With one day remaining in the 2013 Major League Baseball regular season, one race is undecided. Heading into play on Sunday, the Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers all control their respective destinies on the path to an American League Division Series date with the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park late next week.
Naturally, with Cleveland a game ahead of both Texas and Tampa Bay heading into the final day of the season, it's easy to question how all three teams can actually control their own fate. The answer, when weeding through all possible outcomes, is simple: As long as the teams keep winning, they'll keep playing.
Day-by-day predictions in must-win scenarios are never easy to make, but here's one I feel confident in: Cleveland, Texas and Tampa Bay will all win on Sunday. With their respective playoff hopes all hanging in the balance, imagining the Indians, Rangers or Rays losing to Scott Diamond (6-12, 5.54 ERA), Jason Vargas (9-7, 4.01) or Todd Redmond (4-2, 3.77), respectively, is hard for me to believe.
Here's why to like all of the must-win teams on Sunday.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Toronto Blue Jays
With Matt Moore on the hill, the Rays can turn to one of their many young, hard-throwing pitchers in order to stop their two-game losing streak in Canada and get through the weekend alive in the postseason mix.
On the other side, Toronto will counter with Todd Redmond to finish its campaign. In 13 starts, Redmond has been very effective, limiting opponents to three or fewer runs 10 times.
If there's an X-factor in Sunday's game, however, look to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. In three plate appearances against Redmond this season, Longoria has already homered. As we know from the finale of the 2011 season, Tampa's best player has a flair for the dramatic in these late-season games.
Los Angeles Angels vs. Texas Rangers
Despite winning only five games in a 22-day span to start September, the Rangers enter the last day of the season with a chance to get back to October for the fourth straight year.
In perhaps the biggest mismatch of the afternoon, Texas will throw Yu Darvish against Angels lefty Jason Vargas.
While Vargas, a longtime Mariner before last offseason's trade to the Angels, is familiar with pitching in Arlington, that familiarity doesn't necessarily mean success will follow. In 56.1 career innings in Texas, Vargas has pitched to a 4.47 ERA and allowed 10 home runs.
If Darvish (2.22 ERA past four starts) is his usual self, Vargas will have to be close to perfect to knock Texas out. Judging by the venue, he's not up to the task.
Cleveland Indians vs. Minnesota Twins
If Cleveland's offense, with a berth in the Wild Card Game on the line, can't beat up Twins starter Scott Diamond, the Indians might not deserve a ticket to October baseball.
As Diamond's 2013 pitching log shows, the lefty has posted an 8-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio since early July. No, that ratio isn't backwards. He's walked 19 and only struck out eight batters since his start prior to the All-Star break.
It's hard to imagine any pitcher having success with that type of arsenal, let alone one pitching in the American League. Not surprisingly, Diamond's ERA is 6.26 over that span.
The Indians are fifth in the major leagues in runs for a reason: They punish pitchers like Scott Diamond.
It doesn't hurt that the Indians will have Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound. In a resurgent 2013 campaign, Jimenez is 12-9 with a 3.38 ERA—with 10 strikeouts in his one start against the Twins this year.
If all three wild-card contenders emerge victorious, Cleveland will fly home to await the winner of a Texas-Tampa Bay tiebreaker game.
For the Indians, the scenario is quite simple. A win on Sunday guarantees them a wild-card game at Progressive Field on Wednesday. The outcome in Texas and Toronto (where the Rays are playing this weekend) is irrelevant to the Indians' postseason fate on the final day of the 2013 season. Win and they are one of five American League postseason teams.
For Tampa Bay and Texas, the tie complicates matters. If the teams, both sitting at 90-71, depart Sunday's action with identical records (91-71 or 90-72) while Cleveland wins, they'll meet on Monday in a one-game playoff to determine which team heads to Cleveland for the Wild Card Game on Wednesday.
Of course, a chaos scenario is possible. If Tampa and Texas both win and Cleveland loses in Minnesota, all three teams would end the season at 91-71. That would set up a tiebreaking three-way tilt to determine the American League Wild Card. To keep it simple, as Mike Axisa of CBS Sports tried to in this post, the following schedule would then take place:
Monday: Rays at Indians
Tuesday: Rays-Indians loser at Rangers
Wednesday: Tuesday winner at Monday winner
Now that the details have been determined, which team will emerge as the lone AL wild-card winner?
Based on what we know, what could be and the overall strength of the contenders at hand, expect the Tampa Bay Rays to open up the postseason in Fenway Park, leaving the Rangers and Indians on the outside looking in.
Although the Rays would have to win back-to-back do-or-die playoff games (three if you include Sunday at Toronto), they have the pitching depth lined up to make it happen.
On Sunday, Joe Maddon will throw All-Star left-hander Matt Moore. In 11 innings against Toronto this season, Moore has limited the Jays to just three runs. If Tampa gets to the tiebreaker game against Texas, it'll have the 2012 Cy Young winner, David Price, ready to go.
As for the Rangers, they're lining up Yu Darvish, every bit the equal to Price or any other American League ace, to pitch them into a tiebreaker game on Monday.
But unless Ron Washington has an ace up his sleeve, Texas will turn to Martin Perez in Monday's game with Tampa. In order to stage a run back from the wild-card abyss last week, the Rangers needed to use Matt Garza, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish, their three-headed strikeout machine, just to get to where they are now.
If Price defeats Perez in a tiebreaker on Monday, Tampa will fly to Cleveland for the official American League Wild Card Game on Wednesday evening. Judging by what Terry Francona said before Cleveland's victory on Saturday, the Indians don't seem inclined to put their prime position in jeopardy by holding back Ubaldo Jimenez from his Sunday start.
By asking Jimenez to pitch them to Wednesday, which is the right move, the Indians leave themselves vulnerable in a potential battle against Rays right-hander Alex Cobb.
While Texas is hot and Cleveland is in prime position, the Rays have the horses to get through the American League obstacle course that the schedule has created for baseball fans.
All three teams can win. All three teams can lose. Due to only having to win two games, as opposed to three, the Indians seem like the logical choice to head to Boston next weekend.
Logic, however, rarely works when the Rays and late-season magic mix.
Back-to-back losses in Toronto have hurt Tampa Bay's chances, but it still has the best pitching and should prevail.
Which team will emerge as the American League Wild Card?