Just one week ago, after the games of Sunday, Sept. 4, with three and a half weeks left in the 2011 regular season and baseball fans everywhere crying out for a pennant race to follow, there simply weren't any.
Sure, the New York Yankees were trying to hold off the Boston Red Sox for first place in the AL East, just 1-1/2 games ahead, but both teams seemed to be cruising to the postseason and the only thing that really mattered in that race was home field, which would go to the division winner. And the Texas Rangers were 3-1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West, but the Angels had gone just 12-12 since Aug. 10 and seemed to be just treading water; losing three of four to the Rangers in Arlington in mid-August appeared to put the end to any 2011 postseason dreams in Anaheim.
Elsewhere, five other clubs were cruising to the postseason: the Detroit Tigers led the AL Central by 6-1/2 games; the Red Sox were eight games ahead of the Rays for the AL Wild Card; the Phillies led the NL East by 7-1/2 gaames, and the trailing Braves were 9-1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals for the NL Wild Card; and the Diamondbacks had opened up a seven-game cushion over the Giants in the NL West.
There's nothing better to write now than a clichéd old phrase: "What a difference a week makes!"
After Sunday's games were completed with wins by the Rays over the Red Sox and the Cardinals over the Braves, we now have four races to watch over the season's last two and a half weeks. Admittedly, we are getting into 1964 Phillies or 2007 Mets territory -- most teams have leads that are probably too large to overcome without historic collapses -- but there are several teams making terrific runs right now.
The Angels lost a tough one to the Yankees on Sunday, but have won six of their last eight. Meanwhile, the Rangers have gone just 4-3 in the past week, and their lead over the Angels stands at just 2-1/2 games -- and just two in the loss column. The two teams will meet for the final three games of the regular season in Anaheim, three games that looked meaningless a month ago, but now games that could decide the division title. Here are the remaining schedules for the AL West contenders (home games in bold):
Rangers: 9/13-14-15 vs. Indians; 9/16-17-18 at Mariners; 9/19-20-21 at Athletics; 9/23-24-25 vs. Mariners; 9/26-27-28 at Angels
Angels: 9/12-13-14 at Athletics; 9/16-17-18 at Orioles; 9/19-20-21-22 at Blue Jays; 9/23-24-25 vs. Athletics; 9/26-27-28 vs. Rangers
The schedule favors the Rangers, as the Angels have a tough 10-game road trip which includes a three-time-zone flight. But this one will likely go down to those final three games.
The Cardinals, via their sweep of the Braves, have put themselves back in the conversation in both the wild card and NL Central races, although the NL Central is a longshot. A five-game St. Louis winning streak has put them only 4-1/2 games behind the Braves in the wild-card race and six games behind the Brewers in the NL Central. They'll need help to make either one; with 16 games remaining they don't play either team again. Remaining schedules:
Cardinals: 9/12-13-14 at Pirates; 9/16-17-18-19 at Phillies; 9/20-21-22 vs. Mets; 9/23-24-25 vs. Cubs; 9/26-27-28 at Astros
Braves: 9/12-13-14 vs. Marlins; 9/16-17-18 vs. Mets; 9/19-20-21 at Marlins; 9/23-24-25 at Nationals; 9/26-27-28 vs. Phillies
Brewers: 9/13-14 vs. Rockies; 9/16-17-18 at Reds; 9/19-20-21 at Cubs; 9/23-24-25 vs. Marlins; 9/26-27-28 vs. Pirates
It will be very difficult for the Cardinals to catch the Brewers, who have an excellent home record, but that wild-card deficit can still be overcome.
Red Sox fans don't like to hear things like "collapse", because it's happened too many times in their history, both in the regular season and the postseason. But their wild-card lead over the Rays -- which was nine games just eight days ago -- is just 3-1/2 games after Tampa Bay swept Boston at the Trop over the weekend. That included a walkoff win in extra innings on Saturday and a 9-1 blowout on Sunday. The Red Sox have lost five straight and seven out of eight; the Rays have won seven of eight. And the two teams will meet again, very soon:
Red Sox: 9/13-14 at Blue Jays; 9/15-16-17-18 vs. Rays; 9/19(DH)-20-21 vs. Orioles; 9/23-24-25 at Yankees; 9/26-27-28 at Orioles
Rays: 9/12-13-14 at Orioles; 9/15-16-17-18 at Red Sox; 9/20-21(DH)-22 at Yankees; 9/23-24-25 vs. Blue Jays; 9/26-27-28 vs. Yankees
The Rays have the tougher schedule, being mostly on the road and having two series against the Yankees. But they have played Boston tough this year, 9-5 so far; at just 3-1/2 games behind them, they can catch them with a sweep.
There are just 16 or 17 games remaining in the regular season, and except for the 1-1/2 game spread in the AL West, the other trailing teams have mountains to climb. But such mountains have been climbed before; in addition to the 1964 NL race, blown by the Phillies after being 6-1/2 games ahead with 12 left, and the 2007 NL East, won by the Phillies over the Mets after being down seven games with 17 remaining, you might remember another race in 2007.
That was the 2007 NL Wild Card race, which appeared headed toward the Padres with 14 games remaining in the regular season. The Rockies not only trailed by 4-1/2 games, they trailed two other teams, the Dodgers and Phillies. Then Colorado went on a 13-1 run to tie San Diego and won the one-game playoff (although the Padres are still waiting for Matt Holliday to touch the plate).
So don't say miracles can't happen. They can. They have. And perhaps one will happen again this season. With a little more than two weeks remaining, we have meaningful games to watch.