Last time out, I examined the NL Wild Card race, so this time it’s the junior circuit’s turn.

As I write this, the Red Sox lead the fray by a game over the Angels, one-and-a-half games over the Rangers and three-and-a-half games over the Indians. Once again, let’s see how the wild card contenders’ remaining schedules shape up:

Team        Home/Road Games     Opp. Winning %
Red Sox       26/22                 0.499
Angels        24/23                 0.495
Rangers       30/19                 0.497
Indians       23/23                 0.518

What’s notable is that the Indians have a tougher go of it than the rest of the wild card field. What’s also notable is that the Rangers play more than 60% of their remaining schedule at home. That’s of particular importance to Texas, who is 32-18 at home and only 29-33 on the road.

Turning to third-order wins on Clay Davenport’s Adjusted Standings Page, we get the following component-level standings, adjusted for strength of opposition (win-loss figures are rounded off):

Team           W    L    GB
Red Sox        69   43   -
Angels         61   53   9
White Sox      59   52   10 ½
Rangers        59   53   11
Orioles        58   54   12
Tigers         58   55   12 ½
Indians        57   58   14 ½

According to third-order wins, the Red Sox are squarely superior to the rest of the field. The White Sox have also drastically underachieved this season, and the Indians find themselves, on the component level, behind mediocrities like the Orioles and Tigers.

Given the semi-arduous schedule ahead and their disappointing third-order profile, it’s hard to muster a strong case for the Indians in terms of the wild card. Joe Sheehan recently deconstructed the Indians’ surprising season. The truth is, the Indians have a much better chance of overtaking the Twins in the Central than they do of emerging from the wild card battle royal. As Joe points out, the Indians, who are only three games back of the Twins at this moment in time, play almost 30% of their remaining games against Minnesota–13 to be precise. The Tribe will square off against the Twins in six of their next nine games, and because of the way the schedule falls, they’ll see Johan Santana and Brad Radke only once between them over those six contests. Santana and Radke rank sixth and 12th, respectively, in Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement Pitcher, while the rest of the rotation has ranged from mediocre to comfortably sub-optimal. In other words, if the Indians are to make their move in the Central, it’s likely to occur over the next 10 days.

The Angels face the easiest schedule of any wild card contender, and the seeming renaissance of Bartolo Colon (2.25 R/G since the break) will also be a boon to their cause. On the downside, Chone Figgins seems to be returning to his established level of production, and Tim Salmon still looks pension-worthy at the dish.

What’s hard to ignore is Boston’s staggering advantage in third-order wins. They’re a worse team because of the deadline trade of Nomar Garciaparra, but they’re still a good team. Kevin Millar is finally hitting, David Ortiz isn’t slowing down, and Pedro Martinez is on pace for, believe it or not, 231 innings this season. The Sox are also weathering a production drought from Manny Ramirez, and that doesn’t figure to last much longer.

Predictably, Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera have been out-making vacuities at the plate, but, I suppose, some of that is offset by their defensive contributions, which is the stated reason for acquiring them in the first place.

Meanwhile, Scott Williamson won’t be back before September, and Trot Nixon may be lost for the season. However, Ramiro Mendoza has been very effective since returning from injury, and Mark Bellhorn should come off the DL in about 10 days. And Byung-Hyun Kim is presently being stretched out on a rehab assignment at Pawtucket, and he figures to provide quality innings of some kind down the stretch.

This is a long way of saying that, despite the fact that the Red Sox are a flawed team in the throes of an ill-advised blockbuster trade, they’re still the team to beat for the wild card.

At the end of this month, the Sox host the Angels and Rangers in back-to-back series. It might be wise for Terry Francona to begin juggling the rotation so that he gets a total of three starts from Martinez and Curt Schilling over those six games. Boston has two off days between now and then, so there’s freedom to tweak.

It’s the Rangers, by dint of their favorable home-road docket the rest of the way, and the Angels, via their talent base, that the Sox need to fret over. We talk at length about high-leverage innings for relievers, but the concept of high-leverage games in terms of manipulating the rotation is also something to consider. Those six days in Boston could determine who claims the final AL playoff spot. All teams involved would do well to treat those games as such.