Just three weeks ago, on Aug. 24, the Rays were tied for the AL East lead. One only needs to go back half as far, to Sept. 5, to find the most recent date the Rangers held a share of first place in the AL West. Even as the Red Sox and Athletics overtook them in the divisional standings, the Rays and Rangers had cushions in the wild card standings of at least five games.
But after both lost on Sunday, the two are barely clinging to their wild cards with identical 81-67 records, just a half-game ahead of the Indians -- not to mention two and a half games over the Orioles, three over the Yankees and three and a half over the Royals -- with Texas now traveling to Tampa Bay to start a four-game series Monday night.
With the two playing each other, wins and losses become a zero-sum game -- somebody has to lose every night -- which should give ample opportunity for the chasing cluster to gain ground. The best case for the trailing teams, who of course only care about snagging one of the two slots, is that there’s a sweep so that one of the current wild card leaders adds four to the loss column. Look for Monday night’s winner at Tropicana Field to suddenly become very popular in Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and Kansas City.
Tampa Bay’s been playing poorly for a prolonged stretch, though three straight wins Thursday through Saturday were a needed antidote. Previously, it had gone 4-13 since its last day in a share for the division lead. The Rays are now nine and a half games behind the Red Sox in the East.
Texas’ downturn has been brief but dramatic. The Rangers have lost six straight and 11 of 13, including a 1-5 record against the A’s, creating 6 1/2 games of separation between them and effectively ending the race in the West.
Despite it all, Tampa Bay and Texas remain better than even bets to make the playoffs -- 54.6 percent for the Rays and 58.1 percent for the Rangers, according to coolstandings.com -- but let’s not forget Team Entropy and all its wild scenarios of disorder and chaos in the wild card standings. After all, this week’s series against each other isn’t their only time facing contenders: the Rangers travel from Tampa Bay to Kansas City for three games (before ending the season with seven home games against the Astros and Angels), and the Rays welcome the Orioles for four games after the Rangers leave, before traveling to see the Yankees for three (and then finishing north of the border with three against the Blue Jays).
Everyone remembers the unprecedented Game 162 drama in 2011, and the way the AL wild card race is shaping up, an encore isn’t out of the question.