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3 to Watch: The 'They're in, but . . . ' edition

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider
To win the AL East, the Yankees need to do better against the Red Sox than the O's vs. the Rays. US Presswire!

It's a tie at the top in the American League East, with three games to go.

But does it matter? Didn't the Yankees and Orioles just clinch a spot in the playoffs when the Angels lost Sunday night?

Yes, they did. And yes, it still matters.

It matters because baseball has a new playoff system this year. It matters because if you get in as a wild card, instead of as a division champion, you face a one-game win-or-go-home wild-card play-in on Friday.

Yes, it matters, because if the Yankees are done for the season on Friday, are they even going to feel like a playoff team at all?

The Yankees aren't going home Wednesday, the way the Red Sox are. But if they don't do well enough against the Red Sox this week, they face a real risk that their season will last just two days longer than Boston's.

The new system is great, for any number of reasons. I argued for the one-game wild-card play-in, and I'm not going to change course now.

But you can be sure that if the Yankees finish second in the East and then lose that wild-card play-in game on Friday, there'll be a whole lot of people in New York arguing vehemently that the new system isn't fair.

My answer: Win the division.

To win it, the Yankees need to do better the next three days against the Red Sox than the Orioles do the next three days at Tampa Bay.

These final days of the season are so unpredictable. Two weeks ago, or even last week, who would have thought that the American League Central would be basically decided by now, while the AL East and the AL West wouldn't be?

The Tigers' biggest lead all season is the three-game lead they hold over the White Sox right now. The Yankees led the East by 10 games in July. The Rangers led the West by six games in August.

Now the Yankees are faced with beating the Red Sox and hoping for help with the Rays, or with beating the Red Sox and winning a tie-breaker game from the Orioles on Thursday in Baltimore.

Now the Rangers are faced with needing at least one win in this week's series in Oakland.

And yes, there would be a Yankees-Orioles tie-breaker, if they're still tied through Wednesday. That's another change in the new system, a needed one because the difference between winning a division and winning a wild card is potentially so great.

You don't want to be going home Wednesday. But you really don't want to risk going home Friday, either.

Yes, it matters.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The Rangers' biggest lead in the West was six games, but the A's biggest deficit was much bigger. At the end of June, the A's were in third place, and trailed the first-place Rangers by 13 games. There's no way they should be where they are now, going into the final season with a chance to win the division if they can sweep the Rangers. There's no way the Rangers should be in this position. But they are. And the series that ends with Rangers at A's, Wednesday afternoon (3:35 ET) at the Coliseum, could be a great one.

2. Back when the Yankees had their big lead in the division, Hiroki Kuroda was their most effective starting pitcher. You wouldn't say that now. Kuroda is 3-1 in five September starts, but he has a 5.22 ERA for the month, and in his last two starts he hasn't finished the sixth inning. Kuroda has still be a whole lot more effective than Daisuke Matsuzaka, his opponent in Red Sox at Yankees, Wednesday night (7:05 ET) at Yankee Stadium. It will be the final game of a season the Red Sox would love to forget, and likely the final game that Bobby Valentine will manage. The Yankees will hope that their season isn't close to ending, too.

3. Appropriately, the Orioles list "TBA" as their starter for the final regular-season game. Why not? It's worked for them all year long. So it's TBA against Jeremy Hellickson, in Orioles at Rays, Wednesday night (7:10 ET) at Tropicana Field. Last year, Game 162 at the Trop was a night to remember. It's going to be tough for the Rays to repeat that this time, but perhaps the Orioles can.


 
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