A seven-way tie at 81 wins? It's still possible in the wild American League

·MLB columnist

For those fans of pure playoff chaos, the masochists who derive extreme pleasure out of the idea of a seven-way tie for one playoff spot, you, like the rest of the contenders this time of year, have a magic number: 81.

Once the contenders for the second wild-card spot in the American League start exceeding 81 wins, the dreams of anarchy go with it. And yet with two weeks to go in the season, while it is exceedingly unrealistic, the possibility of a seven-way tie at 81 wins – the perfect embodiment of the AL feebleness – remains real. So, too, do six-way ties at 82, 83 and 84 wins, a five-way tie at 85, a four-way tie at 86 and two-team ties at 87, 88 and 89.

The idea of the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles ending up in one giant morass of mediocrity is delicious, if altogether unrealistic. The latter five teams are actually under .500 – in the case of Tampa Bay and Baltimore, four games under. And they’re chasing a Twins team that is 78-71 and two games ahead of the Angels for the last spot.

Enticing though that seven-team tie may be, particularly because Major League Baseball has absolutely no plans on how to break ties of more than four teams, the Twins’ worst record over a 13-game stretch this year has been 4-9, which would make 82 the low number. That eliminates either the Orioles or Rays, who play one another seven times in the next two weeks and can’t both win more than 81.

Six teams at 82? This may be the most likeliest of the pure bedlam scenarios. Since the Rays’ best record over 12 games in any stretch this season is 8-4 – oof – let’s assume the Orioles are the better bet. Even then, they’ve only gone 9-3 over their best 12 games, which would leave them at 82.

Add together the Royals’ current wins with the total from their best 13-game stretch, and it’s 84. Same for the Rangers. The Mariners cap out at 84, too. So those ideas of 85 or 86? Not happening, unless the Angels and …

1. Minnesota Twins turn the final two weeks of September into an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better show. Which would be much appreciated, so as to scrub from the history books the idea that even within the last two weeks of a season someone had so little confidence in the AL to give more than a sentence of thought to the notion that two five-games-under-.500 teams might have more than a fraction of a decimal of a percent of a chance to represent the league in October.

The spot is the Twins’ to lose, not just because they’re two games up on Los Angeles and have been the more consistent team but because the scheduling gods offered them the delight of seven games against the teardown Detroit Tigers. Granted, the Twins have played them a dozen times already this season and sport a 5-7 record, but most of those came against the Tigers of Justins Verlander, Upton and Wilson.

Look, the Twins don’t strike anyone as a classic playoff team. Their rotation consists of Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios, Adalberto Mejia and the preserved remains of Bartolo Colon. Last season, they lost 103 games with a team that isn’t significantly different from this one. The day after the trade deadline, they bottomed out at 50-54, and their decision to trade Jaime Garcia to the …

2. New York Yankees looked positively prescient. The Yankees had bottomed out going into the All-Star break, turning a 38-23 record into a 45-41 mark to end the first half. Buying for the stretch wasn’t a tough decision, not with the AL landscape looking like it did at the time, with only Houston looking scary and Cleveland not doing its Cleveland thing quite yet.

Now the Yankees are on the cusp of clinching a playoff spot, with their magic number at 8. The division is certainly within reach, too, as they sit three games back of the Boston Red Sox and would love to avoid the wild-card game as well as a five-game series against the Indians.

All season, the Yankees’ run differential portended better than what their record showed, and September is bearing that out. Even with Dellin Betances struggling, the rest of their bullpen has been obscene. Combined, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Aroldis Chapman and the ascendant Chad Green have struck out 40 and allowed one earned run in 27 innings. Aaron Hicks’ injury opened up a spot for Jacoby Ellsbury, who is slashing .409/.527/.545 this month and has walked more than he has struck out. And for those who were happy to pile on Aaron Judge as he struggled to begin the second half, his OPS in September is near 1.100, and he more than deserves all the votes near the top of the MVP ballot he’ll get, which should be plenty.

The only real loss the Yankees took this week was the lack of penalties levied against the Boston Red Sox for the Apple Watch, which was the obvious consequence the day it happened. That doesn’t make it right, per se. The Red Sox knew exactly what they were doing and how it violated the spirit of baseball’s rules. And yet when you have an unwritten rulebook that makes Infinite Jest look like a pamphlet, those lines blur quickly. It’s not an excuse so much as it is an invitation to MLB to be as clear and transparent as possible with potential penalties, because a case like …

3. Shohei Otani’s is bound to invite as much shadiness and suborning as the game has seen in a good long while. It’s already a running joke among executives – something along the lines of: “Of course Otani is coming. The [insert team here] promised him 200 after next year.”

Two hundred, in this case, means $200 million, and with the seeming inevitability of the 23-year-old Otani taking his talents on the mound and at the plate to MLB next season, it will be the greatest test in years for the league to see how seriously it takes – and enforces – its rules.

The league only has itself to blame in this situation. Lumping a potentially transcendent star like Otani into the same group as a young Cuban defector or a 16-year-old Dominican project or anybody other than one of the best players in the world – which he is – invites awful behavior. As it stands, the most a team can offer Otani to sign is the Texas Rangers with a little more than $3.5 million, according to the Associated Press. And that’s for a standard minor league contract with six years of guaranteed control.

The temptation to offer Otani or someone close to him inducements or to draw up ways around the rules that MLB put in place to prevent any international player under 25 from cashing in on a contract the market obviously will pay – it’s awfully strong, and if MLB penalizes with the same cushioned paddle it did the St. Louis Cardinals for hacking into the Houston Astros’ database or the wet noodle it did with the Red Sox, teams may be willing to take that risk.

Baseball, then, may be well-served to come out publicly with a sense of what an Otani-related penalty would be, if only to protect itself – to say that even if this rule shouldn’t apply to this player, the teams understood beforehand what the consequences for breaking it might be. Because every team is going to want Ohtani, even the …

4. Cleveland Indians, whose 22-game winning streak ended this week but whose future looks every bit as delightful as those three weeks. It’s not just the October ahead, in which they may have played their way into home-field advantage for the playoffs. It’s next year and the year after and the one after that.

The 1990s Indians pioneered building around young, homegrown talent locked up on cheap long-term deals. These Indians, as much as any team in baseball, have recreated that model. And while some misses exist, the hits are far more frequent and valuable.

Jose Ramirez, their MVP candidate, signed a five-year, $26 million extension with a pair of club options beyond it this offseason. The Indians saved, oh, probably $75 million by doing the deal when they did. They’ve got Carlos Carrasco, a legitimate No. 2 starter, for three more years at $26.5 million. While they’re not on long-term deals, the Indians control Andrew Miller and Cody Allen through 2018, Trevor Bauer through 2020 and Francisco Lindor through 2021. This is not a two-year window. This team is built to win for a long time.

Oh, and …

5. Corey Kluber is under contract for another four years at $51 million. Can’t forget the guy who’s going to win the AL Cy Young getting paid like a No. 4 starter.

OK, so perhaps it’s premature to call the award for Kluber. After his latest outing – seven shutout innings of three-hit, no-walk, nine-strikeout ball Sunday – he has separated himself from Chris Sale by half a run in ERA. And while Sale needs just 13 strikeouts to reach 300, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for a pitcher to reach it and not win the Cy Young. As Daniel McGrath pointed out on Twitter, it happened two years ago, with Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke beating Clayton Kershaw.

Since Kluber came off the disabled list June 1, his 21 starts have been nothing short of transcendent. His ERA: 1.69. His strikeout-to-walk ratio: 10-to-1 (211 strikeouts and 21 walks in 154 1/3 innings). Opponents are hitting under .170 and OPSing under .500 against him. Ramirez is going to steal the lion’s share of MVP love from Cleveland, but Kluber deserves at least a slight bit. The only surprise about his season is he hasn’t done what …

6. Matt Boyd did Sunday: flirt with a no-hitter. Actually, Boyd, Detroit’s 26-year-old left-hander, did more than flirt. He was on one knee, proposing marriage, with two outs in the ninth inning, when the White Sox’s Tim Anderson broke it up and left Edinson Volquez as the lone starter with a no-hitter in 2017.

This marks the second consecutive season that looks like it’s going to end with just one. Aside from home runs – the all-time single-season record will fall Tuesday – another of the juiced ball’s effects is the endangerment of the no-no after a 2015 in which seven were thrown over four months, following five in 2014 and three in 2013. All this no-hitter talk, in fact, spurred a bit of research on the matter and brought to light a great trivia question with a greater story behind it.

The question: Who was the starting pitcher in the first combined no-hitter in baseball history?

The answer: Babe Ruth.

The story: On June 23, 1917, Ruth was starting for the Boston Red Sox against the Washington Senators. He walked the first batter, Ray Morgan. Ruth did not like the strike zone of home-plate umpire Brick Owens and let him know it. Owens told him to pipe down and get back to the mound. Ruth said if he told him what to do again, he’d regret it. Even back then, players regarded umpires more as humanoids than people.

Well, Owens repeated himself, and Ruth responded by charging the still-masked Owens and launching a left-right combo, the second of which struck the side of his head. Police dragged away Ruth, and he was replaced by Ernie Shore, who followed with nine perfect innings.

A year later, Ruth started his transition to the field and led the league in home runs. A year after that, he became the first player to hit more than 25 in a season. And the next year, Boston traded him to the Yankees, for whom he hit 54 home runs and changed the game. While …

7. Cody Bellinger hasn’t had quite the same power impact in his rookie season, it’s worth noting just how good he has been – particularly as Rhys Hoskins-mania reaches a fever pitch and prompts some to ask whether he deserves National League Rookie of the Year consideration.

The answer is yes. Just not at the top of the ballot. Bellinger tied Frank Robinson and Wally Berger’s NL rookie record this week with his 38th home run, and sometime over the next two weeks, he should surpass it. The last rookie with a higher slugging percentage than Bellinger’s .607 was Albert Pujols in 2001. Before that? Mark McGwire in 1987. And prior to him? Only Ted Williams, circa 1939.

As exciting as Bellinger’s season has been, he’s not the lefty with the most eyes on him heading into October. The fact that …

8. Bryce Harper still doesn’t know if he’s going to be ready for the division series after jacking up his knee after slipping on first base isn’t exactly promising. As good of a sign as it was that Harper took batting practice Sunday, the difference between a BP session and facing live pitching is enormous, and just because Kyle Schwarber last year was able to step into the World Series without any sign of rust doesn’t mean others can.

Harper is a better hitter than Schwarber, of course, and his injury wasn’t as severe as Schwarber’s torn ACL, but the pressure on Harper to return – to finally win a playoff series – is far more immense than what faced Schwarber, whose return was seen more as a gift than a necessity. Even if the Nationals mimic what the Cubs did last year, feeding Harper pitches in simulated games thrown by minor leaguers, it’s more than daunting to go straight from that to playoff pitching.

He admitted as much to reporters on Sunday, saying that if the Nationals face the …

9. Chicago Cubs and the first pitches he sees are from Jon Lester, it could make for a rude awakening. It was typical, of course, that Harper practically defaulted to the Cubs, even if their lead over the Brewers is just four games and they head to Milwaukee on Thursday for a vital four-game series.

The Cubs did buy themselves some breathing room this week, sweeping the Mets in impressive fashion, then dispatching the St. Louis Cardinals from much hope of postseason contention with a three-game brooming over the weekend. They looked like the Cubs again … after last weekend, when they looked like the Brewers’ playtoy.

Milwaukee had a perfectly fine week after going to Wrigley and outscoring the Cubs 20-3. They took two of three from Pittsburgh and went to Miami to grab another pair of wins in three games. Those two losses, though, were two more than the Cubs, and anything short of another sweep against the Cubs is going to leave the Brewers with an unfortunate amount of wood to chop. The Cubs are in control of the NL Central, though we’ve said that before, only for them to ralph away whatever advantage they had and allow the Brewers to play catch-up.

It’s been an exciting season for Milwaukee, not only because of the expectations but the ascendance of young players and for their desire to contend going forward. There must be something in the Upper Midwest this year, because in a lot of ways it resembles what the …

10. Minnesota Twins have done. Since they dropped to 50-54, the Twins are 28-17. And that’s not even the most impressive part. Over those 45 games, they have outscored opponents 276-195, averaging more than six runs a game.

Even with a seeming paucity of pitching, the Twins are hitting their way to October, where the Yankees are lining up Luis Severino, the hardest-throwing starter in baseball, to pitch. The Twins aren’t exactly keen on big fastballs, with a slugging percentage of .323 against those 97-mph-plus, according to Statcast. They’ve got exactly one home run against such pitches, and it came from Brian Dozier four months ago.

Minnesota Twins outfielders Eddie Rosario, left, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, right, show their basketball 3-point form after the Twins beat the Toronto Blue Jays 13-7 on Sunday. (AP)
Minnesota Twins outfielders Eddie Rosario, left, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, right, show their basketball 3-point form after the Twins beat the Toronto Blue Jays 13-7 on Sunday. (AP)

Add that to the fact that the Twins will decide between Kyle Gibson and Ervin Santana to win them a do-or-die game, and it becomes a little more obvious: Even with this great run, this great run differential, the Twins are more a 2017 American League playoff team than anyone’s classic idea of a playoff team. This isn’t just a consequence of the expanded postseason but parity that has diseased the AL’s landscape.

For some of the teams, this isn’t a playoff run; it’s a playoff slog. Sure, the possibility of all these meh teams playing one another in a bunch of win-or-go-home games is tantalizing, but that’s really the only saving grace for this sort of ball being in contention this late in the season. The Twins (with Byron Buxton and others) or the Angels (with Mike Trout and others) can bring enough excitement to the proceedings to make it worth it.

In the meantime, though, it’s not wrong to root for 81. A little seven-way tie never hurt anyone, except, perhaps, the people who would need to figure out how to break it.

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