The Week Ahead: Teams jockeying for position
No shortage of Wild Card contenders as season steams toward second part of August
The Olympic flame has been extinguished, but the baseball season is just starting to ignite.
Back in the hardball haven, things are just beginning to get wild, and as we steam into the week that take us into late August, the emphasis appears to be on that word.
Wild. As in Wild Card.
Seriously. Just take a look at said standings after Sunday's play. Chances are the word "wow" might tumble from your lips. An unusually epic September of close division races is setting up to begin with, but adding the extra Wild Card berths and seeing how tightly bunched all the teams are, it might just be the best postseason countdown ever.
It's easy to be impressed by some of the commanding division leaders, such as the Yankees in the American League East, the Rangers in the AL West, the Nationals in the National League East and the Reds in the NL Central.
But the rest of the story is in complete and utter joyous disarray, although we could get some significant clues as to how it'll all play out by watching the events of this calendar week.
In the AL Wild Card standings, Tampa Bay and Baltimore are tied at the top entering Monday's games, with the Rays having won six in a row. Then there's Oakland, Detroit and the Angels, all within two games of the lead.
Each team has a great story so far this year, from the Rays winning without Evan Longoria, who's back now; to Baltimore hanging in the East all year; to Oakland coming out of nowhere; and Detroit finally playing to its potential. For the Angels, of course, there's Mike Trout. And Mark Trumbo.
A's reliever Ryan Cook spoke about his team and could have been speaking for any of the others, which means a grand Wild Card chase is already well under way.
"The one thing I can say about this team is every person in this clubhouse believes in one another," Cook said. "That weighs heavily. We're not getting hits or outs for ourselves -- we're getting them for everybody.
"It's an extremely selfless team. It's chemistry. Top to bottom, it comes from a belief we have in each other. There are days when [the offense] is struggling, and we're going to keep them to one less run. And there are days when they're raking, and we're going to do our part to keep it under control."
And it's not only going on in the AL. Over in the NL, the races are getting more intense by the day, and the Wild Card side of things is not disappointing.
After Sunday's games, Atlanta and Pittsburgh are sitting atop the Wild Card standings. The Dodgers and last year's World Series champions, the Cardinals, are only 2 1/2 games behind. Last year's NL West champs, the Arizona Diamondbacks, have been playing better of late and are 6 1/2 games out.
A marathon stretch of road games restarts for Arizona this week when the D-backs head to St. Louis and Houston, after spending the weekend at home following a 10-game trip. A big Sunday win over Washington had to help their spirits.
"I was in the elevator with some people and everybody talked about how the Nationals beat us [Friday and Saturday]; I just thought we beat ourselves," manager Kirk Gibson said prior to Sunday's 7-4 victory. "They are a good team and you can't do that to them. I got up early this morning thinking about it. Guys are busting their tails and the schedule is probably getting to us right now."
Meanwhile, also on Sunday, Pittsburgh continued a storybook season by erupting against the Padres. Last year the Bucs peaked in late July but staggered down the stretch and couldn't manage what would have been their first winning season since 1992. This year they're looking like they're here to stay.
"We're pretty good," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're not perfect. We'll confuse you. We'll probably anger you from time to time, but we're going to let it all hang out. We're going to play hard."
They and all the other Wild Card contenders will be back at it as another exciting week of discovery and intrigue begins on the rapidly shortening road to October.