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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Russell Martin is not a fan of the automatic intentional walk

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Russell Martin #55 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after being struck out in the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game two of the American League Championship Series at Progressive Field on October 15, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday, it was announced that Major League Baseball instituted a new rule allowing for a dugout signal in order to issue an intentional walk rather than having the pitcher throw four pitches wide of the strike zone. It’s commissioner Rob Manfred’s attempt to help improve the game’s pace of play.

As Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi reports, Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin is certainly not a fan of the change.

My thing is, if they really want to speed up the game, then when a guy hits a home run, to speed up the game should a guy, just like in softball, when he hits it, should he just walk to the dugout? It’d be quicker. I’m just wondering, at what point do we just keep the game, the game? Or, how about this calculation: take all the intentional walks that were made in the last couple years and calculate – or maybe just ask to see if they have that information, to see if they really did their homework. Is it really that important to speed up the game (with this rule)? Because how many games did we play last year where we didn’t have one intentional walk? That’s something I’d like to know.

Martin also expressed concern that eliminating the four-pitch intentional walk will hurt teams’ ability to buy time for their relievers to warm up.

It’s called getting your bullpen ready so the guy doesn’t blow out his arm on the mound. Speed up the game, speed up the game.’ How about we just give guys – the human being – time to warm up on the mound after maybe something’s happened in the game? I’m not a manager, but I’m just trying to put myself in the position of a manager. OK, we’re up by one run or two runs and our bullpen’s been taxed and we’re trying to save their arms, and then the other team walks, ball gets away, guy gets to second base. When the coach visits the mound to talk to his player, it’s not like the player necessarily needs somebody to talk to him.

It’s because the guy (in the bullpen) needs time to warm up, man. It’s the same thing when you throw over to first base, like, eight times in a row. It’s not like we’re trying to keep the guy close. The guy maybe has two stolen bases in 18 years. It’s because the guy needs time to warm up. At what point does that become a problem with guys warming up in the bullpen? Sometimes it’s just strategy to give guys a little bit of time to warm up.

The Jays’ backstop then said he’d prefer if Manfred were honest about the intent behind this rule change and others which have been proposed. Martin said, “Save it. I’m tired of hearing that same lame excuse all the time. Just be honest. If they’re honest about it, we’ll get over it. But don’t hide behind the fans.”

We should be hearing from a handful of players about the new intentional walk rule in the coming days. I can’t imagine the rule is very popular among the players.

Leonys Martin feared for his life from alleged human traffickers

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 30: Leonys Martin #12 of the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 30, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Leonys Martin, outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, testified yesterday that he feared for his life after he was smuggled from Cuba by a group of men prosecutors say worked for a sports agent and a baseball trainer currently on trial for human trafficking in Miami.

Martin took the stand at the trial of Bartolo Hernandez and Julio Estrada, who face felony charges. He said that, after getting to Mexico from Cuba, men threatened to take him away. There was a kidnapping attempt against one of the men who had taken him from Cuba as well. Martin said that, eventually, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas without any valid papers because his life was in danger and his safety was at risk.

Players like Martin who fled Cuba often hole up in Mexico while waiting to be declared free agents by Major League Baseball. There is pitched competition to sign agreements with the players in question, seeking to obtain promises of a cut of future baseball earnings for their services. Those promises can come under the threat of violence. Eventually, Martin promised to pay Hernandez and Estrada, but ceased paying them later, fomenting a lawsuit from them. In the wake of the suit, the allegations of threats and smuggling arose, leading to this trial.

Martin has been late to Mariners camp as a result of having to testify. He’ll likely report in the next day or so. The trial continues.