Our analysts discuss this weekend's key series, fading contenders and whether it's worth it to fight for a No. 1 seed.
1. Which series should neutral fans watch this weekend?
Tristan H. Cockcroft (@SultanofStat), ESPN Fantasy: Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox. In addition to it being effectively an elimination series, we'll be treated to some solid starting pitchers facing the test of working in a homer-friendly environment. The White Sox will start breakout sensation Chris Sale on Saturday; the Rays will counter with Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and David Price, with Price perhaps pitching a game that might elevate him to the lead in the AL Cy Young race.
Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski), ESPN Insider: Orioles versus the Red Sox is the most interesting series this weekend. The Orioles are just a game behind the Yankees, which gives the Red Sox the opportunity to flip the 2011 situation and be the team playing spoiler. The O's likely need their Red Sox wins a little more than the Yankees, by virtue of being the team that's behind and having the tougher non-Boston series (Yankees get the Jays; O's get the Rays). The Yankees may be Boston's long-term archnemesis, but I'm sure it hasn't been forgotten by Red Sox fans that going 2-5 against Baltimore in the final 10 days of the season helped complete last year's historic collapse.
Matt Meyers (@mtmeyers), ESPN.com: Angels at Rangers. The Angels are in full-on desperation mode, and it would be pretty remarkable if they missed the playoffs after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and getting a historically great season from Mike Trout. I'm curious to see how they perform this weekend.
2. Of the AL contenders, who do you expect to be out of it by Monday?
Well, one of the reasons I picked Rays-White Sox is that, come week's end, at least one will be calling it a season. A series split, in fact, probably would wipe both from the wild-card map. But I'm picking the Rays to take at least three, putting the White Sox in the elimination bin. Two reasons why: The Rays, during their recent half-decade run of success, tend to finish the regular season strong, winning 19 of the 28 games they played in the final week from 2008 to '11; and the White Sox's pitching staff just looks gassed, with a team ERA of 4.26 since Sept. 1.
Szymborski: I think by the end of the weekend, the Angels will be on the outside looking in. Playing the Rangers in Texas is rough, and they have to do more than tread water. With less than a week remaining in the regular season, the clock is not your friend. With Texas not being able to clinch the division for a few more days at a minimum, there's little chance that the Rangers will rest the regulars quite yet.
Meyers: I'll say the White Sox. Not only are they playing poorly and hosting a tough team (the Rays), but the Tigers get to play the Twins. I think the Tigers will gain at least a game over the weekend and all but clinch the AL Central.
3. Is it worth it for the Reds and Nats to go all out for the No. 1 seed in the NL?
I'll say no, because I don't think this season's rush-job playoff plan grants the No. 1 seed much of an advantage. That team will spend Oct. 5, sitting in a plane on the tarmac, waiting to see where it'll fly to spend the first two games of a best-of-five Division Series on the road. The No. 2 seed? It can spend two days in San Francisco preparing, and before you say "the Giants have scary pitching," don't forget that Tim Lincecum has endured a rocky season while Madison Bumgarner has a 4.84 ERA in September. The right move for either team is to rest, refresh and align rotations, not waste bullets fighting for an advantage hardly that advantageous.
Szymborski: Not for the No. 1 seed. There's a lot of parity among top teams in baseball, more than in other sports, and the top seed really isn't that exciting in baseball. Sure, facing a slightly weaker team and getting a possible extra home game are nice, but without a real powder-puff team in the playoffs, it's just not enough of an advantage that you want to risk your team's playoff readiness. In baseball, the de facto playoff structure is six top seeds (the division winners) and four bottom seeds (the teams fighting for the one-game wild card). Fight tooth and nail for the divisional title, but not top seeding.
While I don't think they should necessarily play like it's an elimination game, I think the No. 1 seed is worth it. Not only do you get home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, but your pitchers get an extra day of rest to begin the postseason. That's big, particularly for relievers.