|Photo by William Perlman/The Star-Ledger|
Today is Labor Day, a day that celebrates the sacrifices and contributions of the men and women in the American work force. But to baseball fans, it's a different kind of holiday, as it marks the unofficial beginning of the final month of the season, a time when pennant races and wild card chases heat up just as summer temperatures cool down.
No one will soon forget the incredible final month of the 2011 season, especially Game No. 162, when four games decided the wild card winners in each league. It seemed like the entire country was going back and forth between Cardinals-Astros, Braves-Phillies, Rays-Yankees and Red Sox-Orioles.
With the addition of an extra wild card team in each league this year, those games would have been meaningless, as both the Cardinals and Braves would have made the playoffs in the National League and the Rays and Red Sox would have qualified in the American League, regardless of the outcomes of their 162nd games. But just because there is an extra wild card to be won in either league doesn't mean this September is going to be any less exciting than last September. In fact, it might be more compelling this year.
In the American League, the upstart Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles currently hold the two wild card spots. But the Rays are only 1½ games behind the Orioles for the second wild card spot, while the Angels are only 3½ games back. In the American League Central, the Tigers and White Sox are both two games behind the Orioles, but both teams are fighting it out for the division title.
No first-place team in the junior circuit has a lead in their division of more than three games. The Yankees lead the East by two games over Baltimore. The Tigers and White Sox are deadlocked atop the Central. The two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers have the best record in the league, but are clinging to a three-game division lead over the A's.
This is how tight the division and wild card races are. The Rangers currently have the top seed in the American League with a 79-54 record. The Tampa Bay Rays are only 6½ games behind them with a 73-61 mark. But the Rays would fail to qualify for the postseason if the season ended today, while the Rangers would have home field advantage throughout the American League playoffs.
Half of the fourteen teams in the American League are either in first place or within 3½ games of first. Another team, the Los Angeles Angels, are not as close to the division lead, but are within 3½ games of the second wild card. That's eight of the 14 teams still very much alive in the American League playoff race.
|Both leagues have plenty of teams fighting it out for playoff spots.|
The National League division races aren't as tight as the ones in the American League, with Washington leading the East by 6½ games, Cincinnati holding a 9½-game lead in the Central and San Francisco taking command of the West by 4½ games, but there are still many teams alive for the wild card spots.
As of today, the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals are the holders of the two wild card spots in the National League. But the 72-62 Cardinals have two teams appearing in their rear view mirror, as the 72-63 Dodgers (a mere half-game back) and 70-63 Pirates (1½ games back) are trying to send the defending World Series champions home.
Speaking of the defending World Series champions, on Labor Day last year, the Cardinals were 8½ games behind the Braves for the wild card. As we all know, the Cardinals made up that entire deficit and passed the Braves on the final day of the regular season on their way to an unexpected World Series title. Why is this relevant in 2012? Because that gives hope to the Milwaukee Brewers (6½ games behind St. Louis), Arizona Diamondbacks (also 6½ games back) and yes, even the New York Mets, who are currently eight games behind St. Louis for the second wild card spot entering their three-game series against the Redbirds today.
Thirty teams. Ten playoff spots. Including the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Mets, there are 16 teams within eight games of one of those ten playoff spots. That's more than half of major league baseball still trying to crash the postseason party.
Summer might be coming to an end, but the heat isn't going away from the playoff races in both leagues. In fact, it looks like it's only going to get hotter between now and Game No. 162. Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be one heck of a ride.