Exciting playoff races head into wild final weekend
O's, Yanks and Royals have been eliminated, but there's much to be determined
Has it been that long? Yep. What has become known as "The Last Great Pennant Race" occurred 20 years ago, when the Giants roared their way to 103 victories … and didn't make the playoffs.
Let that sink in.
You see, the Braves won 104 games that year, and both teams were in a winner-take-all battle in the old National League West. Everybody knew that the losers were destined to curse their fate forever since they wouldn't make the playoffs despite all of those victories. That was during a baseball era in which dinosaurs roamed the earth, each league had two divisions instead of three and Wild Cards were just somebody's ridiculous fantasy that would never come true.
What's that? We have Wild Cards nowadays? Not only that, there are two of them in each league to put 10 teams in the postseason every year instead of the previous four of 20 years ago.
The result? Superb. Awesome. Brilliant. I mean, here we are near the end of September, and the drama hasn't been a duet -- as it was during that Braves-Giants thriller of 1993 -- it has been multiple clubs in the hunt. In fact, rarely have there been so many reasons to pay attention to so many teams down the stretch.
Actually, the more I think about it, this is unprecedented. It has to be, because consider this: The Orioles and the Yankees still figured in various playoff scenarios as recently as earlier this week. While the O's entered Friday's action 13 games behind the division-leading Red Sox in the American League East, the Yanks trailed by 14.
So, there were two teams who were well behind the division leader who were still in pursuit of something in early fall? Definitely. It has been that kind of home stretch -- crowded with thoroughbreds in baseball caps, all of them galloping toward the finish line of this weekend, and nothing has shown this more than the madness in the NL Central.
That's where baseball fans in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have suffered with queasy stomachs for weeks. The Reds only were eliminated from competing for the division title on Wednesday, but all three teams have been within a few games of each other throughout the summer.
Now, with three games left for each team, the Cardinals are virtually kings of the NL Central. Barely. They lead the division by three games over the Pirates and by four over the Reds. As a result, the Cards' magic number is one, which means they will grab the division title with another victory or a Bucs loss.
Still, even when the Cardinals do likely clinch, there will be much for inquiring minds to watch regarding all three teams. Take the Pirates and the Reds, for instance. They are on the verge of becoming the NL's Wild Card teams due to their superior records compared to the rest of the league's non-division winners. This is wonderfully insane.
This gets even more so. After going with one Wild Card for each league from 1994-2011, baseball added that second one in each league last season. The Wild Card team in each league with the better record plays host to that particular Wild Card Game, and Pittsburgh has just one victory more than Cincinnati.
Which brings us to the most wonderfully insane thing of all: The Reds and the Pirates will play each other this weekend at Great American Ball Park to close the regular season in what essentially will be a playoff series before their Wild Card Game. We're talking about an unofficial best-of-three series between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for the right to play host to the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
Just like that, the NL Central has enough sizzle to take some of the sports world's attention away from the NFL and college football, and you also can add this to the mix: The Cardinals have a desire to keep giving their best, because they want home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series. The AL has home-field advantage during the World Series since that league won the All-Star Game this year. But back to the Cards, who are tied with the Braves for the race for NL home-field advantage. The Dodgers trailed them both by three games entering the weekend.
Braves? Dodgers? They've also contributed to the September drama, because despite their huge leads in the NL East and the NL West, respectively, they can't afford to switch into automatic pilot due to their pursuit of home-field advantage. And get this: If the Cardinals finish with the league's best record, guess who they would play? The Pirates or the Reds, as in more thrills and frills. The division winner with the best record in each league plays the winner of the Wild Card Game.
There also is a tight fight for home-field advantage in the AL, where the Red Sox have a 96-63 record to lead the AL East compared to the 94-65 mark of the Athletics in the AL West. Even the AL Central-champion Tigers remain in contention for such honors at 93-66.
Then, there is the AL Wild Card race. The Royals haven't reached the playoffs since they won the 1985 World Series, but there they were battling to earn a Wild Card until they were eliminated earlier this week, along with the Orioles and the Yankees. That leaves the Rays with a one-game lead for the AL's top Wild Card spot over the Indians, who own the league's other Wild Card spot by a game over the Rangers.
Let's see. That's folks in Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Arlington joining those in Baltimore, the Bronx and the other places around the nation who haven't blinked much through September.
Gotta love it, because you can't ignore it.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.