If the playoffs began today, three AL West teams — the Rangers, Angels and overachieving A's — would be in. The Mariners can't afford to be left behind.
Now the Mariners know how the Orioles and Blue Jays have felt all these years as chasers in a division of behemoths.
Ignoring for a moment that the hideous, historically awful Astros will join their ranks next year, the AL West has become the No. 1 division of power in MLB.
No, it’s not the AL East, which for years has been regarded as the most dominating collection of teams. Much of that reputation, of course, stemmed from the presence of two superpowers, the Yankees and Red Sox, joined recently by the wily, overachieving Rays, while the Jays and Orioles struggled, in vain, to keep pace.
The Yankees remain a formidable ballclub and will breeze into the playoffs this year for the 17th time in the last 18 years. But the group behind them has had its struggles. The Red Sox, following last September’s epic collapse, are in a highly unfamiliar neighborhood, under .500 and seemingly dealing with a distraction a day (that part isn’t unfamiliar, come to think of it).
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The Blue Jays are also under .500 in their latest attempt to concoct a winning formula, while the Orioles have faded after a fast start (though they still hope to hold it together for their first winning season since 1997, if nothing else). The Rays, after last year’s late magic, are actually the hottest team in the division, not that anyone in Tampa Bay is noticing.
Meanwhile, the West is rising. When the second wild card was instituted this year, most people figured it was just a way for the AL East to get a third team into the playoffs, because two teams were pretty much a given. Indeed, since the wild-card system came into play in 1995, the AL East has provided the wild card 13 times in 17 years, interrupted only by the Mariners in 2000, the A’s in 2001, the Angels in 2002 (a three-year run of prominence by the AL West) and the Tigers in 2006. The Red Sox have seven wild-card berths, the Yankees four.
But now, and for the past few weeks, both wild-card berths have been held by AL West teams — the surprising A’s, playing the role of the Rays, a sabermetric overachiever fueled by astute roster management and constant infusion of youth, and the mighty Angels, with the rookie of this generation, Mike Trout, joining the player of this generation, Albert Pujols, for a formidable 1-2 punch. Throw in Mark Trumbo and Jered Weaver, and it’s a 1-2-3-4 punch.
The Angels and A’s trail the Rangers, who have won the last two American League pennants and came within one agonizing out of a World Series title last year. The Rangers inexplicably stopped hitting in July, and have starting-pitching issues, but with the addition of Ryan Dempster (a counterpunch to the Angels’ addition of Zack Greinke) they are positioned for another deep run.
If all three teams make the postseason, it will provide a unique footnote in baseball history. As the only four-team division, it would mean that 75 percent of the teams would advance, a possibility eliminated next year when the Astros — losers of 23 of 25 games through Friday — move to the AL West and balance all divisions with five teams.
Where does that leave the Mariners? Right now, in a familiar spot: Looking up at the rest of the division, but rising fast after winning eight of their last nine games. In fact, the most optimistic of fans noted they were “only” 7 ½ games out of the second wild card after running their winning streak to seven games.
I’ll withhold from getting pennant fever until I see the result of this rugged road trip to New York, Baltimore and Anaheim. But it is encouraging that the Mariners are trending in the right direction, showing the sort of growth and improvement a young, maturing team should show during the course of a season.
“You’re supposed to get better as the season wears on,” manager Eric Wedge said Friday. “You hope to do that if you stay healthy and make good decisions and players keep getting better. That’s something we’re doing, and a lot of teams are doing.
“I don’t know how far along we are in the process, but we’re heading in the right direction, no doubt about that. We still have some bumps in the road ahead of us, but as we work through each one of those, we get a little better at it, and we’re a little quicker in fixing things. We’ve got a lot going on with a lot of young kids that are going to be playing for a while up here. But they’re still learning every day.”
In the new world of the AL West, they’d better be fast learners.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org