In the East, the Orioles and Rays meet this week with thoughts of winning the division, but also with the realization that a wild-card path to the postseason is still worth something (and still very much attainable).
In the West, the Angels probably understand that they're not going to catch the Rangers, but the wild card is still there to play for. The A's can think the same thing (although they have a slightly better chance at catching Texas).
But as the White Sox and Tigers get ready to play this week in Chicago, for their final four scheduled head-to-head meetings this season, you get the feeling that it's all-or-nothing for them.
No wild-card safety net is likely to save either of these teams from an early October of disappointment (in the White Sox case) or outright disaster (in the case of the all-in Tigers).
The Tigers are now 4 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot, with just 23 games to play and too many teams to jump over. The White Sox would be 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card race, if they weren't currently in first place in the Central.
If the White Sox lose enough games to drop behind the Tigers, it's hard to see how they can win enough to move ahead of all but one of the Orioles, Rays, A's and Angels. If the Tigers win at a good enough pace to catch three of those four teams, it's hard to see how they don't pass the White Sox as well.
In fact, the computers at coolstandings.com now say that the Tigers are just a 1.3 percent chance to be the AL wild card. The White Sox are even lower, at 0.9 percent (although they're given a 70 percent of winning the division).
In other words, they'd better plan on winning the division.
We've been reminded in the AL Central that head-to-head meetings aren't everything. The Tigers have swept two three-game series with the White Sox in the last two months, each time riding the sweep into first place.
Each time, the Tigers have fallen back out of first place within days, by losing to the Indians while the White Sox were beating the Twins.
Then the White Sox could have come close to putting the division away had they been able to beat the Royals at home over this past weekend. Instead, while the Tigers were getting swept by the Angels in Anaheim, the White Sox lost two of three to the Royals.
Now, if the Tigers can manage to win three of four in Chicago, the American League Central race would be tied by Thursday night. Even if they split, they'd have three weeks left to make up two games.
This series isn't absolutely crucial, but for these teams, winning the division seems to be just that.
And that could make it a great race.
On to 3 to Watch:
1. Jason Hammel was once a pitcher the Rays discarded, because they had too many starters in spring training 2009. The Orioles have lots of starters now, but they were thrilled that Hammel wasn't badly hurt when he took a line drive off his right arm last Thursday against the Yankees. He helped the Orioles open that huge series with a win, and now he should be ready to open the next huge series, in Rays at Orioles, Tuesday night (7:05 ET) at Camden Yards. Matt Moore, who was still in low Class A when the Rays traded Hammel, will start for Tampa Bay.
2. The Angels just had a great week, first sweeping the A's and then sweeping the Tigers. But when you've had as many bad weeks as they did, one great week isn't enough. They have one of the tougher remaining schedules in the league, although it'll feel a little more manageable if they get assurance that Jered Weaver is healthy. Weaver may be ready to start in A's at Angels, Wednesday night (10:05 ET) at Angel Stadium, although on Sunday, manager Mike Scioscia told reporters he wasn't yet ready to commit to that.
3. Justin Verlander is coming off a start in which he gave up six runs. That won't be of much comfort to the White Sox, because the last time they saw him he was coming off a start in which he gave up eight runs. Then against them, he allowed just one run on four hits in eight innings to beat Chris Sale. Verlander and Sale are set to meet again, in Tigers at White Sox, Thursday night (8:10 ET) at U.S. Cellular Field.