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Rays face difficult battle in sturdy AL East

NEW YORK — Perspective is often relative to location. And that is typically the case at this point in the baseball season, where a team's place in the standings is the leading indicator. Except for this season, in the American League East anyway, where the view seems to be the same from the top, the middle, or the bottom — that any of the five teams remains capable of winning, and that nothing likely will be determined until the final week of the season. "It's going to go down to September," Baltimore centerfielder Adam Jones said. "And it's going to be nuts in September. Nuts.

"I hope it's a gauntlet. I hope everyone is playing well come September. Because we're all going to play each other, we're all going to knock each other out, and whoever can take the most blows is going to be the one winning the division. I like it. It's a heavyweight title fight, that's the way it's going to be. A hardcore match."

When play resumes Friday, there will be only 11 ½ games between the first-place Red Sox and the last-place Blue Jays, the most compact of the three AL races.

"Every team is tough," New York second baseman Robinson Cano said. "This is one of the toughest divisions."

More intriguing, the top four teams are all over .500 — and are among the top seven records in the AL — and the Jays are only four under, raising the possibility of a first-ever finish with all five teams posting winning records. (There have been two seasons when all teams in a division were .500 or better, the 1991 AL West and 2005 NL East.)

The chatter among players in the AL All-Star clubhouse at Citi Field was that all possibilities were potentially valid.

For one, they are good.

"Every team has the ability to win the division," Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "Whichever team plays the best in the stretch run will come up with it. We play each other a lot in the division coming up, so it should be pretty interesting for everybody."

For two, they are all, well, good.

"In any different two-week period, one team can get hot and another one cold, and everything can change quickly," Toronto rightfielder Jose Bautista said.

The Jays, whom the Rays visit this weekend, are the biggest wild card in the race. They assembled the most talent in the division but, to this point, have failed to play up to potential save for a brief two-week stretch when they won 11 straight and 14 out of 16 to get to a season-high two games over .500 on June 23.

Do they battle back and make it a five-team race, or do they drop further back, and potentially start dumping players, and assume a spoiler's role?

"The only thing we can do is play a better or more consistent game because we've struggled at times," Bautista said. "Except for our bullpen, everything has pretty much struggled at some point.

"If you look at our team purely at stats as individuals, a lot of people are playing below their capabilities or what they showed in the past they are capable of doing. Nobody needs to go out and do anything extraordinary. I certainly believe those stats and performances are going to end up at a normal level. We just need to play a solid game as a team and keep grinding it out."

The Red Sox, who are coming off a 93-loss mess last season, have held first place since late May and boast a major-league-best 58 wins, have a similar plan.

They have the league's top-scoring offense, expect to re-insert a healthy Clay Buchholz into a rotation that has been among the best and have the resources to strengthen their bullpen if needed.

"We've just got to keep rolling the way it is," DH David Ortiz said. "Hopefully everything continues the way it was in the first half."

In between are the Rays, Orioles and injury-depleted Yankees, each of whom has had runs as contenders and pretenders.

"It's a battle every time we play anybody in our division," Rays infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "It's just a bull to take on."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

Eastern battleground

A look at how the AL East teams have done against each other:

vs. ALE vs. others

Red Sox 23-15 35-24

Yankees 20-17 31-27

Orioles 23-21 30-23

RAYS 20-24 35-17

Blue Jays 18-27 27-22

Rays face difficult battle in sturdy AL East 07/17/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 10:14pm]

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