The Week Ahead: Dramatic finish straight ahead
Five playoff berths to be won, legends to say goodbye in final days of regular season
It's the end, but it's only the beginning.
Five teams -- the Dodgers, Red Sox, A's, Braves and Cardinals -- have locked up postseason berth, but there are still five slots, including two division titles, to be won over the final seven days of the regular season. That means for five teams, it's almost party time. And there remain a few trying to get to the party.
Meanwhile, for others, this week provides an opportunity to play out the remaining games on the schedule, continue to evaluate players moving forward toward what they hope will be a championship season in 2014, add to excellent individual statistics and say goodbye to some of the hardball heroes who are making their last trips around the diamond after storied careers.
First, the clinching possibilities.
Detroit can wrap up the American League Central as soon as Monday, but they will have to do it on the road, having completed their home schedule on Sunday.
So they'll play the Twins in Minnesota, and they can clinch a Wild Card spot and a division tie if they win, although with the second-place Indians off on Monday, the soonest Detroit can clinch the division is Tuesday. The Tigers, who can also clinch a playoff berth if the Astros beat the Rangers, lost to the White Sox on Sunday while the Indians beat Houston, which put their party on hold.
"We thought we were going to complete it here," said Anibal Sanchez, who pitched for the Tigers on Sunday. "We need to win. At the end, we need to win the games we need to clinch and get ready for the playoffs."
They're not the only ones.
The National League Central is still up for grabs. Although St. Louis is sitting pretty with a two-game lead, the Pirates and Reds, deadlocked for second place with 89-67 records, are alive in the race for the division title. If neither team can catch St. Louis, the next best thing is the fight to host the Oct. 1 NL Wild Card game. Oh, and as luck would have it, the Bucs and Reds meet for a season-ending three-game series in Cincinnati beginning Friday.
"If we're going to play a one-game playoff, we sure would like to do it at home," said Reds left fielder Chris Heisey, who snapped an 0-for-20 skid with three hits and two RBIs in Sunday's 11-3 win in Pittsburgh that pulled the Reds even with the Bucs.
"If we fell two games behind today, it would have been an uphill battle the rest of the way. We've played a lot better at home this year than we have on the road. Hopefully it doesn't, but if it does come down to that last game, hopefully it comes at home."
Before Friday, the Pirates visit Chicago for three games against the Cubs, while the Reds are back home after a 6-3 road trip to play three against the Mets. Both series begin Monday.
"Every game is going to be huge from here on out," Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo said.
While Oakland wrapped up the AL West and the East already belongs to the Red Sox, allowing those teams to spend the week lining up their pitching and getting healthy for the playoffs, the AL Wild Card is remains wide open and will be decided this week.
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The Rays, who currently own the top Wild Card slot in the AL, look good heading into their Monday matchup with the Orioles and subsequent series against the Yankees in New York that starts Tuesday. The Indians are in the second slot and have won four in a row and will get the White Sox at home beginning Monday.
"We're in a fun spot," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "We have to keep winning. It's a fun way to come to the ballpark. We're playing pretty good baseball, and we need to."
So do the Rangers, who are 1 1/2 games out of the Wild Card slot but have seven home games -- three against Houston, four against the Angels -- to rebound from a 4-0 loss on Sunday in Kansas City in which Royals outfielder Justin Maxwell hit a walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning.
"We go home and now is the best time to put things together and have an amazing homestand," Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "We still have a chance to sneak into the Wild Card. It's going to be a great challenge; we'll see how much we want it."
The Royals are 3 1/2 games out of the mix, making them a bit better off than the Yankees (four back) and Orioles (4 1/2 back), and they have the momentum from that win over the Rangers as they head off to a pivotal season-ending road trip to Seattle (three games) and Chicago (four against the White Sox).
"We're putting everything we've got into it right now and we're playing some good baseball," Royals starter James Shields said. "Only the baseball gods are going to figure that one out, but we are going to play our hearts out every single night."
And so will the non-contenders.
All of baseball will spend the week bidding fond but emotional farewells to some great players who served the game and its fans with dignity and excellence. Barring what would be a historic final-week rally for a playoff berth, this will be the final week for Yankees greats Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. Colorado legend Todd Helton and Padres outfielder Mark Kotsay will play their final games, and Indians slugger Jason Giambi will be completing his final regular season, too.
Rivera, feted with a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on Sunday -- the Major Leagues' all-time saves leader's No. 42 was retired, too -- will get three more chances to save games in pinstripes in the Bronx and three more in Houston before he waits his five years for inevitable Hall of Fame enshrinement.
"There is nobody," Rivera's former manager, Joe Torre, said, "that is ever going to do what he did out of the bullpen."
The rest of the week will be spent discussing awards, voting for which will be completed Sunday. Just a few of the many questions sure to be posed: Will Mike Trout win the AL MVP, or will it once again go to Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, or maybe even A's outlier Josh Donaldson? What about the NL winner? Will it be Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs, or someone else?
There will be plenty to watch and plenty to discuss.
And then it will be October.