Point of contention: 10 still in the hunt

Think back to mid-June.

The Boston Red Sox had just run their record against the AL East rival Yankees to 8-0. The Yankees were about to fall five games behind the Red Sox in the division standings. And the Red Sox were beating their chests over the depth of their rotation.

Guess that’s why they play the full schedule before making anything official — unfortunately for the Red Sox.

The stretch run has begun. Twenty-five days remain in the regular season.

The Red Sox are trying to hang on.

They have been blown away by the Yankees in the AL East, and their seemingly comfortable grasp on the AL wild card has crumbled. The Texas Rangers have become the gum on the bottom of the Red Sox cleats.

With the Rangers having rebounded from back-to-back losses in Baltimore to pile up three victories in a 24-hour span in Cleveland on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, the Red Sox woke up Thursday morning clinging to a two-game wild-card lead, the closest postseason battle in baseball.

So let’s handicap the top 10 postseason contenders:

American League

  • The AL East-leading Yankees have a best-in-baseball 90 victories, a winning record against every team they have played except Boston (6-9, but they have won six of the last seven) and the Angels (2-4), and a dominating home-field edge (49-20) at the new Yankee Stadium.

    So what if they are now crossing their fingers with Sergio Mitre in the fifth starter role where Phil Hughes, Chad Gaudin and Chien Ming Wang were given shots. Shoot, Alfredo Aceves even was asked to fill in for one start, but was quickly returned to the bullpen, where he has become a major factor, compiling a 10-1 record.

    The Yankees are on cruise control, getting things put in place for the postseason, and even without an edge they have won 12 of their last 14.

    The only team standing between the Yankees and another world championship is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

  • The division-leading Angels have not been able to pull off an expected runaway in the AL West like they did a year ago. But they do feel good about themselves.

    It was a year ago Thursday that the Angels clinched a division title, the earliest a division title had been wrapped up since Atlanta clinched the NL East on Sept. 9, 2002, and earliest the AL West had ever been clinched. But then a year ago the Angels rotation was so solid they only used seven starters in 162 games.

    They have had to piece their way through 14 different starting pitchers this year, and it’s been a challenge. Within the last two weeks, however, Joe Saunders returned from the disabled list, Scott Kazmir arrived from Tampa, and the Angels have gone on a roll. The starting pitchers have allowed two or fewer runs in 12 of 14 games, the rotation has a 1.59 ERA over the last 11 games and their lead over the second-place Rangers stands at 4½ games.

  • The AL Central-leading Tigers were given a wakeup call, suffering back-to-back losses to the Royals, of all teams, on Tuesday and Wednesday. And that was with the Tigers sending Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander to the mound while the Royals were left to rely on Bruce Chen and Robinson Tejada.

    “We played with the blahs for a couple of days,” admitted manager Jim Leyland.

    But then the rest of the division has been down with a case of the blahs all season long. Second-place Minnesota climbed back above .500 on Wednesday night, just two games shy of its season-best three-game edge on break-even back on July 18. The three other AL Central teams — White Sox, Indians and Royals — were a combined 51 games below .500 going into Thursday.

  • The wild-card-leading Red Sox spent 55 days atop the AL East, but have fallen nine games behind the Yankees, the biggest deficit in baseball, and are trying to piece together that rotation that the Sox once felt was so deep. They have released John Smoltz and Brad Penny, but are now looking at Paul Byrd, who at the age of 38 was home settling into retirement when he was lured back to the game by Boston in late July.

    Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was just given his third cortisone shot to mask his pain from a degenerated disk in his back, which has limited him to only two starts since July 8. The man expected to be the team’s No. 2 starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, is pitching in the playoffs, all right, but it’s in the Class A Carolina League, where he is on a rehab assignment. He is only 1-5 with an 8.23 ERA in eight big-league starts. Can Jon Lester and Josh Beckett mask the rotation shortcomings in a short series this October?

  • The wild-card-challenging Rangers keep hanging around, looking for their first postseason invite since 1999, and hoping to expunge a reputation built off having lost nine of 10 postseason games in franchise history — the last nine in a row. They are missing two key offensive factors — third baseman Michael Young (strained hamstring) and outfielder Josh Hamilton (pinched nerve, back) — but haven’t wasted time feeling sorry for themselves.

    Talk about not computing. Right-hander Scott Feldman has anchored the rotation, going 16-4. This is a guy who came into the season 7-13 in the big leagues. Kevin Millwood is the only other pitcher to start 20 games. Vicente Padilla ranked third on the team in wins with eight but was released because he was too big a distraction. The closer’s role has been a left-right tag team with lefty C.J. Wilson, who has converted 14 of 16 opportunities, and Frank Francisco, who has earned 22 of his 27 career saves this season.

    National League

  • The NL East-leading Phillies got a quick lift from the addition of lefty Cliff Lee, who won his first five starts after coming over from Cleveland but is 1-2 with an 8.00 ERA the last three. More than concerns about Lee, manager Charlie Manuel is trying to sort out a ninth-inning bullpen mess, and on Wednesday finally felt the need to pull Brad Lidge in favor of Ryan Madson during a ninth-inning scare.

    “(Lidge is) one of the best closers in the game when he’s right,” said Manuel. “Right now, he’s going through a season where things haven’t gone very good for him. He’s had some struggles. This hasn’t been a big season for him. I definitely want to be loyal to him and things like that, but at the same time the game is the first priority.”

    Lidge has a convenience store ERA (7.11), and after being perfect in save situations last season, has converted only 28 of 38 this season. But then Madson is only 6-for-11 when he has been asked to put away a victory. No wonder Brett Myers came off the disabled list and was quickly inserted in the bullpen, not the rotation.

  • The NL Central-leading Cardinals have turned the division into a mockery. They have two of the top three — if not the top two period — Cy Young candidates with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, an emerging closer in Ryan Franklin, an offensive complement for Albert Pujols with the late-July addition of Matt Holliday, and such an overwhelming lead that they can afford to make sure everybody is rested and ready for the postseason.

  • The NL West-leading Dodgers are trying to keep their season from slipping away. And while they may hang on to win the division they are far from primed for the postseason. Randy Wolf has become the most consistent member of the rotation and he was scratched from a start in the weekend showdown with the Giants because of an irritation in his left elbow. Chad Billingsley, who was hoped to become the ace of the rotation, is sputtering down the stretch (0-3, 5.48 last four starts). Clayton Kershaw is winless in his last nine starts. And Manny Ramirez has lost his fan-favorite role along with his offensive production — .271 with nine home runs, 25 RBIs and 45 strikeouts in 177 at-bats since the All-Star break.
  • The wild-card-leading Rockies are surviving despite the losses of starting pitcher Aaron Cook (right shoulder strain), closer Huston Street (strained right biceps), and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (back spasms). The biggest lift has been emergence of lefty Franklin Morales in the ninth-inning role. He’s 5-for-5 in save situations since Street was sidelined. Working out of the bullpen for the first time in the regular season this year, Morales has held left-handed hitters to a .100 average (3-for-30). Right-handers are hitting only .223. The rotation has four 10-game winners for first time, and while Jason Hammel is only 8-7 in 26 starts, the Rockies are 15-5 in his last 20 starts.

    They do have two big road tests. They travel to San Francisco on Monday for the middle series in a three-city road trip, and then visit Los Angeles for the final three games of the regular season.

  • The wild-card-challenging Giants could finally be paying the price for an anemic offense. Not only did they stumble to a 3-3 road trip despite a pitching staff that allowed only nine runs (they lost two of three in hitter-friendly Philadelphia despite allowing only three runs total) and then returned home to lose two of three to San Diego. Now comes back-to-back, three-game series at home against the Dodgers and Rockies, and the Giants aren’t sure of the status of Tim Lincecum, who was scratched from his Tuesday start against the Padres because of low back pains.