The Boston Red Sox already have the franchise’s most wins since Ted Williams was returning home from World War II. The New York Yankees have an outside shot at becoming the winningest second-place team in history. The Cleveland Indians have enjoyed a double-digit division lead since early August. The Houston Astros are ahead of last year’s pace, when they merely won 101 games and the World Series. And the Oakland Athletics own baseball’s best record since the all-star break.
This, barring a miracle over the season’s final 2 ½ weeks, is your playoff field in the American League, with the 2018 postseason setting up as an epic free-for-all on that side of the bracket. The shame of it is that three of those teams, by necessity, will be gone by the second week of October.
Baseball has never seen a season with more than two 100-win teams in a single league, but this year, thanks in part to an extreme case of stratification, the AL could feature as many as four, with the Astros and Yankees both on pace (entering the weekend) to join the Red Sox above the century mark, and the A’s just a couple of ticks behind.
With everything essentially decided except home-field advantage in the wild-card game — the Yankees led the A’s by 1½ games entering the weekend — the AL’s leading contenders have the luxury of using the season’s homestretch to set themselves up for October, and to find answers to the pressing questions that remain for each. Among them:
Can the Red Sox get ace Chris Sale back up to full speed? Although the veteran lefty went on the disabled list in mid-August (when he seemed to be running away with the Cy Young Award) with what was described as shoulder soreness, it appears to have been little more than a planned pit stop designed to rest him for the postseason — in hopes of avoiding the sort of late-season crash that marred his 2017.
Beginning with Sale’s one-inning, 26-pitch return last week, the Red Sox have scripted a spring training-style buildup, designed to have him back at full strength by their playoff opener. A playoff rotation headed by a healthy Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello obviously would give them a large advantage. But there are risks to the strategy as well.
Can Lance McCullers Jr. be a bullpen weapon for the Astros? The Astros are set to activate McCullers (forearm strain) from the disabled list this week, but building him back up as a starter is out of the question, and instead the team has an eye on deploying him out of the bullpen in October.
The Astros, of course, had huge success shuttling pitchers between the rotation and bullpen last October, and McCullers himself famously closed out Game 7 of the American League Championship Series with four scoreless innings of relief. Having him again as a multi-inning bullpen weapon would be a boon for their title defense.
Who should start the wild-card game for the Yankees? A couple of months ago, there would have been no question whatsoever: The honor would have gone to ace Luis Severino. But the 24-year-old right-hander has gone from 14-2 with a 2.31 ERA in the first half to 3-6 with an alarming 6.35 ERA in the second, leaving the Yankees to look at other options.
There are two: lefty J.A. Happ, who has been steady (6-0, 2.70 ERA) since coming over from Toronto at the trade deadline, and right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who has put up a 2.30 ERA in the second half, including a pair of September starts in which he allowed just one earned run in 15 innings and struck out 16 batters against only one walk.
The Yankees face one other pivotal issue down the stretch: whether slugger Aaron Judge, on his way back from a fractured wrist, can return to something approximating full strength and provide his typical production (.285/.398/.548 this season) in October.
Can the Indians get back to full strength by the start of October? Such a notion would make Cleveland a lot scarier than its record (82-64 entering the weekend, fifth-best in the AL) would indicate. They’re getting close: Lefty Andrew Miller, the most indispensable member of the Indians’ bullpen, and newly acquired third baseman Josh Donaldson were activated from the disabled list this past week.
But time is running out for right-hander Trevor Bauer, who has been sidelined with a stress fracture in his leg since getting hit by a line drive Aug. 11. Bauer, 12-6 with a 2.22 ERA, has kept his arm in shape while rehabbing, but it remains to be seen whether he has time to build up his innings load to the point where he can rejoin the rotation for the postseason.
In the meantime, the Indians are hoping some extra rest down the stretch can help ace Corey Kluber avoid a repeat of last fall, when he was rocked in his two Division Series starts against the Yankees. The Indians skipped Kluber’s scheduled start this weekend and are lining him up to start Game 1 of the Division Series on five days of rest.
Could the A’s really “bullpen” the wild-card game? Having lost 10 starting pitchers to injuries — with ace Sean Manaea (shoulder surgery) and veteran Trevor Cahill (back strain) exiting just in the past week — the A’s are essentially down to journeymen Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson and Mike Fiers in their rotation.
It is a problem the A’s have solved, at least for now, by “bullpenning” the remaining games each time through their rotation. Typically, they have used veteran reliever Liam Hendriks as the “opener,” then pulled him after an inning and sent in a parade of relievers and quasi-starters to cover the rest of the game. Ahead of each series, when teams announce their scheduled starters, the A’s inevitably list a “to be announced” or two.
But the tactic has worked well enough, with the A’s recently reeling off six straight wins, that they have not ruled it out against the Yankees in the wild-card game. And if it works there, and the A’s advance to face the Red Sox, we could see a lot of pitching matchups featuring Boston’s collection of aces against Oakland’s collection of TBAs.