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A week ago, the American League wild-card chase looked like a six-team
scramble, with none of the contenders emerging as a favorite. Now, however,
we’re seeing some separation at both the top and the bottom of the standings.

At the top of the list, the Cleveland Indians have won six of eight games
and established a two-game lead over the Boston Red Sox. Their surge has
been driven by their offense, which has returned to its 1999 level of
performance: the Indians have scored at least five runs in every game since
August 26. The causes? Manny Ramirez healthy and playing at his
established level and a return to form of the three players–Kenny
Lofton
, Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar–who hit in front
of Ramirez.

At the bottom, the Anaheim Angels had a disastrous weekend in Chicago,
giving up 35 runs to the White Sox and getting swept, losing two of the
games after leading in the eighth inning. They’ve slipped under .500 today,
losing the first game of what amounts to an elimination series between them
and the Detroit Tigers and falling 6 1/2 games behind the Indians.

In between the two extremes, there are four teams separated by three games
(GB is games behind Cleveland):

Boston: 71-63, 2 GB. Since August 1, the Red Sox are 6-1 when
Pedro Martinez starts, and just 11-14 when other people do.
Rolando Arrojo and Tomokazu Ohka have improved the rotation
behind Martinez, and will need to continue pitching well if the Sox are to
have any chance.

The problem right now isn’t the pitching, though, it’s the offense, as they
showed this weekend by scoring one run over 18 innings against the
Mariners. At the end of the day, this is still a two-man team, with some
help from Trot Nixon and Brian Daubach and way too much
Rico Brogna and Manny Alexander and Dante Bichette.

The Sox have the best chance of any of these teams to help themselves;
beginning next Tuesday, they play eight games against the Indians in ten
days, including four in 30 hours at Fenway Park September 20 and 21. Those
games are their season. Since Pedro can only start two of them (and has, by
my count, just five starts left overall), I’m not optimistic about their
chances.

Oakland, 72-64, 2 GB. Unlike the rest of these teams, the A’s
actually have a shot at winning their division. The Mariners’ disastrous
August has shaved the gap between the two teams to 1 1/2 games, and the A’s
looked great in winning their last three games in Toronto.

The A’s also have a phenomenal schedule from here on out. After two games
in Boston this week, they play 20 of their last 24 against below-.500
teams, with the other four games a showdown with the Ms in Seattle
September 21-24. They close the last week with the Angels and Rangers at home.

Given the current rosters, the schedule and the expected level of
performance, I think the A’s have the best chance of the challengers to
catch the Indians. That said, I think they have a better chance of catching
the Mariners, who at this point have a slightly-worse record than the Tribe
and find themselves in real danger of missing the playoffs.

Toronto, 71-66, 3.5 GB An 11-3 stretch had Chris Kahrl and I
waving the flag, but they lost three in a row to the A’s over the weekend,
two by shutout, and look like they’re again going to fall short. There’s no
single cause; they’re missing a hitter or two, a starter or two and a
reliever or two.

Working against the Jays is their schedule. They don’t play a team under
.500 until September 22, and have nine games with the Yankees and White Sox
before then. If they can somehow emerge from that stretch with a chance,
they get a week of Devil Rays and Orioles before closing the season with
three games in Cleveland. In a way, they have a simpler goal: stay within
three games of the Tribe, and take their chances the final weekend.

Detroit, 69-67, 5 GB. They won’t go away, having reached
.500, surpassed it and now having caught and passed the Angels. As
mentioned a few weeks ago, they have a killer schedule in September; after
the Angels leave town, they don’t see another non-contender until September
26.

The Tigers do have seven games with the Blue Jays and Red Sox, part of a
ten-game stretch beginning this Friday that also includes three with the
White Sox. They catch Boston in between their big Indians series, and
should miss Pedro Martinez to boot.

I’ve been wrong repeatedly about the Tigers chances, and I’m not any more
optimistic about them now. Because they are so far back, their chance
primarily depends on taking at least six, maybe all seven games from the
Jays and Red Sox, and even then they may not catch the Indians. By Sunday,
we’ll have a better idea of whether they’re still in this thing.

At the end of the day, the Indians and A’s are the two teams playing the
best baseball with the most talent. In the scramble for two spots (wild
card and AL West title) among them and the Mariners, I think it will be the
Tribe and whoever comes out of the A’s/Mariners series in first place making it
to October.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.