Baseball: AL East & NL West playoffs still too close to call
As we enter the final week of the regular season, most of the playoff contenders have already been decided, but the races in the AL East and NL West are still too close to call.
The teams at the top of both divisions are currently separated by the narrowest of margins, with Tampa Bay clinging to a half-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East, and the San Francisco Giants holding an identical lead over San Diego in the NL West.
The Padres are certainly the surprise package of the season to most observers, having been the consensus pick to finish bottom of the division back in April. Had it not been for a ten game losing streak at the beginning of September, they may well even have been out of sight of the Giants by this point.
However, the inability of either team to forge a lead has set things up for a grandstand finish; the Padres travel to San Francisco on Friday for a three-game series to close out the season and ultimately decide who will finish atop the division.
Both teams making the playoffs is still a distinct possibility; whoever loses out on the division pennant is currently in pole position for the NL Wild Card. Nonetheless, they are going to have to finish strongly, with the Atlanta Braves -looking for their first playoff appearance since 2005 -breathing down their necks in that race.
The situation in the AL East is slightly clearer. Both the Rays and the Yankees are virtually assured a playoff berth already; one more victory for each will guarantee that they will be the AL Wild Card if they lose out on the division.
Whoever wins the division stands a good chance of finishing with the best win-loss record in baseball, giving them home-field advantage for the divisional and championship series. For both teams, this would be a major plus; New York with their fiercely partisan crowd, Tampa Bay with oddities created by the domed roof of their Tropicana Field home.
The Rays certainly have the easier run-in on paper, hosting Baltimore for three games, before heading out to Kansas City for a final four-game series. Those teams are both currently bottom of their respective divisions. Conversely, the Yankees must travel to fierce rivals Boston for a three-game series to close out the season.
Elsewhere in the AL, pre-season favourites Minnesota have already locked up the Central, christening their new Target Field home with playoff baseball in its inaugural year. Another surprise package, the Texas Rangers will represent the AL West, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and just the fourth time in their history. They will be hoping to do better this time, having been eliminated in the first round in all three previous appearances.
The playoff drought has been even longer for the Cincinnati Reds, who will cement their place atop the NL Central with one more victory – bringing playoff baseball to the banks of the Ohio River for the first time since 1995. Completing the playoff picture is the Philadelphia Phillies, who having already locked up the NL East, now have their sights firmly set on a third World Series appearance in as many years.