Plenty of potential possibilities for stretch run

Plenty of potential possibilities for stretch run

Plenty of potential possibilities for stretch run
Four weeks remain as baseball's annual drama plays out toward October, and the only thing certain is that the ending to another remarkable Major League season has hardly begun to reveal itself.

Sure, there are favorites and even some locks for awards, and a few teams appear to be stepping into wardrobe already, preparing for the big October finale.

But so much remains unscripted, so much tension is building, and so little is known about how it'll all turn out.

Take the American League East, always good for some September suspense. The twist this year is that it's the Orioles who have shoved their way right into race, heading into a four-game series against the Yankees at Camden Yards this weekend just one game behind the visitors. The Rays are lurking, too, and the Wild Card race is completely up for grabs, with five teams still in the hunt for the two spots.

The O's, to the surprise of many, are right in the thick of it.

"It's a big deal, obviously, but there's a lot of games left," said Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds, who has been down this road before as a member of the 2007 D-backs. "Us, the Yankees and the Rays are all right there. Oakland is having a good run right now. We can't take anything for granted.

"We're just having a good time and we're not putting pressure on ourselves. Everybody knows the situation we're in, but we're just taking it day by day."

With 28 of those days to go in the regular season, indeed a lot remains to be determined all over baseball's wide landscape.

Will the Nationals bring the postseason to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933 -- perhaps making it a Beltway double with the Orioles? Speaking of doubles, will the Angels' Mike Trout become just the third player to earn Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year honors? Will we see yet another no-hitter, or yet another cycle?

One spoiler alert: There will be 10 teams left standing at the end, and there will be a whole lot of cheers and tears along the way.

Until then, who knows? Who'd have predicted with four weeks remaining in the 2011 season that the Cardinals would claim an 11th World Series title for St. Louis? Any teams currently 8 1/2 games or so out of a playoff spot with four weeks to go, take heart. Using the 2011 Cards as a yardstick, there are 18 clubs just as much in the race at this point.

Heading toward a Wednesday finale for the first time, this weekend provides some glimpses at how the story of 2012 will continue to unfold:

• The four-game set with the Yankees at Camden Yards mark the first meaningful September games there for the Orioles in 15 years, dating back to when the O's last won the AL East with current Nats manager Davey Johnson at the helm.

For the Yanks, who have seen their division lead shrink from 10 games as of July 17 to just one, it's an opportunity to re-establish themselves as the top dogs in the division.

"We're still in first place," Girardi said after a team meeting in St. Petersburg and before a win over the Rays. "That's the bottom line, and what's going to happen in this division is going to depend on how we're going to play in the next 27 games."

• One team on the rise that many thought would be holding its ground by now is the Angels, fresh off a three-game sweep of their AL West and Wild Card nemesis thus far, the A's. With Oakland still tied with Baltimore for the two Wild Card spots, the Halos get a day off before taking on another team rising back toward its expectations: the Tigers.

While they don't mind having Trout do it all in his rookie season, manager Mike Scioscia says the Angels' pitching staff must respond down the stretch.

"This team is playing where we hoped it would, and the primary reason is our pitching is starting to stabilize. That's a critical part of what we need to do," said Scioscia, whose club outscored the A's 21-5 in the three-game set.

While the Tigers host the Angels, the AL Central-leading White Sox are one game ahead of them as they prepare to host the Royals.

• The West Coast's oldest rivalry renews this weekend as the Giants host the Dodgers, with San Francisco holding a lead of 4 1/2 games and both teams coming off dropping two of three at home.

The Dodgers are 5-7 since they shocked the world with their acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Co. from the Red Sox. This will be the first meeting with the Giants since then, and they face the Cardinals, Nationals and Reds as the season winds down.

"I like the schedule that we have really, because we get the Giants six times and we get the Cardinals, the teams that are right there in front of us," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It's really a chance for us to play head up and not worry about anything that is going on. It looks tough on paper, but it's better for us."

• The two-time defending AL champions head to Tropicana Field to face the Rays, and the Rangers do so with the league's best record. Adrian Beltre has 10 homers in 15 games, and their 81-55 mark matches the 1999 team as the best record through 136 games in franchise history.

But Texas, having twice fallen just short of its ultimate goal, isn't satisfied, not by any stretch.

"If everybody had played up to their potential, we'd be sitting here with our feet up waiting for the season to end," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Each year is different, and this year we've really had to fight for it."

The fight also continues for the National League East-leading Nationals, wrapping up a series with the Cubs before hosting the Marlins this weekend, and the Braves, who finish up with the Rockies before traveling to meet the Mets. It continues for the Reds, holding the largest lead in the Majors at 8 1/2 games as they host the Astros. It continues for the NL Wild Card-leading Cardinals and Pirates and everyone else hoping to earn a berth in the postseason.

With four weeks remaining, none of them knows the ending. Nobody does.

And that's the only thing that's scripted, every year.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.