By Shawn Clarke, MLB Contributor - Archive - Email
Wild card races still wavering
Detroit is still alive in the Central race, sitting one game behind the Chicago White Sox.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There's less than four weeks remaining in the baseball regular season and plenty of uncertainty remains as to which teams will make the playoffs.

The American League race has to be the most engaging with a few divisions still up for grabs (AL East and AL Central) and at least five teams vying for one of the final two wild card spots.

Major League Baseball expanded its playoff system once again, giving two additional markets the chance to experience postseason play each year, and the AL is taking full advantage.

For starters, the New York Yankees have lost grip on the AL East lead and are now tied with the Baltimore Orioles for division authority. The Yankees are yearly playoff contributors, and this season should be no different. They currently sit atop the wild card standings with Oakland, but the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers are competing for a chance to play deep into October.

A three-game difference between five teams will make the end of the regular season more enjoyable. Of course, there are the bottom-feeders who thrive on playing spoiler, and it will be the case again before the regular-season finales on Oct. 3. Misery enjoys company, right?

Detroit is still alive in the Central race, sitting one game behind the Chicago White Sox, and will play the current division leaders in an upcoming four-game series from Sept. 10-13. A preseason favorite to win the division and possibly represent the Junior Circuit in the World Series, the Tigers have one of the best pitchers in baseball (Justin Verlander) and two of the premier sluggers (Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder). Manager Jim Leyland understands how important pitching is, having skippered in the bigs for quite some time.

"Our pitching is going to be the thing that'll hang us in there ... not that we can't hit, because we can," he said. "But at the end of the day, you have to stop the other team and give yourself a chance to win. I'm a firm believer in that. Normally on our team, if you've got a nine-inning game and you only give up three runs, I think on our team we're supposed to win that game."

Leyland hopes the philosophy rings true on his club's upcoming road trip which includes stops at Anaheim, Chicago and Cleveland. This weekend's series with the Angels signifies major playoff implications, as the Angels are just one- half game ahead of the Tigers in the wild card standings. Much like the Tigers, the Halos have big games on the horizon against Detroit and Oakland.

Wild-card World Series champions
 1997 Florida Marlins
 2002 Anaheim Angels
 2003 Florida Marlins
 2004 Boston Red Sox
 2011 St. Louis Cardinals

Anaheim is just 2 1/2 games behind the Athletics for one of the final postseason berths, and just swept them in three games at the Coliseum with three straight solid outings from starters C.J. Wilson, Zack Greinke and Dan Haren.

The news wasn't all so good out with the recent shoulder issue for staff ace and AL Cy Young Award candidate Jered Weaver, who will miss his next start because of right shoulder tendinitis. If Weaver, who was nailed by a line drive against Seattle, has problems as the playoff race heats up, the confidence level will drop tremendously for the ball club.

Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto reiterated how valuable Weaver is.

"He's extremely important to what happens to us today, tomorrow, next year and the year after," Dipoto said. "I don't think that we were taking lightly, just to make sure that he was in a good spot. I'll let you know how relieving it is when he's back out there, but for the time being, we're just going to give him a little blow, skip him this time through the rotation and hopefully get him back on track."

On top of having Wilson, Greinke and Haren, the Angels can rest their cap on Ervin Santana, too. Santana has the least amount of wins among the rotation, but is still a viable option every five days.

There's no pity for the Rays and their grueling schedule that includes matchups with the AL West-leading Rangers, Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox. Tampa Bay can still grab the AL East lead in the near future with only a two-game deficit, and is 1 1/2 games off the pace in the wild card. The Rays won the wild card over Boston last season, but winning the East would be an ideal scenario since division champions will receive at least two days rest before the Division Series. Wild card winners will most likely have to throw out their ace in an elimination game.

It's similarly chaotic in the National League playoff race.

Milwaukee, Philadelphia and the New York Mets have a snowball's chance in the desert to make a run, as each club is seven, eight and nine games, respectively, out of the picture. Can the Brewers make a push just seven games off the pace? Maybe, but they'll have to spring ahead of five teams jockeying for position.

If the season ended today, Atlanta and St. Louis would cash in, leaving Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Arizona on the outside looking in. The Braves have to hope for a monumental collapse by Washington in order to grab the NL East lead, while the story line is identical for the Cardinals in the Central.

The biggest surprise in all of the NL breakdowns is Pittsburgh. Absent from the postseason since their last .500-or-better season since 1992, the Pirates are even with the Dodgers at 1 1/2 games behind the wild card leaders. Starting pitcher A.J. Burnett is a big reason for Pittsburgh's rise from mediocrity. Burnett is 15-5, and he hasn't won that many since 2008 when he registered 18 wins in his final season with Toronto.

"It doesn't matter if I win 20, 19, 18 or whatever," Burnett said. "I'm just trying to win ball games for this club; that's all I try to do every time. A win for me just means the team is one game closer to our goal."

Arizona came out of nowhere to win the NL West last season and Kirk Gibson's club is hoping for some of the same magic to reappear. That could be too arduous a task since the Diamondbacks are in the midst of playing 25 games in a row against division opponents and have just four wins in the past 13 contests. But then again, Arizona was counted out last September and look what happened.

With the East and Central pretty much wrapped up by Washington and Cincinnati, respectively, the West is winding down to a two-man race between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Giants are 4 1/2 games up on the Dodgers, a club that is hoping an in-season spending spree will make a difference. The Dodgers can make up some much-needed ground in a three-game series at San Francisco this weekend and will play 14 of the next 18 games away from home.

The congested races in both leagues is what makes baseball America's pastime. It's what brings fans to the stadium in droves and television ratings through the roof.

An abundance of intrigue remains for the last month or so, and it's only going to get more appealing with each passing week.

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