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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Freddie Freeman extends hitting streak to 30 games

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17: Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves waits to bat in the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on September 17, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
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Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman extended his hitting streak to 30 games with a single to center field in the bottom of the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s win against the Phillies. Prior to that at-bat, he had grounded out, been hit by a pitch, and walked.

Freeman entered Wednesday night batting .382/.477/.673 with 11 doubles, seven home runs, 27 RBI, and 24 runs scored over his past 29 games. Though his numbers are lacking compared to National League MVP Award favorite Kris Bryant, Freeman will get some top-five votes. On the season, he entered Wednesday hitting .307/.404/.576 with 33 home runs, 88 RBI, and 99 runs scored in 673 plate appearances.

Freeman’s 30-game hitting streak is the longest such streak in the majors this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He has also reached base safely in 46 consecutive games.

If Mets clinch Wild Card spot, Noah Syndergaard to be limited to 25 pitches on Sunday

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13:  Noah Syndergaard #34 of the New York Mets pitches in the third inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 13, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Mets manager Terry Collins has been scheming out his rotation for the final few days of the season. As ESPN’s Adam Rubin reports, Bartolo Colon may start on short rest against the Phillies on Friday since he threw just 47 pitches in Monday’s loss to the Marlins.

Collins also said that if the Mets clinch a Wild Card spot prior to Sunday’s game against the Phillies, Noah Syndergaard will be limited to only 25 pitches in his start. He would then start the Wild Card game for the Mets. If Syndergaard is needed to pitch a full game against the Phillies, it sounds like Colon would start the Wild Card game, though Collins did not specify.

The Mets are limping to the finish line, having lost five starters in Steven Matz, Jacob deGrom Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Jon Niese. They’ve also withstood injuries to David Wright, Wilmer Flores, Neil Walker, and Lucas Duda.