Oh, what a tangled web the AL has weaved
Five-team tussle for the final Wild Card berth promises to be riveting
OK, here we go. Five teams separated by 3 1/2 games. With three weeks remaining. How cool is that?
For those five American League teams, the playoffs have already begun. Oh, sure, they can talk about the grind of a long season and all that. That's true in May and June and maybe even July. Now, though, time is running out. There's so much to be won, so much to be lost.
Maybe we'll have some clarity this week in the tight, wonderful race for the second American League Wild Card berth.
Let's hope not.
This race has gotten so fun and so unpredictable that it'll be fine with many of us if it goes right down to the final day.
The Rays have a two-game lead in the race for the second spot, but they've lost eight of 11 and given hope to four other clubs.
The Orioles, Indians, Yankees and Royals are within striking distance, all within 3 1/2 games. Forget slumps. Forget injuries. Forget how those four teams thought this season might play out. At the moment, they're alive, and isn't that all any team can ask for in the second week of September?
This could be a critical week because the Royals and Indians will be playing a three-game series in Cleveland beginning tonight. Eric Hosmer is hot, and the Royals have won 11 of 15 to get within 3 1/2 games of the Rays. The Indians are within two after winning four of their last five.
It's a huge deal for both those franchises because both have been rebuilt. Both are good clubs. The Indians haven't been to the postseason since 2007, the Royals since 1985.
To get back to the playoffs would mean so much to the men and women who have worked so hard to make those teams good again. Do you think Terry Francona would be fired up about a Division Series against the Red Sox?
If either the Royals or Indians get into the postseason, they've got a chance to make some noise. First, though, there's the tension of these final weeks, of being close enough to imagine what a postseason berth would feel like.
But wait, there's more. The Yankees and Orioles will be playing a four-game series at Camden Yards. The Orioles are two behind the Rays; the Yankees, 2 1/2. For long stretches this season, it looked like neither club was good enough to make the postseason.
And yet, here they are.
This season might be Joe Girardi's finest hour as a Major League manager. Against all odds, he has kept the Yankees moving forward despite an incomprehensible number of injuries and slumps and the like.
Their core guys are showing some wear and tear. Mariano Rivera has blown a career-high seven saves, and Derek Jeter has played in just 16 games. But with pieces from here, there and everywhere, the Yankees still are within range.
The Orioles had a magical ride to the postseason last season. This season has been different because it came with expectations.
And they've survived a revolving-door of a starting rotation and closer Jim Johnson's problems to hang in the race.
Now about those Rays. Their starting rotation is whole again as they host the Red Sox this week. But they desperately need Evan Longoria, hitting .176 since Aug. 26, to get hot. He has shown in the past he's good enough to put a club on his shoulders.
Those Wild Card berths come filled with risks. No team wants to play six months and then face a one-and-done situation. It was a gut punch to the Texas Rangers last season.
The Rangers had done a really good imitation of baseball's best team for a lot of the 2012 season. Only thing is, they couldn't close the deal.
They lost the AL West to the Oakland A's on the final day of the regular season, and then, less than 48 hours later, their season was over.
Down the hallway from the home clubhouse in Arlington, the Orioles held a wild, joyous celebration after winning the AL Wild Card game.
To the Orioles, it was their only path to the postseason, and they were thrilled to have it. Risk? Hey, they'd played for weeks with their season seemingly on the line almost every night, so what was one more game?
The Rangers host the Pirates for three games beginning tonight in Arlington. Both teams are in tight division races, neither playing very well.
Both are nicely positioned for the postseason. The Rangers are 1 1/2 games behind the A's, with Oakland coming to Arlington on Friday.
But they're leading the race for the top Wild Card spot, leading the Indians and Orioles by five games with 20 to play.
The Pirates-Rangers series is important because both clubs are within grasp of a division championship, which would allow them to catch their breaths and prepare for a Division Series.
As the Rangers showed last season, it helps to be playing well in the final days of the season. They weren't. But that's a discussion for another day.
For now, the AL has a bunch of huge games this week in a race that's as close and confusing as ever. Players and managers are living with the tension of a pennant race, knowing that every pitch, every inning might decide a season.
It's one of the times in their careers they might very well remember forever. For the rest of us, it's about as much fun as baseball fans can have.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.