MLB playoff race: These 13 September series will shape baseball's postseason picture

MLB playoff race: These 13 September series will shape baseball's postseason picture

Welcome to September, baseball fans. It feels like Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout to wrap up the World Baseball Classic just yesterday, but we are now into the regular season's final month, and the postseason races are about to kick it into high gear. Three weeks and six days remain in the 2023 regular season.

Here's what the postseason bracket would look like if the season ended today, which thankfully it does not:

Bye: No. 1 Orioles and No. 2 Mariners
WC1: No. 6 Astros at No. 3 Twins
WC2: No. 5 Rangers at No. 4 Rays

Bye: No. 1 Braves and No. 2 Dodgers
WC1: No. 6 Marlins/Diamondbacks/Giants at No. 3 Brewers
WC2: No. 5 Cubs at No. 4 Phillies

There is currently a three-team tie for the third NL wild-card spot -- the Reds are only a few percentage points away from making it a four-team tie too -- so we're looking at a potentially excellent finish to the season. All you can ask for heading into September is a bunch of close races, and we have them.

As always, the regular season's final month brings plenty of great storylines and compelling series, and there will be no shortage of hig- stakes games this September. Here, in chronological order, are the series you need to circle on your calendar this month.

1. Sept. 4-6: Astros at Rangers (3 games)

Right off the bat on Labor Day, we get a series featuring two bitter in-state rivals competing for the AL West title and separated by mere percentage points in the standings. The Rangers have crashed hard the last few weeks -- the bullpen seems to blow every lead it's given these days -- and the Astros are still the Astros. No, they do not look as formidable as previous years, but it's kind of hard to bet against them. This is the final regular season meeting between these two clubs and Houston only needs to win one game to clinch the season series and secure the tiebreaker, which could come in handy down the road.

2. Sept. 4-6: Twins at Guardians (3 games)

It has been an unusual few weeks for the Guardians. They sold at the Aug. 1 trade deadline despite being only one game back in the AL Central, notably shipping out Josh Bell and Aaron Civale for minor-league prospects. Then, prior to the Aug. 31 postseason roster eligibility deadline, they added pieces even though they had fallen five games back in the AL Central. Cleveland plucked Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, and Matt Moore off waivers from the Angels.

The Guardians took two of three from the division-leading Twins at Target Field last week and they head into this week's series five games back in the division. This is the last time these two rivals will meet during the regular season, so it is the Guardians' last chance to take matters into their own hands. A wild-card spot is out of reach and one way or another the Guardians will leave this series needing help to win the division. Taking care of business this week will determine whether they need a lot of help, or just a little help. The Twins, obviously, want to bury the Guardians this series and put the AL Central race to bed.

3. Sept. 4-6: Giants at Cubs (3 games)

Quirky schedule for the Giants this month. They are part of the three-team tie for the third wild-card spot yet only two of their eight remaining series are against wild-card competitors. San Francisco will play seven of their final 10 games against the Dodgers, so that should be fun, though it won't be as fun as it could have been given the Dodgers' 14.5-game lead in the NL West. Those will be low-stakes games for Los Angeles. Too bad. The Dodgers vs. Giants rivalry is as good as any in the game when the games matter.

Anyway, this three-game series at Wrigley Field is one of those two series the Giants have remaining with wild-card competitors. Both teams currently sit in wild-card position, so this isn't a "this postseason isn't big enough for the both of us" situation, but seeding matters, and the more games you win now, the fewer games you have to win later. Depending how things shake out the next few weeks, this series could be a preview of the Wild Card Series.

4. Sept. 7-10: Diamondbacks at Cubs (4 games)

The Cubs and D-Backs enter Labor Day separated by three games in the wild-card standings -- Chicago sits in the second wild-card spot and Arizona is part of that three-team tie for the third spot -- and they still have their entire season series remaining. They have not played once this year. Nice foresight by the schedule-makers. The Cubs and D-Backs are battling for wild-card position and they still have to play two head-to-head series this month. How serendipitous.

5. Sept. 11-14: Rangers at Blue Jays (4 games)

Similar to the Giants, the Blue Jays have a quirky September schedule in which they won't play many games against the teams they are chasing for a wild-card spot. It's pretty much just this four-game set against the Rangers, unless you expect the Red Sox to vault back into the race. Really, the most interesting part of Toronto's schedule is the fact that, starting last Friday, they will play nine straight games against the Rockies, Athletics, and Royals. Nine straight games against the three worst teams in baseball. Huh. (The Blue Jays took two of three from the Rockies over the weekend.)

The Blue Jays go Yankees-Rays-Yankees-Rays to wrap up their regular season and gosh, that would have been an awful lot of fun if the Rays weren't eight games up on Toronto and the Yankees weren't in last place. Anyway, I'm rambling. This four-game series with the Rangers is the only time the Blue Jays will face a direct wild-card competitor in September. Texas is only 1.5 games up on Toronto for a postseason spot, so yeah, this is shaping up to be an enormous series for both teams.

6. Sept. 14-17: Rays at Orioles (4 games)

The Rays are scorching hot at the moment -- Tampa has won 14 of its last 20 games -- and they enter Labor Day only 2.5 games behind the O's in the AL East. This four-game series at Camden Yards will be the final regular-season meeting between the Rays and Orioles this year, and it will shape the division race if not determine the division champ. 

It should be noted the Orioles are 6-3 against the Rays this year and only need to win one more head-to-head game to clinch the season series and thus the tiebreaker. In the event they finish with identical records atop the AL East, the team that won the season series will be crowned division champ. The tiebreaker was used to decide the NL East just last season, remember, so it's not some far-fetched scenario. It is very much in play given how close the Rays and O's are in the standings.

7. Sept. 15-17: Cubs at Diamondbacks (3 games)

Like I said a few blurbs ago, the Cubs and D-Backs still have their entire season series remaining, and they are currently separated by only three games in the wild-card race. This is the second leg of their season series following that Sept. 7-10 set at Wrigley Field. The Cubs are still in the NL Central race, of course. Sort of weird that an NL West team could heavily influence the NL Central race so much during the season's final month.

8. Sept. 19-20: Giants at Diamondbacks (2 games)

As noted earlier, only two of the Giants' remaining eight series are against wild-card competitors. That Sept. 4-6 series at Wrigley Field is one and this quick two-gamer at Chase Field is the other. Sept. 7-20 will be make or break time for Arizona. The D-Backs will play the Cubs and Giants nine times in a 14-day span. Arizona is battling with those two clubs for a wild-card spot and, if the standings then look like the standings now, those nine games will be close to a must-win. The D-Backs will be playing postseason baseball from Sept. 7-20.

9. Sept. 22-24: Mariners at Rangers (3 games)
10. Sept. 25-27: Mariners at Astros (3 games)
11. Sept. 28-Oct. 1: Rangers at Mariners (4 games)

The baseball fan in me hopes the AL West race remains tight deep into September, because the last 10 days of the season are a gift from the schedule-makers. The Mariners wrap up the regular season with 10 straight games against the two Texas teams, the two teams they are battling for the AL West title. And also potentially a wild-card spot. The third-place finisher in the AL West is not certain to make the postseason as a wild-card team.

The Mariners will wrap up their regular season and AL West push with 10 straight games against the Astros and Rangers, though the Astros and Rangers have games against other teams late in the season. Here is what each of these three clubs is looking in a few weeks:

Sept. 22-24: 3 games vs. Royals

Sept. 22-24: 3 games at Rangers

Sept. 22-24: 3 games vs. Mariners

Sept. 25-27: 3 games at Mariners

Sept. 25-27: 3 games vs. Astros

Sept. 25-27: 3 games at Angels

Sept. 29 to Oct. 1: 3 games at D-Backs

Sept. 28 to Oct 1: 4 games vs. Rangers

Sept. 28 to Oct. 1: 4 games at Mariners

That D-Backs series is a total wild-card. The Astros could have an easy final series against an Arizona team that has already been eliminated from postseason contention and has one foot in the batter's box and the other on the plane ready for offseason vacation, or Houston could have to battle a desperate D-Backs team clinging to their postseason lives. The Rangers get to face a stripped-down Angels team between those two Mariners series late in the season. On paper, Seattle has the toughest schedule by far.

Alas and alack, MLB and the MLB Players Association did away with Game 163 tiebreakers in the latest collective bargaining agreement. All ties are broken mathematically now. So, even if the Astros, Mariners, and Rangers finish with identical records atop the AL West and one of those three teams has to miss the postseason entirely, there won't be any tiebreaker games. It will all be worked out mathematically. Boring! A three-team tie for the AL West title would have been delightful chaos.

Point is, the AL West race is very tight now, and if it remains very tight late into September, the Mariners close out the regular season with 10 straight games against the state of Texas. That could be the division race right there. I apologize to Astros, Mariners, and Rangers fans in advance, I know how stressful this all can be, but as a neutral observer, bring it on. I want those 10 games at the end of the season to be for all the marbles.

12. Sept. 29 to Oct. 1: Cubs at Brewers (3 games)

Between this series and the Rangers vs. Mariners series, it's possible two division races will go down to the wire in the season's final weekend. The Cubbies took two of three from the Brewers at Wrigley Field last week and they come into Labor Day 3.5 games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. Hang tight the next few weeks and the division title could be on the line during this season-ending series at American Family Field. As an added bonus, the season series is tied 5-5, so the team that wins this series will clinch the tiebreaker. That potentially adds another layer of intrigue to the final weekend.

13. Sept. 29 to Oct 1: Athletics at Angels (3 games)

The final series we are highlighting will have no postseason implications. Rather, this series -- the final series of the regular season -- will be Shohei Ohtani's final home series of 2023, and thus possibly his final home series as an Angel. There's a chance he re-signs with the team this offseason, but it seems unlikely. Also, Ohtani is playing through a torn UCL, and he may decide to shut it down earlier in the month, possibly to get Tommy John surgery. In that case his season could be over before this series. 

Unless Ohtani surprises and returns to the Angels as a free agent (or has Tommy John surgery earlier in September), this series will be the last time Halos fans get to see the coolest and most talented player in the world wear their uniform. Say what you want about the Angels as an organization and how they're run (poorly), but the fans didn't ask for that. They just want to see a postseason team with Ohtani and Trout, and the team couldn't deliver. This series figures to be Ohtani's swan song as an Angel.

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