The Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays will open up a crucial four-game series on Monday that will essentially determine which team will win one of the two AL Wild Card spots.
The two teams enter the series tied in the wild-card standings at 81-67. If the season ended today, both teams would make it to the postseason. However, the Cleveland Indians are just a half game behind them, sitting at 81-68.
The AL Wild Card race is just about as tight as it could possibly be, as seen by these standings.
Six teams are separated by less than four games, with the Rangers, Rays, Indians, Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals all in the hunt with just two weeks left in the season.
The Rangers and Rays have looked like the favorites for the wild-card spots, but both are slipping. The Rays have lost 11 out of their last 17 games, while the Rangers have lost six straight and nine of their last 10.
Both teams have blown part of their former leads, which makes rebounding against a top wild-card contender so important.
The Rangers and Rays are being chased by an Indians team that's hot right now. Cleveland is coming off a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox during which the team scored eight runs per game while surrendering just 1.5 runs.
The team's usually shaky pitching staff (16th overall in ERA) was solid throughout the series, while its sixth-ranked offense came up big.
The Indians are opening a three-game series with the Royals on Monday, against whom Cleveland leads the season series. The Indians are hot, and they could easily take two of three from the Royals.
This makes the series between the AL Wild Card-leading Rays and Rangers all the more important. If the two teams split the series at two games apiece, the Royals could easily gain half a game on them. That would tie all three teams for the two wild-card spots.
However, if either team loses the series 3-1—or worse, gets swept—they will open the door for the Indians to grab one of the two wild-card spots.
There are just two weeks left in the season, and playoff positioning is vital at this juncture.
Danny Knobler of CBS Sports handicapped the AL Wild Card race for a second time on Monday, and his leading team was none other than the Indians.
If they win Monday night, the Indians will move past the loser of the Rangers-Rays game and into one of the two wild-card spots. And since the Indians have already proven that they can beat up on bad teams -- they're 13-2 in their last 15 games against sub-.500 teams -- the finish against the Astros, White Sox and Twins could provide all the wins they need.
Because Cleveland plays 10 games against three of the worst teams in baseball after their current series with the Royals, the Indians will likely finish the year strong and lock up one of the two AL Wild Card spots.
That leaves just one spot for the Rays and Rangers, and this four-game series will play a huge role in determining which team takes it.
In this crucial series, the Rangers will have their three aces on the hill. Matt Garza will pitch the first game, followed by Derek Holland in the third and Yu Darvish in the fourth.
However, the Rays will counter with four pitchers whose records combine to 36-21 this season, including Matt Moore (15-3).
This series will feature some great pitching, as both teams have ERAs in the top six in the AL. Instead, the winner of this four-game set will be determined by the teams' offenses.
The Rangers have scored just three runs per game during their current six-game losing streak, while the Rays are averaging just 3.5 over their last six.
Both teams are throwing out a good pitching staff and backing it with a struggling offense. The two teams are fairly matched going into this series, and not even home-field advantage can separate the two. The Rays have a better record at home than on the road, while the Rangers have somehow played better when they're not in Rangers Ballpark.
The biggest difference between the two teams is that the Rangers are still in the midst of their collapse, while the Rays have begun to bounce back.
Tampa Bay has won three of its last four and has been turning things around. Despite a massive decline, the team has begun to work its way back up, giving it a nice advantage over the struggling Rangers.
While this essential series is going to be a tight one, the Rays have a slight edge and could potentially take three of four from the Rangers. Doing so would practically secure an AL Wild Card berth, but it will all come down to this one series.
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