Only three more weeks remain in the MLB regular season and the postseason races are heating up. The Braves trail the Mets by only half a game in the National League East and the White Sox are just three behind the Guardians in the American League Central. The AL wild-card teams have separated from the pack, with the Blue Jays, Rays and Mariners heading toward the playoffs, but the top spot — and home-field advantage in the first round — is up for grabs, as the three teams entered. Wednesday tied in the loss column. In the NL wild-card race, the Brewers have won five of their last six and trail the Padres by two games. The Phillies are 3 1/2 games up on Milwaukee (and own the tiebreaker), but they still have to face the Braves seven times, the Blue Jays twice and the Astros three times, so their schedule is not easy.
Playoff spots, home-field advantage and first-round byes are at stake. Here are some of the key players who need to step up in these tight races to help their teams over the next 21 days.
Stats are updated through Tuesday’s games.
NL EAST RACE
Mets — 1B Pete Alonso
Alonso has been the Mets’ MVP all season long, slashing .268/.344/.505 with 24 doubles, 34 home runs and an NL-leading 110 RBIs. However, in the last 30 days he’s been relatively quiet, hitting .226 with seven extra-base hits in 27 games and 106 at-bats. To win the NL East and claim a valuable first-round bye, the Mets need Alonso to perform like the impact player he is over the final three weeks. The good news for New York: In his last seven games, Alonso has picked it up, batting .345/.387/.586.
Braves — RF Ronald Acuña Jr.
Acuña has been a disappointment this season in his return from ACL surgery a year ago, but thanks to the production of rookies Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom, the pressure on Acuña to perform has lessened. But as the Braves try to edge the Mets for the division crown, they need more from their superstar right fielder. Over the last 15 games, Acuña has batted .258 with a .310 on-base percentage and just one home run. However, he has stolen three bases in as many attempts during that span. Acuña’s base-stealing ability will be key down the stretch in helping the Braves batters after him get more fastballs to hit.
AL CENTRAL RACE
Guardians — their lineup, from top to bottom
The Guardians’ pitching staff is doing everything possible to lead them to a surprising AL Central title. Over the last 30 days, their team ERA is 2.65, third best in baseball. However, their offense has struggled during that span, ranking 29th in the majors with only 3.25 runs scored per game. To hold off the White Sox, the Guardians need their lineup to start producing. In the last 30 days, only Oscar Gonzalez (five home runs) and José Ramírez (four) have hit more than two long balls. Cleveland hitters have been working the count and getting on base but they haven’t been able to string together hits, which has become a late-season problem, especially when they’re not hitting for power. (The Guardians rank last in MLB with 16 homers in the last 30 days.) Down the stretch, the Guardians need their two position-player All-Stars, Ramírez and Andrés Giménez, to deliver at the plate, but they also need production from throughout the lineup, along with their elite pitching and defense, to hold off the White Sox, whom they faced four more times.
White Sox — RHP Lucas Giolito
The White Sox are coming on strong offensively, thanks in part to the bats of Eloy Jiménez and Elvis Andrus, who have combined for 11 home runs and 33 RBIs over their last 15 games. Four of their hitters — Jiménez, Andrus, José Abreu and AJ Pollock — have batted over .340 and posted a .390 OBP or higher in the last 15 days. However, the key for the White Sox during the stretch run might be Giolito, who has struggled to match his rotation mates this year. Giolito’s numbers have deteriorated since last season, especially after the All-Star break, as he posted a 6.04 ERA and a 1.638 WHIP in the second half. They need him to turn things around in his final starts of the regular season.
AL WILD-CARD RACE
Mariners — OF Mitch Haniger and OF Jesse Winker
The Mariners lead the majors with a team ERA of 2.42 over the last 30 days and are in position to secure the top AL wild-card spot — and end their 20-season playoff drought — if their lineup can step up down the stretch. Their wild-card competition, the Rays and Blue Jays, have scored more runs than them in the last month, but the Mariners have been coming on over their last 12 games and have outhomered every AL team during that span. Julio Rodríguez and Eugenio Suárez have carried them, combining for 10 home runs and 15 RBIs and reaching base at a 45 percent and 36 percent clip, respectively. However, those two will need help from Haniger and Winker if the Mariners are to lock up home-field advantage for the first round. Over the last 15 days, Haniger has batted .143 with three extra-base hits in 49 at-bats, while Winker has hit .074 with one extra-base hit in 27 at-bats.
Rays – INF Isaac Paredes and SS Wander Franco
The Rays rank 30th in the majors over the last 15 days with just six home runs and although they have the pitching and defense to finish atop the wild-card standings, they’ll need some long balls to do it. With 18 homers, Paredes ranks second on the team behind Randy Arozarena, but he has not hit one in September. The Rays need him to go yard a few times during the stretch run. Meanwhile, Franco is finally back from the injured list and off to a decent start, going 6-for-20 with three RBIs in his first six games back, but the Rays will need their 21-year-old sensation to live up to his 11-year, $182 million contract in the final weeks to best the Mariners and Blue Jays for home-field advantage in the wild-card round.
Blue Jays — RHP José Berríos
Berríos has been a major disappointment this season, posting a 5.07 ERA, 4.68 FIP and 1.376 WHIP — all career-worst marks since his 2016 rookie year — after signing a seven-year, $131 million extension last November. However, he’s pitched better in his last five starts, yielding two earned runs or less in all but one of them. The Blue Jays need him to keep pitching that way to finish with the best record among the AL wild-card teams and become a postseason threat. If the top of their rotation — Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, Ross Stripling and Berríos — pitches to its potential, the Blue Jays could do real damage in the playoffs. Berríos is the key, and although he looks like he’s getting on track, the Blue Jays will need him to be consistently good the rest of the way.
NL WILD-CARD RACE
Phillies — RHP Seranthony Domínguez
The Phillies are relieved to have their top reliever back from the IL because they blew five saves and the bullpen struggled in his absence. They shut down Domínguez (right triceps tendinitis) after an Aug. 17 outing but activated him Sunday and he has made two scoreless appearances since. From June 17 to Aug. 17, Domínguez was dominant: 18 of his 21 relief appearances were scoreless and he converted nine of nine save opportunities. On the season, Domínguez has logged a 1.57 ERA and 0.87 WHIP. To keep their wild-card spot and end their postseason drought, the Phillies need Domínguez to perform at his best in the late innings.
Padres – 1B Josh Bell
The Padres need to get their bats going. They rank 12th in the NL over the last 30 days with 98 runs scored and 12th over the last 15 days with 42. Manny Machado has led the way for more than a month in almost all offensive categories, including hits, extra-base hits, home runs, RBIs and OPS. However, opposing teams will pitch around Machado or walk him in the remaining weeks if he doesn’t get any help. Enter Josh Bell. When the Padres acquired Bell at the trade deadline he was raking for the Nationals, slashing .301/.384/.493 with 24 doubles, three triples, 14 home runs and 57 RBIs in 103 games. But since the blockbuster Juan Soto trade, Bell has batted .206/.320/.313 with just five doubles and three home runs in 131 at-bats. It’s his time to shine for San Diego. Oh, and they need Soto — .120/.313/.180 in his last 15 games — to get going as well.
Brewers — OF Christian Yelich, SS Willie Adames and DH Andrew McCutchen
The Brewers need their veterans — in particular, Yelich, Adames and McCutchen — to carry them. Over their last 15 games, Yelich is batting .298, Adames is hitting .246 and McCutchen is at .236. And they’re not getting much help from Rowdy Tellez (.204 in his last 15 games) and Keston Hiura (.208). However, Yelich, Adames and McCutchen have done it before and must turn it on now to lift Milwaukee over the Padres or Phillies. The Brewers have the pitching and defense to make the playoffs if this veteran trio provides the run support.
(Top photo of Ronald Acuña Jr.: Brett Davis / USA Today)