ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The playoff picture became a lot clearer this afternoon with the Athletics completing their improbable run toward the American League West title.
The A's have been in first place for one day - today. They fell behind, 5-1, and stormed back for a 12-5 win that pushed the Rangers into the wild card and a possible matchup with the Orioles.
To review: If the Orioles and Yankees win tonight, the Orioles would host the Rangers in the one-game wild card. If the Orioles lose, they would head to Arlington late tonight.
Of course, an Orioles victory and Yankees loss would force a one-game playoff between the teams Thursday night at Camden Yards.
The Orioles were prepared to travel later tonight, no matter their destination. They checked out of their hotel in St. Petersburg.
Evan Longoria hit a solo homer with two outs in the bottom of the first inning to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.
Longoria pulled Chris Tillman's 92 mph fastball into the left field seats, another Game 162 homer for the Rays' third baseman, though it lacked the drama of last year's walk-off.
Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson has retired the first six batters he's faced, striking out Matt Wieters and Jim Thome to end the second.
Manager Buck Showalter won't reveal his starter if the Orioles and Yankees play Thursday, though the assumption is that Steve Johnson will get the assignment after making it through today's light bullpen session without any knee issues.
"We'll see how we come through tonight," Showalter said. "We're taking these nine innings one at a time. Cliches are there for a reason, because sometimes they explain exactly what's going on. We'll put our best foot forward tonight and see if we can win a baseball game, because it behooves us to be heading to Baltimore tonight, regardless.
"I was told today by (Nick) Markakis that we really need to win tonight and get back to Baltimore because he didn't have anymore clothes, so we've got that added pressure."
It's fair to speculate that left-hander Joe Saunders would pitch Friday if the Orioles have a wild card game. Jason Hammel would be available to start Saturday.
Update: Tillman allowed two home runs in his last five starts, but he's surrendered three tonight in four innings. Longoria took him deep again leading off the fourth, and Ryan Roberts connected with one out.
Nate McLouth lost Roberts' ball and it landed behind him, barely clearing the fence.
Longoria is 6-for-12 with three home runs lifetime against Tillman.
Hellickson appeared to retire the first 12 batters he faced, but Chris Davis reached on a wild pitch after striking out with two outs in the fourth. Adam Jones singled, but Matt Wieters grounded to second after getting ahead, 3-1, and chasing two pitches that were low.
Jim Thome stood on deck, and a walk would have allowed him to bat with the bases loaded.
Thome has struck out twice, making him 0-for-11 lifetime against Hellickson.
The Yankees are leading the Red Sox, 5-1, in the fourth inning.
Update II: Both starters are out of the game. Now the Orioles need to remove Longoria, who has hit three home runs tonight.
Joe Maddon removed Hellickson after 5 1/3 innings and 80 pitches. The Orioles were grateful.
Hellickson allowed only one hit and left with a 3-0 lead.
Jake Arrieta replaced Chris Tillman, who surrendered three solo home runs and four hits in five innings, with no walks and five strikeouts. Tillman threw 83 pitches, 51 for strikes.
Arrieta served up Longoria's third homer to increase Tampa Bay's lead to 4-0 in the sixth. Longoria got a curtain call and a portion of the team record for home runs in one game.
Update III: The Orioles were held to three hits, including J.J. Hardy's leadoff double and Matt Wieters' two-out single in the ninth inning, in a 4-1 loss to the Rays. They avoided the shutout on Adam Jones' sacrifice fly, his 82nd RBI of the season.
Pedro Strop retired Longoria on a bouncer to third base to end the eighth inning.
The Orioles were 69-93 last season. They're 93-69 this year heading into the playoffs.
The Yankees are leading the Red Sox, 10-2, in the seventh inning. Not that it really matters. The Orioles are heading to Texas for the wild card game.