Angels turn wild card into three-team race

Just when you might have been ready to count out the Angels, the mess in the AL East has helped bring them back into the AL wild-card race. Thanks to the Orioles’ 6-4 comeback win over the Red Sox, which was sandwiched between the Rays’ losing both halves of their doubleheader in New York, hope’s reborn in Anaheim as the Angels pull even with the Rays, and just 2.5 games behind Boston.

With a week left to play, the Rays and Angels have seven games apiece to play, while Boston’s solace is that it's three games up in the win column with just six to play. It’s cold comfort, but fewer games make for fewer opportunities for the Red Sox to bring themselves back to the pack.

For the Angels, beating the Blue Jays on Wednesday was redemptive in more ways than one, not only as far as keeping their own ambitions alive, but also of redeeming so many opportunities already lost. If you’re a glass-half-empty kind of Angels fan, you might grumble over the failure to win two of three games against the Orioles last weekend with the big three of Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver all starting. And failing to get anything going against Ricky Romero in Monday’s extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays may well have seemed to be the death of hope for the Halos. Happily enough, there’s panic reigning from Boston to St. Pete, so there’s no point in griping about the lost opportunities in L.A. -- one series later, the Orioles are now the toast of the West Coast for taking three of four from the Red Sox.

That’s not to say all things are equal. They’re not. With so few games left to play and so many different things in play for opposing teams, whether they’re looking to evaluate kids or rest gassed veterans after the season’s six-month slog, it isn’t entirely about fairness, leaving us with the sort of surprising outcomes that leave you wondering what the first five and a half months were all about. On Wednesday, the Rays had to deal with a Yankees team with no interest in easing off the throttle while clinching the AL East, while the Red Sox had to face an O’s team using seven regulars and an opposing starter in Tommy Hunter who, however mediocre, was a key contributor to a playoff team this time last year. Meanwhile, Haren chewed through a very September-y Jays lineup.

These are the sorts of things that Red Sox and Rays fans might gripe about if they weren’t so worried about their own teams. Complaints about this kind of annual wrinkle to September baseball will only be amplified by the Angels’ facing rookie Henderson Alvarez in their fourth game with the Jays on Thursday. But with all three teams' stakes raised to win or go home, it isn’t as if there are any guarantees, not for the Angels against Alvarez, nor against an A’s team this weekend, a series the Angels will try to win with just one of the big three pitching.

As a result, while it may not be all the Angels’ doing that they’re back in this thing, if the Rays and Red Sox are intent on backing toward the finish line, Angels manager Mike Scioscia’s team has no apologies to make. If you look at CoolStandings.com, you’ve seen the Angels’ chances hop around from depressing to long to possible, but all along, they’ve managed to stay in the picture.

What’s best about this is that, just when so many of us were confidently predicting that the last two weeks might be about little more than fidgeting over lining up postseason rotations, 2011 just chucked all those expectations out the window. The possibility that the biggest fun of the regular season might yet be ahead of us is one of those unexpected treats the game gives us when we’re lucky. So buckle up and enjoy the ride.


Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.