One of the more attractive concepts of the MLB season has been the "game 163" tiebreaker game that has happened in recent years, when two teams are tied for a playoff spot at the end of the year, and one game will decide which team will play on in October, and which team will head home. This year, with the addition of the second wild card to each league's playoff format, there is a no wrinkle to the tiebreaker game: if two teams are tied for the division title and both would make the playoffs, there will be a tiebreaker game to decide which team will take the division, and which team will head to Friday's wild card game.
Three of the MLB's six divisional races can still end with this tiebreaker. Two of those races however, are extremely unlikely to see a tiebreaker game. With three games remaining, there are two teams that have three game leads, meaning that they'd have get swept this week and have their adversary sweep their series to force tiebreaker games on Thursday. One of those races is in the AL Central, where the Tigers have finally overtaken the White Sox. The White Sox have lost ten out of twelve games, while the Tigers are on an 8-4 roll. With Detroit heading to Kansas City, who they just swept last week, one little victory seems like it'll be easy enough to come across, even without Justin Verlander slated to start either of the three games. The White Sox on the other hand, head to Cleveland. The Indians took two of three from Chicago last week, and ChiSox ace Chris Sale won't be starting any of the three games. Hector Santiago, who has made three starts all year, will go tonight. This one might be over in a matter of hours rather than days.
The other perfect storm tiebreaker race involves the Nationals and Braves in the NL East. The Nationals have been running the division for pretty much all season, with the Braves unable to make the leap to contention. The Braves have the much easier slate this week, heading to Pittsburgh to take on the zombified Pirates, while the Nationals host their big brother and bitter rival, the Phillies. The Nationals have split their last ten games, while the Braves are on an 8-2 run in Chipper Jones's final days of the season. Both teams have clinched playoff berths, and unlike the Tigers and White Sox, they're simply playing for seeding as opposed to a spot. But would a tiebreaker game actually be to the benefit of the second place Braves? The Nationals own the tiebreaker over the Braves, meaning that the game would be played at Nationals Park. If the Braves swept the series in Pittsburgh and the Phillies swept the Nationals, the Braves could enter a situation where they play on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, in Washington on Thursday, and if they fall to the Nationals, back in Atlanta to host the wild card game on Friday. Furthermore, if the Braves did enter into a tiebreaker situation, Mike Minor would be in line to start Thursday, Kris Medlen Friday in the wild card game, and Tim Hudson on Sunday (on only three days rest) in the first game of the NLDS (assuming Atlanta would win the wild card game). That means that game two of the NLDS on Monday would have to be started by either Minor on short rest, or an inferior option like Paul Maholm. I'm absolutely not saying the Braves should punt on potentially tying for the division lead, but it could have disastrous effects if they fail to win the tiebreaker. But let's be honest: it's probably not going to happen. Washington is starting their ace, Gio Gonzalez, on Tuesday a yet-to-be announced starter for the Phillies as opposed to rookie Tyler Cloyd, who was shut down with a tired arm.. That game could get out of hand quickly and result in Washington clinching the division.
The other two potential divisional tiebreakers are vastly more interesting. The Yankees and Orioles are tied for the top spot in the AL East, with the team who doesn't win the division heading to the playoffs as a wild card. The Orioles play the Rays this week, who are one loss or one Oakland win away from elimination, while the Yankees face their long-time rivals from Boston. The Yankees would be hurt a lot more than the Orioles if they were sent to a tiebreaker or wild card game. New York is starting CC Sabathia on Monday and Hiroki Kuroda on Wednesday, meaning that Andy Pettite would be in line to start a tiebreaker or wild card game...but if New York has to play in BOTH? Well, then Phil Hughes, who had a 5.19 ERA in September, would be starting the wild card game. That's not something the Yankees would want to see happen at all, and that would be a worst case scenario for them. Even if the Orioles win the division outright, Pettitte could start the wild card game and Sabathia and Kuroda would be in line to start the first two ALDS games. As for the Orioles...well, who in the hell knows anymore? Jason Hammel probably won't be ready in time for a tiebreaker or wild card game, and with Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman starting this week in Tampa Bay, rookie Steve Johnson would be the man to start the tiebreaker/wild card game. But Johnson left Saturday's game with the Red Sox after taking a ball off his foot and might be ready, meaning that former starter (now reliever) Tommy Hunter would have to start on Thursday despite not starting a game in a month. Or, they could go with former starter Brian Matusz, who hasn't started a game in the majors since the beginning of July. Or, former starters Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta, who are now in the bullpen. Regardless of whether a Thursday starter is needed, veteran Joe Saunders is in line to start on Friday if the Orioles don't win the division.
Finally, there is the NL wild card, which is down to the Cardinals and Dodgers. The Dodgers trail the Cardinals by two games, and things are looking bleak. The Dodgers can still win the wild card outright by sweeping the Giants and seeing the Reds sweep the Cardinals. However, a tiebreaker is possible if the Cardinals lose three games and the Dodgers win two, or the Cardinals lose two games and the Dodgers win three. Either situation would create a deadlock and a necessity for a tiebreaker game. But of course, the Dodgers rotation isn't set up for either a tiebreaker or a wild card game. Ace Clayton Kershaw is starting the final game of the season on Wednesday against the Giants. Joe Blanton, who has an ERA near 5.00 with the Dodgers, would be in line to start a potential tiebreaker game, while Josh Beckett is in line to start a potential wild card game. Obviously, Beckett is the much better option for the Dodgers, and I'm sure they wouldn't want their season to come down to the arm of Joe Blanton in a tiebreaker. As for the Cardinals, I'm not really sure they have a defined 'ace"...but Kyle Lohse has been one of their top pitchers, and he's in line to start either a Thursday tiebreaker or the Friday wild card playoff. If the Cardinals have to double up and play on both Thursday and Friday, Lance Lynn would be ready to roll on Friday. Not a big deal at all for St Louis. But if there is a tiebreaker, the Cardinals could fall into the same hellhole of travel that the Braves would in the case of an NL East tie. They'd play the Reds on Wednesday in St Louis, then the Dodgers on Thursday in LA, and if they win that one, they'd go across the country to play Atlanta (or Washington) on Friday. Lord.
As for the other races, the A's win the AL West if they sweep the Rangers, and that's the only case in which they win the division. The A's could also jump to the top wild card spot in the AL by winning two out of three against the Rangers and seeing the Orioles or Yankees get swept. There's also the curious case of the Rays and Angels, who both need sweeps this week along with a Rangers sweep of the A's to create a three-way tie for the AL's second wild card spot, which would create mass panic and hysteria in the streets (or something along those lines).
And with that, I'm pretty sure I've covered every possible scenario in the league. We could have a situation like 2011, where things go right down to the wire. Or, every race aside from the AL East could be decided tonight. Talk about two different sides from the same coin...no matter what ends up happening, we're going to have meaningful baseball today, tomorrow, and Friday, with Wednesday and Thursday still up in there air. You really can't ask for much at the beginning of October, can you?
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