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Anthony Castrovince

Under-dog days will separate Wild Card hopefuls

Now is the time for clubs to make a run or fall out of contention for good

Under-dog days will separate Wild Card hopefuls

They call these the dog days of the baseball season, and the sentiment is understandable. Mid-August is still slightly early to say the division races are at their most inspired, and it's so late in the rigors of the everyday grind that just about everybody is feeling a tad tired.

But for a certain subset of Augustines -- those particularly indebted to the creation of the second Wild Card spot in each league -- survival this month is of pivotal import. Because when the October math is not exactly in your favor, August is the time to make a run or get run out of the race.

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For this group of clubs, August is not made up of dog days. These are the underdog days.

Reds
National League Wild Card status: 3 1/2 games back
Playoff odds percentage: 15.9

Baseball Prospectus actually gives the Reds a strong percentage relative to the other teams you'll find on this list, but the fact of the matter is that Wednesday's loss to the Red Sox dropped them back to .500, and they're the fourth team in a heated four-team race in the NL Central.

So time is of the essence. Brandon Phillips (thumb surgery) is inching closer to his return, though nobody seems to know when Joey Votto (quad strain) will be back, or at what level of impact. Particularly frustrating is the likelihood of Homer Bailey landing on the disabled list with a flexor mass injury, because the Reds, now more than ever, are built around their starting pitching.

Perhaps a four-game trip to Colorado, beginning Thursday, will be good for Cincinnati's sagging bats, which are averaging a little more than three runs per game in the second half. After that, it's a big sequence -- three in St. Louis, then four against the Braves -- against fellow NL contenders.

Yankees
American League Wild Card status: 3 1/2 games back
Playoff odds percentage: 7.6

The Yankees are simply in that perilous spot in which every bit of adversity -- such as the Orioles hanging that four-spot on them in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday night -- feels incredibly consequential.

That said, you've got to appreciate the attempts at patchwork improvement senior vice president and general manager Brian Cashman has made this summer (especially with the Brandon McCarthy acquisition). You've got to respect the work manager Joe Girardi has done, for this club is 61-58 despite a Pythagorean expectancy that pegs them to be sub-.500. And if you're a Yankees fan, you've got to love what Michael Pineda (one earned run on two hits with no walks in five innings) gave you in his return from the disabled list Wednesday, particularly when paired with the news of Masahiro Tanaka throwing off flat ground.

The Yanks might still be less than the sum of their salaries, but their next 10 games are against clubs with losing records (the Rays, Astros and White Sox ... though we'll discuss the difficulty of those Rays a little later), and they're expected to get Brian McCann -- who has a .975 OPS in 24 August plate appearances -- back form the concussion DL on Saturday.

Indians
AL Wild Card status: 5 games back
Playoff odds percentage: 7.3

On the surface, you would think a team that trades away its Opening Day starter and starting shortstop and loses its highest-paid player to the DL -- all within about a week and a half -- would not exactly be trending in the right direction. But the Indians have won seven of 12 in August to remain mildly coherent in the AL Wild Card chase.

Thursday's doubleheader split could have gone better, because that Paul Goldschmidt-less Arizona squad is the kind of club you simply need to take advantage of if you're an August underdog. On the encouraging side, the Indians have gotten some nice contributions from Zach Walters and Tyler Holt, the two kids called up to replace the injured Nick Swisher and David Murphy on the active roster. Cleveland's defensive play up the middle has improved with Jose Ramirez taking over for the traded Asdrubal Cabrera, and Corey Kluber has become a legit AL Cy Young Award candidate whose starts are now must-see TV.

The Indians, in short, still have a pulse, especially when you factor in all those injury issues the Tigers are currently enduring. The Tribe will face the AL East-leading Orioles (sans Manny Machado) this weekend before playing nine straight against the Twins, Astros and White Sox.

Rays
AL Wild Card status: 6 games back
Playoff odds percentage: 4.7

That percentage says it all. The Rays are gasping for air, as you'd expect given their horrendous start to the season and the July 31 trade of ace David Price.

But if any team in recent history has inspired us to believe in mathematical miracles, it's Joe Maddon's Rays. They dismantled those luckless Rangers on Thursday night for Tampa Bay's fourth win in six games (playing the Rangers and Cubs in succession doesn't hurt in times like these). And while Price obviously played some part in this, the Rays' 2.14 ERA since the All-Star break is the best in baseball.

The trouble for Tampa Bay is that its upcoming schedule features opposing clubs that are far better than the Cubs and Rangers. The Rays have a six-game homestand against the Yankees and Tigers followed by a seven-game road trip to Toronto and Baltimore. The miracle will thrive or die over the next two weeks.

Marlins
NL Wild Card status: 4 1/2 games back
Playoff odds percentage: 4.6

Young, hungry teams can be dangerous in the dog days, and the Fish are particularly dangerous because Giancarlo Stanton (six homers, nine RBIs this month) is swinging a hot bat as he makes an NL MVP Award push. Ask the Cardinals, who just dropped two of three in Miami.

Obviously, the Marlins can thank the extremely forgiving NL Wild Card picture for their status as contenders in spite of their sub-.500 (59-61) record. But they don't have to apologize; they have to capitalize -- especially with their next nine games taking place against the D-backs, Rangers and Rockies.

Getting Henderson Alvarez (2.48 ERA in 22 starts) back from shoulder inflammation this weekend will be a huge boost to a rotation that has been prompted to resuscitate Brad Penny, and Jarred Cosart has thus far looked like a wily pickup.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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