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The Morning After: Red Sox' Best Hopes Rest in the East, Not in the Wild Card

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Looking only at the deficit they've played themselves into, it would seem as though the Red Sox have just as much hope of winning a wild card berth as they do of winning the American League East. In the former race it's nine games after getting swept by the Cubs. In the latter, it's 8 1/2 games. By that measure, neither looks promising or likely. But nor is one more insurmountable than the other.

Of course, most simultaneously recognize that while the Sox are only chasing three teams within their division, they're chasing eight teams (on top of three division leaders) when the entire league is thrown into the mix. That makes it far more difficult to rapidly make up ground. But there may be two more reasons why the East is more in play for Boston than a prospective wild-card berth.

Because, to put it plainly, the teams are worse. And the Sox have much more opportunity to impact their own fate.

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A case could be made that every AL club outside of Oakland -- and maybe Detroit -- is mired in some degree of mediocrity, though nowhere is that truer than in the powerhouse-free AL East, particularly considering the way a few teams have emerged of late. And established themselves in a way that suggests they're not going anywhere.

After an unexpectedly lean year, the Angels look like they're good again, currently holding the AL's third-best record and perhaps the AL's first-best player (in outfielder Mike Trout). After that is Seattle, which doesn't get a lot of buzz, but has the league's second-best ERA paired with a developing offense, and thus has enjoyed baseball's second-best scoring differential (at plus-70). Beyond that is Baltimore, which is a top-flight starting pitcher away from being really scary, and Kansas City, which is built around young talent that has it poised to hang in this thing.

But if Baltimore doesn't play like a team that belongs with the Angels and Mariners (at a minimum), it would also appear to leave the East wide open for the taking. And given that the O's are 45-39, it's hardly unfathomable to think they'll spend the balance of the year among the middle of the pack.

Toronto is technically the division's first-place team, but that's built on the back of a 21-9 record in June. They're sub-.500 in each of the season's other two months, and with Mark Buehrle coming back down after a fast start, they're devoid of a stopper in their starting rotation.

Baltimore lost 13 of 19 at one point, and occasionally lives and dies by the home run. New York has lost five in a row, nine of 11, and seems to constantly be managing injuries. Tampa Bay seems to have figured things out lately, but may have doomed itself by dropping 14 of 15 as May turned into June.

The bottom line is that none of those teams is good enough to go run and hide. As such, the Sox are likely to linger on the fringes of contention. And from there the schedule may permit them the opportunity to make some noise.

As of now, the Sox have 77 games to go -- 41 of which are against division rivals. Boston plays nine more games against both Baltimore and New York, with six tilts against each team at Fenway Park. The Sox play 10 more games against Tampa Bay.

And they play a whopping 13 games against Toronto, six at home and seven in Canada. So while the Sox might now trail the Jays by eight games in the loss column, if they can somehow manage to make their run coincide with facing John Gibbons's boys, they could theoretically make up a bunch of ground pretty quickly.

In fact, seven of the last 10 games the Sox play before July 31 trade deadline are against Toronto. If Boston somehow managed to go, say, 6-1 in those contests, the conversations concerning the direction of this team could change dramatically. So could change the tone if the Sox can stick around long enough for it to matter that 25 of their last 32 games are against opponents from the East.

Most years the wild-card is the lower-hanging fruit, so it's easier for a scuffling team like the Red Sox to pin its fading hopes on trying to reach that. This year, though, the power is elsewhere -- and that just might give a club as meek as Boston its only chance.

Here's a look at how those teams the Sox are chasing fared on Wednesday night...

IN THE DIVISION

Blue Jays 7, Brewers 4: After hitting 16 homers in May, Edwin Encarnacion dialed it back to six in June -- then he made the most of his first in July. With two on and two out in the ninth inning of a tied game, Encarnacion crushed a three-run slider that cleared the wall in left, giving the Jays a walkoff win powered early by homers from Jose Bautista and Juan Francisco. Toronto has now hit a major-league leading 113 homers on the year -- 50 more than the Red Sox.
Toronto is 8.5 games up on Boston.

Rays 6, Yankees 3: Sean Rodriguez's eighth homer snapped a sixth-inning tie, and gave him three RBIs on the afternoon as the Rays stayed hot, winning for the seventh time in eight tries by completing a sweep of the flailing Yanks. Losers of five in a row, the Yankees are under .500 for the first time since April 11, and have a losing record in the second half of the season for the first time since they were 42-43 in 2007. A "kind of beat up" Jacoby Ellsbury sat out for New York, while Mark Teixeira missed the game after getting fluid drained from his knee -- and now the Yankees head out on an 11-game road trip.
Tampa Bay is 1 game behind Boston; New York is 4 up on Boston.

Orioles 6, Rangers 4: Behind a double and two RBIs from Adrian Beltre, Texas took a 4-0 lead through three -- but the Birds eventually got to Rangers starter Milos Mikolas, then Jason Frasor and Neal Cotts, to take a lead in the seventh. Adam Jones got Baltimore going with his 16th homer of the year, then added a run-scoring single to give himself three RBIs after Ryan Flaherty's solo blast gave the Orioles the lead in the seventh.
Baltimore is 7.5 games up on Boston; Texas, 0.5 behind.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Tigers 9, Athletics 3: He allowed nine hits in six innings, but Justin Verlander delivered a third straight quality to suggest he is heading in the right direction -- along with his team. By capping a three-game sweep of the AL-best A's, the Tigers have now won 11 of their last 13, the latest coming when Verlander overcame long first-inning homers from former Sox Coco Crisp (3-for-4) and Brandon Moss (4-for-4) and held Oakland in check thereafter. Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter keyed the Tiger attack with three hits apiece, Hunter's trio all singles, and all run-scoring. Detroit next welcomes Tampa in a tussle between two of the league's hottest teams.

Detroit is 11 games up on Boston; Oakland, 13 up.

Royals 4, Twins 0: Kansas City seems to have stabilized after losing six of seven, winning a second consecutive series on the strength of seven excellent innings from Jason Vargas and a well-balanced lineup. Every Royals starter had a hit except Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, the highlight being a homer from 42-year-old Raul Ibanez in the second game of his return to the organization that made him a big-league regular 13 years ago. He finished with a couple hits, as did Jarrod Dyson, while Eric Hosmer walked three times.
Kansas City is 6.5 games up on Boston; Minnesota, 1 up.

Mariners 5, Astros 2: Whether they're legitimizing themselves as threats in the AL, or merely beating up on bad competition, the Mariners keep taking care of business. Seattle has won four in a row and 10 of 12 after sweeping Houston, continuing to put distance between themselves and the back of the pack of wild-card hopefuls on Wednesday by scoring four times in the sixth and riding seven strong innings from resurgent starter Chris Young (3.11 ERA).
Seattle is 9 games up on Boston; Houston, 2.5 behind.

Indians 5, Dodgers 4: Old friend Mike Aviles capped a three-run eighth-inning rally with a two-run single off Brian Wilson, then Cody Allen nailed down a four-out save after Scott Atchison gave a run back, and the Indians emerged as winners of a three-game series in Los Angeles. Before Aviles delivered, David Murphy had tied the game with a pinch-hit single, as Terry Francona's team beat a Dodger outfit that didn't start Hanley Ramirez (calf), Adrian Gonzalez (sore neck), or Yasiel Puig.
Cleveland is 3.5 games up on Boston.

White Sox 3, Angels 2: Thrice whiffing Mike Trout in the process, John Danks struck out 10 while pitching into the eighth, limiting the Angels to solo homers from Josh Hamilton (his fifth) and David Freese (his third) as the White Sox took one from the wild-card leaders. Alexei Ramirez had two RBIs for the South Siders, who won via walkoff on Leury Garcia's pinch-hit single in the ninth.
Chicago is 1.5 games up on Boston; Los Angeles, 10 up.

NATIONAL LEAGUE NOTABLES

Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit his eighth homer and worked with four pitchers on a shutout as the Marlins sent Cole Hamels to a 2-6 record by way of a 5-0 defeat for the Phillies … Rare has been the outing in which Johnny Cueto was out-pitched this season, but the Padres’ Tyson Ross was better Wednesday -- polishing off a three-hit shutout, as San Diego beat Cincinnati, 3-0 … After a 3 minute, 42 second review, umpires ruled that Ian Desmond had indeed given the Nationals a go-ahead homer in the seventh inning, that blow ultimately giving Washington a 4-3 win over Colorado … The Braves have won seven in a row after Chris Johnson's three-run double gave them all the offense they'd need for a 3-1 upending of the Mets that kept them half a game ahead of the Nationals in the NL East …The Pirates have won five of six after a homer from rookie Gregory Polanco sparked a 5-1 win over the Diamonbacks. Pittsburgh remains six out in the Central, but is only two games back in the wild-card race ... Matts Carpenter and Holliday each had an RBI single in the third, then Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright made it stand for a 2-0 win over the Giants.

10 YEARS AGO TODAY...

With the Sox having lost four straight, each of the two previous via walkoff, Curt Schilling did what aces do. Surrendering just six hits, a walk, and one run, the righty went the distance in lifting Boston to a 6-1 win in Atlanta -- where the Sox offense was powered entirely by the home run ball. Nomar Garciaparra, as part of his second straight three-hit affair, went yard in the second. Johnny Damon blasted a solo shot in the sixth. Then Doug Mirabelli landed the biggest blow by jacking a grand slam later in that same inning. Coupled with a Rangers loss, the win moved the Sox back within 1.5 games of the wild-card lead.