Rays cling to Wild Card spot; NL Central a dead heat

Rays cling to Wild Card spot; NL Central a dead heat

Three weekends remain in the regular season, and there will be two more weeks on the calendar come Monday. One goal is on the minds of contenders: October.

The countdown is on, and the Pulse of the Postseason can be felt from coast to coast as teams try to stretch their baseball calendars into that special month. There are 16 teams still in the hunt -- some more on the scent than others, but all with laser focus on the next opportunity to improve their stake in the postseason races.

Heading into a crucial weekend of games, the American League Wild Card is still very much a toss-up, the National League Central is knotted up once again and the postseason field as a whole is up in the air.

When the Cardinals took a loss to the Brewers and the Pirates beat the Cubs on Thursday, the NL Central race continued to show that there is still plenty to be decided in 2013.

"Those guys are playing good baseball. We're playing good baseball," Cardinals starter Joe Kelly said after the Pirates and Cardinals found themselves in a first-place tie again. "It's going to be a fun run toward the end."

One more day of fun down, another 16 days to go.

Thursday's slate began with a trio of contests with postseason implications, and each of the contenders won. The Braves took a step closer to the NL East title, knocking their Magic Number down to six with a 6-1 win at Miami, while the Nationals crept closer to the Wild Card-leading Reds with a 7-2 win over the Mets.

In Minnesota, the AL West-leading A's continued their September surge, pushing their lead in the division to 3 1/2 games over the idle Rangers as they head to Texas for a showdown this weekend. From A.J. Griffin's shutdown effort to more offense from Yoenis Cespedes and Co. to another defensive gem from Josh Donaldson, the A's did everything right in an 8-2 win over the Twins.

One other positive for Oakland has been the return of right fielder Josh Reddick, who has struggled with ineffectiveness and injury this year but had a solo homer and three RBIs as he joins the chase for another postseason berth.

"It kind of stunk not being able to be a part of it, but I was hoping to come back and just jump on board and not screw up the rhythm," Reddick said. "Hopefully, more days like this are coming."

As evening approached, so did rains into the Baltimore area, delaying the final meeting between a pair of AL East rivals and AL Wild Card pursuers. But the Yankees and Orioles eventually tangled at Camden Yards.

It was early in that one that the Yankees were dealt yet another injury blow with center fielder Brett Gardner exiting the game in the first inning with an oblique injury -- a tricky ailment that could put him out for the duration.

As they have done all year, the Yankees carried on without a fallen teammate, notching a wild 6-5 victory over the O's that brought them to 11 games over .500 -- one off their season high of 12 over, last seen on May 25. What was thought to be a Mariano Rivera save was ruled a victory, and the Yankees used the series at Baltimore to shift ahead of the Orioles in the Wild Card race.

It was up to the Rays to determine whether they would hold on to the AL Wild Card lead, and they were knotted up with the Red Sox into the late innings Thursday, keeping the race in limbo.

At the same time, the Indians were carving up Chicago's pitching, as they built a four-run lead in the top of the first and kept on scoring in a 14-3 win over the White Sox. In the first, it was Nick Swisher getting the Tribe on the board with a solo homer, before Ryan Raburn provided the big wallop with a three-run shot off White Sox starter John Danks.

But the pursuers would be staved off from making up any ground, as the Rays held on for a 4-3 victory. Rookie Wil Myers drove home Evan Longoria in the bottom of the eighth with a double that landed inches inside the right-field line, and Fernando Rodney left the tying run stranded in scoring position to avert the sweep at home against Boston.

"We needed a win bad," the 22-year-old Myers said. "With the Wild Card getting tight, we needed a win here. We didn't want to get swept by those guys, so I think that was a good team win."

So, as we head into the weekend, the Rangers are in the top Wild Card spot, two games ahead of the Rays. Then it's the Yankees one game behind, the Indians 1 1/2 out, and the Orioles and Royals both 2 1/2 games removed from the final playoff spot.

Of course, the NL Central kept things lively, too. The Pirates secured a 3-1 victory over the Cubs at PNC Park that featured a lockdown performance by Jeff Locke, and then left it to the Brewers to do the rest, as they beat the Cardinals, 6-2.

With the Pulse of the Postseason continuing to race toward the finish line this weekend, there are meaningful games all over the map, including a showdown in the AL West, the final Yankees-Red Sox meeting of the season and a pair of teams looking to become the first to clinch a postseason spot.

The Dodgers and Braves both have a berth in their grasp this weekend. Any combination of Dodgers wins and D-backs losses adding up to five puts Los Angeles officially on the NL West throne for 2013. The Braves need a sweep of the Padres and a Phillies sweep of the Nationals for the same to happen in the NL East. But both are on the cusp with more than two weeks to go.

Elsewhere, clinching isn't really in the picture yet, although the A's could take a big step toward a second straight AL West title in their final meeting with the Rangers this season. In Detroit, the AL Central-leading Tigers will host the upstarts of all upstarts in the Royals, winners of eight of 11. Kansas City comes into town to face Justin Verlander in what figures to be a pivotal series in at least the AL Wild Card race -- if not the division race.

In Boston, the Red Sox will host the Yankees for their final meeting as well. The two teams have split the first six games at Fenway Park this season, but the Sox have already clinched the season series, leading the 19-game set, 10-6. Considering some of the losses the Yankees sustained along the way, the Red Sox can't help but notice that those gritty, gutty behemoths are still in the mix.

"I think they've done an awesome job to be in the position they're in given the number of games missed by their regular players," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "You respect the way they go about their work."

With the Dodgers aiming at a title, they have the defending World Series winners in town for a rivalry series that continues on Friday with a prime-time pitching matchup of young lefties on top of their games: Madison Bumgarner of the Giants vs. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers.

There you go: just another typical September weekend.

Friday's key games to watch (all times ET)

Indians (Salazar, 1-2) at White Sox (Santiago, 4-8), 2:10 p.m. Preview >
The Tribe went off offensively Thursday, and it might be up to that lineup to keep this club in the hunt.

Cubs (Arrieta, 3-4) at Pirates (Morton, 7-4), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
This four-game series begins a string of 13 of the last 17 in which the Cubs will play a postseason contender.

Phillies (Kendrick, 10-12) at Nationals (Strasburg, 7-9), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
Strasburg has gone 2-0 in three starts against the Phillies this year, allowing just one earned run in 23 innings of work, striking out 29 while just walking three.

Orioles (Hammel, 7-8) at Blue Jays (Redmond, 3-2), 7:07 p.m. Preview >
With July acquisition Bud Norris a scratch, the O's go with Opening Day starter Jason Hammel, who has been in the bullpen since returning from the DL on Sept. 5.

Royals (Chen, 7-2) at Tigers (Verlander, 12-11), 7:08 p.m. Preview >
The upstart Royals enter the series having won eight of 11, while the Tigers have won four of their last 10, dropping two of three in K.C. last weekend.

Yankees (Kuroda, 11-10) at Red Sox (Lackey, 9-12), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
The rivalry to beat all rivalries keeps rearing its head this September.

Padres (Kennedy, 6-9) at Braves (Hale, 0-0), 7:30 p.m. Preview >
Goosebumps alert: Suburban Atlanta native David Hale will make his Major League debut when he starts against the Padres at Turner Field.

A's (Straily, 9-7) at Rangers (Holland, 9-8), 8:05 p.m. Preview >
If ever there were a tone-setting game for the stretch run, this is it.

Reds (Latos, 14-5) at Brewers (Lohse, 9-9), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
The Brewers played spoiler against the Cardinals, and they'll have another series against the Cardinals and one with the Braves after this one.

Rays (Archer, 8-7) at Twins (Correia, 9-11), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
The Rays, coming off a clutch win Thursday, have won back-to-back games just once since Aug. 24, going 5-13 since then.

Mariners (Iwakuma, 12-6) at Cardinals (Wainwright, 16-9), 8:15 p.m. Preview >
Coming off a stellar start against the Pirates, Wainwright is the rotation veteran who needs to carry the load down the stretch.

Rockies (Chatwood, 7-4) at D-backs (McCarthy, 4-9), 7:07 p.m. Preview >
The D-backs keep hanging on, but wins are at an absolute premium at this point.

Giants (Bumgarner, 11-9) at Dodgers (Kershaw, 14-8), 10:10 p.m. Preview >
While the Dodgers count down their Magic Number, the defending World Series champions are on the cusp of a losing season.

If the postseason started today ...

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Wild Card: Rays at Rangers
Division Series: Wild Card at Red Sox | Tigers at A's

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Wild Card: Reds at Cardinals/Pirates
Division Series: Wild Card at Braves | Cardinals/Pirates at Dodgers

Postseason 101

Magic numbers
To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining and add one. Then subtract the difference in the number of losses between that team and its closest pursuer.

Tiebreaker scenarios
A tiebreaker game will be played to determine a division winner, even if the tied clubs are assured of participating in the postseason. If a division championship tiebreaker is necessary, the head-to-head record between the clubs will determine home-field advantage. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.

If two clubs are tied for the two Wild Card berths, home-field advantage will be determined by the head-to-head record between the clubs. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.

Tiebreaker rules »

2013 postseason schedule

NL Wild Card Game: Oct. 1
AL Wild Card Game: Oct. 2
NL Division Series begin: Oct. 3
AL Division Series begin: Oct. 4
NL Championship Series begins: Oct. 11
AL Championship Series begins: Oct. 12
World Series begins: Oct. 23

 

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.