Let's get this out of the way: From what I can tell, Major League Baseball does not have rules in place for a five-way tiebreaker for the second wild card. So that won't happen. It can't happen, because we don't need another image of Bud Selig shrugging his arms and calling it a tie. And without a second wild-card team, we can't have a wild-card game. So there.
We have three weeks left and five teams battling for one spot, separated by a mere 3 1/2 games. Note: I'm putting the Rangers in the playoffs, as they lead the Rays by 3 games (while trailing the A's by 1 1/2 games in the AL West); they're not quite a lock, but our playoff odds put them at a 92 percent chance of making the postseason one way or another, and the last thing we need is to dissect a six-way tie for two spots.
The big result from Sunday was Tampa Bay rallying in the eighth inning to beat Seattle 4-1, avoiding a costly three-game sweep at the hands of the somewhat hapless Mariners. The Rays had failed to score in the seventh after loading the bases before finally breaking through in the eighth, leading manager Joe Maddon to quip after the game, "It's the best 3-7 [road] trip in the history of our organization."
With a two-game margin over the Orioles and Indians -- both losers on Sunday -- the Rays remain the heavy favorite for that second wild card, despite their recent slump. Still, it's a crowded race, and in baseball, anything can happen. Even ties. Here's a breakdown of each team for the stretch run.
Tampa Bay Rays (78-64, leading by 2 games)
Remaining schedule: vs. Red Sox (3), at Twins (3), vs. Rangers (4), vs. Orioles (4), at Yankees (3), at Blue Jays (3).
We probably focus too much on the schedules. It's an important factor, but hardly the deciding factor. That said, it's not an easy slate for the Rays, although at least they get the Red Sox, Rangers and Orioles at home, where they're 44-26.
Pitcher to watch: Matt Moore has made two starts since returning from the DL with mixed results: One unearned run against the Angels in 5 1/3 innings, but with four walks. He allowed just one run in 6 1/3 innings against the Mariners on Sunday, but walked three, and the Mariners can't hit left-handed pitching at all, so I'm not sure how much to read into that outing.
Hitter to watch: Evan Longoria homered on Saturday, but he's hitting .176 with just that one extra-base hit over his past 14 games.
Synopsis: On paper, the Rays have the best rotation of the five contenders. If the Rays go 12-8 to get to 90 wins, that means the Orioles and Indians have to win 14 of their final 20 just to tie -- that's .700 baseball. I still like Tampa's chances.
Baltimore Orioles (76-66, trailing by 2 games)
Remaining schedule: vs. Yankees (4), at Blue Jays (3), at Red Sox (3), at Rays (4), vs. Blue Jays (3), vs. Red Sox (3).
Tough road trip to Toronto, Boston and Tampa, plus two series against the Red Sox. The toughest schedule of the five teams.
Pitcher to watch: Scott Feldman and Chris Tillman have been pitching well, but Bud Norris has a 5.34 ERA and Wei-Yin Chen a 6.00 ERA over their past six starts. Is either one a good bet to step it up in their final few starts? Norris didn't even make it through five innings against the punchless White Sox on Sunday.
Hitter to watch: Buck Showalter has hit Brian Roberts leadoff the past seven games, but the veteran is hitting just .188 with a .291 OBP over the past two weeks. It may seem that Showalter is living in the past, but Nate McLouth and Nick Markakis, two other leadoff options, have been hitting even worse (although McLouth has three home runs in the past two weeks). The Orioles need to get somebody producing in the leadoff spot to get runners on base for Adam Jones and Chris Davis.
Synopsis: All those blown saves from Jim Johnson are going to haunt the Orioles. They fall a few games short.
Cleveland Indians (76-66, trailing by 2 games)
Remaining schedule: vs. Royals (3), at White Sox (4), at Royals (3), vs. Astros (4), vs. White Sox (2), at Twins (4).
With 14 of 20 games against the White Sox, Astros and Twins, the Indians have the best chance to have a big surge these final three weeks.
Pitcher to watch: With Justin Masterson sidelined possibly for the rest of the season, they need a big stretch run from Corey Kluber, who returned on Saturday from a month-long DL stint (finger) to pitch five solid innings (two runs, one walk, five strikeouts) against the Mets. Kluber had pitched scoreless baseball in three of five starts before going on the DL, so the Indians hope he finds that groove again.
Hitter to watch: The hottest hitter right now is catcher Yan Gomes, batting .370/.452/.630 over the past two weeks. He doesn't play every day, but maybe it's time Terry Francona decides that Gomes should, and moves Carlos Santana to first base or DH duties.
Synopsis: With closer Chris Perez having allowed 11 runs in his past 15 appearances, the Indians are shaky in the ninth inning as well. I like the schedule, but is there enough pitching here without Masterson?
New York Yankees (76-67, trailing by 2 1/2 games)
Remaining schedule: at Orioles (4), at Red Sox (3), at Blue Jays (3), vs. Giants (3), vs. Rays (3), at Astros (3).
Only six home games left, and the Yankees are under .500 on the road. At least they get to finish up in Houston.
Pitcher to watch: With the Yankees' late-inning relief corps suddenly in chaos -- David Robertson has been shut down for the next five days or so, Boone Logan left Friday's game with biceps discomfort and Shawn Kelley is battling triceps inflammation -- Joe Girardi asked Mariano Rivera to enter twice in the eighth inning in the Red Sox series, and he blew both save chances (although he got the win on Sunday, when the Yankees scored in the bottom of the ninth). If these are the final outings of his career, it will be interesting to see if Girardi tries the eighth-inning trick again, especially if Robertson doesn't feel better in a few days.
Hitter to watch: Over the past two weeks, Robinson Cano is hitting .365 with six doubles, three home runs and 15 RBIs. He's been the one rock all season for the Yankees. With the lineup now reasonably formidable, Cano is getting more pitches to hit. Can he carry them back to the postseason?
Synopsis: The pitching is falling apart at the wrong time and the Yankees' road woes suggest they'll fall short in the end. A pretty heroic effort considering the lineups they were running out there much of the season.
Kansas City Royals (75-68, trailing by 3 1/2 games)
Remaining schedule: at Indians (3), at Tigers (3), vs. Indians (3), vs. Rangers (3), at Mariners (3), at White Sox (4).
The road trip to Cleveland and Detroit may tell us whether the last two weeks will matter.
Pitcher to watch: In 11 starts since joining the rotation, Bruce Chen is 4-2 with a 2.98 ERA and a WHIP under 1.00, including seven strong innings to beat the Tigers on Sunday. The depressing questions for Royals fans: Did Ned Yost wait too long to move him into the rotation?
Hitter to watch: Catcher Salvador Perez has 11 home runs on the season -- but six have come since Aug. 23, along with a .408 average. The Royals are last in the AL in home runs -- 25 fewer than the 14th-ranked Yankees -- so this sudden power burst has been a godsend. Alex Gordon has added four over the past two weeks, but those two have accounted for 10 of the Royals' 14 home runs over that period. Can somebody else step up?
Synopsis: The Royals have won 11 of 15. They'll need to win 15 of 19 to get to 90 wins. That would be a 26-8 stretch. I want to believe, but I'm just not sure the Royals are good enough to do that.
* * * *
Tampa Bay 89-73
Dang. I was really hoping for that five-way tie.
And the reward? A likely one-and-done confrontation with Yu Darvish. Good luck.