With their division-clinching win yesterday in Arlington, the Guardians can return home a little more relaxed for the last week-plus of the season. While they will carry their seven-game winning streak into tomorrow’s series against the Rays, they can rest assured they will still be playing in October even if it snaps.
The important question now is ... who will they face when the games count again? There are some likely scenarios, some unlikely scenarios, and some scenarios that would signal the beginning of The End. Before getting into all of those, it’s a good time to refresh how the playoffs actually work this year.
For starters, there are no play-in games. Ties between teams are decided by tiebreakers — head-to-head records first, then various levels of records against other teams around the league. There are also three Wild Card teams this year, and for the first time in MLB history, multiple teams will get first-round byes. First-round matchups are as follows in each league:
- (Division winner 1) Bye
- (Division winner 2) Bye
- (Division winner 3) Plays No. 6 seed
- (Wild Card 1) Plays No. 5 seed
- (Wild Card 2) Plays No. 4 seed
- (Wild Card 3) Plays No. 3 seed
Right now the Guardians cannot go lower than that No. 3 slot, meaning they would play the lowest-seeded Wild Card team in the first round. They could technically pass the Yankees and get a bye with the No. 2 seed, but that’s highly unlikely.
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk actual matchups.
The Most Likleys: Toronto Blue Jays (86-67), Tampa Bay Rays (84-69), Seattle Mariners (83-69)
If we’re being honest, this article could start and end with these three teams. Unless something apocalyptic happens (more on that in a minute), Guardians fans are going to spend the last two weeks of the season watching the Blue Jays, Rays, and Mariners shuffle around to see who plays who.
If the season ended today — if the shadowy figure that pulls the strings of their Rob Manfred puppet decided to call it a season right this very second — the Guardians would play the Mariners in a best-of-three series. That is hardly set in stone, though, as the three teams are separated by just 2.5 games, and technically none of them have clinched anything yet.
Here’s who they each play down the stretch:
- Blue Jays: Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles
- Rays: Guardians, Astros, Red Sox
- Mariners: Rangers, Athletics, Tigers
Obviously, the Mariners have the easiest path here. But they’ve also been hot garbage lately, dropping seven of their last 10, including blowing a 12-run lead to the Royals on Sunday. Their superstar rookie Julio Rodriguez is on the injured list with a back injury, though Jarred Kelenic has looked much better in his three games since being recalled from the minors. Still, losing Rodriguez is a huge blow.
If they can stay a step ahead of the Orioles and still be as bad as they’ve been, it might be a good thing for the Guardians. There doesn’t appear to be a massive skill gap between Seattle and Tampa Bay; they’re almost dead even in run differential to this point. The Rays are all kinds of banged up at the moment, though, with almost a full bullpen worth of relievers on the injured list, and Tyler Glasnow just now ready to make his season debut on Sept. 28.
Even with all the injuries, Rays pitchers have the second-lowest ERA in the American League at 3.38. Even if Glasnow isn’t fully up to playoff speed by the end of the season, Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen would be one hell of a 1-2 in the Wild Card. And I will respect Corey Kluber’s ability to find “it” for a game until the day he retires.
Personally, if I’m ranking who I’d want to face the most out of these three teams it would go 1) Blue Jays, 2) Mariners, 3) Rays. All are immensely talented, but the Blue Jays have the weaker rotation, even if Vlad. Guerrero Jr. is always an existential threat to playoff hopes.
The Wild Card of the Wild Card: Baltimore Orioles (79-73)
Now, with all that said, there is still another. An Orioles run to the playoffs would be improbable, but it’s still not impossible. Their elimination number sits at seven, and they are four games back of the Mariners for the third Wild Card spot.
The Orioles going off while the Mariners collapse would probably be the best-case scenario for the Guardians. Unless the Orioles are just too hot to contain, they are likely to go down in history as a pretty good story and not much else. Their pitching is uninspired, to put it nicely, and unless they perfect cloning technology between now and early October, they’re stuck with only one Adley Rutschman on offense.
Baltimore plays the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays to close out the season, so their path to the playoffs is not easy, to say the least. But it does still technically exist.
Now let’s get weird.
The Apocalypse is Upon Us: Chicago White Sox (76-77), Minnesota Twins (74-79)
Oh, what a turnaround this would be. The Guardians chewed through the Twins and White Sox on their way to the AL Central crown and left both teams as empty shells of their former selves. The Twins have already, essentially, waved the white flag and started shutting players down. I don’t know exactly how they would rip off the nine games needed to take the final Wild Card spot over the Mariners, but sure, I guess they could.
The only reason the Twins aren’t eliminated already is because they own the tiebreaker over the Mariners and could still get the wins to tie Seattle — if, of course, the Mariners go into full collapse and lose every game from here until the end of the season.
The White Sox have a bit more of a cushion (as well as a tiebreaker over the Mariners), but at 7.5 games back with nine games back ... good luck.