Thursday, July 18, 2013
The 10 Biggest Series For the Second Half
For some observers, the beauty of Major League Baseball is that every game represents a new day, and is just a tiny, near miniscule fraction of the overall picture of 162 games that every team plays. How many times after a crushing loss have you heard a manager, player or front office member say about a tough loss, something along the lines of, "It's just 1 of 162. We'll get 'em tomorrow."
And of course, literally, that perspective is true. But as the season moves to the second half, to the trade deadline, into pennant races and the cooler weather of September, there are series that carry added significance for playoff spots. These sets of contests lead "Baseball Tonight" and "SportsCenter" and are discussed on MLB Network for hours before a pitch is even thrown. They can make the difference between a division crown, and a second- or third-place finish with October spent on the couch or the golf course.
This is a list of 10 of the biggest series for the second half of the season, all of which should have massive playoff implications.
10. Dodgers @ Rockies, Sept. 2-4
This year's NL West is something of a poor man's version of the AL East. Each team has a better-than-zero shot to win the division, and a player in each division is the talk of baseball at the moment. Right now, the Dodgers and Rockies sit in second and third, respectively, each less than 5 games behind the Diamondbacks. Each team certainly has the lineup and the sluggers to challenge Arizona, but L.A. has to be viewed as a more likely contender due to much stronger pitching, and their red-hot form since Yasiel Puig's debut on June 3.
9. Phillies @ Nationals, Aug. 9-11
At this point in the season, I can't figure out how the Phillies are still in the playoff picture. Roy Halladay had an ERA in the high-8s before going on the DL, and is out until late August. Key setup man Mike Adams is out for the season. The all-star-laden Ryan Howard/Chade Utley/Jimmy Rollins/Michael Young infield may all be on the decline. Cole Hamels has 11 losses. But behind 23-home run revelation Domonic Brown, here the Phillies are, at .500, the same place as the much more-ballyhooed Dodgers, and just a half game back of the preseason World Series favorite Nationals.
Those Nationals have got to something, really anything, about their woeful lineup. Bryce Harper's return will help, but at 20 he can't do it all. And even the eccentric younger has seen his OPS drop nearly 100 points since his July 1 return. The good news is that if Washington can shore up its lineup, it still has one of the best pitching staffs in the NL. This series, while it is the earliest on this list, should still serve to solidify the top contender to Atlanta in the NL East.
8. Indians @ Tigers, Aug. 30-Sept. 1
The second-earliest series on the list represents the last time the top two AL Central contenders will clash for the season. And before that, the teams hook-up just one other time, for four games in Cleveland near the beginning of next month. When they do play for the final times this season, there should be offensive fireworks galore, as these are two of the best slugging teams in the game.
In any other season, the Indians' underrated second baseman Jason Kipnis could be a darkhorse AL MVP candidate. However, due in part to the unbelievable season a member of the opposing infield in this series is having, he's almost a footnote with a nearly .900 OPS. After this series, each team is likely to pile on the wins in September. Each team closes with a whopping 23 games in a row against teams currently under .500.
7. Pirates @ Reds, Sept. 27-29
Neither team is currently in first place, but it seems like a near-certainty that something will be on the line in the final days of the season. In the two-wild card era, that could be as trivial as who gets to host the NL Wild Card Game all the way up to who gets home field throughout the NL playoffs.
What seems less likely is that the Pirates have another free-fall in August and September to finish under .500 for the 21st consecutive year. This year's Buccos have a stronger, more stable offense and their pitching has been remarkable, led by Francisco Liriano's 2.00 ERA and Jason Grilli's 29 saves. The Reds, in what has become a tradition for Dusty Baker's tenure, are a well-rounded team whose lineup gets on base and has power, and whose pitching consistently gets batters out and registers quality starts.
6. Orioles @ Rays, Sept. 20-23
The first of three AL East series on this list has the potential to decide any number of things, just like the Pirates-Reds series in the NL. It seems unlikely the AL East wouldn't grab at least one wild card for October, simply because there's too many quality teams there to have just one playoff representative. But by the opposite token, there probably can't be three teams from the division playing on, because the simple mathematics of an unbalanced schedule say that there's just more wins for the Tigers, Indians, A's and Rangers to grab against lesser opposition.
So, when it comes down to the final week and a half of the season, it will probably mean that one or more of the AL East's top four will get eliminated. The Orioles certainly don't seem to have the magic that they did last year, and the bullpen certainly isn't as stellar. But Baltimore is a better all-around team than it was last year, and its hitting stats bear that out. The Orioles' team OPS is good for third in the AL. In 2012, it was seventh. And you can only imagine how their power numbers have improved, what with Chris Davis homering at a rate that seems like every day.
The Rays don't have a major award contender, and David Price hasn't been himself at all times when he's been healthy, but they're still a solid team on the whole. Ben Zobrist, James Loney, and Evan Longoria are having solid offensive seasons. The Rays' holistic statistical picture indicates they're about fourth- or fifth-best in the AL at about everything. If they stay as the league's fifth-best team, they'll obviously be playing on.
5. A's @ Rangers, Sept. 13-15
If you're a regular reader of this site, you know that I live in the Dallas area and am a Rangers fan. Having come out with that potential bias out front, I think this is the best division race there is in baseball. Every night, I'm scoreboard watching to see what Oakland did that night. And until this past weekend, it seemed like each team's results were mirroring each other. The fact that every Rangers fan wants payback from the scrappy Oakland team that took the division from them on the final day of the season a year ago adds another element to a burgeoning rivalry.
So then, why isn't it higher on this list? It's because the Rangers starting rotation is in absolute shambles with injuries. As I write, with Yu Darvish currently on the 15-day DL, Justin Grimm, a 24-year-old with a 6.37 ERA and 11.7 hits allowed per 9 innings, is basically an indispensable second starter right now. Nick Tepesch started 2012 in single-A Myrtle Beach and is fourth on the team in innings. In other words, I'm not confident the Rangers can keep up with Oakland, the No. 1 staff in the AL by ERA. However, the Rangers have the assets to make a deal later this month. Also, after Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson, it's not as if the A's have anything other than an average lineup.
4. Yankees @ Red Sox, Sept. 13-15
You expected to not see a Yankees/Red Sox series on this list? This series will be the last time the longtime rivals play for 2013. But don't be shocked at all if these three contests decide the best top-to-bottom division in baseball.
A not-so-stellar cast of Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Jayson Nix, and David Adams have played the most games for the Yankees at their respective positions. Except for Robinson Cano, they can't hit the ball to save their lives. But New York is only six games back of Boston and will get healthier in the second half. Preseason pundits thought the Sox would be near the bottom of the East again, but instead they have the best record in the AL. The team's hitting is like a Red Sox team from the middle of the last decade, ranking No. 1 or 2 in the AL in most offensive categories. After Clay Buchholz and John Lackey, the rotation isn't impressive, but the bullpen has performed better than anyone could have possibly imagined.
3. Pirates @ Cardinals, Sept. 6-8
As of the All-Star Break, these two teams were the best in all of baseball. They each have exceptional pitching and incredible sluggers. For St. Louis, its pitching will only improve once Chris Carpenter gets off of the disabled list. They deserve to be called the two best teams in the game. But at the end of the season, one club will, at the very least, have to go into a single-elimination dogfight as a wild card. As the Cardinals (and really, the umpires) themselves showed last year against the Braves, no advantage accumulated over 162 games matters in a one-game playoff. Even though it's in early September, the right to avoid that win-or-go-home scenario will likely be on the line at Busch Stadium.
2. Dodgers @ Diamondbacks, Sept. 16-19
Breaking news: these teams kind of hate each other in 2013. It's not just that they brawled after Ian Kennedy plunked Puig on June 12, it's the statements made since then about Puig by members of the Diamondbacks. Miguel Montero said about a week ago, "If he's my teammate, I'm probably trying to help him not be hated in the major leagues. That's where he's going right now, creating a bad reputation throughout the league." Montero said those words in response to Puig staring him down after a collision at the plate. During the same series, Puig supposedly blew off Luis Gonzalez when the 2001 World Series hero tried to introduce himself.
Sure, to some extent, this all has a soap opera element to it. But in baseball, these are the types of events that can make division games into rivalries, and rivalries into playoff races for the ages. And one thing is absolutely certain. Since Puig's debut, the Dodgers are playing incredible baseball and living up to their payroll. This four-game set in the desert should go a long way to deciding who represents the division in the playoffs.
1. Red Sox @ Orioles, Sept. 27-29
The MLB schedule makers didn't really do a great job with this season's final weekend. (Ending the season on a Wednesday was wonderful the last two years. I can't for the life of me figure out why Selig & Co. switched it back. And no, "the season going into November otherwise" is not a valid reason.)
Beyond the two Sept. 27-29 series in this article, there's just not a whole lot on offer where both teams should have something to play for on the final days of the season. Nationals/Diamondbacks could have wild card implications, but Washington catching Cincinnati or Atlanta would take a vast improvement in hitting. Other than that, Baltimore and Toronto play, but the Blue Jays just haven't been consistent enough to make me seriously think they have anything but a small chance to win the division or make the playoffs.
So, there's this series, which could have many things on the line: home field, the division title, or just making the playoffs with a wild card. But this series could also feature Chris Davis' pursuit of any number of home run milestones and single-season landmarks. Even the most optimistic Orioles fan would probably grant you that Davis won't get to 71 home runs. But the "unofficial" record of 62? With 66 games to go and 25 homers remaining? That could absolutely happen, especially when you consider that Davis smacked 16 in the month leading up to the All-Star break.
There are many weeks left in the MLB season, and over 1,000 games remaining. But with a healthy amount of the season already passed, these 10 series stand out as the ones to watch that will define the pennant races the most.