Entering play on Monday, Alex Cora and the Red Sox were tied with Toronto atop the American League’s wild-card standings. Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

Three weeks from now, Major League Baseball’s regular season will be over. That’s not a lot of time for the contenders on the bubble of the American League wild-card race.

That race has never been wilder. Five teams are in the hunt with under 20 games remaining. Two of them will make the postseason. And only one of them has played consistently well in recent weeks.

A month ago it almost seemed inevitable that the Red Sox and Yankees would meet in a one-game wild-card playoff on Oct. 5, but both teams have struggled in the past few weeks. Now the stage is set for an improbably wide-open race down the stretch.

The Red Sox, dealing with a seemingly unending COVID-19 outbreak, have been a sub-.500 team since July. The second half of their season has featured some spectacular collapses, like the extra-inning loss on Labor Day in a game they led 7-1 with Chris Sale on the mound at Fenway Park. And more pedestrian losses, like the 2-1 walk-off loss in Chicago on Sunday.

It has also seen some remarkable comebacks, like Saturday night’s 10-inning win over the White Sox when Boston blew a 7-2 lead only to rally against the vaunted White Sox bullpen.

The Red Sox haven’t been unique in experiencing up and down stretches. The Yankees were sitting comfortably in command after a 13-game winning streak that saw them surge to the top wild-card spot. On Aug. 27, they were three games ahead of the Red Sox in the wild-card race, and 9 1/2 games up on Toronto.

Since then they have lost 12 of 15 games, and woke up Monday a full game behind Boston and Toronto.

The Blue Jays forced their way to a tie atop the race by bludgeoning their way to three wins in Baltimore over the weekend. Toronto’s 22-7 win over the Orioles on Sunday made it 14 wins in 16 games, moving them into a tie with Boston. The Red Sox had one more loss than the Jays, having played two more games.

No one is going to confuse the 2021 Orioles with the 1971 team featuring four 20-game winners. This Baltimore team entered the week with a stunningly bad 5.93 ERA, the highest in baseball by nearly a run. Toronto feasted on the poor Baltimore pitching, scoring 44 runs over the last three games of the series — and two of those games were only seven innings.

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. has put himself back in the MVP conversation, tying Shohei Ohtani for the MLB home run lead with his 44th on Sunday. Toronto suddenly looks like a juggernaut with an offense that can pummel you into submission.

Toronto has one of the easiest schedules remaining, with 10 of its final 19 games against the cellar-dwelling Orioles and Minnesota Twins. The good news for Boston is they are done with the Blue Jays, winning the regular-season series 10-9. The Red Sox have also won their season series with the Yankees, even though they have three games remaining with New York.

All of this could prove to be important, because there is a very real possibility that three or more teams could finish the season tied for a wild-card spot. That could mean play-in games after the season ends, with teams playing for the right to get to the wild-card spot.

Multiple elimination games after the season will be exciting, especially if one features Boston and New York. But it’s a hard way to begin any long run in October. Wiping out your bullpen in must-win games before heading to Tampa Bay for the start of a five-game series against last year’s pennant winners isn’t a recipe for success.

Best to avoid that scenario. Which is why Alex Cora was managing each game in Chicago like it was already the postseason.

“I mean, the last three games, they felt like the playoffs,” Cora said after the series. “The intensity. Obviously, we lost. But we’ll be ready.”

Fans had better be ready for a bumpy final three weeks. Nothing has come easy for the 2021 Red Sox, and the toughest games are still to come.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN and a Lewiston High School graduate.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.