(Reuters) - With the All-Star Game done and dusted, Major League Baseball zeroes in on the race for the postseason, with five of the six divisions looming as fights to the finish.
The Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels, who own the two best records in the major leagues, are battling for division honors in the American League West, while all three National League division races remain up for grabs.
Stakes are high as divisional supremacy is crucial given that the title holders go directly into a best-of-five series, while the two wild card teams in each league must survive a one-game playoff to advance to the Divisional Series.
The mid-season break also allowed non-contenders to assess their outlook in advance of the July 31 trade deadline, and difference-making talent could be swapped for prospects.
Prominent players rumored as possible trade targets included pitcher David Price of Tampa Bay (9 1/2 games out of first), pitcher Cliff Lee of Philadelphia (10 games out) and slugger Adam Dunn of the White Sox (10 1/2 games out)
Oakland showed their determination to reign by dealing one of baseball’s brightest prospects in minor league shortstop Addison Russell in a package to the rebuilding Cubs for a pair of strong starting pitchers in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
The pitchers joined an Oakland team that carried an MLB-best 59-36 record into the All-Star break.
A game and a half back at 57-37 were the charging Angels, who are getting another MVP-caliber season from 21-year-old Mike Trout and a return to hitting form by Albert Pujols.
Making the division even more potent has been the emergence of the Seattle Mariners, who bolstered their lineup with a $240 million signing of free agent Robinson Cano among others.
At 51-44, the pitching-strong Mariners currently hold a 2 1/2 game edge for the AL’s second wild card heading into Friday’s games.
The Baltimore Orioles (52-42), eyeing their first division crown since 1997, hold a four-game lead in the AL East over injury-hit Toronto Blue Jays, who have endured 20 years since reaching the playoffs.
The New York Yankees, whose pitching rotation is in tatters, stood another game back.
In the AL Central, the Detroit Tigers (53-38), prowling for their fourth straight division title, are the league’s only team with decent breathing space with a 6 1/2 game bulge over the Kansas City Royals.
National League division races were air tight.
The Washington Nationals (51-42) were in a virtual tie with the Atlanta Braves (52-43) in the NL East.
Three teams were within 1 1/2 games of first place in the Central Division with the Milwaukee Brewers leading at 53-43 over the St. Louis Cardinals, one game behind at 52-44. A mere half-game back of the Cards were the Cincinnati Reds (51-44).
Last year’s NL-wild card Pittsburgh Pirates (49-46) were 3 1/2 games off the pace.
The free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers (54-43), with a major league-leading 2014 payroll approaching $240 million, led the West by one game over the San Francisco Giants.
All three NL divisions and the league’s two wild card spots were too close to call as the teams returned to the diamond on Friday for the rest of the marathon, six-month regular season, and a sizzling September finish.
Reporting by Larry Fine in Winchester, Kentucky; Editing by Gene Cherry