AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's mid-September and the baseball season is getting interesting.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME AND CHEERING)
CORNISH: Manny Machado's single in the 14th inning last night clinched yet another improbable win for the Baltimore Orioles. They're neck and neck with the New York Yankees at the top of the American League's East Division and just one of many surprising success stories in Major League Baseball this year.
Joining me to talk baseball is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hey there, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So we're heading into the crazy finish of the baseball season, and no team's performance has been quite as crazy as the Orioles'. I mean, tell us about what's happening in Baltimore.
FATSIS: Well, what we just heard, that was the Orioles record 13th consecutive extra-innings victory in what is shaping up as one of those fun, weird, unlikely seasons in sports. The Orioles finished last in the American League East the past four years, they had a losing record the past 14 seasons. And two months ago they were 10 games behind the Yankees. Now they're tied for first, throwing shaving-cream pies in face of what seems like a different player doing a postgame victory interview every night.
CORNISH: Well, so what's behind the turnaround?
FATSIS: Well, great pitching, positive management. Manager Buck Showalter is known as a nurturer of young players and the Orioles have a lot of those. The team hired a veteran general manager, Dan Duquette, this past off-season. He's also well-liked by players. The Orioles had this rich tradition, this beautiful stadium, but essentially they stopped spending on players in the late 1990s. They still have a second-tier payroll, but that's no longer a disqualifying factor in baseball, especially when you've got a lot of good young players.
You know what else helps? A little bit of good fortune. In addition to those extra-inning wins, the Orioles have a record of 27 wins and seven losses in games decided by one run and that blows away the Major League record.
CORNISH: All right. There's about three weeks to go in the season. And is it me or is the list of teams in contention for the playoffs like ridiculously long?
FATSIS: Oh, it's unbelievably long. And we talked about this a couple of weeks ago. Instead of four teams from each league qualifying for the playoffs, now we're gonna have five teams from each league - the three division winners plus two wild cards, the non-division winners with the best records. By my only slightly charitable count, 18 teams have a more than just mathematical chance to make it. In the American League, no team is a definite for the playoffs. In the National League four spots seem pretty solid - Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco, winning their divisions, Atlanta as one of the wild cards. The race for the second wild card in the National League has turned into a race to the bottom.
CORNISH: How so?
FATSIS: Well, teams that look like legitimate contenders, the Pittsburgh Pirates for instance. They were the Orioles of the National League. A team that had fallen on hard times, that was having a resurgent year - they're collapsing. Teams that had given up and traded off some top players, like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, suddenly they've got a chance. Philly's been helped by a catcher named Eric Kratz. He's a 32-year-old rookie who spent 10 years in the minor leagues. The Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, traded for three stars who are owed more than $250 million dollars from the Boston Red Sox in a push for the playoffs. They've won six games and lost 12 since making that trade.
CORNISH: So how will things shake out down the stretch?
FATSIS: Well, all the teams have about 20 games left. A lot's gonna depend on the quality of the opposition, whether a team is playing at home or on the road, whether the opponent is still trying. I always root for mass confusion at the end. I'd like to see like four teams tied for one or both of the wild cards. Then you could have a full-round of one-game playoffs to determine who gets to play in the one-game playoff between the two wild card teams. More baseball, more fun.
CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on slate.com's sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen. Stefan, thanks so much.
FATSIS: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.