So here we are, in September baseball nirvana. It's a beautiful thing.
Seven teams are scrambling for the finish line in the last week of the regular season, within two games of a playoff spot. And here we are, trying to watch or follow them all, with flat-screens, iPads, laptops and phones smoking.
Now that is our definition of September nirvana. We have four days left in this baseball season. And ladies and gentlemen, this is going to be fun.
"I think it's going to be whacked," said one baseball executive whose team has been trying to hang in this race. "I think it's going to be so emotional day to day. I wouldn't want to have to go on TV and talk about it ... because you're going to have a different opinion every day."
So how do you keep your brain from overloading as you try to follow all this? Allow us to help you out here -- with our handy-dandy guide to what to watch this week:
Intrigue north of the border
Have you checked those American League wild-card standings lately? Allow us to refresh your memory:
And guess which two teams finish their series in Toronto on Thursday?
After Two rising stars, in Aaron Sanchez (Blue Jays) and Kevin Gausman (Orioles), battled Tuesday in a 5-1 Toronto win, Hyun Soo Kim gave the Orioles a much-needed lift with a ninth-inning home run Wednesday; and two talented guys whose seasons have been roller-coaster rides, in Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays) and Ubaldo Jimenez (Orioles), are set to square off Thursday.
The stakes are these: As close as those standings make this race appear, the Orioles probably had to sweep to win the first wild-card spot. If they wind up tied for the last two tickets to the party, the Blue Jays win the season series and still would host the wild-card game on Oct. 4.
Survivor: AL West redemption island
Meanwhile, the Mariners and Astros might have waved adios to the Rangers a long time ago -- but they're still breathing. After an epic Mariners win in the opener to their three-game series Monday night and a huge Astros comeback Tuesday, Seattle finished off the series with a blowout victory Wednesday afternoon.
Realistically, though, even running the table at this point might not be enough for the Astros. They're now four games back of Baltimore in the loss column. So they'd need a 3-0 finish just to get to 86 wins.
The Mariners, on the other hand, have charged to within two of Baltimore and are just a game back of Detroit.
A Seattle sweep would have put the Mariners in excellent shape, but they still very much are despite Tuesday's loss, considering they finish the season with four games at home against Oakland, while the Orioles spend the final days of the season on the road at Toronto and New York.
Two tidbits to file away: (A) The Mariners are 10-2 against Oakland since the start of May, and (B) a Mariners-Orioles tiebreaker game would be played in Seattle because the Mariners went 6-1 against the O's this year.
Drama in Detroit
Every time you think the Tigers are done for, they seem to rip off five wins in a row. And every time you think they've taken control of their own fate, they play three games as messy as the three they played starting this past weekend.
They went into the ninth inning Saturday with a half-game lead on Baltimore and a two-run lead over Kansas City. Then Francisco Rodriguez coughed up five runs in the ninth. That kicked off a brutal three-game losing streak in which their staff allowed 24 runs in the next 19 innings. And the upshot is, they'd dropped to two games back of Baltimore with six to play.
As ugly as those past three losses had been and as bleak as their 2-14 record against Cleveland might have appeared heading into Tuesday, the Tigers are now in better shape than you might have thought.
On Tuesday, Justin Verlander & Co. rocked the Tribe 12-0 before Miguel Cabrera's heroics carried the Tigers to another win Wednesday night. Now, Daniel Norris (3.26 ERA since rejoining the rotation in August) gets his chance at Cleveland in Thursday's finale. Then they'll finish the season with three games in Atlanta, where the Braves have a ballpark to close up. So are the Tigers dead? Not yet.
History in the NL?
The bad news is, over in the National League, we have no head-to-head meetings left among serious contenders. The good news is, that might set up a finish unlike anything we've seen at any point in the division-play era -- which is now in its 48th season.
The Mets have 74 losses. The Giants have 75 and the Cardinals are a game back at 82-76. Never, in any of the previous 47 seasons, have we witnessed a three-team tie in any race -- division or wild card -- in the final week of the season. So is this the year? Let's root for that, OK?
The Mets' path
After an emotional series in Miami, the Mets play their final three games in Philadelphia. They had Noah Syndergaard return to the rotation Tuesday (in a 12-1 win) after missing a turn with strep throat. That sets him up to start again Sunday in the final game of the season if they need to win. He's the last ace standing. And the Mets have never needed him more.
But no team faces greater pressure than the Mets do to get this over with fast. Suppose they have to burn Syndergaard on Sunday? Suppose there's a tiebreaker game Monday, with neither Syndergaard nor Bartolo Colon available to pitch it? As big a lifesaver as Robert Gsellman (3-2, 2.56) has been, it wouldn't quite be their dream scenario to go into a Gsellman vs. Madison Bumgarner survival game -- or something like that.
The Giants' path
Don't ask us how the Giants are still alive and kicking. They've won one series in all of September (at Arizona two weeks ago). They haven't won a series at home since Aug. 26-28 (against Atlanta). They haven't won a series against a team that's currently over .500 since June 10-12 (against L.A.).
But if the wild-card game were today, they would be playing in it. Somehow. Now, to finish this deal, they might actually have to win some games, especially after being shut out by the Rockies on Wednesday night. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill (blister permitting) penciled in to start against them this weekend. You think they would take any joy in sending the Giants home for the winter -- in an even year, no less? Yeah, us, too.
The Cardinals' path
The St. Louis Cardinals are 34-43 at Busch Stadium. Is that crazy, or what? Well, it's also relevant because they have four more home games stretched before them the rest of the way, against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Games to circle: the dazzling Alex Reyes against the underrated Dan Straily on Thursday. (The Cardinals have hit .176 against Straily this year.) Then Carlos Martinez faces Pirates phenom Tyler Glasnow on Friday. And an Adam Wainwright-Ryan Vogelsong duel is possible for Sunday.
So why do we have a feeling we'll be seeing a Cardinals-Giants tiebreaker game Monday in St. Louis? Just a hunch.
Five more stories to watch
• Try this on for Cys: Four days left, and there's no clear-cut leader in either league's Cy Young derby. So don't underestimate the importance of the final start(s) of the year for Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Verlander, Chris Sale, and a half-dozen other aces. Just two years ago, Corey Kluber wrestled this trophy away from King Felix in Cleveland's 160th game of the year. So it happens!
• Plant a seed: If you think home field matters, five of the six division winners have major incentive to play it out this week. The Dodgers (37-40 on the road but 53-28 at home) are just two games behind the Nationals (47-30 home, 45-36 road) for the second seed -- which determines who holds home-field advantage in their first-round matchup next week. And L.A. gets that edge if it finishes with the same record. In the AL, not much separates the Red Sox (46-32 home and 46-34 road), Rangers (52-26 home, 42-39 road) and Indians (53-28 home, 38-39 road) in the late-breaking three-way tussle for the No. 1 seed. The Indians lose out on every potential tiebreaker formula. But the Boston-Texas tiebreaker depends on division games this week, as they split their five games head-to-head.
• 20 is plenty: In Tampa Bay, Rays ace Chris Archer started the season dreaming of winning 20 games. He's suddenly in danger of becoming the first pitcher to lose 20 in a season since Mike Maroth dethroned Brian Kingman's 23-year reign as the last 20-game loser back in 2003. Since Maroth did it for the Tigers, no pitcher has ever even been allowed to start a game after reaching 19 losses. But as of now, Archer is still scheduled to pitch Thursday against the White Sox. Let us be the first to mention that Archer clearly doesn't deserve this fate. He could still lead the AL in strikeouts. And his eight criminally unsupported starts (six-plus innings, no more than one run of support while on the mound) are the second-most in the league. Coincidentally, the league leader in that stat -- Jose Quintana, with 10 CUSes -- is the opposing pitcher Thursday. Think either team will score?
• Papi's last stand: Have you heard that David Ortiz is retiring? Has word of that gotten around? Just checking. Well, this is it for the regular season. Finally. And it's possible there might be some Papi festivities at Fenway this weekend. Just a hunch. No player has ever led the major leagues in either slugging or OPS in his final season. Unless he forgets to get another hit, Ortiz can count on clinching the lead in both categories this weekend. But here's a really fun rarity for him to shoot for: He needs three more home runs to hit 40 at 40, which would make him the oldest player ever to homer his age. Barry Bonds did it in 2004, at 40 years, 2 months. Ortiz is 40 years, 10 months old.
• 2011 revisited? Finally, does anybody still have a vision of the final night of the season back in 2011? Pretty memorable evening, wasn't it? We know of at least two books that were written about just that one night, so it must have been an all-timer. Well, we're all set up to have it happen again Sunday afternoon. There are 15 games scheduled that day. They'll all start about the same time -- 3 p.m. ET. It isn't out of the question that as many as eight of them could determine which teams get to keep playing and which of them go home. Anyone else rooting hard for the sheer joyful madness of trying to keep track of all eight of them simultaneously? We just raised our hands. How about you?