Why the Chase for the AL West Title Is MLB's Most Important Divisional Race

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

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The divisional race died in 1994. And the wild card killed it. 

When a second-place team can sneak into the playoffs, what does first-place matter? Sure, there's home-field advantage (and bragging rights) to consider. The idea of going all-out for the division flag, though, was buried two decades ago.

Or so the story goes.

If you ask the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics, they'd tell you reports of the division title's death have been greatly exaggerated. 

There are other races worth watching in 2014. The rebel Kansas City Royals versus the Detroit Tigers empire in the American League Central. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants rekindling an age-old rivalry in the National League West.

But nothing compares to the heavyweight bout going down in the AL West.  

Entering play Friday, the Angels, at 76-50, lead the 74-52 A's by two games. They are the two best squads in baseball, at least by record. Only one, though, can don the division crown.

That matters, ironically, because of the addition of another playoff team.

If it took one wild card to kill the division race—or at least put it on life support—it took two to revive it.

Under the new postseason format, the winner of the A's-Angels slug-fest will cruise into the best-of-five division series, while the loser will be forced into a do-or-die one-game cage match where anything can happen.

A 162-game marathon condensed into a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sprint. It's a dream for teams on the fringe, scraping and clawing to stay in the hunt.

For a powerhouse club with World Series ambitions, it's a nightmare that puts Elm Street to shame.

And make no mistake: Both the A's and Angels have their sights trained on the ultimate prize.

Oakland announced as much with their acquisitions of Jeff Samardzija from the Chicago Cubs and Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox. In return, the A's cashed in top prospect Addison Russell and Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes, among other chips. 

Here's how Joel Sherman of the New York Post broke it down:

While most front offices operate out of fear at this time of year, [Billy] Beane’s A’s stand out: Bold. Aggressive. Unafraid. Oakland is no longer trying to improve at the margins. Some ambitious Hollywood executive needs to get Brad Pitt on speed dial for Moneyball II: Going For It.

Los Angeles didn't go as big at the deadline, though they did nab closer Huston Street from the San Diego Padres to shore up a listing bullpen.

Recently, the Angels were dealt a blow that may leave them wishing they'd done more: Right-hander Garrett Richards, an undisputed stud and the Halos' surprise No. 1, suffered a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 20. 

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 20: Garrett Richards #43 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signals to the fans after he suffered a leg injury against the Boston Red Sox and is carried off the field on a stretcher during the second inning at Fenway Park on August 2
Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

Even before the Richards bombshell, the Angels' rotation was riddled with question marks. Tyler Skaggs is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and No. 3 starter C.J. Wilson owns an unsightly 4.59 ERA. 

Now, aside from Jered Weaver, it's worth wondering if Los Angeles has any starters you'd trust in a big-game, bright-lights situation.

The A's, meanwhile, have troubles of their own. After dominating the competition for most of the season, they've gone 8-11 in August and have lost six of their last seven.

They've averaged a scant 1.7 runs per game over that stretch, an anemic output for the league's top-scoring offense. 

Overall, the A's have seen their runs-per-game plummet—from five to 3.6—since trading Cespedes.

Correlation or causation?

“I get this question almost every day,” Oakland skipper Bob Melvin told The New York Times' John Branch. “Look, the numbers are the numbers. At some point in time we have to get past that." 

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 14:  Starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija #29 of the Oakland Athletics hands the ball to manager Bob Melvin #6 as Josh Donaldson #20 looks on in the 7th inning after being pulled from the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffma
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They'll get a chance Friday, when they open a three-game series against the Angels in the East Bay. Then, after an intermission in Houston, the A's will head to Anaheim for a four-game set to close out the month.

Add another three-game series between the AL West leaders in September, and this is a race that seems destined to go the distance.

Oh, right. We haven't even mentioned the Seattle Mariners, who sit eight games out entering Friday but trail the Tigers by only half a game for the second wild card.

Which means either the A's or Angels could wind up facing Seattle—and royal ace Felix Hernandez—in that nightmare one-game scenario.

If that doesn't convince you the divisional race is alive and well, nothing will.