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MLB wild-card races are a study in mediocrity where no one looks like they want to win it

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NEW YORK -- It is being billed as two fabulous, dramatic, wild-card races, the most compelling since Major League Baseball adopted the two-team format in 2012.

Go ahead, take a look:

There are five teams – Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics – within three games of one another for the two wild-card spots in the American League.

There are five teams – Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets – within three games of one another for one vacant wild-card spot in the National League.

Pretty thrilling, right?

Or is it appalling?

They are the wild-card races no team residing in the United States wants to win, with only the Blue Jays showing any urgency, going 11-1 this month, including a 22-7 onslaught over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday.

Ok, so maybe you can’t blame anyone in the National League for not wanting to earn the second spot. Who wants to be embarrassed by the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants in the wild-card game?

There are three powerhouses in the NL – the Giants, Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers – and the second wild-card winner must travel to California to play the runner-up in the the NL West.

Come on, if these NL wild-card entrants were all that interested in making the playoffs, would they really be playing like this?

The Reds, who are tied with the Padres for the second wild-card spot, have easily had the easiest schedule among all of the wild-card contenders down the stretch.

Joey Votto tosses his bat after striking out during a game against the Cardinals.
Joey Votto tosses his bat after striking out during a game against the Cardinals.

They’ve responded by losing 12 of their last 18 games. They’ve lost four games to the woeful Chicago Cubs during this stretch, two games to the last-place Miami Marlins, two games to the fourth-place Detroit Tigers and four games to the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals. It has been 22 days since they even won a series.

“At the end of this,’’ said Reds second baseman Jonathan India, the overwhelming favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year award, "we're going to laugh at these losses. So, we'll be fine.’’

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Well, considering the Reds' laughably soft schedule, with nine games still remaining against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the joke’s on them if they don’t reach the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Phillies were supposed to take advantage of an equally soft schedule, but just became the first team this season to lose three games in a series to the Colorado Rockies at home. This is also the same team that also managed to be swept by the National League’s worst team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, just three weeks ago.

How does it feel?

“It stunk,’’ Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Sunday. “It stunk. It stunk. There’s no other way to describe it. It stunk.”

The Phillies still have 10 of their remaining 19 games against the Cubs, Orioles and Pirates, but considering they were just dominated by the Rockies, will anything really change?

The Mets are still hoping to win the NL East, but considering they are five games behind Atlanta, and just three games back in a deeply flawed wild-card race, what do you think is more realistic?

Then again, when you’re only a .500 team (72-72), just how seriously can anyone take you?

The Cardinals went 15-11 in August, and beat the Reds in back-to-back games over the weekend, but have been little more than a .500 team all season.

Of course, mediocrity is proving to be a standard of excellence in this wild-card race.

“We always felt like we were in a horse race,’’ Cardinals manager Mike Shildt says. “Around the stretch they come. And we got good closing speed.”

Well, the only prized thoroughbred in this NL Wild Card race is the Padres. They easily have the most talent. The biggest payroll. The greatest stars.

And are proving to be the biggest underachievers.

They are going backwards in the standings, going 25-35 since July 1, and losing 19 of their last 27 games.

“The last couple of weeks,’’ Padres manager Jayce Tingler said, “it’s probably been our low point. We got to play better on all cylinders. But it’s right there in front of us.

‘We’ve got to go out and take it.’’

In the American League, the Mariners looked for a moment that they might actually have a chance to end their 20-year playoff drought.

Then, they started to play again like the Mariners.

They spent the weekend losing two of three games at home to the woeful Diamondbacks, hitting just .187 in the series, falling three games back.

The A’s decided they’d make a serious playoff run when they acquired Starling Marte at the trade deadline. They since have fallen out of the AL West race, and are on fumes in the wild-card race.

They have lost 13 of their last 20 games, including two of three over the weekend at home to the last-place Texas Rangers. They play seven of their remaining 16 games against the Mariners, a stretch which should mercifully knock both of them out of the race.

The Red Sox were the biggest surprise in the American League the first half of the season, but the glass slipper shattered. They now are hanging on for dear life, tied with the Blue Jays for the top spot, and one game ahead of the Yankees.

Yet, how seriously can you take them when they are 6-17 against teams over .500 since the trade deadline, failing to win a single series? The good news is that they have only six remaining games against teams with a winning record.

And, of course, there are the powerful Yankees.

They looked almost invincible a few weeks ago when they won 13 in a row, only for reality to hit, losing 12 of their last 16 games.

The Yankees’ next nine games are against the Orioles, Cleveland and Texas, but if they don’t do some damage, they could be done. Their final nine games are against the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays.

Little wonder why Aaron Judge spoke out during their team meeting Friday night, trying to reinforce that they stand for greatness, not mediocrity.

“I think the biggest thing was just remind guys that, hey, we’re still in the playoff hunt,’’ Judge said. “The world’s not crashing down on us. Remind everybody who they are, who we are. We’re the New York Yankees. It’s an honor and privilege to get a chance to wear these pinstripes and play for this team.

“When you get into September baseball in New York, that’s when it’s fun.’’

But, if you’re in New York, and collapse in September, there’s not a worse feeling knowing that heads will soon roll.

Ah, the euphoria of a wild-card race.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB wild card race: Several teams struggling down the stretch