SweetSpot: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

AdamsScott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsMatt Adams celebrates his incredible, improbable three-run home run off Clayton Kershaw.


Baseball is a wonderful game. Unless you're a Dodgers fan. Sorry, Dodgers fans. The unexpected happened again as the Cardinals head to the National League Championship Series after a dramatic 3-2 win over Clayton Kershaw. Five moments:

1. MATT ADAMS.

The setup: Dodgers lead 2-0, bottom of the seventh. Kershaw at 94 pitches, having struck out nine, including all three batters in the sixth. He'd allowed one hit. Matt Holliday led off the inning -- just like Game 1. This is why baseball players are superstitious.

Holliday grounded a 1-1 curveball up the middle, off the glove of diving second baseman Dee Gordon. Jhonny Peralta bounced a 1-1, 91 mph fastball for a base hit off the glove of leaping shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

Oh boy. Our colleague Jonah Keri tweeted this:


Kershaw was at 100 pitches on three days' rest. When he started Game 4 against the Braves in last year's division series on three days of rest, Don Mattingly pulled him after 91 pitches.

This time, Mattingly left him in. He's the best pitcher in baseball. Neither hit had been struck hard. A left-handed batter who hit .190 against lefties was up. The Dodgers' bullpen ... we know about the Dodgers' bullpen. Having lost faith in J.P. Howell, Mattingly was basically down to closer Kenley Jansen as someone he trusted. But as Jonah indicated, managers don't play that game.

Adams swung through a 93 mph fastball up in the zone. Kershaw came in with his famous curveball, regarded as maybe the most unhittable pitch in the game. In the regular season, batters hit .122 against it with one home run. Over three seasons they hit .101 against it with one home run. It's unhittable.

Except it isn't.

2. Matt Adams celebrates.



Just wanted to show that "leap" from the guy they call Big City, a one-time bad-bodied 23rd-round pick out of Slippery Rock. It was the first home run Kershaw ever allowed to a left-handed batter off his curveball. Our numbers show this pitch to Adam Dunn in 2010 as a curve (the second home run), but at 82 mph it was probably a slider.

So, tip your cap to Big City. That was pretty awesome. And worth that celebration.

3. Clayton Kershaw walks off the mound.


Maybe the Cardinals do own Kershaw. Look, I wrote this before the game. There's going to be a lot of talk about Kershaw's intestinal fortitude or whatever after losing yet another lead to the Cardinals. That's probably unfair. But the results are the results and Kershaw's postseason results have been disastrous. In this age of numbers and stats and data, we try to explain everything. Some things can't be explained. The Cardinals beat the best pitcher in the game. Again. What a story.

4. Yasiel Puig doesn't start and gets into the game ... as a pinch runner.

When A.J. Ellis walked with one out in the ninth with the pitcher's spot coming up, Mattingly inserted Puig into the game ... at first base. He pinch hit Justin Turner (who did have a good year at the plate, but struck out on a 3-2 99 mph fastball) for the pitcher, but that meant Puig couldn't hit for light-hitting Dee Gordon. Anyway, Gordon got a hit to extend the inning. Still weird. Some of this gets to roster construction. The Dodgers carried 12 -- TWELVE! -- pitchers in this series. They used nine of them, one for one out. Carry a real pinch runner so you don't have to waste Puig in that situation.


5. Cardinals celebrate after Carl Crawford grounds out.



Umm, yes, congrats to the Cards. As for that other tweet ... I'd say that's just a bit of an overreaction. Kershaw had leads and couldn't hold them. That's your story. You going to get rid of him?
RoyalsPeter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsThe Royals got to celebrate early and often while routing the Angels to complete their series sweep.


After a weekend of amazing baseball drama, the Royals' series-clinching victory over the Angels was anticlimactic for everyone except Royals fans, as the Royals took a 3-1 lead in the first inning and pounded out an 8-3 victory. A few moments and thoughts ...

1. Royals celebrate as Greg Holland gets final out.

On July 21, the Royals were 48-50. The next night, they beat the White Sox 7-1 behind, of all pitchers, Bruce Chen. They won 2-1 the next night with a run in the ninth. They climbed over .500 the next with a 14-inning victory over the Indians. Holland actually blew the save that game but then Francisley Bueno, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and Aaron Crow combined for five scoreless innings of relief. For the second game in a row Norichika Aoki knocked in the winning run. That walk-off win got the Royals going as they would win 24 of their next 30, the 30-game stretch that saved their season and got them into the playoffs.

And now they're going to the American League Championship Series.

If you're going to dissect one number from this series, I'd say this one: The Angels went 2-for-23 with runners in scoring position.

2. Royals deliver the power. Eric Hosmer gave the Royals a 5-1 lead with an impressive blast to left-center in the third, off a 2-0 fastball from Hector Santiago. Mike Moustakas added a solo shot in the fourth, golfing out a below-the-knees 1-0 fastball to right field.

We all know about the Royals' power issues this year, finishing last in the majors in home runs. Hosmer and Moustakas, both heralded first-round picks (Hosmer was the third overall pick in 2008, Moustakas the second overall pick in 2007) have been disappointments in that department. Hosmer hit 19 home runs in 128 games as a 21-year-old rookie in 2011, but the power failed to develop in ensuing years. After a rough sophomore campaign and miserable first two months of 2013, he did finish strong over the final four months (.318, 16 home runs) but then hit just .270 with nine home runs in 131 games this year. Moustakas struggled so much at the beginning of the season that he was sent back to Triple-A for a few games. He finished with 15 home runs.

But both hit two in this series, winning the first two games with extra-inning home runs -- the Royals were the first team in postseason history to win consecutive extra-inning games on home runs. The two home runs in Game 3 marked just the second time in 39 games the Royals have hit more than one in a game.

The Royals have speed and defense and a great bullpen. That recipe got them into the postseason. If they keep hitting home runs they can win it all.

3. Lorenzo Cain's diving catches. And to think that when the Royals bring in Jarrod Dyson for defense, Cain shifts from center to right field. That Alex Gordon-Dyson-Cain outfield is something special, the best in the majors by defensive runs saved, and it's showing why this postseason.

4. James Shields gets Josh Hamilton and C.J. Cron. There was one moment where it appeared the Angels had a chance to get back in the game. After Albert Pujols homered in the fourth to make it 5-2, Erick Aybar doubled with one out and Shields hit David Freese. As confident and pumped up as the Royals were with their lead, Shields was looking shaky and the Angels had two power bats coming up. Shields threw Hamilton six straight changeups, then a fastball that Hamilton fouled off and then another changeup that Hamilton grounded sharply to first for a 3-6 forceout. Shields then made short order of Cron with a fastball, cutter and changeup for a three-pitch strikeout. Royals fans took a deep sigh of relief and then the offense essentially put the game away with two more runs in the bottom of the inning.

Hamilton, who had played one game since Sept. 4 before the series (on Sept. 16), was just one Angel who didn't produce, but he looked especially bad in going 0-for-13.



Oh, and that $17 million jumps to $25 million next season and then $32 million in 2016 and '17.

5. C.J. Wilson pulled in the first inning. Mike Scioscia ended up using seven relief pitchers and three of them allowed runs. Did he pull the trigger too quickly on Wilson? In retrospect, it's easy to say "yes," but considering Wilson's inconsistencies all year, it's hard to blame Scioscia for having a quick hook in a must-win game. Alex Gordon hit a 2-2 slider that was on the outside corner but thigh high. OK pitch, better hitting.
Down 2-0 in the series, what's the worst thing that could happen to the Angels other than a pop fly into shallow right field on which Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun, Howie Kendrick and Albert Pujols all collide and get knocked out of the game?

How about C.J. Wilson retiring just two batters in the first inning and leaving after giving up three runs?


After Trout had staked the Angels to a 1-0 lead with a home run, Wilson retired the first batter but then gave up ground-ball singles to Norichika Aoki and Lorenzo Cain. He struck out Eric Hosmer and walked Billy Butler before Alex Gordon cleared the bases with a double to left-center, the slow-moving Butler huffing and puffing all the way home from first.

With no room to play around with, Mike Scioscia yanked Wilson after 23 pitches and Vinnie Pestano got out of the inning.

Wilson had a similar outing in his next-to-last start of the regular season, when the A's knocked him out in the first inning with six hits and four runs. He had five other starts of fewer than four innings during the season.

This was a big concern in picking the Angels: Wilson's tendency to have blow-up outings. This one came at the worst possible time.

The Los Angeles Angels' 2-3-4 hitters went 0-for-13. That was the big reason the Kansas City Royals beat the Angels 3-2 in Game 1 ... along with a rare Royals home run that won it.

1. Mike Moustakas delivers the big home run.

The Angels kept leaving runners on base so the game kept going to the 11th inning. Fernando Salas gave up runs in five of his 10 September appearances. That's the reason he was the fourth guy out of Mike Scioscia's bullpen. Scioscia was down to his fourth guy because his top two relievers, Joe Smith and Huston Street, threw one inning apiece but only 12 and 11 pitches, respectively. I'll never understand why managers will pull their best relievers after they've thrown so few pitches, especially with the score tied in the postseason. Don't you want to get the most possible work out of your best guys? Yes, in this day your late-inning relievers rarely return to the mound after sitting for a half-inning, but the playoffs are a different beat.

Anyway, so Salas hadn't been good in the final weeks (similar to how he faded for the Cardinals in 2011, losing his closer's job as St. Louis went on to win the World Series) but Moustakas hadn't homered since Aug. 25. I wrote earlier that the Royals, last in the majors in home runs, will need to hit some home runs, similar to how the Giants, last in the majors in home runs in 2012, hit 14 in 16 games to win the World Series that year. Moustakas hit a 1-1 changeup at the knees a couple of rows into the right-field stands. Royals manager Ned Yost still had his closer available and Greg Holland, who arrived at the ballpark in the sixth inning after flying to California from North Carolina to witness the birth of his son, cruised to a 1-2-3 inning for the save.

2. Danny Duffy vs. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols
Holland was available for the save because Yost decided to use Duffy, in the bullpen for this series (many wanted Duffy to start instead of Jason Vargas), to face the top of the Angels' lineup. Duffy threw his fastball 68 percent of the time in the regular season, the 10th-highest rate among all pitchers with 100 innings pitched. He threw seven fastballs to Kole Calhoun, who singled in the seventh, setting up the young lefty to face the Angels' two best hitters. He threw fastballs to Trout, the third grounded softly to shortstop for a 6-4 force. Pujols popped out on an 0-1 fastball. Howie Kendrick struck out on a curve as Duffy started mixing in his offspeed stuff.
3. Wade Davis vs. Trout and Pujols

This was postseason baseball at its most intense: Wade Davis, one of the game's most dominant relievers in 2014, facing Trout, Pujols and Kendrick with the go-ahead run on base in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game. Davis throws a 98-mph fastball, a 93-95 mph cutter and a hard curveball. There's a reason batters hit .151 against him with no home runs and he went over 30 appearances in a row without giving up a run. Not bad for a guy who washed out of the Royals' rotation last season.

Trout stepped in with one out after a walk and failed bunt attempt. The pitch sequence: 98-mph fastball swing and miss, 98 swing and miss, curve bounced (wild pitch), 95 cutter up high, 98 up, 94 cutter foul tip, 98 fastball fouled back, 98 up and in. Trout is a dead lowball hitter and Davis wasn't about to cave and give him something below the waist. Good at-bat by Trout and a good approach by Davis to keep the ball elevated. Davis then got away with two middle-of-the-plate fastballs to Pujols, one fouled back and one popped to second. He then struck out Kendrick on three pitches, two cutters and a blow-it-by-him 98-mph fastball. This is what decides postseason games -- the players. We pay too much attention to bunt attempts. This was Kansas City's best against the Angels' best and the K.C. guy won this one.

4. Jason Vargas stays in the game, avoids disaster.
Twitter was going crazy as Vargas stayed in the game in the sixth inning to face Chris Iannetta (who had already homered) and then the top of the Angels' lineup -- remember, over his final four starts, Vargas gave up 18 runs in 18 innings and never got past the sixth. Then there's the whole thing that pitchers, on average, do worse the third time through the order. Then there's the thing that the Angels' two and three hitters are right-handed power hitters -- Trout and Pujols -- and Vargas gives up home runs to right-handed hitters.

Vargas did do a nice job of getting Trout to fly out with Calhoun on first and one out. After a curveball for a ball, he came inside with three straight fastballs -- Vargas' usual mode against righties is to pound the outside corner. So nice job there. Still, it was living on the edge when he walked Pujols and was allowed to face Kendrick. Then this happened:
5. Royals get a run on a double, fly ball out and sacrifice fly.

A few notes on the Kansas City run in the fifth:

A. I don't think Trout would have caught Alex Gordon's fly ball into left-center, but he also clearly lost it in the lights and had to back off slightly, which may have allowed Gordon to stretch the hit into a double.

B. Trout's defensive metrics weren't good this year -- minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved, a number backed up by watching him, as he got some bad reads and he has a weak arm. It's possible another center field, say, Lorenzo Cain, who had 14 Defensive Runs Saved in about two-thirds the playing as a full-time center fielder, runs that ball down.

C. You might have expected Yost to bunt with Salvador Perez up and nobody out, but he's one of the guys Yost never bunts with (he never has had a sacrifice bunt in his career). He took Josh Hamilton to the wall in left and Gordon smartly tagged up and advanced to third.

D. Omar Infante then hit the sacrifice fly. The Royals tied for the major league lead (with the Rockies) in scoring the runner from third with less than two outs 57 percent of the time. This is one advantage of having a team that puts the ball in play, which the Royals do better than any team in baseball, with the lowest strikeout rate during the regular season.
Not everybody agrees with Ned Yost's managerial decisions, but everyone agrees that the Royals are one of the best defensive teams in the majors -- maybe the best. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain made two outstanding catches early in Game 1 and then right fielder Norichika Aoki made two adventurous catches in the sixth and seventh innings.

Twitter was going crazy as Jason Vargas stayed in the game in the sixth inning to face Chris Iannetta (who had already homered) and then the top of the Angels' lineup -- remember, over his final four starts, Vargas allowed 18 runs in 18 innings and never got past the sixth. Then there's the whole thing that pitchers, on average, do worse the third time through the order. Then there's the thing that the Angels' two and three hitters are right-handed power hitters named Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and Vargas gives up home runs to right-handed hitters.

Vargas did do a nice job of getting Trout to fly out with Kole Calhoun on first and one out. After a curveball for a ball, he came inside with three straight fastballs -- Vargas' usual mode against righties is to pound the outside corner. So nice job there. Still, it was living on the edge when he walked Pujols and was allowed to face Howie Kendrick. Then this happened:


The next inning, with a runner on third and two outs, C.J. Cron lifted a fly ball to right field that Aoki took a bit of a circular route to get to before finally making a falling grab on the warning track. Then he tipped his cap with a big smile on his face. Aoki is actually considered the weak link of the Kansas City defense, as Jarrod Dyson usually comes in for defense late in the game if the Royals lead (with Cain shifting to right).

In this age of parity, no team enters the postseason without at least one significant flaw. Let's look at the four American League teams and how their flaws may affect their postseason run.

Baltimore Orioles: Low OBP

The Orioles led the AL in home runs but ranked just 11th in the league in on-base percentage. In other words, they rely on home runs to generate a large percentage of their offense.

You would assume that the rate of home runs goes down in the postseason as teams face better pitching. While that's been true the past two postseasons, it's not always the case:

2013 regular season: HR every 35.6 at-bats
2013 postseason: HR every 45.3 at-bats

2012 regular season: HR every 33.5 at-bats
2012 postseason: HR every 41.4 at-bats

2011 regular season: HR every 36.4 at-bats
2011 postseason: HR every 26.9 at-bats

2010 regular season: HR every 35.8 at-bats
2010 postseason: HR every 36.4 at-bats

2009 regular season: HR every 32.9 at-bats
2009 postseason: HR every 32.2 at-bats

The bigger problem facing the Orioles: The Angels, Royals and Tigers were the three best teams in the AL at preventing home runs (in the case of the Angels and Royals, in part due to the parks they play in). For the Tigers, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello each gave up 18 home runs in over 200 innings, not an excessive total. The most interesting matchup will be David Price, who allowed five home runs in his 11 starts with Detroit but 25 overall. He loves to pound the strike zone, but you wonder if he will look to expand it a bit against an Orioles team that doesn't draw many walks.

Remember, the Orioles reached the 2012 postseason with a similar type of offense -- that team hit 214 home runs and had a .311 OBP while this team hit 211 home runs with a .311 OBP -- and hit just .187 in a division series loss to the Yankees, hitting just three home runs and drawing only eight walks. Adam Jones went 2-for-23 in that series with six K's and zero walks, and he walked even less this season than two years ago.

Detroit Tigers: Defense

Yes, the bullpen is a potential liability; Mike Petriello outlined the problems with Joe Nathan & Co. the other day on ESPN Insider, although Anibal Sanchez could prove to be a viable weapon.

Aside from that, Detroit's defense is another issue. The Tigers ranked 28th in the majors in defensive runs saved at minus-65 runs. The biggest problem has been the lack of range of third baseman Nick Castellanos and the aging Torii Hunter in right field. Rajai Davis has also not graded out well in either left field or center field, despite his speed. He is actually a question mark for the division series due to a strained pelvic ligament suffered Saturday, although he is on the roster. If he can't go, Ezequiel Carrera is the likely starter in center.

Another possible issue if they end up meeting the Royals in the ALCS: The Tigers allowed the most stolen bases in the AL -- although they had the third-best caught stealing rate. Nathan is a huge liability here, allowing 10 steals, while none of the starters allowed more than 13.

Los Angeles Angels: Starting rotation

The Angels' finished sixth in the AL in rotation ERA -- ahead of the much-vaunted Detroit rotation -- but that includes the superlative season from Garrett Richards, who went down in late August with an ankle injury. Here's an interesting catch, however: The Angels had a 3.72 rotation ERA when Richards went down and 3.21 after. Much of that was due to the emergence of rookie Matt Shoemaker, who had a 1.13 ERA in six starts after Richards was injured. Shoemaker, however, missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a rib-cage injury. The Angels have him scheduled to start Game 2 of the series, with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in Games 1 and 3.

The rotation is thin after those three. The Angels could bring back Weaver on three days' rest for Game 4, with Shoemaker going on regular rest in Game 5, so the division series setup with its two off days will help the Angels. Considering the depth of their bullpen, they won't expect the starters to go deep anyway. Still, with Shoemaker's health and Wilson's control as possible issues, the Angels may have to rely on their league-best offense to outscore their opponent.

Kansas City Royals: Lack of power

And you thought I was going to say Ned Yost! The Royals hit just 95 home runs, not only last in the American League but last in the majors. On the other hand, the Cardinals were 27th in the majors in 2013 (125 home runs) and reached the World Series and the Giants (103 home runs) were last in 2012 and won the World Series.

Still, for the Royals to win, they are going to have to hit some home runs or receive extraordinary pitching. The Cardinals hit six home runs in five games in beating the Pirates in last year's division series and then held the Dodgers to 13 runs in six games in the NLCS. But they hit just two home runs in the World Series and went down in six games. In 2012, the Giants hit 14 home runs in 16 playoff games (outhomering their opponents), so they picked up the pace.

Maybe the Royals can scratch and claw their way to enough offense, but they are not going to steal seven bases every game. To advance past the Angels, they are going to need a few big pops. Yost will presumably keep the same lineup he's used his past nine games, with Alcides Escobar, Norichika Aoki and Lorenzo Cain hitting 1-2-3. Those three combined for nine home runs all season. Meanwhile, his two leading home run hitters -- Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez -- have been batting sixth and seventh (and both struggled in September).

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:38
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It was a night of missed opportunities. The Cardinals lost but the Pirates couldn't take advantage. The Royals led the Indians but couldn't hold on and dropped further behind the Tigers. The A's and Royals lost. Taijuan Walker finally gave the Mariners a strong pitching effort on a night when their offense couldn't score, and the already desperate Mariners are down to their final breaths. The Giants had their chances against Clayton Kershaw but couldn't capitalize. Here's the Hunt for October page with playoffs odds and each team's remaining schedule.

1. The Pirates were due for a loss. Hey, you can't them win all, which is seemingly what the Pirates had been doing the past two-plus weeks in winning 15 of 18 before a 6-2 loss to the Braves. It still stings considering Jake Arrieta was dominating the Cardinals, meaning a Pittsburgh win would have drawn the Pirates to a half-game behind the St. Louis. A tie isn't out of the question: If the Pirates win three of their final four, they need the Diamondbacks to beat the Cardinals two of three in Arizona. A Diamondbacks team that has lost eight of nine and 15 of 19. Jeff Locke struggled, and if the Pirates do win the division or make it past the wild-card game, he’s a shaky postseason starter. In his past seven starts, he's had two five-walk games (including Wednesday) and a six-walk game. It's possible Edinson Volquez has passed him in the Pirates' pecking order.

2. The Cardinals offense is still a concern. I saw a tweet: The Cardinals are on pace to score 620 runs, which would be the lowest for a playoff team in a nonstrike season since the '73 Mets scored 608. Arrieta crushed the Cardinals, holding them to two hits and an unearned run while striking out 10 in seven innings. John Lackey didn’t inspire confidence after walking four in 6⅔ innings (one intentional). Anyway, that St. Louis offense. It was better in August but has struggled again in September. The month-by-month totals:

April: .246/.314/.368, 3.6 runs per game
May: .266/.333/.367, 4.2 runs per game
June: .236/.301/.361, 3.3 runs per game
July: .255/.318/.389, 3.6 runs per game
August: .268/.341/.384, 4.4 runs per game
September: .248/.317/.358, 3.8 runs per game

They've averaged 3.8 runs, and that's after hitting a robust .297/.364/.474 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals can win it all, but to do so, it looks like they're going to have to win a lot of low-scoring games. However, this just doesn't look like a championship-caliber offense.

3. The Royals appear headed for the wild-card game. After the Tigers beat the White Sox in an afternoon game -- they got to the Chicago bullpen once Chris Sale departed after six innings -- the Royals led 4-3 in the fifth inning but couldn't hold the lead. Give manager Ned Yost credit for at least having a quick hook with Jason Vargas. After Vargas hit Michael Bourn to lead off the bottom of the fifth, Yost turned to rookie reliever Brandon Finnegan, who had been great in five appearances. But he gave up an RBI double, an infield hit and a run-scoring fielder's choice. So the Royals are two games behind the Tigers with four to play (while remaining tied with the A’s for the wild card; the Royals hold the tiebreaker edge, having won the season series 5-2).

I think the interesting question to consider is how Yost will manage the wild-card game if that's where the Royals end up. He obviously trusts his late-game trio of relievers -- Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland -- but the rest of the bullpen isn't so trustworthy, with the possible exception of Finnegan. But will he try and ride ace James Shields? If there's a big situation in the fourth or fifth inning and Shields is struggling, will he leave in the veteran? Does he bring in one of his best bullpen arms earlier than normal? Does he use Finnegan or Aaron Crow and risk losing the game in the middle innings before even getting to Davis or Holland?

4. We’re going to have a home-plate controversy in October that will make a lot of people angry and lead to columnists writing this is just another reason baseball is dying. The A’s lost 5-4 to the Angels, but this play happened in the fourth inning, not so important at the time but important by the end of the game. Was Josh Donaldson safe or out? Did Chris Iannetta actually apply the tag? Did Donaldson have a path to the plate before Iannetta had the ball? (Oh, Donaldson was eventually called out after a long review.)

5. The Dodgers wrap up the NL West and Clayton Kershaw wraps up the MVP. The Dodgers have won 20 of the past 21 games that Kershaw started and 23 of the 27 he started overall. Kershaw is 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. He even tripled in a run while striking out 11 in a 9-1 win over the Giants (the Giants led 1-0 before Kershaw's tying triple in the fifth). Let's not make the MVP debate more complicated than it needs: Clayton Kershaw is the best, and most valuable, player in the National League. There shouldn't really need to be a debate.
On Tuesday, Nelson Cruz of the Orioles hit his 40th home run, saving us from the deprivation of not having a 40-homer guy for the first time since 1982. That year Reggie Jackson of the Angels and Gorman Thomas of the Brewers tied for the major league with 39, and what a pair that was. Dave Kingman of the Mets led the National League with 37. Those three players also ranked 1-2-3 in the majors in strikeouts -- Reggie and Kingman had 156 and Stormin' Gorman had 143, so those guys were playing 2014-style baseball 32 years ago. Ahead of their time!

Reggie had been a free agent that year and George Steinbrenner once said letting Jackson leave was the biggest mistake he ever made. That's not really true. Reggie did have a big season in 1982 but that was kind of a last hurrah. He played through 1987 -- remember that return to Oakland? -- but didn't really provide much value after '82. Of course, 1982 was the Yankees tried to win with speed -- Dave Collins! Jerry Mumphrey! Ken Griffey Sr.! -- and didn't steal that many bases and went 79-83.

While nobody hit 40 in 1982, sixteen players did reach 30. This is kind of interesting: Ten of the 16 were in their 30s. This year, only 10 players have hit 30, even though we have four more teams and generally smaller parks. It’s worth noting that only seven of those 16 players from 1982 struck out 100 times, although it's also worth nothing that four of this year’s 30-homer guys are under 100 K’s – Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz. Speaking of which, Ortiz doesn’t get much credit for how he’s changed his game as he’s aged. This is a guy who struck out 145 times in 2010; even though strikeouts have risen across the sport his have decreased. Anyway, of the top 40 home run hitters this season, only seven have so far struck out fewer than 100 times.

So, yes, it’s a different era. In 1982, the average strikeouts per game was 5.0; this year it’s 7.7. Overall, there are slightly more home runs in 2014: 0.87 per game compared to 0.80 in 1982. While we have fewer 30-homer guys in 2014, teams today have more power throughout the lineup. That shouldn’t be a surprise; the banjo-hitting infielders and Omar Moreno-type outfielders have basically been phased out by players who sell out to hit 15 home runs a year. With so many strikeouts (and give credit to the pitchers as well), offense is down, as we all know: 4.07 runs per game compared to 4.30 in 1982.

That decline in offense has led to many "baseball is dying" stories of late. Yes, offense is way down compared to the steroids-infused 1990s and 2000s but the difference between 2014 and 1982 is about one run every four games. Is that really noticeable until you look at the numbers?

Anyway, the first 40-homer guy was, apropos, Babe Ruth, who cracked the 40-homer and 50-homer barrier in 1920, when he joined the Yankees and swatted 54. Rogers Hornsby became the first National Leaguer to reach 40 when he hit 42 in 1922. That was pretty impressive; only one other player in the NL even hit 20 that year. Once the 40-homer had barrier had been reached, the lowest league-leading total, not including the 1981 strike season, was Nick Etten of the Yankees in 1944 with 22. But that was during the war without many of the regular major leaguers and the baseball was made out of mud or cornstalks or something. Not including World War II, the lowest total is 23 by Ralph Kiner of the Pirates in 1946. He and Johnny Mize both hit 51 the next year, so maybe the NL was still using leftover mushballs in 1946. Could be the case. Owners were cheap back then. From 1971 through 1977, the AL actually went seven seasons in a row without a 40-homer hitter. No wonder Jim Rice beat out Ron Guidry for the 1978 AL MVP Award when he hit 46.

The season with most 40-homer guys is 1996, with 17 (long live Brady Anderson and Toddy Hundley!). There were 16-homer guys in 2000. And the top 10 seasons all occurred between 1996 and 2005. So steroids are bad but baseball is dying because we don't have enough players juicing up and hitting 40 these days. Can't win.

Of course, we have nearly double the teams now as prior to the 16-team circuit that existed before the first expansion in 1961. That year saw eight 40-homer guys between the 18 teams in the majors (including Roger Maris with 61, the only year he reached 40). Plus they played 154 games before expansion, so a 40-homer season now is kind of the same as a 38-homer season in a 154-game season (one homer every four games). Using a cutoff of 38 home runs per season, most years in the 1950s saw five or six guys reach that total, so the rate of 40-homer guys back then was pretty high.

Ruth has the most 40-homer seasons with 11. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew each have eight. Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. have seven. The most obscure 40-homer guy? Well, probably Cy Williams, who hit 41 in 1923 for the Phillies. That was a long time ago which makes him obscure. The Phillies played in Baker Bowl, maybe the greatest hitter’s park ever, a little bandbox with a short right-field fence. Guys put up crazy numbers there and Williams hit 26 of his 41 home runs at home. Williams led the NL four times in home runs, including in 1927 when he was 39 years old, which I believe makes him the oldest player to lead his league in home runs. According to this bio, after his playing days, Williams retired to his dairy farm in Wisconsin "where he worked as an architect and started a construction business. Some of the finest buildings on Wisconsin's Upper Peninsula stand today as tributes to his architectural talent."

So, thank you, Nelson Cruz, for giving us reason to mention Cy Williams.
With the news that Jacob deGrom has been shut down by the New York Mets and after watching Yordano Ventura deliver another impressive performance Tuesday night for the Kansas City Royals, it seems like a good time to review the 2014 rookie class. Here's my all-rookie team, based on 2014 performance, not future value.

Catcher: Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (.242/.302/.416, 0.4 WAR)
His overall batting numbers aren't great, but he flashed some of the potential prospect analysts had long seen at the plate, including a .265/.313/.474 line in the second half. More importantly, he stayed relatively healthy, always a problem for him in the minors. The defense is still an issue: His 19 percent caught stealing rate is well below league average -- teammate Anthony Recker was at 41 percent -- and he allowed 12 passed balls and 39 wild pitches, also well above Recker's rates. D'Arnaud is 25, so I'm not sure how much growth there is in him, but if he can match his second-half production over a full season and clean up the defense, he is going to be a solid role player.

Others: Caleb Joseph, Orioles; Christian Vazquez, Red Sox; Christian Bethancourt, Braves; Josmil Pinto, Twins. Joseph has been a huge bonus for the Orioles, filling in for Matt Wieters. Vazquez and Bethancourt are defense-first guys with questionable bats. Pinto allowed 19 steals in 19 attempts and ended up going back to Triple-A for a couple months.

First base: Jose Abreu, White Sox (.316/.382/.582, 5.3 WAR)
Yeah, he can hit big league pitching. Abreu is leading the American League in slugging percentage and ranks sixth in on-base percentage. He's not the MVP of the league -- that's Mike Trout -- but he should finish high in the voting even though he doesn't have much value on defense. Here's one thing I love most about his season: In the first half, Abreu hit .292 with 29 home runs but had an 82-22 strikeout-walk ratio. In the second half, he has hit .352 with six home runs and has a 45-27 strikeout-walk ratio. Should we be concerned about the drop in power? I don't think so. His fly ball rate has dropped about 5 percent from the first half, which could be some fatigue or pitchers just working him a little more carefully, but I like that he has improved his control of the strike zone, showing he's a hitter and not just a slugger.

Others: Jonathan Singleton of the Astros has hit .168 in 356 plate appearances with 133 strikeouts. He walks, has shown power and just turned 23, but .168 is .168.

SportsNation

Which position player would you most want for the next six years?

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Discuss (Total votes: 850)

Second base: Kolten Wong, Cardinals (.252/.295/.396, 2.1 WAR)
The most impressive season, however, may be from Rougned Odor of the Rangers, who has essentially the same batting line as Wong but is three years younger. Wong rates higher due to better defense and baserunning, but Odor is the guy I'd take for the future.

Others: Javier Baez, Cubs; Jonathan Schoop, Orioles; Joe Panik, Giants; Tommy La Stella, Braves. Would you rather have Baez or Odor? Baez is a year older and has hit .164. Odor was rushed to the majors due to all the injuries in Texas with just 62 games above Class A, whereas Baez had 158 games above Class A. Like Baez, Odor is an aggressive swinger at the plate, although with better contact skills. It will be interesting to see how these two develop.

Third base: Nick Castellanos, Tigers (.264/.310/.397, -1.5 WAR)
Wait, negative WAR? That's because he has rated as the worst defensive player in the majors via defensive runs saved, with minus-31. In looking at the numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, Castellanos has been credited with 30 good fielding plays and 37 defensive misplays and errors. The misplays and errors aren't out of line with the best defenders, but the good plays are near the bottom of the list. Josh Donaldson, for example, leads with 75. Castellanos' raw range factor is half a play per game lower than league average. It just looks a guy who doesn't have the range and reaction time to be a good defensive third baseman (not that he can't improve). Anyway, the bat hasn't been anything special, but he's just 22 and has popped 45 extra-base hits.

Others: Yangervis Solarte, Padres; Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks. Lamb should retain rookie eligibility for next season if he sits a couple more games this final week.

Shortstop: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (.237/.297/.362, 0.3 WAR)
He didn't have the year everyone expected, but he's going to be an excellent player.

Outfield: Billy Hamilton, Reds (.251/.293/.357, 2.5 WAR); George Springer, Astros (.231/.336/,468, 2.0 WAR); Danny Santana, Twins (.314/.351/.469, 3.5 WAR)
Hamilton has plummeted to a .202/.256/.259 line in the second half after showing some surprising pop in the first half. His base stealing hasn't been that electric as he has 56 stolen bases but has a league-leading 23 caught stealings. There have been reports he has had some leg issues, but regardless, he is going to have to improve that percentage and get stronger to get through an entire season. Springer's season was cut short by injury while Santana has been the big surprise as he never hit like this in the minors.

Others: Gregory Polanco, Pirates; Oscar Taveras, Cardinals; Mookie Betts, Red Sox; Arismendy Alcantara, Cubs; Ender Inciarte, Diamondbacks; Kevin Kiermaier, Rays. Those players all used up their rookie eligibility, with mixed results. Inciarte has the highest WAR of any rookie outfielder at 3.6 thanks to a terrific defensive rating.

SP: Collin McHugh, Astros (11-9, 2.73 ERA, 4.3 WAR); Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees (13-4, 2.47 ERA, 4.0 WAR); Yordano Ventura, Royals (14-10, 3.07 ERA, 3.5 WAR); Jacob deGrom, Mets (9-6, 2.63 ERA, 3.0 WAR); Matt Shoemaker, Angels (16-4, 3.04 ERA, 2.3 WAR)
It's an interesting group. McHugh was plucked off waivers from the Rockies; Shoemaker was basically a nonprospect who got a chance due to injuries in the Angels' rotation; deGrom was a second-tier prospect, but nobody expected this; Ventura was a highly rated prospect due to that explosive fastball; and Tanaka, of course, was the prized free agent from Japan. Lesson: Good pitchers can come from anywhere.

Others: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays; Jake Odorizzi, Rays; Tyler Matzek, Rockies; James Paxton, Mariners; Trevor Bauer, Indians; Shane Greene, Yankees; Roenis Elias, Mariners; Kevin Gausman, Orioles. Many others, of course, but those are some I like.

Reliever: Dellin Betances, Yankees (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 3.7 WAR)
With 135 strikeouts and just 46 hits allowed in 90 innings, he's had maybe the best relief season of any pitcher in the majors -- tied with Wade Davis of the Royals in WAR. With David Robertson a free agent, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Betances is probably more valuable as a 90-inning setup guy than a 70-inning closer.

Overall, I'd rate this rookie class as average in production -- good on the pitching side, weak on the hitting side once you get past Abreu -- but with the potential to be better over the long haul with guys like Bogaerts, Polanco, Taveras, Baez, Odor and Springer having star potential.

My rookies of the year: Jose Abreu and Jacob deGrom.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
1:42
AM ET


Six days of regular-season baseball left. Barring a tie-breaker. Catch the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedule at the Hunt for October page.

1. Andrew McCutchen is a baseball deity, conqueror of enemy moundsmen and lifeblood of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Pirates played their third straight 1-0 game and it was McCutchen's home run that provided the night's lone run in the win over the Atlanta Braves. McCutchen lined a 2-0, 86-mph fastball from Aaron Harang over the fence in left-center -- you don't throw 86-mph fastballs past baseball deities -- in the sixth inning and the Pirates' magic number for clinching a playoff berth is down to two. (Here's the home run call from Pirates announcer Greg Brown. That pitch has to rank up there as one of the biggest meatballs of the season.)

Anyway, kudos to McCutchen for giving us more awesomeness. That home run is only going to help his MVP chances against Clayton Kershaw, if such a chance exists. (I say it does, although Kershaw is the clear favorite.) And kudos to Francisco Liriano for another strong outing. He's 4-0 with a 0.35 ERA in September and it raises the question: With St. Louis still up 2.5 games after their win on Monday, the wild-card game is still the likely destination for the Pirates. Does Liriano draw that game against a Giants lineup that features right-handed boppers Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Mike Morse? Do the Pirates throw Liriano this weekend in hopes of securing home-field advantage for that game and perhaps go with Gerrit Cole against the Giants? These are questions that will soon require answers.

2. The AL Central is back up for grabs. The Kansas City Royals lose the suspended game but then beat the Cleveland Indians 2-0 behind Danny Duffy's escape job while the Chicago White Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 2-0 behind Chris Bassitt. Who? Bassitt was making his fourth major league start and earned his first win. The White Sox's No. 15 prospect before the season, according to Baseball America, Bassitt actually made just eight starts in the minors this season due to a broken hand. He throws a low-90s sinker with a slider he developed in spring training, plus a curve and changeup. Nothing special and the Tigers don't have the excuse of not seeing him before, having knocked him around for five runs on Aug. 30, but they couldn't get to him and Tyler Flowers' two-run homer in the second off Kyle Lobstein held up. Right when we start believing again wholeheartedly in the Tigers, they play a game like this.

3. The Mariners' playoff chances are dwindling close to zero. James Paxton had been great but he wasn't on Monday, as shaky control (six walks in 2⅔ innings) led to a nine-run disaster in the Seattle Mariners' 14-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. It has been an embarrassing three games for Seattle as its starters have allowed 20 runs in 10 innings. The Mariners' playoff odds are now down to three percent. Look at it this way: If the Royals go 3-3 over their final six games, the Mariners have to go 5-1 to tie. They've already announced Chris Young won't make his next start, so they'll likely look at one bullpen game, and that's aside from what Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma and Paxton can do in their final starts. The good news: Felix Hernandez on Tuesday, Felix Hernandez on Sunday.

4. The Angels really need Matt Shoemaker. Right when we start feeling good about C.J. Wilson -- he threw seven one-hit innings against Seattle in his previous start -- he records only two outs against the Oakland A's after walking four batters. The Los Angeles Angels are still hoping Shoemaker makes a start this weekend, but Wilson remains inconsistent and Hector Santiago has been hammered his past two starts. Cory Rasmus, who had never started a game above A-ball before being pushed into an emergency starting role the past few weeks, is looking like a possibility to start a division series game.

5. Adam Wainwright wins his 20th game. I think he's over that dead arm period. In beating the free-swinging Chicago Cubs with seven scoreless innings, Wainwright showed why he's such a smart pitcher and not just a guy with a nice curveball. He threw just 42 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, his lowest percentage of any start this season. But with the Cubs hacking away, why throw strikes? The St. Louis Cardinals maintained their 2.5-game lead over the Pirates. Wainwright is next scheduled to go on Saturday, which then lines him up to start Game 1 of the division series on Friday, Oct. 3. There is some risk here: If the Pirates somehow catch the Cardinals, Wainwright would have to pitch the wild-card game (Wednesday, Oct. 1) on three days' rest.


Teams make the playoffs with expected production from their stars, with young players who improve, maybe a couple rookies who step up. But on almost every playoff team, you can find a guy who came out of nowhere to offer a major contribution.

Vance Worley is one of those guys. Where would the Pittsburgh Pirates be without the journeyman right-hander? The Pirates all but wrapped up a wild-card spot with Sunday's 1-0 win over the Brewers, giving Pittsburgh the series victory and moving the Pirates into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants, 4.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. Worley went eight innings and allowed just four hits before a sellout crowd at PNC Park, improving his season numbers to 8-4 with a 2.93 ERA over 17 appearances (16 starts).

Worley wasn't even supposed to be out there on Sunday. Charlie Morton had replaced him in the rotation earlier in the week, but Morton's hernia flared up in his start so Worley was back out there against the Brewers. Worley pounded the strike zone with 63 strikes in 82 pitches, relying on his sinking fastball, a cutter and a slider, with an occasional curve.

[+] EnlargeVance Worley
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesVance Worley was an afterthought, more or less. Now he might be the captain of the All-Surprise Team.

"A little rest was good for me," Worley said after the game. "This is the deepest I've gone into a season the last couple of years, so it gave me some time to get my feet back under me, to gather up some of the energy I used up early in the season."

Worley is a journeyman right-hander because his fastball velocity doesn't light up the radar gun, but this is a guy who has had intermittent success in his four seasons in the majors. Of course, none of that came last year with the Twins, who had acquired him from the Phillies. In 10 starts with Minnesota, Worley got pounded like few pitchers in recent history, going 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA and .381 batting average allowed -- the highest average allowed by a pitcher with at least 40 innings since Mike Torrez in 1984.

With numbers like those, it's no surprise the Pirates were able to purchase Worley from the Minnesota Twins late in spring training. There was no downside for the Pirates, and he started the year in Triple-A before joining the Pirates' rotation in mid-June when Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list. He tossed seven scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins in that game and has been solid ever since.

Worley is one member of what we'll call the All-Surprise Team. Or maybe we can call it the lucky pickup team. Should the Pirates receive credit for Worley turning into gold? Hard to say. The Twins had actually put Worley on waivers and nobody claimed him until the Pirates made the cash deal. In the end, it's still a lot of luck. I'm pretty sure the Pirates didn't envision Worley making 16 starts with a sub-3.00 ERA. Here are some other members of the lucky pickup team:

Steve Pearce, Orioles
Pearce began the season with the Baltimore Orioles (they had originally claimed him off waivers from the New York Yankees in 2012) but only appeared in three games before they released him on April 27. The Toronto Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce, but he had the right to refuse the deal and instead become a free agent and apparently had an agreement to sign back with Baltimore. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed him. Pearce has responded with 20 home runs in 327 at-bats -- after hitting 17 in 743 career at-bats spread out over seven previous seasons. A new, closed stance has done wonders. Among American League hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, he's fourth in wOBA behind Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez and Mike Trout.

Chris Young, Mariners
Young has faltered a bit of late, including a bad loss in a vital game against the Houston Astros on Saturday, but the big right-hander is 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA. That's one more than he had from 2009 to 2013. That the Seattle Mariners ended up with Young was a result of their own penny-pinching ways. Originally, they had signed Randy Wolf as their token veteran to fill out the back of the rotation. Wolf had made the team out of spring training but the Mariners refused to give Wolf a guaranteed full-year contract, instead insisting he sign a 45-day contract. Wolf refused and the Mariners released him, picking up Young, who had been cut by the Washington Nationals. Now that was a stroke of luck, as Wolf ended up making just four poor starts with the Marlins.

Justin Turner, Dodgers
ESPN researcher Mark Simon wrote about Turner last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers' infielder has hit .332/.397/.467 in 310 PAs while starting games at all four infield spots. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent in February after the New York Mets non-tendered him, apparently because they tired of him not running hard. The Mets saved $500,00 or so, replacing Turner's $1 million salary with a minimum-salaried player. The Dodgers got themselves one of the year's best utility infielders.

Josh Harrison, Pirates
Harrison wasn't a free pickup since he was already in the Pirates' system, but nobody could have projected the 26-year-old to have this kind of breakout season. He entered 2014 with a .250 career average in 575 PAs and actually played more in Triple-A in 2013 than with the Pirates. Now he may win a batting title.

[+] EnlargeTanner Roark
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesFifth starter? Hardly. Tanner Roark has a 2.85 ERA.
Tanner Roark, Nationals
After beating out Ross Detwiler and others for the final spot in the Nationals' rotation, Roark has gone 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA in his first full season in the majors. The 27-year-old has actually been in the Washington system since the 2010 trade deadline, but his production this year was certainly a surprise. Plus, consider how the Nationals acquired him: For Cristian Guzman, whose major league ended that year with a .152 average in 15 games for the Rangers. Think Texas could have used Roark the past couple of seasons?

Matt Shoemaker, Angels
We've written about Shoemaker here before, so you know what kind of season he's put together, helping the Angels surge to the AL West title even after Garrett Richards went down. He's certainly the definition of free talent: The Angels signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in 2008. But consider this: Before the season, Baseball America rated the Angels' farm system the worst in the majors and Shoemaker wasn't listed as one of the team's top 30 prospects. Thirty. Riding a terrific splitter/changeup, he's 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA.

J.D. Martinez, Tigers
For all the moves the Tigers have made, this has perhaps been the biggest as Martinez has been worth 3.9 WAR with his .320/.363/.570 line with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs. Released by the Astros in spring training, Martinez made some minor tweaks to his swing and the results have obviously been impressive. After a hot start and prolonged slump, he's been red hot again in September, hitting .394 with six home runs. (Note: I missed Martinez upon first publishing the piece. Apologies to Tigers fans!)

Pat Neshek, Cardinals
The veteran reliever pitched OK in 40 innings with the A's last year, but that was also the most he had pitched since 2007. So it wasn't a surprise that teams weren't pounding down his door with offers over the winter. He finally signed a minor league contract with the Cardinals in February, with an invite to spring training. He made the team, pitched his way into a setup role and even made the All-Star team. He's 7-1 with a 1.39 ERA and a 65/8 strikeout/walk ratio.

What do these guys prove? For starters, all the analytics out there can't project every player, and that's a good reminder that players aren't robots, their statistics always predictable within a small range. And as much as we praise front offices for building a winner or criticize them for building a loser, there is still a fair amount of luck involved. It's hard to really praise the front office for any of these performances.

None of these guys may do this again next year, but that's not important now. They did it this year and helped their teams into the playoffs or into contention.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
1:35
AM ET
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at the world-famous Hunt for October page.

1. This is how Mariners fans feel right now. Mariners rookie James Paxton was filthy, matching zeroes with Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson into the seventh inning. Then came a one-out single and soft liner to right that Chris Denorfia let bounce past him, Howie Kendrick scoring from first. Then an intentional walk to Erick Aybar for reasons I don't understand. And then, with two outs, C.J. Cron blasted a loud and long home run off reliever Danny Farquhar. Just like that it was 4-0, the Angels clinched a tie for the AL West title (and later won it as the Rangers rallied to beat the A's in the ninth) and the Mariners' wild-card dreams took a hit as they fell two games behind the Royals.

C.J. Wilson was terrific in his own right, allowing just one hit in seven innings, although the Mariners are pretty inept against southpaws. It was the first time Wilson went seven in 14 starts -- and he went five innings or less in half of those 14 starts. So this was a much-needed strong outing from Wilson as the Angels look to line up their playoff rotation, especially with the iffy status of rookie sensation Matt Shoemaker, who will miss his next start with a mild oblique strain. (Shoemaker said on Wednesday that he's feeling better: "The positive part is it feels better every day. It’s not getting worse. They said it’s going to linger for a few days, and hopefully after a few days it will be gone."

The Angels clinched and they're also three games up on the Orioles for the best record in the league. Would you rather face the wild-card winner or the AL Central winner in the first round? I guess that depends on the opponent. Either way, they'll need Wilson to come up big.

2. Here come the Giants! Crazy day in the NL West as the Giants scored twice in the ninth to beat the Diamondbacks 4-2 -- pinch-hitter Matt Duffy delivered a two-run single -- and the Rockies pounded the Dodgers 16-2. Dodgers starter Carlos Frias, filling in for sore-shouldered Hyun-Jin Ryu, allowed 10 hits while getting two outs, apparently becoming the first starter since 1900 to allow that many hits while getting fewer than three outs. Ouch. The big picture: The Dodgers' lead is down to three games and they're suddenly scrambling in the rotation once you get past Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Before their huge series in San Francisco that starts on Monday, the Dodgers travel to Wrigley this weekend for four games and the Giants to San Diego for three.

3. Maybe that Adam Wainwright guy is OK. Is it time to stop worrying about that little dead-arm slump Wainwright was in? Locked into a great duel with Mike Fiers -- who took a no-hitter in the sixth before Wainwright singled -- Wainwright tossed a nifty 102-pitch, seven-hit shutout for his MLB-leading 19th win. Suddenly, he's Mr. Ace again: Two runs in 26 innings over his past three starts.

It was a tough loss for Fiers, who showed some mental toughness with a good outing after hitting Giancarlo Stanton in his previous start. He deserved better. With Matt Holliday on first in the seventh, Matt Adams hit a slow ground ball that bounced through the shift and center fielder Carlos Gomez bobbled the ball, allowing Holliday to score all the way from first when he threw the ball into second base instead of home.

With Pittsburgh winning, the Brewers dropped to 2.5 games behind the Pirates. Milwaukee has one more game with St. Louis before squaring with the Pirates in Pittsburgh this weekend. No matter the results of Thursday's game, the Brewers will essentially be in a "must sweep" scenario against the Pirates.

4. Chris Sale can be beat. Which is good news for the Royals because they touched up the AL ERA leader (well, Sale is now second in ERA to Felix Hernandez) after giving up nine hits and five runs in five innings. Lorenzo Cain, who a week ago was batting eighth and is now hitting third (Ned Yost, everyone!), hit a three-run homer in the third inning and then Alcides Escobar torched Sale in the fourth. It was just the third time Sale has allowed five runs and the nine hits are the second-most he's allowed in a game -- the Orioles got him for 11 back on June 23. The Royals are now a half-game behind the Tigers for the division lead and two up on Seattle for the wild, the usual "suspended game against Cleveland" not included.

5. Indians barely alive. Carlos Carrasco tossed a dominant two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout over the Astros. His Game Score of 94 tied for the sixth-highest of the season. Do the Indians have any shot at the wild card? Very slim, as they trail the Royals by five games. But they do have a series against Kansas City next week. Get some help from Detroit this weekend, sweep the Royals and hope Seattle falters and you never know. Because ... baseball.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:41
AM ET


Check the standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. "That's what speed do." A few years ago, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, talking about his ability as one of the fastest players in the game, coined the phrase "That's what speed do." It's kind of a popular thing for Royals fan to quote although it's never quite caught on on a national level. Hey, it's the Royals. Well, it may be reaching a tipping point after the wheels of Dyson and fellow pinch runner Terrance Gore inspired a dramatic ninth-inning comeback as the Royals scored twice with two outs to beat the White Sox 4-3. Here's Dyson on second base with two outs, running on the pitch, and scoring as the ball bounces to the backstop; love the excited Royals announcers quoting Dyson. And here's Gore on second base after Norichica Aoki doubled. He's also running on the play and scores the winner on Lorenzo Cain's infield hit.

What a turn of events for the Royals, who trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh. By that time, they knew the Tigers were on their (likely) way to a win over the Twins. Considering Sunday's bullpen fiasco created by manager Ned Yost, it was looking like doom-and-gloom time in Kansas City. So give them credit for coming alive late against the White Sox bullpen. Give Dyson credit for stealing third on his run -- a base that didn't seem all that important to risk with two outs -- especially considering he got picked off second in a similar scenario last week. As I wrote when Dyson got picked off, there are times you can throw the numbers out the window and just say either the player makes a play or he doesn't. Dyson made a big play.

This is one way the Royals have to manufacture runs. They're last in the AL in home runs and last in walks. They're not a good offensive team. But they have speed, ranking first in the league in steals, and FanGraphs rates them as the second-best baserunning team in the majors behind the Nationals (some of their speed advantage is negated by the likes of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the worst baserunners in the league). It's not a big statistical advantage -- plus-7.8 runs above average entering Monday -- but as Monday showed, there are moments in games where speed can be the deciding factor.

The night got even better when the Mariners lost, so the Royals are two up on Seattle for the second wild card, just one game behind the A's and still 1.5 behind the Tigers. (You know the caveat: The Royals are losing to the Indians in that suspended game.)

2. Kudos to Don Mattingly. The Dodgers' skipper didn't fuss around with Roberto Hernandez, yanking him in the fourth inning of a 2-2 game with the bases loaded. With lefty Charlie Blackmon up, Mattingly went to southpaw Paco Rodriguez. Blackmon doesn't have a huge platoon split, but his OPS against lefties was 70 points lower entering the game. Hernandez doesn't have a platoon split this year but has in the past. With all the extra relievers that September provides, there was no need to keep Hernandez in there as you probably would have before rosters expanded. The player still has to execute and Rodriguez got the groundout. The Dodgers went on to break it open with an 11-3 win, but it was a move that shows Mattingly understands that you can manage September differently from April through August.

Oh ... and the Giants lost, so L.A.'s lead in the NL West is now up to four games.

Oh ... if Hyun-Jin Ryu can't make it back for the playoffs because of his sore shoulder, is Hernandez really the team's No. 4 starter right now?

3. Stephen Strasburg with another gem. Christina Kahrl touched on how the Nationals are winning with roster depth and not on the backs of the heralded duo of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Strasburg has put together four straight solid starts now, with no walks, 28 strikeouts and just six extra-base hits allowed. His average fastball velocity those four starts: 95.7, 95.6, 95.9 and 95.3. This doesn't look like a guy tiring down the stretch.

One note, however: The past two starts came against the Braves, next to last in the NL in runs; the one before that came against the Phillies (in D.C.); and before that against the offensively impaired Mariners at Safeco. So I'm not quite ready to declare Strasburg has turned the corner from his inconsistent ways. Still, a good sign.

4. Good night, Yankees. Wait, did I write this on Sunday as well? As blog contributor Katie Sharp tweeted after the Yankees' 1-0 loss to the Rays, the Yankees have scored six runs in their past five games, their fewest in a five-game span since June 30-July 4, 1997. By the way, Derek Jeter got the day off. Understandable and needed. Jeter has completely wilted down the stretch, as much to blame as any player for the Yankees' struggles. Over his past 21 games, he's hit .145/.189/.169. And has still been hitting second in the lineup. Shame on you, Joe Girardi, for putting the individual over the team.

5. Tired Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix Hernandez hasn't been quite as dominant of late and Iwakuma has definitely not been sharp. Over his past five starts, Iwakuma has allowed 22 runs in 21.1 innings. On Monday, the Angels pounded him for seven runs in 3.1 innings. The big blow was Albert Pujols' three-run double with two outs in the third -- after Iwakuma had retired the first two batters of the inning. Now two games behind the Royals, the Mariners' playoff odds have dropped to 31 percent -- this after climbing over 50 percent heading into Saturday's game (with King Felix starting). But three straight losses and now it's a tough climb back.

For the Angels, Matt Shoemaker keeps winning, Mike Trout keeps hitting and they've won 11 of 12, averaging 8.2 runs per game in that stretch.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:12
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Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?

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The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
1:13
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Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Dayton Moore had a dream: It was trading for James Shields and having Shields pitch a big game in September against the Tigers with a division lead on the line, and after Shields tossed seven scoreless innings, the Royals' general manager could stand up and puff out his chest a little bit and say, "See? This is why we needed James Shields."

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio"Big Game James" lived up to his name, as James Shields gave the Royals a win they had to have.
After losing the first two games of the series, the Royals won the finale 3-0 as Shields delivered a huge, huge win for a playoff-starved franchise trying to win the AL Central. You don't want to say a sweep would have been devastating; it's too early in September for that, and we can't assume any psychological effects. Still … big win. Shields gave up a leadoff single but then picked off Ian Kinsler and retired 18 in a row, until Torii Hunter singled with one out in the seventh. Miguel Cabrera then walked to set up the key moments of the game with Kansas City leading 2-0.

Manager Ned Yost eschewed using Kelvin Herrera (28 consecutive scoreless appearances) or Wade Davis (31 consecutive scoreless appearances) and left in Shields, who was at 92 pitches. Up stepped Victor Martinez, who has been maybe the best hitter in the game in 2014. He swung at a first-pitch changeup and hit a fly ball to deep center -- the hearts of Royals' fans missed a beat, or three -- but Jarrod Dyson flagged it down, and Shields then fanned J.D. Martinez on a 2-2 changeup, pumped his fist and roared off the field.

"You don't earn a nickname like 'Big Game James' for nothing," Yost said postgame. "Games don't come much bigger than this."

The "Big Game James" nickname is actually pretty lame (he has a 4.98 ERA in six career postseason starts), but there's no doubt he backed it up in this contest.

2. Angels keep rolling: They beat up on the hapless Rangers and lowered their magic number to nine with their seventh win in a row. Remember when Garrett Richards went down Aug. 20? He was 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, and the Angels led the AL West by 1½ games. The Angels have the second-best ERA in the AL since Aug. 21. Rookie Matt Shoemaker improved to 15-4 and allowed just one run in 6⅔ innings.

3. A's bullpen blows another: Jeff Samardzija pitched seven scoreless innings but left with a 1-0 lead after 116 pitches, only to see Luke Gregerson cough it up with two runs as the White Sox won 2-1. Who does manager Bob Melvin trust in that bullpen right now? With Detroit and Seattle also losing, Oakland didn't lose ground on those two teams, but they seem to find a new way to lose every night.

4. It's not too late for Toronto: The Blue Jays won their fourth in a row by crushing the Cubs 11-1 for the third game in a row. They outscored Chicago 28-3 in the series. The Jays are now 3½ behind the Tigers for the second wild card, but the schedule gets tougher the rest of the way: Tampa Bay, at Baltimore, at the Yankees, Seattle and Baltimore.

5. Don Mattingly moves Yasiel Puig to leadoff: Trying to get his slumping star out of a long power drought -- Puig hasn't homered since July 31 and has just two since the end of May -- Mattingly moved Puig up to the leadoff spot.

"There's always stuff going on with different guys, but Yasiel basically got us to this point, and everything we've tried to do so far is to try to get him going, take the pressure off, the same we'd do for anybody," Mattingly said before the game. "It's time to get him rolling. It's no secret that we have a big series coming up [in San Francisco], and hopefully, he plays well tonight and keeps it going the rest of the year."

Puig went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but Dan Haren pitched seven scoreless frames in a 4-0 win. Let's see if the leadoff idea -- which I kind of like -- continues Friday against the San Francisco Giants after an off-day.

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