With the season winding down and the playoff picture in the National League all but decided, barring some last minute insanity from the Washington Nationals, baseball's eyes turn to the American League wild card race, and the two division chases in the Central and the West that have gotten tangled up in it.
While the Boston Red Sox don't enjoy the sort of seemingly impervious lead in the AL East that their NL East counterparts in Atlanta do, they lead by 7.5 games over second-place Tampa Bay going into Wednesday's action -- and just added Clay Buchholz back onto a squad that was already perhaps the most well-rounded elite team of 2013. It's far more likely that there'll be more trouble and turmoil at the top of the West, where the Oakland Athletics recently retook the division lead from the Texas Rangers but hold onto it by a slim two-game margin. And while the Detroit Tigers have stood atop the AL Central for the vast majority of the season, the Cleveland Indians have almost always been close behind; with the Tribe only 4.5 games out of first, the final standings in the Central could easily come down to who best handles the cupcake schedules both teams will be playing over the season's last three weeks.
The two teams won't play each other again this year, unless they meet in the postseason. The only halfway-remarkable threat facing either team before the end of their regular season schedule is the Kansas City Royals, in between chances to beat up on the White Sox, Twins, Marlins, and Astros. The Royals are still very much in the wild card chase -- sixth in line for one of the two berths, but only four games back in the hunt -- and while they're seven games out of first in the Central, depending on how they fare in their remaining games against the two teams above them, they could theoretically win their division outright.
By comparison, the teams in the East -- Red Sox included -- have a bit of a harder row to hoe, since everyone in the division plays everyone else for at least one series over the last few weeks of the year. The results of their head-to-head play between now and the end of September will affect the actual division chase as well. While the Sox have a cushion in the standings to pad them against any temporary bad luck or unexpected outcomes, Tampa Bay's 3-7 record in their last ten games going into Tuesday night has left them in roughly the same position as the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees: One bad week could well and truly end a team's postseason dreams.
Much like the end of last year, the Athletics and Rangers are off in their own little world to end the regular season. Oakland won't see another playoff team for the rest of the year, with the exception of the Rangers themselves, starting next Friday. The Rangers will at least break up the AL West-heavy remainder of their schedule with a pair of trips to Tampa Bay and Kansas City. That said, it's hard to see one of the wild Card spots not going to whoever finishes second in that division -- leaving one remaining slot between the Indians, Royals, Rays, Yankees, and Orioles.
When I picked the Indians to finish second in the Central before the season began, I did so with the caveat that they would not be one of the two AL wild Card teams -- I thought both the AL East and the Detroit Tigers would be so good that the Indians would be outclassed in the standings by whoever was second in the East, in no small part because the Tigers would kick the tar out of them and everyone else up and down the division all year. The Tigers held up their end of the bargain -- Detroit is 15-4 against the Indians this season -- but Cleveland turned around and visited that sort of one-sidedness on Kansas City, and are in the unique spot this September of not having to face another team with anything even close to a winning record except for those very same Royals.
Cleveland's path to the postseason is really quite simple: Play good baseball against Kansas City and take care of business against the White Sox, Astros, and Twins … and then hope that Boston keeps doing to the rest of the division what they managed against the New York Yankees in the team's final visit to the Bronx in 2013: utterly demolishing them. Boston is one of the few teams in the Central and East that Cleveland fans can openly pull for against their Wild Card rivals and have a decent expectation of success.
If the Red Sox keep tearing through the Wild Card teams in the East, Cleveland hangs enough losses on the one other remaining Wild Card contender in the Central, and nothing else crazy happens, the Indians could very well find themselves back in the postseason for the first time since 2007. Not too shabby for a team that finished last year with 68 wins.