When the calendar flipped to September, it appeared as if the regular season would close without much fanfare. The standings looked as if contenders would coast to the postseason and remove any drama of a heated chase toward a spot in October. Funny what can change in a few weeks.
On Sept. 1, the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox each held 8 1/2-game leads in the National League and American League Wild Card races, respectively. In fact, Boston sat atop the AL East, though tied with the New York Yankees. Now, four teams are clinging to the opportunity to, at the very least, force a one-game tiebreaker in each league on Thursday.
The Cardinals will send their workhorse in Chris Carpenter to the mound to dispatch of the Astros. If Carpenter, who has allowed just one earned in 15 combined innings over his past two starts with 10 strikeouts and three walks, continues his recent run of success, the Cardinals can do no worse than host the Braves at 8:07 p.m. ET for the right to advance to the NL Division Series.
The Cardinals did suffer a blow on Tuesday and will be short-handed on Wednesday as a result. Matt Holliday was removed from the game due to tendon inflammation in his right hand, the same hand that forced him to miss nine games earlier this month.
"I don't know what this means, beyond [Allen] Craig is playing left field [on Wednesday]," manager Tony La Russa said. "But it's not good news.
"He didn't take batting practice in a group, which should have told me something. I saw him, I'd already written the lineup, and he said, 'I've got a little something.' ... Right then, I thought, 'I'm not sure if this is smart.' We let him go out there, and not only did it bother him to swing, it bothered him to throw."
Likewise, the Braves will lean on their veteran right-hander to snap the club's four-game losing streak and clinch Atlanta's second consecutive NL Wild Card berth. Tim Hudson, whom Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez originally slated for a potential NLDS Game 1 matchup, expressed confidence in taking the ball with his club's postseason future on the line against the rival Phillies.
"I hope and think that everybody in this locker room has confidence that I'm going to go out there and give us a better-than-average chance to win tomorrow," Hudson said. "It's a big game. Last game of the season, obviously. I'm excited about it. I'm going to enjoy every minute that I'm out there. I'm going to be ready to go.
"Hopefully, I can go out there and do my job, take a lot of pressure off of our guys. It's going to start with our starting pitching. If I go out there and do my job, set the tone early, it could be smooth sailing after that."
The race is just as tight in the Junior Circuit where, for one night, the Red Sox were able to plug the sieve that has been their September.
It wasn't the cleanest of efforts as Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon combined to throw 5 2/3 innings after starter Erik Bedard lasted just 3 1/3 innings, but the relief trio did just enough to hold off a late Orioles rally to remain tied atop the AL Wild Card standings.
Manager Terry Francona will turn to his ace, Jon Lester, on three days' rest to put Boston in position to either win the AL Wild Card outright following a 7-19 start to September or send the club to Tampa Bay for a one-game tiebreaker on Thursday at 4:07 p.m.
However, the season's final month has certainly been anything but ace-like for the southpaw. Lester is 1-3 this month, having dropped each of his past three starts, with a 5.96 ERA. His last outing was notably poor, as he lasted just 2 2/3 innings and gave up eight earned runs against the Yankees. Despite the negativity that has draped over the Red Sox this month, Dustin Pedroia exuded confidence ahead of the 162nd game of the season.
"It's going to be fun," said Pedroia. "It's exciting. Everyone is excited about it. Just show up tomorrow and play for something. A lot of teams don't get the opportunity to do that and we're doing it. We're going to come out and play our butts off."
Momentum continues to build in Tampa Bay, where the Rays are feeling good after a three-run seventh inning led them to a come-from-behind 5-3 victory over the Yankees. Rays manager Joe Maddon, too, will hand the ball to a left-hander, turning to David Price to face off against what will likely be a trimmed-down Yankees lineup.
The race for the second seed in the NL is still undecided after Ryan Roberts smacked a walk-off grand slam as part of the D-backs' six-run, 10th-inning comeback win over Dodgers, in which the Arizona bullpen surrendered five runs in the top of the 10th. The Brewers can wrap up home-field advantage in the NLDS with a win in their regular-season finale. The D-backs, who won the season series against the Brewers, need a win and Milwaukee loss to claim the second spot via the tiebreaker.
Just like the Brewers, should the D-backs surpass Milwaukee, they won't know who their first-round opponent will be until the NL Wild Card winner is determined.
The second seed in the AL is still there for the taking. The Tigers and Rangers both won on Tuesday, leaving Texas one game ahead of Detroit. But should the teams finish with the same record, Detroit will earn home field in the ALDS by virtue of their season-series victory over the Rangers. Whichever team finishes No. 2 in the AL will face the Wild Card winner.
If the postseason started todayAMERICAN LEAGUE
Tigers (3) at Yankees (1)
Red Sox/Rays (Wild Card) at Rangers (2) NATIONAL LEAGUE
If the Braves win the Wild Card:
D-backs (3) at Phillies (1)
Braves (Wild Card) at Brewers (2) If the Cardinals win the Wild Card:
Cardinals (Wild Card) at Phillies (1)
D-backs (3) at Brewers (2)
Today's key games to watch
Red Sox (Jon Lester, 15-9) at Orioles (Alfredo Simon, 4-9), 7:05 p.m. ET Preview
The Red Sox and the Rays are tied for the AL Wild Card with one game to play.
Indians (Zach McAllister, 0-1) at Tigers (Rick Porcello, 14-9), 7:05 p.m. Preview
The Tigers are one game behind the Rangers for the AL's second-best record and home-field advantage in the ALDS.
Phillies (Joe Blanton, 1-2) at Braves (Tim Hudson 16-9), 7:10 p.m. Preview
The Phillies have clinched the NL East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Braves are tied with the Cardinals for the NL Wild Card lead.
Yankees (TBA) at Rays (David Price, 12-13), 7:10 p.m. Preview
The Yankees have clinched the AL East and home-field advantage through the first two rounds. The Rays are tied with the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card.
Cardinals (Chris Carpenter, 10-9) at Astros (Brett Myers, 7-13), 8:05 p.m. Preview
The Cardinals and Braves are tied for the NL Wild Card lead.
Rangers (Matt Harrison, 14-9) at Angels (Garrett Richards, 0-2), 8:05 p.m. Preview
The Rangers have clinched the AL West and are one game ahead of the Tigers for the AL's second seed. The Angels were eliminated from playoff contention with Monday's 4-3 loss to the Rangers.
Pirates (Jeff Locke, 0-2) at Brewers (Zack Greinke, 15-6), 8:10 p.m. Preview
The Brewers clinched the NL Central on Friday night, and have a one-game lead over the D-backs for home field in the NL Division Series.
Dodgers (Ted Lilly, 11-14) at D-backs (Joe Saunders, 12-12), 9:40 p.m. Preview
The D-backs have clinched the NL West. Arizona trails Milwaukee by one game for home-field advantage in the NL Division Series.
Postseason 101Magic numbers To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining on the schedule and add one. Then subtract the difference in the loss column between the team and its closest pursuer.
Yankees: Clinched the AL East and home-field advantage for the ALDS and ALCS.
Tigers: Clinched the AL Central.
Rangers: Clinched the AL West.
Red Sox: Tied with Rays for the AL Wild Card.
Rays: Tied with Red Sox for the AL Wild Card.
Phillies: Clinched the NL East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Brewers: Clinched the NL Central.
D-backs: Clinched the NL West.
Braves: Tied with the Cardinals for the NL Wild Card lead.
Cardinals: Tied with the Braves for the NL Wild Card lead.
If two division winners are tied in winning percentage, head-to-head record is used first to determine the higher seeding in the Division Series.
In the American League, if Detroit and Texas finish with equal records, the Tigers -- having won the season series, 6-3 -- will get the No. 2 seed and home-field advantage in the Division Series.
In the National League, if Arizona and Milwaukee finish with equal records, the D-backs -- having won the season series, 4-3 -- will get the No. 2 seed and home-field advantage in the Division Series.
American League Division Series: Sept. 30-Oct. 6
National League Division Series: Oct. 1-7
American League Championship Series: Oct. 8-16
National League Championship Series: Oct. 9-17
World Series: Oct. 19-27
Full postseason schedule
Jon Star is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.