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Full deck: AL boasts stacked Wild Card race

MLB.com @philgrogers

You can probably tell it's August just by walking outside. But don't let the calendar fool you.

Major League Baseball's closing stretch has begun, especially for the nine teams battling for the American League's two Wild Card spots. This is looking like the most crowded race ever, and the frenetic dealings of Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto underscore how badly the teams want to survive to have a shot at reaching the World Series.

You can probably tell it's August just by walking outside. But don't let the calendar fool you.

Major League Baseball's closing stretch has begun, especially for the nine teams battling for the American League's two Wild Card spots. This is looking like the most crowded race ever, and the frenetic dealings of Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto underscore how badly the teams want to survive to have a shot at reaching the World Series.

• Up-to-the-minute standings

Seattle acquired All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso, pitchers David Phelps, Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Gonzales, Ernesto Frieri and Ryan Garton, along with catcher Mike Marjama, in six trades over the past month. That level of effort speaks to how the pursuers have continued to tighten up an already bunched field of Wild Card contenders.

There were nine teams within five games of a spot at the All-Star break. Now it's nine teams within three games of the second Wild Card spot, with the top five teams vying for spot No. 2 separated by only 1 1/2 games.

From top to bottom, at this writing on Friday (with placement changing daily), the race is as follows: Yankees, Angels, Royals, Twins, Mariners, Rangers, Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays.

In this type of race, head-to-head series essentially count double, as you have a chance to give a rival a loss while claiming your own win. It's big to take two out of three and huge to sweep a series.

So keep a close eye this weekend on Mariners-Rays and Angels-Orioles.

They're the first of 32 head-to-head series remaining between the current cast of Wild Card contenders. That's great news for fans, although we should slide in a caveat here.

That cast, of course, is subject to change. The Yankees and Royals may still make strong runs for division titles in the AL East and AL Central, respectively; the Tigers could run off an eight-game winning streak and jump into the middle of the Wild Card madness.

The comforting news for the Yanks and Royals is that the Wild Cards are there for the taking if they can finish strong, regardless of what happens with the teams they're chasing in their division. Their best chance to control their own fate is to win the series against the other Wild Card contenders.

The Yankees, in particular, shouldn't need to do much scoreboard watching. Not only are they currently four games clear of the third-place Royals, but they play 29 of their last 42 games against Wild Card contenders. That includes every game from Sept. 4 through the end of the season.

Six other Wild Card contenders have 20-plus games remaining, with only the Angels (19) and Royals (13) more often watching the race from afar than being head to head with a team they need to beat.

Here's a quick look at the vortex of Wild Card Mania this weekend:

Video: BAL@SEA: Rzepczynski fans Davis to earn the save

Mariners at Rays

Momentum is on the slide of Seattle, which just took two out of three from Baltimore and got its cross-country flight out of the way on a day off. Tampa Bay is finishing up a series in Toronto on Thursday and has gone 9-18 since July 20, when it was leading the Wild Card race.

Despite adding Lucas Duda in a trade with the Mets, Rays manager Kevin Cash's club has had the feeblest offense in the Majors since the All-Star break, averaging just over three runs per game. Duda is doing fine, but Corey Dickerson is struggling, while shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and catcher Wilson Ramos leave soft spots in the lineup. 

As for the Mariners, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager have been twin anchors on offense, and the club had received a lift from left fielder Guillermo Heredia before he was hit in the forearm by a Ubaldo Jimenez pitch on Wednesday.

The lack of support is stressing Tampa Bay's fine rotation, which ranks second only to the Indians in starter ERA (4.02) for the season. Seattle is missing Chris Archer, who started Thursday in Toronto, and Alex Cobb, who landed on the disabled list earlier in the month.

Ramirez, traded from the Rays to the Mariners in July, starts Friday against Tampa Bay rookie Austin Pruitt. Ramirez has had mixed results, but he held the Angels to one unearned run over six innings his last time out.

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Angels at Orioles

There are few things Mike Trout hasn't done in his career, but he's never ended a season with more walks than strikeouts. Since the All-Star break, Trout has 26 walks and 23 strikeouts in 29 games. He's turning in his best performance despite missing 39 games with a torn ligament in his left thumb, evidenced by a 1.145 OPS.

The Angels are 5-1 on a trip that began in Seattle and continued in Washington earlier this week, and 17-12 since the break. The Orioles are spinning their wheels (17-16 since the break), but they have their offense clicking, with a Major League-best 5.5 runs per game in the second half.

The key has been shortstop Tim Beckham, a gift from the Rays. He's hitting .485 with a .507 on-base percentage in 16 games since the trade. Jonathan Schoop (eight), Adam Jones (seven) and Trey Mancini (seven) have combined for 22 homers since the break.

Friday's series opener should be fascinating. Lefty Andrew Heaney makes his first start since Tommy John surgery for the Angels. He'll face Jeremy Hellickson, acquired from the Phillies at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Hellickson threw seven shutout innings against the Royals in his Baltimore debut, but the Orioles have lost his past two starts, including a 3-2 setback to the Halos in Anaheim on Aug. 8.

Phils Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.