Who has playoff edge the rest of the way? - NBC Sports

Who has playoff edge the rest of the way?
Schedule favors some contenders over others; we break it down
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The remaining schedule appears favor a run to the playoffs for Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
August 11, 2012, 2:08 am

But time flies, and we've reached the stretch run, folks - the final 50 games of the regular season. And thanks to the expanded playoff format, 18 teams still can be called contenders (although we're stretching it a bit with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, both sub-.500 through Wednesday.)

Schedules can have as much to do with stretch-run finishes as injuries and clutch performances, and here's a look at how each of the top 16 contenders stack up the rest of the way, ranked by league from easiest to toughest:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • 29 home games, 23 road games
  • 19 games vs. contenders
  • Last 10 games: 4 @ New York, 3 vs. Cincinnati, 3 vs. Atlanta
  • Last series vs. Cincinnati: Sept. 28-30
  • Key stretch: Aug. 13-19 - 4 vs. Los Angeles, 3 @ St. Louis

Outside of a select few NL cities, the Buccos are everybody's sentimental favorite to reach the playoffs (forget the finishing above .500 thing; that's clearly going to happen).

The good news is there's nothing schedule-wise that should hold them back. Their Cubs-Astros count is 13 (that many games left against those two also-rans), and they also have nine games with the Brewers, six with the Padres, and four with the Mets.

The challenges are home-and-home series with the Reds and Cardinals, plus four games against the Dodgers. Interestingly, they will be finished with the Cardinals on Aug. 29, while the six games with the Reds are in September.

Also interesting to note that the Pirates and Braves - currently the two wild-card leaders - will play the final series of the regular season. Could that be a preview of a one-game playoff?

Atlanta Braves

  • 23 home games, 28 road games
  • 16 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 vs. Miami, 3 vs. Mets, 3 @ Pittsburgh
  • Last series vs. Washington: Sept. 14-16
  • Key stretch: Aug. 13-26 - 3 vs. Los Angeles, 3 @ Washington, 3 @ San Francisco

The Braves will be on the road more than you'd like, including a west coast swing later this month. But they are a very solid 30-21 away from Turner Field, and get a much easier draw than the Nationals as far as strength of schedule.

They have series remaining with the Mets (6 games), Padres (7 games), Marlins (6 games) and Rockies (3 games), and in September/October, the only contenders they will see are the Nationals (Sept. 14-16) and Pirates (Oct. 1-3).

So there's every reason to think there won't be a repeat of last year's epic late-September collapse. And in fact, things are set up quite well for Fredi Gonzalez's team, especially if it can stay solid on the road.

Cincinnati Reds

  • 25 home games, 26 road games
  • 18 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 vs. Milwaukee, 3 @ Pittsburgh, 3 @ St. Louis
  • Last series vs. Pittsburgh: Sept. 28-30 @ Pittsburgh
  • Key stretch: Aug. 24-29 - 3 vs. St. Louis, 3 @ Arizona

A recent four-game skid has cost the Reds the top spot in the NL, but they remain in very solid position for a postseason spot. Their schedule isn't particularly challenging, save for a six-game trip to Pittsburgh and St. Louis to finish the regular season. But if they have clinched a playoff spot by that point, the trip might not mean as much as you'd think.

But you know they're thinking division title, of course, and the other big challenges will be home-and-home series with both the Pirates, Cardinals and Phillies, as well as series with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.

The good news is their Cubs/Astros count is 16, plus three-game series with the Brewers, Mets and Marlins.

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • 27 home games, 24 road games
  • 24 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 @ San Francisco, 3 vs. Chicago, 3 vs. Colorado
  • Last series vs. San Francisco: Sept. 25-27
  • Key stretch: Aug. 27-Sept. 5 - 3 vs. Cincinnati, 4 @ Los Angeles, 3 @ San Francisco

Chris Johnson isn't Hunter Pence or Hanley Ramirez, but if you thought the Diamondbacks got left behind the Dodgers and Giants at the trade deadline, you better think again.

Johnson got his ticket punched out of Houston to replace Ryan 'Tatman' Roberts (this season's easiest-to-predict regression candidate), and has outhit Pence and Ramirez to the tune of 11 for 34 with five homers and 16 RBI as a Snake. And no other contender will be able to dip into their farm system for quality pitching options such as Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs.

The Diamondbacks are hanging around, and do have nine more shots at the Giants and six at the Dodgers. Also, four of their last five series are against the Padres, Rockies, Cubs and Rockies, so a late run is very possible.

San Francisco Giants

  • 26 home games, 25 road games
  • 23 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 vs. Arizona, 3 @ San Diego, 3 @ Los Angeles
  • Last series vs. Dodgers: Oct. 1-3
  • Key stretch: Aug. 20-26 - 3 @ Los Angeles, 4 vs. Atlanta

General manager Brian Sabean has given his team some needed deadline assistance led by Hunter Pence, who completes an outfield rebuild from the 2010 World Series championship team.

In fact, if you look around, other than Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey, the lineup has turned over since then, and there's no Brian Wilson in the ninth inning. That leaves dominant starting pitching as the Giants' remaining signature strength. And to that end, Tim Lincecum is much more closely resembling his 2009-10 self since the second half began (3-1, 2.48 ERA).

The Giants will begin September by finishing up a Houston-Chicago road trip, and after that will stay entirely within the NL West, where they're 20-15 to date. That means nine more games with Arizona and six with Los Angeles, but also six apiece against San Diego and Colorado.

Washington Nationals

  • 27 home games, 24 road games
  • 22 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 @ Philadelphia, 3 @ St. Louis, 3 vs. Philadelphia
  • Last series vs. Atlanta: Sept. 14-16 @ Atlanta
  • Key stretch: Sept. 14-20 - 3 @ Atlanta, 3 vs. Los Angeles

There's no bigger question on the minds of Nationals players and their fans than when Stephen Strasburg will be shut down. General manager Mike Rizzo will make that critical call, and even he isn't sure at this point, as he says it will be something of an eye-test decision. But it sure seems as if treating him like a fifth starter and spacing out his starts a bit prior to this point would have been the better way to go, doesn't it?

At least the Nats have regained the NL's top record, and are in very solid position wildcard-wise, if it comes to that.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • 25 home games, 25 road games
  • 27 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 @ Houston, 3 vs. Washington, 3 vs. Cincinnati
  • Last series vs. Cincinnati: Oct. 1-3
  • Key stretch: Aug. 24-Sept 2 - 3 @ Cincinnati, 3 @ Pittsburgh, 4 @ Washington

Everybody knows the closing strength of the Cardinals, so they never can be counted out. But it's not going to be easy for them to make up ground in the NL Central race, as they face the toughest of the three contenders' schedules.

A 10-game trip through Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington (Aug. 24-Sept. 2) is about as tough as it gets in the NL, and we'll see where the Cardinals stand at that point. They also have one more West Coast swing through San Diego and Los Angeles.

On the plus side, their Cubs-Astros count is 12, and they do have the Nationals and Reds at home to close the season, when a couple of playoff spots still could be at stake.

Los Angeles Dodgers

  • 23 home games, 27 road games
  • 32 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 @ San Diego, 3 vs. Colorado, 3 vs. San Francisco
  • Last series vs. San Francisco: Oct. 1-3 at home
  • Key stretch: Aug. 10-19 - 3 @ MIami, 4 @ Pittsburgh, 3 @ Atlanta

We know that new ownership means the Dodgers will shoot up to far-and-away payroll-leader status in the NL West. But was GM Ned Colletti able to do enough with the acquisitions of Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Randy Choate to get the Dodgers back to this postseason?

The schedule maker has set up a very difficult road - toughest of any NL contender. On Friday, the Dodgers start a 10-game trip to Miami, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, then return home to face the Giants. And unlike the other two NL West contenders who will stay inside the division in the final month, the Dodgers face a very tough run with consecutive series against the Cardinals, Nationals and Reds.

A final note: They do close the regular season at home against the Giants.

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AMERICAN LEAGUE

Detroit Tigers

  • 26 home games, 25 road games
  • 26 games vs. contenders
  • Last 10 games: 4 vs. Kansas City, 3 @ Minnesota, 3 @ Kansas City
  • Last series vs. Chicago: Sept. 10-13 @ Chicago
  • Key stretch: Sept. 7-16 - 3 @ Los Angeles, 4 @ Chicago, 3 @ Cleveland

It's a two-tiered system in the AL, where the Central and West contenders definitely get an edge in terms of strength of schedule - and as a result, the wild-card competition - compared to AL East teams.

And if it's still a close division race by late-September, here's the Tigers' other edge - their last four series (13 games) are against the Twins and Royals. That's the final two weeks of the season against two of the league's three worst teams. In contrast, the White Sox will face the Angels, Rays and two series against the Indians.

Texas Rangers

  • 26 home games, 26 road games
  • 25 games against contenders
  • Last 10 games: 4 vs. Oakland, 3 vs. Los Angeles, 3 @ Oakland
  • Last series vs. Los Angeles: Sept. 28-30
  • Key stretch: Aug. 10-16 - 3 vs. Detroit, 4 @ New York

The Rangers' stretch run could be tough early and late, but the middle offers a nice opportunity to go on a run.

They face seven games with the Tigers and Yankees in the upcoming week, but then comes a 29-game stretch of series with Toronto, Baltimore, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Seattle.

The Rangers will stay in the division after Sept. 13, and that includes a finishing A's-Angels-A's gauntlet. Still, they have a 5.5-game cushion in the West, so barring collapse, we're most likely looking at a shot at a third consecutive pennant.

Los Angeles Angels

  • 29 home games, 21 road games
  • 31 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 vs. Seattle, 3 @ Texas, 3 @ Seattle
  • Last series vs. Texas: Sept. 28-30 @ Texas
  • Key stretch: Sept. 3-13 - 3 @ Oakland, 3 vs. Detroit, 4 vs. Oakland

For all the Angels' spending, the bullpen is leaking in the absences of Scott Downs and Jordan Walden, and you have to expect GM Jerry Dipoto to make another move soon.

Fortunately for Mike Scioscia's team, it has the most-favorable home-road game differential left - a good thing since they are two games under .500 on the road. And an impending 10-game homestead against Seattle, Cleveland and Tampa could give them a boost.

The A's-Tigers-A's gauntlet in early September could be pivotal, but three of the last six series are against the Mariners and Royals.

Chicago White Sox

  • 26 home games, 26 road games
  • 28 games vs. contenders
  • Last 10 games: 3 vs. Cleveland, 4 vs. Tampa, 3 @ Cleveland
  • Last series vs. Detroit: Sept. 10-13
  • Key stretch: Aug. 27-Sept 2 - 4 @ Baltimore, 3 @ Detroit

Trying to capitalize on an unexpected playoff shot, general manager Kenny Williams did a nice job of adding Francisco Liriano, Brett Myers and Kevin Youkilis without a major cost. However, a Paul Konerko concussion could have severe implications, and while the Sox have done a better job of interspersing rest periods for Chris Sale than the Nationals have done with Stephen Strasburg, Sale still could be facing a bit of a slowdown in innings.

Oakland A's

  • 21 home games, 30 road games
  • 32 games vs. contenders
  • Last 10 games: 4 @ Texas, 3 vs. Seattle, 3 vs. Texas
  • Last series vs. Texas: Oct. 1-3
  • Key stretch: Sept. 18-27 - 3 @ Detroit, 3 @ New York, 4 @ Texas

The A's are 7-7 in their last 14 games, so at the very least, they've cooled from their unsustainable 19-5 July. They also face the toughest schedule of the three AL West contenders - especially in September/October - and only the Rays have a worse home-road games differential.

The rest of August clearly is the easier proposition - series with the White Sox, Royals, Indians, Twins, Rays and Indians. But beginning Aug. 31 with a series against Boston, the A's will play 26 of 32 remaining games against contenders - the exceptions being six games against Seattle.

So getting to the playoffs isn't going to be an easy proposition for Bob Melvin's surprise contenders.

New York Yankees

  • 25 home games, 27 road games
  • 44 games vs. contenders
  • Last 10 games: 3 @ Minnesota, 4 @ Toronto, 3 vs. Boston
  • Last series vs. Baltimore - Sept. 6-9 @ Baltimore
  • Key stretch: Sept. 3-13 - 3 @ Tampa Bay, 4 @ Baltimore, 3 @ Boston

The 44 games against contenders includes both the Blue Jays and Red Sox. Besides the very-tough AL East slate, the Yankees also have series remaining against the Rangers, White Sox and A's. At least they have the best home-road games differential of the three top division contenders - not to mention a comfortable lead.

Somehow, the Twins snuck into the late schedule with a series at Target Field Sept. 24-26. But otherwise, the last non-contender is Cleveland Aug. 24-26.

Baltimore Orioles

  • 23 home games, 28 road games
  • 44 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 3 vs. Toronto, 3 vs. Boston, 3 @ Tampa Bay
  • Last series vs. New York: Sept. 6-9
  • Key stretch: Sept. 14-23 - 3 @ Oakland, 3 @ Seattle, 3 @ Boston

You have to question whether the Orioles can continue contending despite a currently -47 run differential (11th in the AL), and whether their 22-6 record in one-run games possibly can hold up. But we're buying the O's and Buck Showalter hanging around for the time being.

The remaining schedule is AL East-tough, of course, as the only two series against non-contenders come this weekend against Kansas City and Sept. 17-19 in Seattle. But the other AL East contenders face virtually the same strength of schedule, there's no significant edge for anybody.

Tampa Bay Rays

  • 20 home games, 32 road games
  • 43 games vs. contenders
  • Last 9 games: 2 @ Boston, 4 @ Chicago, 3 vs. Baltimore
  • Last series vs. New York: Sept. 14-16 @ New York
  • Key stretch: Sept. 3-16 - 3 vs. New York, 3 vs. Texas, 3 @ Baltimore, 3 @ New York

Nobody faces a tougher home-road games differential than the Rays, and it begins Friday with a 10-game trip to Minnesota, Seattle and Los Angeles - some serious air miles there. Visits to Texas and Chicago also remain, as well as the AL East gauntlet.

Here's how tough the Rays' schedule will be down the stretch - the last non-contender they will face (and again, we're counting the Red Sox and Jays as contenders at this point) will be the Royals (Aug. 20-22). After that, the rest of the schedule - all 38 games worth - will be against contenders.

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