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Thursday, September 16, 2010
A lot still up for grabs in final 2.5 weeks

By Jayson Stark

We've got 2.5 weeks left in this baseball season, and it's crazy how much has yet to be decided. Some of it doesn't even meet the naked eye. Such as ...

Strike One -- Sweep Dreams Dept.


All the Rays did against the Yankees this week was win one series, two out of three. All the Rays did, in the standings, was take a half-game lead. But here's the subplot behind that series and those standings:

Tampa Bay Rays

Tiebreakers.

Remember, if the Rays and Yankees end up tied at the end of the season, baseball won't play that tie-off to decide first place. It's going right to the old tiebreaker chart. And the Rays now own that chart.

By winning two out of three this week, they now lead the season series eight games to six. So that's a two-game lead in Tiebreaker No. 1.

The Rays also have nearly an insurmountable lead on the Yankees in record within the division. Tampa Bay: 39-26, New York: 31-25. So that's a 3.5-game lead in Tiebreaker No. 2.

So what does that mean? The only way the Yankees can win the division now is almost certainly to win it outright -- unless they do one thing:

They would have to sweep their four-game series against Tampa Bay next week in the Bronx. That's all.

Not that that's impossible. But the Rays have lost four games in a row just once all year (Aug. 4-8) and have been swept in only one series all year (in Toronto, Aug. 6-8).

Again, if the Yankees can't sweep that series, they have to win the division outright to wind up in first place and have home-field advantage in the first two playoff rounds. So what's the impact of that?

It means the Rays' one-game lead in the loss column is, in reality, the equivalent of a two-game lead with 17 to play.

So remember Dan Johnson's two-homer eruption Wednesday against the Yankees. It could turn out to be one of the most season-altering multihomer games of September.

Strike Two -- Sow This Seed Dept.


And over in the National League, there's a potentially critical race going on that absolutely no one seems to be talking about:

The race for the No. 1 postseason seed.

Take a look at how that race looked heading into Thursday:

Phillies 86-61

Reds 83-63

Padres 82-63

Braves 83-64

Giants 82-64

Rockies 80-66

Six teams, separated by five games in the loss column. Five of those teams separated by three in the loss column. Tremendous.

Now here's why it matters:

This year, the NL team with the best record gets the right to do what the Yankees did last October -- choose the format for the Division Series. It can start Wednesday, Oct. 6, and get an extra day off (Game 1, off, Game 2, off, Game 3, Game 4, off, Game 5). Or it can start Thursday, Oct. 7 and play it straight (Game 1, Game 2, off, Game 3, Game 4, off, Game 5).

In other words, the No. 1 seed could choose a series that would enable it to use just three starting pitchers, all on normal rest, and never have to dip deeper into its rotation than that. So guess which team that would benefit most?

Philadelphia Phillies

That would be the current leader in this race, obviously. The Phillies now possess the kind of October big three you'd design on any computer, in Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. And they'd have very little interest in taking that cliff dive down to their fourth starter, Joe Blanton, if they could help it.

Just to make sure, I asked their GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., this week whether there was any chance the Phillies wouldn't choose that option if they win the No. 1 seed.



"Clearly," he said, "if we can put ourselves in position to do that, we'd want to do that. We even did it that way against the Braves [lining up those three so they could face Atlanta in all six regular-season games those two teams have left]. It's pretty logical. It's pretty simple."

Yep. Sure is. Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels are 9-0, with a 2.26 ERA, in September. And since Oswalt arrived on July 30, they're 17-6, 2.42. And the Phillies have run up a scary .741 winning percentage (20-7) when those three have started since then.

No other NL contender had more than 11 wins from any set of three starters in the same period. So that battle for the No. 1 seed in the NL is about much more than home-field advantage. It's about potential domination.

Strike Three -- Rest Of The Story Dept.


And now one more set of subplots as we look ahead to the schedule for the last 2.5 weeks.

The results of season series between any two contenders is now a huge deal -- because it's those results, not coin flips, that determine the site of any tiebreaker games that might follow Game 162. And several of those season series have yet to be decided. For instance:

Colorado Rockies

• The Rockies have three games left against the Giants -- and lead that season series eight games to seven. You don't think it matters a little to the Rockies if they'd wind up playing a tiebreaker game at Coors Field instead of AT&T Park?

• The Padres have three games remaining against the Reds -- and lead that season series two games to one. That doesn't figure to determine a playoff spot anymore. But it could determine where those teams are seeded heading into the postseason. And you don't think home-field advantage would matter if those two teams meet? The Reds hit .154 in Petco Park last year (and haven't played there yet this season).

• As mentioned earlier, the Braves and Phillies have six games left against each other, including the final three of the season in Atlanta. The Braves now lead that season series seven games to five. So the Braves just need to split, three apiece, to retain that tiebreaker. If the Phillies win four of six, they would hold the next tiebreaker, because they're 33-24 versus the NL East, compared to Atlanta's 30-27.

• And, finally, here are some tiebreakers that are already decided:

The Giants would lose tiebreakers to all other potential NL teams except the Reds, depending on how they fare against Colorado.

The Reds stand to lose their tiebreakers against every team, depending on how their series in San Diego turns out.

The Phillies would win tiebreakers against everyone in the NL except Atlanta.

The Rockies would hold tiebreakers against everyone except the Phillies, pending their series with the Giants.

San Diego Padres

The Padres would win a tiebreaker against only the Giants, depending on how their series with the Rockies winds up.

The Braves currently have the tiebreaker advantage over everyone but Colorado.

And in the AL, the Twins hold the tiebreaker against Texas, if that turns into any sort of seeding issue.

So there. Got all that? Good, because there might be a quiz on Oct. 3!