If you can divert your attention from playing Monday morning quarterback for about 20 seconds, here’s a friendly reminder two huge — underline yoooooge — divisional series start tonight in the American League. Down in Baltimore the Orioles host the Yankees in a four-game set at Camden, while a couple hundred miles away in Cleveland the Indians welcome the Royals. Call it fate or dumb luck but this scheduling quirk means the four teams chasing the idle Rays for the final Wild Card berth are involved in series directly against each other.
The home teams — Baltimore and Cleveland — enter Monday two games back of Tampa. The Yankees are 2.5 back, while the resurgenct and resilient Royals are only 3.5 games adrift. Kansas City’s win over Detroit on Sunday gave them the most wins (31) of any club after the All-Star Break. Let’s stop a little short of labeling these elimination series, if only due to the fact Tampa Bay has hit the skids in the last two weeks. The Rays hit their seasons high-water mark on Aug. 24 after a win over Yankees put them 24 games over .500. Since that game they’re a mere 4-11 with a three-game set with Boston beginning Tuesday.
Those are the parameters and the stakes. A sweep in any case likely KO’s the opponent. The Royals probably have to sweep to realistically stay in the race. Winning 2 of 3 won’t be enough for Ned Yost’s club. The Yankees and Orioles have more say controlling their own postseason fates with one remaining series each with the Rays.
In light of these matchups, this year’s Wild Card races in both leagues has made me think more about the unbalanced MLB schedule. Here’s your current breakdown:
- 76 games vs. four divisional opponents, 19 times apiece; 47 percent of your total schedule.
- 66 games vs. 10 other teams in league, six or seven games each; 41 percent of total schedule.
- 20 interleague games; 12 percent of total schedule.
Is this an equitable system when it’s so lopsided toward divisional play? With two Wild Card spots in play does it make sense to play nearly half your games in a six-month marathon season against four opponents? The counter to this argument is that the new five-team postseason format puts an emphasis on winning your division since all the Wild Card ensures you is one win or go home game. The 19-game format allows you to control your own fate in the division.
Bear in mind, this season the two National League Wild Card teams will come from the Central division among the trio of St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The other two teams in the division — Milwaukee and Chicago — are a combined 40-games under .500. The three playoff-bound Central teams are a combined 62-32 vs. their divisional also-rans, mainly via the Reds’ 13-3 mark vs. the Cubs and the Cardinals’ 10-3 record vs. the Brewers. By contrast the Pirates are a pedestrian 12-7 vs. the Brewers and only 7-5 vs. the Cubs.
Over in the American League the divisional swing is a little more imbalanced in the playoff races. Oakland and Texas are both likely making the playoffs by feasting on the Astros to the tune of a combined 27-8 record vs. their new West division foe. Cleveland is 11-2 against the dreadful White Sox and still has six games remaining with them before October rolls in. (The Indians weak September schedule might make them the Wild Card favorites since they also have a four-game home series with the Astros and four more with the Twins.)
Granted in any given season this is going to happen. Poor teams will emerge and sink to the bottom. Everybody anticipated the Astros would be poor this year, but nothing says their sub-.400 winning percentage is a permanent luxury for West Division foes to fattened themselves up on.
Trying something radical like making each League one 15-team division, with the top five teams making the playoffs doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Even so, with now 33 percent of teams qualifying for the postseason in some form and two of those five spots available to the entire league shouldn’t the scheduling be a little more balanced going forward?
Oh right, television executives are never going to allow us to live in a world where the Yankees/Red Sox have less encounters throughout the season, because four-plus hour baseball games is what the American public craves.