It is the 100 meter race in the marathon sport par excellence

By | September 14, 2023

More than any other sport, baseball season feels like a marathon. Over six months and 162 games, the teams ultimately proved themselves with consistent pace, with resilience, with consistency. But with the finish line in sight — the regular season concludes Oct. 1 — undecided pennant races turn into all-out sprints.

There are three major races for playoff positioning that could come within a 100-yard dash in the coming weeks, and the starting signal will sound this weekend.

The AL East

The runners: Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays

The prize: Seeded no. 1 in the AL bracket, which guarantees a bye to the Division Series and home field advantage until the World Series

If we’re honest, the American League goes by Houston until proven otherwise. But on paper, the winner of this game will have the best record in the league and a leg up on reaching the World Series. That makes this weekend’s four-game series between the two teams in Baltimore a key precursor to the postseason.

The bright young Orioles have been in first place since taking three of four the last time these two clubs met in mid-July. Everyone is on board with the lineup, led by Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, but this will be a good test for Baltimore’s emerging postseason rotation options. Kyle Bradish, who will go Thursday, has looked awfully ace lately. In his last 15 starts (dating back to mid-June), he has posted a 2.33 ERA and has played at least six innings 13 times.

Still, the Rays remained at arm’s length, despite a series of pitching injuries and without Wander Franco, the shortstop on administrative leave while MLB and Dominican Republic authorities investigate allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with underage girls. The Rays could regain the division lead this weekend if spotlight-loving outfielder Randy Arozarena hits the road early for October.

The AL West

The runners: Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners

The prize: Seeded no. 2 in the AL bracket, which guarantees a bye to the Division Series

Since the Minnesota Twins, presumptive champions of the AL Central, are highly unlikely to overcome any of these teams, but the wild-card-chasing Toronto Blue Jays very well could, the trio of AL West contenders are running the race with the stakes highest of all in play. Someone will be able to skip the wild card series and enter the ALDS, someone will have to overcome the best of three wild card challenge and someone could end up watching at home.

And boy, do teams seem intent on taking that decision all the way down. The Mariners rose to the top with an August 21-6, but have since squandered that position with a September 5-8. The Rangers were in first place all season until August 27; this week brought a rebound, in the form of four straight wins, and a gut punch, in the form of an injury to Max Scherzer. Meanwhile, the de facto favorites and current division leaders, the defending champion Astros, have just lost two games in a row to the Oakland A’s.

Circle this on your calendar: The Mariners’ last 10 games have been against their two rivals. That’s three at Texas, followed by three at home against Houston and four more at home to close out the season against the Rangers. Photo finish coming soon.

The NL joker

The runners: Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins, San Francisco Giants

The prize: A ticket for October

This is a real race, and that’s assuming the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs can hold serve for the NL’s first two wild-card slots. The four contenders for the final spot entered Wednesday within 1.5 games of each other, all with negative run differentials far worse than those of the San Diego Padres, who are testing the limits of baseball physics by being eight games away of distance. This is a collection of surprise teams playing with house money, and none of them have even been above .500 since the trade deadline.

Led by NL Cy Young contender Zac Gallen and NL Rookie of the Year favorite Corbin Carroll, the D-backs are the closer, strengthened (yes, strengthened) by a 7-5 September thus far. Starting Friday, they have a crucial home game that brings the Cubs and Giants to Phoenix.

Whoever wins this demolition derby will likely have a chance against the Milwaukee Brewers in a wild card series.

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