Remember the irrelevance of Red Sox games last September? Probably not, since fans weren’t allowed inside of Fenway Park. Even if they had been, the team didn’t offer much of a reason to pay attention to the final weeks of its compressed, last-place campaign.
This September is very different. The Red Sox have somehow withstood the COVID-19 outbreak that swept across their roster, going 7-6 since Kiké Hernández (now back with the team) became the first of nine players to test positive.
As they prepared for a pivotal six-game road trip against the White Sox and Mariners, the Red Sox sat atop a cluster of five AL teams competing for two wild-card spots, a half-game ahead of the Yankees and two games clear of the Blue Jays. They’ve seen enough this year to know that a two-game advantage with 20 remaining is tenuous, but it’s nonetheless a perch that every other aspirant envies.
“We understand where we’re at. We’re in a great position,” said manager Alex Cora. “There’s a lot of teams out there that wish to be in the position we’re in, regardless of our COVID world.”
Here’s a look at the five wild-card contenders.
|Record||Est. chance||vs. .500-plus||vs. sub-.500|
WHY THEY MIGHT MAKE IT: They’re in the best position and control their fate; they’re about to get the A team back, with several players coming off the COVID IL this weekend; the arrival of Kyle Schwarber and the eruptions of Hunter Renfroe and Bobby Dalbec have given them explosive lineup depth; and Nate Eovaldi and Chris Sale have looked like stabilizers who will keep them on track.
WHY THEY MIGHT NOT: The bullpen has lost structure because of struggles by nearly every high-leverage option; the defense regularly self-immolates; and the lineup has blown hot and cold, with Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez delivering minimal impact in the second half. And they can’t take for granted that the embers of the COVID outbreak have been stomped out.
It turns out that a 30-8 second-half run, which included a 13-game winning streak in August, was hard to sustain. The Yankees have nosedived in a 2-9 stretch, going from a potential run at the division to a scramble to maintain a playoff spot. The Blue Jays outscored the Yankees, 19-4, in the first three games of this week’s four-game series.
WHY THEY MIGHT MAKE IT: They still have a lead; Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton (17 combined homers in August, 2 in September) are sleeping giants; and Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, and Corey Kluber are capable of a run.
WHY THEY MIGHT NOT: They have to continue playing the Blue Jays — the hottest team in baseball — and have a lot of games against the unforgiving opposition of the AL East; they’re in a withering stretch of 20 games in as many days; Cole is dealing with some degree of hamstring injury; the boom-or-bust offense is in a bust cycle; and Aroldis Chapman’s struggles have made the late innings insecure.
On Aug. 27, the Blue Jays dropped to 66-61, 9½ games behind the Yankees for the top wild-card spot and 6½ games behind the Red Sox for the second ticket. Evaluators couldn’t make sense of their mediocrity, shrugged their shoulders, and noted that the Blue Jays seemed poised to make noise in the AL East in years to come.
“Years to come” turned into “days to come.” The Jays then went 10-1, a run that included seven straight wins entering Thursday, including three each against Oakland and New York.
WHY THEY MIGHT MAKE IT: Their lineup is terrifying; their underrated pitching staff, anchored by Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray, has been among the best in the AL; they have 14 games remaining against two last-place teams and a home series against the Yankees.
WHY THEY MIGHT NOT: They have more games than anyone else against the Rays — the best team in the AL; they’re amid a potentially exhausting stretch of 24 games in as many days; and as ridiculously good as their lineup is, at least a couple of their seven hitters with an OPS in excess of 1.000 this month (Danny Jansen? Alejandro Kirk? Breyvic Valera?) are probably going to return to earth.
On paper, the Mariners have no business being squarely in this mix. They’ve been outscored by 53 runs this year. In the eight seasons with two wild cards (2012-19), no team has reached the postseason with a negative run differential. Still, the Mariners have proven capable of hanging with tough teams (they split six recent games against Houston).
WHY THEY MIGHT MAKE IT: The majority of their games are against bad teams; they have a chance to advance their cause by hosting the Red Sox for three games next week at T-Mobile Park, where they are 40-29; and they’ve defied logic with a magic carpet ride to this point, so why stop?
WHY THEY MIGHT NOT: If run differential is a decent indicator of true talent, what does it say that Seattle’s is worse than the 58-81 Marlins’ (-37); their rotation seems to be succeeding with smoke and mirrors; and their run-scoring has been dependent on vastly greater success with runners in scoring position than without, a phenomenon that often proves fickle.
While the A’s leapfrogged the Red Sox in mid-August, they’ve since gone 7-15, with the rest of the field zooming past them. They now face what appears to be the toughest schedule among the contenders.
WHY THEY MIGHT MAKE IT: They have made a habit in recent years of September surges to push into the postseason; if Chris Bassitt can return from that frightening comebacker, he and Frankie Montas could give them two anchors for a postseason push.
WHY THEY MIGHT NOT: Their pitching staff appears largely to have hit a wall, and their schedule will do them few favors in pushing through it. They also must leapfrog the rest of the field.