Yankees surge toward playoffs as Bucs fade
A rundown of momentum in the Majors as end of regular season nears
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Pittsburgh Postseason hopes? Well, the best way to summarize the plight of the Pirates is that a team that was leading the NL Central on July 18 and only 2 1/2 games out of the division lead on Aug. 9, has to win eight of its final 11 games to avoid extending its professional sports record losing streak to 20 consecutive seasons. Eight wins? That's three more than the Bucs have been able to come up with in their last 21 games. They did, after all, have to win on Sunday to avoid being swept in a three-game visit to Houston, reducing the Pirates number for official elimination from any postseason opportunity to four. Sunday's 8-1 victory at Houston underscored the struggles of the Pirates. A.J. Burnett became the first Pittsburgh pitcher to win 16 games since 1991 when Zane Smith (16-10) and John Smiley (20-8) both did it. It was, however, his seventh shot at No. 16, even though he allowed two or fewer runs in his each of his five previous starts. The Astros had a four-run fifth inning, which was more runs than they scored in 14 of their 21 previous games. And their 18 hits were the most since July 2, which also happened to be a game against the Astros that Jordan Lyles, Sunday's Houston starter, started. Now comes the stretch run in an effort to at least unload the burden of losing seasons. The Pirates open a four-game visit on Monday to New York to face the Mets, who needed a weekend sweep of Miami to improve their Citi Field record since the All-Star break to an alarming 8-26. Then the Bucs return home to conclude the season with three-game visits from St. Louis and Atlanta, the two Wild Card holders who could be fine-tuning for the postseason more than anything else by the time they show up at PNC Park. Chicago White Sox The White Sox were swept in a weekend series against the Angels, extending their losing streak to five games, during which they scored eight runs total. They did not, however, lose their lead in the AL Central, with Detroit stumbling as well. The Tigers were swept in a doubleheader on Sunday by a Minnesota team that was able to climb out of the AL Central basement while denying the Tigers the chance to climb atop the AL Central standings. Bad? Well, even with that doubleheader sweep, the Twins have the worst home-field record (29-46) in the Major Leagues. The White Sox are looking for the comforts of home to give them a boost, particularly for the Nos. 2-4 hitters, Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, mired in a combined 9-for-72 slump. Their next seven games are at U.S. Cellular Field, beginning with a three-game series against Cleveland and then a four-game weekend visit by Tampa Bay. They close the season at Cleveland, against whom the White Sox are 8-4. And yes, Tampa Bay is still alive in the AL Wild Card race, but the White Sox know they can compete with the Rays, having swept a three-game series in St. Petersburg earlier in the season. Detroit, meanwhile, faces the challenge of playing six of its final 10 games on the road, including a visit to Minnesota next weekend and a season-ending series in Kansas City. First, though, the Tigers finish off their home schedule with a four-game visit by the Royals beginning on Monday.
The concern? The Tigers are 34-41 on the road, the worst road record of any AL team with a winning record. Milwaukee, 33-44, is the only NL team with a winning record that has had more road problems. The hope? Not only is Miguel Cabrera a legit candidate to claim the Triple Crown, but there is renewed hope for 16-game winner Max Scherzer. After leaving his Sept. 18 start after two innings because of a right shoulder fatigue, he returned on Sunday and worked five innings, encouraging enough to be slotted into the rotation for the rest of the season, which sets up Justin Verlander to pitch in a possible one-game tiebreaker against the White Sox or the Wild Card game.Houston OK, the Astros did win back-to-back weekend games against Pittsburgh, the second time they were able to win two in a row in the last 38 games. That's the kind of season it has been for the Astros, who are focused on finding a new manager right now, which is just as well. With three games at home against St. Louis this week, the Astros then head out on the road for their final six games, playing three at Milwaukee and three against the Cubs in Chicago. They need to win four of those games to avoid becoming only the fourth team to not win at least 20 road games in a season since the advent of the 162-game schedule in 1961. The Astros are currently 16-59 on the road, which is one fewer road win than the 1963 Mets and 2010 Pirates, and two fewer than the 1962 expansion Mets. Those aren't the only numbers of concern. With a 50-103 record, they are three losses shy of the franchise record set last season, the only other time in franchise history they lost 100 games. They are 42 games behind NL Central-leading Cincinnati, five games shy of the biggest deficit in Major League history, which was set by the 43-119 Detroit Tigers of 2003. And they rank along with Tampa Bay as the only Major League teams with an attendance average of fewer than 20,000 a game. Last year's average 25,518 was the previous lowest attendance average since the team's 2000 move into Minute Maid Park, where the Astros averaged more than 30,000 in each of their first 10 seasons, finishing among the upper half of Major League teams in attendance each of those 10 seasons, six times in the top 10.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.