By Larry Fine
With some 40 games left before postseason, division-leading New York (75-46) and Tampa Bay, the last two American League representatives in the World Series, were separated by just one game before Friday's action in a tussle that could be reprised in the League Championship Series.
The two hottest races in the National League featured twice defending NL pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies chasing after the Atlanta Braves in the East, and the Cincinnati Reds holding off the St Louis Cardinals in the Central.
Hard-hitting Cincinnati, boosted by slugger Joey Votto, had a 3.5-game lead over Albert Pujols and the Cards, while the Phillies were one game closer to Atlanta in the East.
Pitching-rich San Diego Padres (73-47), looked fairly comfortable as the surprise team in the National League West, enjoying a six-game advantage over the San Francisco Giants.
Similarly, the Texas Rangers, now armed with top-notch left-hander Cliff Lee, enjoyed a seven-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics in the AL West.
The Minnesota Twins (70-51), meanwhile, earned breathing room over the pursuing Chicago White Sox in the AL Central with a four-game cushion despite the absence of slugger Justin Morneau, who has missed more than a month due to a concussion.
While the wildcard playoff berth looked available as a consolation prize to any one of the second-place teams in the National League, the Yankees-Rays race looks likely to provide one or the other a wildcard pass into the playoffs.
The next best AL record among non-division leaders belonged to the injury-plagued Boston Red Sox, who were 5.5 games behind Tampa Bay in the wildcard standings.
By contrast, the Phillies, who have added former Astros ace Roy Oswalt to the rotation behind Roy Halladay and are returning Chase Utley to their lineup, lead the wildcard hunt by just one game over San Francisco, with St Louis one more game back.
Regardless of the apparent promise of a postseason berth in the Bronx, New York fans are concerned about the quality of the Yankees starting pitching and how it might fare during the playoffs when good pitching often triumphs over good hitting.
After ace left-hander CC Sabathia, who leads the league with 16 wins, the Yankees are hard-pressed to identify a strong number two starter with the inconsistency of A.J. Burnett, the injury worries over veteran Andy Pettitte and an innings-limit they have imposed on promising young hurler Phil Hughes.