Red Sox playoff hopes still realistic

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Nothing is certain in baseball this season. Teams with uninspiring rosters and decades of past futility are in position to play in October, while the usual suspects and their enormous payrolls struggle to remain relevant. As of Monday morning, 11 of the 14 American League teams have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs. With the addition of a second Wild Card, most of these teams are likely to keep at least a modicum of hope right into late September.

Let’s take a look at those teams’ prospects.

We’ll start by assuming the Yankees, Rangers, and Tigers win their divisions. None of these is a sure thing, with the Yankees having lost four straight, the Rangers still seeing the Angels in their rearview mirror and the Tigers holding just a 1.5 game lead over the White Sox, but all of them are in a decent position to snag a Wild Card should they lose the division.

That leaves eight teams- the Angels, Orioles, Athletics. White Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Indians- vying for two Wild Cards.

The Angels are clearly the strongest team in the bunch. Even with Dan Haren at half-strength, their rotation, fronted by Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, is one of the best in the league. Their lineup may lack depth, but it includes the best player in the league right now in Mike Trout, the best player of the last decade in Albert Pujols and an emerging Mark Trumbo. They’ll continue to score runs and prevent them and it’s hard to imagine them not making the playoffs, even if their lead is only a half game at the moment.

The Orioles, improbably, are still in position to take the second Wild Card. Their 51-44 record belies their having been outscored by 44 runs. To put that run differential into perspective, they’ve given up three more runs than the Red Sox and scored 84 fewer, yet Baltimore leads Boston by 3.5 games. The Orioles appeared to be in a free fall a week ago, but two series of feasting on AL Central teams made them look like a contender again. Expect them to revert to their mid-July ways as soon as the AL East teams start coming to town again, but a 78- to 80-win season is still a major accomplishment for these Orioles.

The A’s are currently tied with the O’s, and have been equally surprising. Oakland has scored the fewest runs in the American League, but they’ve also yielded the fewest, due both to strong pitching and a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. There’s little on their roster that suggests they can keep up this pace, but as impressive as their pre-All-Star-break sweep of the Red Sox was, this weekend’s four-game sweep of the Yankees was even more amazing. If Oakland’s pitching is for real, and Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes keep hitting, they may contend into September.

The White Sox are new to the Wild Card picture, having led the AL Central for the past few months. A five-game skid, including a sweep at the hands of the rival Tigers, has them looking up at the division and Wild Card leaders. Since Paul Konerko stopped raking, Chicago’s offense has come back to earth, and while Kevin Youkilis and Adam Dunn have been great, Youk’s propensity for injuries and Dunn’s inability to get on base may hold them back through the dog days. As Chris Sale approaches a likely innings limit and Jake Peavy turns back into a pumpkin, we may see the White Sox fade into irrelevance.

The Rays have one of the strongest rosters among these eight teams, but much of that strength is built around a rotation that hasn’t lived up to its billing. Between injuries at the back end of the rotation, James Shields’ struggles, and Matt Moore failing to live up to the practically impossible expectations he set last fall, this team is relying on its offense too much. And with Evan Longoria battling injuries and Ben Zobrist battling inconsistency, there hasn’t been much offense to speak of in Tampa. Still, if the starting pitching turns a corner, watch out for Tampa in September.

The Blue Jays fell to the basement in the brutal AL East at the beginning of July, and seemed to settle in when they put four starting pitchers on the disabled list. A weekend sweep of the Red Sox, however, gave the Jays a new look- that of a team whose pitching only has to be adequate to win because of great run support. With Colby Rasmus and Edwin Encarnacion tearing the cover off the ball and Jose Bautista due back in August, only the Red Sox have a better offense among Wild Card contenders.

Speaking of the Red Sox, it keeps getting harder and harder to assess what kind of team they are. They’ve now scored more runs than any team in baseball. When anyone but their “co-aces” take the hill, there’s a good chance they’ll score enough to win. And when David Ortiz comes back next week, we may finally see the devastating lineup the Sox hoped to use on Opening Day. But Josh Beckett can’t get out of the first inning (he’s given up 13 runs in his last five first innings) and Jon Lester can’t get out of any inning (he’s given up 22 runs in 12.1 innings over his last three starts) and it’s hard to imagine any team making the playoffs if they can’t win when their best pitchers are on the bump.

The Indians are due a cursory mention, as they sit just a half game behind Boston, but they’ve been outscored by 47 runs and have more rotation problems than the Red Sox. Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson have been as bad as Lester and Beckett and Cleveland doesn’t have much behind them.

Look for the Angels to put some distance between themselves and the Wild Card pack over the next two months. As for the winner of the second Wild Card, your guess is as good as mine. The White Sox have the advantage of playing in the weakest division, getting to beat up on the Royals and Twins while the other contenders stare up at the Rangers and Yankees. The Red Sox and Blue Jays have the bats to contend, but need to find a few pitchers who can keep them in games. The A’s and Rays can keep runs off the board, but need to find ways to score. And the Orioles need to bottle whatever magic has them above .500 this late in the season and release a few drops at the right moments in August and September.

If you’re a Red Sox fan, keep the faith. No other Wild Card contender has as good a run differential, as much ability to take on payroll in a trade, or as strong a lineup and one that will continue to improve as injured players work their way back onto the field. If Boston can survive this week’s trips to Arlington and New York without getting buried in the standings, they may still be favorites to snag the second Wild Card.

If they do get buried, maybe we should all root for the A’s.

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