As August approaches, the baseball world is turning its attention to a critical five-game set between two of the titans of the NL Central and MLB in general, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The teams are locked in one of the most exciting division races in all of baseball, separated by less than two games through July 30.With 62 wins on the season, the Cardinals haven’t struggled against many teams this year, but they have not been able to take down the division-leading Pirates, winning just two of the first eight games between the teams.
Taking this series could go a long way toward breaking a 20-year playoff drought for the Pirates, but they know all too well that the start of August is a long way from the finish line, especially after last season, when they entered the month just three games behind the division-leading Reds before faltering down the stretch to finish 18 games out of first place.
While this series will occupy the baseball spotlight momentarily, there are plenty of upcoming intra-divisional matchups that could ultimately decide the playoff fates of those involved. Here is a quick rundown of which games may have the highest stakes as the season enters the home stretch.
Although the Tampa Bay Rays have gone just 6-10 against the Boston Red Sox thus far, they managed to ride an incredible streak to storm back from a significant deficit to overtake the Red Sox by half a game atop the AL East standings. With a front-loaded schedule, the teams have only three head-to-head games remaining, a mid-week series from Sept. 10-12 that the teams alluded to in a testy, but good-natured Twitter exchange.
Don't worry @raysbaseball we look forward to seeing you in Tampa in September for our home games at the Trop.— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) July 30, 2013
With Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer, the Detroit Tigers have one of the most star-studded rosters in the MLB; however, they have not yet been able to distance themselves from the no-frills Cleveland Indians, who sit just 2.5 games out of first place despite winning only three of the teams’ first 12 matchups.
If the Indians hope to take hold of the division, they will have to fare better in the next meeting, a crucial four-game series at home from Aug. 5-8.
Although the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers were in opposite positions at this point last season—with the A’s sitting 4.5 games behind the division-leading Rangers—it’s the Athletics who have a five-game lead in 2013. As the A’s proved last year by racing back to win the division on the final day of the season, this battle is far from over, especially with nearly half of the teams’ head-to-head games yet to come.
The Rangers, who have beaten the A’s in six of 10 chances this year, will get their next opportunity in a weekend series in Arlington from Aug. 2-4.
The Atlanta Braves, who were relegated to the Wild Card last year, have a tight grip on first place with an 11-game lead over the competition. The Braves should not sleep on the second-place Washington Nationals, however, as the team is more than capable of going on a run behind its young core of talent led by stars Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann.
If the Nats are going to make a run, they will have to go through the Braves to do so, as the teams are slated to meet up for a three-game set from Aug. 5-7 in the nation’s capital before meeting again in Atlanta the following weekend (Aug. 16-18).
Although the Cardinals-Pirates series is taking the spotlight this week, the Cincinnati Reds are still within striking distance at five games back. Despite being the reigning division champs, the Reds are flying under the radar, and can get right back in the thick of the race with an upcoming three-game tilt against the Cards in Cincinnati from Aug. 2-4. The Reds will get their next crack at the Pirates in September, when they meet for two of the final three series of the season.
While there appeared to be a traffic jam atop the NL West standings earlier in the year, the congestion has given way to a clearer picture now that the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers have caught fire and the San Francisco Giants have gone ice cold. What was once on track to become one of the most tightly contested division races from top to bottom in years has become mostly a two-team race, with the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks emerging as the favorites, separated by just 3.5 games.
The race may be decided by the two remaining series between the teams in September, when the D-backs will visit LA from Sept. 9-11 before hosting a four-game set from Sept. 16-19.