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Wild-card races still open, just not for White Sox or Tigers

Miguel CabrerPrince Fielder won’t be celebrating anything if they can’t overtake White Sox. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder won’t be celebrating anything if they can’t overtake the White Sox. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:38AM

Look on the bright side, White Sox fans: The Biblical drizzle that postponed Thursday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers and had you channel-surfing to find the Bears (hoo, boy) means the Sox will miss Justin Verlander.

Max Scherzer, too. Doug Fister is the scheduled starter in Monday’s makeup game, and while he beat the Sox when he faced them Tuesday, they would much rather take their chances with Fister than go against Verlander or Scherzer with so much on the line.

It’s the last meeting between the Sox and the Tigers this season, barring a playoff matchup, which isn’t likely. With roughly 16 games left for everybody after play Sunday, it’s pretty clear that in the first year of two wild-card entries, the American League bids will go to East and West teams.

That’s one consequence of the White Sox’ baffling inability to beat the Kansas City Royals this season. They would be in the wild-card discussion if they’d gone, say, 10-5 against the third-place Royals instead of 5-10.

The Tigers’ domination has been just as thorough, if not quite as inexplicable. They have one great hitter (Miguel Cabrera) and one very good one (Prince Fielder). They have one great starting pitcher (Verlander), one very good one (Scherzer) and an odd but effective closer (Jose Valverde).

But their all-thumbs fielding doesn’t even approach championship caliber, and with the notable exception of swift Austin Jackson, they are a team of plow horses on the basepaths.

Yet they have won 12 of 17 games from the Sox this season, including eight of the last nine.

If the Sox can’t get it done in the AL Central, it won’t be a matter of them losing to a better team. And winning the division is their only hope of playing on into October.

The American League is remarkably unsettled considering how little time remains. The Texas Rangers seem the safest playoff bet and could slug their way into a third straight World Series. The Los Angeles Angels have sorted out their pitching in time for a run, but they can’t get past Oakland’s anonymous Athletics, who have the AL’s best record since mid-May, and raise your hand if you can name five of Billy Beane’s modern-day Moneyballers without giving it considerable thought.

Injuries have cut a swath through the New York Yankees — losing Mark Teixeira is across-the-board bad — and they may live to regret not adding a starting pitcher at the trade deadline.

Nick Markakis’ broken thumb removes middle-of-the-order run production from the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup and tests their seasonlong resilience. The Tampa Bay Rays seemed the stronger challenger with big bopper Evan Longoria returning to back all that pitching, but they stumbled last week when they needed to move forward.

The National League is nearly as jumbled, even with the three division races all but spoken for. The Washington Nationals believe they can succeed without Stephen Strasburg, whose star-crossed right arm is equal parts powerful and vulnerable — anybody remember Mark Prior? Who’s to question the Nationals as they roll up baseball’s best record and roll out an alternative Cy Young candidate in Gio Gonzalez?

Dusty Baker’s Cincinnati Reds have recovered from a rough patch and regained Joey Votto’s left-handed bat, which ought to settle the Central. Out West, the Los Angeles Dodgers have been unable to put much heat on the San Francisco Giants, going just 6-12 since the megabucks trade for Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez and 22-24 since Hanley Ramirez came aboard.

The drama is in the wild-card races. The Braves look secure, but you would have said that last year, too, and they collapsed as badly as the Red Sox. The battered St. Louis Cardinals have reversed course from a year ago and are fading around the time last season’s run was starting. Poor Pittsburgh is replicating its 2011 freefall and may well extend its string of losing seasons to 20 — the Pirates can’t even beat the Cubs.

The Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies thought so little of their playoff chances back in July that they began offloading payroll. But the presence of a second wild-card slot and a couple of hot weeks have kept things interesting for them.

That Bud Selig is a genius.

The outcome of the playoff races likely will determine each league’s MVP winner. The Pirates’ fade hurts Andrew McCutchen’s candidacy, just as the Brewers’ charge helps Ryan Braun’s. I like the Giants’ Buster Posey; he not only hits a ton, he runs the best pitching staff in baseball.

In the AL, Cabrera’s mammoth numbers certify him as the game’s best hitter, but Angels wonder boy Mike Trout does more things and is being called the best player at the tender age of 21.

The polls close Oct. 3.

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