SweetSpot: Los Angeles Dodgers

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
11:02
PM ET
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We're starting to see a little clarity. I think. Check the standings, playoff odds and remaining schedule at the Hunt for October page.

1. The A's with their biggest win of the season.

Of course, they needed their biggest win after weeks of biggest defeats. The Oakland A's entered extra innings against the Phillies knowing the Seattle Mariners had already lost, so they had a chance to increase their lead over Seattle to two games while maintaining a half-game lead ahead of the Kansas City Royals. Oakland's much-maligned bullpen tossed 4.2 scoreless innings -- kudos to Bob Melvin for letting closer Sean Doolittle pitch two innings -- and then Josh Donaldson hit a two-run walk-off home run to dead center to give Oakland the 8-6 win. As the Oakland announcer says, "The A's finally got a hero today." It may provide the lift they needed to get them into the wild-card game. Oakland finishes with three at home against the Los Angeles Angels and four at the Texas Rangers.

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, meet the wall.

On Aug. 19, Iwakuma tossed eight scoreless innings to beat the Philadelphia Phillies and lower his ERA to 2.57. King Felix was getting all the attention for the Mariners but Iwakuma wasn't far behind. But since then, he has been a disaster. On Sunday, he got knocked out in the fifth inning, unable to hold a 3-1 lead and the Houston Astros eventually rolled to an 8-3 win. In his past six starts, he's 2-3 with a 9.12 ERA, raising his season number to 3.54. The Mariners are now 1.5 games back of the Kansas City Royals for wild card No. 2. (Or one game, if you want to count that suspended game as a loss for the Royals, which you really shouldn't do until it's official, one way or the other, because this is baseball and crazy things can happen.)

With Chris Young also looking like he's done, Lloyd McClendon is going to have to think of some desperate measures for his pitching staff this week. That means more than just quick hooks for his starters, but maybe even trying a couple of bullpen games -- starting Tom Wilhelmsen or another reliever, for example. It doesn't help that the Mariners will have had just one day off in September and now have to travel to Toronto and then back home to face the Angels to wrap the season.

3. Pirates playing for wild-card home-field advantage.

Pittsburgh essentially eliminated the Milwaukee Brewers with a 1-0 victory behind Vance Worley's eight scoreless innings and also pulled into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants at 84-71. Edging out the Giants is important: The Pirates finished 51-30 at home and are 33-41 on the road. The Pirates won the season series over the Giants, so they get the tiebreaker if the clubs finish with the same record. While Pittsburgh is still just 2.5 behind St. Louis for the NL Central, they finish with four in Atlanta and four in Cincinnati, so they need a good road trip to win that home-field edge, let alone catch the Cardinals.

4. Matt Kemp just about wraps up the NL West.

Kemp went 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs in an 8-5 win over the Cubs. Kemp since the All-Star break looks a lot like 2011 MVP candidate Kemp: .310/.374/.594. Oh ... Yasiel Puig is also starting to heat up: .419 with two home runs and four doubles over his past 10 games. The Dodgers took three of four in the series, with only a bullpen collapse on Saturday preventing the sweep. The lead over the Giants is now 4.5 games with the Dodgers hosting the Giants on Monday through Wednesday, the Giants obviously needing a sweep to have a shot at the division title. The pitching matchups: Jake Peavy versus Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner versus Zack Greinke and Tim Hudson versus Clayton Kershaw. (Catch the final two games on ESPN.)

5. Stephen Strasburg may have locked up Game 1 of the division series.

Strasburg threw 84 pitches in seven scoreless innings in a 2-1 win over the Marlins and speculation out of D.C. has Matt Williams selecting Strasburg as his Game 1 starter for the playoffs, even though Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roark all have lower ERAs. Strasburg is 5-1 with a 1.88 ERA over his past eight starts, with 49 strikeouts and just seven walks in 52.2 innings. He's topped 200 innings for the first time, but his fastball velocity has held strong, 94-95 mph and touching 97-98. After being benched two years ago, he still hasn’t made his first postseason start. I can’t wait.
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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 Saturday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
12:07
AM ET
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Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at our Hunt for October page.

1. Tigers win appeal, beat Royals. Larry Vanover, Tyler Collins and Raul Ibanez. That unlikely trio served as the three key principles in a contest that might go a long way in determining the winner of the American League Central. In the sixth inning, with the score tied at 1, runners on second and third, and two outs, Kansas City Royals infielder Omar Infante hit a line drive that was caught by Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. In an attempt to double up Eric Hosmer at second, Kinsler threw the ball to shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who missed the throw. With the ball trickling into left field, Royals catcher Salvador Perez scampered home and scored what appeared to be the go-ahead run. The problem is Perez never retouched third base before he ran home.

Crew chief Larry Vanover called a meeting of the umpiring crew before he spoke with replay headquarters in New York. After a few minutes on the headset, the umpires reconvened for another chat. The play had been determined unreviewable, but the call was overturned. Perez was called out. The matter in which the call was made is still up for debate, but the ruling appeared to be correct, as Perez did not make contact with the bag.

A half-inning later, with the score still tied at 1, September call-up Tyler Collins came through with a pinch-hit, RBI single for Detroit to break the tie. Clinging to a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning, the Tigers handed the ball over to embattled closer Joe Nathan.

After recording a leadoff out, Nathan allowed back-to-back singles to put a man in scoring position with one out. A groundout advanced the runners 90 feet and left pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez to face Nathan. Nathan, 39, retired Ibanez, 42, on two pitches to end a strange game and perhaps the Royals' chance of winning the AL Central.

The Royals, however, maintained their standing in the wild-card race after losses by the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners.

2. Williams makes history in win over A's. The A's fell 3-0 to Philadelphia, and a trio of Phillies pitchers completed the shutout led by journeyman Jerome Williams. This season, Williams has worn the uniform of the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and his current club, and he has beaten Oakland while wearing each set of threads. He is the first pitcher in major league history to accomplish that feat.

Williams' latest victory over the A's was a seven-inning effort. He allowed four singles and a walk while striking out three. The veteran right-hander has a 2.45 ERA in just over 50 innings with his new club and has likely earned himself another look for next year.

For the A's, it's the latest in a line of disappointing losses. The team with the best record in baseball on July 31 is clinging to a half-game lead in the AL wild-card race. Lefty Scott Kazmir will take the ball for Oakland in the series finale.

video 3. Seattle routed in missed opportunity. With the A's and Royals losing, the Mariners had a golden opportunity to advance their place in the wild-card chase with a win over the Astros. Instead, the Mariners were crushed 10-1 and remain tied with the Royals for the final playoff spot in the AL.

M's starter Chris Young has been a pleasant surprise this season, but he was beaten around the ballpark Saturday. Houston belted a pair of two-run home runs off Young in the first inning to take an early 4-0 lead. In the fourth inning, they smashed two more -- back-to-back solo shots that chased the Seattle pitcher. In total, Young was charged with seven runs -- half of them home runs -- on eight hits.

The first home run against Young came off the bat of Astros' designated hitter Chris Carter. The former A's farmhand launched his 37th home run of the season; he now has 18 home runs in 58 second-half games. Power has always been Carter's calling card, but the 27-year-old is showing an improved approach at the place, which includes cutting down the number of swings on pitches out of the strike zone.

4. Dodgers' bullpen squanders a big lead. After scoring 14 runs on Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared to be headed for double digits again Saturday. With two runs in the first and four more in the third, Los Angeles jumped out to a 6-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs. They would add another run and take a 7-2 into the bottom of the seventh inning.

Facing left-hander J.P. Howell, the Cubs nearly erased their deficit and scored four runs in the frame, including a towering, three-run shot off the bat of Arismendy Alcantara. The rookie's 10th home run traveled 394 feet to deep left field and came on an 86 mph fastball. The Dodgers escaped the inning with the lead but would watch it fade for good in the eighth.

Chris Coghlan capped off the comeback with a two-run homer to put the Cubs ahead by the final score of 8-7. It was the second homer of the afternoon for Coghlan, who reached base in all five of his plate appearances. The Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez also had a multihomer game in the loss. Los Angeles has already clinched a spot in the postseason but still has to fight off the Giants to win the division crown and avoid the play-in game.

video 5. Brewers strike late to stay relevant. Speaking of the play-in game, the Milwaukee Brewers kept their slender hopes of making the wild-card game alive with a victory over the team they are chasing, the Pittsburgh Pirates. A scoreless affair until the ninth inning, the Brewers used a fielder's choice, a double and a sacrifice fly to push across the lone run of the game.

In the top of the ninth of a scoreless game, Elian Herrera reached based for the Brewers after failing to advance Ryan Braun on a bunt attempt. Herrera moved to third following a Lyle Overbay double and crossed the plate on a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Logan Schafer.

Seven Brewers pitchers, including Francisco Rodriguez, combined for the shutout. Rodriguez needed just six pitches to nail the final three outs in his 43rd save. The win brings Milwaukee to within 3 1/2 games of the Pirates, with another head-to-head matchup coming Sunday.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
12:09
AM ET
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at our Hunt for October page.

1. Max Scherzer versus James Shields on Saturday could be for all the marbles. Kansas City began Friday just a half game behind Detroit in the American League Central, but they were blown out by the Tigers 10-1. Detroit chased Royals starter Jason Vargas in the fourth inning and joined the Nationals as the only teams in baseball with four players who have driven in at least 80 runs this season when Torii Hunter collected his 80th RBI of the season.

On this night, Victor Martinez joined Miguel Cabrera in the 100 RBI club when he drove in Cabrera in the first inning. That was his 45th RBI since the All-Star break, and he continues to build his case in the American League MVP race.

2. The Brewers' chances are slim to none, and slim is packing its bags. Milwaukee took a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning at Pittsburgh, only to see Jonathan Broxton allow a three-run home run to Russell Martin and watch their offense go down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning. The loss was Milwaukee's third straight and 12th in the month of September, and it spoiled a brilliant outing for Yovani Gallardo.

The Brewers needed to sweep this series, and Gallardo was up to the task. He struck out 11 and scattered five hits over seven scoreless innings. Nonetheless, John Holdzkom was awarded the first win of his major league career, and Mark Melancon saved his fifth game in two weeks.

Milwaukee now trails Pittsburgh by 4½ games for the second NL wild-card spot, and the Brewers are in need of a miracle to get to the postseason. The win was the fifth in a row and 12th in the past 14 games for Pittsburgh. The Pirates are still within striking distance of the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central title, but the two teams do not play again during the regular season, and St. Louis will face the Cubs and Diamondbacks in the final week.

3. Clayton Kershaw is (somewhat) human. The Cubs began the day with a .239 team batting average, which was fourth worst in baseball, and they had a league-worst 23.9 percent strikeout rate. Kershaw entered the game with a league-best .190 opponents' batting average and a 31.6 percent strikeout rate. The matchup, on paper, could not have looked more lopsided. Kershaw had made 17 consecutive starts in which he threw at least seven innings. He had made 16 consecutive starts in which he did not allow more hits than innings pitched.

Both of those streaks came to an end against the young and free-swinging Cubs lineup. While Kershaw was still able to pick up his 20th win of the season, he allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings of work. Kershaw did not have his usual command of the strike zone, and he threw 59.4 percent (63-of-106) of his pitches for strikes, which marked just the second time this season that he had thrown fewer than 60 percent of his pitches for strikes. His last regular-season start will come Wednesday night in the critical series against the Giants.

4. A repeat is looking likely for St. Louis. John Lackey took the mound for the first time in nine days, as his latest start was skipped due to his having a dead arm. In his previous three starts, Lackey had permitted 22 hits and 13 runs in 14 1/3 innings.

On Friday, he looked like the version of Lackey the Cardinals acquired from the Red Sox. He pitched into the eighth inning and allowed six hits and one run while striking out five batters. It was the 13th win in September and sixth in the past seven games for St. Louis. Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn will take the ball in the final two games of the series as the Cardinals look to take advantage of a favorable schedule the rest of the way and repeat as NL Central champs.

5. Mariners handling the calm before the storm. Seattle has a tough road next week, as they have a four-game series at Toronto and then host the Angels to wrap up the regular season.

Last week, the Mariners dropped two of three at home to the Astros, and they can ill-afford a repeat this weekend in Houston. Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino were not going to let that happen, as each homered Friday in support of Taijuan Walker in a convincing win over the Astros.

Five Mariners had multiple hits, and both of Ackley's hits were home runs. Seattle is a half-game out of the second AL wild-card spot. A sweep of the Astros this weekend would strengthen the Mariners' odds in the final week, and they started the weekend off on the right note.

Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.

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.
We're getting close enough to the end of the season to start speculating on who could pitch in the wild-card games. Teams won't necessarily have the luxury of lining up their best pitcher -- two years ago, for example, the Orioles went with Joe Saunders (although they didn't really have an ace that season). Last season, the Rays and Indians used Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar, as David Price had to pitch the tiebreaker game for Tampa Bay.

Let's see how the rotations line up for each team.

Detroit Tigers
David Price: Starts Wednesday, so could then start on Monday on four days' rest. That would line him up for another start on Saturday on four days' rest, if needed, or a start in the wild-card game on Tuesday, Sept. 30, if the Tigers have clinched.

Max Scherzer: The Tigers have an off day Thursday and haven't announced their starter yet for Friday. They could go with Kyle Lobstein, but since they play the Royals it seems more likely they would skip him and go with Justin Verlander on Friday, Scherzer on Saturday and Rick Porcello on Sunday. Or maybe Lobstein is a better choice than Verlander right now. If they stick with a five-man rotation, that pushes Price back to Tuesday and Sunday (if needed).

Anyway, the Tigers have options. Regardless of what they do, they'll have either Price or Scherzer available on full rest for the wild-card game.

Kansas City Royals
Here's how the Royals line up their next four games:

Wednesday: Yordano Ventura
Friday: Jason Vargas
Saturday: James Shields
Sunday: Jeremy Guthrie

They have no off days next week, so at some point they'll have to use Danny Duffy as a fifth starter (well, assuming nobody pitches on three days' rest, which no one does anymore). Duffy could start on Monday or Tuesday. Assuming he pitches on Monday to give Ventura an extra day of rest, the rotation the final week would look like this:

Monday: Duffy
Tuesday: Ventura
Wednesday: Vargas
Thursday: Shields
Friday: Guthrie
Saturday: Duffy
Sunday: Ventura

That would line up Shields to pitch the wild-card game Tuesday. Of course, there's also the possibility of a tiebreaker game Monday. Presumably that would be Vargas, especially since that game would likely be against Seattle and its lefty-heavy lineup.

Oakland Athletics
The A's have built a little breathing room. With no days off the rest of the way, their rotation is set and they have Jon Lester lined up for the wild-card game, as he starts Friday and then next Wednesday.

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have no off days the rest of the season and their rotation was also thrown a curve when Roenis Elias left Tuesday's game with elbow stiffness.

Felix Hernandez starts on Thursday, which means he would pitch again on Tuesday and then the final Sunday of the season. If they've clinched a playoff spot, obviously they hold Felix back for the wild-card game. If not -- a distinct possibility since they have to make up ground -- Chris Young follows Hernandez in the rotation, followed by Hisashi Iwakuma.

So if the Mariners go down to the wire and have to pitch Felix on Sunday, it would be: Felix in the regular-season finale, Young in a potential tiebreaker game and then Iwakuma (or Young) in the wild-card game.

San Francisco Giants
The Giants have some room to play with, leading the Pirates by 2.5 games and the Brewers by four games. And of course they can still win the NL West.

Madison Bumgarner starts Wednesday and they have an off day on Thursday. Assuming they don't skip a starter, Bumgarner goes on Tuesday and then is ready to go on the final Sunday. If they've clinched, he's ready with a week's worth of rest for the wild-card game.

If Bumgarner is needed on that final day, Tim Hudson follows him in the rotation. Jake Peavy proceeds Bumgarner so he wouldn't be available for the wild-card game.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have no off days remaining. Their current rotation has Francisco Liriano pitching on the final Saturday and Gerrit Cole on Sunday. If those two have to pitch on those days, that would leave Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez for the wild-card game (or Locke in a tiebreaker game and Volquez in the wild-card game).

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have an off day on Monday, which gives them an opportunity to tweak Tuesday's starter -- important, because the Tuesday starter would then go again on Sunday. It's Mike Fiers' turn in the rotation, but they could push him to Wednesday and use Kyle Lohse on regular rest on Tuesday. So Ron Roenicke's choice: Who would you rather give the extra start to, Fiers or Lohse? Whoever doesn't get that Sunday start would then presumably go in the wild-card game. Yovani Gallardo would also be available, although it seems unlikely he would start over those two.

St. Louis Cardinals
With a 2.5-game lead over the Pirates, the Cardinals haven't locked up the NL Central just yet. They haven't announced any starters beyond Adam Wainwright on Wednesday and Shelby Miller on Thursday. If Wainwright goes four days between starts, he would pitch again on Monday and the final Saturday. Lance Lynn could go Sunday and next Friday. But that would make both unavailable for a wild-card game. Then again, if they lose four or five in a row and lose their grip on the division lead, they may have to use Wainwright and Lynn to try and win the division.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Obviously, you know who the Dodgers want to start the wild-card game if disaster strikes and the Giants catch them. And, yes, Clayton Kershaw is lined up for that game, starting Friday and then next Wednesday.

Basically: All the teams have adjusted their rotations about as perfectly as possible, including the Mariners with the ability to start Felix on the final day if needed. The Royals probably should have done the same thing with Shields -- although Seattle did so with Felix by holding him back a couple times (including six days between starts once in August). Shields has made 32 starts so far to 31 for Hernandez because of that, so you can't really fault the Royals there. And if they win the wild card (or division), Shields is ready to go on full rest.

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.

Justin Turner, Dodgers' secret weapon

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
1:55
PM ET
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw looks like he's going to win an MVP award with one of the most epic seasons by a National League pitcher in recent memory.

Justin Turner
Turner
But when you consider who the Dodgers' most valuable position player is, there's an extremely unlikely candidate to put into the mix.

Utility man Justin Turner is having a terrific season, one that's been arguably as valuable as that of Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez or any others among the team's notable names. He's among those responsible for the team holding the No. 4 spot in ESPN.com’s MLB Power Rankings.

A recent blog post critiquing Wins Above Replacement used Turner as its punchline for the reason to knock the stat. He was tied for the Dodgers lead in that stat a few days ago (with 3.3 WAR), though he's since been slightly surpassed by Puig and Gonzalez after not playing the last two days.

But when you consider that WAR is a tool designed to objectively evaluate a player's performance over a specific time period and then look at Turner's numbers, his value makes much more sense.

In a time in which offensive numbers are in significant decline, Turner's .326/.393/.449 slash line is impressive. If we lower the batting-title qualifier to 250 plate appearances, Turner ranks second in the NL in batting average and sixth in on-base percentage.

Turner had a rep as an at-bat battler in his time with the Mets. This year, he's winning a lot more of those battles. He ranks sixth in the NL in pitches per plate appearance and is slash-lining .330/.476/.433 in plate appearances lasting five pitches or longer, all way better than the major-league norms.

Good fortune has definitely played a role in some of this (his .396 batting average on balls in play is the highest in the majors). After hitting only .194 on ground balls for the Mets from 2011 to 2013, Turner is hitting .333 (36 for 108) on grounders this season.

But even if we removed a dozen groundball hits from his ledger to even things out, he’d still be hitting a solid .280 and we'd be ignoring his spike in line-drive rate from one usually in the low 20s to a solid 26 percent (he ranks 33rd in the NL, but is hitting them at a better rate than, among others, Buster Posey).

Turner has also handled one of the game's toughest jobs, pinch-hitting, with success, netting 10 hits and seven RBIs in 26 pinch-hit at-bats. That's one reason he rates first on the team in Win Probability Added, which measures context-based performance.

He's performed best in close games, hitting .331 in 139 at-bats in which the teams were tied or within one run of each other. His six go-ahead or game-tying hits in the seventh inning or later lead the team. Kershaw can thank him for the two-run eighth-inning homer he hit that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead over the Padres, netting Kershaw his 15th win of the season.

Turner's batting value is supplemented by his doing other things just a little better than average, and a little can go a long way statistically over a long enough time period.

Turner is 6 for 7 stealing bases, takes extra bases at a modest rate, and avoids baserunning mishaps and hitting into double plays. He rates as the Dodgers fourth-best baserunner this season behind speedsters Dee Gordon, Carl Crawford and Chone Figgins.

Turner is also fielding a little above average, most notably when filling in for Juan Uribe. He has five Defensive Runs Saved in 393 innings at third base, which doesn't quite match Uribe’s contributions, but it is close enough so the drop off is small.

The Dodgers didn't play Turner in their last two wins over the Giants and he may be a bit of a forgotten man as the season winds down. But his season shouldn't be. He may not be as valuable as Kershaw, but he's exceeded expectations as much as anyone in the game.



Five things we learned Sunday

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:46
AM ET
Check out all the playoff odds and upcoming schedules on the Hunt for October page.

1. The Tigers will win the AL Central.

It hasn't always been easy the past three seasons, but after sweeping the Indians, it appears the Tigers will win their the fourth straight division title. It's not over, not with a big series against the Royals this weekend, but 10 of Detroit's other final 13 games are against the Twins and White Sox, so they should finish strong. That said, Sunday's win didn't resolve two major issues the team will carry into the postseason: Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan. Verlander gave up six hits and three walks in 5.2 innings and you have to think he still slots in behind Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello in the playoff rotation, and that's pending the return of Anibal Sanchez, who threw Saturday and is hoping for a return in the final week of the regular season. Nathan earned his 32nd save, but gave up a run on two hits and a walk. Yes, he hasn't blown a save since Aug. 9, but he's also pitched just three 1-2-3 innings in 12 outings since. He's still shaky, to say the least.

2. Jordan Zimmermann looking like Nationals' No. 1 starter.

He tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.83. His next start is Friday and then Wednesday or Thursday of next week after that, giving him plenty of time before the first game of the Division Series. Over his past 10 starts, he's 6-0 with a 2.16 ERA and just eight walks; meanwhile, Doug Fister has had a couple shaky outings lately and Stephen Strasburg remains inconsistent. Look for Zimmermann to draw the first game of the Division Series.

3. Good night, Yankees.

Pitching for the third day in a row, David Robertson didn't have it Sunday night and the Orioles rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 3-2. The Yankees are now five games behind the Royals for the second wild card. It may only take 88 wins to get that second wild but the Yankees would still have to 12-2 to get to 88. Their playoffs odds are now under 1 percent.

4. Pirates looking good.

With a 7-3 win over the Cubs, the Pirates' playoff odds have now increased to 79 percent. They're three games behind the Giants for the first wild card and home field be important there -- Pittsburgh is 46-29 at home, 33-41 on the road, the second-largest home/road split in the majors behind the Cleveland. Of course, there are still slim hopes of catching the Cardinals, but the Cardinals finish with the Brewers, Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks, so it's going be difficult for the Pirates to make up 3.5 games.

5. Clayton Kershaw with his biggest win of the season.

After the teams exchanged 9-0 and 17-0 blowout wins in the first two games of the series, Kershaw went eight strong innings in a 4-2 win over the Giants -- although his ERA did climb all the way from 1.67 to 1.70. This doesn't look like a man wearing down at the end of the season, as he's pitched at least eight innings in seven consecutive starts. The Dodgers are now up three games and their odds of winning the division are over 90 percent.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:12
PM ET
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 Friday

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
2:03
AM ET

The Pirates won to move to 13-4 against the Cubs this season, and the Brewers won their third straight, walking off versus the Reds, as both teams kept pressure on the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule. Here's what else went on Friday night:

1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.

The A's got closer Sean Doolittle back, but that did little to stop their slide: When Doolittle went on the disabled list with an intercostal strain on Aug. 23, the A's were 76-52 and tied for first in the American League West. They had already lost eight of their prior 12 games and had relinquished a four-game lead on the Angels. With Doolittle shelved, the A's lost 13 of their next 18, which included six blown saves.

What was once a lead-pipe cinch for a playoff spot has become quite precarious, with Oakland now only a half-game ahead of the Mariners for the first wild-card spot. Doolittle returned just in time to help his team battle Seattle in the first of a three-game series at Safeco Field. However, he never got in the game, as Seattle hit three solo homers and the A's went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 4-2 Mariners win.

Going forward, the A's have the vastly easier schedule, but can they restart their offense in time to hold off Seattle?

2. The Dodgers and Giants will go right down to the wire in the roller-coaster NL West.

On June 8, the Giants (43-21) led the Dodgers (33-31) by 10 full games in the division. The teams then swapped momentum, as Los Angeles won 36 of their next 57 and San Francisco lost 36 of their next 56. The Dodgers were up by 5.5 games on Aug. 12, a 15.5 game swing in just over two months. The Giants had trimmed that lead down to two games as they headed into a three-game series at AT&T Park that started on Friday. Matt Kemp came into the game hitting .333/.400/.635 in his past 17 games, while Buster Posey was an obscene .463/.477/.838 in his past 19.

Posey contributed an RBI double in the first inning as the Giants touched up Hyun-Jin Ryu for four runs en route to a 9-0 victory, cutting the Dodgers' lead in the division to one game. Ryu left after that first inning with a recurrence of shoulder irritation that had shelved him for three weeks earlier in the season, and it remains to be seen if he'll be available for his next start. Even after this weekend, these two teams still have a three-game set in Los Angeles that begins on Sept. 22.

3. Royals' infield defense let them down again, and Tigers retook AL Central lead.

On Thursday, Kansas City made three errors on the infield, which led to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. Those three miscues brought the total errors by Royals infielders (including 21 by their pitchers) to 76 this season. On Friday, Mike Moustakas made his second error in as many nights, and Yordano Ventura threw a wild pitch to allow the Red Sox to score another run.

Eric Hosmer provided the only offense with a two-run homer, and Kansas City dropped a 4-2 decision. Meanwhile, David Price tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run, eight-hit ball as the Tigers routed the Indians 7-2. Detroit is now back in the AL Central lead for only the second time since Aug. 10. Given the Royals' ordinary offense, they have a smaller margin for error (all puns intended) and can't afford to be giving runs (and games) away so easily.

4. The Orioles can take a punch, and then some.

The Orioles had their All-Star third baseman (Manny Machado) for a mere 82 games before losing him in early August for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Their No. 1 catcher (Matt Wieters), off to a career-best start at the plate, went down and needed Tommy John surgery in May. Their starting first baseman (Chris Davis), who despite slumping to a sub-.200 average had still hit 26 homers, just got suspended for 25 games for testing positive for amphetamines. With all this, Baltimore continued its surge toward the AL East title, sweeping a day/night doubleheader from the Yankees in which they yielded only one run over 20 innings.

The sweep pushed the Orioles' AL East lead to 11.5 games and moved them within 3.5 games of the best record in the AL. Since being only one game over .500 after 69 games, they've won 53 of their past 78. Coming into Friday, the O's had used only seven different starters pitchers (fewest in the AL), with five of those amassing at least 20 starts (second-most in the AL). It's not that the starting pitching has been superb all year, as they rank in the middle of the pack in most categories. However, they have pitched much better as a whole since the All-Star break: a 34-17 record with a 3.03 ERA prior to Friday, versus 52-42 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half of the season. The staff's good health has meant they haven't had to rely upon untested, not-ready-for-The Show talent.

5. The Mets finally said "no more hospitality" to the Nationals in Queens.

If the Nationals manage to secure the best record in the NL (they currently lead by a half-game), they can credit their league-best .622 winning percentage at home, as well as their "home-field" advantage in Queens, New York. Coming into Friday, Washington had won 12 straight (and 26 of its prior 30 games) at Citi Field. This season, it had won all four contests in New York, by a combined score of 20-6.

The Mets got off that schneid by jumping on Gio Gonzalez for three first-inning runs and outlasting the Nats 4-3. The Nationals still have two more games at Citi Field this weekend, with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann scheduled to start.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
1:13
AM ET
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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Through the first two months of the season, Yasiel Puig looked like a superstar franchise player, as good -- and certainly as exciting -- as any position player in baseball. At the end of May, he was hitting .344/.436/.615 with 11 home runs, was drawing walks and making spectacular plays in the outfield. Sure, there were still some rough spots with the mistakes on the bases and some misplays in right field, but he looked like he was building upon his excellent rookie season.

But then the home runs stopped coming.

And lately he hasn't hit much of anything.

Since June 1, he has two home runs in 78 games -- or one fewer than Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner has hit on the season. Since Aug. 1, he's hitting .207 with no home runs and just three extra-base hits in 111 at-bats. The power has vanished. The Dodgers still hold a three-game lead over the Giants in the NL West as Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez have provided most of the punch, but Puig's struggles are a big reason L.A.’s offense has been middle-of-the-pack since the All-Star break and just 13th in the National League in home runs in the second half.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiWhere have all Yasiel Puig's extra-base hits gone?

After Puig missed Saturday's game with a stomach virus, he was back in the lineup Sunday -- but hitting seventh, his lowest spot in the batting order in his career. "Yas is probably hitting where he should be hitting right now," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said before the game. "I think it's a place where you're not putting extra pressure on him. Who do you want the extra at-bat going to? Right now, that's not necessarily Yasiel."

Puig is still having a solid season overall, ranking fifth in the NL with his .382 OBP. But what has happened to the power he displayed in April and May? Let's start by looking at the pitches Puig has faced, to see if pitchers made some sort of adjustment.

Through May 31
Fastballs: 52.5%
Sliders: 17.3%
Curveballs: 10.9%
Changeups: 7.1%
Sinker: 6.8%
Cutter: 4.8%
Splitter: 0.5%

Since June 1
Fastballs: 52.9%
Sliders: 17.4%
Curveballs: 10.9%
Changeups: 9.5%
Sinker: 4.0%
Cutter: 4.5%
Splitter: 1.0%

So no real change in the mix of pitches. What about the location?

Through May 31
In the zone: 43.7%
Up: 18.5%
Middle: 30.3%
Down: 51.2%

Since June 1
In the zone: 45.0%
Up: 19.9%
Middle: 30.0%
Down: 50.1%

Again ... no dramatic differences here.

In looking at some of his totals against individual pitches, we see that he has really struggled against fastballs:

Versus fastballs, through May 31: .341/.437/.636, 14 BB, 13 SO, 6 HR in 88 AB
Versus fastballs, since June 1: .214/.311/.352, 20 BB, 38 SO, 1 HR in 145 AB

At the end of August, Mattingly told ESPNLA's Mark Saxon, "The season is long, and it wears you down. It's part of learning to regulate yourself here, as far as rest or anything else. We've seen Dee Gordon and how much more consistent his approach is day in and day out now, staying at a certain level. I think Yasiel's really emotional, and it's hard to be really emotional and play 162."

Mattingly seems to be suggesting Puig is tired. That could be the case; a tired batter would have trouble catching up to good heat. But I'm not sure that's the answer. Was he already tired by early June? Puig's breakdown of contact has also remained fairly consistent on ground balls, fly balls and line drives: 51/28/21 through May 31 and 54/27/19 since June 1.

The big difference has been the percentage of fly balls that have left the park (or not left the park): In the first two months, 24.4 percent of his fly balls were home runs, compared to just 3.2 percent since June 1. His average fly ball distance has deteriorated from 302 feet to 272.

Again, he could be tired. Or maybe the hip injury he suffered in early June has lingered more than Puig or the Dodgers are admitting. He left a game early June 8 and then missed a game the following day. On June 21, the hip flexor was bothering him enough that he was visibly limping during a game against the Padres.

Puig did hit well in July, at least for average -- .351, although with two home runs -- but it's possible the injury has flared up again. He hit well in July, just minus the power. Seems odd that Puig would suddenly start struggling against fastballs simply due to fatigue.

Whatever the reason, the Dodgers need Puig to start producing. His ability to get on base in front of Gonzalez and Kemp is what really made this lineup work. In the video above, Eric Karabell and I discuss the NL West race. I'm sticking with the Dodgers while Eric is going with the Giants. It's possible that Puig's bat -- and how he does in the six games remaining between the two teams -- will end up deciding the division title.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
8:05
AM ET
1. The Tigers had the biggest win of the night.

J.D. Martinez's magical season continued with a three-run shot to dead center off Cody Allen in the ninth to give the Tigers a 4-2 lead that Joe Nathan then protected. With Allen struggling to throw his breaking ball for strikes, Martinez had to be sitting fastball and he didn't miss. If we did an "All-Surprise Team" for 2014, Martinez would certainly be on it. (Hey, good idea for a blog post!) While it was a big win for the Tigers, keeping them a half-game behind the Royals, it was even more of a crushing defeat for the Indians, who dropped 5.5 games behind the Royals. (Keep in mind that Cleveland leads Kansas City 4-2 in the 10th inning of that suspended game.)

2. Buster Posey: Late entry into the MVP discussion.

The Giants rallied from a 6-0 deficit at Coors Field to beat the hapless Rockies 12-7. Posey went 3-for-4 with three runs and four RBIs and is now hitting .302/.355/.484 thanks to a big second half so far. While Hunter Pence has probably been more valuable over the course of the season for the Giants, if Posey continues his surge and the Giants catch the Dodgers, I can see Posey getting MVP support for the whole "carried the Giants to the division title in the second half" thing that voters love. It would be reminiscent of 2012, when he hit .385 in the second half to win MVP honors.

3. Brewers can't be feeling good.

A 7-1 loss to the Cubs was their seventh in a row -- two to the Cubs, three to the Giants and two to the Padres. Carlos Gomez is still out with a sprained wrist and will miss another week. After another game with the Cubs comes a four-game series at home against the Cardinals. That could be a make-or-break series for the Brewers. Hard to see a rebound coming at this point: After that 20-7 start in April they've been four games under .500.

4. Big night for Jose Altuve's quest for a batting title.

The Astros' second baseman went 4-for-5 to raise his average to .340, eight points ahead of Victor Martinez. The pennant-race implication was that the Astros beat the Angels 8-3 as C.J. Wilson struggled again and got knocked out in the fourth inning. Even his two "good" starts in recent weeks weren't that good as he struggled with his walks. The Angels maintained their lead as the A's lost 6-5 to the Mariners when a late rally fell short, but Wilson's issues are, well, an issue. I know I just wrote that the Angels will win the West, but Angels fan and SweetSpot TV guest host Cary Chow informed me that I was premature with that suggestion.

Let's be honest: Clayton Kershaw is the MVP, the Cy Young, the Everything.
Eight innings, three hits, one run, eight K's. Although Bryce Harper did tag him for a home run, the first he's given up to a lefty all season. Put that one in your back pocket, just in case the Dodgers and Nationals meet in October.
Here are the National League leaders in Wins Above Replacement, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Clayton Kershaw: 7.3
Jason Heyward: 6.3
Giancarlo Stanton: 6.1
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.7
Troy Tulowitzki: 5.5

And here the NL leaders in WAR via FanGraphs:

Clayton Kershaw: 5.9
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.6
Giancarlo Stanton: 5.5
Hunter Pence: 5.4
Jason Heyward: 5.2
Andrew McCutchen: 5.2

Kershaw leads both sites in WAR so the statistical consensus is that he's been the best player in the National League, even though he missed a month of action back in April. He's 16-3 with a 1.73 ERA, so while he may not get to 200 innings he's been so dominant that he still has the highest WAR.

But ... no National League pitcher has won the MVP Award since Bob Gibson in 1968, so Kershaw still has to overcome that bias against pitchers. Plus, he could slump in September and lose a couple games (unlikely, I know, since he's allowed more than three runs in a game just once, but I guess it could happen). Stanton's Marlins aren't going to make the playoffs, and MVPs usually come from playoff teams (see Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout). Lucroy has certainly been terrific, although lacks the big power and RBI numbers MVP voters usually favor, plus the Brewers aren't a lock to make the playoffs.

Enter Heyward, under-the-radar MVP candidate. Based on WAR, he's been one of the best all-around players in the league. Not that he's gotten recognition as such.

Of course, he has no chance of winning; in fact, I'd be surprised if he even finishes in the top-10 in the voting. He's hitting .272/.354/.391 with 11 home runs and 54 RBIs and right fielders slugging under .400 don't get MVP support. Heyward's value comes with his defense. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved for its defensive component of WAR and Heyward leads the majors with 33 runs saved above average. Only Juan Lagares of the Mets is at +30, and only four other players are at +20 or higher. FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating for its defensive component and Heyward leads all fielders there as well, at +26.4 (only Alex Gordon and Lagares are at +20 in UZR).

So those defensive metrics agree that Heyward has been the best defensive player in baseball and that he's saved a lot of runs. Those runs saved are worth about three wins -- so more than half of Heyward's value has come with his glove.

Yes, it's easy to dismiss one-year defensive numbers. Or perhaps wise to use them with caution. Last year, Carlos Gomez had 38 DRS and Gerardo Parra 36, and this year those players rate at 0 and +1, respectively.

But Heyward has always rated as a top defender -- not quite at his 2014 level, but he's averaged +21 DRS per 1,200 innings in his caree, compared to his rate of +34/1,200 innings in 2014. There's no reason to write off the metrics as a one-year anomaly.

What makes him so good? He doesn't have Roberto Clemente's arm (although he does have nine assists), but he has great instincts and range. Let's use an old-school fielding stat: Range Factor, which is simply putouts + assists per nine innings. Heyward has averaged 2.55 plays per nine innings compared to the league average of 2.06 for right fielders. Based on this simple math, he's made one extra out every two games compared to an average right fielder -- 0.49 per nine innings. He's played 1,157 innings so far in right field (128.5 games worth), so that's about 64 extra outs he's made above an average right fielder, let alone a subpar one.

Imagine if we added 64 hits to Heyward's résumé: He'd be hitting .399.

Now, evaluating Heyward's defense isn't quite that simple. Maybe the Braves throw a lot of fly balls (not really; they're 12th in fly ball percentage) or have an unusual number of starts made by right-handed pitchers, thus facing more lefties who hit the ball to right field (not really; the Braves are 20th in games started by right-handers). So there doesn't appear to be any team quirk that has allowed Heyward to make a high number of plays. He just makes a high number of plays.

In digging deeper into the DRS numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, we see Heyward also makes few mistakes. He has just one error and his total of 15 Good Fielding Plays - Defensive Miscues & Errors is +15, second only to Nick Markakis' +16 among right fielders. Heyward's arm has saved two runs -- nothing special there, although not a liability. It's all about running down fly balls.

Should we believe the numbers? The metrics agree on Heyward's performance on defense in 2014. Maybe you don't think one Heyward has been one of the most valuable players in the National League but I'm inclined to believe he has been.

(Although Kershaw would get my vote right now.)video

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