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MLB's playoff chase will come down to a dramatic final weekend. Here's what's at stake

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October is already here, but MLB has one more weekend to set its playoff field — and there is still much to be decided.

As baseball's regular season barrels toward a dramatic conclusion, two major races will dominate the weekend. Every team will begin one final series on Friday night, and every team will play Game 162 at the same time on Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. ET.

First, what is already set: 

  • The American League division winners. The Tampa Bay Rays are locked into the league’s top seed for the second straight season, and will face whoever emerges from the wild-card fracas. The AL West champ Houston Astros and AL Central champ Chicago White Sox will face each other in the ALDS. Most likely, Houston will have home-field advantage, but that could change.

  • The National League field. We know which five teams will fill out the NL bracket. The NL Central-winning Milwaukee Brewers will host the Atlanta Braves — the least woeful member of the flailing NL East — in one NLDS. The St. Louis Cardinals, fresh off a season-altering 17-game winning streak, are locked into the second NL wild-card spot and will travel to meet the NL West division loser.

  • The NL West winner will have baseball’s best record. Either the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers will have the top seed of the playoffs and home-field through the World Series. We just don’t yet know which one …

Which brings us to this: A two-front battle of titans will dominate the story of the NL’s final weekend, and a dizzying scrum will rage in the AL. So, with just three days to go (probably), here’s what’s at stake.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 30: LaMonte Wade Jr. #31 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates with teammates after hitting a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Arizona Diamondbacks at Oracle Park on September 30, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
LaMonte Wade Jr. came through with the big hit in the Giants' latest win to keep the Dodgers at arm's length. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The top seed and the NL West

All season long, the world has watched and waited for the out-of-nowhere San Francisco Giants to falter, and all season long, they have kept winning. They need to hold serve for one more weekend to secure pole positioning and, crucially, force their juggernaut rival into a compromising position.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are, on paper, one of the most talented baseball teams in recent memory. They won the World Series in the shortened 2020 season and may be even better now, especially since scoring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner in a trade deadline coup. They have looked unstoppable. And yet … they remain in second place because of the unflappable, near-inexplicable brilliance of the Giants.

Heading into a three-game set with the Brewers, the Dodgers remain two games back of the Giants. They will need to beat a good team — admittedly with little to play for — and simultaneously hope the Giants stumble against the downtrodden San Diego Padres. One convenience of being the Dodgers: They have Walker Buehler lined up to pitch Sunday’s finale, and Scherzer on track for whatever comes next as he duels for another Cy Younghe’s at +165 for the NL award at BetMGM, second to Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes. 

What comes next … could be a hair-raising Game 163 between 100-win monsters if the teams end up tied.

Either way, the winner of this race will enter the playoffs in the catbird’s seat. And the loser will have to immediately play the red-hot Cardinals in a one-game battle to stay alive. The two best teams in baseball will enter October with vastly different outlooks — and those could still change this weekend.

The Yankees try to secure their place

Aaron Judge and company landed the biggest punches in the AL wild-card race over the past week. They swept the Red Sox and then took two of three over the young Blue Jays, all on the road.

That should be enough to bring the AL wild-card game to the Bronx. They are two games up on the field — which currently includes the Red Sox and Seattle Mariners locked in a tie for the second spot.

It’s not totally sewn up, though. The Yankees return home for the season’s last weekend to the unpleasant task of hosting the Tampa Bay Rays. Their pesky nemesis has already won the AL East and secured top seed privileges, so the Yankees are ultimately fighting for another shot at the team that eliminated them in dramatic fashion last season.

New York’s magic number to guarantee a playoff berth sits at 2, but what they really want to ensure is home-field for the all-important one-game playoff. And that could come down to Sunday afternoon. In the event of a tie for the two wild-card slots, home-field is determined by head-to-head record. The Yankees lost the season series with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, and won against the Mariners, so there is incentive to stay not just in the field, but ahead of the pack.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - SEPTEMBER 30: Xander Bogaerts #2 (L) and Kyle Schwarber #18 of the Boston Red Sox look on from the dugout during the ninth inning of the Red Sox 6-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 30, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Red Sox lost two of three to the Orioles, and will now enter a dramatic final weekend tied for the final AL playoff spot. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The brouhaha for the second AL wild-card

Now for the race that has turned into a total melee. The Red Sox and Mariners are tied for the final playoff position right now, and the Blue Jays are just one game back.

The Red Sox are officially on collapse alert after dropping two of three to the lowly Baltimore Orioles. They are on the road against the Washington Nationals to close out the season.

[Keep track of the full schedule and the standings]

Meanwhile, the Mariners — negative run differential and all — have won nine of 10 to catapult themselves into a massive, franchise-energizing final weekend of games against the Los Angeles Angels. Potentially important: AL MVP favorite Shohei Ohtani will not pitch as scheduled, which eliminates the most difficult hurdle they would have faced on the mound. (He will still be hitting, so, good luck with that.)

And on the outside looking in, the Blue Jays face those Orioles who just gave the Red Sox trouble, needing to win and get some help to reach October.

If there is a tie for the second wild-card spot with a wild-card host already decided, the race would go to a Game 163, to be played at the park of whichever entrant won the season series. The Red Sox would host against either Seattle or Toronto. If the Mariners and Blue Jays tie, Seattle would host the game.

In the event of a three-team tie for the second spot, things get really interesting. Basically, it creates a mini tournament to reach the wild-card game. Teams A and B would play to face Team C, with the winner of the latter game advancing to play the first wild-card. Teams would draft their position in the impromptu bracket based on winning percentage against the tied teams, and the Red Sox would have the first pick assuming they are among the group.

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