American League Wild Card race crowded and dramatic
ST. PETERSBURG -- This is Wild Card Central. Baseball's September song is being sung at Tropicana Field.
"It's outstanding. I love it. I absolutely love it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the six-way American League Wild Card race.
Baseball fans, regardless of affiliation, could readily agree.
The Rays and the Rangers had something loftier in mind not that long ago, but recent slumps for both teams have put them on the outskirts of their respective division races.
Still, there was another chance to reach the heights of October with the Wild Card race, and the Rays and Rangers entered this four-game series tied for the AL Wild Card lead. The Indians were only a half-game behind, and six clubs were separated by only 3 1/2 games.
The Rays took the Wild Card lead on Monday night with a 6-2 victory over the Rangers. They received the necessary strong starting performance from Alex Cobb, who set a tone by striking out the side in the first inning. And keyed by three RBIs, a home run and a double from rookie Wil Myers, the Rays had a productive night at the plate.
These performances were fully up to the standard of what it takes to be successful in September, and they were achieved against a background of a truly dramatic -- not to mention crowded -- race.
None of the three division races in the AL gives the appearance of going down to the wire, or anywhere near the wire, but it is impossible to escape the multifaceted drama of the AL Wild Card chase.
"It's great for baseball," Maddon said. "It's great for us. ... I love the action every night. I think it's great. I want to believe our players feel the same way."
The Rays are coming back into focus after a stretch in which they lost 14 out of 17 games. In less than three weeks, they fell from a first-place tie with the Red Sox in the AL East and landed in a red-hot Wild Card race. Their task is to toss the earlier disappointment over their shoulders and focus on the Wild Card opportunity directly in front of them.
"It's good for us," Maddon said, "and it's about us teaching ourselves a lesson; to be able to come out and just stay in the present tense. Just play tonight's game. Don't let anything that happened negatively impact the next game. If there's any one thing that I could get across to this group, it is about the moment. I think sometimes you get caught up in the short-term negative past. And anxiety lives in the future. So you really need to focus [on the] now. The group that's able to do that probably comes out on top in the long run."
If you watched the Rays' performance on Monday night, you could believe that the negativity had been dispersed, diminished and maybe even defeated. The club was solid in all facets of the game.
Was the negativity gone?
"For the night," Maddon said with a smile. "You don't want that to creep in. That's the point. It's so important in our game. I really want our guys to choose to not give power to negativity."
The flip side of that issue would be becoming too impressed with your own work after an important, impressive victory, such as the one on Monday night.
"If you permit the euphoria of a victory tonight to cause you let down [on Tuesday night], you're an absolute idiot," Maddon said.
Then there's Texas. The Rangers may have a seven-game losing streak, but given their work over the last four seasons, they cannot be dismissed on any level.
"That's a proud and good bunch on the other side, man," Maddon said. "You can't take anything for granted. You can't assume anything. They've got great starters. They've got a great bullpen. Their lineup has been to the World Series [twice]. They're good."
Now this remarkable six-way race for two places in the postseason unfolds. Its epicenter this week is Tropicana Field -- for four games, at least -- but six teams, 40 percent of the AL, will have something riding on every game they and their competitors play.
As Maddon put it, "If you're a baseball fan in this country, or around the world, watching all this unfold, I think it's fabulous for our sport."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.