Until recently, major league fans had every reason to spend more time sizing up the American and National League MVP and Cy Young battles than debating pennant races.
Simply put, the chances of multiple September showdowns seemed as likely as witnessing a clean inning by Toronto Blue Jays relief pitchers Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch.
But suddenly games are exciting again in cities like Tampa Bay, Anaheim and St. Louis, where playoff hopes are alive and scoreboard watching amongst players and fans is the norm.
"Everyone has stepped up and contributed to this run," Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon said of his team’s 8-3 stretch that has moved Tampa Bay to within four games of Boston and the AL wild-card lead entering play Thursday. "Now we have to keep it going."
It won't be easy.
Of the Rays' remaining 14 regular-season games, seven are against the AL East-leading New York Yankees and four others versus the second-place Red Sox.
A formidable challenge, indeed, for a club attempting to seize its third post-season berth in four years.
"It's truly not impossible," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told reporters after his team swept Boston last weekend. "Maybe the skeptics are falling off the skeptical wagon into the possible wagon right now.
"What matters is what this group thinks every day when they go out [on the field] and how we go about our business."
Confidence is what the 82-66 Rays had plenty of before the Baltimore Orioles took the final two games of a three-game set this week. Now it’s off to Boston’s Fenway Park for four games against the 86-62 Red Sox, fresh off a two-game split with Toronto.
After Boston it’s two games at Yankee Stadium, followed by the final homestand: three games versus the Jays and three against New York (90-58).
"We're playing teams we need to catch," Damon said. "That's the only reason that we do have a chance — that we have to go head-to-head with Boston and New York."
The Yankees increased their AL East to four games over the Red Sox by taking two of three at Seattle and host the Boston for three games, starting Sept. 23.
Rangers hanging on
The other AL race pits the defending league champion Texas Rangers (85-64) and Los Angeles Angels (82-67) in the West Division. Texas’ lead stood at three games with 13 to play.
The Angels have the starting pitching to squeeze into the playoffs in Cy Young candidate Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.
They also have a favourable schedule with six home games to end the season, including a three-game set versus Texas.
The Rangers have the bats, especially with slugging outfielder Nelson Cruz having recovered from a hamstring injury, but starters like Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando have logged a lot of innings this season — a combined 506 through Tuesday — and have appeared tired.
We're a better-balanced team," Rangers left-handed starter C.J. Wilson told the Dallas Morning News this week. "We've got the offence, we've got the speed, we have great relief pitching.
The experience we got last year is going to be valuable. And we’re really hungry. We really want it."
Cards remain in mix
In the NL, St. Louis has won seven of eight to stay in the wild-card hunt.
Deadline-day pickup Edwin Jackson pitched the 81-68 Cardinals to a 3-2 win Wednesday as they kept pace with the wild-card leading Atlanta Braves (86-64), who have won two in a row.
"We did a good job of taking care of business the past two days," Braves utility man and playoff veteran Eric Hinske told reporters after Atlanta reduced its magic number to nine with a 4-1 victory over Florida on Wednesday afternoon. "Those were [two] huge wins for us."
They might be monstrous in 13 days when the playoff picture is finalized.
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