5 MLB Storylines Driving the 2014 Pennant Race

The ESPN preseason predictions for the MLB 2014 season had the AL East all wrong. Of the forty-four baseball figures ESPN polled (including Buster Olney, Bill Baer, and David Schoenfield), fourteen experts had the Red Sox winning the AL East, while another twenty-five had the Rays. The Rays can point to injuries (and trades) to deciding their fate in 2014, while the Red Sox can really only blame a regression to the mean for their poor season.

With the 2013 champs long gone, the races for 2014 MLB postseason spots are a little more intriguing. New division leaders in 2014 (Milwaukee, Baltimore) are looking to make their regime change complete, but even more drama is taking place in the Wild Card races and in the divisions out west. Here are five storylines that are making this pennant race thrilling.

All stats are current as of August 9, 2014.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
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1. The dogfight between the Angels and the A’s.

The American League’s two best teams (Oakland and L.A. Angels) happen to be in the same division. With the new Wild Card system, whoever comes in second will have to play a single playoff game to continue in the postseason. Teams with a stong No. 1 starter have to burn their best pitcher in this scenario, which was precisely the point of adding the second Wild Card.

To avoid this fate, the A’s and the Angels will be fighting to win the AL West and avoid the trappings of a Wild Card contest. After a mini losing streak, the Angels stood four games behind Oakland on August 9, but that margin won’t last forever. With the revival of the Angels, California baseball has become dominant in 2014.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers
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2. Who survives the NL Central?

Milwaukee’s big lead earlier in the season disappeared by the start of play on August 9, leaving the Cardinals and Pirates only one loss-column game behind the Brewers. With the Giants and Braves fighting for a Wild Card spot, one or two of the NL Central teams will be left out in the cold come October. St. Louis added John Lackey for the stretch run, but anything goes in MLB’s most tightly packed division race. Even Cincinnati is too close to count out: the Reds (35 percent) currently have a better chance of making the playoffs than Atlanta (28 percent).

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees
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3. Kansas City is giving the Tigers a run.

Detroit’s offense slumped terribly in a four-game series against the Yankees, but it was part of an ongoing trend that began at the All Star break, since when the Tigers are in the bottom ten in baseball in on-base percentage and slugging. Picking up David Price gave Detroit a terrifying starting rotation, but they have to score runs to win ballgames.

Kansas City’s second run at Detroit is making baseball analysts believe the Tigers have a legitimate threat in their division. Since only three games separate Detroit from the second Wild Card leaders, there are serious implications for losing the division lead or even slumping late in the season. The AL Central is drawing a lot of attention as the 2014 season winds down.

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4. The five-team NL Wild Card race.

The American League Wild Card is thrilling enough, but five teams battling for the last two NL postseason spots are separated by just three games. That means one of the powerhouses in San Francisco or St. Louis is likely going to be watching October baseball on television. Even if Atlanta and Cincinnati cannot grab one of the playoff spots, both teams (along with every other NL club) will have a chance to dash the hopes of these perennial contenders.

Credit Major League Baseball for adding a second Wild Card to make the division title infinitely more important while giving several more teams an opportunity to play another day.

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5. The revival of the (underdog?) Yankees.

After a series win against Detroit August 8, a Yankees team cobbled together with big-league castoffs and minor league hopefuls had pulled within a half-game of the second AL Wild Card. A change of scenery resurrected the careers of Esmil Rogers (2-0, 1 ER in 3 appearances), Chris Capuano (2.84 ERA in two starts) and Brandon McCarthy (4-0, 2.08 ERA in five starts), while the emergence of Shane Greene (3-1, 2.91 ERA in six starts) is surprising everyone, Yankees brass included. The resurgence of Carlos Beltran (.354 BA, 5 HR, 17 RBI, .991 OPS since the All Star break) is another big reason this team is in the hunt. Can the Yankees actually secure a playoff spot?

No fewer than five Yankees starters were on the disabled list as of August 9, though Michael Pineda (very likely) and Masahiro Tanaka (less likely) were on the trail back to the rotation. The Yankees remain one of two MLB teams with a negative run differential (-19) that has a winning record (the Cardinals recently joined the club).

Teams rebuilt off the scrap heap don’t usually contend, but there is a different personality on the Yankees compared to earlier in the season. The defense is crisper and the vibe is almost scrappy. In the strangest of ironies, the Yankees have become something of an underdog with the squad they are putting on the field. It will be fascinating to see how this drama plays out.