Baseball season, at long last, is entering its final lap. Some clubs are struggling at the back of the pack. Others are jockeying for position in the middle. A few are stalled on the side, smoke pouring from their engines.
But right now, there is no unambiguous front-runner in the American League.
Different teams have taken turns setting the pace. The Oakland A's reigned supreme for much of the season and loaded up at the deadline, but the Los Angeles Angels now enjoy a slim edge in the hyper-competitive AL West.
In the AL Central, the Detroit Tigers also went big at the deadline but have watched the upstart Kansas City Royals steal the division lead.
Meanwhile, in the AL East, the Baltimore Orioles have upset the established order and claimed the top spot.
Every contender has flaws. Trades, injuries, cold streaks—all have conspired to reshuffle the balance of power, then mix it up again.
Who's going to cross the finish line first? Let's take stock of the leaders.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels drubbed the A's 9-4 Sunday night to reclaim a one-game division lead and the best record in baseball. Mike Trout bolstered his MVP candidacy with his 29th home run, while Jered Weaver earned his 14th win.
But all is not heavenly in the Halos' world.
Ace Garrett Richards underwent knee surgery on August 23. And despite an optimistic tweet from him and the proclamation by manager Mike Scioscia that the procedure "went as expected," per ESPN.com, the news isn't rosy.
Richards will miss the remainder of the season, further thinning a rotation that already lost Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery, and casting a serious pall over the Angels' front-runner status.
When the A's dealt for ace Jeff Samardzija from the Chicago Cubs, it was clear they weren't kidding around. When they acquired ace Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox, it was clear they were dead serious.
Add MLB's highest-scoring offense, and you'd think Oakland would be coasting.
Since they coughed up Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes in the Lester trade, however, the A's offense has stalled. Prior to the Cespedes deal, Oakland averaged about five runs per game; since the trade, that number has fallen to 3.8.
It's too early to separate correlation from causation. What's undeniable is that Oakland is under .500 in the month of August and just placed closer Sean Doolittle on the disabled list, per MLB.com's Jane Lee.
After years of looking up at the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, Baltimore finally appears poised to run away with the AL East. Entering play Monday, it held a six-game edge over the Yanks. The Orioles, though, have lost three straight, and recently lost third baseman and budding superstar Manny Machado to a knee injury.
Orioles fans might be a little panicky, but the fact is that it would take Baltimore playing its worst baseball of the season over the final month to even bring someone else into play for the division title—and even then, that someone else would have to be playing as well as it has played all season.
Still, the formerly high-flying O's are facing an uncertain headwind.
Kansas City Royals
It's been 28 years since the Royals made the playoffs, the longest active drought in baseball. The closer we get to October, the greater the odds that Kansas City will remove that badge of dishonor.
Entering play Monday, the Royals stood at 72-57, two games up in the AL Central. And they're streaking, winning 24 of their last 31 games. If momentum exists, Kansas City has it.
"We're putting it all together at the right time," manager Ned Yost told Dick Kaegel of MLB.com.
Still, there's that drought to consider. Nearly three decades of futility is a lot to overcome. Can K.C. hold up under the pressure?
Speaking of pressure, the Tigers know all about it. When Detroit engineered a three-team swap that netted David Price, the deadline's big fish, from the Tampa Bay Rays, the pressure was on to win. And then win some more.
So far, the results have been mixed at best. Price has posted a 2.35 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 30.2 innings since arriving in the Motor City.
But the Tigers have lost ground in that span and find themselves a game out in the wild-card race entering Monday.
It's not too late for Detroit to bare its claws. But with starter Anibal Sanchez and closer Joakim Soria both on the DL, and former ace Justin Verlander struggling through an uneven campaign, the pressure is building.
If there's a sleeper in this murky race, it's the Mariners.
The M's have lurked around the fringes of the playoff picture all season, but have mostly been lost in the long shadow of their powerhouse AL West rivals.
Entering play Monday, though, Seattle owned the second wild-card slot. And with stud Felix Hernandez waiting to pitch a potential play-in game, it's suddenly tough to bet against a squad almost everyone was betting against a few months ago.
"I don't care how we get 'em," manager Lloyd McClendon told MLB.com's Greg Johns after an August 23 win against the Boston Red Sox, "as long as we get 'em."
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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