September 12, 2011
Just when you thought it was safe to put the rest of this season on cruise control, the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays have attempted to enter the postseason highway with weekend sweeps of the wild-card leaders.
Now, is it likely that both teams are doing nothing more than annoying the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox by causing them to tap on the brakes with less than three weeks to go? Coolstandings.com says that's the case with Atlanta still holding a 93.1 percent chance of playing in October and the Red Sox resting at 88.2.
But given that we were obsessively stroking the Texas Rangers-Los Angeles Angels race and calling it our "precious" as recently as Friday afternoon, it's nice to have some additional intrigue — however slight or fleeting — pumped into the final weeks.
Tampa Bay: The Rays trail the Red Sox by 3.5 games in the AL wild-card race after tagging Boston ace Jon Lester(notes) in a 9-1 victory on Sunday. They've been ushered back into the race by Boston's awful start in September — the Sox are 2-9 heading into a two-game series with Toronto — but now the Rays can take solace in having a measure of control over their destiny. After three games in Baltimore to start this week, they'll head to New England for four games at Fenway Park. Normally, that set would be seen as the ultimate barometer of whether Tampa Bay is serious about this late-season surge, but the Rays will then face the New York Yankees for seven of their final 10 games. That's obviously no small task and the Rays will need to be on point nearly every single night until the final day of the season.
The Rays' playoff chances could be aided by a sweep of either team in the Red Sox-Yankees series from Sept. 23-25, but they'll still have to do a lion's share of the work if they want to see the postseason for the third time in the last four years. They're serious about the run, though, as they're calling up their top pitching prospect, Matt Moore(notes), to help with the effort from the bullpen.
St. Louis: A weekend sweep of the Braves put the Cardinals within 4.5 games of the NL wild-card spot, but they don't hold the same advantages as the Rays. They have no head-to-head games remaining with Atlanta and this weekend brings a difficult four-game series on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies. They can take solace, however, in a remaining quartet of three-game series against teams playing out the string — the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. If the Cardinals are really serious about turning a nothing season into something, they'll have to post something close to a 13-3 record over this last stretch while hoping the Braves continue a slump that has seen a 3-8 start to September.
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