Can the Pirates catch the Cardinals?
We saw Sunday night why the Pirates are desperate to chase down the Cardinals in the NL Central: You do not want to face Jake Arrieta in the wild-card game considering the man hasn't allowed a run in seven of his past 11 starts and just 17 runs total over his past 19 starts. The Pirates begin the week three games behind the Cardinals but the good news is St. Louis comes to Pittsburgh on Monday for a three-game series (Monday's game on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET), with the Pirates basically needing a sweep to have a chance to win the division, considering the Cardinals finish up with three games against the Braves.
The pitching matchups: Lance Lynn versus J.A. Happ, Michael Wacha versus Charlie Morton, Tyler Lyons versus Gerrit Cole. The Pirates knocked Lynn out in the first inning when they met in August and Lynn didn't get out of the fourth inning in two of his four September starts. Wacha has also struggled in September, with a 6.75 ERA and 14 walks against just 15 strikeouts in 20 innings.
Remember last year the Pirates burned Cole on the final Sunday of the regular season in a slim chance to win the division and he was unavailable for the wild-card game. This year, however, since he'll start Wednesday, a Sunday start would come only on three days of rest. More likely, he's lined up to start either a tiebreaker game for the NL Central title on Monday or the wild-card game on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
Can the Astros catch the Rangers?
Houston stayed alive in the AL West by beating the Rangers two out of three over the weekend to head into the final week 2.5 games back. But the Astros finish up with six games on the road in Seattle and Arizona and they have been a terrible road team at 29-46, the worst road record in the AL.
More likely, that means the Astros are trying to hold off the Angels (half-game back) and Twins (1.5 games back) for the second wild card and a likely trip to the Bronx for a game against the Yankees on Oct. 6. The Angels host the A's for three games and finish up in Texas with four games. The Twins have four games in Cleveland and then three at home against Kansas City.
Know your tiebreaker rules!
Considering how close the Astros, Angels and Twins are, there's a good chance we'll end up with a tie for that second AL wild card, just like 2013 when the Rays and Rangers had to play a tiebreaker game. In such a scenario, home-field advantage goes to the team with the better head-to-head record, so that means the Astros would host the Angels (and a meeting against Dallas Keuchel, who is 15-0 at home) and the Angels would host the Twins. The Astros and Twins split their season series, however, so the second item is intradivision record. The Twins are 37-32 in the Central while the Astros are 36-37 in the West, so the Twins would most likely host the Astros.
In a three-team tie -- let's see it happen! -- the clubs are assigned A, B and C designations based on head-to-head records. The team with the best record can choose to either play at home for two games or play the winner of the first game on the road. The Angels would get first choice since they're 14-12 against the Astros and Twins, the Astros are 13-12 and the Twins are 5-8.
The Pirates and Cardinals are currently 8-8 on the season, so if they end up tied for the division that certainly means the Pirates will host the tiebreaker game.
The Blue Jays and Royals are both 90-65 as they battle for the No. 1 seed in the AL. The Jays won the season series 4-3 so the Royals would need to finish with the better record to secure home-field advantage in the ALCS over the Blue Jays.
In the NL, the Mets are 1.5 games up on the Dodgers for home-field advantage in their series. They won the season series 4-3 so a tie means they'll have home field over the Dodgers.
Got all that?
Key injuries to watch.
Masahiro Tanaka, hamstring. Maybe the most important injury since Tanaka is the Yankees' preferred choice for the wild-card game. The Yankees are hoping he can start by Thursday but manager Joe Girardi indicated Tanaka would still be his starter for the wild-card game even if he doesn't pitch before the regular season ends.
Troy Tulowitzki, cracked bone in shoulder. While he's been taking infield, Tulowitzki has yet to take full swings, only hitting off a tee on Friday. He said playing in the regular season before the playoffs is "not important at all to me."
Carlos Martinez, shoulder. He's out for the rest of the season and postseason with a shoulder strain that will require rest but not surgery. As mentioned above, Lynn and Wacha have also struggled down the stretch so the Cardinals rotation, so good all season, suddenly looks a little vulnerable.
Carlos Gomez, back. He pinch-ran on Sunday for the Astros, his first appearance since Sept. 12, but still hasn't been cleared to take batting practice.
Josh Hamilton, knee. He played nine innings on Saturday for the first time since mid-August, although he just pinch-hit on Sunday. He's expected to start Monday against Justin Verlander as the Rangers assess how he can help the team in the postseason, perhaps as a platoon left fielder against right-handed pitching.
Yasiel Puig, hamstring. He's apparently out through at least the division series.
Zack Greinke, calf. He missed his last start as a precaution but will start Monday.
Adrian Gonzalez, back. He sat out the past two games.
Matt Holliday, quad. He's been back with the Cardinals since Sept. 18 after missing nearly two months but has yet to play a full game. He did hit two doubles while playing eight innings on Saturday.
NL Cy Young race
One of the best Cy Young races we've seen with Arrieta, Greinke and Clayton Kershaw all having dominating seasons. Greinke and Kershaw should each get two more starts as the NLDS doesn't start until Oct. 9. Arrieta will make one more start before his wild-card start. My guess is that Arrieta trumps Kershaw on the basis of his ERA advantage (1.82 to 2.25) and win-loss record advantage (21-6 versus 15-8) even though Kershaw has 52 more strikeouts. So it's likely down to Arrieta versus Greinke (18-3, 1.65). Arrieta leads in wins, innings and strikeouts, Greinke in ERA, winning percentage and WAR (8.7 to 8.4).
AL Cy Young race
Keuchel (19-8, 2.47 ERA, 7.3 WAR) and David Price (18-5, 2.45 ERA, 6.0 WAR) are about as close as Greinke and Arrieta. The final starts for each could make the difference, although I give the slight edge right now to Keuchel.
NL MVP race
Is it still a race? Bryce Harper leads the NL in home runs, runs, batting average, OBP and slugging and has a huge lead in WAR over the No. 2 position player, Paul Goldschmidt (10.2 to 8.3). The strikes against him are that the Nationals didn't make the postseason and his clutch numbers aren't great -- .215 average in "late and close" situations and .245 in high-leverage situations. But nobody else really stepped up, so unless voters go to Arrieta or Greinke, Harper probably wins, even if some of the first-place votes go somewhere else.
AL MVP race
Narrative. Donaldson seems to have trumped Trout here with the "new guy leading the Jays after a blockbuster trade." Trout also had a terrible August, right when Donaldson was going nuts.
RBIs. Huge edge to Donaldson, 122 to 88. Not Trout's fault but that will not matter to voters.
WAR. Close: Donaldson leads 8.9 to 8.8 on Baseball-Reference and 8.5 to 8.3 on FanGraphs.
Postseason. The Angels have to get there for Trout to even have a chance.