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The Pulse: KC clearly part of Wild AL finish

The question has been asked for months: Are the Royals for real? Well, that question isn't even for real anymore.

It's a bit late to wonder if the Royals are going to contend for a postseason spot, because they already are doing just that. While they might have a few teams to climb, they might also have the most traction -- they're winners of eight of 11 September games after taking two of three at fellow upstart Cleveland.

The Royals are not only contending, they seem to have taken a liking to it.

"Hey, we're playing good baseball right now," victorious ace James Shields said after Wednesday's 6-2 win at Progressive Field. "We've got a lot of character and heart on this team. We're going to try to be in it until the end."

As the Pulse of the Postseason keeps pounding toward the finish line, the AL Wild Card race continues to be the one most likely to be undecided until the very end. It's definitely the most crowded.

There are six teams within 4 1/2 games of each other in the race for either one of the two Wild Card berths, and the Royals -- the franchise with the longest postseason drought, at 27 seasons -- find themselves a mere two games removed from the No. 2 Wild Card spot.

While current leaders Texas and Tampa Bay both lost Wednesday to tighten the AL Wild Card race even further, the Royals won in a fashion that tells the tale of their season.

With the team's stated goal of 1,000 innings from their starters on track, Shields -- acquired from Tampa Bay to be the anchor of that revamped rotation -- pitched into the ninth inning, eclipsing the 200-inning mark for the seventh straight season. He got some help from Greg Holland, who picked up his 42nd save with three strikeouts, and the Royals' offense was a double shy of the cycle in a three-run first before adding on enough for a key win.

While the Royals were making noise in Cleveland, another team hoping to end a long postseason drought took a step closer. The Pirates wrapped up an impressive three-game sweep at Texas, holding off the Rangers for a 7-5 victory that actually had the most impact on the AL Wild Card. It kept the Bucs a game behind the Cardinals, 5-1 winners against the Brewers, in the NL Central with the Reds three games back in the division but maintaining the NL Wild Card hot seat by six games over Washington.

The AL Wild Card is a totally different ballgame, a lovely mess heading into the stretch.

On Wednesday, before two more AL Wild Card pursuers even suited up for the third of four games at Baltimore, the Yankees got more of the kind of news they have gotten all year long. It was bad news about a veteran's health, and once again it was the Captain.

When they got on the field, the Yankees continued to grind, using a seventh-inning homer from Alex Rodriguez to tie the game, a Robinson Cano shot in the ninth to take the lead and what turned out to be the decisive insurance of an RBI single by March 26 signee Lyle Overbay in a 5-4 victory at Camden Yards.

At the same time, the Red Sox continued their march to the AL East title, and at the Rays' expense. Boston's Magic Number is down to eight after Wednesday's 7-3 win in 10 innings at Tropicana Field, and the Rays have lost 13 of their last 17, going from AL East leaders to holding a slim lead for the final postseason spot since Aug. 24.

After Wednesday, the Rangers are three games behind the red-hot A's -- 18-3 winners at Minnesota -- in the AL West but remain 2 1/2 games ahead of Tampa Bay as the two teams Wild Card position, with the Yankees one game behind that coveted second spot, the Indians and Orioles just 1 1/2 games back, and the Royals only two out.

Even before this latest setback, Rays manager Joe Maddon was sending out hopeful thoughts for things to turn around.

Among the other teams besides Boston ticking down their Magic Numbers, the Tigers are down to 11 in the AL Central after beating the White Sox -- but they remain fourth in the clinching line. The Braves' Magic Number remained seven in the NL East, although one of the more colorful moments of the night was provided when rookie phenom Jose Fernandez of the last-place Marlins jolted his first career homer in what will be his last start of the season as the club saves his arm for future years.

Suffice to say, some discussions ensued about how the young man might have respected the situation, and his opponent. Braves catcher Brian McCann calmly removed his mask and began those discussions when Fernandez arrived at home plate, and players from both teams decided to join in the sharing of ideas and concepts.

And then the kid really flipped the script after the game.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, took a loss to the D-backs that kept their Magic Number for the NL West stuck at six -- still the closest proximity to a postseason spot of any contender.

But, hey, nothing's settled yet. Especially in the AL Wild Card pursuit, the outcome is anything but decided as the Pulse of the Postseason continues to beat.

Thursday's key games to watch (all times ET)

Braves (Wood, 3-3) at Marlins (Eovaldi, 3-6), 12:40 p.m. Preview >
With a win, the Braves put themselves in position to possibly clinch the NL East during their quick three-game stop at home, with a trip to D.C. to follow.

Athletics (Griffin, 13-9) at Twins (Diamond, 5-10), 1:10 p.m. Preview >
Quietly, if 18 runs can be quiet, the A's are pulling away in the AL West -- up three games, their largest lead since Aug. 4.

Nationals (Roark, 5-0) at Mets (Harang, 5-11), 1:10 p.m. Preview >
The Nationals are now 7-3 in September and have won 15 of 20, but they're running out of days.

Cubs (Rusin, 2-3) at Pirates (Locke, 9-5), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
Coming off a 5-4 road trip that got a lot stronger with their sweep at Texas, the Pirates return home to face the last-place Cubs.

Yankees (Huff, 2-1) at Orioles (Chen, 7-7), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
This game could show a lot about how these two AL East foes will fare down the stretch.

Red Sox (Peavy, 11-5) at Rays (Hellickson, 11-8), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
The Red Sox are on a mission. The Rays are missing. Something needs to click sometime for the Tampa Bay.

Indians (Kluber, 13-7) at White Sox (Danks, 4-12), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
After losing a couple at home to the Royals, the Indians didn't have a happy getaway flight for a road trip that will start in Chicago and end in K.C.

Brewers (Thornburg, 1-1) at Cardinals (Kelly, 8-3), 8:15 p.m. Preview >
The Cardinals awoke late to stave off the Pirates for the division lead, but it looks like this division is going down to the wire.

Giants (Cain, 8-9) at Dodgers (Greinke, 14-3), 10:10 p.m. Preview >
Everybody said it'd come down to the Giants and the Dodgers. Sure enough, the Giants have a chance to delay the Dodgers' division title by a day or two.

If the postseason started today ...

Wild Card: Rays at Rangers
Division Series: Wild Card at Red Sox | Tigers at A's

Wild Card: Reds at Pirates
Division Series: Wild Card at Braves | Cardinals at Dodgers

Postseason 101

Magic numbers
To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining and add one. Then subtract the difference in the number of losses between that team and its closest pursuer.

Tiebreaker scenarios
A tiebreaker game will be played to determine a division winner, even if the tied clubs are assured of participating in the postseason. If a division championship tiebreaker is necessary, the head-to-head record between the clubs will determine home-field advantage. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.

If two clubs are tied for the two Wild Card berths, home-field advantage will be determined by the head-to-head record between the clubs. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.

Tiebreaker rules »

2013 postseason schedule

NL Wild Card Game: Oct. 1
AL Wild Card Game: Oct. 2
NL Division Series begin: Oct. 3
AL Division Series begin: Oct. 4
NL Championship Series begins: Oct. 11
AL Championship Series begins: Oct. 12
World Series begins: Oct. 23

John Schlegel is a national reporter for