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The Strike Zone

AL wild card races heat up as O's-A's and Yankees-Rays square off this weekend

Tommy Milone, A'sTommy Milone and the A's are trying to get back to the postseason for the second straight year. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

In the wake of the Yankees' recent surge, the top three wild-card challengers in the American League -- the Indians, the Orioles and New York -- are all within 3 1/2 games of the league's second wild card spot (currently held by the A's), and they're within five games of the wild-card leading Rays. This weekend, each of the wild card leaders will be taking on one of the challengers, with every team but the Indians (who can still make headway against the Twins) playing games that could prove crucial to the playoff race.

The Yankees, who have won 10 of their last 12 games, take their five-game winning streak down to Florida to take on Tampa Bay. The Rays were the AL's hottest team in July, and despite a six-game losing streak earlier this month, have won six of their last eight, including a just-completed series win in Baltimore.

Speaking of the O's, they welcome Oakland to town this weekend for a three-game series that could tie the two teams in the standings if Baltimore sweeps, but that isn't very likely. The Orioles have actually been a game below .500 since June 21, and have lost six of nine coming into this weekend. Then again, they did take three of four in Oakland in April and the A's have been struggling to score runs in the second half, plating just 3.9 runs per game and going 8-12 over their last 20 games.

Oakland is also banged up. Right fielder Josh Reddick sprained his right wrist on Wednesday night and could be headed back to the disabled list with the same injury that cost him most of May. Outfielder Seth Smith has been out for a week due to an astigmatism, which could explain his career-worst performance at the plate this season. Starter Bartolo Colon just hit the DL with a strained groin. Catcher Derek Norris broke his left big toe in a home plate collision with the Mariners' Nick Franklin on Tuesday and is trying to avoid the DL. With John Jaso on the DL following a concussion, the team just reacquired catcher Kurt Suzuki, who is hitting .223/.284/.311 this year, in an effort to avoid having to use third baseman Josh Donaldson as its backup catcher.

Friday night's starters are evenly matched, with A's rookie Dan Straily taking on the O's recently-acquired Bud Norris. Norris pitched well, if inefficiently, in his first three starts for Baltimore, but had his routine interrupted by an emergency relief appearance in a 14-inning loss to the Diamondbacks last week. It took Norris just four pitches to lose that game, and he struggled in his only start since, but that outing came just two days after the relief stint, so it will be interesting to see how he does in the opener against Oakland with a full five days of rest.

Colon's injury means that the A's will be sending Tommy Milone to the mound to take on Chris Tillman on Saturday. Milone, who had been optioned to Triple-A earlier this month, failed to complete the fifth inning in his previous start as Colon's injury replacement. The matchup clearly favors Norris and the Orioles, but Oakland has the advantage on Sunday when Jarrod Parker, coming off a pair of dominant outings in which he allowed a total of two runs in 17 1/3 innings, takes the hill against either Scott Feldman or Miguel Gonzalez.

The most compelling pitching matchup of these two series likely comes Friday night in St. Petersburg when AL ERA leader Hiroki Kuroda (11-8, 2.41) starts for the Yankees against the Rays' AL Rookie of the Year frontrunner Chris Archer (6-5, 2.95). Archer played a key role in the aforementioned six-game losing streak Tampa Bay had earlier this month, as he left the second of those six losses in the second inning with forearm tightness, then struggled in his next start, which was the sixth game in that streak. He rebounded nicely in his last start, however (7 IP, 1 R), shutting out the Bombers when he last faced them on July 27 -- he has allowed just one run in 15 innings against New York this season. Kuroda will be making his first start against the Rays this year, but he struggled against them in 2012, with a 6.11 ERA in three starts, his highest against any team he faced more than once that year.

Tampa Bay has a clearer advantage on Saturday with David Price opposing the struggling CC Sabathia, a matchup that would have been a must-see as recently as last year. Things tighten up again on Sunday, however, with righty Ivan Nova, who has a 2.54 ERA in nine starts and one five-plus inning relief appearance since rejoining the Yankees in late June, taking on Alex Cobb, who has gone 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts since returning from the disabled list.

New York is still a long shot to make the playoffs given that the team is due to cool off after its recent surge, which still only got the club to fifth place in the wild-card race. Still, it's hard to deny that with Curtis Granderson, Alfonso Soriano and Alex Rodriguez in the lineup, and Mark Reynolds providing a dangerous platoon partner for first baseman Lyle Overbay, the Yankees' offense is more potent than it has been all season. They are also once again close to getting Derek Jeter back from the DL, something that could happen this weekend. New York passed recent tests by taking two of three from the Tigers and Red Sox, but more challenges remain: first against the Rays this weekend, then the Orioles next weekend and then an 11-game stretch against Boston and Baltimore starting Sept. 6. The Yankees postseason pipe dream rides on those matchups.

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