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Sorting out the playoff picture

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With less than two weeks to go it looks as if we can finally start figuring out this whole playoff mess. Of course, though, that does not mean that we still won't have some intrigue over the final couple of weeks of the season.

In the American League we can safely say the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics are in and will capture division titles in the East and West, respectively. The Detroit Tigers currently lead the AL Central, but their lead is just one game over wild card leading Minnesota with the defending champion Chicago White Sox just four games behind the Twins.

Over in the National League the New York Mets have clinched the East and will be joined by the eventual champions in the Central, the St. Louis Cardinals. The National League West is still up for grabs, though, as the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers are separated by just a half game.

The wild card will likely go to whoever finishes second in the West, but the Philadelphia Phillies are also in the mix just a game back of the leader with the San Francisco Giants four games behind.

Got all that?

So let's try and figure this all out. We will start with the AL. The Tigers, who have been one of the biggest surprises in recent baseball history, have held the top spot in the Central basically all season, but lately that grip appears to be slipping.

Chicago is still in contention and is five games back of the Tigers, as I write this. However, a huge three-game series between the two that could make- or-break the champs is set to get underway on Monday in the Windy City.

All three pitching matchups are top notch. Veteran Kenny Rogers will go for the Tigers in Game One and will be opposed by Mark Buehrle. Rookie phenom Justin Verlander toes the rubber for the Tigers in the second game and will be opposed by Freddy Garcia, who flirted with a no-hitter in his last start. Then in the finale Jeremy Bonderman goes against Jon Garland.

I like the White Sox to take two of three and get right back in the mix. Their season, though, will likely hinge on a three-gamer in Minnesota to close out the regular season.

After the White Sox series, Detroit plays a makeup game with Baltimore then plays three games in Kansas City before ending its campaign at home with three-games each against the Toronto Blue Jays and the hapless Royals.

The Twins play three games in Boston and three more in Baltimore before returning home to face the Royals four times leading up to their big series with the Sox. After its series this week with the Tigers, Chicago will host Seattle for four games, then will head to Cleveland for a three-game set before their season-ending series in the Minneapolis.

Based on that I have to believe the Tigers will hold on and should have clinched a spot by the final weekend, making the series at the Metrodome in all likelihood a playoff series.

Everyone has been waiting for the White Sox to turn it around for the better part of the second half of the season, while people expected the Twins to fade, especially when Francisco Liriano went down. Well guess what? Neither has happened. The Twins keep chugging along and the White Sox continue to disappoint. Expect the same to happen the rest of the way. The Twins will be in the Bronx to open the postseason as the wild card champs and Chicago will be home watching.

When the White Sox are home in October they can look back at this past weekend's sweep in Oakland as a big reason why. And if they want someone to blame they can look no further than former teammate Frank Thomas, who hit two home runs and drove in five runs in the series. Kind of fitting that it was the Big Hurt, who general manager ken Williams labeled an idiot, that may have delivered the final blow to Chicago's playoff hopes.

Things are a bit more muddled in the Senior Circuit, where four teams are battling for two spots. San Diego currently holds a half-game lead in the division over the Dodgers, who lead the Phillies by a game in the wild card race.

After the series at Chavez Ravine the Friars host Arizona and the Pittsburgh Pirates for three games each before ending the campaign with a three-game series in St. Louis and a four-game set against the Diamondbacks.

Los Angeles will host the Pirates after San Diego skips town, then will welcome Arizona to Dodger Stadium for three. The Dodgers' regular season will conclude with three-game road sets in Colorado and San Francisco.

Philadelphia hosts the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins in a pair of three- game sets before hosting Houston in a makeup game. The Phillies will then wrap up their season on the road against Washington and in Florida.

The Giants visit Colorado for three games before playing four games in Milwaukee. They will then host Arizona for three before what is shaping up to be a huge season-ending series against the Dodgers.

San Diego is probably the best team in the bunch and that, combined with a favorable schedule down the stretch, will give them their second straight NL West title.

I would like to pick Philadelphia to win the wild card because soon-to-be-MVP Ryan Howard deserves top be in the postseason with the way he has carried his team over the last month and a half. Those six games against the Marlins, though, will be Philly's demise.

We are going to have a do-or-die series in the AL over the final weekend and I think we will have the same thing in the NL, as Barry Bonds and company try and make up ground on the hated Dodgers with a three-game set at AT&T Park to conclude the regular season. The Dodgers' pitching, though, should get them through to the postseason.

Only time will tell if I am proven right, but the next few weeks should be fun to watch.


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