MLB: AL East offers a welcome down-to-the-wire play-off race

Gregg Patton writes that the coming slate of season-ending games between the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Orioles promises a wild and compelling finish.
The New York Yankees' resurgence has led an extra element of drama to the AL East race in the closing weeks of the baseball season. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images / AFP / September 10, 2016
The New York Yankees' resurgence has led an extra element of drama to the AL East race in the closing weeks of the baseball season. Jim McIsaac / Getty Images / AFP / September 10, 2016

The baseball schedule is designed to create maximum tension as the season comes to a close, by pitting division rivals against each other.

Oddly enough, it rarely works, except this year in the American League East. With just over two weeks left in the regular season, four of the five AL East teams are involved in a massive brawl that changes shape every night.

Like a pack of wild dogs scrapping for a morsel of food, the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays keep taking small bites out of each other, hoping to win the division title or secure one of the two available wild card entries into the post-season.

There isn’t room for everyone. Going into the weekend, Boston led the division, two games ahead of Baltimore and Toronto, and five ahead of New York.

Baltimore and Toronto held the two wild card spots, with New York three back.

Besides the desperadoes from the AL East, two more AL teams – the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners – were within two of the second wild card spot.

The AL East’s entertaining round-robin of action will continue until the final day, October 2. Boston and New York each will play 13 of their final 16 games within the division’s fearsome foursome.

Baltimore and Toronto will play 10 such games.

Every day brings play-off-level intensity, which Toronto manager John Gibbons described as “pretty exciting, for the outside world”.

For the players, it’s hard not to surrender to the emotions of one win, or one loss.

“We can’t lose any focus because we have a lot of work to do,” Mark Trumbo told reporters this week after his home run led Baltimore over Boston, 1-0, keeping them close.

Packing the final month of the MLB season with intra-division games is great theory. But the pay-off is neither guaranteed, nor frequent.

Division races often are resolved by the final weeks, turning those planned, compelling rivalry showdowns into boring afterthoughts.

This year, the Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals have run away with their divisions. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians have minimal work left to win theirs.

When it works, however, it is terrific drama. When it works with four teams, it feels historic.

A Boston win on Thursday over New York with a five-run ninth inning seemed epic.

Boston have been the highest scoring team in baseball, with some complimentary strong starting pitching from David Price and Rick Porcello.

Baltimore’s success is predicated on an MLB-high 232 home runs and a closer named Zachary Britton. He did not allow a run in 43 consecutive appearances between May 5 and August 22, and has converted all 43 of his save opportunities.

Toronto have had a rough September (4-9), despite boasting the best starting staff in the division.

The surprise team are New York. Seemingly out of the race in July, they traded their best hitter, Carlos Beltran, as well as bullpen stars Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller.

Then they talked their eroded superstar Alex Rodriguez into retiring, and turned half of their line-up over to prospects.

Epitomising New York’s rise from nowhere is rookie catcher Gary Sanchez, who hit 11 home runs in his first 23 games, a record. He now has 14 in 145 at bats, a better-than-Babe Ruth pace.

With no expectations and little pressure upon them, New York surged into the race.

New York manager, Joe Girardi, said, “The big thing is, they feel good about themselves.”

So do the schedule-makers.

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Published: September 16, 2016 04:00 AM

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