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Three key storylines heading into the final weekend of the MLB regular season

by Chris Brown

With the Blue Jays’ win over the Yankees on Sept. 24 securing the club’s first postseason berth since 2016, seven of the eight American League playoff spots have been locked up. 

The Rays, Twins, Athletics, White Sox, Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays will all be participating in the best-of-three Wild Card Series, which begins on Tuesday, Sept. 29. The Astros, who enter the weekend with a three-game lead over the Angeles in the AL West standings, are all but guaranteed to snag that final spot (constantly-updating postseason seedings can be found here).

Despite that certainty, it still figures to be an intriguing final weekend of the MLB regular season, with five postseason spots still not clinched and seedings likely to change, affecting first-round playoff matchups. Let’s take a look at three big storylines with just a few days remaining before the start of the postseason:

*All stats and standings accurate through the completion of MLB games on Sept. 24.

1) Six teams are fighting for the final four spots in the NL playoff field.

The Dodgers, Braves, Cubs and Padres are the top four seeds in the National League, in that order. Atlanta and Chicago, the two and three seeds, respectively, could swap positions, but that’s the only change that could occur in the top four. Below that group in the postseason standings, though, are half a dozen teams all within two wins of each other entering play Sept. 25:

Seed Team Record Fangraphs Playoff Odds
5 St. Louis Cardinals (Central-2) 28-26 (.519) 86.7%
6. Miami Marlins (East-2) 29-28 (.509) 90.7%
7. Cincinnati Reds (WC-1) 29-28 (.509) 88.0%
8. San Francisco Giants (WC-2) 28-28 (.500) 47.1%
Philadelphia Phillies (0.5 GB) 28-29 (.491) 49.9%
Milwaukee Brewers (1 GB) 27-29 (.482) 35.2%

Not a single one of these teams will face an obviously weak opponent in the upcoming weekend:

  • STL / MIL: 4 games vs. each other in St. Louis (Cardinals took game 1 of series 9/24)
  • MIA: 3 games @ NYY
  • CIN: 3 games @ MIN
  • SF: 4 games vs. SD
  • PHI: 3 games @ TB

Four NL Central teams could make the playoffs. Or just two. The Marlins could make the postseason for the first time since their 2003 World Series Championship campaign. Or they could fall flat against the Yankees and fall out of the NL field. There’s a wide range of possibilities here, and it’s looking increasingly likely the full field won’t be set until Sunday. 

In the event that multiple teams remain deadlocked for a postseason spot, there will be no tiebreaker games, but rather a series of mathematical tiebreakers will be used. It’s a bit complicated, but this guide from MLB.com breaks down the possible scenarios. The Cardinals, currently slated to play just 58 regular season games, could play one or two games against the Tigers on Monday, Sept. 28, if necessary to determine a postseason berth for St. Louis or another team.

Buckle up for an incredibly exciting final regular season weekend with four spots in the NL field still on the line.

2) The tight AL Central race has significant implications regarding Wild Card series matchups.

We know that three teams from the division will be playing into the postseason, but the order that trio of clubs finish in is not set, as the Twins, White Sox and Indians are all within two games of each other for the American League Central lead. To explain the importance of the order, here’s a look at the full AL playoff picture entering the weekend:

Seed Team Record
1. ^Tampa Bay Rays (East-1) 37-20 (.649)
2. *Minnesota Twins (Central-1) 35-22 (.614)
3. ^Oakland Athletics (West-1) 34-22 (.607)
4. *Chicago White Sox (Central-2) 34-23 (.596)
5. *New York Yankees (East-2) 32-25 (.5610
6. Houston Astros (West-2) 29-28 (.509)
7. *Cleveland Indians (WC-1) 33-24 (.579)
8. *Toronto Blue Jays (WC-2) 30-27 (.526)

* Clinched playoff berth  |  ^ Clinched division title

While this is clearly subject to change, of course, it seems likely that the club that finishes second in the AL Central standings will line up to face the Yankees, one of the most feared teams in baseball, in the first round of the postseason. The division champion, meanwhile, will likely square off against either a Wild Card team (potentially the third-place finisher) or the probable 6-seed Houston Astros, who are hitting just .228 in September as a team and don’t have nearly the pitching staff of recent years without Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. 

All three AL Central contenders are at home this weekend to end the regular season, with the Twins set to face the Reds, as previously mentioned, and the White Sox slated to take on the crosstown rival Cubs. The Indians, while three games back, have the easiest weekend matchup in the Pirates, who’ve posted the worst record in baseball this season.

The Twins, White Sox and Indians all want to win the division for obvious reasons, but there are also playoff implications that make the final few games for these clubs all the more interesting. If you’re the Twins, for example, you’d much rather face the Astros in the Wild Card Round than the Yankees.

3) Struggling playoff-bound teams are attempting to get momentum back on their side heading into next week.

Talent and quality depth (particularly this year) are two important factors when it comes to postseason success, but so is momentum. Oftentimes the teams that make deep playoff runs are the ones who get hot at the right time. With that in mind, there are a few playoff-bound teams who have struggled of late and looking to get momentum back on their side heading into next week.

The Cubs are nearly guaranteed the top spot in the NL Central but have dropped five of their last six games, including three of four to the last-place Pirates. The team’s offense has been practically nonexistent of late, scoring just 13 runs in its last eight games and posting an atrocious .212/.295/.321 batting line in September. Kris Bryant’s status for the rest of the season is unclear due to an oblique issue. The North Siders would surely like to get the bats going this final regular season weekend but will face a tough opponent in the aforementioned White Sox.

Speaking of the South Siders, they’re another club looking to get back on track heading into October. The White Sox clinched their first playoff appearance in 12 years just over a week ago, but have gone 1-6 since and got swept in a four-game series by the Indians to fall out of the top spot in the AL Central standings. “It’s going to be really important for us to take this moment as a big challenge, as a big learning process for us going forward to the postseason,” White Sox first baseman and AL MVP candidate José Abreu said just a few days ago

Finally, the aforementioned Astros, who have only logged back-to-back victories once since Sept. 2 and 3, picked up a key 12-4 win over the Rangers on Sept. 24. George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman all hit home runs in the victory, the first time that’s occurred in more than two years. Though the team has been dethroned by the A’s after three straight division titles, their magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to one with three games against Texas remaining.

Photos by All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Harper), Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Berrios), Julie Fennell / Flickr (Rizzo)

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