With just one day to go in the season, the possibility of a one-game playoff -- or perhaps even two or three of them -- on Monday to determine a division winner, and possibly the second AL Wild Card, remains very much alive.
Except for the Mariners, who were walk-off winners over the Angels in 11 innings, 2-1, to stay alive one game behind Oakland for the second Wild Card, Saturday was not kind to playoff hopefuls, as five of the six lost. The Tigers were routed by the Twins for the second night in a row, but the Royals could not capitalize, losing to the White Sox, 5-3, to remain one game back. The Pirates were dealt what could have been a crushing blow on Saturday afternoon, losing on a walk-off grand slam in Cincinnati, but the Cardinals -- with a chance to clinch the NL Central -- could not do so, losing to the D-backs in Arizona, 5-2. The A's could have clinched the second Wild Card, but lost, 5-4, in Texas, giving Seattle life.
So, with just one game separating two teams in both the AL and NL Central divisions and also for the final AL Wild Card spot, a loss by the hunted and a win by the hunter on Sunday will necessitate a one-game playoff on Monday to decide a division winner and/or the final Wild Card. Here are the probable starters for Sunday's all-important games (all times Eastern):
1:08 p.m.: Twins (Gibson, 13-11, 4.50) at Tigers (Price, 14-12, 3.36)
1:10 p.m.: Pirates (Cole -- subject to change -- 11-5, 3.78) at Reds (Cueto, 19-9, 2.29)
2:10 p.m.: Royals (Ventura, 14-10, 3.07) at White Sox (Bassitt, 1-1, 3.65)
3:05 p.m.: Athletics (Gray, 13-10, 3.21) at Rangers (Martinez, 5-11, 4.61)
4:10 p.m.: Angels (Rasmus, 3-1, 2.38) at Mariners (Hernandez, 14-6, 2.18)
4:10 p.m.: Cardinals (Wainwright, 20-9, 2.38) at D-backs (Collmenter, 11-8, 3.57)
There cannot be a three-way tie for the AL Wild Card, as only an Oakland loss and Seattle win on Sunday would keep the Mariners alive at 87 wins. The Royals already have 88 wins and thus the top Wild Card position, even if they lose on Sunday.
The rest of the playoff field is set:
• The Angels, with the best record in the AL, hold home-field advantage through the World Series (by virtue of the AL's win in the All-Star Game) and will host the winner of the AL Wild Card Game, beginning Thursday in Anaheim.
• The Orioles are the AL's second seed and as such will play the winner of the AL Central division, whether that is decided on Sunday or Monday, beginning Thursday in Baltimore.
• The Nationals hold home-field advantage through the NLCS and will host the winner of the NL Wild Card Game, beginning Friday in Washington.
• The Dodgers are the NL's second seed and will host the winner of the NL Central division, which also could be decided on Sunday or Monday, beginning Friday in Los Angeles.
Should there be a one-game playoff for the second AL Wild Card or the AL or NL Central division races (or all three), here is what you need to know:
• A playoff for the second AL Wild Card between the Athletics and Mariners would take place in Seattle based on a head-to-head tie-breaker. The winner would advance to play the AL Wild Card Game in either Kansas City or Detroit on Wednesday. The loser goes home.
• A one-game playoff for the AL Central crown would be played in Detroit based on the Tigers edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker. The winner would win the division and advance to play the Orioles.
• The loser of the one-game playoff would then have yet another one-game test -- a Wild Card Game the next day vs. the Athletics or Mariners, whoever claims the second Wild Card, either on Sunday or Monday. Based on record or head-to-head tiebreaker, both hold the advantage on both Oakland and Seattle and will host the game. The winner then flies out West to face the AL-best Angels. The loser goes home.
• A one-game playoff for the NL Central title would be played in St. Louis, again based on the Cardinals edge in head-to-head games vs. the Pirates during the regular season. The winner heads to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers in the NLDS.
• The loser would have one day of rest before playing the Giants in a Wild Card Game on Wednesday. Both teams, either by record or tie-breaker, hold the edge over San Francisco and would host the game. The winner of the NL Wild Card game advances to face the Nationals in the NLDS, also beginning Friday, in DC. The loser goes home.
As you can see, Sunday will be loaded aces pitching for both team and personal accomplishment. Felix Hernandez will hope to make an emphatic Cy Young statement while extending Seattle's season, while Adam Wainwright will be trying to clinch a division for the Cardinals while winning a career-high 21st game
David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, is taking the hill for the Tigers with the AL Central on the line in a start that could go a long way toward justifying the July trade that brought him to Detroit. And then there is Johnny Cueto, who is gunning for his 20th win while aiming to crush Pittsburgh's NL Central dreams.
A one-game playoff will put any participating team in a precarious situation regarding starting pitching, as that club would have to burn a starting pitcher that otherwise might have been slated to start a Game 1 of a Division Series. But the stakes are very high, because winning the division is such a large advantage over just earning a Wild Card, will have to win yet another one-game playoff (and use another starting pitcher in the process) just to advance to a Division Series.
The Pirates will announce Sunday morning whether or not Gerrit Cole will go on Sunday afternoon. The question manager Clint Hurdle must answer is this: Does his team have a better chance of advancing further by using Cole Sunday and hoping to force a one-game playoff on Monday or by saving Cole and having him start the NL Wild Card game at home on Wednesday? If they use Cole Sunday and force a one-game playoff, they would have to use another starter - likely left-hander Jeff Locke or right-hander Edinson Volquez on short rest - on Monday. The upside is that Cole would line up for a potential NLDS Game 1 on Friday, but should they lose on Monday, they'd have to decide between Locke or Volquez, whoever didn't start the one-game playoff, or perhaps Vance Worley, in the do-or-die Wild Card game on Wednesday. In that scenario, left-hander Francisco Liriano would be set up for a potential NLDS Game 1, should they get that far. It's not an easy choice.
The Tigers would have Justin Verlander lined up to go in a one-game playoff, while the Royals would have right-hander James Shields, who would be on short rest. The Cardinals would have a choice between Shelby Miller or John Lackey, both of whom would be on normal rest or better.
Since the two-Wild Card format was introduced two years ago, none of the four Wild Cards has advanced beyond the Division Series, although last year the Rays beat the Rangers in a one-game playoff for the second Wild Card, then beat the Indians in the Wild Card game two days later, both on the road, before losing to Boston, 3-1, in the ALDS.
There has not been a divisional tie through the regular season since the Twins and Tigers tied for the AL Central in 2009. It was the third consecutive season in which it happened in the Majors and the Twins had a thrilling 12-inning victory at the Metrodome in one of the all-time great games in baseball history.
The year before it was the White Sox who beat the Twins on a Jim Thome homer, and Hurdle's Rockies downed the Padres the season before that on their stunning run to the NL pennant.