By Andrew Simon
With three weeks remaining last season, the Indians needed a boost. The schedule provided one.
The Tribe capitalized, winning 16 of its final 20 games. That included all 14 it played against the Astros, Twins and White Sox, clubs that averaged 60 victories for the season. Cleveland rocketed from the fringes of the playoff race to the top American League Wild Card berth, securing it by one game while finishing only one out in the AL Central.
A soft schedule, to the extent one exists in the anything-can-happen world of Major League Baseball, guarantees nothing. The Indians still had to perform at a high level. But their run does show how late-season schedules can help tilt the balance of power in the fight for playoff spots.
As the 2014 campaign enters the home stretch, here is a look at the contenders that could be affected most significantly, as well as the outsiders with the best chance to leave their mark on the races.
Oakland Athletics. The last few weeks of August were unkind to the A's, who tumbled from four games ahead of the Angels in the AL West to as many as five behind, following a four-game Halos sweep to close the month. But the late-season schedule could provide an opportunity to at least lock up home-field advantage in the Wild Card game, if not rally for the division crown.
The dearth of remaining head-to-head matchups with the Angels -- they play three in Oakland from Sept. 22-24 -- could hinder the latter goal. The upside is that outside of those contests, the A's schedule from Sept. 8 onward is filled mostly with also-rans.
Oakland is slated for three tough games in Seattle against a contending Mariners club, but otherwise has three-game home series against the Rangers and Phillies and four-game road sets against the White Sox and Rangers. If the A's can draw within striking distance by the final week, things really could get interesting. Following their head-to-head battle, Oakland will finish in Texas against a club in contention only for the No. 1 spot in the 2015 draft, while the Angels will play three in Seattle against a squad that could be fighting for its season..
Using records through Monday's action, Oakland's opponents in the final three weeks combine for a mere .467 winning percentage. That's easily the lowest among contending AL teams, with the Angels the closest, at .481.
St. Louis Cardinals. Things seem to be coming together at the right time for the defending National League champions. They got All-Star catcher Yadier Molina back from the disabled list last Friday, then started a five-game winning streak the next day that gave them sole possession of first in the NL Central for the first time all season. And with starter Michael Wacha also returning, the Redbirds have a final 19-game stretch that sets up favorably.
Their only remaining opponent with an above-.500 record is the second-place Brewers, who have struggled of late and just lost star center fielder Carlos Gomez to a sprained wrist for at least a week. The rest of the schedule features three against the dangerous but last-place Cubs, seven against the Reds (15-29 since the All-Star break) and six more against the Rockies and D-backs, both vying to stay out of the NL West basement.
Those opponents combine for a .461 winning percentage, lowest among those of any contending MLB team. Meanwhile, the Brewers (.494) and Pirates (.481) play three against each other, with those clubs also facing four-game sets with the Marlins and Braves, respectively. That might not provide much of an edge for St. Louis, but in a tight race, every bit counts.
Seattle Mariners. The good news in the Pacific Northwest is that the Mariners are in solid position to grab their first playoff berth since 2001. The bad news is that they have the misfortune of sharing a division with two of the AL's top teams.
In a tighter West race, a closing schedule featuring seven games against the best-record-in-baseball Angels and three against the A's might have provided the Mariners with a means to grab a division title. But with that result nearly a statistical impossibility, it instead could serve as an impediment in a crowded Wild Card race that also features first-place Oakland, as well as the two losers of the three-team AL Central race.
The Mariners, closely trailing the Tigers for the Wild Card's second slot, do have the chance to take advantage of their six matchups with the Astros. But their Angels- and A's-heavy schedule, combined with a trip to Toronto, gives them an opponent winning percentage of .530, the highest of any MLB contender. Meanwhile, the AL Central trio of Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland each comes in below .500, with plenty of games against the bottom two-fifths of the division.
Chicago Cubs. Despite their last-place standing in the NL Central, the Cubs seem to be a team nobody should want to face down the stretch. With callups such as Javier Baez and Jorge Soler bolstering the lineup and recent additions such as Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada lifting the rotation, Chicago is not the same club that struggled for much of the season.
During their current burst, the Cubs have swept a three-game series from the Orioles, split a four-gamer with the Cardinals and swept the Brewers. Their final three weeks could help decide the Central, thanks to three games apiece with St. Louis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, which also visits Wrigley Field this weekend. The Cubs also could have a hand in the NL West, hosting the first-place Dodgers for four.
Chicago White Sox. The South Siders faltered in August, going 9-19, and cleared space for some September callups by trading away Gordon Beckham, Alejandro De Aza and Adam Dunn through waiver deals. Still, with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana fronting the rotation and Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton driving the lineup, the Sox could have enough pieces to make trouble for contenders in the final weeks.
Besides hosting Oakland for four games, Chicago is set to play 10 of its final 13 against the Royals and Tigers, the latter of which split four games at U.S. Cellular Field at the end of last month. Each of the Sox's last seven contests comes against Detroit or Kansas City, so if they can put a hurting on one of those clubs, it could go a long way toward settling the AL Central.