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AL wild-card race a celebration of baseball mediocrity

The Los Angeles Angels arrived in Washington this week gripping the second wild card in the American League. They had a menagerie of pursuers, mediocre in quality and comical in number, so many that it would have been unwieldy to peer at the scoreboard and deduce a rooting interest. “Six weeks is a lifetime of baseball,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “There’s a lot that can happen.”

In the delightful mess of the AL’s wild-card chase, even one night can feel like a lifetime. By the wee hours Wednesday morning, the Angels had lost to the Nationals and watched a procession of results, culminating with the Kansas City Royals’ 10-8 loss to Oakland on the West Coast, which solidified their present status. Losses by the Twins and Royals — and an Angels win over Washington on Wednesday afternoon — prevented the second wild card spot from changing hands for the 13th time — 13th! — since July 1.

By decree of Major League Baseball rules, some team is going to qualify as the second wild card in the American League. It has to happen. But it doesn’t have to make any sense.

The Angels are just three games above .500 at 62-59. Six teams were within two games entering Wednesday, and seven were within 3½. The Twins, Royals, Orioles, Mariners, Rays, Rangers and Blue Jays can all convince themselves they still have a path to October. One good week and a little luck, and a playoff spot may be theirs.

Those eight teams jockeying meekly for the second wild card share an odd common trait for a playoff race: None of them is any good. Only one, the Rangers, had scored more runs than they had allowed before Wednesday. Only three had a record above .500. None had both a winning record and a positive run differential.

It is a race that can be confusing even for the participants. “I know that there’s a bunch” of teams in contention, was all Mike Trout could decipher.

“There’s a whole new division that’s created as a Major League Baseball season goes — a whole new division,” Scioscia said. “You never thought you were in a division with Kansas City. Well, here you are. You never thought you were in a division with Minnesota.”

It is a race that can make checking the morning standings a dizzying ordeal. Since July 1, the second wild card has changed hands 12 times, including ties, between six different teams: the Rays, Royals, Twins, Yankees, Mariners and, finally, Angels. Los Angeles seized the position five days ago, which makes their reign tied for third-longest during that stretch.

It is a race that can give you whiplash. The Twins traded for Jamie Garcia in an attempt to bulwark their playoff hopes, then proceeded to lose six out of seven games to drop to 50-54. They flipped Garcia to the Yankees and dealt closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals for prospects, then reeled off six victories in seven games. In this race, even giving up doesn’t mean you’re out of it.

If the Twins feel any regret over their choice to sell, they ought to let it go. Their current condition proves that even half-lousy teams aren’t out of the wild-card race until September, if they ever are. But teams also must be aware of what they’re playing for.

Even now, in position to sneak into the post-season, the Twins have about a 1-in-5 shot to have a 50 per cent crack to play in the first round. Yes, that means they have a chance to win the World Series. But it’s not a big enough one to justify sacrificing a chance to improve their future outlook.

And this year, the second wild card will be particularly overmatched in the division series. The AL could produce a new low. In the first five years of the dual wild-card format, the 2015 Astros snuck into the post-season with the fewest wins, at 86. The Angels are on pace for 83.

It may not be pretty. But it creates precisely what MLB wanted when it instituted the second wild card: More teams can talk themselves into contention, and more cities can hang on meaningful baseball games into the early fall. A playoff race doesn’t have to make sense to be a whole lot of fun.