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One wild card team is facing historic heartbreak this month. Will it be the Rays?

The Rays, Indians and A’s are all projected to win 94 or more games. In the past quarter-century, only one team has won that much and failed to make the playoffs.
For several weeks, Rays manager Kevin Cash has had to look over his shoulder to see whether the Indians or Athletics have been gaining in the American League wild card race. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — Depending on your perspective — and your team’s place in the standings — a baseball season can be enthralling. Also demoralizing. It can torment, mesmerize or bore the sox off you.

But above all else, a baseball season does not lie. That’s the beauty of 162 games. It leaves little room for flukes or pretenders. When you play nearly every day from spring to fall, you get what you deserve.

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay may be in the midst of a rare exception.

Someone is going to get ripped off in the American League wild card race. That’s become increasingly clear in recent days, and increasingly dismaying if you’re a Rays, Athletics or Indians fan.

Heading into the weekend, a variety of computer models had all three teams winning between 94 and 96 games. And, barring a one-game tiebreaker, one of them will be left outside of the playoff picture.

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Since 1995 when baseball first introduced the wild card, there have been 108 teams that have won 94 or more games in the regular season. And 107 of those teams qualified for the postseason.

None of which feels reassuring this morning.

The way things are going, every moment of every game has the potential to be season-defining in the next two weeks. A six-month war of attrition is quickly running out of tomorrows. The Rays lost two winnable games in Texas this week and their odds of making the playoffs dropped from 83.8 percent to 60.7 in 48 hours in the fangraphs.com projections model. (It was up to 68.5 on Saturday.)

So tell me, who would you rather be today?

Rays manager Kevin Cash? Indians manager Terry Francona? Athletics manager Bob Melvin? Who is going into this make-or-break fortnight with the best chance of survival?

Here is a brief look at the positives and negatives facing each team as they head into the final two weeks of the regular season.

Tampa Bay Rays

Even if he is limited to two abbreviated starts, the return of Blake Snell from elbow surgery gives the Rays necessary innings as they piece together the final two weeks of the regular season. [ARCHIVE | File photo]

In their favor: Perhaps more than any team in the majors, Tampa Bay has taken advantage of expanded rosters in September. As far back as early July the Rays began making moves with the idea of clearing space on the 40-man roster for specific roles to be filled down the stretch.

Ryne Stanek, Hunter Wood, Andrew Velazquez, Jake Faria, Ian Gibaut, Christian Arroyo and Casey Sadler were all traded in a matter of weeks so the Rays could add some power arms for the back of the bullpen and specific platoon hitters around the infield. The result is Tampa Bay could have as many as 39 active players next week, with the ability to mix and match all game long. You will see different lineups daily because Cash has the flexibility to work favorable matchups.

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Reason to worry: It isn’t the decimated starting rotation. At this point in the season, the Rays are not worried about defined roles. Their only concern is covering the 108 remaining innings in the regular season. So even getting, say, 14 innings combined out of Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell translates to 12 percent of the season. With potentially 18 pitchers to choose from, the Rays will keep most games close.

The concern is an offense that occasionally disappears. Tampa Bay has a lot of quality hitters but a lack of thumpers. Austin Meadows is the only hitter with a slugging percentage above .500. Oakland has five. If the Rays go into one of their three-game dry spells at the plate, they’ll be doomed. Ji-Man Choi, Avisail Garcia and Nate Lowe have got to show up in the final two weeks.

Oakland Athletics

Oakland shortsop Marcus Semien, along with Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano and Mark Canha, gives the A's a potent set of sluggers in the middle of the lineup. [TONY GUTIERREZ | AP]

In their favor: Hard not to consider the A’s the favorite to finish first in the wild card race. It’s not just the powerful lineup, but also a ridiculously favorable schedule down the stretch. For the rest of the regular season, Oakland does not face a team currently above .500. The four opponents remaining had gone 18-32 against the A’s going into Saturday night.

Reason to worry: The Athletics had a patchwork rotation for much of the season, but now has seven different starters to choose from. That’s not the problem. The issue is how much faith anyone in Oakland has in a lot of those starters. In the five games they played from Monday to Friday, the Athletics gave up 36 runs. And even with those ugly linescores, they managed to win four of those games.

RELATED: Join our Rays Fever Facebook group for conversation, polls, story links and more

Cleveland Indians

In their favor: The Indians have used a formula almost identical to Tampa Bay. Both have offenses slightly below average, but they also went into Saturday with the top two ERAs in the American League. The Rays would probably be considered slightly more talented by most measures, but Cleveland’s place in the Central division has given it a huge advantage.

The Indians have feasted on losing teams while struggling against anyone above .500. They have six games remaining against the White Sox and Tigers, a pair of teams limping toward the finish line. Cleveland has gone a remarkable 15-1 against Detroit this season.

Reason to worry: Cleveland traded Trevor Bauer in July with the idea that Corey Kluber would be coming back in August. Unfortunately, Kluber was injured again during a rehab performance and will not be back in the regular season. That leaves Cleveland with a glaring hole in the rotation, and closer Brad Hand has also been dealing with a mysterious injury in the past couple of weeks.

Interestingly, the National League wild card may also have an effect for the Indians. Cleveland still has six games against NL contenders Philadelphia and Washington. If the Phillies are still alive or the Nationals are still trying to win homefield advantage, those games look a lot more difficult.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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