Cinderella teams feature in MLB's final playoff push

By Larry Fine, Reuters

Posted at Sep 18 2012 12:30 PM | Updated as of Sep 18 2012 08:31 PM

NEW YORK - Major League Baseball (MLB) is gearing up for the final two weeks of its marathon season with a handful of Cinderella teams well placed to extend their hopes for a fairy tale finish.

The Washington Nationals, who have not had a winning season since the Montreal Expos franchise moved to Washington for the 2005 season, have the best record in the majors at 89-57 and a good grip on the NL East lead heading into Monday's games.

The Baltimore Orioles (82-64), just a little north of the U.S. capital up Interstate 95, are battling the New York Yankees (83-63) for the American League East title as they eyed their first postseason berth in 15 years.

On the U.S. West Coast, the Oakland Athletics (84-62) have used a pitching staff featuring four rookie hurlers in their five-man rotation to push the Texas Rangers (87-59) in the AL West after going the last five seasons without a winning record.

More playoff berths than ever were on offer as MLB has doubled the number of wildcard teams to two in each league.

Previously, wildcard teams directly entered the best-of-five divisional round of the playoffs as the fourth team in their respective league semi-finals.

Now the two wildcard teams will play one another in a one-game showdown to join the division winners in the divisional round which produces the teams that play for the league championship and a spot in the World Series.

Avoiding that one-game, win-or-go home scenario has made winning the division a priority for contending teams and the races were all still tight in the American League.

The Yankees, struggling to score runs when their potent home run hitters turn cold, held a one-game lead over the Orioles, who showed an uncanny ability to win tight games with their impressive young starters and strong bullpen.

Baltimore, under manager Buck Showalter, have posted a remarkable 27-8 record in one-run games, along with victories in their last 13 extra-inning games.

The Chicago White Sox, playing an inspired season under rookie manager Robin Ventura, were holding off a Detroit Tigers club that had been rated favorites after adding vaunted slugger Prince Fielder in the off-season.

Chicago (80-66) padded their division lead to three games over Detroit (77-69) with a 5-4 win in on Monday in a make-up contest for last week's rain-out.

Texas, winners of the American League pennant the last two years, were finding it hard to shake the young Athletics, who were firmly in the lead in the wildcard standings with the regular season drawing to a close on Oct. 3.

Oakland were two games ahead of Baltimore in the AL wildcard race, with the Los Angeles Angels (80-67) a surprising 2-1/2 games behind the Orioles for the second spot despite adding free agent slugger Albert Pujols, and Tampa Bay four games back.

The National League division races looked to be in the control of Washington in the East, the Cincinnati Reds (88-59) in the Central and the San Francisco Giants (83-63) in the West.

The surprising Nationals have four pitchers among the top 11 in the league in earned run average, though one of them is hard-throwing Stephen Strasburg (15-6), who has been shut down for the rest of the season to protect his surgically-repaired arm.

The Atlanta Braves (84-63) looked like a lock for the first wildcard, but a recent slump by next best St Louis Cardinals (77-70), losers of seven of 10, gave hope to the late-charging Milwaukee Brewers (74-72) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (73-72).