There are just two weeks left in the MLB regular season. But there’s still plenty left to be decided. Here’s a rundown of some key items to watch out for before Oct. 2:
Control of the AL East…
Both the Orioles and Rays clinched playoff spots Sunday. Yet control of the division is still up for grabs—their head-to-head matchup didn’t offer much in the way of separation. They split the series, and Baltimore currently sits two games ahead of Tampa Bay, keeping the hold on the division it first grabbed on July 20. But two weeks is enough time for plenty of movement there. The Orioles have the easier schedule down the stretch: They have just one series remaining against a winning opponent compared to two series left for the Rays. (Baltimore has three games against the Astros while Tampa Bay has six against the Blue Jays.) The Orioles also may have a boost coming soon in the form of injured players returning to the field. While first baseman Ryan Mountcastle has been sidelined recently with a shoulder ailment, he still has not been sent to the IL, indicating that he should be back before the end of the season, barring a setback. And lights-out reliever Félix Bautista is working toward a return, too. (The righty was diagnosed with a partial tear of his UCL in August, but rather than immediately opting for surgery, he’s continued to work out and has not yet been ruled out from returning this season.)
The Rays certainly have the odds stacked against them. The Orioles have an 80.4% chance of winning the division per FanGraphs. But there’s still enough time for things to get weird.
… and the AL West
This one didn’t look particularly interesting for most of the season. The Rangers led the division from Opening Day until Aug. 24. But Texas’s bumpy ride through the last few weeks created a real opening. The Astros currently have a slim lead, with both the Rangers and Mariners within two-and-a-half games of Houston. There’s plenty of intradivisional play left, too. Seattle will play 10 of its remaining 13 games against either Texas or Houston. (Though it’s worth noting Texas and Houston will not play head-to-head: The Astros have the easier schedule remaining of the two thanks to a series against the Royals.) This one should be fun (or nerve-wracking) right down to the end.
It’s possible that all three of these teams make the playoffs. But with the Blue Jays also in the mix for a wild card, it’s more likely that just two of them do, which makes this jockeying for position crucial. And whoever wins the division gets a berth through the first round of the playoffs, too. Buckle up.
Will the Cubs’ Recent Slide Doom Them?
The Cubs had their best month of the season in August. They’re having their worst in September. They’ve gone 2–8 in their last 10 games—and meaningfully endangered their chances of making it to October. (Both the Reds and Giants threaten to snatch that final wild-card berth from them.) The Cubs’ playoff ticket was all but officially punched as late as Sept. 6, with chances of 92.6%, per FanGraphs. Their odds have now dropped below 50%.
Making matters worse here? The Cubs lost their season series to almost all of the relevant teams in contention for wild-card spots, including the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Marlins and Reds. The season series is the first tiebreaker for playoff positioning, so if it comes down to a tie with Miami (currently dead even with Chicago) or Cincinnati (just half a game behind), that’s it. This week will be critical. The Cubs have a series against the Pirates followed by one against the Rockies. If they can’t rack up those should-be-easy wins, forget it.
The NL MVP Race
Technically, every award race is in play down to the end, of course. But there’s none so interesting as the one for NL MVP. Ronald Acuña Jr. has done something MLB has never seen with 37 home runs and 66 stolen bases. Yet Mookie Betts is having a brilliant season of his own with the Dodgers and bests Acuña in OPS+ and WAR (both at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs). The contest, like so many others, is a referendum on voters’ philosophy of value as much as anything. But what the two players do down the stretch could still be a difference-maker. And keep an eye on Acuña’s health—he missed the Braves’ last two games with a calf strain.
How Many Players Will Reach 50 Stolen Bases?
Okay, this one isn’t as pressing as the previous four. But it’s still interesting. Entering this season, there had been no 50-base stealers in MLB since 2017, when the feat was accomplished by both Billy Hamilton and Dee Strange-Gordon. It stood to reason this year would be different thanks to the new rules (limited pickoffs, larger bases, etc.) But just how different? Acuña leads MLB in steals at 66. A’s outfielder Esteury Ruiz has already crossed the 50 threshold, too. So how many other players will join them? Bobby Witt Jr. and Corbin Carroll sit at 47 steals apiece. If both of them reach 50, it’ll be the first time four players have done so in a decade and a half. There are lots of ways to measure how much the game has changed this year. (The time of game has dropped by more than 20 minutes, for starters.) But the uptick in steals is a particularly fun one.