Playoff picture clears after three teams clinch

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Major League Baseball playoff picture has become much clearer after the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds all won on Tuesday to clinch post-season berths.

The Reds returned to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years when Jay Bruce crushed the first pitch from Astros reliever Tim Byrdak for a walk-off homer to gave Cincinnati (88-69) the NL Central crown with a 3-2 win.

While Cincinnati joined twice-defending National League champions Philadelphia Phillies as the first two National League clubs to book berths, the American League line-up was settled.

The Yankees and Rays won more comfortably behind sterling pitching from two leading Cy Young Award contenders to complete the American League field for they post-season as they joined the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers.

CC Sabathia improved to 21-7 for the Yankees, 6-1 winners against the Toronto Blue Jays, while David Price took his record to 19-6 with a 5-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.

The Twins (92-65) will likely host the wildcard team to open the best-of-five Divisional Series, while Texas (87-70) will travel to the AL East champion's ballpark to open the other first-round series.

The victory put the Yankees, who had won only seven of their previous 21 games, into the post-season for the 15th time in the last 16 years.

LONG GRIND

"You never take it for granted," said New York's premier closer Mariano Rivera, who has blown three saves this month.

"It's been a long grind for us this year. Today is the best game we've played in a long time. We had great pitching and very good defense. If we can do that in October, I like our chances," said slugger Alex Rodriguez, who drove in two runs.

Tampa Bay reached the post-season for the first time in 2008, making a Cinderella run all the way to the World Series before falling in five games to Philadelphia.

This year they are confident they belong.

"In '08, just to get it done was a magical moment," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But our eye is still on winning the division, getting best record and then beginning the playoffs and winning the World Series."

The Reds may not be rated a post-season favorite, but they have discovered a knack for late-inning heroics. The division clincher was Cincinnati's 22nd of the season in their last at-bat.

"My boys are so happy," Baker told a TV reporter as fireworks exploded in the night sky over a wild celebration on the diamond. "The whole city is happy."

The last two National League playoff berths could well come down to this weekend's final games of the regular season.

The Giants (89-68) lead the San Diego Padres (87-70) by two games in the NL West, with the loser there fighting the Atlanta Braves (89-69) for the wildcard berth.

The Giants host San Diego in a season-ending series, while Atlanta takes on the visiting Phils to close out the campaign.

(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by John O'Brien)