SweetSpot: Los Angeles Dodgers

Yasiel Puig has been benched for Game 4 in favor of Andre Ethier. Puig is a better player than Ethier; he was better at the plate, and he's better in center field. But he also struck out seven times in a row before his sixth-inning triple in Game 3, before fanning again later in the game. In last year's NLCS against the Cardinals, he fanned 10 times in 23 plate appearances. This isn't about getting the platoon advantage against Shelby Miller, who didn't have any split this season. It's about benching Puig. The general consensus seems to be: Bad move, Don Mattingly.

That's the question Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus asked in this analysis. From 2011 to 2014, including the postseason, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw is 3-7 with a 4.83 ERA against the St. Louis Cardinals and 70-22 with a 1.99 ERA against everyone else. So ... that led to some speculation, most prominently by Harold Reynolds during the game broadcast, that the Cardinals were stealing signs. Ex-major league pitcher Danny Graves argued that Kershaw was tipping his pitches, since Kershaw hadn't pitched from the stretch until that big inning in Game 7.

Most people -- including the Dodgers and Cardinals -- quickly dismissed the stealing signs thing, saying players don't really do that anymore. The tipping pitches idea is more plausible, but leads to the obvious question: Only the Cardinals have figured that out?

Anyway, Russell points out that Kershaw's stats versus the Cardinals and versus everyone else are pretty similar except for one thing: Batting average on balls in play. Against the Cardinals it's .343 and against everyone else it's .280 (again, all numbers since 2011). Russell writes:
How un-lucky has Clayton against the Redbirds? When we look at Kershaw’s performance against the Cardinals, we see that his BABIP is quite high at .343. I know that during the postseason everyone likes to pretend that games are won and lost based on magical fairy dust, grit, and character. But frankly, a lot of what drives a baseball game is dumb luck. That’s not comfortable for people to hear, but the sooner that you accept that, the sooner we can have a real conversation about baseball.

Of course, if you believe in the tipping pitches theory, you can simply argue that the Cardinals have a higher average on balls in play against Kershaw because they know what's coming. None of the hits against Kershaw in Game 1 were cheap. All were hit hard, either ground balls up the middle or line drives. Grant Bisbee of SB Nation had a good piece showing all 29 pitches in that seventh inning, arguing that Kershaw was simply missing on location and the Cardinals didn't miss.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jay Biggerstaff/TUSP/Getty ImageDoes Clayton Kershaw tip his pitches ONLY to St. Louis?

In this case, I wouldn't necessarily ascribe it to "luck" since the Cardinals hit bad pitches -- Kershaw's fastball, in particular, was up in the zone and over the plate -- as much as even the best pitchers can have terrible innings. (And give credit to the Cardinals.)

It's certainly understandable why everyone reacted with such surprise over Kershaw's sudden demise in that game: He'd had one bad outing all season, when he allowed seven runs in 1.2 innings against Arizona back on May 17. That was the only game he allowed more than three runs all season. I've watched that inning and it was a little different from the Game 1 outing, one that conforms more to the idea of bad luck. Kershaw gave up a walk, a bad-hop single off the dirt near the plate that bounced over Adrian Gonzalez's head and another broken-bat single through a drawn-in infield. On the other hand, he struggled to throw his curveball for strikes and the Diamondbacks hit three triples in the inning, all hit to deep left-center or center. Only four times did a team hit three or more triples in a game this season and the Diamondbacks did it one inning off Kershaw. So it was a combination of bad pitching and some bad luck.

Maybe the bigger story here is what Russell alluded to: We (fans, media) like to portray the postseason as a test of wills and intestinal fortitude. Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball the past three seasons. We like him. He's fun to watch. We want the postseason storyline to follow the regular-season one (well, unless you're a Cardinals or Giants fan). Kershaw hasn't delivered us that storyline, either in last year's NLCS or in Game 1.

And if he gets hammered again Tuesday? We'll start hearing stuff, negative stuff. Maybe there will be some truth to it, maybe not. I don't think anyone really knows, but I won't be one to question Kershaw's mental toughness. If he gets beat, he gets beat.

That said: If you're going to be compared to legends like Koufax ... well, you gotta come up big in the postseason.

That was fun.Hyun-Jin Ryu was excellent, John Lackey was excellent, the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen was not and Trevor Rosenthal survived a shaky ninth as the St. Louis Cardinals won 3-1 to take the series lead. Five big moments:

1. Kolten Wong, postseason hero.

A year ago, Kolten Wong was in tears after getting picked off to end Game 4 of the World Series with the tying run at the plate. Now the rookie second baseman is the temporary toast of St. Louis after hitting a two-run home run off Dodgers reliever Scott Elbert in the seventh inning to give the Cardinals that 3-1 lead.

Wong's power developed in the second half. After hitting one home run through June -- a period that included a trip back to Triple-A after beginning the season in St. Louis -- he hit 11 over the final three months. He didn't start regularly against left-handers but hit well in limited action (.315/.324/.466 in 76 PAs) and Mike Matheny had him in there against the left-handed Ryu. He's not a big guy but has a quick bat with good extension and he crushed an Elbert slider at the knees into the right-center bullpen.

Now, that Dodgers bullpen. It's a mess. J.P. Howell had been the Dodgers' top lefty all season with a 1.17 ERA through Sept. 10, but he allowed seven runs in his final three innings of the regular season and then gave up the two-homer to Matt Carpenter in Game 2. That was apparently enough to have Dodgers manager Don Mattingly lose faith in him and instead use a guy who had pitched 4⅔ innings all season in a 1-1 game.

Maybe Elbert wasn't the worst option to face lefties Jon Jay and Wong, but as Howard Cole tweeted, they should have used a righty to pitch to Yadier Molina, who has a sizable platoon split.

2. Matt Carpenter gives Cards early lead.

What a good player this guy is. Carpenter sort of flew under the radar this season because he didn't match his 2013 numbers when he led the National League in runs, hits and doubles and placed fourth in the MVP voting. But he played 158 games, led the NL in walks and scored 99 runs, giving the Cardinals an excellent .375 OBP out of the leadoff spot. His power was down in the doubles department -- 55 to 33 -- but he's making up for that in this series.

His home run off Ryu came on a 1-2 changeup; his big bases-clearing double off Kershaw in Game 1 also came with two strikes. That's how Carpenter usually approaches his plate appearances, working the count (he was fourth in the majors in pitches seen per plate appearances). But his home run off Kershaw in Game 1 came on a first-pitch fastball and his home run off J.P. Howell also came on a first-pitch two-seam fastball. He later added a double to become the first player in postseason history with a home run and double in three consecutive games. He's locked in and the Dodgers are having a hard time figuring out how to attack him.

3. Puig strikes out for seventh straight time.

Well, Jon Weisman, you were correct. After those seven straight strikeouts, Puig led off the sixth inning with a looping line drive into the right-field corner that bounced away from Randal Grichuk for a stand-up triple. John Lackey nearly worked out of the inning, getting Adrian Gonzalez on a fly to shallow left field and striking out Matt Kemp (with help from home-plate ump Dale Scott's generous strike zone that kept calling pitches that were off the plate to right-handed batters as strikes, perfect for Lackey's moving fastball/slider combo). Hanley Ramirez, however, lined a first-pitch fastball into the right-field corner for an RBI double.

Still, batting in the No. 2 spot, Puig in many ways is the key to the Dodgers' lineup. He doesn't have to hit for power -- he hasn't done much in that department since the first two months -- but he has to get on base and provide RBI opportunities for Gonzalez, Kemp and Ramirez. With Dee Gordon posting a mediocre .300 OBP in the second half (he had just four walks and 47 strikeouts, raising the question of why he's still hitting leadoff), it's often Puig who has to start rallies. The seven straight K's were reminiscent of last year's National League Championship Series when he struck out 10 times in 23 plate appearances and hit .227 and seemed to go into an emotional funk. There is not time to hang your head in the postseason.

4. Matt Kemp is frustrated.

After that 0-1 pitch that was outside was called a strike in his previous at-bat, Kemp was rung up leading off the ninth -- on a fastball that was in the exact same location as the previous pitch that was called a ball. Kemp got in a good beef with Scott, and rightly so. Even major league pitcher Brett Anderson was calling out Scott's inconsistent strike zone.

5. Flashes to Clayton Kershaw in the dugout ...

This is the great thing about the pressure, intensity and anxiety of the postseason: Don Mattingly may do anything with his bullpen in Game 4 if he can't go from Kershaw to Kenley Jansen. Dan Haren? Pedro Baez again? Jamey Wright? Does he go back to Howell and Brian Wilson? Nobody knows. I'm not sure Mattingly knows. I'm not sure he wants to envision he scenario in which he has to know.video

Remember, for a long time, short rest meant starting on two days of rest, not three -- think of Sandy Koufax in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series spinning a three-hit shutout or Mickey Lolich in Game 7 in 1968 beating Bob Gibson.

So it's not as if the Dodgers are asking Clayton Kershaw to do anything all that unusual -- in a historical context -- by starting Game 4 against the Cardinals on three days of rest. Kershaw himself did it last season against the Braves, drawing a no-decision in the "Craig Kimbrel left standing in the bullpen" game. In that contest, Kershaw was returning after throwing 124 pitches in Game 1 and gave up two unearned runs in six innings. This year, he'll return after throwing 109 pitches -- although doing so in extreme heat and getting shellacked in that fateful seventh inning.

I think it's a move Don Mattingly had to make, however. With Hyun-Jin Ryu returning after missing three weeks because of a sore shoulder, he has to have Dan Haren available in long relief in Game 3. And, really, you have to make that decision before the game. Even if you say, "We'll start Kershaw only if we lose Game 3," it's possible that you could win Game 3 while using Haren. Plus, starting Kershaw means you can start Zack Greinke on four days of rest if Game 5 if needed, giving the Dodgers four potential Kershaw/Greinke starts out of five games.

(You can make the same argument about the Cardinals. Right now, Shelby Miller is the scheduled starter for Game 4, but it's certainly possible they come back with Adam Wainwright if they're down in the series.)

"It's Clayton Kershaw," Mattingly said. "I hate to say it like that, but these kinds of guys don't curl up and go away. You don't get where you are, win four ERA titles and end up going three out of four in Cy Youngs just by anything goes bad, you curl up and go away. These guys go to work. They come back. They keep working and they keep going. This is a different cat."

Anyway, all this is made possible by the way the Division Series is scheduled, with two off days. The rest days certainly encourage managers to bring back their ace in Game 4 on short rest. In the Division Series era -- since 1995 -- there have been 36 starts on three days of rest in a Division Series game, with the pitcher's team winning 15 of those games. (A handful of those may have come after a relief appearance; I didn't crosscheck for that.)


Are the Dodgers making the right move to start Kershaw in Game 4?


Discuss (Total votes: 8,774)

However, it has become increasingly rare in recent seasons, despite this setup. In the 10 postseasons from 2004 to 2013, only eight pitchers made such a start on three days of rest in the Division Series. Their results:

2013: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (6 IP, 2 R)
2011: Chris Carpenter*, Cardinals (3 IP, 4)
2010: Derek Lowe, Braves (6.1 IP, 3 R)
2007: Chien-Ming Wang, Yankees (1 IP, 4 R)
2005: Tim Hudson, Braves (7 IP, 3 R)
2004: Roy Oswalt, Astros (5 IP, 2 R)
2004: Roger Clemens, Astros (5 IP, 2 R)
2004: Johan Santana, Twins (5 IP, 1 R)

* Carpenter's start was in Game 2, following a regular-season start.

What do you think? Is Mattingly making the right move?
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield talked about what has happened so far in the postseason and what awaits in the days ahead.

Dodgers' rebound win sweet in the details

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5

The Dodgers tied up their series, and though they had a few in-game setbacks, Saturday's win over the Cardinals was more impressive because when things didn’t work out, the Dodgers still found a way to win, often by exploiting the star power that makes them so dangerous this time of year. So let’s start with that …

1. Matt Kemp is back where he ought to be. Kemp’s decisive home run in the bottom of the eighth makes for a nice moment to note the guy who almost won an MVP award in 2011 and looked like he’d set the world afire in April 2012 is back. Kemp had already made this point with a .606 slugging percentage and 17 homers since the All-Star break. Add that he did it against Pat Neshek, a tremendous situational righty brought in for just the occasion, and it was that much more impressive. But after all the trade rumors, the frenzied speculation, the readiness of so many to stick one fork or another in him as a top-shelf slugger or a Dodger next season or next week, seeing him win a postseason game in L.A. is the kind of ending that makes more than Hollywood happy.

Tying the series after seeing Clayton Kershaw torn apart is huge because you can’t lose faith in him. Kemp’s homer got the Dodgers the split. Now have to at least split the next two, then ask the best pitcher on the planet to do his thing. That’s worth taking a chance on.

2. Don Mattingly pulls Zack Greinke after seven innings and 103 pitches. In the past, I’ve argued the number to worry about isn’t 100 -- it’s 120. But that’s a general observation, not a one-size-fits-all solution, and Greinke has been handled with care this year. He has rarely pitched beyond seven innings or 100 pitches. In fourth at-bats, Greinke has allowed a .785 OPS. So when you add that Greinke was due to face the top of the Cardinals’ order a fourth time -- including Matt Carpenter -- you can understand why Mattingly did what he did, come what might. Which brings us to …

3. Matt Carpenter’s home run in the eighth. Matt Carpenter is raking Dodgers pitching so far, and he kept it up in Game 2. He doubled in the sixth -- only to get stranded by some excellent work from Greinke -- and then clobbered J.P. Howell for an opposite-field home run. So yes, pitch carefully to Carpenter, because the hot hand might last this series. Howell posted a .512 OPS against left-handed hitters this year, so Mattingly did exactly what he was supposed to do. It’s as simple as: Howell didn’t execute and Matt Carpenter’s really good.

4. Greinke stifles the Cards in the sixth inning. Part of what got the game into the “late drama” portion was an ace pitcher keeping himself out of trouble. Carpenter’s double could have been the start of something ugly, but Greinke responded effectively. He got Jon Jay out on two pitches, struck out Matt Holliday, was appropriately careful with Matt Adams and then retired Jhonny Peralta a third time. That’s the sort of pitching that keeps your ace label, and the sort of thing the Dodgers needed after seeing Kershaw lit up the night before.

5. The Cardinals seemingly doubled up Dee Gordon in the third, only to have replay take it away. Sure enough, Kolten Wong didn’t have the ball in the glove when he tried to tag Greinke, which might be the only way to make that play with Gordon motoring up the line. Instead, Greinke got to go to second base on what history will blandly remember as Gordon’s RBI groundout with runners at the corners and nobody out. That overturned call was especially critical because it kept the inning alive and created an RBI opportunity for Adrian Gonzalez. He singled to center, and Greinke scored to make it 2-0. Score one more for both the Dodgers and the robots-and-replay crowd.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
It's easy to forget now that Clayton Kershaw retired 16 batters in a row, between a Randal Grichuk home run in the first inning and Matt Carpenter's home run in the sixth. That for 16 batters, he looked like Clayton Kershaw, best pitcher on the planet, likely Cy Young and MVP winner, king of the hill, the new Koufax.

Maybe the two home runs were a bit of a concern, especially since the Grichuk home run was basically a stone-cold fluke, hit just over the wall down the left-field line off an 0-2 curveball, golfed out off his feet. Kershaw had allowed just one home run on 0-2 pitch over the past two seasons. So fluke, luck -- it happens.

And then Carpenter crushed one. OK, that doesn't happen too often. Kershaw allowed two home runs in a game just once this season, to the Brewers on Aug. 16. Kershaw went 18-1 over his final 21 starts; that 3-2 loss to the Brewers was his only defeat.

Still, Kershaw took a 6-2 lead into the seventh inning, having thrown 81 pitches. Things looked good. Dodgers fans were making jokes about Adam Wainwright having started the All-Star Game instead of Kershaw. The Cardinals were last in the National League in home runs, ninth in the league in runs. It's not a good offensive team. Heck, Pete Kozma was batting seventh.

Then came one of the more remarkable innings you'll see in postseason baseball. Five thoughts/highlights/comments ...

1. Four hits in a row to start the inning.
Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams all singled to center, three line drives and a ground ball, all hit hard.

Kershaw had nine starts on the season in which he allowed fewer than four hits. Maybe that should have been the first sign that something was wrong. There were no flares, gorks, ground balls with eyes or dying quails in the bunch. Still, nobody seemed too concerned at that point, especially after Kershaw struck out Kozma.

2. Jon Jay singled to left to make it 6-4.

Jay singled sharply to left. Another hard hit. Maybe the weather was a factor? Game-time temperature was 96 degrees. On an earlier telecast, John Smoltz, who knows a thing or two about pitching in the postseason, said every two innings in a postseason game is like one inning of a regular season -- the adrenaline, the focus, the pressure, the intensity, everything is amped up.

There was a meeting at the mound. Oscar Taveras hit for the pitcher and struck out on three pitches. Leadoff hitter Carpenter stepped up. Kershaw was at 21 pitches for the inning, 101 for the game. It was hot. But there were two outs and it's Clayton Kershaw.

3. The at-bat of the year.

Well, I don't know if it was the at-bat of the year. But it was an amazing at-bat, given the importance of the situation.

Quick timeout: A year ago, in Game 6 of the NLCS, Kershaw started against the Cardinals, trying to extend the series to a seventh game. Tied 0-0 in the third, Carpenter dueled Kershaw for 11 pitches before he finally doubled, jump-starting a four-run rally.

Back to 2014. Two outs, bases loaded, Dodgers up 6-4. This was clearly Kershaw's final batter. The pitch sequence: 95 fouled off, 95 swing and a miss, 94 fouled off, slider in the dirt, slider way up, 94 fouled off, slider fouled off, 95 fastball over the plate and crushed into right-center for a bases-clearing double.

This is what Carpenter does. He battles, waits, fouls off pitches. Among qualified batters this season, he had the third-highest pitchers-per-plate-appearance in the majors.

Was Kershaw fatigued? Perhaps so. His fastballs were all up, still with good velocity but straight and hittable.

4. Kershaw was tipping his pitches or the Cardinals were stealing signs.

Harold Reynolds brought this up on the broadcast, that maybe the Cardinals runners at second base were reading the signs. Former major leaguer Marlon Anderson suggested Kershaw was tipping his pitches from the stretch. With Carpenter seemingly reading every pitch -- fastball or slider, even the foul balls had good rips -- and considering the earlier contact against him, it certainly smells reasonable, whether it was coming from the baserunners or from Kershaw.

Two stats from the regular season, however:

With the bases empty, Kershaw allowed a .224 wOBA; with men on, he allowed a .238 wOBA. So not enough of a difference to suggest tipping pitches has been an ongoing problem for him. Which doesn't mean he wasn't doing it in this game or that the Cardinals have something figured out on him.

Or maybe it was just random variance, that these things can happen, even to the best pitchers in the game, especially on nights in which it was over 100 degrees on the field and his pitch count had gone over 100.

Thing is: When you're the best pitcher in the game, you're not allowed variance in a game of magnitude.

5. Matt Holliday's home run.

Holliday hit a three-run homer off Pedro Baez, completing the eight-run inning. These were runs that mattered in the end when the Dodgers cut the score to 10-9 before Trevor Rosenthal finally blew a 99 mph fastball past Yasiel Puig with the tying run on the third for the final out.
Adam Wainwright wasn't trying to hit Yasiel Puig in the third inning, at least I don't think so. Puig was the first hitter in the inning in a 1-0 game. There's too much at stake to give away a baserunner in that situation when you're trying to beat Clayton Kershaw.

But, he did hit him, and the Dodgers are carrying some bad blood from last October, when Joe Kelly fractured Hanley Ramirez's rib in the first inning of Game 1 of the NLCS. Ramirez missed Game 2 and was ineffective the rest of the series, a key reason the Cardinals prevailed in six games. The Cardinals also have a reputation going back to the Tony La Russa days for sending certain messages to hitters.

That said, the Dodgers overreacted here, with Adrian Gonzalez playing the role of protector. Puig does seem to think everyone is out to get him. Hey, that's understandable as well, going back to last season when Ian Kennedy, then with with Diamondbacks, did go up and in to Puig with purpose and hit him in the face.

Kennedy's reasoning? "Puig plays the game with arrogance." Not joy. Not enthusiasm. Arrogance. That's the view of many -- players and fans, and the reason he's such a polarizing figure -- and my view is many are misreading the culture Puig comes from, in which players are actually allowed to have fun as they play the game. God forbid.

It also appeared Yadier Molina said something to Gonzalez, or vice versa, as Gonzalez stepped up to the plate, touching off the benches emptying. Anyway, a little spice to begin this series. A few of the printable tweets:

Anyway, if the Cardinals' plan was to get Puig off his game, it didn't work. The hit by pitch led to a two-run inning and then Puig delivered an RBI single and scored two more runs in the fourth.

Puig at this point in the game: 2-for-2 with a hit by pitch and two runs.

The last thing the Cardinals need is a fired-up Puig who has learned to direct his emotions for the good and not let them get the best of him (as appeared to happen in the NLCS last year, when he looked like a beaten dog every time he struck out).
On Thursday, we looked at the fatal flaws of the four American League playoff teams. Now let's check out the National League teams and how these issues may end their postseason runs.

Washington Nationals: Bullpen
It's more difficult to find a flaw with the Nationals than any other team. They spent much of the season playing through injuries to Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and still finished third in the NL in runs scored. They allowed the fewest runs, and their rotation was particularly dominant down the stretch, with a 2.25 ERA in September.

Overall, the bullpen was very good: 3.00 ERA, fourth best in the majors. With the quality of the rotation, it wasn't overworked, as Craig Stammen threw the most innings at 72. Still, there are a couple of issues to be concerned about. First, Rafael Soriano pitched himself out of the closer role with blown saves in consecutive appearances in early September (his sixth and seventh of the season), with Drew Storen taking over. Now, Storen had terrific numbers: 1.12 ERA, 56.1 innings, 44 hits, 11 walks, 46 strikeouts, 2 home runs. The numbers aren't as good as the ERA, however, with a 2.76 FIP, although his fastball/slider/changeup combination does generate a fair amount of ground balls instead of the killer strikeout rate you see from other closers.

The question with Storen is: Will Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series loom like a dark and ugly cloud on his mind? That was the game where Storen couldn't hold a 7-5 lead in the ninth, the Cardinals rallying for four runs to win the series.

The other possible weakness is the quality of Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton, the two lefties in the pen. The Giants will have a string of left-handed batters in Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Travis Ishikawa, so you may see some matchups there. Interestingly, the Nationals will be carrying 12 pitchers, which seems odd considering the strength of the rotation. It seems more likely they would have benefited from an extra position player than an eighth reliever who may never get into a game.

San Francisco Giants: Bench
The biggest concern for the Giants in the division series is that Madison Bumgarner will receive just one start after pitching in the wild-card game. That's not necessarily a problem moving forward as Bumgarner would then be lined up to start the first game of the NLCS should the Giants advance.

While there are some concerns about the depth of the rotation behind Bumgarner -- Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong don't miss a lot of bats for 2014 era baseball -- I'm looking at the team's depth and wondering how the injuries to Angel Pagan and Mike Morse will affect the offense. Gregor Blanco, normally a solid fourth outfielder, will have to start in center, and Ishikawa will start in left. He made just his fourth career start out there in the wild-card win over the Pirates.

By starting Blanco and Ishikawa, the bench has been depleted and looks like one of the worst playoff benches in years. The best pinch hitter is probably Andrew Susac, whom Bruce Bochy may not be inclined to use because he's the backup catcher. The second-best pinch hitter may actually be Bumgarner, who hit four home runs. He's certainly better than the rest of the bench. Infielder Joaquin Arias hit .254 with no home runs in over 200 plate appearances. Infielder Matt Duffy had a nice season at Double-A, although with little power (three home runs). Outfielders Gary Brown and Juan Perez are strictly pinch runner/defensive replacement types.

All this means Bochy has little to work with, so Matt Williams should be able to get all the favorable pitching matchups he wants late in games.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Setup guys
With Hyun-Jin Ryu apparently healthy and ready to go in Game 3, the rotation after Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke should be less of an issue (not that Ryu is guaranteed to pitch well after having not pitched since Sept. 12). Closer Kenley Jansen had another solid season and is a dominant strikeout guy, but it's the pitchers in front of him who will cause Dodgers fans to worry. You know Don Mattingly would love to get Kershaw and Greinke straight to Jansen (or all the way, in Kershaw's case), but that's a perfect scenario and perfect scenarios rarely come into play.

That means at some point the Dodgers will have to win games with some other relievers getting involved. Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell had become the righty-lefty setup combo but both had terrible Septembers. Hard-throwing rookie Pedro Baez has just 24 big league innings but may be called upon for some key outs. Either way, Mattingly has hinted that Jansen is likely to be called upon for some four-out saves (but not five!). "I'm mentally prepared for that," Jansen told MLB.com. "I just have to make sure I don't get surprised, that I have plenty of time to get ready. I know I might pitch in the eighth, and I know I might pitch in tie games. It's that time of year."

St. Louis Cardinals: Power
The Cardinals hit just 105 home runs; only the Royals hit fewer. The Cardinals also had their lowest slugging percentage of any month in September, so it's not as though the power has come on of late. Cardinals fans will point out that last year's club hit only 125 and was 27th in the majors in home runs and reached the World Series. The Cardinals also beat the Dodgers in the NLCS while hitting just two home runs in the six-game series.

Like the Royals, the Cardinals do excel at putting the ball in play, finishing with the fewest strikeouts in the NL. Unlike the Royals, they don't have much team speed, finishing next-to-last in the league in steals. It's an offense that relies on contact and timely hitting. It worked last year; it didn't work to the same success in the regular season this year. We'll see what happens in October.

There is no secret sauce to winning in the postseason, but I'd say Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and an offense that is starting to click on all cylinders could be a pretty effective formula.

The Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their second consecutive NL West title behind Kershaw's 11-strikeout performance, so a lot of the immediate attention will focus on his latest heroics. But if there's a reason to like this Dodgers team better than the one that entered last October, it's the offense. Here are the reasons:

1. Matt Kemp looks like 2011 Matt Kemp. Last postseason, Kemp was watching from the dugout with crutches. Now, he'll enter October as one of baseball's hottest sluggers, with a .303/.360/.589 line and 16 home runs in the second half. He's sixth in the majors in wOBA since the All-Star break -- only Buster Posey and Victor Martinez are high among guys on playoff teams -- and third in home runs.

2. Hanley Ramirez is swinging the bat well. It's all about health for Ramirez, but he's also worked to lower a leg kick that got too high early in the season. Hitting coach Mark McGwire has worked with him to lower the leg to go back to something more like his approach in 2009, when he won the batting title. Ramirez has hit .357 in September -- granted, with no home runs -- but he's spraying the ball all over the field. Remember, last year's NLCS might have turned out differently if Ramirez hadn't been injured in Game 1 (he didn't play the second game after suffering a hairline fracture in his rib and struggled in the series, hitting .133).

3. Adrian Gonzalez leads the majors in RBIs. OK, RBIs are overrated, but Gonzalez has performed his best with runners in scoring position, hitting .330/.389/.546. Like Kemp, he's also hit better in the second half: .308/.362/.530 compared to .251/.309/.429 in the first half.

4. Yasiel Puig looks to be over his slump. I still think the sudden loss of power was a result of his hip injury, but he hit his 16th home run on Wednesday, lining an 0-2 sinker from Tim Hudson out to right field. After going homerless in June and August and hitting just two in July, he has three in nine games. Puig should also benefit from having gone through last year's postseason, in which he seemed a little too hyped up and emotional, taking every strikeout like it was the end of the world. He hit .227 with 10 K's in the NLCS, but look for him to do a better job of getting on base in front of Gonzalez and Kemp.

5. Carl Crawford is hitting. This might be the biggest surprise, since Crawford hasn't really hit much since leaving Tampa Bay. But he's hitting .324/.367/.458 in the second half and .433 in September and turned Andre Ethier into the forgotten man in the Dodgers outfield. He's even running a little more, with 22 steals, his most since 2010.

6. Better depth than 2013. Between Juan Uribe (.311 overall and .378/.403/.554 in September), Dee Gordon and Justin Turner, the Dodgers have better infield options than in 2013, when Nick Punto and Mark Ellis had to play. Gordon had the hot start and made the All-Star team, but it will be interesting to see how Don Mattingly works Turner into the lineup considering his .333/.397/.482 line and .374 batting average in the second half. Plus, you have Scott Van Slyke to start in left field versus left-handers or coming off the bench as a pinch hitter. And Ethier becomes the most expensive $15 million pinch hitter in the game.

OK, the lineup isn't perfect. A.J. Ellis and Drew Butera haven't provided much offense from the catcher slot. Another small secret weapon: Greinke, Kershaw and Dan Haren are all pretty good hitters for pitchers, so they have a chance for some offense from their pitchers.

There are concerns in the rotation once you get past Kershaw and Greinke, and Kershaw will have to prove he's a big-game pitcher after getting shelled in that season-ending Game 6 loss to the Cardinals last year. Plus, the middle relief is a concern, the defense isn't great and Mattingly's postseason tactics last year were questionable.

But this looks like a lineup that will score some runs in the postseason, and the Dodgers do have the best pitcher in the game. We'll see how that sauce tastes in a few weeks.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25

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.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24

The main thing we learned was clarity: With Kansas City winning and Seattle losing, we basically know the 10 playoff teams now, barring some sort of miracle as the Royals (and Athletics) are three up on the Mariners with five games remaining. The Dodgers beat the Giants to clinch a tie for the NL West. The Pirates officially are in after beating the Braves.

On the other hand, the AL Central remains close and the Pirates are breathing some hot September breath on the necks of the Cardinals in the NL Central.

1. The Pirates clinched a playoff spot. If momentum means anything heading into the postseason, the Pirates are the team to watch as they've won 15 of 18, blowing past the Brewers and the other wild-card contenders to clinch their second straight playoff berth. Gerrit Cole allowed runs in the first and second innings to the Braves and then settled down and dominated, retiring the final 17 batters he faced. Cole was still humming late in the game: His final fastball was 97 mph. OK, it was the Braves and the Braves are horrible, but this was the Cole that Pirates fans hope to see in the playoffs. That may be in the wild-card game -- him or Francisco Liriano. Or maybe it's in the Division Series, because the Cardinals lost in extra innings to the Cubs, so now Pittsburgh is just 1.5 games behind St. Louis. The Cardinals have one more game against the Cubs before finishing with three in Arizona, with Adam Wainwright scheduled to go Sunday, if needed. The Pirates have two more in Atlanta, then three in Cincinnati.

2. Yordano Ventura is not tired. The rookie right-hander made his 29th start of the season and threw 117 pitches over seven shutout innings in Kansas City's 7-1 victory over Cleveland. His 104th pitch was clocked at 100 mph. The final batter he faced was Jose Ramirez with the bases loaded. He threw fastballs of 98, 97, 97 and 99 before pulling the string with an 88 mph changeup that Ramirez swung at and missed. How are you supposed to hit that pitch after fighting off high-octane gas in the upper 90s? Over his past 10 starts, Ventura is 7-2 with a 2.08 ERA. The control hasn't always been there -- he's averaged 4.4 walks per nine innings over that stretch -- but that fastball/changeup/curve combo has been tough to hit, with opponents hitting just .195 in those 10 games. He hasn't allowed a home run since July. (Ventura threw 79 percent fastballs Tuesday, his highest single-game percentage all season.)

OK, that's the good news, a huge win for the Royals, a huge performance from Ventura. They haven't clinched anything yet, but things are looking good. The questionable news: Why was he allowed to throw 117 pitches when the Royals were up 7-0? He was pitching on five days' rest, and I know we can overreact to pitch counts that aren't necessarily that extreme (we've become so conservative, thinking 100 pitches is some magical number when it's probably not). Still, with a young pitcher in his first season -- having thrown 30 more innings than last year and a guy you're going to possibly need in the playoffs -- why leave him for his season-high in pitches in late September? This didn't seem like the game, or the moment, for manager Ned Yost to do this, even if Ventura was throwing 100 in the seventh.

3. Felix Hernandez looked very tired. This was the saddest of possible scenes for Mariners fans: Hernandez, trying to get into the playoffs for the first time in his wonderful career, essentially pitching the Mariners out of the playoffs by throwing 43 painful, heart-wrenching pitches in the fifth inning against the Blue Jays, leaving when he was unable to even get that third out. It was the first time all season he hadn't gone five innings and just the second time in two seasons. The inning began with Dalton Pompey, a kid barely out of A-ball, homering on a flat 92 mph fastball over the middle of the plate and ended with Felix walking Pompey on a 3-2 curveball in the dirt.

A few days ago the Mariners had a 3.01 staff ERA and a chance to become the first team since the 1989 Dodgers to post an ERA under 3.00. Now the Nationals may do that with a 3.01 ERA, while Seattle's has jumped to 3.23 after allowing 42 runs their past four games. The Mariners have gone 5-11 over their past 16 games. If they'd simply gone 8-8, they'd be tied with the Royals and A's.

4. The Orioles named Chris Tillman their Game 1 starter. No surprise there, as Tillman owns a 2.21 ERA since June 10. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his 10 previous starts and has held opponents to a .197/.240/.303 slash line over those 10 games. In other words, Tillman has been pitching like the ace everyone says the Orioles don't have. The Orioles beat the Yankees 5-4 as Nelson Cruz hit his 40th home run. But they remain three games behind the Angels for the best record, meaning the Orioles likely will face the AL Central winner while the Angels will face the wild-card game winner.

5. The Dodgers are going to win the NL West. The late game on the West Coast featured plenty of fireworks, including a benches-clearing meet-and-greet in the first inning after Madison Bumgarner hit Yasiel Puig in the foot. Puig had been hit on the elbow Monday, but he may have been thinking back to May 9, when he homered off Bumgarner, flipped his bat and Bumgarner greeted him at home plate with some choice words that didn't include inviting Puig to dinner. Anyway, score this one for Puig, because two batters later Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer to center for a 3-0 lead. Bumgarner would hit a two-run homer himself, but that was all Zack Greinke gave up as the Dodgers held on 4-2.

The Dodgers have clinched a tie for the division, and Clayton Kershaw goes Wednesday. I'm thinking there may be some champagne popped at Dodger Stadium then.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21

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.

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

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.

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.

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.