At this point in the season, when the unknowns matter so much – who's going to get hurt and who's going to get traded and who's going to thrive and who's going to choke – there is but one constant for the teams fighting for playoff spots: the schedule.
To some, it is kind, serving up a wider variety of cupcakes than Magnolia Bakery. And to others, it might as well be a pocket-sized WMD. Schedules make or break seasons as much as anything.
They're why the defending champions, currently mid-freefall, have a chance. And why the ultimate underdog doesn't. They're why the New York Yankees face the single most grueling travel stretch and the Texas Rangers get the single worst stretch period.
We pored over the schedules of all 14 teams with playoff aspirations, broke them down and ordered them from easiest to toughest. Here is a primer on the season's final six weeks – all the pertinent information, plus a few extra nuggets certain to pique your interest.
Opponents' winning %: .453
Off-days: Aug. 22, Sept. 1, Sept. 8, Sept. 19
Games vs. teams over .500: 9 of 40
Key series: at Arizona, Sept. 23-25
Overview: Fear not, Giants fans. Even if your team is looking distinctly like the post-Bonds-era crew of mediocrity, here comes a gift in the form of San Francisco's schedule. After their next three games against Atlanta, the Giants play sub-.500 teams 31 of 37 games. They get to feast on the NL West, against whom they're 28-17 this season, as well as seven games against woebegone Houston and three against Chicago.
Opponents' winning %: .466
Off-days: Aug. 18, Sept. 8, Sept. 18
Games vs. teams over .500: 13 of 41
Key series: Cleveland, Sept. 26-28
Overview: The cakewalk through the dregs of the American League will be far more important to the Tigers than any of their acquisitions in July and August. Detroit doesn't play one game against a team that would make the playoffs today, and its only games against teams with postseason aspirations are four against Tampa Bay and nine important ones against Cleveland.
Opponents' winning %: .484
Off-days: Aug. 25, Aug. 29, Sept. 12, Sept. 15, Sept. 22
Games vs. teams over .500: 10 of 40
Key series: Philadelphia, Sept. 8-11
Overview: As if the Brewers weren't already in a good enough position, now six games up on St. Louis with only six left between them. Absent those and the Phillies series, the Brewers play a whole lot of nothing – Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. Better yet, nobody has more off-days than their five, and toward the end of a long season, any rest constitutes good rest.
Opponents' winning %: .486
Off-days: Aug. 22, Aug. 25, Sept. 8, Sept. 15
Games vs. teams over .500: 16 of 40
Key series: at Texas, Aug. 26-28
Overview: A loss to the Rangers on Tuesday night dropped the Angels to five back, and with three more games left in their series, Los Angeles could torpedo its chances at the playoffs this week. If not, the Angels' series with the Rangers toward the end of the month looms large, with an easy slate – two series against Seattle and Oakland, one against Baltimore and Minnesota – thereafter. If there is hope for the Angels, it's a schedule with more home games than any other team – and Texas', which appears far down this list.
Opponents' winning %: .478
Off-days: Aug. 25, Sept. 12
Games vs. teams over .500: 12 of 44
Key series: at Detroit, Sept. 26-28
Overview: Roster expansion will help the Indians more than anyone, as their 44-games-in-44-days stretch is the most taxing around even if it comes against a subpar slate. Especially problematic will be 17 games over the season's final 16 days, the bookends being three at the Rangers and three at the Tigers. The Indians are only two games back of Detroit. Their schedule is running behind, too.
Opponents' winning %: .486
Off-days: Aug. 22, Aug. 25, Sept. 1, Sept. 19
Games vs. teams over .500: 19 of 42
Key series: Cleveland, Sept. 8-11
Overview: Were it not for the bumbling AL Central, the White Sox wouldn't even be on this list. As it is, they're a .500 team that's just 3½ games out of first place, and if they can just figure out how to win at home (26-33 this season) they could make some noise. The most vital challenge: a four-game series against the Indians that will show whether the White Sox have the stuff of a contender.
Opponents' winning %: .493
Off-days: Sept. 1, Sept. 15, Sept. 22
Games vs. teams over .500: 12 of 40
Key series: San Francisco, Sept. 23-25
Overview: The Diamondbacks are nearly as good on the road (32-27) as they are at home (36-26), so the majority of road games doesn't pain them nearly as much as their next two series: at Atlanta, at Philadelphia. Afterward, the Diamondbacks go almost exclusively NL West, which means a whole lot of ugly teams amid one above .500: the Giants, whom they currently lead by 2½ games.
Opponents' winning %: .500
Off-days: Aug. 18, Aug. 29, Sept. 8, Sept. 15
Games vs. teams over .500: 13 of 40
Key series: Milwaukee, Sept. 5-7
Overview: Series against Philadelphia and Atlanta balance out the easiest part of the Cardinals' schedule over the next two weeks, when they play at Pittsburgh and Chicago before hosting Los Angeles and Pittsburgh again. If the Cardinals can hang with the Brewers through mid-September, they've got a plenty good chance.
Opponents' winning %: .485
Off-days: Aug. 22, Sept. 8, Sept. 15
Games vs. teams over .500: 21 of 42
Key series: Boston, Sept. 23-25
Overview: Even if the Yankees' opponents' winning percentage lags, their schedule's quirks hurt. Like spending so much time away from home, including 22 of the next 32 games. And capping the season with Tampa Bay, Boston, at Tampa Bay. They may be loath to rest their starters, too, a division title allowing them to face the AL Central winner instead of Texas or Los Angeles.
10. Atlanta Braves
Opponents' winning %: .514
Off-days: Aug. 29, Sept. 8, 15, 22
Games vs. teams over .500: 15 of 40
Key series: At Philadelphia, Sept. 5-7
Overview: The Braves' firm grasp on the wild card seems to be going nowhere despite the injury locust hatching in every crevice of every player's body. This week they take on the class of the NL West. After that, it's two series against Philadelphia, one against St. Louis and a bunch of miscellany in between. The Phillies' gaudy record severely sways the Braves' opponents', too; if Philadelphia were merely a .600 team, Atlanta's opponents would play a combined .505.
Opponents' winning %: .502
Off-days: Aug. 25, Sept. 15
Games vs. teams over .500: 17 of 42
Key series: at Atlanta, Sept. 26-28
Overview: And that's only a key series because it allows the Phillies to set up their playoff rotation. They could clinch a playoff spot in early September and, barring the plague hitting Philadelphia, they'll crack 100 wins. Still, a 14-game stretch that includes three with Atlanta, four at Milwaukee and four against St. Louis shows that the Phillies cannot afford laissez-faire behavior. They're as close to a playoff lock as there is, and with only two off-days to rest, they've got to play and act like it.
12. Boston Red Sox
Opponents' winning %: .507
Off-days: Aug. 29, Sept. 12, Sept. 22
Games vs. teams over .500: 29 of 43
Key series: At New York Yankees, Sept. 23-25
Overview: With seven games against Texas and six against the Yankees, the Red Sox get to test their October mettle often in the weeks leading up to the postseason. The good news: seven of their last 10 come against Baltimore. The plethora of over-.500 teams before that, as well as the two doubleheaders, makes for a tiresome stretch at the Fens.
13. Texas Rangers
Opponents' winning %: .516
Off-days: Aug. 29, Sept. 8, Sept. 12, Sept. 19
Games vs. teams over .500: 22 of 40
Key series: At Boston, Sept. 2-4
Overview: The next three weeks could hurt. In order: at Los Angeles, at Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, at Boston, at Tampa Bay. Yikes. Should the Rangers survive that – and should the Angels not take advantage of their schedule simultaneously – Texas will win the division. After the gauntlet comes a pair of series against Oakland and Seattle, plus a chance to finish out the Angels in the season finale.
14. Tampa Bay Rays
Opponents' winning %: .538
Off-days: Aug. 18, Sept. 8, Sept. 19
Games vs. teams over .500: 34 of 43
Key series: Aw, hell, all of them
Overview: Rays manager Joe Maddon could pull out every Jedi mind trick in his bagful and still not overcome this firing squad of a final six weeks. Ten against Boston. Six against New York. Six against Texas. Four against Detroit. An MLB official named Katy Feeney authors the league's schedule. Note to Rays president Matt Silverman: It would be worth it to get her a really nice bottle of wine before the schedule comes out in mid-September this year to ensure this doesn't happen again.