Wild cards most compelling
Six weeks left. Eight playoff spots up for grabs. Which races are over and which ones will go down to the wire?
Just as the presidential election isn't really a national election, but instead a series of closely contested elections in a handful of swing states, so it is with baseball's pennant races.
This isn't 1968 anymore, when the phrase "post-season'' didn't exist and finishing first was a ticket to the World Series. Though baseball thankfully hasn't watered down its playoffs like other sports, there are four spots in each league to be won -- three division winners and a wild-card spot.
That means there's eight separate races to analyze, with some crossover element (it's possible to be in contention for both a division title and a wild-card destination).
We've ranked all eight of the races, from closest to all-but-over.
1) AL WILD CARD
Three teams are separated by 1½ games. Extend the net a little further, a fourth team (Cleveland) sits 5½ back.
And here's the thing. Thanks to the jumbled AL West, the identity of the top teams can change in a day or two. Sure, the Oakland A's are leading the division now and not even listed among the wild-card entrants. But a sweep at the hands of Texas or Anaheim could drop the A's out of the division perch and have them soon trailing in the wild-card race. It's that close.
If you give an edge out West to Oakland and concentrate on Texas, Anaheim and Boston as the principal players, the Red Sox have the advantage. No other team can top the Red Sox's 1-2 combination of Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, who've combined for more wins (27) than any two teammates in either league.
Better than 2½ weeks after The Trade, the Red Sox are finally comfortable with their lineup and reflect the expected defensive upgrade. Two major concerns: Injuries and the bullpen.
Anaheim and Texas could beat each other up a bit with head-to-head play in the final month. Anaheim has better balance, a deeper relief corps and playoff experience from two years ago. A key will be whether the Angels' veteran starters (Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar) can step up in September.
The Rangers continue to club opponents into submission, but must make do without a front-line starting pitcher. They haven't wilted from the Texas heat yet and it's mid-August, but that could still exact a toll in the final month.
2) NL WILD CARD
After a time in which it seemed like everyone was going to be in contention for the wild card, some separation has taken place in the National League.
Gone from the party are the Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets. If they're not careful, the Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies might be next. For now, this is essentially a three-team scrum: San Francisco, Chicago and San Diego.
Despite their injuries and underachieving ways, the Cubs should be the favorites. No one -- not even any of the division leaders -- can touch Chicago's rotation, especially now with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood healthy again.
The Giants might just be able to be carried by arguably the two most dominant players in the league -- Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt. But will Bonds be pitched to with games -- and the season -- on the line? And even if Schmidt's groin pull isn't serious, what sort of help will he get from the rest of the rotation?
Finally, there's the Padres, who, while deep, are without the kind of players who can take over and will them to the post-season for the first time since 1998.
The schedule will provide some breathers with intra-division games against the lowly Rockies and Diamondbacks, but six games with the Cardinals in September won't help the cause.
3) AL WEST
This has the potential to be one of the most fascinating finishes in a division since 1995, when the current set up was introduced.
Typically, the A's have hit their second-half stride and must be considered the team to beat, if only because of their starting pitching. Octavio Dotel remains an adventure in the late innings, so it's not as though the A's aren't susceptible. But they've hit better lately and that may cover up some bullpen shortcomings.
Anaheim looks to be the most balanced of three. Much will depend on Colon. If he can get on a streak and rip off, say, six or seven wins in the final month and a half, the Angels will be very tough to beat. The batting order wears down pitching staffs, and the bullpen is deep, dominant and playoff-tested.
Texas is the one team which no one can quite figure out. They weren't supposed to hang around the race this long, but they've shown no evidence that they're going to fade.
Doubts continue to hang over the pitching staff -- can Francisco Cordero be counted upon? Is Kenny Rogers capable of carrying them in September? -- but Buck Showalter and Orel Hershiser have worked magic to this point.
4) AL CENTRAL
A sweep by the Tribe would have knotted the teams at the top of the division. Instead, Minnesota maintained its slim edge, then started building it back up again.
The Indians are considerably ahead of schedule. Merely coming close to a .500 season would have been progress enough for them this season. Instead, the Indians have mashed their way into contention and are assured of playing meaningful games in September, giving their young players invaluable pennant-race experience.
But there are still questions about the Tribe's pitching, and the Twins have won two straight division titles, providing them with a significant edge down the stretch.
If the Twins stumble at all, however, the Indians will be poised to pounce. Thanks to a scheduling quirk, the teams play 10 times over the final six weeks, including seven times in the last 11 days of the season.
5) NL WEST
For a period of more than a month, the Dodgers were hottest team in the National League. Then, when GM Paul De Podesta gambled at the trading deadline by dealing Paul Lo Duca and others in a deal with Florida, L.A.'s run was supposed to stop.
The Dodgers have cooled some, but their lead remains healthy, and there's little to suggest that their division-lead is in any sort of imminent jeopardy.
The Giants have only recently settled on their closer with less than two months to go, and the rotation -- beyond Schmidt -- lacks consistency. Schmidt's groin pull, meanwhile, could pose bigger problems.
As for the Padres, they may be a year ahead in their rebuilding, having faded some in the second half. Unlike the Giants, they lack a dominant No. 1 starter who can stop losing streaks and extend winning runs over the final six weeks.
The chasers will have their chances in the final month or so, with both the Giants and Padres owning two series -- home and away -- with the front-runners.
Whether those will be enough to eat until the Dodgers' fairly comfortable lead is another matter entirely.
6) NL EAST
After 11 consecutive division titles, this was supposed to be the year the Atlanta Braves saw their streak come to an end.
Wait -- that was last year.
Or was it the year before?
No matter, the Braves are streaking, leaving the defending world champion Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies far in their wake.
Neither the Fish nor the Phils have shown much evidence that they're capable of catching fire and overtaking the Braves, who are playing their best baseball of the season and might be the second-best team in the National League right now.
The Braves are helped by the fact that their two closest pursuers will be playing each other down the stretch, automatically pushing one even farther back in the standings.
But really, the math doesn't matter much here. The Marlins' pitching hasn't been nearly as consistent as it was over the second half of last season, and the Phils have questions everywhere you look -- from the rotation to the bullpen to the lineup.
7) AL EAST
Despite the Red Sox best intentions -- and nearly $130 million investment -- this race is effectively over.
Six games remain between the two teams in September and the Sox hold an 8-5 edge in head-to-head play. But 10 games is too much to make up on a Yankee team which has been impervious to injury.
Their lineup is relentless -- they're third in the league in runs scored despite a batting average that figures in the middle of the pack -- and starting pitching good enough.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox bullpen has questions of its own, now that Scott Williamson, their most dominant reliever, is gone for the year with a ruptured elbow ligament.
A seventh straight division title for the Yanks seems virtually guaranteed.
8) NL CENTRAL
The Cubs thought they might be in dogfight with the Astros for the NL Central crown. Instead, they're hopelessly behind the St. Louis Cardinals who have constructed the largest cushion of any division leader and threaten to go 40 games over .500 by the end of the week.
The way the Cards are playing, they'd have to experience a fade that would put the 1964 Phillies to shame to lose their vice-like grip on first place.
Then again, maybe the schedule-makers saw this coming: despite their rivalry and shared division, the teams won't meet again this season.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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