BASEBALL

The shape of some playoff races could change this week with several head-to-head matchups between contenders. USA TODAY Sports’ Jorge L. Ortiz examines the possible repercussions.

The series: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays, three games from Monday-Wednesday.

Watch New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Live
Watch New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Live


What’s at stake: The American League East title may be decided, or at least defined, by what happens in this series. A sweep by the division-leading Blue Jays would virtually assure them the crown. A sweep by the Yankees would leave the clubs just half a game apart with a week and a half to go. The Blue Jays are seeking an end to their 21-year playoff drought, the longest in the majors.

Toronto has arguably its top three starters lined up, with Cy Young Award candidate David Price getting the ball Monday, followed by Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman, the projected staff ace who has won his first two starts since returning from a knee injury that cost him most of the season. The Yankees hope to get at least five innings from converted reliever Adam Warren on Monday before turning to impressive rookie Luis Severino on Tuesday and Masahiro Tanaka in the series finale.

Long-term picture: The Blue Jays took three out of four games at Yankee Stadium the last time these clubs met earlier this month, assuming command of the race. But they also lost shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a shoulder fracture and have slowed down since, going 4-4. Both teams play opponents who are currently below .500 the rest of the way, although the Yankees’ four-game set against the Red Sox in the final week could be treacherous. Still, whatever happens at Rogers Centre this week, Toronto and New York will remain in solid position to reach the playoffs.

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The series: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros, three games from Monday-Wednesday.

Watch Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Live
Watch Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Live


What’s at stake: The Texas Rangers’ September surge to first place hasn’t totally relegated the Astros and Angels to wild-card pursuers, but that certainly looks like their best option. This will be a chance for both clubs to stake a claim to the second wild-card berth, with the Minnesota Twins also in contention.

Dallas Keuchel, who have up three home runs in two of his last three starts, returns to the mound Monday with designs on atoning for his nine-run clunker last week against the Rangers. He has a 1.93 ERA in three starts this season against the Angels, who will be sending out Jered Weaver. The erstwhile ace has been even sharper against the Astros, with a 1.71 ERA in three starts.

Long-term picture: After a brutal 2-8 trip, the Astros began to bounce back by taking two out of three against the Oakland Athletics over the weekend. Houston hosts the Angels and Rangers during the rest of this homestand before ending with six on the road. Considering the Astros’ 29-46 record away from Minute Maid Park, it’s critical they make hay this week. The Rangers come in for three over the weekend.

The Angels have thrust themselves back in the playoff picture by going 11-7 this month, benefitting from Mike Trout’s power surge. The reigning AL MVP has five homers and nine RBI in his last eight games.

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The series: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins, three games from Tuesday-Thursday.

Watch Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Live
Watch Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Live


What’s at stake: Continued relevance in the AL wild-card race may be determined by this series, as the Twins trail by 2½ games for the second spot (tied with the Angels) and the Indians are hanging in at four games back.

Both clubs have gotten major contributions from rookies to stick around in the race. Shortstop Francisco Lindor leads all major league qualifying rookies with a .316 batting average, and his fielding has been brilliant at times as well. Minnesota’s bid has been powered by Miguel Sano, who has 17 homers, 49 RBI and a .965 OPS in 67 games.

Long-term picture: The AL Central rivals will face each other seven times in a 10-day span and run the risk of canceling each other out. The Twins lead the season series 7-5 but seem to be in a disadvantageous position as they face the Indians, who have Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Cody Anderson scheduled to start. All three have ERAs below 3.50. Of the Twins’ scheduled starters, Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes have ERAs over 4.50, while Kyle Gibson is at 3.73.

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The series: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs, three games from Friday-Sunday.

Watch Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Live
Watch Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Live


What’s at stake: Though still ostensibly chasing the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central crown, Pittsburgh and Chicago are more realistically playing for home-field advantage in the do-or-die wild-card game. Based on the head-to-head confrontations, the Cubs’ odds look favorable. Not only have they already secured the season series 10-6, but they are 6-4 at home and 4-2 at PNC Park.

Long-term picture: The Pirates don’t have to face the torrid Jake Arrieta in this series – he’s scheduled to pitch Tuesday – but won’t be as lucky if the teams meet in the postseason. Arrieta, who boasts an 0.93 ERA in four starts against Pittsburgh this season, figures to get the call in the elimination game. He has been nails on the road, with a 12-1 record and a 1.68 ERA.

Gerrit Cole, his likely opposite number, has been tough on the Cubs as well, registering a 2.45 ERA in three starts against them this season.

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