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Most intriguing playoff races to watch in the final weeks of the MLB season

The final month of the MLB regular season can be one of the most exciting periods in all of sports. Remember the fall of 2011, when multiple playoff spots were decided on the final day?

There is unlikely to be such drama in 2019.

With the regular season wrapping up on Sept. 29, the smallest gap in terms of a divisional race is in the National League Central, where the St. Louis Cardinals hold a four-game lead over the Chicago Cubs entering play on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have already clinched their seventh consecutive NL West title, and the Atlanta Braves are not far behind them in their quest to capture a second straight NL East crown. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are still running away with the AL East, and the Houston Astros are romping towards their third straight divisional title.

The Cubs could embark on a run of their own to topple the Redbirds, or maybe the Cleveland Indians string some wins together while the Minnesota Twins falter down the stretch. However, these are hardly the wire-to-wire finishes that really get the blood boiling. That said, there is still plenty of drama to go around, namely in the Wild Card races.

The AL Wild card chase has become a three-team shootout, while the National League remains pretty wide open after the Washington Nationals. Heck, even the New York Mets still have a shot at reaching the postseason.

Let’s take a closer look at the playoff races to watch as the MLB regular season comes to a close:

NL Wild Card

Parity abounds. The Washington Nationals are still comfortably holding steady for the top Wild Card spot, as they have a 2 1/2 game lead over the Cubs and would play a hypothetical Wild Card game in Washington, D.C. if the season ended today.

That said, there is not much ground between the Cubs and a host of other teams.

The Milwaukee Brewers are suddenly just a single game back of a Wild Card spot, though the loss of Yelich could doom their chances given just how important he was to that lineup. After Milwaukee, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies and Mets are all within three games.

Of all teams positioned to make a run at the Cubs, the Mets could actually be in the best shape.

New York and Arizona had two more games left in their series in the Big Apple as of Wednesday, and then the Mets host the Dodgers. After that, however, New York gets the Rockies, Marlins and Reds before concluding their season with a home series against the Braves. New York is just now getting fully healthy, and they have a chance to make some noise if guys like Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler rediscover their late-July form.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have to play the Red Sox, Braves, Indians and Nationals before wrapping up with the Marlins at home. That is a tough gauntlet for a team whose pitching staff has been totally depleted.

Arizona’s schedule is fairly amenable to making a charge as well, although they have actually had a tough time beating both the Marlins and the Padres (whom they face six more times). Still, Ketel Marte and Zac Gallen are doing everything they can to drag the team to the postseason, and Archie Bradley has returned to form as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. The DBacks certainly have a shot.

In case you have not noticed, the Nationals have stumbled out of the gate during September. Washington was just 3-6 entering play on Wednesday, and they have a tough schedule ahead. The Nats still have to play the Braves, Cardinals, Phillies and Indians, though three out of those four matchups are at home.

Meanwhile, while the Cubs remain the hunted, they are also still the hunters…

NL Central

Everything has gone right for the Cardinals in the second half. Despite not performing up to their usual standards, guys like Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter have improved since the break, while Kolten Wong and Yadier Molina have played like bona fide All-Stars. Pair that with an absurdly good run from Jack Flaherty and a lights-out bullpen, and you have a Redbirds team that is primed to win the Central for the first time since 2015.

Aside from that, the Cubs have fumbled just about every chance that they have had to make up any ground. Chicago squandered a pair of comebacks against the Padres on Tuesday night after the Cardinals had already lost to the Rockies. But even though the Cards have maintained their four-game lead, the Cubs can still snatch the crown from Mike Shildt’s team.

The two sides will square off seven more times in the next few weeks, including a four-game series at Wrigley Field next weekend and a three-game set at Busch Stadium to conclude the regular season.

Aside from the Cubs having the ability to make up ground by beating the Cardinals, they also have the luxury of facing the Pittsburgh Pirates six times.

On the flip side, the Cardinals have to play host to a hungry Brewers team hoping to rally around the loss of Yelich as well as a Nationals team that wants to keep the home field advantage for a one-game playoff. Oh, and the Cardinals also have to travel to Arizona to play the Diamondbacks before returning home to face the Cubs at the end of the year.

The Cardinals still have the advantage because of their consistency in the lineup and the bullpen, whereas the Cubs have been inconsistent in just about every facet of the game. However, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Cubs could have everything to play for when they travel to St. Louis for the final weekend.

Do not count the Brewers out, either. Especially if they can take two of three from the Cardinals, they could be a dark horse given that they finish with the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies.

AL Wild Card

Parity may reign supreme in the NL Wild Card race, but that is not the case in the American League. Of course, just one look at the AL standings would be informative enough to understand just how top-heavy the league is, but that does not detract from the intensity of this Wild Card race.

The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics have been two of the best teams in baseball in the second half, while the Indians have struggled to maintain their momentum from June and July. Still, all three teams have played some excellent baseball and are separated by just two games. Who will be the odd one out?

From a scheduling standpoint, one would assume that the Indians have the upper-hand, given that they play in the weakest division. But while Cleveland gets six games combined against the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, they also have to host the Twins and Phillies before ending the season on the road against the Nationals.

In fact, it is the Athletics that are probably in the best shape. Oakland finishes up their season series with the Astros on Thursday, and then they will have twelve games against the other three AL West teams along with a three-game set against the Kansas City Royals. That sets up pretty nicely for a team that is still chasing home field advantage in a hypothetical Wild Card matchup.

The defining stretch of Tampa Bay’s season begins next Tuesday, when they play the Dodgers in Los Angeles before a four-game series with the Boston Red Sox and a two-game set with the Yankees.

Both the Athletics and the Rays continue to get healthy. Oakland added Sean Manaea to the rotation and will soon welcome Ramon Laureano back into the fold.

Meanwhile, Tyler Glasnow has returned for the Rays, and both Blake Snell and Yonny Chirinos could be added to the rotation soon. The loss of Brandon Lowe certainly hurts, but Eric Sogard has been excellent since coming over to Tampa Bay.

Unfortunately, the Indians are going in the other direction. Cleveland has already been without Jose Ramirez, and they lost Tyler Naquin for the remainder of the year after Naquin suffered a torn ACL at the end of August. Meanwhile, Corey Kluber picked up an oblique strain during his rehab and is unlikely to pitch in the regular season.

The Indians will be motivated by a feeling of desperation. Cleveland still trails the Twins by five games (as of Wednesday) in the AL Central, but they have a three-game set with Minnesota at home this weekend and could alter the course of the division with one bold stroke.

All three of these teams have put together impressive seasons, especially considering factors like injuries and suspensions. However, only two will have a chance to prove themselves in October.