It might be up to the Chicago White Sox to provide the only pennant race drama this season in Major League Baseball. And if they don't sweep the Cleveland Guardians in a three-game series scheduled to start Tuesday night, fans might not even get that much.
Amid a mostly disappointing season, the White Sox can give themselves at least a chance for happiness by taking all three games in a head-to-head matchup at Guaranteed Rate Field. Such a result would bring them within one game of first place Cleveland in the American League Central with 12 to play for both teams. Then we’d have a race. Anything less for Chicago and, history tells us, the Guardians are going to be the division rep in the postseason.
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Nobody among Cleveland, Chicago and the Minnesota Twins (who are in third place) have much of a chance to get into the playoffs via the wild card. Across the league, actually, few teams have much of a chance to make the playoffs if it isn't already obvious they will. Almost all of the races are yawners — or they simply lack big stakes.
Two of the six division races have been decided officially — the Los Angeles Dodgers, this past week in the National League West, and the Houston Astros, on Monday night in the AL West, punched their own tickets with first-round byes. The New York Yankees in the AL East and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central would need to collapse in nearly unprecedented ways to lose their first-place leads, and both are in nearly the same good shape to make the playoffs. New York is also close to clinching a bye, and St. Louis appears locked into playing in the first round.
The NL East appears ready to go down to the wire between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves, but the Mets clinched a playoff spot Monday and the Braves aren't far behind. All that's at stake in their case is, again, positioning. It’s a greater inconvenience if they land in the wild-card round and miss a bye.
None of these teams are fighting for their lives. Are you not entertained? Not yet, no.
The AL wild-card race isn't settled officially, but it's in the same kind of state, with the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners likely needing only to decide their postseason order. The Mariners have built up 21 seasons of angst by missing the playoffs every time, but there's almost no doubt they're going to be playing postseason October baseball shortly. The Baltimore Orioles are five games back and, like the White Sox and Twins, aren't in position anymore to control their own fate via the wild card.
The NL wild-card race remains open for business, with three games in the loss column separating the outsiders — the Milwaukee Brewers — from the insiders — the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. But the struggle to stay alive isn't exactly burning up with intensity; Philly has dropped four straight games and Milwaukee has lost two in a row heading into action Tuesday.
So it's down to the White Sox, who won 93 games and the AL Central a season ago, with one last chance to stay alive for a third straight postseason berth. Admittedly, injuries played a part in their falling behind, and only a late-season surge under interim manager Miguel Cairo (with Tony La Russa sitting out because of health problems) has gotten them even this close.
They’re 13-6 under Cairo. But the playoff math is not good. FanGraphs gives Chicago a 10.4% chance of winning the division (and 2.2% for the wild card). Those odds would shoot up to nearly 50/50 by the weekend, were the White Sox to sweep Cleveland. They aren’t talking sweep. Guess what they are saying? In the tradition of Bull Durham: "We need to take it one game time."
Whatever. When you get down to 10% odds, it's going to take three one-game sweeps for Chicago to have a shot. A secondary benefit of the White Sox sweeping: It would give them a 10-9 season-series victory. That also would give them the AL Central title in case of a regular-season tie. No more Game 163.
In Tuesday’s series opener, the White Sox are sending Cy Young contender Dylan Cease against Aaron Civale. On Wednesday, it's a rejuvenated Lance Lynn versus Triston McKenzie. In the finale Thursday, it's the endlessly amusing Johnny Cueto against ace Shane Bieber. Fun, right? Just for the Guardians if the White Sox don't close the gap while they have some agency left.
Everything else is apparently … kind of over, or soon will be. Even the great individual chase of Roger Maris' single-season AL home run record by Aaron Judge appears to be down to a matter of "when" and not "if." It takes a little oomph from the pursuit.
The 76-71 White Sox. Show us what you got.