After a weekend of potentially season-changing series, the American League wild-card picture is no less of a jumbled race heading into the first week of September than it was entering the last days of August.
While the New York Yankees; Baltimore Orioles; Cleveland Indians; and, to be generous, Kansas City Royals continue to jockey for position behind the co-leaders, the best bets for October baseball squared off for a three-game set in Oakland.
In front of a raucous, if not capacity, crowd, the Oakland Athletics placed themselves in the American League driver's seat by sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays. At 78-58, Oakland is now 20 games over .500 with 26 games left on its ledger. That puts the A's five up in the loss column on Baltimore, six on New York and Cleveland, and eight on Kansas City.
In other words, if the A's can play just .500 baseball (13-13) in September, Baltimore would have have to go 19-8 just to tie them for one of the wild-card spots. To lose out to New York or Cleveland, those teams would each need to go 19-7, in the event that Oakland splits its remaining contests. In order to make up eight games in the loss column this month, Kansas City would have to play at a 21-5 clip.
The numbers aren't just stark for the AL contenders behind Oakland and Tampa—they are ominous.
While the Rays now enter the last month of the season on a four-game losing streak, including seven losses over their last 10 games, Oakland is soaring.
With the top two contenders squaring off out west, big weekends by New York, Baltimore, Cleveland or Kansas City could have propelled one or more of those teams over the others and in prime position to be the clear challengers to the Tampa-Oakland loser.
Heading into Sunday, it looked like the New York Yankees were going to be the team to take advantage of the schedule. By defeating Baltimore on Friday and Saturday, New York entered Sunday with a chance for a sweep and the ability to pull within two games of Tampa in the loss column.
Six innings into the Orioles-Yankees tilt in the Bronx yesterday looked like a continuation of the weekend theme: Baltimore was sinking, and New York was rising.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi then made a decision (via ESPN New York) that could haunt him if New York misses the dance by a game: removing Andy Pettitte after he allowed two singles in the top of the seventh inning.
Despite a pitch count of only 93, not to mention a 3-0 lead, Pettitte yielded the fate of the game to New York's usually stellar bullpen.
Seven runs later, Baltimore avoided the sweep.
With Cleveland and Kansas City each losing two of three, the challengers, including the only "winner" of the weekend, New York, failed to truly capitalize on Oakland's sweep of Tampa.
According to ESPN.com's Hunt for October, Tampa and Oakland still remain the favorites to meet in the American League's sudden-death Wild Card Game after securing both berths. Cleveland and Baltimore, which meet for a series starting today, both currently sport 16-percent chances at grabbing one of the spots. New York is now at 10 percent.
So, what did we learn?
First, no one, including the streaky Royals, can be considered totally buried quite yet. On the other hand, Oakland's sweep has propelled it into an envious position. The A's have now taken over the top spot in the wild-card standings, and, perhaps more importantly, crept back within one game of Texas in the American League West.
Second, the schedule-makers will continue to give the Yankees every opportunity possible to place themselves above Tampa for the second spot. When Cleveland and Baltimore do battle starting tonight, New York will welcome the woeful Chicago White Sox to the Bronx.
If the Yankees reciprocate a sweep suffered in Chicago last month, it's likely that they'll enter the weekend directly below Tampa for the final spot.
Oakland looks bound for October, Tampa has hit a rough patch, and New York has a golden opportunity to make the Rays sweat.
Just another wild weekend in the chase for October.