There’s a lot to watch
For avid baseball fans, there’s nothing better than a pennant race in the final weeks of the regular season. It’s that time when scoreboard-watching is as intense as game-watching. So, with 39 days remaining in the 2021 schedule, now is a good time to look at what’s left for contending teams and to handicap the finishes.
(The Rockies were never contenders, but they have a chance to influence the outcome in two of the NL’s Divisions. Among their last 35 are seven with the Braves and four with the Phillies of the NL East, and six each with Los Angeles and San Francisco in the NL West. For those who think this raises the question of whether or not they’ll equal or exceed the team’s current record for most losses, the answer is simple: They won’t. The record is 96; this team will finish no worse than 74-88.)
Here’s my analysis of division races:
AL West—Even though the Houston Astros have led Shohei Ohtani’s division for most of the season and have one of Major League Baseball’s best records, this race likely will be decided between September 24 and October 3. That’s because second-place Oakland plays the Astros six times in the last nine games (three each, home and home), and Houston’s other three of the final nine are against the team that will be trying to secure the best record in the American League—Tampa Bay. (Oakland’s other three are against their division’s third-place team, Seattle.)
In all probability, the runner-up in this division will miss the playoffs, based on a comparison of games remaining, as of today. The Red Sox play only 15 of their remaining 34 games against teams with winning records, while Houston’s 35 include 25 against contenders and Oakland has 26 of 36. The A’s also finish on the road—three in Seattle and three in Houston, after seven home games against those two division rivals.
If Oakland is strong enough to prevail despite that 13-game season-ending gauntlet, the A’s will be a team to fear in the post-season. This should be a fun race to follow.
NL East—It might seem that Atlanta has the momentum to pull away from staggering Philadelphia and the fading Mets. But the Phillies, managed by Joe Girardi, a charter member of the expansion Rockies, have a very favorable schedule. Thirty of the 36 games they have left to play are against teams with losing records, including 11 against teams likely to lose more than a hundred (Arizona, Baltimore and Pittsburgh).
This is another division that could be decided in the last week. The Braves host the Phillies for three at the end of September, then close out with three at home against the Mets, who will have to hustle to finish above .500. (Philadelphia ends in Miami, a team that seems destined to lose more than 90.)
NL West—If San Francisco’s Gabe Kapler doesn’t win the National League Manager of the Year Award, they should stop annually recognizing the league’s most deserving skipper. I mean, who expected the Giants to lead the Dodgers and Padres all summer? Still, as Yogi liked to say, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
Forget about the Padres. Of their last 33 games, 30 are against contenders. Meanwhile, the Giants and Dodgers are both two-thirds/one-third, winners vs. losers, in their last 36-35.
Unlike the AL West and NL East, this race won’t be decided head-to-head. These guys play the last three of their season series at the start of September, in San Francisco. While San Diego’s schedule pretty much rules the Padres out of the playoffs, they could have a lot to say about the order in which the Giants and L.A. finish ahead of them. San Francisco and the Dodgers each play three against the Padres in the final week, at home in both cases. (The Giants’ other three are against Arizona, while the Dodgers finish with the NL Central’s lock, Milwaukee, which could be playing for best record in the NL and home field advantage throughout the league playoffs.)
AL East—It’s going to be hard for the Yankees to catch the Rays, though if the division isn’t clinched by the last weekend, those two clubs meet for three in the Bronx to decide things. Tampa Bay has a much more favorable final 35 games (19 against teams with losing records while New York plays only 12). Lurking are the Red Sox, who don’t figure to be in the hunt for the division but could be a factor, with seven left against the Rays and three with the Yanks.
The Centrals—The White Sox and Brewers and certainties, but there’s still some suspense in the NL, where the Reds play two-thirds of their remaining 33 against under-.500 teams. Considering San Diego’s tough final 33, Cincinnati’s competition for the second Wild Card will come from a division rival, Nolan Arenado’s St. Louis Cardinals. Each team hosts the other for a three-game series in early September, but in between the Cards play the Brewers three times (in Milwaukee) and the Dodgers four times (at home). Three weeks of play will remain after the Reds and Cardinals are finished with head-to-head. And in the time that will be left, the Reds will play the hapless Pirates nine times. St. Louis finishes with seven against Milwaukee and a home-and-home including a makeup doubleheader against the depleted Cubs, who nonetheless will fight like the rivals they are.
So where does all of this leave us? Scoreboard-watch and see how it turns out.
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.