Reasons to Root for Each Team in Crowded AL Wild-Card Race

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Friday September 15th, 2017

The AL Wild Card race may be a Gordian Knot of mediocre baseball teams, but even .500 teams offers pockets of joy.  Let’s set aside for the moment that if things continue on their current trajectory, the winner of the wild-card game will play the Indians, who just won their 22nd straight. (It’s not necessarily true that nothing can stop Cleveland right now. No one has tried wooden stakes yet, or Kryptonite.) Granted, it will be a tall order for any of these wild-card teams to get past the Tribe, but odd things happen in short series.

What everyone should really root for is a brain-melting five-way tie. But beyond that, if you’re trying to figure out which team to cheer on in this wild-card morass, there are reasons to be excited about all of these scraggly, odd, never-say-die teams. So in order of the current standings, here are a few reasons to enjoy every one of the many, many AL wild-card contenders.

Yankees (1st wild card: +5 games)

Aaron Judge has spent a large chunk of the second half struggling... and he’s still hit 43 home runs this season, including two on Thursday. (Orioles pitching is currently chicken soup for the slumping baseball soul; Judge has 11 homers against them this season).

The likely AL Rookie of the Year, Judge is a primal type of player: He’s the size of a house and he accordingly hits the ball ludicrously hard and just as far. There’s more to his game than enormous dingers, but it’s that aspect of him that lights up baseball fans’ lizard brains.  

Besides, don’t you want him and Jose Altuve (who could very well be the AL MVP) on national TV together this October? You’d think that would have gotten old by now; it has not.

Twins (2nd wild card +1 games)

Byron Buxton is fast. Very fast. Extremely fast.

His August 18 inside-the-park home run set a record; it’s taken me longer to get a sock on in the morning than it took Buxton to round the bases. The Reds’ Billy Hamilton is an intriguing player because of his speed, but there’s a slight problem: He’s not a good hitter, so you rarely get to see it. Buxton, a top prospect, was always supposed to be different, yet early this summer, after several disappointing seasons, it was starting to look like he would never get there.

That’s only made it sweeter to watch him put everything together. In 42 games since the All-Star break, he’s hitting .311/.354/.595, good for a 146 OPS+. His fifteenth homer of the season gave the Twins a walk-off win Thursday against the Blue Jays.

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Ange--

Just kidding. Did you think we forgot about Bartolo? Never. Colon is, at 44, the oldest player in the majors and Exhibit A in the museum of Looks Can Be Deceiving. The Twins, to their credit, know how to celebrate him.  Even he isn’t immortal, and his overall numbers this year aren’t pretty at all, but now and then he can still go out there and, say, throw seven shutout innings against Milwaukee.  It’s been a rough year for all of us, and the country deserves to watch Bartolo Colon do his thing in the playoffs. And in the remarkably unlikely event that this team—which, as a reminder, decided to sell at the trade deadline—somehow got to the World Series, we might even get to see him hit.

Angels (1 game back)

It’s no easy feat to be both the universally acknowledged best player in baseball and already one of the sport’s all-time greats at the age of 26, yet still somehow be underappreciated. But that’s Mike Trout for you. In a just world every American would spend part of their day staring at his highlights and Baseball-Reference page in contemplative wonder.

Part of the issue is that the most interest aspect of his personality that he’s revealed publicly is a keen interest in meteorology. But a lot of it is playing in Anaheim, between the time difference and the uninspiring nature of recent Angels teams. Trout has played in only three career postseason games, back when he was 22, and he got one hit. That .083 postseason batting average for this spectacular player should not be allowed to stand.

Mariners (3 1/2 games back)

There are plenty of enjoyable players on the Mariners – Robinson Cano and his sweet swing, James Paxton’s dazzling strikeouts—but more than any particular player, it’s just time for this fan base to catch a break. Seattle’s playoff drought is is currently the longest in the majors. 2001 wasn’t that long ago… but it’s long enough. And they’ve come so close; with just a tiny dash of better luck here and there, that drought would be long gone. This year, they at one point had four of their five starting pitchers on the DL, yet they’re still, more or less, in the running. Considering that the Mariners are playing exactly .500 baseball, that might say more about the AL this season than it does about their tenacity, but hey—they’re here, and Paxton and Felix Hernandex are on their way back from (more) injuries. It would be a crime against the baseball gods for King Felix, however diminished he may be now, to go his entire career without seeing October.

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Royals (4 games back)

The Royals were supposed to sell. With five impending free agents—Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Jason Vargas—and without the payroll to keep most of them, the idea was that they would restock their farm system, give up on this season and look to the future.

Instead, the team decided to keep the old gang together for one last job in the face of steep odds. When this happens in the movies, it rarely goes well. But over the next few weeks Kansas City will do their best to transform this framework from a gritty, bloody crime drama into a lighthearted heist movie where the protagonists pull off that last big score. At the very least, they’ll go out together.

Rangers (5 games back)

Five games isn’t insurmountable, but with so many teams ahead of them, the Rangers are only barely still in this race. But I’m including them anyway because, even playing through a hamstring injury, you want to watch Adrian Beltre in the playoffs.

Beltre has given us many things during his time in the game: a years-long running sort-of joke about hating to have his head touched; some of the best third base defense in history; the elevation of goofing around with Elvis Andrus into an art form; 3,000 hits. Just this season, when told by an irate umpire to get back inside the on-deck circle, he picked up the entire circle and moved it, leading to his ejection, and also one of the best, trolliest promotions in baseball history. The old saying is that every time you watch a baseball game you have the chance to see something you’ve never seen before; with Adrian Beltre, that’s more of a guarantee.

His hamstring is bothering him now, but this is a man who once played with a colostomy bag under his uniform. The only thing he still needs is a World Series ring.

Stranger things have happened. Probably.

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