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And Down the Stretch They Come! Who Has the Inside Lane for Division and Wild Card?

Horse Racing: 148th Preakness Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of factors will determine whether the Astros win the division, land a wild card, or spend October watching from home for the first time since 2016. They have to do with lineups, bullpen management, Brantley’s return, Christian Javier, Dusty Baker, and who knows what else. We’ll cover all of that over the next five weeks. But for today I want to focus solely on the state of the races and the schedule.

With most teams having between 30 and 32 games left, we know a few things about the race for October: the Orioles and Rays are overwhelming likely to make the playoffs, and the Twins have the advantage of a six-game lead in a terrible division. Tampa looked a little wobbly on 8/10 after losing a series against the Cardinals and being a .500 team since June. But they calmly ripped off 11 of 15, including a recent series-win against the last-place Yankees who tried to compensate for being in last place by hitting opposing batters. Even if they go 12-18 over the last 30 games, at least three other teams would need to play .600 ball down the stretch to catch them. Per Fangraphs, their playoff odds are 99.4%

That leaves three playoff spots for five teams: the three AL West teams + Toronto and Boston, although the Red Sox are hanging by a thread. We all know that one awesome series can turn things around (props to Seattle, we’ll see you in a month) and Boston could certainly sweep Houston this week, but for now their playoff odds are at 14% and they have a positively murderous last 31 games against the following teams: Houston (3), Texas (3), Tampa (5), Baltimore (7), and Toronto (3). 21 of their last 31 games are against four of the top five AL teams. So let’s dig in a little deeper at the schedules of Toronto, Seattle, and Texas, but first let’s look at Houston.

Astros Remaining Schedule

Games: 30

Games against teams over .500: 15

Games against non-competitive teams (by which I mean teams on pace to lose 100+): 9

That’s right, nine games, including 6 against KC. The Astros do get a chance to go directly against Texas and Seattle in three-game series, which will be key, and they close with a tough six-game road trip to Seattle and Arizona, both of whom may be in dog fights.

Not to be lost is that the Astros get two more days off than Seattle and Texas. That’s two more days to rest the bullpen. They look very poised to go something like 20-10. If they can go 7-2 against the Royals and Athletics, they need to go a reasonable 13-8 against the rest of the schedule to end up at 94-68, which should win the division and would certainly be enough for a playoff birth.

Rangers Remaining Schedule

Games: 32

Games against teams over .500: 20

Games against non-competitive teams: 3

One sees immediately that the Rangers have a much tougher slog here. Included in those 20 games are three against a Boston team that may be under .500 and resting guys on 9/18, but also seven against Seattle in the last two weeks. And the Rangers of late can’t beat anyone. Their schedule is one reason why their playoff odds are in the mid 60s, while Houston and Seattle are right at 80%, per Fangraphs.

Mariners Remaining Schedule

Games: 32

Games against teams over .500: 20

Games against non-competitive teams: 6

The schedule here looks remarkably similar to the Rangers. The Mariners are in the midst of playing 10 of 13 against non-competitive teams, having taken care of KC and the South Siders in the past two weeks, and getting Oakland for three games to start this week. But then the fun is over. They have a brutal 10-game road trip to Cincinnati (3), NYY (3), and Tampa (4) with no days off. They also host the Dodgers and close with 10 games against Texas (7) and Houston (3). They are two games up in the loss column versus the Astros, which is one reason why they have even odds with Houston. Whatever else, they have their fate in their own hands, especially over the last ten games. Five weeks ago this team had played 100 games and were 50-50. Since then 24-6.

Toronto Blue Jays Remaining Schedule

Games: 31

Games against teams over .500: 13

Games against non-competitive teams: 9

Nobody looks to benefit from the Yankees demise more than Toronto, who play the Bronx Bombers six times in the last two weeks. Who knows whether Judge, Cole, and Stanton will even play in the 9/26-28 three-game series in Toronto? Their encounters with the NL are friendly (Washington, Colorado) and they’re done with Baltimore. They do close with six of their final nine against Tampa.

Their playoff odds are just under 48%, and one may wonder why, given the light schedule. I’d say it’s mostly a product of being 2.5 games back. They play their next 12 games against sub-.500 teams so expect things to tighten even further.

Concluding Remarks

For awhile it felt like the Rays would fall back to the pack. For my money, I’d like to see them stay tight with Baltimore, only to force those teams to play to win through the last week of the season. Those teams are battling for a 1 or a 4 seed, meaning four days off and home-field vs. a brutal wild card series against one of the AL West teams or Toronto.

It looks very good for Houston. Texas and Seattle play seven times, and those two teams are logically required to go 7-7 in those games. Ideally they split the games and the Astros could gain ground, but even if, say, Seattle pounds Texas, that simply eliminates the Rangers as a playoff contender. Likewise, the Texas/Toronto series on 9/11-14 is a winner no matter what.

For the sake of rooting, Astros fans can be democratic about it. Anytime Boston, Toronto, Seattle, and Texas lose, it’s cause for joy. The real goal is not just the playoffs but the division, so I get the added focus on Seattle and Texas. Still, it’s time to recalibrate. The Mariners, not the Rangers, are the team most likely to prevent us from raising a division flag for the first time since 2020.