When Major League Baseball expanded the playoffs a few years ago to include a wild-card play-in game, the expectations were very clear that the immediate effect would make the season more exciting. And this has proven true since its conception. Not only has the format change made the end of the season more exciting because more teams are still vying for a playoff spot, but it has also made the second half more exciting — come the trade deadline, there has been less selling and more buying.
This year hasn’t been any different. With every team having about seven games left, any sort of final push starts now. Barring a catastrophic collapse in the National League, the playoff spots are practically decided. Unless the Pittsburgh Pirates can gain three games on the Saint Louis Cardinals this week, Saint Louis will be the NL’s top seed, Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cubs will face off in the wild card, and the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers in the divisional series.
Don’t fret though; the American League will have plenty of late-season excitement. First, you have the wild-card game. Despite the New York Yankees’ 4.5-game lead over the rest of the field for home-field advantage in the wild-card game, they have yet to clinch — though will almost assuredly do so in the next couple of days. It’s the other wild card where it gets exciting. Three teams are vying for the coveted final spot.
If the season ended today, the Houston Astros at 82-74 would play the Yankees. However, the Los Angeles Angels are just .5 games behind their AL West rival, and the Minnesota Twins are in striking distance, too, sitting 1.5 games behind Houston. This parity, and the importance of late-season games, is what the MLB intended when its expanded the playoffs. Every single one of these teams will play their final six or seven games like they’re their last. And while some of those games will come against teams far out of contention, don’t think for a second that those bottom dwellers won’t like to play spoiler and be playing extra hard.
The wild-card race isn’t it for the American League either. Despite the Texas Rangers decent hold on the AL West, the Astros are only 2.5 games behind and thus the Angels three back. But this shouldn’t be a surprise, as the West has been a close, back-and-forth battle the entire season. No matter how you spin it, barring an epic collapse from the Yankees, one of these West teams — despite all probably being deserving — won’t make it into this year’s playoffs.
The Angels will have the best chance to make their own destiny. Los Angeles plays its final four games of the season against the Texas. Depending on how Houston fairs during that stretch, that single series could determine not only the winner of the American League West but also who will play in the wild-card game.
While the push for who will make or miss the playoffs gives the fans the most thrill, there’s another AL race going on: just one with a little less at stake. The Royals and Blue Jays, both sitting atop their respective divisions, are neck and neck for the league’s best record. There’s no doubt that the two will be the American League’s first and second seed, but you can bet either one would like to lock up home-field advantage for the entire playoffs. Whereas the rest of the field is more concerned about being in the playoffs than playing at home, that’s a luxury Kansas City and Toronto gets for clinching early.
Just as the Angels and Rangers have a pivotal final series, the Twins — who will be fighting for that same wild-card position — face Kansas City in their last three games. The Royals will likely be setting up their starting rotation, but that shouldn’t take away from the series: another one that will play like playoff baseball. And what better way to start off October than a couple of close playoff races?
Thus, as the final week of the season winds down, watch it with anticipation. After all, each team in contention will be playing every game like it’s their last. This is what October baseball is all about.