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Playoff Pulse: Contenders and pretenders

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Over the last 10 days, the Seattle Mariners lost nine games in a row, gagged away their wild-card lead and fell out of contention in their division. Their prize, Johnny?

The toughest schedule for the rest of the season!

The Mariners did win the first of three games in New York on Monday afternoon, snapping the losing streak, but it doesn't make their remaining games any less imposing. Same goes for the St. Louis Cardinals, who won't get any time to rest – literally – as they try to defend their title.

Here are the rankings of contenders' schedules by league, from most difficult to easiest, with the teams' records entering Monday.

American League

1) Seattle Mariners (73-62, 2 games back of AL wild card, 6½ games back of AL West)

Series remaining: at New York (3), at Detroit (3), Oakland (3), Tampa Bay (4), at Oakland (3), at Los Angeles (4), Cleveland (4), Texas (3)

Home/road split: 14/13

Opponents' combined record: 562-533 (.513)

Key Series: At Los Angeles, Sept. 20-23

Outlook: Grim. Eleven games against division leaders, plus another series against the Tigers. If the Mariners don't sweep four games at home against Tampa Bay, they could be in serious trouble.

2) Cleveland Indians (78-58, lead AL Central)

Series remaining: at Minnesota (3), at Los Angeles (4), at Chicago (3), Kansas City (3), Detroit (3), Oakland (3), at Seattle (4), at Kansas City (3)

Home/road split: 9/17

Opponents' combined record: 543-549 (.497)

Key Series: Detroit, Sept. 17-19

Outlook: Strong, because the Indians' lead in the Central is comfortable, though they've got the fewest home games remaining against playoff contenders, and their record at Jacobs Field is fifth-best in the big leagues. At least six of their road games are at Chicago and Kansas City.

3) New York Yankees (76-61, lead AL wild card, 6 games back of AL East)

Series remaining: Seattle (3), at Kansas City (3), at Toronto (3), at Boston (3), Baltimore (3), Toronto (4), at Tampa Bay (3), at Baltimore (3)

Home/road split: 10/15

Opponents' combined record: 530-557 (.488)

Key Series: At Boston, Sept. 14-16

Outlook: The Yankees have been brutal on the road this season, and 60 percent of their games are there. Of course, nine of them are against Kansas City, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and home series against Baltimore and Toronto aren't terribly imposing.

4) Detroit Tigers (73-64, 3 games back of AL wild card, 5½ games back of AL Central)

Series remaining: Chicago (3), Seattle (3), Toronto (1), Texas (3), at Minnesota (3), at Cleveland (3), Kansas City (3), Minnesota (3), at Chicago (3)

Home/road split: 16/9

Opponents' combined record: 599-628 (.488)

Key Series: Kansas City, Sept. 21-23

Outlook: Seriously, that Kansas City series is big. The Tigers gagged the AL Central away against the Royals last season and struggled in their last series against them. Even so, the schedule is extremely appetizing and it’s all that gives the Tigers hopes.

5) Los Angeles Angels (80-56, lead AL West)

Series remaining: Oakland (3), Cleveland (4), at Baltimore (3), at Chicago (3), Tampa Bay (3), Seattle (4), at Texas (3), at Oakland (3)

Home/road split: 14/12

Opponents' combined record: 523-569 (.479)

Key Series: Cleveland, Sept. 6-9.

Outlook: What a favorable schedule. Dregs, dregs and more dregs. The Angels play seven of their final nine series against five of the six worst teams in the AL. The only issue: 16 consecutive games from Sept. 11-26.

6) Boston Red Sox (82-55, lead AL East)

Series remaining: Toronto (3), at Baltimore (4), Tampa Bay (3), New York (3), at Toronto (3), at Tampa Bay (3), Oakland (2), Minnesota (4)

Home/road split: 15/10

Opponents' combined record: 524-569 (.479)

Key Series: New York, Sept. 14-16

Outlook: No games against first-place teams. One series against a second-place team (Yankees). And 15 of 25 at Fenway. If you haven't already, hand Boston the East.

National League

1) St. Louis Cardinals (67-66, 6½ games back of NL wild card, 2 games back of NL Central)

Series remaining: Pittsburgh (4), at Arizona (3), at Chicago (1), at Cincinnati (3), Chicago (4), Philadelphia (3), Houston (4), at Milwaukee (3), at New York (1), at Pittsburgh (3)

Home/road split: 15/14

Opponents' combined record: 674-684 (.496)

Key Series: Chicago, Sept. 14-16

Outlook: No more days off for the Cardinals, who go to Chicago and New York for makeup games and host a doubleheader in the biggest season of the series at the end of next week against Chicago. If the Cardinals can overcome this, Tony La Russa might actually be as brilliant as he thinks he is.

2) Los Angeles Dodgers (71-65, 4 games back of NL wild card, 4 games back of NL West)

Series remaining: at Chicago (4), at San Francisco (3), San Diego (3), Arizona (3), at Colorado (4), at Arizona (3), Colorado (3), San Francisco (3)

Home/road split: 12/14

Opponents' combined record: 561-532 (.513)

Key Series: At Arizona, Sept. 21-23 Outlook: Aside from two series against San Francisco, the Dodgers don't face a sub-.500 team. Such is the peril of being in the deepest division in baseball.

3) San Diego Padres (75-61, tied for NL wild card and NL West lead)

Series remaining: at Arizona (3), at Colorado (3), at Los Angeles (3), San Francisco (3), Pittsburgh (4), Colorado (3), at San Francisco (3), at Milwaukee (4)

Home/road split: 10/16

Opponents' combined record: 539-553 (.494)

Key Series: At Milwaukee, Sept. 27-30

Outlook: The Padres are a decent road team, so the 16 games away from Petco Park aren't so painful. It's the meat-grinder West schedule, plus four games at Milwaukee, a team likely to still be playing for something in the Central.

4) Colorado Rockies (70-66, 5 games back of NL wild card, 5 games back of NL West)

Series remaining: San Francisco (3), San Diego (3), at Philadelphia (4), Florida (3), Los Angeles (4), at San Diego (3), at Los Angeles (3), Arizona (3)

Home/road split: 16/10

Opponents' combined record: 562-530 (.515)

Key Series: At San Diego, Sept. 21-23

Outlook: Similar to the Dodgers, only with a four-game trip to Philadelphia thrown in the middle of 13 home games. If the Rockies didn't play .600 ball at Coors Field, they'd be in the running for toughest in the NL.

5) Arizona Diamondbacks (76-62, tied for NL wild card and NL West lead)

Series remaining: San Diego (3), St. Louis (3), at San Francisco (3), at Los Angeles (3), San Francisco (3), Los Angeles (3), at Pittsburgh (3), at Colorado (3)

Home/road split: 12/12

Opponents' combined record: 537-550 (.494)

Key Series: At Colorado, Sept. 28-30

Outlook: The Diamondbacks' toughest games are at home, though the trip to end the season is a burr: from L.A. to Pittsburgh and back to Colorado. Four off-days – the most among contenders – will help.

6) Atlanta Braves (69-68, 6½ games back of NL wild card, 7½ games back of NL East)

Series remaining: Philadelphia (3), Washington (3), at New York (3), at Washington (3), Florida (3), Milwaukee (4), at Philadelphia (3), at Houston (3)

Home/road split: 13/12

Opponents' combined record: 530-562 (.485)

Key Series: At New York, Sept. 10-12

Outlook: Ah, to play in the East. Six games against Washington, three against Florida, plus three against Houston. The seven games against Milwaukee and Philadelphia in late September could break the Braves – if they haven't been broken already.

7) Philadelphia Phillies (72-64, 3 games back of NL wild card, 4 games back of NL East)

Series remaining: at Atlanta (3), Florida (3), Colorado (4), at New York (3), at St. Louis (3), at Washington (4), Atlanta (3), Washington (3)

Home/road split: 13/13

Opponents' combined record: 531-559 (.487)

Key Series: Atlanta, Sept. 25-27

Outlook: Seven of their last 10 games are against the Nationals, giving the Phillies hope no matter how dashed it seems. Then again, the first four are at the back end of a 10-game road trip, and in September, those are brutal.

8) Milwaukee Brewers (69-67, 6 games back of NL wild card, 1½ games back of NL Central)

Series remaining: Houston (3), at Cincinnati (3), at Pittsburgh (3), Cincinnati (3), at Houston (3), at Atlanta (4), St. Louis (3), San Diego (4)

Home/road split: 13/13

Opponents' combined record: 516-574 (.473)

Key Series: St. Louis, Sept. 24-26

Outlook: For the next 3½ weeks, the Brewers don't play a team above third place, and the road games they do play are at the three worst teams in baseball's worst division. Still, ending the season against San Diego is killer.

9) Chicago Cubs (70-65, lead NL Central)

Series remaining: Los Angeles (4), at Pittsburgh (3), St. Louis (1), at Houston (3), at St. Louis (4), Cincinnati (3), Pittsburgh (3), at Florida (3), at Cincinnati (3)

Home/road split: 10/17

Opponents' combined record: 568-653 (.465)

Key Series: At St. Louis, Sept. 14-16

Outlook: The only team Chicago plays with a record over .500 is Los Angeles. Yes, the Cubs have just two days off, and they do play 17 of 27 on the road, but the competition is so weak, that shouldn't matter.

10) New York Mets (76-60, lead NL East) Series remaining: at Cincinnati (3), Houston (3), Atlanta (3), Philadelphia (3), at Washington (3), at Florida (4), Washington (3), St. Louis (1), Florida (3)

Home/road split: 16/10

Opponents' combined record: 571-657 (.465)

Key Series: Philadelphia, Sept. 14-16

Outlook: Seven against Florida, six against Washington and six against bottom-feeding Central teams. If the Mets don't win the East, it will be one of the great gags in history.

THREE UP

Cleveland: Won eight straight before it lost to Jose Contreras on Sunday, then came back Monday to beat Johan Santana for the fifth time this season. (The most games Santana had lost in an entire season, prior to this year, was seven.) The Indians' pitching, led by C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, has been unrelenting, and right fielder Franklin Gutierrez, for so long a touted prospect, looks to be maturing into an everyday force at 24.

The 23-year-old CBs: First, Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley, 23, spun one of the best performances of his young career, striking out nine in seven shutout innings against San Diego – the exact numbers he put up in his previous start against the Padres. Then Boston starter Clay Buchholz, 23, one-upped him with a no-hitter in his second career start. Boston doesn't exactly need another starter, which puts Buchholz in limbo. Any hope the Dodgers have at the postseason, though, depends on Billingsley's ability to complement Brad Penny and Derek Lowe at the top of the rotation.

St. Louis: Six wins in eight games, over .500 (at least for a day) and with Rick Ankiel batting in the two-hole. How is Ankiel doing what he does? Wonderful question, particularly when you look at his spray chart. At home, Ankiel has 40 at-bats. He has hit only seven balls to the left side of the field. Just one of his 14 hits have gone there, a double to the left-center gap. Somehow, he keeps doing it. Sounds a lot, in fact, like his team.

THREE DOWN

Seattle: The horse is dead, sure, but to spare it further harm would be overlooking a monumental collapse. Thus, some numbers from the nine-game losing streak. With runners in scoring position, the Mariners hit .211. With two outs, they hit .151. Ichiro – Ichiro! – struck out nine times. Opponents, on the other hand, hit .337 and slugged .542. With two outs, they batted .336. Mariners' starters yielded 13 homers and their batters hit just three. As bad as it looked, it was worse.

Gary Matthews Jr., Los Angeles Angels: In honor of Rodney Harrison getting busted with HGH, we present Matthews' numbers last week: twice as many strikeouts (eight) as hits, one RBI, four runs scored, a .200 on-base percentage and .333 slugging percentage. Matthews has been good this year. And with the Angels spending the majority of their season at home, he shouldn't be on this list for long, as he hits .301 with an .829 OPS at Angel Stadium.

Atlanta: Genius in baseball is an arbitrary concept. Which is why a month ago, at the trade deadline, Braves general manager John Schuerholz looked brilliant, and now, with the Braves going 14-17 since their vaunted trade for Mark Teixeira, he looks more the bagel Einstein than the relativity one. The Braves' lineup was good before Teixeira arrived. It just hasn't been good enough to make up for the lack of consistent pitching behind Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and Buddy Carlyle. Atlanta may still be in the hunt. Not by much.

SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK

Art Thiel, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

And he wrote this Wednesday, when the Mariners' losing streak was only five.

"The entrails scattered over large parts of south downtown started at the ballpark Monday night as high hopes for Mariners postseason contention. By Wednesday afternoon, all that was identifiable was manager John McLaren's inevitable optimism.

" 'We've got a long way to go (in the season),' he said. 'We're capable.'

"Not that any of the 135,000 witnesses to a three-game slaughter by the division leader would believe him."

MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels, Thursday through Sunday

Remember the last time these two played? Home game for Cleveland … in Milwaukee? It was a riot of a series. And yet look at the teams now. Completely different. Cleveland has overhauled its lineup: David Dellucci, Trot Nixon, Josh Barfield and Andy Marte are out, Gutierrez, Kenny Lofton, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ryan Garko are in. The Angels found Reggie Willits and Kendry Morales, learned they couldn't trust Ervin Santana in the rotation and still sport the second-best record in baseball. As enjoyable as it should be to watch two excellent teams play, it's not like a sweep would gain either team a huge advantage. Should the standings hold, whichever team finishes with a better record will face the Yankees in the first round. That's a reward like a kick in the groin.

PLAYOFF ODDS REPORT

In the last two weeks, San Diego has jumped from 34 percent to nearly 73 percent, and though in the real-life standings the Padres are tied with Arizona, their run differential makes them overwhelming favorites in the latest playoff odds report. While the Diamondbacks have the third-highest percentage overall, they'd be on the outside today as Philadelphia's wild-card chances are .72 percentage points higher. The AL is same-old, same-old, aside from the Mariners' nine-game losing streak almost tanking their chances. Others in danger of dropping off the list next week: Atlanta (with its feeble 5 percent barely keeping it on today) and Colorado.

(Last week's percentages in parentheses.)

American League
Boston Red Sox: 99.93 percent (99.8 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 98.94 percent (89.44 percent)
Cleveland Indians: 90.96 percent (71.27 percent)
New York Yankees*: 67.98 percent (52.9 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 26.43 percent (32.87 percent)
Seattle Mariners: 12.94 percent (47.42 percent)

National League
New York Mets: 96.83 percent (96.97 percent)
San Diego Padres: 72.79 percent (59.33 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 55.62 percent (70.58 percent)
Chicago Cubs: 55.06 percent (56.12 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies*: 31.85 percent (16.78 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers: 27.07 percent (25.54 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 23.89 percent (23.24 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 19.74 percent (19.05 percent)
Colorado Rockies: 11.82 percent (15.72 percent)
Atlanta Braves: 5.23 percent (15.74 percent)

* – Wild card leader: The computers really don't like the Diamondbacks. They're three games ahead of Philadelphia, yet the Phillies' 25.06 percent is tops in the NL. The other contenders come from the West: San Diego (19.65 percent) and Los Angeles (13.07 percent). In the AL, it's the Yankees (65.85 percent) and everyone else.

FINAL WORD

"This is the worst trauma I've seen. Absolutely." – St. Louis team doctor George Paletta, on the damage to outfielder Juan Encarnacion's smashed left orbital bone after an Aaron Miles line drive caught him flush on the eye in the on-deck circle.