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Roughest run to October finish line: Red Sox; Biggest cakewalks belong to Indians, Braves

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

There are no meat grinder schedules this year, no vises that threaten to squeeze the life out of a team before the ides of September hits. Nothing like last year, certainly, when the Oakland Athletics headed into the season's final 4½ weeks facing 29 games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .543, or an 88-win team.

The A's had only 12 home games and just two off-days to breathe amid crushing pressure. It started grim, too: The Angels swept a three-game series. From then on, Oakland won 18 of 26, finished with eight wins in nine games, stole the American League West and ROFL'd as rival Texas flopped in the coin-flip game that the A's seemed destined toward.

All of this is to say: Schedule matters only so much in September. Pittsburgh's late-season opponents last year: a .456 winning percentage. The Pirates' record in those games: 9-20. Sometimes, there are landmines baked into the cakewalk.

That said, there are 16 playoff contenders – some more viable than others – and in honor of extra work in September, we're going 70 percent over the usual allotment of degrees to break down each of their schedules from toughest to easiest. And the dreaded (but far from dreadful) worst schedule goes to the …

1. Boston Red Sox
Status: 82-56, first place in AL East by 5 ½ games
Opponents' winning percentage: .526
Home/road: 12/12
Off-days: Sept. 9, 16, 23, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 19 of 24
Key series: at Tampa Bay, Sept. 10-12
Overview: At one point during this schedule ranking exercise, the Red Sox had the second toughest. Then it was third. Ultimately they landed in first because despite having the most off-days of any team in baseball during September, the Red Sox face such a large volume of games against good teams – about 80 percent against teams at least eight games over .500 – it would wear on even the best. Look at the first 16 games: vs. Tigers, at Yankees, at Rays, vs. Yankees, vs. Orioles. That is wicked, the sort of run that will make the Red Sox thankful for a) those four days of rest and b) the 5 ½ -game lead they built up by going 16-12 in August, compared to 11-15 for the …

2. Tampa Bay Rays
Status: 75-60, second place in AL East, lead second AL wild card by three games
Opponents' winning percentage: .509
Home/road: 11/16
Off-day: Sept. 9
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 14 of 27
Key series: at Los Angeles, Sept. 2-5
Overview: A series at the awful Angels, the key to the Rays' season? Considering they've lost four games in a row and that their post-West Coast-swing schedule is a gantlet, yeah, these next four games really do matter. Because after their one off day next week, the Rays finish with 20 straight games, 14 of which include Boston, Texas and Baltimore at home and New York on the road. If the Rays can survive this and leverage the expanded rosters to keep the team healthy with so little down time – something at which Joe Maddon has proven himself more adept than any manager in the past – they deserve to beat out the …

3. Baltimore Orioles
Status: 72-63, third place in AL East, three games back of second wild card
Opponents' winning percentage: .514
Home/road: 14/13
Off-day: Sept. 16
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 17 of 27
Key series: at Tampa Bay, Sept. 20-23
Overview
: No team, not even Tampa Bay, could use an ol' jar of greenies like Baltimore. Months like this are why amphetamines became so prevalent in clubhouses. By the end of September, the Orioles will have gotten one day off over the last 34. And with two series against Boston, the first of which comes in the midst of a 10-game trip and ends and the second of which ends their season, the Orioles are staring at a stacked schedule that will test a rotation with the fourth-worst ERA in baseball. Good thing their offense has clicked, even if it pales compared to the highest-scoring team in August, the …

4. Texas Rangers
Status: 79-57, first place in AL West by one game
Opponents' winning percentage: .508
Home/road: 13/13
Off-days: Sept. 5, 12
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 16 of 26
Key series: vs. Oakland, Sept. 13-15
Overview: No team in the AL was as good as the Rangers in August. Their 20-7 record validated the trades for Matt Garza and Alex Rios, and with Lance Berkman, Nick Tepesch and especially Neftali Feliz returning from the disabled list, they're that much better. Good thing, because without a three-game respite against the Astros in the last week of the season, the Rangers' opponent winning percentage would be .531. Two series against the A's, a trip to Tampa Bay and even an interleague tilt against Pittsburgh makes the Rangers' finishing flurry blurry, seeing as they've got 17 games in 17 days, including three at the …

5. Kansas City Royals
Status
: 70-66, third place in AL Central, 5 ½ games back of second wild card
Opponents' winning percentage: .511
Home/road: 13/13
Off-days: Sept. 12, 19
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 15 of 26
Key series: at Cleveland, Sept. 9-11
Overview: After a four-pack of games to start off the month at home against Seattle, the Royals run into arguably the most difficult 15-game stretch of any team: Detroit, at Cleveland, at Detroit, Cleveland and Texas. Oof. If the Royals survive that and can leap over four teams and vault into a wild-card slot – imagining as much takes the sort of hallucinogenic developed in secret laboratories – you can say one thing about them: They sure earned it. Same, of course, could be said for the overachieving …

6. New York Yankees
Status: 72-64, fourth place in AL East, 3½ games back of second wild card
Opponents' winning percentage: .496
Home/road: 13/13
Off-days: Sept. 16, 23
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 14 of 26
Key series: at Boston, Sept. 5-8
Overview: The schedule starts nice, with three games against Chicago, and it ends even better, a trio at Houston. In between, the scheduling gods are attempting to smite the Yankees. Over those 20 games, the Yankees' collective opponents play at a .533 clip – and that's including series against the Blue Jays and Giants. Especially brutal – and vital – is the 10-game trip in the midst of it, when the Yankees hopscotch from Baltimore to Boston to Toronto. Make it through that and they've got a shot to turn back the clock 53 years and avenge the …

7. Pittsburgh Pirates
Status: 79-57, tied for first place in NL Central
Opponents' winning percentage: .495
Home/road: 11/15
Off-days: Sept. 5, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 12 of 26
Key series: vs. Cincinnati, Sept. 20-22
Overview: The most difficult schedule in the NL is for a team whose collective opponents aren't even an average baseball team. And … that pretty much tells you all about the NL you need to know. (For what it's worth, the NL is only 15 games under .500 in interleague play this season, which isn't all that awful.) The Pirates do have an 11-game homestand that is the longest of any contender, and it's imperative they do to the Cubs and Padres what they couldn't do to any of the inferior teams last fall: beat them. Especially with six of their last nine against Cincinnati and an NL Central title meaning the difference between a five-game series and a one-game crapshoot, which is looking less and less like it would include the …

8. Arizona Diamondbacks
Status: 69-66, second place in NL West, six games back of second wild card
Opponents' winning percentage: .497
Home/road: 13/14
Off-day: Sept. 12
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 10 of 27
Key series: vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, Sept. 16-19
Overview: Pretty much the only reason the D-backs are this high is because they play the Dodgers for seven games. And while they've actually beaten the Dodgers seven of 12 games this season, some of those were the pre-unbeatable Dodgers, who went 23-6 in August after going 19-6 in July after finishing June winning eight of nine, which means the Dodgers are 50-13 over their last 63 games, which is pretty much unbeatable. So there's that and the one off-day and the large deficit and oy gevalt it doesn't look good for Arizona to catch the …

9. Cincinnati Reds
Status: 76-61, third place in NL Central, lead second wild card by six games
Opponents' winning percentage: .502
Home/road: 16/9
Off-days: Sept. 12, 19, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 13 of 25
Key series: at Pittsburgh, Sept. 20-22
Overview: Here's where it starts getting easier. Don't let the above-.500 winning percentage fool you. The Reds have almost two-thirds of their games at home, where they're 41-23, with the second-fewest losses in baseball. The Reds are 35-38 on the road, though six of the games away from Great American Ball Park are against the Brewers and Astros. (All hail the Astros, whose record is so abominable it brings down teams' opponents' winning percentages by more than 20 percentage points.) The finishing slate of Chicago-Milwaukee-Houston-Pittsburgh-New York-Pittsburgh is do-able if the Reds can survive home series this week vs. St. Louis and the …

10. Los Angeles Dodgers
Status: 81-55, first place in NL West
Opponents' winning percentage: .482
Home/road: 10/16
Off-days: Sept. 5, 23
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 10 of 26
Key series: at Arizona, Sept. 16-19
Overview: The Dodgers play 23 of their final 26 games within the division. It's a good thing the NL West is baseball's version of 'N Sync, with one mega-standout and four other pieces that can go away without anyone missing them. A couple bad days for the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers could be staring at 20 straight games to end their season against sub-.500 teams. This might be disconcerting to Atlanta, leading the NL and hoping for home-field advantage, if the Braves' schedule weren't even easier than the Dodgers'. It wouldn't be the biggest shock if they won the NL East by 20 games over the …

11. Washington Nationals
Status: 69-67, second place in NL East, 6 ½ games back of second wild card
Opponents' winning percentage: .472
Home/road: 10/16
Off-days: Sept. 5, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 26
Key series: vs. Atlanta, Sept. 16-18
Overview: Over the next two weeks, the Nationals play 13 games against teams with a cumulative winning percentage of .437. That's 13 games against teams that average out to a 71-91 record. If the Nationals have any shot of sneaking into the second wild-card spot, they need to win at least 10 of those games. Because with Cincinnati going against St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee, worst case is they go … 4-9? That would at least give the Nationals a chance, though finishing with Atlanta, St. Louis and Arizona among their final 13 games isn't exactly a confidence builder. Not when the play-in game could well come against the …

12. St. Louis Cardinals
Status: 79-57, tied for first place in NL Central
Opponents' winning percentage: .485
Home/road: 15/11
Off-days: Sept. 9, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 10 of 26
Key series: vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 6-8
Overview: Once the Cardinals slog through this week against the Reds and Pirates, the schedule turns silly. If the Nationals slump, they won't face a single team over .500 for the rest of the season. As it stands, St. Louis' final 19 games come against teams with a cumulative .455 winning percentage and include 12 of 19 at home. While Pittsburgh did a bang-up job beefing up its lineup with Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and John Buck, the division still goes through St. Louis. Not quite to the extent, of course, of the …

13. Detroit Tigers
Status: 80-57, first place in AL Central
Opponents' winning percentage: .464
Home/road: 10/15
Off-days: Sept. 5, 12, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 25
Key series: at Boston, Sept. 2-4
Overview: Dear Schedule Maker: Um, it's sort of unfair that a team this good and this in control of its division has such an easy schedule. Sincerely, Every Other Team in the American League. The Tigers have three series against teams over .500: three games at Boston this week and six against Kansas City. Otherwise, it's a pair of series against the White Sox, a four-gamer at home against Seattle and season-enders in Minnesota and Miami. Yes, starting off September with a nine-game trip stinks, but it's the penance for a final 13 games against teams that all together will average about 68 wins. It's why despite its inconsistencies, Detroit is the favorite to win home field in the AL, even with the spirited play of late from the …

14. Oakland A'sStatus: 78-58, second place in AL West, lead first wild card by 5½ games
Opponents' winning percentage: .463
Home/road: 14/12
Off-days: Sept. 9, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 6 of 26
Key series: at Texas, Sept. 13-15
Overview: They've been through their monstrosity of a stretch (at Baltimore, at Detroit, Tampa Bay) and they came out of it in incredible shape, winning seven of 10. Now comes the fun part. In between two series against Texas, the A's get Houston and Minnesota. And after that, they finish with Angels, Twins, at Angels and at Mariners. If it's difficult to imagine a much friendlier schedule than that, particularly one that's stacked with home games, get a load of the …

15. Cleveland Indians
Status: 72-64, second place in AL Central, 3½ games back of second wild card
Opponents' winning percentage: .448
Home/road: 15/11
Off-days: Sept. 5, 23
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 26
Key series: vs. Houston, Sept. 19-22
Overview: While the teams at the top of the wild-card standings cannibalize themselves, the Indians get to delight in all the carnage while playing the likes of the Mets, White Sox, Astros, White Sox and Twins. That's 17 games against teams with a combined record of ugh. If the Indians can stay within striking distance through the last two weeks of the season, they finish against the three worst teams in the AL. Sweeping Houston four games would be a start, and perhaps it would warrant the Indians saying it was them who had the best schedule as opposed to the …

16. Atlanta Braves
Status
: 83-53, first place in NL East
Opponents' winning percentage: .444
Home/road: 13/13
Off-days: Sept. 5, 19
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 3 of 26
Key series: vs. Philadelphia, Sept. 26-29
Overview: The Braves play 26 games in September. Twenty-three are against teams under .500. The other three are against a team that has spent most of the season under it. An Atlanta team that was at one juncture 50-38 may have a chance to win 50 of its last 74 and bring back the 100-win club after its absence in 2012. That comeback, of course, is nothing next to the …

17. Boston Red Sox's rebound from 2012 doormat to 2013 league leader. Yes, at the moment the Red Sox would start every playoff series at home, and another World Series in Boston does not sound altogether far-fetched, which is something of a miracle considering where the Red Sox were exactly a year ago today.

They were 62-72, 18 full games back of their current standing, playing out the string of a season that turned ugly early. They didn't listen to their manager, didn't listen a whole lot to one another and just wanted the dread to end. They won seven games the rest of the season.

Excitement in Boston these days is palpable. It's not that the Red Sox are back as much as they're easy to root for. Which is why having the worst schedule in baseball for the last month might not have the same Chicken Little effect it once did. The Red Sox's struggles brought some much-needed rationality to a fan base that was spoiled with success. Now that it's back, and now that they appreciate it, Boston can skip the nerves, relish in Tampa's struggles, the Yankees' age and Baltimore's luck running cold, and get ready for October. Schedule be damned, it's coming and coming fast.

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