Six months and 161 games later, it all comes down to this:
---The Athletics and Rangers meet in a 3:35 ET matinee in Oakland that's become a winner-take-all showdown for the AL West title. The A's have won the first two games of the series, including last night's 3-1 victory that ended shortly before 1 a.m. and left both teams with 93-68 records. Today's pitching matchup is Texas veteran Ryan Dempster vs. Oakland rookie A.J. Griffin.
The A's were 37-42 and 13 games out of first place on June 30. Since then, they've gone 56-26 (wow!) while the Rangers are 43-39. The A's are trying to become just the fifth team in history to come back from a deficit of 13 games or more and the first since the 1995 Mariners. The last time the A's had a share of the division lead? March 30, when they were 1-1 after splitting with the Mariners in Japan.
Oakland has an amazing rotation of rookies plus a solid bullpen that includes veteran closer Grant Balfour (left).
Quite a difference winning and losing this one. The winner heads right to the division series while the loser has to host the wild-card game, likely against the Orioles, on Friday.
---I'm calling a Yankees win tonight over the Red Sox and a trip to the ALDS for the Bombers (it's Hiroki Kuroda vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka) Moreover, they would claim homefield advantage in the playoffs as well, something that didn't seem likely a couple of weeks ago. But the Rangers are 4-8 in their last 12 games and 2-6 in the last eight (including 2-4 against Oakland). That's brought the Yankees and A's back in the hunt.
The Yankees got in this position by getting a couple huge swings from Raul Ibanez in a 4-3, 12-inning win over the Red Sox. Ibanez hit a two-run homer off Andrew Bailey in the ninth and was greeted by Alex Rodriguez (right) when he won the game on an RBI single in the 12th.
Anyone still want Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui as the Yankees' DH? And don't forget the 13th-inning homer Ibanez hit to cap the four-run inning and get the Yankees even against Oakland on Sept. 22. The Yanks won that game in 14; how big does that one look now?
The Yankees, of course, could slip back into a tie with Baltimore if they lose today and the Orioles win at Tampa Bay. If that happens, the teams would meet Thursday at Camden Yards.
A lot less to settle in the NL after the Dodgers' loss to the Giants late last night clinched the second wild-card for the Cardinals. The Nationals have the tiebreak edge over the Reds and can clinch homefield with a win today over the Phillies. The Braves and Cardinals will meet Friday in Atlanta in the first NL wild card playoff.
(Photos: Associated Press)