It's that time again - let the race for the playoffs begin

The Baltimore Sun

Baseball has made it to September, finally the stretch run, with plenty of teams still dreaming of the postseason.

By my calculation, 11 clubs have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. That's not counting the New York Yankees, Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals or Houston Astros. Things would have to break perfectly for any of them.

Then again, I didn't believe in the Colorado Rockies this time last year and then found myself in Denver in late October.

But, as Big Mac said, we're not here to talk about the past. This one's about the future - specifically, the next three weeks. Here's a look at the remaining pennant races and the best guess as to which clubs play in October.

AL East

It's a two-team race that will likely be decided head-to-head, with the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox facing each other six times, including three starting tomorrow at Fenway Park.

The Rays play fewer games against winning teams than the Red Sox, but they end with eight on the road. Still, those games are against the Orioles and the underachieving Detroit Tigers.

Prediction: Rays hold on to win the division.

AL Central

It's another two-team race, this one between the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins. They meet for one more three-game series, in Minnesota from Sept. 23 to Sept. 25.

Starting tomorrow, the White Sox play 11 games against teams above .500. The Twins have only seven - but those are against the White Sox and Rays. Both Central contenders also have long road trips.

Prediction: This goes down to the wire, and the White Sox win the division.

AL West

The Los Angeles Angels walk to the crown and, with 17 of their final 20 games against clubs under .500, they should secure home-field advantage, too.

Prediction: The Angels end up with baseball's best record.

AL wild card

Basically, it's the loser of the American League East against the loser of the AL Central. The East team has a much harder schedule in the final three weeks - Boston finishes with the rival Yankees while the Twins end up with the lowly Kansas City Royals. Still, it would be a shock if the Red Sox miss the playoffs.

Prediction: The Red Sox win the wild card and get the pleasure of facing the Angels.

NL East

Today's doubleheader against Philadelphia at Shea Stadium is the last time the New York Mets face the Phillies this season. Then the Mets get a break, with 12 of their final 19 games against the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves.

But in the season's final week, the Mets have to host the Chicago Cubs and Marlins while the Phillies get the Braves and Nationals.

Prediction: The Mets ride the wave of closing Shea Stadium to win the division on the final day.

NL Central

It would be a real surprise if the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers both failed to make the postseason, but these are the Cubs. Their health is in question, and they have by far the most brutal schedule to end the season.

All 19 of their final games are against winning clubs, including an awful seven-game trip to end the season at New York and Milwaukee.

Prediction: The Brewers catch and pass the Cubs in the final week.

NL West

Someone has to win it, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have a ridiculously easy schedule, with their final 19 games against sub-.500 teams. The Dodgers do have an unfair 10-game road trip that includes cross-country treks to and from Pittsburgh.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are the better team and have only one formidable opponent, the Cardinals, in their final three weeks.

Prediction: The Diamondbacks hang on, and the Dodgers pack it up for the year.

NL wild card

Again, this one comes down to the loser in the East and Central. And, it's possible that could be the Cubs and Phillies battling it out - so one franchise will continue its painful tradition. The Phillies have a much easier end to the year, but the Cubs have a pretty big head start.

Prediction: The Cubs might collapse but not all the way out of the postseason picture. They could end up in New York to face the Mets all over again.

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