- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The extra playoff spot in Major League Baseball this season has thickened the races, with several teams well within October’s reach despite taking mediocre records into the stretch run.

That’s having an impact in the seats _ as has some good weather, signs of life in the economy and other factors. MLB-wide attendance is up again, about 4 percent from 2011.

“There are more teams that have a shot, so it’s given teams a lot of hope,” said Lou DePaoli, chief marketing officer for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

MLB’s eight best season attendance totals have all come in the last eight years, and this one is on pace to keep that run going.

The major league average of 31,516 through Monday was up 4.3 percent from 2011’s final average of 30,229, according to STATS LLC, but remains below the pre-recession highs of 32,785 in 2007 and 32,528 the following year. The average usually declines in September, after schools are back in session.

The defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals have been selling an average of 3,383 more tickets per game from last year, even after losing megastar Albert Pujols. They’re on track to hit the 3 million mark for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons. Though the Royals are sputtering, having the All-Star game in Kansas City sparked sales a bit. They’re up 3,204 per game.

“I think that shows how the economy is rebounding,” said Mike Swanson, vice president of communications and broadcasting. He also pointed to the team’s young core of Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas that’s helped create interest.

The National League-leading Cincinnati Reds got a preseason bump from new contracts for stars Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Sean Marshall and the trade for Mat Latos, and they’re up 1,296 per game. Their average of 29,192 tickets sold per game is on pace to beat the Great American Ball Park record from the stadium’s opening in 2003.

The Detroit Tigers shelled out for prize free agent Prince Fielder and are filling 7,328 more seats per game than last year.

The Boston Red Sox have a sellout streak at Fenway Park that started on May 15, 2003, despite another disappointing season on the field _ though sellout numbers can be deceiving to the eye at the ballpark because what counts are tickets sold, not people through the turnstiles.

After setting a franchise attendance record last season, the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers have topped themselves again by averaging 43,607 per game, an increase of 6,848, more than 18 percent.

Several long-struggling clubs have enjoyed a renaissance, too. The Washington Nationals have been drawing 6,728 more than last year’s pace. The Baltimore Orioles are up, too, by 3,780.

The Pirates are selling 1,483 more tickets per game, announcing their 13th sellout crowd on Saturday. The team record of 19 when PNC Park opened in 2001 is in sight, as is their first postseason appearance in 20 years.

“When I started to have to wait to get food in the fifth inning of a weekday game, I knew things were changing,” said fan Dave Jenkins, who saw the Pirates lose 5-4 to the Dodgers on Monday night.

Pittsburgh’s strong start in 2011 _ even with a late fade _ helped them move more season tickets for 2012, and their success this spring was captivating enough to keep the customers coming.

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