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.
Yankees, holding back a smirk, "but I have an idea."
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)
Games remaining against teams over .500: 35 out of 58 (60 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: As always, the A's had a lot of feelers out at the deadline, looking for a bat to improve their lineup. The extent of that was adding light-hitting catcher George Kottaras.
Why they make the postseason: Along with the Orioles, the A's are the party-crashers in the wild-card hunt. But they do belong here, mainly because of an AL-best 3.46 team ERA. They are 13-5 since the All-Star break, the best record in the AL, and their 30 homers since the break rank third in baseball.
Why they don't make the postseason: Their offense is last in the AL with 415 runs and is prone to lengthy droughts. The A's pitching appears legit, but they are apt to lose some low-scoring games with their erratic, strikeout-heavy offense.
Key stat: The A's lead the majors with 12 walk-off wins and are 18-9 in games decided in the last at-bat.
Record: 55-50 (11/2 games back of wild card)
Games remaining against teams over .500: 41 out of 57 (72 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: They added now-injured designated hitter Jim Thome a few weeks ago and were close to getting Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Joe Blanton, but the Orioles weren't willing to pick up enough of his remaining contract.
Why they make the postseason: Because they continue to remain in the race without playing well consistently. The Orioles are 20-6 in one-run games, have won 10 straight extra-inning games and have eight wins when trailing after seven innings. Even though their bullpen has struggled since the break, it still keeps them in games.
Why they don't make the postseason: Orioles starting pitchers have a 4.81 ERA and the team has allowed 112 runs since the break, second-most in baseball in that span. Besides the numbers, there's been little consistency with the starting rotation.
Key stat: The Orioles have a minus-60 run differential, worst of any of the wild-card contenders. Some of that has to do with playing a lot of close games, but simply put, they've given up too many runs.
Record: 55-50 (11/2 games back)
Games remaining against teams over .500: 26 out of 57 (45.6 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: Detroit made a splash by acquiring rental right-hander Anibal Sanchez and infielder Omar Infante, two key pieces who fit into the Tigers' needs right away.
Why they make the postseason: They're playing well at the right time. The Tigers have won 19 of their past 30 games dating to June 28 for a .633 winning percentage in that span, second among AL teams. They also have a favorable schedule playing in the AL Central, the least competitive of the league's divisions.
Why they don't make the postseason: Even with the likes of Justin Verlander, the Tigers' starting pitching has lacked consistency. The starters' ERA is 4.21, which is 22nd in the major leagues.
Key stat: The Tigers have the power pitching to survive the long haul. Their 8.30 strikeouts per nine innings is the best in club history.
Record: 55-50 (11/2 games back)
Games remaining against teams over .500: 38 out of 57 (67 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: Despite rumors that Tampa Bay was going to deal right-hander James Shields, he stayed.
Why they make the postseason: The Rays' past postseason runs have relied on pitching, and this year's is no different. Their team ERA of 3.46 is second in the AL to the A's, and their 2.45 club ERA since the break is the best in baseball. Their bullpen ERA of 1.48 since the break is the best in the majors. If they can hold that up — and get Evan Longoria back soon as expected — they have to be in good shape.
Why they don't make the postseason: Despite their great pitching, the Rays aren't winning many games. They were 13-13 in July and they didn't win more than two games in a row all month. Their team batting average was .225.
Key stat: Rays pitchers have held opponents to a .237 batting average this season, the best in the AL. Tampa Bay also led the AL in lowest opponent batting average in 2010 and 2011.
Record: 53-52 (four games back)
Games remaining against teams over .500: 36 out of 57 (63 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: Right-hander Josh Beckett was reportedly on the trade block, but he remains in Boston. Instead, the Red Sox added a third left-handed reliever, Craig Breslow.
Why they make the postseason: The Red Sox always seems to be in the mix when it matters most. Boston is battle-tested for the stretch run, and its top players seem to play big in big games. Ravaged by injuries all season, the team is steadily getting healthier.
Why they don't make the postseason: Boston hasn't been more than five games above .500 all season, which last happened July 1. The Red Sox haven't been able to put together a long string of wins the way most Boston teams have managed to do this time of the year. Their starting pitchers' ERA is 4.89, ranking 26th in the majors.
Key stat: The Red Sox have placed 22 players on the disabled list this season, the most by any team since the 1999 Devil Rays and the most by a Red Sox team since 1971.
Record: 51-53 (five games back)
Games remaining against teams over .500: 52 out of 58 (90 percent)
Trade-deadline acquisitions: The Jays were active, making trades for relievers Brad Lincoln (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Steve Delabar (Seattle Mariners), but they needed starting pitcher to aid a rotation rocked by injuries.
Why they make the postseason: It's a long shot, but the Jays have 36 games remaining against AL East opponents. If they play well in the division and get a little help from outside it, they have a shot.
Why they don't make the postseason: The Jays are included here mainly because they will play a significant factor in who ends up taking the wild cards — it just probably won't be them. They have a brutal schedule. The Blue Jays have eight pitchers on the DL, including five who are out for the rest of the season, but credit the Jays for having the moxie to try to make a run when focusing on 2013 makes a little more sense.
Key stat: Lincoln was the 30th different pitcher the Blue Jays have used this season, most in the majors this year and six more than the two closest AL teams (the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals have used 24 each).