The new wild-card format will make for an interesting start to the 2012 playoffs, but before we get to that one-game playoff, two teams have to play strong baseball in the coming weeks in order to even be in contention.
The Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles have both been pleasant surprises this season, currently one and two games back, respectively, in the wild-card hunt with the Tampa Rays and Los Angeles Angels right behind them.
Of the four, the Rays, with their strong pitching and timely hitting, are simply better suited for a playoff run and will bypass both the young squads currently ensconced at the top of the standings.
The Rays have qualified for the postseason three of the last four years and have one of the best managers in the game in Joe Maddon. Maddon has done a tremendous job the past five years with this team, turning them into a perennial contender—with a payroll considerably lower than most of the teams in baseball.
The Rays are beginning a three-game set against the Orioles Tuesday night. They have won six of their last eight and look ready to make another charge toward late October.
The Rays will send Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson to the mound in the series. Seeing as all three have pitched consistently well all season, they should help the Rays grind out important victories.
B.J. Upton has also had a resurgence of late, sharing American League Player of the Week honors with James Shields. Upton slugged .400 the last six games with five home runs and six RBI.
Which player will be key for the Rays down the stretch?
Tampa Bay currently owns the best team ERA in baseball, coming in at an impressive 3.22. Their rotation may be chock full of young arms, but Maddon has this team competing at an extremely high level. That serves to be a huge advantage when the games become taut in late September, early October.
Meanwhile, the Athletics have two tough series down the stretch against division opponents Texas and Los Angeles, while the Orioles play the Rays as well the Athletics one more time.
The Rays have been there and done it before, proving in 2008 that inexperience can be a useful advantage. The A's and Orioles are certainly viable contenders, but pitching wins in the playoffs, and Tampa has it in abundance.