AL East: Baseball’s Best Division is Giving Fans a Wild Card Race for the Ages

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The Rays topped the East again and will look to return to the World Series as well. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Lou Orlando, Contributing Writer

The Yankees and Red Sox squared off on Sunday Night Baseball for an exciting showdown in baseball’s greatest rivalry. Both squads entered 88–67, tied for the first Wild Card spot. Boston entered the three-game series on Friday night in sole possession of the first spot with a two game lead over New York. 

Despite the Yanks’ dominant 8–3 win on Friday night, Boston held late leads in the 8th innings of games two and three. Then Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge happened. Stanton’s go-ahead grand slam in game two and Judge’s go-ahead double — followed by a Stanton homer — in game three cemented a three-game sweep. The Yankees leap-frogged Boston for the top Wild Card spot, holding a one game lead over them. 

This series is just a microcosm of the dramatic nuthouse that has been baseball’s best division, the AL East. With just one week left in the 2021 season, four of the five AL East teams are alive and well, making for one of the most entertaining Wild Card races in recent memory. 

The Tampa Bay Rays clinched their second consecutive division title on Saturday. That leaves the Red Sox, Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays to fight over the two AL Wild Card spots. The Yankees-Red Sox series was naturally at the forefront, but not to be forgotten, the Blue Jays remain just one game back of a Wild Card spot. With six games left to go, the drama is far from over.

It is safe to say that Boston did not expect to be fighting just to make the playoffs in the final week. At the All-Star break, Boston led the AL East and was one of baseball’s hottest teams. With low preseason expectations after a fifth place finish in 2020, Boston was one of baseball’s biggest surprises, playing dominant baseball through the first half. A second half falloff saw Tampa and even the Yankees jump Boston by mid-August. Even with a regression to the mean, the Sox have a dangerous lineup and can still secure a Wild Card spot. 

The Yankees’ season has been anything but easy. Strong expectations to win the division were subverted by an up-and-down rollercoaster season that has provided elating highs and devastating lows. The trade deadline acquisitions of Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo gave the Yanks a second-half boost that launched them back into the playoffs. They have not been able to find consistency but hot stretches like their 13-game win streak in late August make them a dangerous foe for any opponent. 

Toronto has bounced between third and fourth place for much of the season, but they do not fit the mold of a typical fourth place team. Boasting AL MVP contender Vladimir Guerrero vying for the Triple Crown and a strong supporting cast of pieces, they make a strong case for the best offense in the AL East. That and a starting rotation that ranks third in AL ERA have put Toronto on the map way earlier than expected. While Seattle (two back) and Oakland (three back) are still on the periphery, it is a safe prediction that the two Wild Card slots will go to AL East teams. That is where the easy predictions stop, as determining which two will remain standing is a difficult task. 

In my book, the Yankees and Blue Jays are the two most talented teams in the AL East. It is nuts to say that the first place Rays might have the least pure talent  — especially with ace Tyler Glasnow out for the season — but they have made a living out of outperforming their expectations. 

Despite all the talent the Blue Jays have, particularly offensively, I see them falling out of the Wild Card race. They’d have to knock off Boston or New York to slide into the playoffs. They sit just one game behind Boston but have more of an uphill battle. Boston took a beating against the Yankees but they get to finish nice and easy with six games against the Orioles and Nationals, two fifth place teams. Toronto finishes their season with three against Baltimore but first they have three against the red hot Yankees. 

Toronto struggled through this past week, dropping two of three to both the Minnesota Twins and Tampa before splitting a four game set with Minnesota again. Getting swept by the Yanks is no doubt demoralizing for the Sox but they were competitive in each of the last two games and should be able to bounce back with an easy cushion. The Yankees actually have the toughest schedule of the three, facing Toronto for three and ending the season with three against Tampa. Still, they go into this final stretch coming off six straight wins and with an offense that finally seems to be living up to expectations. Boston’s easy schedule and one game lead give them a slight edge but Toronto won’t go down without a fight. 

In terms of actual postseason success, each team makes an interesting case. Boston’s pitching is suspect at this point but a heart of the lineup that boasts Rafael Devers, JD Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Kyle Schwarber will give any pitching staff fits. Toronto’s deep offense and a top three of Hyu-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, and Jose Berrios would be a nightmare in a Wild Card game and could steal more than a few games in a postseason series. 

Still, the Yankees are in the best spot to make a run. Judge and Stanton have played out of this world down the stretch, and Stanton’s ability to man the outfield again allows them to run out their “Death Star lineup” for every playoff game. Couple that with a Yankee rotation led by Gerrit Cole that ranks fourth in AL ERA and you have a Wild Card team that absolutely nobody wants to play. 

Only six games remain, but if this year has taught us anything, it’s going to be a wild ride down to the very last game. That is good news for baseball fans as just one thing is certain: this is going to be fun.