Stretching the Field: Time to ante up in wild card race

Think back to March when so-called experts put their stamp of approval on predicting which MLB clubs will flourish or flop in 2013.

Baseball is a tricky game and can leave the most deft prognosticator appear senseless. There are unexpected twists and turns throughout a 162-game schedule, so the comforts of familiarity when choosing a frontrunner often go by the wayside.

Raise your hand if you pegged the LA Angels of Anaheim to come out of the American League West or the Washington Nationals to breeze through the NL East en route to a World Series berth.

America's pastime always has its surprising moments, making it a delight to follow the unexpected charges toward the postseason.

Who would have thought the Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals would be in contention for fall baseball by mid-September? You're lying if you raised an arm for that one.

There are teams such as the Angels and Nationals who failed to live up to the hype. The Angels signed slugger Josh Hamilton away from the Texas Rangers in the offseason to join forces with Albert Pujols and a World Series title was on its way to southern California, right? Well, Hamilton hasn't put up his typical power numbers and Pujols has been finished with an injury. All that said, the Angels could be looking for a new manager in the near future.

Chemistry is a big part of sports. The Los Angeles Dodgers didn't have it early on this season, but now are closing in on their first NL West title since 2009. The lucrative payroll in L.A. is literally paying off for the Dodgers, whose gigantic turnaround in June and July has them as heavy favorites to reach the World Series.

The rest of the NL West, including the defending champion San Francisco Giants, are nowhere near a playoff berth. If the Arizona Diamondbacks think they have a chance at nine games off a wild card spot the desert heat has them glaring at a mirage.

The Nationals, picked to steamroll the NL East, are fighting for their lives and sit 5 1/2 games off a spot. It will take probably the rest of the season to determine a winner in the NL Central with the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds jockeying for position. Both the Pirates and Cardinals are tied for the division lead and the Reds are 2 1/2 games behind. But most likely all three NL Central contenders will be in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh has the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Reds on the remaining docket, Cincinnati still has bouts with the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros and New York Mets and the Cardinals will toil with the Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Brewers, Nationals and Cubs. The remaining games (6) between the Pirates and Reds should be interesting because they're both looking down on the rest of the NL wild card hopefuls.

In the American League playoff chase, the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers should run off with the AL East and AL Central titles, respectively.

It's a different story in the AL West, however.

The Rangers, leaders of the AL wild card race, once sat atop the standings and now find themselves 3 1/2 games behind the Oakland Athletics. The two rivals will open a crucial three-game series in Arlington this weekend and the club that loses out on the AL West title could punch their ticket to the playoffs via wild card.

There are currently four teams gunning for the final wild card spot in the Junior Circuit: The New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Royals. The Yankees are a game out, the Indians are 1 1/2 games off the pace and both the Orioles and Royals have to overcome a 2 1/2-game deficit. All four of those clubs have made a substantial case to keep their season alive after 162 games.

The Yankees have a tough schedule ahead against Boston, the Toronto Blue Jays, San Francisco, the Tampa Bay Rays, who are clinging to the final wild card berth, and Houston Astros. The Indians are looking at a relatively easy list of matchups with the Chicago White Sox, Royals, Astros and Minnesota Twins. Cleveland's upcoming battle with Kansas City from Sept. 16-18 is lined up to be an intriguing one.

The Orioles are closing out the season against AL East foes in the Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays, and started the run by losing three of four to New York. Baltimore may not make it to the postseason since misery enjoys company and its division rivals will try to make sure that doesn't occur.

Kansas City has been snakebitten playoff-wise since winning the 1985 World Series and its schedule ahead isn't so easy either. The Royals are slated to face the Tigers, Indians, Rangers, Mariners and White Sox. It would be great for baseball and the city to see the Royals end their postseason drought, as they have won 13 of their last 18 to stay in contention.

The cluttered playoff races, especially in the American League, will make for improved viewing down the stretch for two reasons: Bringing out the best in those targeting October baseball and the outsiders relegated to spoiler.

So gear up for a lively conclusion to the regular season and an even more dramatic run through the playoffs in the next few weeks.