Richard Justice

Intriguing AL East destined for dramatic finish

Intriguing AL East destined for dramatic finish

This might be one of those seasons when the American League East is decided in the final days of the regular season, if not the final hours, and wouldn't this be the kind of chaos we love?

In a normal season, this would be around the time every team begins serious scoreboard watching, as the Orioles host the Red Sox and the Yankees host the Blue Jays on Tuesday.

Truth is, this race has been so insane for so long that these teams have probably been keeping an eye on the scoreboard for weeks.

To summarize:

• The Blue Jays, Orioles and Red Sox are bunched within one game of each other at the top of the American League East.

• Since July 4, there has been just one day when they've been separated by more than three games.

• Don't overlook the Yankees, who are younger and more interesting than they've been in awhile. They're a mere 5 1/2 games out of the division race and just 4 1/2 back in the chase for the second AL Wild Card berth.

• Beware the Rays. If their role is that of spoiler, they're capable of doing just that. Since the All-Star break, Tampa Bay's rotation has a 2.99 ERA, second only to the Cubs among all 30 teams.

OK, back to the top three teams.

Since the All-Star break, the Jays, Sox and O's have all spent time in first place. However, no team has come close to taking control of the division.

Here's a snapshot of the division:

1. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles have spent 110 of the season's 134 days in first place despite a starting rotation that has been a work in progress. They have won with a great bullpen, solid defense and one of baseball's best managers, Buck Showalter.

Will that be enough?

Every time the O's have been on the ropes, they've gathered themselves and begun another nice streak. Baltimore had lost 11 of 18 when it rallied from a 7-1 deficit in the final three innings in San Francisco on Sunday to score an improbable 8-7 victory over the Giants.

Now the Orioles will attempt to ride that momentum as they return home for eight games against the Red Sox, Astros and Nationals.

Rookie right-hander Dylan Bundy has given the rotation a huge boost with five solid starts in a row.

Bundy's strong outing

2. Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are the closest thing to a complete team, with a nice rotation (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ), bullpen (closer Roberto Osuna) and laser-show offense (Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, etc.).

Just as the Jays did a year ago, they are playing their best baseball when the games count the most. Toronto is 23-13 since July 2, and if Sanchez holds up as his innings limit is pushed, it could easily win the AL East again.

Sanchez's outstanding start

3. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox play 29 of their final 45 games on the road. Their rotation has a 2.81 ERA this month, second only to the Cubs. Boston's offense is still producing more than five runs per game.

But the bullpen has become an increasingly large headache with late leads slipping away with regularity. If manager John Farrell can't find a combination that works late in games, it's not going to be a Fenway Park kind of October.

Pomeranz's first Red Sox win

4. New York Yankees
The Yankees are suddenly the most interesting team in the division, with Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge getting their first real chance to play. Despite all the changes, they're scoring a respectable 4.9 runs per game this month and have a 2.66 bullpen ERA. But the Yanks' starting pitchers have a 5.69 ERA, which might mean an improbable run is not in the cards.

Austin, Judge enjoy strong debut

5. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays pitch. Jake Odorizzi has a 1.66 ERA in his past six starts. Chris Archer has four very solid starts in his past five turns. Drew Smyly has a 2.25 ERA in his past five. Contenders drawing one of these three in the closing weeks are in for a tough night at the office.

Odorizzi's six strikeouts

These teams will largely be playing one another in the final six weeks of the regular season. The Blue Jays finish the regular season with a seven-game homestand against the Orioles and Yankees, followed by a season-ending three-game series at Fenway Park.

The Orioles spend the last week on the road, with three against the Blue Jays and three against the Yankees. Meanwhile, the Red Sox play their final 23 games against the AL East, ending with the three at home against Toronto.

It could be decided long before that. If not, enjoy the ride.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.