Drama of Game 163 looms in three races

Bucs would head to St. Louis and Royals to Detroit on Monday, if necessary

Drama of Game 163 looms in three races

With just one day to go in the season, the possibility of a one-game playoff on Monday -- or perhaps even two or three of them -- to determine a division winner, and possibly the second American League Wild Card, remains very much alive.

That's right. In its history, Major League Baseball has never had a regular season that required more than one tiebreaker, and now there's a chance we could see three of them in one day. How's that for drama?

Not to mention, there's plenty going on across the entire baseball landscape, including the final game for Derek Jeter, and not one, but two down-to-the wire batting title races. These are just a couple more twists to this already scintillating Sunday.

Saturday was all about the underdogs playing the role of spoiler -- and reinforcing the notion that nothing is ever certain in this great game. The Mariners scraped and clawed their way to a walk-off win over the Angels in 11 innings to stay one game behind Oakland for the second AL Wild Card.

The Twins routed the Tigers for the second night in a row, but the Royals could not capitalize, as the White Sox honored Paul Konerko in the best way possible -- with a thrilling 5-4 victory. The Pirates were dealt what could have been a crushing blow on Saturday afternoon, losing on a walk-off grand slam in Cincinnati, but they got some help from the D-backs, who knocked off St. Louis, 5-2, behind two home runs from Mark Trumbo. Meanwhile, Oakland could have clinched the second Wild Card, but the Rangers, relishing their role as spoiler, gave Seattle life by staving off a furious A's comeback for a 5-4 victory.

So, with just one game separating two teams in both the AL and NL Central divisions and also for the final AL Wild Card spot, a loss by the hunted and a win by the hunter today will necessitate a one-game playoff on Monday to decide a division winner and/or the final Wild Card.

Here are the probable starters for today's all-important games (all times Eastern):

1:08 p.m.: Twins (Gibson, 13-11, 4.50) at Tigers (Price, 14-12, 3.36)

1:10 p.m.: Pirates (Cole 11-5, 3.78) at Reds (Cueto, 19-9, 2.29)

2:10 p.m.: Royals (Ventura, 14-10, 3.07) at White Sox (Bassitt, 1-1, 3.65)

3:05 p.m.: Athletics (Gray, 13-10, 3.21) at Rangers (Martinez, 5-11, 4.61)

4:10 p.m.: Angels (Rasmus, 3-1, 2.38) at Mariners (Hernandez, 14-6, 2.18)

4:10 p.m.: Cardinals (Wainwright, 20-9, 2.38) at D-backs (Collmenter, 11-8, 3.57)

As you can see, today will be loaded with aces pitching for both team and personal accomplishment. Felix Hernandez will hope to make an emphatic AL Cy Young Award statement while extending Seattle's season, while Adam Wainwright will be trying to clinch a division for the Cardinals while winning a career-high 21st game.

David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, is taking the hill for the Tigers with the AL Central on the line in a start that could go a long way toward justifying the July trade that brought him to Detroit. And then there is Johnny Cueto, who is gunning for his 20th win while aiming to crush Pittsburgh's NL Central dreams.

But this afternoon won't be all about pitching. Houston's Jose Altuve (.340) is seeking the first batting crown in Astros history, but Detroit's Victor Martinez is hot on his heels at .337. And the National League race is even tighter, with the Rockies' Justin Morneau (.319) one point ahead of the Pirates' Josh Harrison.

Tiebreakers and clinch scenarios

For the Tigers, Cardinals and Athletics, it's simple: A win or a loss by the Royals, Pirates or Mariners, respectively, and they're set. In the case of the Tigers and Cardinals, they're division winners. For the A's, it would give them the second AL Wild Card. The Royals and Pirates need a win and a loss by the Tigers and Cardinals, respectively, to force a one-game playoff for the division title, otherwise they are Wild Cards. The Mariners need a win and an A's loss to force a one-game playoff for the final AL Wild Card, or they're out.

There cannot be a three-way tie for the AL Wild Card, as only an Oakland loss and Seattle win today would keep the Mariners alive at 87 wins. The Royals already have 88 wins and thus the top Wild Card position, even if they lose today.

The rest of the playoff field is set:

• The Angels, with the best record in the AL, hold home-field advantage through the World Series (by virtue of the AL's win in the All-Star Game) and will host the winner of the AL Wild Card Game, beginning Thursday in Anaheim.

• The Orioles are the AL's second seed and as such will play the winner of the AL Central, whether that is decided today or Monday, beginning Thursday in Baltimore.

• The Nationals hold home-field advantage through the NLCS and will host the winner of the NL Wild Card Game, beginning Friday in Washington.

• The Dodgers are the NL's second seed and will host the winner of the NL Central division, which also could be decided today or Monday, beginning Friday in Los Angeles.

Should there be a one-game playoff for the second AL Wild Card or the AL or NL Central races (or all three), here is what you need to know:

• A playoff for the second AL Wild Card between the Athletics and Mariners would take place in Seattle based on a head-to-head tie-breaker. The winner would advance to play the AL Wild Card Game in either Kansas City or Detroit on Wednesday. The loser goes home.

• A one-game playoff for the AL Central crown would be played in Detroit based on the Tigers' edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker. The winner would take the division and advance to play the Orioles.

• The loser of the one-game playoff would then have yet another one-game test -- a Wild Card Game the next day vs. the Athletics or Mariners, whoever claims the second Wild Card, either today or Monday. Based on record or head-to-head tiebreaker, both hold the advantage on both Oakland and Seattle and will host the game. The winner then flies out West to face the AL-best Angels. The loser goes home.

• A one-game playoff for the NL Central title would be played in St. Louis, again based on the Cardinals' edge in head-to-head games vs. the Pirates during the regular season. The winner heads to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers in the NLDS.

• The loser would have one day of rest before playing the Giants in a Wild Card Game on Wednesday. Both teams, either by record or tie-breaker, hold the edge over San Francisco and would host the game. The winner of the NL Wild Card game advances to face the Nationals in the NLDS, also beginning Friday, in DC. The loser goes home.

A one-game playoff will put any participating team in a precarious situation regarding starting pitching, as that club would have to burn a starting pitcher that otherwise might have been slated to start a Game 1 of a Division Series. But the stakes are very high, because winning the division offers such a large advantage over just earning a Wild Card. The loser will have to win a one-game playoff (and use another starting pitcher in the process) just to advance to a Division Series.

The Pirates announced Gerrit Cole will go this afternoon. The question manager Clint Hurdle had to answer was this: Does his team have a better chance of advancing further by using Cole today and hoping to force a Game 163 on Monday or by saving Cole and having him start the NL Wild Card game at home on Wednesday? By using Cole today to try force a 163rd game, they would have to use another starter -- likely left-hander Jeff Locke or right-hander Edinson Volquez on short rest -- on Monday if that extra game comes about. The upside is that Cole would line up for a potential NLDS Game 1 on Friday, but should they lose on Monday, they'd have to decide between Locke or Volquez, whoever didn't start Game 163, or perhaps Vance Worley, in the do-or-die NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday. In that scenario, left-hander Francisco Liriano would be set up for a potential NLDS Game 1, should they get that far. It wasn't an easy choice.

The Tigers would have Justin Verlander lined up to go in a 163rd game, while the Royals would have right-hander James Shields, who would be on short rest. The Cardinals would have a choice between Shelby Miller or John Lackey, both of whom would be on normal rest or better.

There has not been a divisional tie through the regular season since the Twins and Tigers tied for the AL Central in 2009. It was the third consecutive season in which it happened in the Majors, and the Twins had a thrilling 12-inning victory at the Metrodome in one of the all-time great games in baseball history.

The year before it was the White Sox who beat the Twins on a Jim Thome homer, and Hurdle's Rockies downed the Padres the season before that on their stunning run to the NL pennant.

Jim Banks is a Regional Editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.