Tonight at Camden Yards, the Orioles and Yankees begin a four-game series that will serve as the most important September baseball in Baltimore in 15 years. The Yankees seemingly had the AL East in hand at the All-Star break, but the Bombers have won just 20 of 45 games since July 19 and now sit just one game ahead of the surprising O's, who refuse to fade away.
Despite a -21 run differential, the Orioles have relied on a superb bullpen and an astonishing 24-7 record in one-run games to stay within sight of their first postseason berth (and winning season) since 1997. Predicted by most pundits to finish last in the AL East and then predicted to fall back to earth after a strong start, Baltimore has instead gotten even better, posting a 21-11 record in August and September. While Adam Jones has enjoyed a breakout year, the O's lineup has been largely boosted by hitters going on timely hot streaks -- Nick Markakis has a .902 OPS since being moved to the leadoff spot, Mark Reynolds has a .917 OPS and 10 homers since July 19 and unheralded bench players like Lew Ford and Nate McLouth have stepped up with key hits.
The Orioles have 10 games remaining against the Yankees and Rays but otherwise has a fairly favorable schedule over the rest of the season, with only a three-game series in Oakland standing out as another battle with a playoff contender. The O's do have six games remaining against the Red Sox, however, and it would be ironic if Boston avenged their 2011 collapse in Baltimore by spoiling the Orioles' postseason hopes.
Injuries have played a major role in the Yankees' slide, as C.C. Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova and Andy Pettitte have all spent time on the DL, and in the cases of Rivera and Gardner, missed much of the season. Beyond health, however, New York has also been plagued by a lack of situational hitting, as the Yankees have had trouble scoring with runners in position. The Yankees' main offensive weapon is the solo home run --- not a bad problem to have, but it leads to a somewhat one-dimensional offense that has issues generating runs when the ball isn't flying out of the park.
The Yankees have just seven remaining games against the Rays and Orioles and also face the A's in a three-game series in September. Beyond those matchups, the Yankees' other 16 games are against the Twins, Red Sox and Blue Jays, so there's plenty of opportunity for the Bombers to re-establish their lead atop the division.
With so much media focus within the division going to the Orioles' Cinderella run, the Yankees' possible collapse and the Red Sox and Blue Jays' disappointing seasons, the Rays' surge back into the playoff race has flown under the radar. Tampa Bay was just 49-47 on July 22 in large part due to a lack of offensive production, as the likes of Luke Scott and Carlos Pena were underperforming while Evan Longoria was on the disabled list. Since that date, however, the Rays are 26-15 and sit just 2.5 games back of first place. With Longoria back and one of the league's best starting rotations in fine form, the Rays are positioned to make another playoff appearance.
The Rays have nine games remaining against the O's and Yankees, plus a four-game set with the White Sox and a three-game series with the Rangers beginning on Friday.
The Orioles currently hold the top wild card slot, with the Rays 1.5 games behind Oakland for the second wild card. It's very possible that the two division runners-up could make the postseason anyway, though obviously all three teams would prefer to win the AL East and avoid the sudden-death wild card game. Which club will end up atop baseball's toughest division come the end of the regular season?