First-Place Orioles Hosting Last-Place Red Sox

BOSTON, MA: Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox throws to first base as Wilson Betemit of the Baltimore Orioles attempts to break up the double play to end the top of the fourteenth inning at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The Baltimore Orioles enter their three-game series against the Boston Red Sox with a substantial lead in the standings. But are they really so far apart?

Standings-wise, perhaps the biggest story in the American League is the first-place Baltimore Orioles, who haven't enjoyed a winning season since Cal Ripken had hair, but are 27-15 this season.

Another big story is the ever-interesting and second-place Tampa Bay Rays, just two games behind the O's. Might the Rays' semi-dynasty somehow continue for at least one more year?

And one more story, again in the American League East, is the last-place Boston Red Sox, who entered the season with high hopes and a few demons to slay, which as yet remain unslain.

Care to guess who's got the best run differential in the American League East?

Not the Orioles. Nor the Rays. They're tied for third best.

The third-place Toronto Blue Jays have the East's best run differential.

Care to guess who's got the second-best run differential in the American League East.

Not the fourth-place (fourth-place!) Yankees. They have East's the worst run differential.

The Red Sox are second best.

Everything's mixed up, all topsy-turvy and whatnot. One could argue that the last-place Red Sox (+17) have, on a theoretical level, played just as well as the first-place Orioles (+14). And that the Red Sox, more fundamentally, are at least as good as the Orioles.

This week the Red Sox get a chance to prove it. Here's Nick Cafardo (via Boston.com):

There’s a chance the American League East could begin to change when the Red Sox begin a three-game series against the Orioles Monday night at Camden Yards.

Not that a sweep would allow the Sox to overtake the Orioles, but they could tighten things up and send a message to the team that kept them out of the playoffs last season.

Sending a message is keen. Having better players is even keener.

According to ESPN.com's playoff odds (here), the Orioles have a 46-percent chance of making the playoffs, the Red Sox only 35 percent. According to Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds (here), the Red Sox have a 40-percent chance of making the playoffs, the Orioles only 28 percent.

Which of those reports seems more reasonable to you? Remember, the Red Sox won 90 games last season and the Orioles lost 93. Past performance doesn't always predict future performance ... but that's generally where the smart money is.

Which doesn't mean anything important will happen in this week's Sox-O's series. A sweep is unlikely because sweeps are relatively rare. So we're looking at a small change in the standings and not much of a message at all.

If you do want to handicap things, though, it does look like a pretty decent series for the Orioles, who get to face starting pitchers Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard. Buchholz has been a walking Superfund site this season, Bard's strikeout-to-walk ratio is roughly 1, and Doubront isn't close to being dubbed Prince Felix or something.

Still the smart money's on the Red Sox to finish ahead of the Orioles this season. And even though they're in last place and have all sorts of issues, the smart money's almost on the Red Sox to reach the playoffs, thanks largely to the additional Wild Card that's made almost everyone a contender. Especially in the American League East, the best baseball division.

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