The Week Ahead: Three-way battle for AL supremacy

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The American League playoff field is set, with the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins clinching their divisions, and the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays soon to sort out who will be the AL East champion and who will be the wild card team.

But there is one big thing left to watch for in the AL during the final week of the season, and that is the three-way battle for best record – and thus home-field advantage – through the first two rounds of the playoffs. (See a breakdown of the playoff races here.)

Entering the week, the Tampa Bay Rays (93-62) are sitting atop the AL, with the New York Yankees (93-63) and Minnesota Twins (92-63) right behind. All three have a shot to secure home field in the ALDS and ALCS. Because the All-Star Game decides the home-field edge in the World Series, that honor will go to whichever team emerges from the National League.

The Rays seem to have the edge. Not only are they ahead in the standings and hold the tiebreaker over the other two teams, they also have the easiest remaining schedule with three games against Baltimore and four against Kansas City. The Yankees have six road games, three at Toronto and three at Boston, while the Twins are at Kansas City and at home against Toronto. Minnesota is already guaranteed home field in the ALDS, as the Twins will play the AL wild card team. The AL East winner will face the Texas Rangers.

But will home-field advantage even matter in the playoffs? The Yankees (52-29), Rays (48-29) and Twins (52-25) are all excellent at home, but the head-to-head records between these teams don’t reveal any significant trends.

The Rays actually have a winning record against the Yankees both in New York (5-4), and in St. Petersburg (5-4) this season, but only marginally so. And while the Rays are 3-1 against the Twins in Minnesota, they are only 2-2 against them in St. Petersburg. As far as the Yankees and Twins go, New York took two of three at Target Field, yet the teams split four games in the Bronx this season.

All in all, it’s a pretty insignificant sample size that doesn’t give us much to go on. The Yankees certainly recognize that, preferring to rest and prepare their rotation for the playoffs instead of gunning for the AL East title.

As the defending champs who didn’t go to a final deciding game in any series last season, I’m going to trust their judgement.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Mariners at Rangers, Sept. 27-29:
The Rangers are going to the playoffs, the Mariners are battling for a high draft pick. But one thing of note is that Felix Hernandez will get one last chance on Tuesday to convince voters he is a Cy Young candidate.

Astros at Reds, Sept. 28-30: The Reds can clinch their first playoff berth since 1995 with a win over the Astros. Of course if the Cardinals lose on Monday, it will be all over, and Cincy fans will spend this series recovering from the party.

Yankees at Red Sox, Oct. 1-3: The schedule-makers probably thought they had a doozy of a series set up here, but Boston’s inability to keep up with the Yankees and Rays in the brutal AL East has taken away some shine. Still, the Red Sox can take pleasure, small as it may be, if they keep the Yankees from grabbing the AL East title.

Phillies at Braves, Oct. 1-3: The Phillies will probably have clinched the NL East crown by the time this series rolls around, but Atlanta should still be in the thick of the wild card race, so this will carry plenty of meaning.

Padres at Giants, Oct. 1-3: They’ve been taking turns leading the NL West for a week now with neither team playing great, neither team folding tent. With the Braves struggling, there is a chance both of these teams will make the playoffs, but there has to be big incentive to win the division and hopefully avoid the Phillies in the NLDS.

ON THE TUBE
Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.: Marlins at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:10 p.m.: Red Sox at White Sox (ESPN)
Wednesday, 10:05 p.m.: Diamondbacks at Giants (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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The Braves are banning outside food. And they’re probably lying about why they’re doing it.

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Here’s a thing a lot of people don’t realize: there are a lot of ballparks that allow you to bring in outside food.

Not all of them, but a lot do. They don’t publicize it, obviously, because they want you to buy their expensive food, but if you go to the concessions policy page on most team’s websites, you can get the scoop. It often lists “soft-sided coolers” under “permitted items,” which is code for “yes, you can bring your own food in.” Some may specifically limit THAT to sealed plastic water bottles, but for the most part, if you can bring soft-sided coolers into the park, that means it’s OK to bring in grandma’s potato salad and a few sandwiches. They may check your coolers, of course, to make sure you’re not bringing in alcohol or whatever.

The Atlanta Braves have always allowed food into the ballpark. But thats going to change in shiny new Sun Trust Park. The AJC reports that the Braves have announced a new policy via which ticket holders will not be allowed to bring in outside food. Exceptions will be made for infant food and for special dietary restriction items.

Which, OK, it’s their park and their rules. If they want to cut out the PB&J for junior and force you to buy him a $9 “kids pack” — or if they want you to forego grandma’s potato salad to buy that pork chop sandwich we mentioned yesterday — that’s their choice. Everything else about the Braves new stadium has been about extracting money from fans, so why not the concessions policy too?

My beef with this is less about the policy. It’s about their stated reason for it:

The changes are a result of tighter security being put into place this season throughout the league, said the Braves spokesperson.

This, as the French say, is horses**t.

We know it is because not all teams are prohibiting outside food. If there are tighter security measures across the board, other teams are implementing them without the food restriction. Even the Yankees, who take security theater to extreme heights as it is, are still allowing fans to bring in their own food.

The Braves, I strongly suspect, are using these measures as an excuse to cut down on competition for their concessions. Which, like I said, go for it. Just be honest about what you’re doing and stop blaming “tightened security” for your cash grab.

Yadier Molina says Adam Jones “has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people”

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After the U.S. won the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday night, Adam Jones told a reporter that he and his teammates were motivated in part by the fact that Puerto Rico already had championship t-shirts printed up and plans for a parade/celebration in Puerto Rico in place beforehand.

Which, OK, whatever you need to motivate you, Adam, but all of that seems complicated by the fact that (a) ALL teams playing for a championship have pre-printed gear, thus enabling them to be put on moments after the final out; and (b) Puerto Rico’s celebration plans were not contingent on winning or losing. In fact, they went ahead and had a parade/celebration even though they lost. The WBC was a big deal to them in ways it simply wasn’t to the U.S., so it makes sense.

Yadier Molina of Team Puerto Rico did not take kindly to Jones’ comments. He tells ESPN Deportes this:

“Adam Jones … is talking about things he doesn’t know about,” Molina told ESPN. “He really has to get informed because he shouldn’t have said those comments, let alone in public and mocking the way [preparations] were made . . . He has to apologize to the Puerto Rican people,” Molina said. “Obviously, you wanted to win; he didn’t know what this means to [our] people.”

Kind of a messy little controversy, eh?

My feeling about it is that Jones probably didn’t know the whole story about Puerto Rico’s plans and misinterpreted celebration for arrogance. I also suspect that most players motivate themselves in all manner of irrational ways like this, but we just don’t hear about it all that much. Jones can do whatever he wants to psych himself up, but it changes the equation a bit when you talk about it to the press. Perceived slights that an athlete uses internally can seem petty once exposed to the light of day.

Either way: Jones does not have a reputation for being insulting or disrespectful, so I seriously doubt that was his intent here. I also think that, while Molina has a right to be miffed, the “he must apologize to the Puerto Rican people” thing is laying it on a bit thick. Maybe Jones can just text Molina and some P.R. players and say he was sorry, followed by a “we’re all good, man” and this can end? That makes the most sense.

If not, well, the Orioles do play the Cardinals in an interleague series this summer, so maybe we’ll see some fireworks.