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Astros vs. A’s is the one AL division race left

We know which AL teams are in the postseason, but there’s one question remaining as to how two of them will get there.

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Red Sox have clinched the AL East, while the Indians have clinched the AL Central. That just leaves just the American League West undecided with about 10 games to go in the 2018 regular season, and there still is a race worth paying attention to there.

The Astros, the defending World Series champions, are in first place at present, 3.5 games up on the Athletics. That’s not an insurmountable lead for Oakland, but it’s also not so close that it’s easy to expect them to overtake Houston, either. A look at the postseason odds hosted at MLB’s standings page is a reminder of just how difficult the A’s have it right now in terms of overtaking Houston: the Astros have a 99.5 percent chance of winning the West, leaving just half-a-percent for Oakland. This is just probability’s way of saying the A’s haven’t been mathematically eliminated from being crowned yet.

And yet, that math could go a long way for the A’s. Their elimination number is still seven, so they aren’t in a win-out-or-lose position. The Astros probably have the easier schedule thanks to four games left against the lowly Orioles, but Oakland gets to face the Twins for three and the Angels for three, with their most intimidating opponent the already eliminated Mariners. The possibility exists that the A’s win their next couple of games and the Astros do not, and the odds swing... well, not in Oakland’s favor, but to a place with a little less finality than the current half-percent standing they’re in.

Why focus so much on such a tiny opportunity? Well, the A’s currently hold the second wild card, and because of that, they don’t have home field advantage in the Wild Card Game, which will be played against the Yankees. That’s the only other AL postseason question that remains unanswered, besides which team will win the West: which one will be the home team in the Wild Card Game?

The Yankees are currently 1.5 games up on the A’s, as they’ve got one more win but also one fewer game played. If the A’s outplay the Astros enough down the stretch to overtake them in the West, chances are good the Yankees will have maintained the top wild card position and retained home field in the process.

So there are reasons for the Astros to keep playing hard down the stretch, even if home field throughout the postseason isn’t happening unless the Red Sox lose everything from here on out while the Astros go 10-0 to close out 2018. And there are two reasons for the A’s to keep going hard, even if a postseason spot has already been assured. And because of that, we’ve got still a race with actual implications going, even if the probabilities say it’s all but been decided.

That’s why they play the games, you know. They also play them because it’s incredibly profitable and so many rich people are created by this sport day after day, but a secondary part of why they play the games is that you don’t know what’s going to happen even if you think you do. It’s why the Red Sox don’t get to just walk into the World Series like they would have the last time they won 104 games in a season, and why last year’s Yankees nearly made it to the Fall Classic despite having to play in Baseball Thunderdome to even see the ALDS. The A’s could surpass the Astros, or at least the Yankees, but we won’t know if they will until we see how these last few games go down.

The stretch run is so good, y’all, even when it offers us just a little bit of drama.