Playoff picture starting to sort itself out

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With just over two weeks to go in the Major League Baseball season, the playoff picture is starting to become a little more clear. Not much, but a little bit.

I might not know how it is all going to shake out seed-wise in the end, but I am fairly confident I can predict the playoff teams, for the most part. Well, better than TBS anyway.

The wonderful people over at Turner Broadcasting started to air their Bon Jovi video spot, pimping their coverage of the Division Series, this past week. The only problem was that during the close to four-minute commercial, I counted nearly 10 New York Yankee references and barely a mention of the team actually leading the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Note to TBS: The Yankees have been dead for a while now. Focus on the Rays, since they are going to be the best story heading into this postseason.

Speaking of the Rays, they helped their postseason cause immensely this past week with two dramatic victories in the final two tests of their three-game series with the Boston Red Sox.

Boston had cut Tampa's deficit to just a half-game with a win in Monday's opener, before the Rays battered Jonathan Papelbon on Tuesday and came through on Carlos Pena's three-run home run in the 14th inning on Wednesday to push their division lead back to 2 1/2 - three in the all-important loss column.

The Red Sox are, of course, comfortably ahead in the wild card, but there is no telling what damage it would have done to the young Rays' psyches had Boston caught and overtook them, which still could happen, by the way.

I have to give Tampa credit. Like most people, I expected the Rays to fade at some point. I thought they were done at the All-Star break, but they bounced back after that seven-game skid. Then, when Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria went down with injuries within days of each other, I thought that would be too much to overcome. Again, they responded favorably.

Either way, though, fans in both of those cities should prepare for some October baseball.

The best race in all of baseball is in the AL Central, where the Chicago White Sox hold a slim one-game advantage over the Minnesota Twins. Two teams, by the way, picked by nobody to reach the postseason this season.

Chicago's injuries, which seem to be mounting by the day, may be too much for it to overcome the rest of the way. I think the Twins, amazingly, will pull this one out in the end. I thought that 14-game road trip would be their undoing, but the Twins only lost a half-game on the trek, despite going 5-9 with losses in nine of the final 12 games.

Give credit to that whole organization from top-to-bottom. Who in a million years thought they would be in this position when Johan Santana was getting introduced by the Mets last winter?

Carlos Quentin's wrist injury now opens the door for Twins first baseman Justin Morneau to win his second MVP Award in the last three years.

The AL West, for all intents and purposes, has been decided since the middle of May. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, though, made it official on Wednesday. Now they await whoever comes out of the wild card in the first round.

Over in the National League things are less cut and dry, and if you want some excitement, the Senior Circuit is where you are going to get it.

The New York Mets seem to have put it all together, and barring another collapse, should win the NL East. Their bullpen will give them fits every night, but somehow, some way, a combination of Luis Ayala, Brian Stokes and Joe Smith will get them into October.

Don't count on anything beyond that, though, with that trio.

By the way, how good has Santana been down the stretch here for the Mets? He will probably top out at about 15 wins, so he won't win a Cy Young, but his 2.70 ERA is third in the National League, plus he leads the league in quality starts. Keep in mind the Mets have blown about six or seven leads for him too.

The Mets' closest competitor is the Philadelphia Phillies, who are just four back in the loss column in the division, and now, thanks to Milwaukee's recent struggles, are only three back of the Brewers in the wild card.

I predicted a while back that Ryan Howard would hit 18 or so home runs in September and get the Phillies into the postseason somehow. The big fella has six already, and he should be the league's MVP if the Phils get in, even if he hits below .250.

Philadelphia is hosting the Brewers this weekend in a four-game series that will go a long way in determining how things shake out in the end.

CC Sabathia and the Brewers are clinging to the wildcard lead.
Neither the Brewers, nor the Houston Astros for that matter, have a shot at the Chicago Cubs, who have been comfortably in first place in the NL Central for the better part of the season. However, Cubs fans who are going on their 100th year without a World Series title, may have their playoff hopes dashed early if Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden aren't at 100-percent in October.

Milwaukee, though, is the story right now in the National League. If they continue to fail, the door opens for not only the Phillies, but the surprising Astros, who are a major league-best 36-16 since the All-Star break.

The Brewers coughed up the lead in the NL Central last season and appear to be doing the same here with the wild card, having won just three games in September. Their fall is particularly amazing given the way people were talking about them in the aftermath of the CC Sabathia deal.

Sabathia, of course, has held up his end of the bargain. He has been absolutely incredible, going 9-0 in his 13 starts with a sparkling 1.59 ERA, putting himself right in the thick of the wide-open NL MVP discussion. Sabathia, though, was the ultimate rental player. If the Brewers don't make the playoffs, that trade becomes meaningless.

Houston, though, has been the biggest surprise. The Astros have come out of nowhere, and thanks to Roy Oswalt's amazing stretch over the past couple of weeks, made themselves relevant. Oswalt is in the midst of a franchise record 32 1/3 scoreless innings streak and has won nine of his last 10 decisions.

I am not sure if they have the starting pitching to maintain this the rest of the way, but I will match that lineup with any of the contenders in the NL. They are going to be fun to watch down the stretch.

You can talk all you want about the Sabathia and Harden acquisitions, but the best trade deadline move is turning out to be Los Angeles' pickup of the enigmatic Manny Ramirez.

The Dodgers were two games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time of the trade, and now sit a game in front heading into this weekend. ManRam has been the reason why, hitting .396 with 14 homers and 40 RBI since the trade.

Arizona's problem is what it has been all season - it can't hit. Throw in the fact that Brandon Webb has been stuck on 19 wins for about a month now, and you have some problems. Webb got hit in the chest with a line drive a few starts back and hasn't been the same, going 0-3, while surrendering 19 earned runs in 13 2/3 innings.

Ramirez, though, has just been spectacular. I guess he will be in the MVP discussion, but come on, he will only have played 50 or so games in the NL by the end of the season. He can't get it.

The chase for the NL MVP is going to be the best race of all, by the way. It is completely wide open. Carlos Delgado, Howard, Albert Pujols, Ramirez, Lance Berkman, Sabathia, Ryan Braun, take your pick.

First thing's first, though. Let's get this playoff thing sorted out before we start doling out the postseason hardware.

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