TAMPA, Fla. ——Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he doesn't pay attention to the standings until August.
For the past 14 seasons, Orioles fans haven't had the need to either, their team usually already long out of contention by this time of year.
With two months to play, the Orioles find themselves in a tight playoff race. The addition of a second wild-card spot in each league makes it even more interesting. Entering Thursday, seven teams were within five games of the American League wild-card lead, five of them within 11/2 of one another.
And for the Orioles, it's time to pay attention to the standings.
"We're in it, and that's all you can ask for," catcher Matt Wieters said. "You want to have that shot. You want to be able to play for your way into the playoffs. That's the big thing. It doesn't matter whether you're playing the Yankees or playing Tampa or whether we're playing anybody. We just need to win games, and that's how you're going to get one of those playoff spots. And this year with that extra playoff spot, you've got to keep winning games and hopefully at the end it works out."
It's a long haul — one that will reward the teams that build the best body of work throughout the season. While the Orioles' surge this season has been surprising, this year has still been a roller-coaster ride.
"There's no other sport like [baseball] where you play so many games and anything that you have will show up, your strengths and weaknesses, if you just give the baseball season time," Showalter said. "There's not as a long a period between dry spots. You just try to stay away from those deep chasms, shorten the bad times and stretch out the good ones."
But right now, a lot of teams have a fighting chance — the Orioles among them.
As the stretch run of the season begins, here's a look at how the AL wild-card contenders stack up. The division leaders — the Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers — are omitted simply because they all entered the day with leads of at least 21/2 games. All records are heading into Thursday night's games.
Record: 57-48 (in first wild-card spot by percentage points)
Games left remaining against teams over .500: 39 of 57 (68 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: Los Angeles got the deadline's most coveted arm in right hander Zack Greinke. As important as acquiring him was making sure that the division-leading Rangers did not.
Why they make the postseason: Because they keep getting better. Adding Greinke to a rotation that already included Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson gives them three ace-caliber pitchers. With Rookie of the Year favorite Mike Trout as a catalyst, their 107 runs — and .481 team slugging percentage — since the All-Star break lead all of baseball.
Why they don't make the postseason: If they don't handle their business against the surging Oakland Athletics, who play the Angels 10 times in the final two months, they could find themselves outside looking in.
Key stat: Trout is the first rookie to score at least 80 runs and drive in at least 55 runs through his first 81 games of a season since the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio in 1936.
Record: 56-48 (in second wild-card spot)