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MLB Power Rankings: Yankees Rise as Playoff Field Narrows

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 9/27/2021 Nick Selbe

Can the Giants fend off the Dodgers? Are the White Sox in danger after coasting? Buckle up for an exciting final week.

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As we barrel toward the final week of the regular season, our list of contenders has been trimmed by two. A moment of recognition for the Padres and Reds, as the former were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week and the latter are six games out of the second National League wild-card spot with six games to play at time of publication. Cincinnati was something of a surprise contender in 2021, and the resurgent campaign from Joey Votto was one of the bright spots of the season. The Padres, on the other hand? It’s best not to dwell too much on the past.

That leaves us with 14 clubs contending for 10 spots. Five teams—the Giants, Dodgers, Rays, Brewers and White Sox—have already clinched postseason berths, and the Cardinals and Astros could lock things up by Tuesday. The Yankees swept the Red Sox at Fenway Park to move into the first wild-card spot. But New York has the tougher schedule to finish the season, with three road games against the Blue Jays and a final home series vs. the Rays. Here’s a breakdown of where things stand as we round third and head for the plate.

One more note—last week's power rankings dedicated some much-deserved time to the Cardinals, who wowed us by winning eight games in a row. Such a streak now looks pedestrian, as St. Louis has doubled that streak to 16 consecutive wins following Sunday's 4–2 victory over the Cubs. In the interest of inclusion, we won't have a Cardinals-centric section again this week, but let this paragraph serve as an acknowledgment of the very real possibility that the Redbirds may never lose another baseball game ever again.

14. Oakland A’s (Last Week: 11)

13. Philadelphia Phillies (LW: 14)

12. Seattle Mariners (LW: 15)

11. Toronto Blue Jays (LW: 7)

10. Boston Red Sox (LW: 8)

9. New York Yankees (LW: 12)

8. Atlanta Braves (LW: 9)

It took the Braves 111 games to get above .500 this season, and now they’re on the doorstep of clinching their fourth consecutive division title. They have a prime opportunity to do so with the Phillies coming to town for three games. Two wins there would drop Atlanta’s magic number down to one after Philadelphia lost to the last-place Pirates, 6–0, on Sunday.

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The top of the Braves’ rotation has helped spearhead their ascent into first place, particularly lefthander Max Fried, who has been brilliant since the end of July (6–1 with a 1.58 ERA over his last 11 starts). His most recent outing was perhaps the best of his career, as he tossed a three-hit shutout and recorded his second Maddux of the season. Fried hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his last 11 starts, and has given up one or fewer runs in seven of them.

Atlanta’s rotation is lacking in depth, though that might not matter as much in the postseason. The veteran Charlie Morton has been consistent all year, and has given up more than three runs just twice in his last 18 starts. Rookie Ian Anderson, last year’s playoff hero, has been up-and-down and missed nearly all of August with a shoulder injury. He’s thrown the ball better in his last few outings, though, with 24 strikeouts and just five walks in his past three starts.

Beyond those three, viable options are scant. Huascar Ynoa has had a brutal September, and Touki Toussaint has yet to demonstrate consistency or the ability to pitch deep into games. Atlanta has opted to use an opener on occasion down the stretch, a tactic manager Brian Snitker might choose to continue in October. The Braves are pencilled in to face the Brewers in the NLDS, meaning they’ll have a significant disadvantage when it comes to the starting rotation matchup. That could leave Atlanta’s relievers tasked with getting more crucial outs than most other bullpens—a notion that might make Braves fans feel a bit uneasy after watching closer Will Smith’s three-walk save on Sunday in San Diego.

7. Chicago White Sox (LW: 6)

The White Sox are limping into the postseason after mostly sleepwalking through the past month or so of relatively meaningless, low-pressure games. They’ve had the AL Central under control all year and haven’t faced any meaningful threat within the division. The biggest questions facing the team as we approach October center around health and how the club will fare against steeper competition.

On the injury front, the most pressing concern is the left arm of Carlos Rodón, who’s battled injuries all season and for much of his career. The 28-year-old managed just three innings and 69 pitches Monday in his most recent start, with manager Tony La Russa saying he’s hopeful the latest injury is just “normal soreness,” per ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. Rodón has enjoyed a breakout season, and his absence in the postseason would obviously be a significant loss.

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Perhaps of bigger concern is how the White Sox have looked of late, and how they’ve performed against good teams. Chicago is 34–33 in the second half and 11–12 in September, and hasn’t won consecutive games in two weeks. The White Sox are just 25–29 against teams with at least a .500 winning percentage, the fewest wins among clubs currently pencilled into the postseason. Though it’s clearly a small sample size, they’re 2–5 against Houston this season—their most likely first-round opponent.

The White Sox still have one of the deepest lineups in the league, though, and a starting rotation that’s built to withstand an absence from a key piece. Lucas Giolito twirled six shutout innings against Cleveland on Sunday, lowering his ERA to 2.42 over his past eight starts. Dylan Cease has turned in back-to-back scoreless outings after allowing seven runs against the Red Sox two weeks ago. And Lance Lynn has had two good starts and one stinker since coming off the injured list, though he’s shown no signs that his knee injury is still bothering him. It’s been a long time since the White Sox have played in a truly meaningful environment, and the questions about how they’ll perform once they do have persisted for months. In a week or so, those questions will be answered, one way or another.

6. St. Louis Cardinals (LW: 10)

5. Houston Astros (LW: 4)

With a magic number of two, another AL West title feels inevitable for the Astros, despite getting swept over the weekend by Oakland. Houston hitters have feasted on bad pitching coming into the series and have been stellar all season long, but the A's limited them to just six runs across the three games.

The Astros lead the majors this season in wRC+ (116), on-base percentage (.340) and batting average (.268), and have the lowest strikeout rate (19.4%). They have the type of depth that seems to be impervious to lineup-wide slumps, particularly with the return of third baseman Alex Bregman. The two-time All-Star still hasn’t tapped into his power (though he did homer on Sunday), but he’s hit well since coming off the injured list after missing more than two months with a strained quad. In 27 games since being activated, Bregman is batting .303/.388/.455 with four home runs and more walks (13) than strikeouts (nine), giving Houston yet another playoff-tested bat for the road ahead.

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Houston’s rotation has also been delivering of late, with the exception of one notable figure: Zack Greinke. The 37-year-old has allowed 18 earned runs over his last three starts (12.46 ERA), with just eight strikeouts, six walks and five home runs allowed. His last outing against the Diamondbacks on Sept. 19 was particularly rough, as the former Cy Young Award winner averaged just 87.5 miles per hour on his fastball and generated just two swings-and-misses on 68 pitches. Greinke was placed in the IL with a sore neck Friday, and says he’s open to any role come playoff time, per’s Brian McTaggart.

If he is in fact left out of the playoff rotation, Houston will lean on Lance McCullers Jr., Luis García, José Urquidy and Framber Valdez, as well as possibly Jake Odorizzi. With the best offense in the majors behind it, that’s a rotation that could guide the Astros to the Fall Classic, particularly when you consider the group’s success in the playoffs. Those five starters have a combined 2.79 ERA in the postseason, with McCullers, Urquidy and Valdez all logging at least 24 innings each.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (LW: 5)

3. Tampa Bay Rays (LW: 3)

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (LW: 2)

1. San Francisco Giants (LW: 1)

Just breathe, Giants fans: you’re almost there. San Francisco is a week away from capping off one of the most incredible regular-season runs in recent memory with a NL West title over the defending World Series champion Dodgers. All that stands in the way are six home games against the Diamondbacks and Padres.

The Giants have lost just two series over the past two months. They have had just one losing streak of more than two games since the start of July. Their lineup leads the National League in home runs, and their pitchers have the lowest walk and home run rates. Beyond staving off a late run from Los Angeles, the final week of the regular season presents an opportunity at history: the franchise record for most wins is 106, set by the New York Giants in 1904. There was no World Series that year after Giants owner John T. Brush refused to play against the Boston Americans, viewing them as the representatives of "the inferior American League.” Whether they can reach 106 wins or not, don’t bet on the 2021 Giants taking a similar stance.

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All season long, the Giants have played under the shadow of doubt. Many fans and scribes alike (myself included) believed conventional wisdom would persist and the Dodgers would eventually overtake San Francisco. As the Giants led the NL West for most of the year, FanGraphs gave the Dodgers better odds at winning the division from Opening Day all the way until Sept. 9, and as recently as a week ago, its projections still tabbed Los Angeles as the favorite. Nearly every step of the way, there the Giants have been, looking down from atop their perch. Sunday’s win over the Rockies was emblematic of San Francisco’s team-wide approach—infielder Tommy La Stella delivered the go-ahead hit in the ninth, while rookie relief pitchers Camilo Doval and Kervin Castro recorded the last six outs. Shortstop Brandon Crawford delivered the knockout blow, hitting a three-run homer in the ninth to give the Giants more breathing room.

It would be a cruel twist of fate for the Giants to keep the Dodgers at arm’s length all season long, only to stumble just before crossing the finish line. Los Angeles must overcome a two-game deficit in the final week, and faces the Padres and Brewers at home for three games each. Milwaukee has already clinched the NL Central and San Diego has been eliminated, but the latter could relish the opportunity to play spoiler over their Southern California rivals. That’s of no concern to the Giants, though, who merely must focus on the obstacles in front of them to avoid playing the role of the hare to the Dodgers’ tortoise.

More MLB Coverage:

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Joey Votto Is Finding Satisfaction in Abandoning Perfection

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