Three small-market teams will battle for the American League Wild Card spots and the race is incredibly tight.
The National League has grabbed most of the playoff race headlines this season thanks to the sheer number of teams that have managed to stay around .500 and in the conversation for a Wild Card. It hasn’t been quite the same in the American League, where the same six playoff contenders have isolated themselves all year with little competition from the rest of the league. That doesn’t necessarily make the race any less interesting to follow, however.
All three AL divisions have been effectively locked up for a few weeks, but the Wild Card race will come down to the wire. Adding intrigue, all three teams in the hunt are small-market clubs who have all been forced to get creative with their rosters in different ways this year. The Tampa Bay Rays have taken their concept of an opener to another level and have used over 30 pitchers this year, the Oakland A’s are aggressively calling up top prospects, while the Cleveland Indians have been forced to wheel and deal and work around multiple injuries to big stars.
With just over two weeks of action left, this is the closest playoff race in the league, with three teams separated by only two games. Any of the three teams vying for the final two spots could emerge with the top spot just as easily as they could come up agonizingly short of getting a chance to play on into October.
1. Tampa Bay Rays (+1.5 games top spot, +2.0 games overall)
The Tampa Bay Rays have been on a tear to push themselves to the top of the AL Wild Card race, winning 11 of 12, including a three-game sweep of Cleveland. The Rays look to be in the driver’s seat heading into the final 16 games of the season, but they still haven’t managed to open much of a lead despite being on fire. Tampa Bay will get a big boost at the end of the week when reigning Cy Young Blake Snell returns from the injured list.
The Rays have done it their own way all year, so why stop now. They continue to work with only one traditional starting pitcher in the rotation and have a lineup of underrated, versatile players. One big star of the September surge so far has been Austin Meadows, who has hit .516/.595/1.129 in the first nine games of the month with five home runs and 11 RBI. If he stays on that tear for another week, the Rays will be hard to beat.
Pitching has been what has elevated the Rays to the top of the race, and they continue to lead the AL in ERA. The opener isn’t for everyone, but Tampa Bay has found a way to contend on their shoestring budget and their entire staff should be commended. Manager Kevin Cash has expertly navigated his way through an ever-changing cast of arms and has nearly 20 pitchers to work with right now.
No one player stands out for the Rays, but the entire group is solid. That has allowed them to post a winning record in every month of the season but June. The Rays haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013, but that changes this year. They’re the best of the three small-market teams battling for the final two spots.