MLB Playoffs 2014: Predicting the Winners of AL Wild Card Race

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The American League West is the hands-down best division in all of baseball, boasting three concrete pennant contenders who each flaunt the weapons needed to make deep postseason runs. At the moment, four AL teams have realistic chances of earning a bid to play in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the red-hot Seattle Mariners (71-58) will face off against either the Oakland Athletics (76-53) or Los Angeles Angels (77-52) in baseball’s do-or-die October showdown.

The A’s recently took a backseat to the Angels in the AL West, adding intrigue to a tight-knit division race that is destined to come down to the wire. Oakland holds the seeming edge over the Halos, despite dropping the final contest of a three-game set at O.co Coliseum over the weekend to their division rival.

The Angels will surely miss right-handed hurler Garrett Richards over the final five weeks of the regular season, but boast enough offensive firepower to mitigate the loss of an ascending ace. Richards had posted a solid 13-4 record with a 2.61 ERA in 26 starts this season. His 13 wins in 2014 exceed the total number of wins he was able to register in his first 29 starts over parts of three seasons at the big league level.

The A’s and Angels are two of the most dangerous offensive teams in baseball, ranking first and third respectively in runs scored. Oakland now holds a clear-cut advantage in the pitching department, although that didn’t seem to matter on Sunday.

The Mariners are coasting under-the-radar, surging to a season-high 13 games over the .500 mark after sweeping the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park for the first time in franchise history. The Mariners possess the best pitcher in the AL, and would appear to have a sizable advantage in a one-game playoff because of it. Felix Hernandez is virtually unhittable, recording a 13-4 record with a 2.07 ERA in 27 starts.

Hernandez leads the AL in FIP (2.23), WHIP (0.885) and H/9 (6.4). He also recently shattered a 114-year record, going seven-plus innings while allowing no more than two runs in 16 consecutive starts. According to Elias Sports Bureau, nothing like that had happened since 1900 well before Babe Ruth became the face of America’s pastime.

All three AL West contenders have 33 games remaining. Other contenders will take their crack at gaining momentum and potentially overtaking the Mariners, who hold a one-game edge over the up-and-down Detroit Tigers (70-59). The New York Yankees (67-61) have played better as of late, but own a minus-34 run differential and remain 3.5 games behind the Mariners for the final Wild Card spot.

Of the teams currently positioned in the Wild Card hunt, the Yankees have the most difficult remaining schedule. New York will play 22 of its final 34 games against teams with a winning record, including three crucial contests against the Tigers this week. Detroit is slated to play the easiest remaining schedule, as just 12 of their remaining 33 games are in opposition of teams over the .500 mark.

The inter-division rivalries between the A’s, Angels and Mariners present the biggest intrigue down the stretch. Each team has demonstrated the ability to consistently play at a high level, recording the three best run differentials in the AL. Inter-division games could give way to the Tigers, though, making it vital for each AL West team to beat up on the bad teams.

The A’s play just 13 more games against teams with winning records. It just so happens that each of those contests is in opposition of either the Angels (seven games) or the Mariners (six games). Seattle faces enormous upcoming challenges, including one this week against the National League-leading Washington Nationals. The Mariners play 20 of their final 33 games against teams with winning records, including 13 combined against Oakland and Los Angeles.

A lot can happen over the span of the next five weeks, but the A’s, Angels and Mariners are currently three of the best teams in all of baseball. If the A’s can continue to excel in head-to-head play against the Angels, they should be able to lock up the West, which would send Los Angeles hurdling to the AL Wild Card Game. Oakland is 8-4 on the season against their division foe.

The Mariners have several tough tests upcoming, but have the best pitcher in the league on their side, which should ultimately enable them to earn a spot in the winner-take-all game in October.

John Shea is an MLB writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @real_johnshea. Like him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.

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