With just over two weeks to go in the Major League Baseball regular season, plenty of teams remain in the hunt for a playoff spot - particularly in the American League, where each division is still up for grabs.
Much to commissioner Bud Selig's satisfaction, the addition of a second wild-card spot in each league has extended postseason aspirations for several teams that otherwise would be playing meaningless baseball right now. That, along with the emergence of several surprise teams, has added flavor to what is usually an already intriguing stretch of the season.
American League East
It's no surprise that the New York Yankees face resistance atop what is annually the toughest division in baseball. It's the source of the challenge that has Yankee fans - and the rest of the baseball world, for that matter - scratching their heads. The Baltimore Orioles refuse to go quietly, going into the week just one game behind the Yankees and still entrenched as the second AL wild-card team. As mentioned last week, the Orioles have kept pace with the big-spending Yankees despite owning the worst run differential of any team in the playoff race.
The surprising AL East tete-a-tete has put the Toronto Blue Jays in an interesting position down the stretch. Toronto plays 11 games against the Yankees (seven) and Orioles (four) in the next two weeks, giving the club a prominent role in how the final division standings play out. The Blue Jays are in the Bronx for a three-game series beginning Tuesday, while the Orioles resume their nine-game road trip with the opener of a three-game series in Seattle on Monday.
Tampa Bay remains a factor, but the Rays' hopes of a playoff berth are likely restricted to a wild-card spot. Tampa Bay finds itself four games behind the Orioles for the second wild-card spot, but has the benefit of playing its next seven games at home against division bottom-feeders Boston and Toronto.
American League Central
The Detroit Tigers need more victories - and soon - if they hope to unseat the Chicago White Sox atop the AL Central.
Detroit was seen as a World Series contender at the outset of the season - and now, the Tigers have to start playing like one. They have been treading water over the last two weeks, allowing the Chicago White Sox to maintain a two-game division lead as they head into Monday's pivotal make-up game of a previous rainout. The Tigers' best chance at vaulting the White Sox comes this week, as they kick off a 10-game homestand Tuesday against Oakland while Chicago opens a six-game trek against Kansas City.
The division winner will likely be the only team to advance to the postseason, with the Tigers a full 4 1/2 games behind Baltimore in the wild-card standings and the Rays and Los Angeles Angels between them.
American League West
The West is turning out to be a two-team race, just as most experts predicted - but it isn't the two teams everyone expected. The Texas Rangers are right where they should be, owners of the best record in the AL and looking at a 99.4-percent chance to reach the postseason according to the ESPN Playoff Odds.
The swerve in the equation comes courtesy the Athletics, who have put together a "Moneyball"-like hot streak to surge into the wild-card lead and sit just two games back of the Rangers. Oakland's legitimacy as a playoff contender will face its stiffest test to date as the Athletics embark on a 10-game jaunt through Detroit, New York and Texas - three elite teams who are a combined 57 games above .500 entering Monday.
The Los Angeles Angels aren't out of it yet, either. They find themselves 4 1/2 games behind the Athletics but are only 2 1/2 back of Baltimore for the second wild-card spot and play their next nine games at the friendly confines of Angel Stadium.
National League East
The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are all but guaranteed half the National League playoff spots. The only question that remains is whether the Braves can mount enough of a late-September surge to knock off the Nationals. Don't bet against it; despite owning a comfortable 5 1/2-game lead over the Braves, Washington was just swept in Atlanta and now has to face the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers - two teams still in the playoff picture - while the Braves visit Miami and Philadelphia. The club will also have to do without young fireballer Stephen Strasburg, who has been shut down for the season in order to protect his reconstructed right elbow.
Even if the Braves don't accomplish the unlikely and pass the Nationals, they remain a virtual lock for a postseason spot thanks to a seven-game lead in the wild-card standings. Expect both teams to give key players some much-needed rest down the stretch - although given what happened to Atlanta last season, the Braves may just want to keep their foot on the gas.
National League Central
The Cincinnati Reds' gigantic division lead has allowed them to rest hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman.
The Cincinnati Reds are dominating what has turned out to be the most lopsided division in baseball, leading the defending-champion St. Louis Cardinals by 11 games. The Reds will likely clinch the division sometime this week, allowing them to take things easy over the final 10 days of the season. It will come as a welcome respite to a Cincinnati rotation that has used just five starting pitchers - Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake - for 146 of their 147 games so far this season. Clinching early will also lessen the pressure to bring closer Aroldis Chapman back into the fold after he was shelved earlier this month with shoulder issues.
The rest of the NL Central playoff picture is far less clear. The Cardinals own the second wild-card spot, but the lead is tenuous - they're just one game up on the Dodgers, 2 1/2 ahead of the hard-charging Brewers and three games ahead of the free-falling Pittsburgh Pirates. St. Louis controls its fate, with nine straight games against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs - the two worst teams in the National League.
National League West
The West is the San Francisco Giants' to lose. They have a nearly-insurmountable 7 1/2-game edge on the rival Dodgers with just 16 games to play - the next 10 of which they'll play at home against weaker division sisters Colorado, San Diego and Arizona. Playing .500 ball over the final 2 1/2 weeks of the season is all San Francisco needs to secure its second division crown in the last three seasons.
Despite making the largest trade of the season and committing a boatload of cash to payroll, The second wild-card spot is the Dodgers' only hope of reaching the postseason. Compare the Cardinals' plum schedule to what Los Angeles faces over the same stretch - a nine-game trek through Washington, Cincinnati and San Diego - and the climb is a steep one.