We’re down to three weeks left in the regular season, and the American League wild-card picture shows no signs of clearing up anytime soon. We continue with five teams in a jam-packed race for one spot, and—as TheSportsNotebook’s Friday MLB coverage noted—it’s distinctly possible that Texas could come back to the pack and make it six for two spots.
Here’s the rundown on the race, what happened on the weekend, what’s ahead in the first part of this week and any notable developments on the injury front.
ABOUT LAST WEEKEND
It was a wild series in the Bronx, as the Red Sox and Yankees played three consecutive slugfests, another one-run affair, Mariano Rivera blew two saves, and Boston ended up taking three of four. When you couple that with Tampa Bay losing two of three in Seattle, the Red Sox expanded their lead in the AL East to 7 ½ games.
Tampa Bay’s continued struggles, though, meant New York wasn’t devastated on the wild-card front. The Yanks still remain 2 ½ back. But besides missed opportunity, the result was that Cleveland and Baltimore have each nudged past New York, and Kansas City continued to crawl closer.
The Orioles won three of four from the Chicago White Sox, including a thrilling Saturday finish. After giving up the lead run in the top of the tenth, Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters hit a two-run single in the bottom of the inning to win it.
Cleveland took a weekend series from the Mets, and Kansas City came up very big in winning two of three from AL-Central leading Detroit. This series started horribly for the Royals, when James Shields was battered in a 16-2 loss on Friday. It looked like Kansas City had lost the one game they most needed to win. But they showed toughness and battled back with a win over Justin Verlander on Saturday, and then took the series on Sunday.
Detroit’s losses have allowed Cleveland to sneak somewhat back on the radar in the division race. The margin in the Central is 5 ½, and the Tribe controls the half-game. I don’t want to overstate Cleveland’s chances, but Detroit pulled a similar turnaround in 2012, with a mad dash past the White Sox. I’m sure no one in Detroit is sleeping too easily, though I’d frankly be shocked if this really gets tight.
Oakland won three of four from Houston, while Texas dropped a weekend series in Anaheim, against an Angels’ team that’s proven to be surprisingly pesky against the contenders. LAA went 4-3 in a week of games against Tampa and Texas. If the Angels start to play according to their talent, that’s a big X-factor in the races for both the AL West—which the A’s now lead by a game and a half—and the wild-card, where Texas has a 4 ½ game cushion.
The NL Central is the one notable race in the National League, and the St. Louis bats unleashed on Pittsburgh this weekend. The Cardinals scored 26 runs in sweeping the Pirates and building a 1 ½ game lead, with Pittsburgh controlling the half-game. Cincinnati swept the NL-West leading Los Angeles Dodgers and pulled to within 1 ½ games themselves, although in this case, the Reds do not control the half-game.
Los Angeles wasn’t the only runaway leader to get swept. Atlanta dropped three straight in Philadelphia, allowing the NL Central to nudge closer to both in the side races for seeding, where the Braves and Dodgers are currently 1-2 in the National League, meaning homefield advantage in the Division Series.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS
The four teams chasing wild-card spots from the outside looking in all play head-to-head, with Kansas City visiting Cleveland, and New York in Baltimore for four games. A Chris Tillman-C.C. Sabathia opener sets the tone in Camden Yards on Monday night. Detroit needs to take advantage of a series with the Chicago White Sox to separate themselves from their division rivals, as the Tribe and Royals beat each other up.
Tampa Bay has the twin goals of creating some cushion in the wild-card race and also making a last push at Boston in the AL East. The margin in the loss column is six games, so a Rays sweep could really tighten things up. Clay Bucholz makes his return to the mound on Tuesday night, where David Price will be waiting. That’s quite a “welcome back” moment for Bucholz in his first start since June 9.
Oakland is in Minnesota, while Texas has a monster interleague series with Pittsburgh. The other NL Central contenders have presumably easier tests at home—the Cardinals host the Brewers, and the Reds will face the Cubs in Cincinnati.
Los Angeles plays Arizona in a series that only reminds us of what might have been, had the Diamondbacks not struggled so badly. They and Washington have failed to keep pace in the wild-card race and are effectively finished.
Since our update on this topic on Friday, the most notable development was Jacoby Ellsbury being diagnosed with a compression fracture in his foot. The Boston centerfielder will be a walking boot to the end of this week, where he will be evaluated. The Red Sox insist he’ll be back in September, but this is the same organization that insisted Bucholz would be back shortly before the All-Star break.
Derek Jeter re-injured his ankle, and is subject to day-to-day evaluation. Other important day-to-day situations that could end up being more serious are for Yankee setup man David Robertson and Cleveland starting pitcher Justin Masterson.
On the comeback front, Matt Kemp is hitting in the cage, Johnny Cueto is facing live hitters and Allen Craig is out of his walking boot. No timetables on any, but they’re all moving forward to what they hope will be a little bit of regular season action to get sharp for October.
THE BRACKET AS OF TODAY
(5)Tampa Bay at (4) Texas
(5)Cincinnati at (4) Pittsburgh
Wild-Card at (1) Boston
(3)Detroit at (2) Oakland
Wild-Card at (1)Atlanta
(3)St. Louis at (2)LA Dodgers