Wild card races heat up
As the leaves start changing colors and the weather becomes cooler, the excitement of the upcoming baseball postseason is in the air. The teams are entering the most important stretch of the long 162-game season: now every game counts for either home-field advantage or simply a spot in the playoffs. Below is a breakdown of the wild card races for the top three teams in each league as of Sunday, September 11.
American League (AL)
1. Cleveland Indians (81-61 and current leader)
The Cleveland Indians have quietly snuck into the wild card lead. The Indians are the most desperate team in the race because they simply do not have a chance to catch the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox. The Indians are six and a half games behind the White Sox but, fortunately for the fans in Cleveland, they are currently sitting on a half game lead over the Yankees and would make the playoffs if the postseason started today.
The Indians' first basemen and designated hitter; Travis Hafner; is leading the team in almost every offensive category, despite coping with an injury. On the mound, Cliff Lee is having a stellar season and leads the team in wins with 15 and an ERA of 3.62. The team leader in ERA is none other than Kevin Millwood, who unfortunately has no run support with a record of just 7-11 in 26 starts.
The Indians have six games remaining against the Chicago White Sox; this series will be a factor in determining their future this season. However, the schedule also includes two last place teams in the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. These games are crucial, especially with an AL race this close. While the Indians will stay in the hunt, their chances are slim because of their recent lack of experience with competitive late-season play.
2. New York Yankees (80-62)
When is the last time a George Steinbrenner Yankees team missed the playoffs or even did not win the AL East? Exactly. It would be incredibly unusual not to see the Yankees playing in October. The Yankees have pulled through a decent second half of the season after struggling through the first three months of the season. On July 1, they were at .500 and now they are sitting 18 games over 500 with a .563 winning percentage. The Yankees' recent success is due in large part to power hitting and patch-work pitching.
With 60 percent of the Yankees' projected starting rotation spending time on the disabled list (DL), the Yankees have plugged in right-hander Shawn Chacon, left-hander Al Leiter and right-hander Aaron Small successfully and another dozen unsuccessfully. The other two pitchers who have been starting for most of the season, Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson, have been inconsistent.
Fortunately for all these hurlers, the offense for the most part has been providing adequate run support. Three Yankee players have already reached the 100-RBI milestone for the season. Also, baseball's highest paid player, Alex Rodriguez, is putting up MVP-caliber numbers leading the team in nearly every offensive category. Jason Giambi is enjoying a big resurgence from last season's disaster, and the rest of the order is producing at full potential.
While the Yankees right now are just a game behind the wild card leaders, they still have a logistic chance at catching the team atop the AL East, the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees and Red Sox still have one three-game series remaining and the Yankees trail the Red Sox by only three games.
3. Oakland Athletics (79-62)
The Oakland Athletics have always been in the hunt in September but this year is by far the most remarkable. The season after sending off two of their Big Three away, the A's are once again being led by pitchers, just different ones. The A's are currently a game and a half behind the Indians for the wild card lead but are only a game behind the AL West-leading Anaheim Angels. Billy Beane, the A's General Manager, is working his "Moneyball" magic again.
Left-hander Barry Zito is the one the A's picked to cover the loss of the other two members of the Big Three, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. The rotation does not contain the same names, but in the eyes of many is much improved in terms of value. The new starters, Danny Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden are all 25 or younger and have a combined salary that is less than the earnings any one of the Big Three. Lastly, the A's have one of the best young closers in the game in Huston Street, who complements the young rotation.
The only problem with the A's is their anemic offense. Despite strong starts from their pitchers, the offense has been giving little run support. Blanton, who won the AL rookie of the year award, went 3-1 with a 1.17 ERA in seven starts. If the offense can start producing in the clutch, the A's have a chance to win either the wild card race or AL West.
1. Houston Astros (76-64)
The Astros have met their expectations after the loss of their best offensive player from a year ago, Carlos Beltran. Beltran came to the Astros from Kansas City during midseason last year and was a major factor in leading the Astros to just one game from the World Series.
The starting rotation is probably one of the best in the game with the likes Andy Pettite, Roger (Rocket) Clemens and Roy Oswalt. Pettite, who missed most of last season with injury problems, has regained the form he showed when he was in the Bronx. Clemens has probably put up the best numbers of any pitcher in history after the age of 40, but his run support is seriously lacking. In 28 starts this season, the Rocket is 11-7 with a 1.78 ERA. There is no excuse for the Rocket to have less than 20 wins with his ERA. Oswalt is the leader in wins with 17 but has the highest ERA of the Astros' trio at 2.84.
The Astros are another team whose pitching will propel them into the postseason, but the offense needs to improve. Outside of Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensburg, the rest of the batting order has not been producing. The big bats always help in the postseason and Astros know this the best after Beltran's production last postseason. The Astros should pull through to make the postseason in what might be Clemens final season; advancing will be an added bonus.
2. Florida Marlins (76-66)
While the Marlins are another team known for their rotation, their offense is one of the better units in the National League. Left fielder Miguel Cabrera is a young player who can only continue to improve. At the age of 22 he is in his third season and already has 30 homeruns and 104 RBIs. Free agent acquisition Carlos Delgado has been productive when healthy and has reached the 100 RBI mark for the season as well. Speed is the strength of their order thanks mainly to the speedy Juan Pierre, who has 49 stolen bases so far.
The Marlins, however, would be any other average Major League team without its starting rotation. Left hander Dontelle (D-Train) Willis is second in the majors with 20 wins. Josh Beckett has been postseason tested and when healthy has been solid. A.J Burnett makes up the most enigmatic storyline for the Marlins: just before the trade deadline the Marlins were desperately trying to deal him. Until recently, Burnett, who becomes a free agent next season, had been spectacular. He won seven straight starts with an ERA under 1.50 during this time period. Recently, Burnett has been slumping, losing three straight.
The team won the World Series two years ago and understands what it takes to succeed in October. The wild card race between the Astros and Marlins should go down to the wire and the performance of both teams' trios will probably be the deciding point. As it stands now, the Marlins are only half a game behind the Astros and both teams will face off in a four game series next week.
3. Philadelphia Phillies (74-68)
The Phillies are only 2.5 games behind the wild card-leading Houston Astros but the odds are not in their favor. Regardless, the Phillies have had a great season without one of their best bats, Jim Thome. Unlike the other two teams in the NL wild card hunt, the Phillies have been powered by their offense. Outfielders Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell have been producing career numbers.
Burrell is posting his best numbers since the 2002 season when he homered 37 times and had 116 RBIs to go along with it. Abreu has always been a patient and consistent hitter. He is also versatile enough to steal bases; he has speed and power. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins leads the team in stolen bases with 32 but needs to get on a hot streak to improve his average, only .267, from the leadoff spot.
The two greatest pitchers in the rotation are John Lieber and Brett Myers, who combined have 25 wins. The strongest aspect of their pitching is that saves are almost automatic with Billy Wagner, who has amassed 32 of them this season. At the end, the Phillies will probably not advance to the postseason, but at least they are entertaining their loyal Philadelphia fans. They will undoubtedly be better next year with Thome back in the lineup.
Adith Sekaran. Adith Sekaran is finally a senior at Blair. Adith is a man who is a big time sports fan and can spend any day to its' entirety watching sports or ESPN. Football season is his favorite, which he spends cheering on his ‘Skins to no … More »