Sunday, October 24 2021

For the next five weeks, the American League East may very well play host to a compelling four-team jamboree, with a handful of very different franchises vying for the division title and two wild-card berths.

Another possibility: The front-running Tampa Bay Rays may just be impossible to catch.

Baseball’s best-oiled machine will take the AL’s best record – 82-48 – and a six-game division lead into the first of several tests that will define the stretch drive. Monday evening, the Rays begin a four-game series at Tropicana Field against the Boston Red Sox, who occupied first place in the East for 71 days, until the Rays swept three games at the Trop from July 30-Aug. 1. They’ve sat atop the division since.

Now, the Rays lead the New York Yankees by six games, the Red Sox by eight and the Toronto Blue Jays by 13 ½, with the Jays only hoping to reel in the Yankees or Sox for one of two wild-card berths. That the Rays are the defending AL champions only deepens their convictions as they prepare for seven games in 10 days against the Red Sox – and 16 overall against their three divisional pursuers, culminating in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium to finish the season.

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“We always had good teams, competitive teams, but the expectation’s just different here,” says starter Chris Archer, who played for the Rays from 2012-18 and returned this year as a free agent. “When we’re walking through that tunnel, it’s, ‘How are we going to win today?’ It was never, ‘How are we going to lose?’ but before it was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance today.’

“Now, it’s not do we have a chance, it’s, who is going to win the game for us today? Is it going to be our pitching? Is it going to be our defense, our offense or a combination of the three?”

Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Joey Wendle (center) celebrates with teammates atet hitting a grand slam in the seventh inning at Oriole Park this weekend.Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Joey Wendle (center) celebrates with teammates atet hitting a grand slam in the seventh inning at Oriole Park this weekend.

Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Joey Wendle (center) celebrates with teammates atet hitting a grand slam in the seventh inning at Oriole Park this weekend.

It is far from hyperbole, given the Rays lead the AL in runs, rank third in ERA, regularly employ three center fielders in the outfield and reside in an angst-free zone their rivals can only dream about. Fun fact: The Rays and Yankees each suffered through 12-14 months, the Yankees doing so in April and June. By mid-April, manager Aaron Boone called a team meeting. In late June, slugger Aaron Judge did the same.

The Rays?

“They’ve been outstanding,” says manager Kevin Cash. “There are very minimal messages that ever have to be given to the club or individually as players. They’re highly motivated to come in and contribute in whatever way they can to help us remain consistent and continue being a good team.”

See you in October, then?

Almost certainly, but first, there’s this matter of September to get through. With that, a look at the playoff prospects of the four contenders in baseball’s most compelling division – and the bottom-dweller that will play no small role in the outcome:

Rays

Where they stand: 82-48, six-game lead on Yankees

What is good: Everything? A team that parted with playoff starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, only to see resident ace Tyler Glasnow succumb to Tommy John surgery has barely skipped a beat. A team always rooted in run prevention begins with swings and misses, and the motley mix of veterans Collin McHugh, Andrew Kittredge and rookies Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño are all punching out more than nine batters per nine innings. Randy Arozarena barely has more homers in 485 plate appearances (17) than he did in 77 PAs last postseason (12) – yet his all-around game still makes him the best AL rookie position player. (That’s only because 20-year-old shortstop Wander Franco, who’s reached base in 29 consecutive games, hasn’t been up long enough). They are more athletic than you. They still come at you in waves.

Make-or-break stretch: Sept. 6-15. Even if the probability they win the East is high, this nine-game trip to Boston, Detroit and Toronto may determine the ease with which they do so. The Rays would like nothing more than their season-ending six-game trip to the snakepits of Houston and New York to be nothing more than practice.

The Oriole Factor: Nonexistent. Tampa Bay wrapped up its season series against the historically bad O’s (40-89) on Sunday – winning for the 18th time in 19 games against them.

The vibes: Immaculate. “It’s going to be a blast, this last week of August or so and it’s going to be a fun, exciting September for all of baseball,” says Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. “This is a great position for our team to be in.”

Yankees

Where they stand: 76-54, six games behind Tampa Bay for division lead, two games up on Boston for first wild card, 2 ½ games ahead of No. 3 Oakland.

New York Yankees sluggers Joey Gallo (left) and Aaron Judge (right) celebrate after a home run.New York Yankees sluggers Joey Gallo (left) and Aaron Judge (right) celebrate after a home run.

New York Yankees sluggers Joey Gallo (left) and Aaron Judge (right) celebrate after a home run.

What is good: Jumbo Packages and returning arms. The Yankees reeled off 13 consecutive wins due in large part to their occasionally hulking outfield of Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, a reminder that Judge and Stanton, when healthy at the same time, comprise a breathtakingly powerful duo. Starter Corey Kluber returns from a shoulder injury Monday. Luis Gil lurks in Class AAA. Andrew Heaney won’t be needed every fifth day. Oakland ended their hot streak, but the conditions to stack wins remains.

Make-or-break stretch: Sept. 13-19. Want to win the division? Best stomp on the Twins, Orioles and Indians for seven games while the Rays deal with Toronto and Detroit.

The Oriole Factor: Strong. Six games left against the O’s, and three more against another team — Texas — ticketed for 100 losses.

The vibes: Resolute. “A loss is a loss,” says Judge. “Time to start another streak.”

Red Sox

Where they stand: 75-57, eight games behind Tampa Bay for division lead, two games behind New York for No. 1 wild card, 2 ½-game lead on Oakland for No. 2 wild card.

What is good: Chris Sale is back in immaculate fashion. Their patience with Bobby Dalbec has paid off with a scorching August – six homers and a 1.219 OPS over 16 games. A demoralizing sweep by the Yankees was followed by six wins in nine games. Five off days in September will let them keep young arms like Tanner Houck properly rested.

Make-or-break stretch: Sept. 6-12. Is this a playoff team? Six games against the Rays and White Sox could determine if they’re worthy.

The Oriole Factor: Solid. Six games left against the O’s, and a three-game finish at Washington may provide a final-weekend advantage.

The vibes: Life after death. “You learn from losses typically more than you learn from wins,” says Houck. “So I think that this team is built for adversity and to grow, and I’m excited to see how we continue to grow.”

Blue Jays

Where they stand: 68-61, 13 ½-games behind Tampa Bay in division, 5 ½ games behind Boston for the No. 2 wild card (with Oakland and Seattle to leapfrog).

What is good: George Springer should return this week, and the Blue Jays are almost unbeatable when he’s healthy. Robbie Ray may win the AL Cy Young Award. Jose Berrios just punched out 11 batters in one game. It’s roof-open season at Rogers Centre — nice jacket weather, you might say.

Make-or-break stretch: Sept. 6-12. Eight games in seven days (four each against the Yankees and Orioles) with chances both to make up ground and rack up some low-stress Ws.

The Oriole Factor: Overwhelming. Ten games left with the O’s, along with seven against Minnesota. The Blue Jays need all the friends they can find right now, and the schedule – with 18 of 33 games at home – is one of them.

The vibes: Waiting for Guffman. “I know I keep saying that and it hasn’t come, but it will come,” manager Charlie Montoyo says of his club’s offensive pyrotechnics. “And when it comes, it’s going to be a lot of fun for this team.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB standings: Inside look at playoff runs of AL East teams

Source: Yahoo Sports

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