants 30-21 .588
Reds 32-24 .571
Tigers 32-25 .561
Rays 31-26 .544
Cardinals 27-23 .540
White Sox 35-30 .538
Angels 28-25 .528
Athletics 32-29 .525
Pirates 30-28 .517
Yankees 25-24 .510
Brewers 27-27 .500
Dodgers 37-37 .500
Rangers 22-22 .500
Phillies 25-32 .439
"I think you can make a case for every game being important from now until the end of the schedule," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The games are going to be there. They're all going to be important. We need to focus on [Monday's game against the A's] and just start to build that momentum. You're going to have a tough game every day."

As for the other teams in contention, the Rays play 13 of their final 22 against contenders and the Orioles play just nine such games. The AL East-leading Yankees have just six games -- three each against Tampa Bay and Oakland -- against potential playoff clubs.

Before giving the edge to the Yanks in the AL East, though, note that the Orioles have a 31-19 record against the clubs they will face down the stretch. The Yankees sport a 25-24 record against their remaining opponents.

The Giants hold a distinct advantage -- aside from their five-game lead -- over the Dodgers in the NL West title race. The Giants' next 18 games are against non-contending playoff teams (Rockies, D-backs and Padres). The only contender remaining on their schedule is when they close out the year in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

"There's a lot of baseball left," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's going to be a fight; we know it. That's our nature. We never do anything easy. We have to come out here and work hard every day. There's a lot of baseball left, that's the way we have to look at it. We have to play our game and see what happens."

In order for the final series to be relevant, the Dodgers will have to navigate a much tougher slate that features a 10-game stretch beginning Thursday against the Cardinals, Nationals and Reds starting. The Giants hold a 30-21 record against their remaining opponents, while the Dodgers are 37-37 against theirs.

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez certainly isn't going to look that far ahead, but he made a bold prediction last weekend, regardless of what the schedule has in store.

"I don't know about winning the division. I just know we're getting in the playoffs one way or another," said Gonzalez, who was acquired by the Dodgers last month in a blockbuster trade in an attempt to solidify their chances of qualifying for the postseason.

In the NL Wild Card race, the edge on paper goes to the Cardinals and Braves, with the Dodgers and Pirates on the outside looking in.

Atlanta holds a comfortable lead for the first spot, sitting 5 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals and 6 1/2 ahead of the Dodgers. Los Angeles trails St. Louis by just one game for the second spot and Pittsburgh sits 2 1/2 games back of the Cards.

The Braves will play just nine more games against playoff contenders and have a favorable 12-game stretch from Sept. 17-30. During that time, Atlanta will play six games against the Marlins and three each against the Phillies and Mets. Atlanta boasts a 39-26 record against the teams remaining on its schedule.

While the Cardinals actually have two more games remaining against a contender than do the Pirates (10 to eight), it's the non-contender games that play to St. Louis' favor. From Sept. 18-26, the Cardinals will play nine straight games against the Astros and Cubs, the two teams with the Major Leagues' worst records.

One race that is as close on paper as it is in the current standings is that of the AL Central. The White Sox extended their lead to three games with Monday's victory over the Tigers, but the rivals have three games remaining in their current four-game set in Chicago.

"Regardless of what happens in the series, one bad week after that and you're back in the same situation or worse," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "They're important, everybody knows that, but it's not the end of the season."

Following that series, the Tigers' only remaining series against a contender is a three-game home series against the A's from Sept. 18-20. From there, Detroit finishes the season by playing its final 13 games against the Royals (seven) and Twins (six).

The White Sox don't have it too bad themselves, but -- operating under the assumption that their series against the Angels cancels out the Tigers' clash with the Athletics -- the Sox still have an extra four-game set against the Rays in their next-to-last series.

Looking strictly on paper suggests the postseason will feature the Yankees, Rangers, Orioles and Angels in the AL with it being a toss-up between the White Sox and Tigers for the final spot. In the NL, it seems more clear cut -- the Nats, Reds, Giants, Braves and Cardinals will be playing October baseball.

Now only if it was actually that simple to figure out.

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.