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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 09/28/2011

AL and NL wild-card races: Everything you need to know

As Bud Selig himself said, “You can’t orchestrate it” – “it” being baseball’s pennant races. But if baseball could script the ending to its regular season, it might look something like this:


Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury points to teammate Marco Scutaro after both scored on Ellsbury's home run in the third inning Tuesday night. (Patrick Semansky - AP)
Game 162 on Wednesday night (with the sports TV schedule more or less all to itself), in four different cities, with massive stakes. Ties in both wild cards, with one game to play. And on deck, for Thursday, the possibility of one or two winner-take-all tiebreaker games.

In the American League, the mighty Boston Red Sox, their nine-game lead of 3 1/2 weeks ago now down to zero, trying to avoid being paired in eternal infamy with their 1978 forebears as the definition of a collapse. And the Tampa Bay Rays, with a fraction of the Red Sox’s payroll and seemingly 10 times the pitching, trying to do what appeared impossible just a few weeks ago: catching the Red Sox.

In the National League, the reeling Atlanta Braves, whose lead was a staggering 10 ½ games in late August, also faced with the realization that the whole thing is gone (and perhaps thankful that Boston is there to draw away all the attention). And the St. Louis Cardinals, playing with the passion and house-money abandon of someone to whom last rites were read weeks ago.

The win-loss records in September say it all: St. Louis, 17-8; Tampa Bay, 16-10; Atlanta, 9-17; Boston, 7-19.

At 7:05 p.m., Red Sox at Orioles, Rays at Yankees. At 7:10 p.m., Phillies at Braves. At 8:05 p.m., Cardinals at Astros.

Here is everything you need to know about tonight’s drama:

*On the mound Wednesday night, all four wild-card hopefuls, more or less, have the pitcher they would most want out there. Three of them – Boston’s Jon Lester, Tampa Bay’s David Price and St. Louis’s Chris Carpenter – started on opening day (and Atlanta’s Tim Hudson should have). Not all of them are in top form at the moment (Lester, in particular, has had an awful month, and is also starting on short rest after throwing 55 pitches on Saturday), but in terms of raw stuff and experience and heart, this quartet is the best each team has.

*The four antagonists in tonight’s games have nothing tangible to play for – the Phillies and Yankees have already clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs, and the Astros and Orioles were eliminated weeks ago. All have performed admirably in recent days despite the lack of stakes, but none can be expected to match the intensity of the wild-card hopefuls. The Yankees haven’t even announced a starting pitcher for tonight. The Phillies will be sending out Joe Blanton, who hasn’t started a game since May 14, in what amounts to an audition for a postseason bullpen job (Cole Hamels and Vance Worley could also get some tune-up work.) The Orioles are going with Alfredo Simon, he of the 4-9 record and 4.85 ERA. And the Astros have tabbed veteran Brett Myers (7-13, 4.31). In other words, none of the wild-card hopefuls should expect any help. To live to see another day, they’re going to need to win.

*The one-game tiebreakers would be Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla. (4 p.m.) and/or St. Louis (8 p.m.), based on head-to-head records. A game 163 would pose a particularly difficult pitching choice for the Red Sox, who would presumably have to pick between John Lackey (on short rest), Tim Wakefield or possibly Alfredo Aceves (presuming he isn’t needed in relief tonight). The Rays would also have a choice, but it is more of a win-win proposition: Jeff Niemann or rookie Matt Moore. The Braves (Brandon Beachy) and Cardinals (Kyle Lohse) appear to have their presumptive Thursday starters already set.

*To take this post full-circle, remember how Selig is proposing an additional wild-card in each league, in order – theoretically – to bring more drama to the late-season pennant races? Well, this year, such a thing would have killed tonight’s theater, as the Rays and Red Sox, and the Braves and Cardinals, would all be headed for one-game playoffs, or best-of-three wild-card series (depending upon how the new wild card format is structured), no matter what happened tonight. In plenty of other seasons, the additional wild card might have served its intended purpose, bringing more teams into the playoff picture. But what a shame it would have been if tonight’s games didn’t matter.

Remember, Bud: You can’t orchestrate it.

By  |  11:30 AM ET, 09/28/2011

 
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