SweetSpot: Milwaukee Brewers

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
1:17
AM ET
What did we learn Thursday night other than Derek Jeter has lived the most charmed baseball life any of us could imagine? (Not that we needed confirmation.) We learned that we'll have weekend baseball that still matters. Playoff spots remain unclinched and two divisions are still up for grabs.

1. The A's continue to find unique ways to lose. A friend of mine who is an A’s fan sent me an email in the ninth inning of the A's-Rangers game that read, "Coco Crisp has reached base FIVE times tonight ... and has not scored! Unbelievably bad." Quickly followed up with, "Awful. Just awful. The A's deserve to lose this game. Colby Lewis? C'mon." A few moments later Adrian Beltre hit an 0-1 slider from Luke Gregerson out to right field and the Rangers had a 2-1 victory, the fourth straight win for the Rangers over the A's in the past two weeks. The A's left 10 runners on base and went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. The leadoff man reached base in five innings and scored just once -- and that came on Geovany Soto's safety squeeze in the sixth inning. Poor Jason Hammel: The A's have scored two runs or fewer in 11 of his 12 starts.

The A's are 8-15 in September and nine of those losses have been by one run. The only thing keeping them in a wild-card position has been the poor play of the Mariners, who had lost five in a row and 11 of 15 before finally beating the Blue Jays earlier in the day. Out of starters with Roenis Elias injured and Chris Young benched for the season, M's manager Lloyd McClendon used nine relief pitchers and saw Logan Morrison hit two home runs in the 7-5 win.

So the A's lead the Mariners by two games with three to go, putting their magic number at two. The A's have Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija and Sonny Gray lined up against the Rangers while the Mariners have Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Felix Hernandez facing the Angels. The A's should hold on as a Mariners sweep seems unlikely, but this is baseball and stranger things have happened. If the teams do end up tied, the tiebreaker on Monday would likely feature Jon Lester against rookie Taijuan Walker.

2. The Royals are this close to clinching their first playoff spot since 1985. Trailing the White Sox 3-1 through four innings, the Royals tied it up with a run in the fifth and then Eric Hosmer's homer off Jose Quintana in the sixth, just his second off a left-hander this season. The Royals rallied for two more in the eighth off Quintana -- Hosmer added a big single -- and the Chicago bullpen. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland pitched the final three innings for the win, hold and save. Kansas City's magic number over Seattle is one and they're also effectively two games ahead of the A's for home-field advantage in the wild-card game since they hold the tiebreaker edge if they finish with the same record.

However, the Royals remained two games behind the Tigers in the AL Central as ...

3. Detroit's bullpen pitches well! Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera homered to stake the Tigers to a lead and Max Scherzer survived four walks, five hits and 116 pitches in six shaky innings to leave with a 3-2 lead against the Twins. But the story for the Tigers was Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan retired all nine batters they faced. It's just one game, but Tigers fans will take it as a positive sign. (Although my favorite line of the night came from MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac saying that may have been Nathan's cleanest inning since the All-Star break. Maybe it's not a good sign if that's what people are saying about your closer.) Rick Porcello, Kyle Lobstein and David Price will try and wrap up the division title over the weekend.

4. Pirates keep the pressure on the Cardinals. The 10-1 win over the Braves put Pittsburgh one game back of the idle Cardinals. Josh Harrison led the way with three hits (raising his average to a league-leading .319). The odds obviously favor the Cardinals -- they get the worst-in-baseball Diamondbacks in Arizona -- but the Pirates are rolling and the Reds are running on fumes right now. Remember, if the Cardinals and Pirates tie for the division, they will then play a tiebreaker game. So both teams will be going all-out this weekend and not resting up for the playoffs.

5. Nationals get closer to clinching NL's best record. After Washington lost the opener of a doubleheader to the Mets, Gio Gonzalez pitched the Nationals to a 3-0 win in the nightcap -- and maybe solidified his spot in the postseason rotation over Tanner Roark. The Nationals are also one win (or Dodgers loss) from securing home-field advantage in the NLCS, should they advance. Ryan Zimmerman played seven innings in left field in the first game and pinch-hit in the nightcap. "I can't really go 100 percent yet," Zimmerman said. "I'm sort of learning what I have, what I don't have, and the only way to do that is to go out and play." He played seven innings on Saturday, but had pinch-hit just once since then. Both his appearances in the field have come in left, so watch this weekend to see if he plays third base, in case that's a possibility for the postseason (with Anthony Rendon sliding over to second).

5A. The Giants clinch a wild card. It was anticlimactic, as they clinched while driving to the ballpark when the Brewers lost.
On Tuesday, Nelson Cruz of the Orioles hit his 40th home run, saving us from the deprivation of not having a 40-homer guy for the first time since 1982. That year Reggie Jackson of the Angels and Gorman Thomas of the Brewers tied for the major league with 39, and what a pair that was. Dave Kingman of the Mets led the National League with 37. Those three players also ranked 1-2-3 in the majors in strikeouts -- Reggie and Kingman had 156 and Stormin' Gorman had 143, so those guys were playing 2014-style baseball 32 years ago. Ahead of their time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, thank you, Nelson Cruz, for giving us reason to mention Cy Williams.

Five things we learned Saturday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
12:07
AM ET

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.

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.

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.

Former major infielder Jeff Huson once said this to my ESPN colleague Tim Kurkjian about facing Randy Johnson: "What was the worst thing that Michael Jordan could do to you? He can go dunk on you. He could embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you."

That's the fear major league hitters have to block out every time they dig into the batter's box. They've honed their skills to beat the best pitchers in the world, but they've also learned to bury that fear into the deepest recesses of their brains.

Then we see a frightening incident like the one on Thursday, when Giancarlo Stanton got hit in the face with an 88-mph fastball thrown by Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers, and we're reminded of the potential damage any one pitch can do, reminded of the tragic career of Tony Conigliaro or what might have been with Dickie Thon or what happened to Ray Chapman back in 1920.

Stanton, of course, has been one of the brightest lights in a somewhat desultory major league season, his mammoth moon shots a thing of joy. After a first-pitch fastball at the knees from Fiers in the top of the fifth inning, which Stanton took, Fiers threw another fastball, catcher Jonathan Lucroy setting up on the inside corner of the plate, trying to keep the big guy from gets his arms extended. Fiers doesn't throw hard but comes with an overhand delivery, a deceptive delivery that hides the ball, one of the keys to his success despite mediocre stuff. Stanton, who stands well off the plate, started his swing as the ball kept riding up and in and for some reason failed to react to the movement of the pitch and took the pitch on the side of his face.

He lay motionless at the plate for several minutes as medical personnel attended to him, with blood clearly visible in the dirt around home plate. Fiers, visibly shaken up, stood on the mound, his hands on his head, despondent over the pitch. It was clearly an accident, as most of these pitches are. Just a pitch that got away and a batter who didn't dive out of the way. It is, unfortunately, part of the game.

Obviously, we can only hope Stanton is OK, that the ball didn't get him in the eye. As of this writing, the only medical update we have is he had a laceration on the left side of his face, but he was carted off the field and taken to a nearby hospital, an eerie silence at Miller Park stating the gravity of the situation.

The game nearly took a turn for the worse. With Reed Johnson finishing Stanton's at-bat (the pitch to Stanton was actually called a strike, as umpire Jeff Kellogg ruled Stanton had swung at it), the first pitch to him from Fiers was also up and in -- like Stanton, Johnson didn't seem to pick up the movement and started to swing -- and appeared to hit him on the hand (it was ruled that Johnson, too, had swung). The Marlins charged the field, with a pushing and shoving match ensuing as Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee went a little crazy. The next inning, the Marlins predictably hit Carlos Gomez, who thankfully kept his cool and the matter seemed resolved, at least for this game.

For all the talk about home-plate collisions, the bigger danger epidemic in baseball that can lead to injuries is hit batters -- heads, wrists, hands. For all the talk old-timers love to revel in about Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson throwing at hitters -- which they did (Drysdale led his league five times in hit batters) -- batters continue to get hit by pitches at much higher rates than back in the 1960s.

Look at the rates through the years:

1964: One hit batter every 177 plate appearances.

1974: One hit batter every 192 plate appearances.

1984: One hit batter every 240 plate appearances.

1994: One hit batter every 142 plate appearances.

2004: One hit batter every 102 plate appearances.

2014: One hit batter every 112 plate appearances.

HBP rates peaked in 2001, at one every 99 plate appearances, with general declines after that (although 2014 is up slightly from 2013). Two theories you often here about the increase in hit batters is that "pitchers haven't learned to throw inside" or "pitchers don't throw inside in college because of the aluminum bats" and thus aren't used to doing it in the majors.

I don't think that's the case at all. First of all, hit batter rates decreased drastically from 1964 to 1984, at the same time the rates of college pitchers entering the game were rapidly increasing. HBP rates in the early '90s were up a bit from 1984, but still not higher than 1970s levels. They really started to escalate in the mid-'90s; from 1990 to 1995 the rates had jumped from .20 per game to .30 per game, a 50 percent increase in five years.

What happened in those years? More home runs, more offense, more hitters crowding the plate, more hitters diving out over the plate because they had the power to crush the ball to the opposite field. As offense jumped throughout the '90s, so did the rate of hit batters. Sure, some of that was probably applicable to retaliation effects after home runs, but my theory puts the hitters mostly at fault here. It's pretty simple: If you stand closer to the plate you're more likely to get hit by a pitch.

Take Stanton. He's been hit by just four pitches this year, even though he gets pitched inside regularly. But he doesn't get hit often because he's well off the plate.

Also, if the theory is that young pitchers don't know how to throw inside, check out the list of pitchers with the most hit batters: Charlie Morton, Justin Masterson, Edinson Volquez, Bud Norris, R.A. Dickey, Jeremy Guthrie, A.J. Burnett, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, James Shields. Those are all veteran pitchers. Leake is the youngest and he's been in the league five years. Some of them are even known as pitchers with great control -- Guthrie, Cueto, Shields. It's not a young pitcher problem. It's a crowding the plate problem.

I don't see things changing, however. It's a power game we live in right now and hitters are going to continue diving over the plate to hit home runs. Henry Aaron was hit 32 times in his career; singles-hitting Jon Jay has been hit 18 times this year, most in the majors.

It's a different game. A more dangerous game.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
2:43
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Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?


Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?

Five things we learned Friday

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
12:41
AM ET
1. James Shields delivers a gem.

Shields has often been mocked for his "Big Game" nickname, but if the past two months are any indication, he might have earned the right to put it on the back of his baseball card.

Shields pitched another gem on Friday night, blanking the Yankees over 8 1/3 innings in the Royals' 1-0 win. He dominated the Yanks' lineup, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and holding the Yankees to just three hits.

With the Royals clinging to a slim lead in the American League Central, Shields was masterful in keeping Kansas City ahead of the Tigers in the division and on pace to snap the franchise's 28-season postseason drought.

Shields has cemented himself as the team's ace over the last two months, posting a 2.26 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in 12 starts since July 7. In that span, he's allowed more than three earned runs just once, while going at least seven innings in seven of those 12 outings.

Like a true ace, he has also stepped up against the best competition over this two-month stretch, allowing only seven runs in four starts combined against the A's, Giants and Tigers.

With Shields at the top of his game and backed up by perhaps the most dominant bullpen in baseball, the Royals may have found the perfect formula to give their fans a taste of October for the first time in nearly three decades.

2. What might have been for Michael Pineda and Yankees.

The Yankees' playoff hopes are on life support following their brutal 1-0 loss to the Royals, as they wasted another brilliant effort by Pineda and fell even further back in the AL wild-card race.

The Yankees' rotation has been crippled by injuries this season, and perhaps none has been more significant than the four months that Pineda missed this season with a muscle strain in his shoulder.

Pineda has quietly pitched to a 1.80 ERA in nine starts, allowing no more than two runs in each game. The only starting pitcher with a lower ERA and at least 50 innings pitched this season is Clayton Kershaw (1.70).

Given Pineda's excellence on the mound, you can't help but wonder where the Yankees would be in the postseason race if Pineda had been healthy all year. Could they have challenged the Orioles for the AL East crown? Would they be looking up at multiple teams in the wild-card standings?

Some might say the answer is no, given the fact that Pineda can't hit and an underachieving offense has been the Yankees' biggest deficiency this season. Pineda knows all too well about the Yankees' slumping bats -- the team has given him just 16 runs of support during his nine starts.

3. Indians still very much in playoff race.

Although the Indians have hovered near .500 most of the season, they have stuck around in the playoff race by winning games like they did on Friday night against the White Sox.

They got another dominant effort from their starting pitcher, as Indians rookie T.J. House threw one-run ball over seven innings, lowering the rotation's ERA since Aug. 1 to an MLB-best 2.55. And the Indians got another clutch hit in extra innings, as pinch hitter David Murphy drove in the winning run on a base-loaded single in the 10th to give the Indians their AL-leading 11th walk-off win this season.

The Indians know something about September comebacks -- last year they went 21-6 in the final month to claim an AL wild-card spot -- and I wouldn't bet against another rally down the stretch this season, especially after Friday night's dramatic victory.

4. Marlins can play spoiler down the stretch.

The Marlins have a 1 percent chance to make the postseason, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to play for in September. In fact, they might be the senior circuit's biggest spoiler team, with a chance to significantly impact the NL wild-card race.

They played that role on Friday night, handing the Braves their third loss in the last four games and dropping them one game back in the wild-card standings. The Marlins are now 9-8 against Atlanta this season, with two more games left in the season series this weekend.

The Fish then travel to Milwaukee on Monday for four games against the team that the Braves are chasing in the wild-card standings. By the time that series is over, we may have a good idea of who is primed to take the second NL wild-card spot, and the Marlins will have played a huge part in deciding the fate of both teams in the hunt.

5. Brewers put an end to their losing ways.

There is finally something for Brewers fans to cheer about this month, as Milwaukee snapped its nine-game skid with a 6-2 win over the Cardinals at Miller Park.

Mike Fiers pitched another gem and Scooter Gennett drove in three runs, allowing the Brewers to pull to within three games of the Cardinals in the NL Central and reclaim sole possession of the NL's second wild card.

Fiers entered the rotation in the August after Matt Garza landed on the disabled list with a strain in his rib cage, but has hardly been a replacement starter, delivering a 1.94 ERA and a quality start in each of his nine outings.

The Brewers still have five more games remaining against the Cardinals, so there is still plenty of time to catch them in the division race. However, the Redbirds appear to have the easier schedule down the stretch with 16 of their 21 remaining games coming against below .500 teams, compared to 13 for the Brew Crew.

Katie Sharp blogs about the Yankees for SweetSpot network affiliate It's About the Money, and can be followed on Twitter at @ktsharp.

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
12:45
AM ET
1. Michael Wacha will be able to help the Cardinals.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Cardinals started Michael Wacha in a key divisional game against the Brewers even though the second-year righty had pitched just two innings in his one minor-league rehab appearance as he comes back from the stress reaction in his right shoulder that caused him to miss 11 weeks. Most teams won't start a guy until he's ready to go at least 75 to 80 pitches, but the Cardinals were willing to give Wacha 50 pitches and turn it over to the bullpen. And why not? With expanded rosters, Cards manager Mike Matheny had plenty of relievers to work with once Wacha exited after three innings.

The decision paid off as Wacha gave up one run in his three innings, throwing 50 pitches on the nose. He gave up an RBI double in the first inning but settled down and most importantly his velocity was excellent, averaging 95.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. With Adam Wainwright still struggling and Justin Masterson booted to the bullpen, Wacha's return comes right as the Cardinals are ready to put the hammer on the Brewers and Pirates.

The Cardinals held on to win 3-2, handing the Brewers their ninth straight loss and increasing their division lead to a suddenly cushy four games. Wacha should slowly get extended out, throwing another 15-20 pitches in his next start.

2. Cardinals' outfield played some defense.

In the sixth inning, right fielder Jon Jay totally robbed the Brewers' Khris Davis with two runners on base. That wasn't even the play of the game. In the bottom of the eighth, with two runners on and one out for the Brewers, Logan Schafer lined a ball to deep center that Peter Bourjos flagged down. Two great catches, four runs saved. This is what happens when teams lose nine games in a row.

3. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke may have overmanaged just a bit.

In that eighth inning, Aramis Ramirez reached on an error and then Davis singled. Trailing 3-2, Roenicke ran for Ramirez, his cleanup hitter, at second base. As much as you hate to take your cleanup hitter out of the game, you can certainly understand the reasoning there. You need to get that run home. So that wasn't the worst decision. Except ... Roenicke then bunted with the next batter, but Martin Maldonado, pinch-hitting for Lyle Overbay, lined the bunt attempt back to the pitcher. Why run for Ramirez and then play for one run? A runner's speed is less important at third base than at second base. Plus, if you do tie the game, Ramirez's spot is likely to come up again but he'll be out of the game. I can see running for Ramirez, but only if you're going for the big inning.

As it turns, Ramirez's spot came up in the ninth, with two outs and two runners on, against Trevor Rosenthal. Roenicke pinch-hit Jason Rogers for Hector Gomez; Rogers was making just his second major-league plate appearance. He flew out to right field.

I'm not really blasting Roenicke. Without expanded rosters he certainly wouldn't have run for Ramirez in the eighth inning. It shows the ripple effect of moves. I think the error was not trying to go for the big inning when he had a chance.

4. Big win for the Yankees.

On a night the Tigers and Mariners would both win, the Yankees would have dropped another game back in the wild-card standings. Instead, they hit two dramatic home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning off Koji Uehara, with Chase Headley's walk-off blast giving the Yankees the 5-4 win in Derek Jeter's final game at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. Headley has hit a solid .256/.353/.391 for the Yankees in a key trade-deadline pickup (and would make for a better No. 2 hitter than Jeter right now). The bullpen was once again key, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Can the Yankees overcome Seattle and Detroit/Kansas City to win a wild card? I still don't see it. They host the Royals this weekend; maybe they don't need a sweep but a sweep would be nice. After that the schedule doesn't get much easier with Tampa, Baltimore, Tampa again, Toronto and Baltimore. Only a season-ending trip to Fenway looks easy. We finally get a season-ending series between the two rivals in the one year it may not matter.

5. Robinson Cano.

Well, everyone did say he wouldn't get the same attention playing for the Mariners. That, they were right about. He had his first four-RBI game with Seattle, raising his season line to a pretty nice .322/.388/.463. He's second in the AL in OBP, 10th in OPS, fifth among position players in WAR. He's on the short list of American League MVP candidates.

What's wrong with Ryan Braun?

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
2:48
PM ET
From Buster Olney's blog today:
Some evaluators have been stunned in recent weeks by how much Ryan Braun has struggled against fastballs. "Even in situations when he knows it's coming -- everybody knows it's coming -- he can't get to it," one scout said. "It's incredible."

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Info looked at the recent data, and the numbers reflect what the scouts are seeing:

A) Through Aug. 12, 38 of his 82 strikeouts (46 percent) have come via the fastball. In the past three weeks, a full two-thirds have come against fastballs (12 of 18).
B) Braun hit .311 against fastballs on the outer half through Aug. 12, and has hit just .083 against those pitches since (one hit in 12 at-bats, with seven strikeouts).
C) Braun has hit .213 against all pitches 93-plus mph in the second half, compared to .295 in the first half.


I know what you're thinking: Steroids! Or lack of them. After all, this is two straight seasons now where Braun's numbers have dipped below his career norms and he's only 30. I have my doubts that's the case. Remember, after testing positive for PEDs in the 2011 postseason, Braun led the National League with 41 home runs in 2012. Yes, that doesn't really tell us whether he was taking anything or not taking anything or simply eating a lot of spinach, but he hasn't tested positive again.

Braun's struggles in recent weeks are probably related to the nerve issue in his thumb, apparently the same injury that bothered him last year. "It is ongoing," manager Ron Roenicke told MLB.com on Tuesday. "There's times when he feels really good. You can tell it in batting practice, then he usually takes it into ballgames. But there's times where it's just sore and the swings aren't what he's used to."

Aside from the thumb injury, there are some other concerns with Braun's production. His chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone is 39 percent, 11 percent higher than last year and well above his career norms of around 31 percent. As a result, his walk rate is his lowest since 2008, down more than 4 percent from last year. Braun has never been the most patient of hitters; you'd think the thumb injury would perhaps create more discipline but instead it seems to have created more of a free-swinger. Of course, some hitters start expanding the strike zone as their bat speed declines, "cheating" on fastballs (see Albert Pujols). Again, however, is the bat slow because of the injury or his age?

Pitchers, of course, have been quick to adapt. Braun is seeing more fastballs in general and more inside pitches. And as Justin and Buster's scout pointed out, he's not hitting that inside heat.

As for the steroids, when Braun does hit a fly ball, he still has the power. Check his percentage of fly balls that have resulted in home runs through the years:

2014: 18.0 percent
2013: 17.6 percent
2012: 22.2 percent
2011: 18.9 percent
2010: 14.1 percent

He's just hitting a lot of fewer fly balls, 7 percent fewer than his career average. For now, I'm chalking this up to the thumb injury. (Here's a more in-depth look at how the nerve issue could be affecting Braun's hitting from Stuart Wallace of Beyond the Box Score.)

As for the Brewers, with Braun struggling and Carlos Gomez out another week or so, it's getting desperate in Milwaukee. They've lost eight in a row and are suddenly three games back of the Cardinals.

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
So you may have seen Brewers manager Ron Roenicke go off on umpire Mark Ripperger after the Brewers' 3-2 loss to the Padres on Wednesday. Roenicke said the Brewers have had Ripperger before "and he is terrible behind home plate" and admitted he probably should have been tossed from the game in the second inning. Roenicke was ejected after Rene Rivera tied the game with a home run in the ninth.

"He calls pitches that aren't even close," Roenicke said. "The catcher sets up six inches off the plate and he calls them strikes."

What apparently upset Roenicke were the first two pitches to Rivera from Francisco Rodriguez -- both significantly outside, both called balls, setting up a 2-0 fastball that Rodriguez threw down the middle. Roenicke's issue, I suppose, was that those pitches were called strikes earlier in the game.

According to our data at ESPN Stats & Information, Ripperger is actually pretty good at calling strikes -- with a "correct call" percentage of 89.5 on the season, he ranks above the overall average of 88.4. He didn't have his best game on Wednesday, with a correct call rate of 87.2 percent, although I doubt Roenicke could determine such a small number sitting on the bench. Here's the Brooks Baseball plot of Ripperger's called strikes.

Doesn't look like that bad of a game.

I'd add two things:

--Even if Ripperger had made some bad calls earlier, two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, although the one thing players and managers want from an umpire is consistency.

--If there's one team that shouldn't complain about the strike zone, it's probably the Brewers. Thanks to the pitch-framing abilities of Jonathan Lucroy (and backup Martin Maldonado, who is also very good), the Brewers probably benefit from more pitches out of the strike zone called strikes than any other team.

OK, let's go to the data on that one. According to the Baseball Savant web site, which parses PITCHf/x data, the Brewers are fifth in the majors in pitches out of the strike zone that are called strikes -- behind the Padres, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

In other words, Roenicke better not hope we get robot umps while he still has Lucroy behind the plate. In the end, the Brewers are going to catch more breaks from the umps than their opponents.

Chalk this one up to a manager overreacting after a tough loss.

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