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AL East shows signs of getting back on track with impressive weekend

For the more than two decades, no division has dominated major league baseball quite like the American League East. Beginning with the Toronto Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and ’93, the AL East has combined to win 10 of the past 21 world championships, and in the first 17 seasons of the wild-card era, a member of that division claimed the extra playoff spot 13 times. The postseason field expanded again in 2012, and an AL East team won the Wild Card game each of the past two seasons, meaning that the AL East has comprised half of the league’s final four in 15 of the last 19 seasons.

Given that track record, there seemed little reason to expect anything different this year. But when MLB reached the All-Star break this season, only one AL East team was in position for a playoff spot. In fact, the division’s underwhelming performance had been one of the season’s dominant storylines. The Orioles had moved into first place almost by default, as the Blue Jays cooled off noticeably after their unexpectedly hot start, the Yankees were one more injured pitcher away from asking Whitey Ford to come out of retirement and the Rays seemed to have reverted back to the Devil-ish ways of their infancy. Even the defending world champion Red Sox were playing as if their title run was nothing more than a fluke, entering the break in a virtual tie with Tampa Bay for last place.

It was surprising, then, to note that the biggest story to come out of the first weekend of the season’s second-half was that the AL East may be showing signs of life. Three of the division’s five clubs,t he Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, completed sweeps on Sunday, while the Blue Jays won their series by taking two of three from the Rangers. Only the first-place Orioles failed to win their series, but Baltimore gets something of a pass given that it was playing the majors’ best team, the A’s, on the road.

Baltimore’s lead is down to three games, and with the Mariners’ loss to the Angels in Anaheim, New York and Toronto moved to within 1 ½ games of the second wild-card spot, with Boston and Tampa Bay now six games out. And while the latter pair has a larger mountain to climb before they can truly be considered contenders, their success this weekend is merely a continuation of what they began before baseball took a four-day hiatus to host the Derek Jeter Show in Minnesota. The Red Sox have now won seven of eight and the Rays have won 14 of 18.

In Boston, Jon Lester continued his stellar surge with eight shutout innings in the Sox’ 6-0 win over the Royals at Fenway Park. It was the third time in four starts he did not allow a run, and he improved to 10-7 with a 2.50 ERA.

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Lester will be a free agent at season’s end, but there has been little chatter about him on the trade market. The opposite is true for the Rays’ David Price, another ace lefty who has become the most talked about name as the July 31 deadline approaches. Price was the only Tampa Bay player who was at Target Field for last week’s All-Star Game, and he was the biggest star during its sweep of the Twins.

He threw eight shutout innings to beat Minnesota on Saturday, making him 6-1 with a 1.45 ERA over his last seven starts. Chris Archer has a far more modest streak going, but his victory on Sunday marked the first time he’d won consecutive decisions all year, and it helped the Rays match their best winning streak of the season at five games.

As for the Yankees, their three wins against Cincinnati in the Bronx marked their first home sweep in a series of at least three games this year. Jacoby Ellsbury keyed the 3-2 win on Sunday with his first 4-for-4 game this season, and he added two stolen bases and a sliding catch in the outfield, offering the best evidence yet he can still be the game-changing force New York paid $153 million to acquire last offseason. He also scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, when three Reds allowed Brian McCann’s harmless pop up to fall just on the edge of the outfield grass for what became a game-winning single.

If the Orioles get something of a pass for having to play the majors’ best team on the road this weekend, perhaps the Blue Jays should be docked some for not managing to sweep the majors’ worst team at home. The Rangers entered the second half on an atrocious 3-22 nosedive, yet managed to steal one of the three games in Canada this weekend. The Jays will now have some more formidable competition with their next 10 games against the Red Sox, including a four-game set in Toronto starting Monday, and Yankees.

In a season that has hardly gone according to historical precedent for the AL East, few things are predictable, but we know this much: This weekend’s trio of sweeps by those clubs won’t be replicated next weekend. The Rays will be hosting the Red Sox while the Blue Jays are at Yankee Stadium and the Orioles will be able to do their division foes a favor by knocking off the Mariners in Seattle.

This is just the start of a closing stretch in which these division foes will face each other with increasing frequency; the Blue Jays, for instance, have 41 of their remaining 63 games against their quartet of division rivals. Which means that the biggest roadblock to more AL East dominance in October may just be the AL East itself.