As the regular season is beginning its final week, the American League East division is still technically up in the air, but one team is looking like the clear favorite right now.
In what is arguably one of baseball’s toughest divisions, the AL East is now down to two teams, the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles are currently in first place, looking to clinch their first AL East title since 2014.
The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox have already been eliminated from playoff contention, while the Toronto Blue Jays are fighting for a postseason spot in the AL Wild Card, having to deal with three teams from the AL West in a competition that will also likely come down to the very last game as well.
The Orioles and the Rays have already secured their spot for October baseball but it’s still to be determined who will finish first. Baltimore surprised many this season given how well their young roster has done this year and they currently hold a 2.5-game advantage over Tampa.
After losing the first two games of their four-game set against the Cleveland Guardians, the Orioles were able to close their weekend strong by winning the last two to earn the series split. Meanwhile the Rays dropped a rubber match game to the Blue Jays on Sunday to loss their three-game series.
The Rays were one of the hottest teams early in the season and at one point this year held a 6.5-game lead over their division rivals back on July 1st. Fast forward to July 19th and the Orioles had closed the gap, eventually taking over first spot and holding down the top of the division ever since.
With their magic number down to three with six games left to play, the Orioles are absolutely sitting in the driver’s seat. They own the tiebreaker over the Rays and have one extra game to play with. The question is if they can hold on, or if the Rays can surprise them in the season’s final week.
How the Race Unfolded So Far
The path for the Rays to be where they are hasn’t been easy, as numerous players like Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, Drew Rasmussen, Jose Siri, and Brandon Lowe have all had their fair share of injury issues but the rest of the roster has stepped up in their absence.
The club added Aaron Civale at the deadline and saw Yandy Díaz emerge as a top hitter but they are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to taking top spot.
Baltimore was projected to be a good team given their draft history and talented prospects but not many predicted that it would happen in 2023.
The Orioles boast one of the strongest farm systems in baseball and numerous players got their feet wet this season, including Grayson Rodriguez, Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg, and Heston Kjerstad.
Gunnar Henderson is currently in the running for Rookie of the Year given his strong campaign while veterans Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Ryan O’Hearn, and Anthony Santander give opposing teams fits in the batter’s box.
It’s been a mixed bag in the starting pitching corps but Rodriguez and Kyle Bradish have really come into their own, while Tyler Wells has really put forward a strong season to go along with their strong bullpen, where Yeiner Cano and Felix Bautista (before the injury) formed one of the best two-punch combos in the league.
Looking Ahead to the Final Week
The Orioles begin the final week of the season by hosting their inter-state rival, the Washington Nationals for a two-game set, before facing the Boston Red Sox for four games at Camden Yards.
Six home games against two losing teams and the goal is simple. Win half and you take the AL East, regardless of what the Rays do. Sitting just three victories away from their first 100-win season since 1980, and again owning the tiebreaker over Tampa, getting to the century mark will mean a division title for the Orioles.
Tampa on the other hand has a much tougher task, as they not only have one fewer game compared to the Orioles but they also have to face the Red Sox (two games) before finishing the season on the road in Toronto for a three-game series.
The Blue Jays just showed they could beat the Rays and will be likely fighting until the final day of the season with their Wild Card spot still very much up for grabs. It would take an absolute collapse by the Orioles, and probably one last five-game winning streak from the Rays to make it happen.
Still, if baseball has taught us anything, it is that you never know what is going to happen next. By next weekend, there is every chance we are looking at a Rays team on the verge of taking back the AL East. We will just have to watch the last few games and find out.