As we enter the final day of MLB's regular season in 2012, the National League post-season picture is all set while two key divisions are still up for grabs.
Let's start with the Senior Circuit. The Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants both clinched the NL Central and NL West last month. On Monday night, the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East. Fans in DC will see post-season baseball for the first time since the Washington Senators won the AL pennant in 1933. While I am happy for DC's long suffering baseball fans, I cannot help but think that if things went a little differently this post-season would be celebrated in Montreal.
Last night, the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the second NL Wild Card spot and will face the Atlanta Braves on Friday afternoon to determine the Wild Card winner. A year ago, when there was only one Wild Card spot, the Cardinals supplanted the Braves on the last day of the regular season. The Braves, of course, had a collapse not unlike that of the Boston Red Sox at the end of the 2011 season. But quite unlike the Sox, the Braves didn't go out and hire Bobby Valentine. Cooler heads prevailed and the Braves are stronger for it. The Braves will also be hosting this game, which gives them an advantage over the defending World Series champs. If the Braves prevail, then they will face the Reds in the NLDS while the Nationals face the Giants. But if the Cardinals break Atlanta's heart again, then the Cards face the Nats while the Reds face the Giants.
As for the Junior Circuit, the Detroit Tigers became the first AL team to clinch a division on Monday night as they won the Central for a second consecutive year. The Tigers were widely expected to run away with the Central but got off to a slow start and the upstart Chicago White Sox led for much of the way. But the Chisox lost 10 of their last 14 games at precisely the moment the Tigers played their best baseball of the year. For reasons I explained earlier, I am delighted at this turn of events. At the end of this evening, we shall also know if Miguel Cabrera becomes MLB's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski led the AL in batting average, home runs, and RBIs with the Impossible Dream Red Sox in 1967.
The AL East and AL West, however, are still undecided. The New York Yankees hold a one game lead over the Baltimore Orioles. If the O's can beat the Tampa Bay Rays and the poor, pitiful Red Sox can somehow beat the Yankees tonight, then it will force a 163rd regular season game to determine the winner of the AL East to be played in Camden Yards on Thursday. But if the Yankees win, or if the Orioles lose, then the Yankees win their 13th AL East title since 1996. But the O's will take it. After all, this will be their first post-season since 1997 and an opportunity to expunge the horror of Jeffrey Maier's glove.
As for the AL West, the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics come into tonight tied for the lead. Everyone expected the Rangers to be here. After all, they've won back to back AL pennants. But no one expected Oakland, a team that hadn't had a winning record since 2006 and had traded their two best starting pitchers and their closer away last offseason.
Yet if the A's win tonight, the Rangers will be forced to fight for the AL Wild Card. It is not inconceivable that the Rangers and Yankees (the teams expected to face one another in the ALCS) might be around for a single playoff game. If the O's & the A's win the AL East and West, the world will have truly turned upside down and baseball will be the better for it.