4 teams, 6 games: Keys to securing AL WC

September 27th, 2021

If you love a good pennant race, it gets no better than this. With one week to go in the regular season, there are four teams right in the thick of it for two American League Wild Card spots. The Yankees (89-67) are in possession of the top spot by just one game over the Red Sox (88-68). The Blue Jays (87-69) and Mariners (86-70) are one and two games out, respectively, for the second spot. It's going to be a wild week.

With that in mind, our beat reporters for all four clubs went back and forth about what the keys will be as we head down the final stretch. Answers will come in order of the current standings.

The Week Ahead

• Yankees: at Blue Jays, home vs. Rays
• Red Sox: at Orioles, at Nationals
• Blue Jays: home vs. Yankees and Orioles
• Mariners: home vs. A's and Angels.

What do you make of your team's chances to earn a WC spot?

Bryan Hoch (Yankees): I'm a believer again. This has been one of the streakiest Yankees groups in recent memory, lumping in their hot and cold streaks during last year's shortened season. Despite a loaded roster, they have looked absolutely awful at times, and there's no excuse for losing eight games to the Orioles. That alone doomed them in the division race. When they're clicking, as was the case when they swept the Red Sox in Boston over the weekend, they look like the kind of team that could get scorching hot and win the whole thing. That's how it felt during their 13-game win streak coming out of the Field of Dreams Game, and we might be seeing it once again.

Ian Browne (Red Sox): In a typical scenario, getting swept by the Yankees in a three-game series at Fenway in late September might have been a death blow for Boston. But the Red Sox have the scheduling Gods in their favor. While the Yankees head to Toronto to battle it out with the ultra-tough Blue Jays, the Red Sox will be in Baltimore licking their wounds against the 50-106 Orioles with ace Chris Sale taking the ball in the first game on Tuesday.

Sweeping the Orioles is very conceivable. And if the Red Sox can pull that off, they will gain a game on either the Yankees or the Blue Jays for three straight days. The Sox have another soft spot to close out the season when they face the 64-92 Nationals in D.C. this weekend. The Yankees, meanwhile, will be hosting the AL East champion Rays.

Keegan Matheson (Blue Jays): It looked like the Blue Jays would be chasing the Yankees, but it's now the Red Sox just one game ahead of them for the second Wild Card spot with the Mariners still trailing behind. With the Blue Jays hosting the Yankees to open their final homestand, they could have had more control over their own fate if Boston had beaten New York on Sunday, but now they'll need to go on one last run. The Red Sox close out with the Orioles and Nationals, a more favorable schedule than the Blue Jays, so this won't be easy.

Daniel Kramer (Mariners): A lot. Every time anyone counts the Mariners out, they take a proverbial shove and go out and keep winning. The math might not be on their side, but at this point, it's very clear that they are going to take this thing down to the very last day of the season.

What will be the most important factor in determining your team's fate?

Hoch: We've been pointing to the pitching all year as a cause for concern, but that hasn't been as much of an issue as I would have anticipated. They're even getting help in that department now with the returns of Luis Severino, Domingo Germán and Jameson Taillon. They need to keep belting the ball out of the ballpark. When they do, they win -- Giancarlo Stanton's grand slam on Saturday was a perfect example, coming after the offense didn't manage much through the first seven innings. Stanton and Aaron Judge have carried the offense all year, and it's hard to see how they win a Wild Card Game and then 11 more to bring home a title if the big boys don't hit.

Browne: Given the aforementioned remaining schedule, the Red Sox must get the bats going again. If they can tee off on a Baltimore team that has the worst ERA in the Majors at 5.83, manager Alex Cora should be able to work his bullpen in moderation instead of overextending it. This is key at a time the Sox are without high-leverage relievers Garrett Whitlock and Josh Taylor. There's a chance Whitlock (right pectoral strain) returns for the final day in Baltimore, but Washington seems more likely. Taylor (low back strain) isn't eligible for activation until the final game of the regular season.

Matheson: The bats. Toronto's starting pitching has given them opportunities to win all month long, but the Blue Jays need this lineup to be at its best if they want to keep pace with the Yankees. That starts with George Springer, who busted out of his slump over the weekend in Minneapolis, and the run of Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernández is dangerous. If Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can get back in the lineup after getting some stitches in his right hand, this lineup has the potential to take over a series and drag the Blue Jays into the postseason.

Kramer: The lineup. The Mariners' minus-61 run differential is a metric that they objectively, and perhaps rightfully, roll their eyes at. But only because they keep winning. They're going to need to essentially win every game on this final homestand, and while that might sound unreasonably ambitious, it's attainable. But only if Seattle's bats keep them in it.

What under-the-radar issue could derail your team's postseason dream?

Hoch: This is not a very good defensive team, made weaker by pushing Gleyber Torres from shortstop to second base. It seems to have helped take pressure off Torres in the field and at the plate, but they also now have two infielders playing out of position, with Gio Urshela at shortstop and DJ LeMahieu at third base. Urshela and LeMahieu usually catch whatever is hit at them, but there's not a lot of range there -- less now that LeMahieu is dealing with an unspecified hip/groin issue. On the plus side, Anthony Rizzo has been a defensive upgrade at first base and the Joey Gallo-Brett Gardner-Judge outfield alignment doesn't let much fall.

Browne: All season long, the Red Sox haven't looked quite the same against lefty starters (.541 winning percentage) as they have against righty starers (.585 winning percentage). And wouldn't you know the Orioles have three southpaw starters lined up to face the Sox Tuesday through Thursday? Alex Verdugo is a .227 hitter with a .556 OPS against lefties. Kyle Schwarber is decent against lefties (.755 OPS) but much more powerful against righties (.990 OPS). The same goes for Rafael Devers, who has a .752 OPS against lefties versus .965 against righties. Even J.D. Martinez, who you would expect to crush lefties, actually has a better OPS against righties (.888 vs. .822).

Matheson: Toronto's bullpen is far steadier than it was during those ugly, mid-season stretches, but if the Blue Jays can't get six or seven innings from their starters, they'll really need their middle relievers to step up. Jordan Romano is a stud in the ninth inning while Tim Mayza has been excellent as the setup man, but Toronto doesn't boast the same string of high-leverage arms other playoff-caliber teams do. Adam Cimber has been brilliant since joining the Blue Jays, but they'll need big performances from arms like Trevor Richards, Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather down the stretch. At this point, every inning is high leverage.

Kramer: The bullpen stumbling. It's what got them here, and any hiccups, especially since there is almost no margin for error at this point, would be catastrophic.

OK, who's in, who's out? Why?

Hoch: Boston and New York. The series at Fenway Park convinced me that the Yankees will hang tough and get into that one-game playoff, whether it's in New York or at Fenway. They've got a tougher schedule than their competition, including three games in Toronto and three against a Rays team that would love to keep the Yankees out of the postseason, but this roller coaster ride isn't done yet. They'll find a way.

Browne: Red Sox and Blue Jays. I must admit: As someone who has followed Red Sox-Yankees since I started watching baseball at the age of 8 in 1980 and was fortunate enough to cover the epics that were the 2003 and '04 AL Championship Series, I want the spectacle of a Red Sox-Yankees Wild Card Game on Oct. 5 at either venue. But something tells me the Blue Jays are going to take two out of three in Toronto from the Yankees, who have been inconsistent all season. And given the rivalry between the Rays and Yankees, you know Tampa Bay would love to be the team that stifles New York short of its postseason dream this weekend. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have the advantage of finishing up with the Orioles at home this weekend. If the Red Sox can exploit their weak schedule, they could go 5-1 this week.

Matheson: Boston and New York. That's where the odds point given their advantage entering the final week, and even though the Red Sox have just a one-game lead here, their closing schedule isn't as challenging as the Blue Jays'. If Toronto can draw even by the end of the New York series, though, we'll be looking at Toronto-Baltimore and Boston-Washington to end the season. In that case, the Blue Jays have an edge.

Kramer: It's hard to imagine an AL Wild Card Game not pitting two teams from the AL East. And that very well might play out. But a play-in Game 163 seems like it very much could be on the table -- because at this point, it's clear that the Mariners aren't going to go out quietly.