By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Major League Baseball is heading toward a fantastic finish to determine the postseason landscape with less than two weeks to go in the marathon, 162-game regular season.
A three-way battle is still raging in the National League Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds fighting for the division title with the two also-rans having to settle for wild card berths.
Over in the American League, the division races appear to be settled, but the wild card race has turned truly wild with six teams still scrapping for the two last postseason spots.
The Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers held the wild cards going into Tuesday night’s action, with the Cleveland Indians just a half-game back. Two games off the pace were the Baltimore Orioles with the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals another half-game behind.
Major league-best Boston Red Sox (92-59), who have made a remarkable turnaround from a 69-93 season in 2012, control the AL East, the Detroit Tigers (87-63) are in command of the AL Central and the Oakland Athletics (88-62) look set in the West.
The double wild card set-up, established just last year, pits those teams in a do-or-die, one-game playoff showdown to produce a fourth team to join the three division winners in each league for the best-of-five Division Series.
So while the long-suffering Pirates, Cardinals and Reds all seem set to reach the postseason, winning the division can be critical to join the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers (86-64) and NL East winning Atlanta Braves (89-61) into the first extended round of the playoffs.
Besides escaping the pressure of a possible one-and-done exit, a division winner can set up their pitching rotation rather than have to use their best in a wildcard playoff game.
The Pirates have already assured themselves of their first winning season in 20 years but are deadlocked with St. Louis at 87-63, with Cincinnati 2.5 games back at 85-66.
Pittsburgh, led by brilliant outfielder Andrew McCutchen and slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez, host the Reds for three games this weekend and then close the season with three games in Cincinnati that could decide the division.
Tampa Bay and Texas fell from serious contention for division titles with September swoons and are clinging to wild card positions as they face off against each other this week.
Texas, who last year squandered a 13-game lead in the AL West to Oakland, who overtook them on the last day by completing a sweep of the visiting Rangers, have left the division to the A’s by dropping 12 of their last 15 games.
The Rays (82-67), who had a recent stretch where they lost 14 of 17 games, took their series opener on Monday 6-2 over the visiting Rangers (81-68) and have three more games remaining in their series.
Cleveland, in their first campaign under former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, are poised to jump into a postseason berth should either of those teams falter.
The Indians (81-69), whose fortunes have turned with a surge by some young starting pitchers including Corey Kluber, have the easiest slate of games remaining, finishing against the Astros, White Sox and Twins after their series against Kansas City.
The Royals (79-71), whose core of young players such as Eric Hosmer are beginning to emerge, stand 2.5 games from a wild card berth along with the ageing and injury-riddled Yankees.
Just two games off the wild card pace were the Orioles, riding the booming bat of major league home run leader Chris Davis, who has belted 50 over the fence this season.