LEADING OFF: NL East showdown, wild Cards at 16, Yanks-Jays

Sports from the AP

Philadelphia Phillies’ Zack Wheeler pitches during the first inning of an interleague baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A look at what’s happening around the majors Tuesday:

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NL EAST SHOWDOWN

Zack Wheeler (14-9, 2.79 ERA) pitches for Philadelphia in the opener of a pivotal three-game series at Atlanta. Charlie Morton (13-6, 3.53) is on the mound for the Braves, who lead the NL East by 2 1/2 games over the Phillies with a few days left in the season.

“I think you get to the end of the year and you look for an opportunity to get to the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we have,” Philadelphia manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s what we’re all looking forward to. It’s exciting. We have a shot.”

Atlanta has led the division since Aug. 15 and is trying to win it for the fourth straight year.

After leaving Atlanta, the Phillies finish the regular season with three games at Miami, while the Braves close at home with three games against the Mets, with a makeup game against Colorado possible on Oct. 4 if it’s needed to decide the NL East.

ONE MORE FOR THE PRIZE

The soaring Cardinals have won a club-record 16 consecutive games heading into their series opener at home against NL Central champion Milwaukee. A victory over the Brewers, or losses by Philadelphia and Cincinnati, gives St. Louis the second NL wild card for its third straight playoff berth.

The winning streak is the longest in the majors since Cleveland took 22 in a row in 2017, and the best in the National League since the New York Giants won 16 straight in 1951 on their way to an improbable pennant.

Adam Wainwright (16-7, 3.05 ERA) has won five consecutive decisions for the Cardinals and nine of his last 10. He pitches against two-time All-Star Brandon Woodruff (9-10, 2.52).

POWER PLAY

The top two teams in the American League square off when Tampa Bay visits Houston in a potential preview of the AL Championship Series.

With a victory, the AL East champion Rays (97-59) clinch home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. Tampa Bay is a franchise-best 38 games over .500 and has equaled the 2008 AL championship team for most wins in a season.

Houston, which has lost four straight, goes into the night with an opportunity to wrap up the AL West title.

José Urquidy (8-3, 3.56 ERA) has won his last four decisions for the Astros (91-65). Michael Wacha (3-5, 5.49) starts for the Rays, who have won four in a row overall.

HEAD TO HEAD

Streaking slugger Giancarlo Stanton and the Yankees, winners of six straight, begin a three-game series in Toronto with enormous AL playoff implications.

New York holds the first of two wild-card spots by a game over Boston, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Blue Jays another game back. Stanton is coming off a huge series at Fenway Park, where the Yankees completed a three-game sweep of the rival Red Sox on Sunday night.

Just activated from the injured list, Jameson Taillon (8-6, 4.41 ERA) is set to start for New York against Hyun Jin Ryu (13-9, 4.34).

Toronto swept a four-game series at Yankee Stadium early this month and is 10-6 against New York this year.

Boston plays at last-place Baltimore, with Chris Sale (5-0, 2.57) on the mound for the Red Sox.

BAD BREAK

San Francisco first baseman and home run leader Brandon Belt has a broken left thumb and his availability for the final week of the regular season and playoffs is unclear.

The Giants said an X-ray on Monday showed the broken bone and Belt will “continue to meet with doctors over the next couple of days to develop a recovery plan and timetable for his return.”

The injury is a big blow for the NL West leaders, who begin a home series with the last-place Diamondbacks on Tuesday night still seeking to close out their first division title since 2012. The Dodgers are two games back to start the season’s final week.

Belt exited a 6-2 win at Colorado on Sunday in the seventh inning after getting hit on the left hand with a pitch while squaring to bunt.

The 33-year-old Belt is batting .274 with a career-high 29 homers and 59 RBIs in only 97 games and 325 at-bats. He has a .975 OPS.

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