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Make or break time in division, Wild Card races

Make or break time in division, Wild Card races

With the All-Star break having come and gone, a number of division and Wild Card races are bound to start heating up down the stretch.

While a number of variables will alter each race on a day-by-day basis, certain teams may already have an edge when it comes to their remaining schedules. Especially in the inaugural year of season-long Interleague Play, some clubs find themselves with much more favorable schedules -- on paper, anyway -- than their competition.

Though the games will ultimately be decided on the field, some teams have already gone through the more demanding parts of their schedules, while others still have those stretches awaiting over the season's final two months.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

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Tigers: Not much separates the American League Central-leading Tigers' remaining schedule from that of the second-place Indians', but Detroit has two significant advantages working in its favor.

First off, Monday's series opener against the White Sox marks the Tigers' first of 16 remaining games against the AL Central's last-place club. The rivals met just three times during the first half of the season, and despite Detroit going just 1-2 in that three-game set, the club is 26-13 against Chicago since the start of the 2011 season.

Overall, the Tigers play just 17 of their final 65 games against teams that currently have winning records, seven of which are against the Indians. Likewise, Cleveland has only 19 games remaining against winning teams, and both Detroit and the Tribe will play another 32 road games before season's end. After Sept. 4, neither team plays a club that currently has a winning record.

The other positive for the Tigers, however, is they enter play Monday holding a 1 1/2-game lead in the AL Central. In each of the past two seasons, they entered play on July 22 clinging to a half-game lead in the division en route to winning AL Central crowns both seasons, including by a runaway 15 games in 2011.

"I think it's typical with the guys we have here and the veterans we've got," ace Justin Verlander said. "We've been a second-half team, because we know what it takes to prepare yourself to play 162 and not just the first half."

Athletics and Rangers: Oakland and Texas will play nearly identical schedules from here on out. As they battle it out for the AL West crown, each club plays just 24 of its final 64 games against teams currently with winning records.

In contrast, the Angels -- who are hoping to make a second-half run similar to that of the A's in 2012 -- have 40 such remaining games.

The lone separation between Oakland and Texas is the fact that the division-leading A's host six of the nine second-half meetings with the Rangers.

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Angels: The Halos will have plenty of opportunities to close the gap on the Athletics and Rangers down the stretch -- but it certainly won't be easy.

As already mentioned, 40 of their 66 remaining games will come against teams that currently sport a winning record. The one positive is that 23 of those games -- 13 against Texas and 10 versus Oakland -- are against the two clubs they are chasing in the AL West.

"Those are the teams in front of us," Angels slugger Albert Pujols said. "Those are the teams we need to beat, one game at a time. I think in the second half of the season, every game is critical. It's not like there's tomorrow. Before you know it, you're in September."

Unfortunately, seven of those 10 games against the A's will come in Oakland, a sign of another daunting second-half trend. Starting with Monday's series opener at home against the Twins, the Angels play just 29 more games at Angel Stadium. Their 37 remaining road games are the most awaiting any Major League team.

Blue Jays: Toronto's brief surge before the All-Star break hit a roadblock after a three-game sweep by Tampa Bay, and things don't figure to get any easier the rest of the way.

Sitting in last place in the AL East following their busy offseason, the Blue Jays have a difficult task ahead as they try to battle back into the postseason picture. Along with a number of remaining series against the powers within their own division, the Jays have non-division games against the AL West-leading Athletics (seven), as well as the D-backs (three) and Dodgers (three), who enter play Monday as the top two teams in the National League West.

In all, Toronto plays 41 of its remaining 65 games against teams with winning records. Only the White Sox (42) play more such games among AL teams.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

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Braves: No club plays fewer teams with a winning record the rest of the way than the NL East-leading Braves.

Atlanta has just three series (10 games) remaining against teams currently above .500. The Braves host the Cardinals for a three-game set this weekend, then travel to St. Louis for a four-game series from Aug. 22-25. Their following series, a three-game set against the Indians from Aug. 27-29, marks the last time the Braves play a team that currently has more wins than losses.

Along with playing 54 of their final 64 games against losing teams, Atlanta leads the NL East with 35 home games remaining on the docket. Still, don't expect the Braves to get complacent with their 6 1/2-game division lead.

"Once you get comfortable, that lead's going to be gone, or you're going to be shipped somewhere else," Atlanta second baseman Dan Uggla said. "We're definitely not satisfied."

Pirates: Schedule-wise, the Bucs have a favorable path in their bid for their first postseason appearance in more than two decades.

Pittsburgh plays 40 games down the stretch against teams with losing records entering play Monday, more than either the division-leading Cardinals or third-place Reds. Of those 40 games, 30 are against teams currently in last place or second-to-last in their respective NL divisions.

Regardless, the Pirates aren't looking too far down the road after suffering second-half collapses in each of the last two seasons.

"We're just focused on today," Bucs All-Star Andrew McCutchen said. "Which is what we've been doing all season to get us to this point.

"We only focus on the game we have in front of us. We're not thinking about the future."

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Cardinals: Though the Cards hold a two-game lead in the NL Central, maintaining that edge through September won't come easy.

More than half of the Redbirds' remaining games (35 of 66) come against teams with winning records, including 17 straight from Aug. 22-Sept. 8. After a four-game series against the NL East-leading Braves, the Cardinals will play 13 consecutive games against either the second-place Pirates or third-place Reds.

Rockies: Colorado has remained within striking distance in the NL West through the All-Star break, but things will only become tougher as the summer progresses.

The Rockies play 34 of their remaining 63 games against teams with winning records, but the true obstacle will come over the final two weeks of the season. Colorado's final 15 games come against the D-backs, Dodgers, Cardinals and Red Sox -- all of whom are currently leading or in second place in their respective divisions.

Making matters worse, following their current 10-game homestand, the Rockies will play just 24 of their final 56 games at home.

"I don't want to get caught up in saying how many games we have to win on this homestand," Colorado manager Walt Weiss said. "You've got to be careful getting too far ahead or getting caught up with what's happened. But it's a nice opportunity we have here, opening up [the second half with] this 10-game homestand."

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.

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