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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 12:36 PM

The top teams in the AL East have been in pennant race mode for weeks now. And the recent slump of the New York Yankees has increased the sense of urgency because there’s now a three-way race for both Divisional and Wildcard spots. Compounding matters, the Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Tampa Bay Rays have been playing a bunch of games against each other in recent days. There’s no reast for the weary, because the Ray’s and O’s start a new three-game series TONIGHT in Baltimore.

Here are the standings heading into Tuesday’s action:

AL EAST

New York 79-61

Baltimore 78-62

Tampa Bay 77-63

That’s as tight as it gets. The Yankees hold a one-game lead over Baltimore and a two-game lead over Tampa Bay as they try to battle injuries and fired up opponents over the last 22 games of the season. Baltimore has just a one-game lead over Tampa Bay as those two teams fight with Oakland for the two Wildcard spots (the A’s are 80-60 right now), knowing that the LA Angels and Detroit aren’t too far off the pace.

Any of those teams could win the division

Any of those teams could miss the playoffs entirely

It’s possible TWO teams could miss the playoffs if they run out of gas now

While the Ray’s and O’s do battle, the Yankees will have a three-game set in Boston. That might be a gift the way the Red Sox are playing. Or, that might be a rivalry grudge match where a hated foe tries to play spoiler. Here’s what the AL East contenders have remaining AFTER these three-game sets.

NEW YORK: vs. Tampa Bay (3), vs. Toronto (3), vs. Oakland (3), at Minnesota (3), at Toronto (4), vs. Boston (3). (Only 6 of last 19 vs. teams with winning record, and 12 of 19 are at home)

BALTIMORE: at Oakland (3), at Seattle (3), at Boston (3), vs. Toronto (4), vs. Boston (3), at Tampa Bay (3) (that’s 12 road games and just seven at home, but only 6 of 19 vs. teams with winning record)

TAMPA BAY: at NY Yankees (3), vs. Boston (4), vs. Toronto (3), at Boston (2), at CWS (4), vs. Baltimore (3)

The Yankees have the easiest schedule in terms of caliber of opposition and number of home games. That plus their current lead should be enough of a boost to survive the race. The Orioles have an interesting mix of relatively soft opponents but road challenges. They have been beating up on bad teams lately wherever the games have been played.

Bottom line: All three schedules are manageable. None are brutal. Which means this current Ray’s/Orioles series and then the season finale matchup between the two could turn out to be very important tie-breakers.

Let’s see what the probable pitching matchups look like…

 

TONIGHT

Tampa Bay: Moore (10-9, 3.66 ERA)

Baltimore:  Hammel (8-6, 3.46 ERA)

Last week in our Handicapping News feature we noted that Hammel had returned from the Disabled List just in time. That theme continues here with another critical outing for a staff that’s being held together by duct tape and shoestrings down the stretch. It’s not exactly ace against ace…but these are guys who matter pitching in a vital game.

 

WEDNESDAY NIGHT (televised by ESPN2)

Tampa Bay: Cobb (9-8, 4.28 ERA)

Baltimore:  Gonzalez (6-4, 3.62 ERA)

Edge to Baltimore here, as Gonzalez has become the defacto ace of a staff that keeps overachieving what pundits expect. It’s great to be able to dump rotation disasters who have ERA’s around six and replace them with a relative unknown  who settles things down and gets people out! The nature of Baltimore’s lineup is that they’re always dangerous but rarely an overpowering favorite on the Vegas moneyline. They have to be happy to get Gonzalez up against the most vulnerable man in the Rays’ rotation.

 

THURSDAY AFTERNOON

Tampa Bay: Hellickson (8-10, 3.33 ERA)

Baltimore:  Undecided

Buck Showalter will pull the duct tape off somebody and put him on the mound Thursday afternoon. Hellickson deserves a better record than 8-10 given that ERA on a winning team. The Rays have had stretches this year when the bats have gone into hibernation. He’s taken the worst of that this year in terms of run support.

Our VSM handicappers will be studying the AL East matchups and other pennant race games very closely this week (Oakland at LA Angels, and Pittsburgh at Cincinnati to name a couple). Here are some of the highlights on tap for tonight:

*Kelso Sturgeon has a two-team 100-Unit MLB parlay on the Tuesday Night ticket. Pay just $20 for these baseball bombshells from a man who’s demolished Las Vegas this year with his highest rated plays.

*Wayne Root’s top baseball plays are 11-3 the last 10 days. Get two NO LIMIT games Tuesday for just $25 from the only handicapper who’s earned a star on the Vegas “Walk of Fame.”

*Jim Hurley wants everyone playing baseball right now in addition to football so that you can win seven days a week. To make that as easy as possible, he’s created a two-day baseball showcase that gets you his top plays Tuesday AND Wednesday for just one $15 credit card payment. That’s just a few bucks per play!

Be sure you visit the VSM home page every day for big play announcements. Additional information is available on the “Buy Picks” page, including details on full season packages for all of our industry legends. Whether you’re talking football or baseball…at VegasSportsMasters, hot handicappers are always waiting to hear from you!

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