A lot still up for grabs in final 2½ weeks

Updated: September 16, 2010, 6:08 PM ET
By Jayson Stark
We've got 2½ 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


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 3½-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.