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American League East, Wild Card Intensifying

Before March 31, it would be safe to say that many fans of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays had plenty of reasons why their respective team would be playing in October. Throughout the course of the season, we've watched as the Yankees and Red Sox essentially sprinted toward the playoffs at an unprecedented rate. Both teams were nearly assured a chance at becoming world champions once again. It was just a matter of who would be the American League East champion and who would take the American League Wild Card spot.

Looks like we came to conclusions a bit too quickly.

Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Rays have significantly closed the gap on the Boston Red Sox in the wild card race. A week ago, Tampa Bay trailed the Yankees by 10.5 games in the American League East (11 in the loss column) and remained 8 games behind the Red Sox in the wild card hunt.

Flash forward one week to September 13. The Yankees go 2-4, the Red Sox lose five straight, and the Rays win five straight (including a three game sweep of Boston). New York now leads Boston by four games, and Boston leads Tampa Bay by a mere three games. David Ortiz sent a tweet into twitterverse that it's now time to panic.

If Boston doesn't get their act together quickly, he might be right.

Here's how the rest of the schedule pans out for all three teams:

Yankees - Two games at Seattle Mariners, three games at Toronto Blue Jays, one game vs. Minnesota Twins, four games vs. Tampa Bay Rays, three games vs. Boston Red Sox, three games at Tampa Bay Rays.

Red Sox - Two games vs. Toronto Blue Jays, four games vs. Tampa Bay Rays, four games vs. Baltimore Orioles, three games at New York Yankees, three games at Baltimore Orioles.

Rays - Two at Baltimore Orioles, four games at Boston Red Sox, four games at New York Yankees, three games vs. Toronto Blue Jays, three games vs. New York Yankees.

What's intriguing about the remaining schedule is that every team will play for their own fate.

For the Yankees, .500 baseball would be enough to push them into the playoffs, although it's not desirable. Both Boston and Tampa Bay would need to play exceptionally well to knock out New York, and that's not possible considering they still have a four game series against each other this weekend.

The Red Sox have played particularly well against the Yankees this season, winning 11 of 15 games and going 6-0 at Yankee Stadium. Personally, I don't see them sweeping three straight series at Yankee Stadium. In fact, I don't see the Yankees losing another series at Yankee Stadium to Boston this year. The four game series against Tampa Bay will be telling. Boston sweeping or taking three of four will pad their lead and likely put Tampa Bay far enough back to not be a playoff threat anymore. If Tampa Bay sweeps or takes three of four, Boston will need to take care of business against Baltimore and hope the Yankees can provide a few losses for the Rays. I'm sure Buck's Birds will be prepared to give Boston a healthy fight as the season closes (they certainly did when they played New York).

Theoretically, the Rays still have an outside chance at the American League East if they run train on the Yankees in those seven games split between the Bronx and Tampa. It can't be stressed enough how important their series against Boston is this weekend. A series win or sweep will put extraordinary pressure on Boston and give Tampa Bay plenty of momentum heading into the Bronx.

Whatever happens over the next sixteen days, I wouldn't be surprised if the race for the American League East or American League Wild Card dwindles down to the final days of the regular season.

It's only fitting.

Follow me on twitter @csm5206