THE FINISHING KICK – SEPTEMBER 28
By Paul Wales

WILD FINISH FOR THE AL WILD CARD

The race for the two AL Wild Card spots over the last month has been as exciting as any Wild Card race I can remember. Every week it seems like a team starts to get hot while another starts slumping, then a week later the standings are shuffled around again. “Unpredictable” is the best word to describe the last month of baseball for the teams in the hunt for those Wild Card spots, and how tight the race is right now with only 5 games left in the regular season seems unprecedented.

The Slumping Sluggers of 3 weeks ago have now snapped out of their funk (again), have returned to being the Bronx Bombers and are one of the hottest teams in baseball (again), and are now in the midst of a 7 game win streak and hold a 2-game lead for the top wild card spot (again). The Pinstripes began their hot streak with a much needed sweep of the Rangers to remain competitive in the Wild Card standings before the toughest, and most important, 9-game stretch of the season against Boston, Toronto, then Tampa. The Yankees then proceeded to march into Fenway Park and sweep the BoSox in exciting fashion led by Giancarlo Stanton who hit a 3-run homer in the first game, a clutch go-ahead grand slam over the Green Monster in the 8th inning in Game 2, and another home run over The Monster in the 8th inning to extend New York’s lead to 3 and seal the series sweep. After a day off, the Yankees traveled to Toronto where Stanton hit ANOTHER late game 3-run dinger in the 7th inning to extend the NY lead to 4 and help earn the Bronx Bombers their 7th straight win. The Yanks continue their quest for a 3rd straight sweep before they head back home to host a tough series against the Rays, who have the best record in the American League.

Despite getting swept by their long-time rivals on their home field, the Red Sox still hold the 2nd Wild Card spot, although momentum isn’t on their side. Boston closes out their regular season against the Orioles, who have the worst record in the American League, and the Nationals, who are 28 games under .500. The Red Sox have the easiest schedule to finish their season amongst those still in the Wild Card race, so you think they should be able to coast their way to a Wild Card spot, right? Wrong. In a much-needed bounce-back game against the Orioles with Chris Sale starting on the mound, the Sox lost their 4th straight game. Luckily for them, the Blue Jays lost to the Yankees which means they didn’t lose their current Wild Card spot, but Seattle won and now only sits a half game behind them for the 2nd Wild Card spot. Boston needs to snap out of it if they want to have a chance to participate in the Wild Card game.

The Mariners have been on the outside looking in at the Wild Card race for most of the season, but now they’re the closest they’ve been to holding one of the Wild Card spots. The Mariners are also one of the hottest teams in baseball right now, starting their final 10 games with a 6 game win streak and winning 9 of their last 10 games. During their hot streak, they almost knocked the Oakland A’s out of playoff contention, who were ahead of Seattle in the standings, sweeping them in a 4 game series last week and defeating them in their last 2 games. They host one last game against Oakland with hopes of completing their 2nd sweep of the A’s in 2 weeks, eliminating Oakland from playoff contention, before they host the Angels with hopes of overthrowing the Sox or Yankees for that final Wild Card spot.

Toronto began the month of September winning 8 games in a row, but have since lost their momentum. Toronto held a Wild Card spot momentarily during the final month of baseball and now sit only a game back from the Sox with a chance to regain their spot in the standings. After their 3 game series hosting the Yankees, Toronto welcomes Baltimore to town for the final 3 games of the season. With the Red Sox currently slumping and the Mariners and Yankees doing the exact opposite, Canada’s own must play their best baseball to finish the season and hope New York and Seattle cool off in order to take part in the postseason.

Even though baseball is a 162 game season, how tight the AL Wild Card race is shows how every single game matters. There were moments throughout the last two months where some of these teams were counted out from contending for a spot in the postseason, now we have 5 teams still having a reasonable chance at 2 spots and 3 of these teams all being within a game of each other. And you know who might be the most important team in determining how the Wild Card race comes to a finish? BALTIMORE! You read that right, the Orioles. Baltimore, who has a 51-106 record and has been historically terrible for the last 3 years, has the chance to play spoiler to two of the most desperate teams with playoff hopes, the Red Sox and Blue Jays. After a win tonight against Boston, who knows what can happen?