SweetSpot: Oakland Athletics

I still can't get this game out of my head. I'm happy for Royals fans, sad for A's fans, happy for baseball, worried that we just saw the best game of the postseason. Let's hope we get few more like this one. Some stuff from other people:

Joe Sheehan, in his newsletter:
All of that made the bunt a bad play. What made it worse is that the bunt sent a runner to scoring position for a mediocre hitter in Escobar and waiver bait in Nix. Nix does not have a hit since joining the Royals. He's on the Royals because lots of other teams have had him and decided they didn't want him. He's not very good at baseball, as major-leaguers go. Ned Yost traded Jarrod Dyson, with the platoon advantage, a runner on first, nobody out and a 2-0 count, for Jayson Nix without the platoon advantage, two outs and a runner in scoring position.

Ned Yost does not understand the relative skills of his players. He doesn't understand the range of potential outcomes of a plate appearance. He doesn't appear to understand how leverage changes within an at-bat. He doesn't know how to look ahead in an inning. He just knows the things he learned about baseball 40 years ago.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs examined all of Yost's bunts. His take on the Dyson bunt:
Another inning, another leadoff single, another bad hitter making the out/advancement trade-off. Only with Dyson, the bunt is probably an even better play than usual, as 40% of his career bunts have resulted in hits. Bad hitters with great speed have even more incentive to attempt bunts because of the higher likelihood of reaching safely if the defense doesn’t play it perfectly, and again, we’re looking at a -1.1% cost in Win Expectancy even when the A’s do convert the out at first base.

This was not only an entirely defensible bunt, but probably the right call.

So, all told, we have four sacrifice bunts by Yost last night, and they break down something like this:

Probably Negative: 1
Unknowable Gray Area: 1
Probably Positive: 2
Joe Posnanski, Hardball Talk:

The Royals, for many years, did not have anything concrete to believe in. They would talk the happy talk of spring training about how they believed they had better players, believed this pitcher would improve and that outfielder would build on last year’s success, and their defense would get better. But this was the misty kind of belief. There was no blueprint for winning that anyone actually could spell out, no clear line to victory like: “We will score more runs than other teams because we will hit more home runs” or “We will keep people from scoring because we have strikeout pitchers” or anything else like that.

The very best part of this year’s Royals team has been the replacement of that old bleary belief with a clarity of vision. It’s not an easy vision. But it’s clear. These Royals know what they’re up against. They can’t hit home runs. They don’t walk. They don’t have a starting pitcher who will get Cy Young votes. They have a manager who will occasionally just leave the planet. They don’t have as much money. They are not very deep.

OK – that’s something to work with. Now, how do you use all that? No power? Well, let’s steal lots of bases. No great starter? Maybe not, but let’s put together five really good ones and build a legendary back of the bullpen. Kooky manager? Maybe, but remember a manager can only hurt so much and, anyway, sometimes the nutty stuff will work. No depth? All right, have Alicedes Escobar play all 162 games at shortstop and Salvy Perez catch more games in a season than any Royals catcher ever.

Buster Olney says Billy Beane may have to make some big moves in the offseason:
Oakland has never stripped down completely, in the way that the Astros have in recent seasons, or the Cubs. In Beane’s tenure as general manager, the Athletics have never failed to win less than 74 games; the only other teams that can say that are the Cardinals and Yankees.

But this overhaul will be particularly excruciating, because of how good the team was in late July, how well it performed all summer, and how heartbreaking the finish. The work to push the rock back up the hill will start sooner rather than later.
Sam Mellinger, Kansas City Star:
There is no telling where this already wild ride will end, and whether it will be with more champagne. They have been lost and winning and buried and then winning again — and that was just Tuesday night.

So very little of what we’ve seen in this Royals season has made even a bit of sense to anyone with whom the franchise’s sorry history might as well be ingrained into their fan DNA. The Royals, after all this time, have a legitimately good baseball team that even seems to be getting good breaks here and there. Up is down. Cats and dogs living together. All of it.

The oddity of a 162-game season coming down to a single do-or-die playoff had turned a fan base’s worst fears wild. But that is all over now. The Royals left in the middle of the night on the happiest flight of the year, taking luggage they packed without knowing for sure whether they’d actually need it. They landed in Anaheim in the dark, ready to prepare for a best-of-five division series against the Angels, who won more games than any team in baseball this year.

It figures that very few people around the sport will expect the Royals to win that series.

But how many people expected them to even be in it?
Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle:
“I can’t say anything negative about these guys,” said Josh Reddick in the still of the A’s clubhouse, one of many players who gave calm, patient interviews in stand-up fashion. "When we score eight runs, hey, we know we’re winning that game. Especially behind Jonny (Lester). It just didn’t go our way. But we’ve got nothing to hang our heads about."

Someone asked Lester, crestfallen in defeat, if he pondered the notion of it being his last game in Oakland. "I’m not worried about that," he said. "Right now I’m worried about these guys, this team, this outcome. I got to grind it out for two months with them, something I’ll always cherish. There’s a time and place to think about yourself. This is not that time."

The result was cruelly familiar for Beane, the A’s having now lost all seven winner-take-all postseason games under his stewardship, but it never came down like this. Even with all the cards stacked in his favor, he still couldn’t taste a victory.

I didn't feel like I gave proper perspective to Tuesday's night wild-card game, so here's a quick follow-up post. How unlikely and dramatic was the Royals' win, considering they trailed 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth, 7-6 in the ninth and 8-7 in the 12th? One way to measure this is using Win Probability Added, which Baseball-Reference.com describes as "Given average teams, this is the change in probability caused by this batter during the game." A change of +1 or -1 would equate to one win or less. In other words, a leadoff single in a tie game in the ninth changes your team's chance of winning more than a single in the fifth inning when trailing 5-2 or whatever.

We can add together all the WPAs of the individual batters to arrive at a team WPA. A game that features a lot of lead changes or dramatic comebacks is going to have a higher WPA and can even exceed 1.0 in rare circumstances. Baseball-Reference hasn't updated its WPA from Tuesday, but FanGraphs has Kansas City's team WPA at 1.063. That would be the fifth-highest for any postseason game -- out of 2,738 individual possibilities.

Here the four higher ones:

1. St. Louis Cardinals, Game 6, 2011 World Series: 1.377 WPA

There's a reason some call this the most exciting postseason game ever played. The Cardinals trailed the Rangers 1-0, 3-2, 4-3, 7-4 and then 7-5 entering the bottom of the ninth. They scored twice to tie it on David Freese's two-out triple, only to see the Rangers take a 9-7 lead in the 10th. Once again, the Cardinals tied it with two outs, on Lance Berkman's single. Freese then won it with a home run in the 11th.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates, Game 6, 1960 World Series: 1.251 WPA

Another popular choice for greatest game ever played, Bill Mazeroski won it 10-9 with a home run in the bottom of the ninth, but the Pirates had trailed 7-4 in the bottom of the eighth before scoring five runs, only to see the Yankees score twice in the ninth to tie it.

3. Chicago Cubs, Game 1, 1908 World Series: 1.135 WPA

The Cubs blew a 4-1 lead against the Tigers but then rallied to score five runs in the ninth to win 10-6.

4. Cincinnati Reds, Game 3, 1976 NLCS: 1.073 WPA

The Reds were down 3-0 when they scored four runs in the seventh. The Phillies scored twice in the eighth and once in the ninth to take a 6-4 lead, but in the bottom of the ninth, George Foster and Johnny Bench hit back-to-back home runs off Ron Reed to tie it and Ken Griffey Sr. eventually singled in the winning run.

And then come the Royals. So everyone who called last night's game "epic" wasn't exaggerating. It goes down as one of the most exciting postseason game not just of recent history but any history.

On an individual basis, Eric Hosmer, who went 3-for-4 with a key walk off Jon Lester in the eighth and the big one-out triple in the 12th, had a .599 WPA according to FanGraphs, which would rank 36th on the all-time postseason list. (Freese's Game 6 performance ranks No. 1.)

This is supposed to about the five key things that decided this game. There were about 20 of those. Or 50. Or 100. I lost track somewhere there in the 10th or 11th inning of one of the craziest, wildest, most improbable baseball games I can remember watching.

This was supposed to be a pitcher's duel between Jon Lester and James Shields. It wasn't.

It was supposed to be about the Kansas City Royals getting the ball to their dominant bullpen trio with a lead. It wasn't.

It was supposed to be about Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin matching wits with the Royals' Ned Yost, and Melvin winning in a landslide. OK, Yost did make one of the worst tactical decisions in recent playoff history.

The Royals won anyway.

This game ties Game 7 of the 1924 World Series for the longest winner-take-all postseason game ever played. Walter Johnson won that one. Jason Frasor, the seventh Royals pitcher of the game, won this one, after helping to give up the lead in the 12th inning. The Royals were down 7-3 in the eighth inning and won. They were down 8-7 in that 12th inning and won. The heroes were guys such as Brandon Finnegan and Christian Colon. It was small ball over Moneyball, at least for a day. It was baseball, not always beautiful, but still baseball at its most entertaining, at October intensity.

OK. Doug Padilla has the Royals angle. Here are five reasons the A's lost.

1. Bob Melvin stuck too long with Jon Lester. Down 7-3, the Royals rallied in the bottom of the eighth inning. Melvin, determined to apparently ride starter Lester straight to closer Sean Doolittle, left him in for 111 pitches, and maybe one batter too many. A Jed Lowrie error, a stolen base and a single made the score 7-4 and then Lester walked Eric Hosmer with one out (after Lorenzo Cain had stolen second). Melvin finally brought in Luke Gregerson, but Billy Butler's RBI single made it 7-5. Pinch-runner Terrance Gore stole second and a wild pitch made it 7-6 and put Gore on third with one out. Gregerson pitched carefully to Alex Gordon, who walked and then stole second with Salvador Perez up. A base hit puts the Royals up, a sac fly at least ties it up ...

Gregerson fanned Perez on three sliders, the third one a good foot off the plate. Yes, the Royals drew the fewest walks in the majors and Perez drew just 22 in 606 plate appearances. Gregerson exposed his free-swinging ways and it was a terrible at-bat. He threw four sliders to Infante, the fourth swung and miss on a pitch in the dirt. Gregerson, a sneaky offseason pickup from the Padres, does have a nasty slider, as batters hit .212 against this season. But it's not the nastiest in the game -- they also hit four home runs and nine doubles (all four home runs by right-handed batters). What makes it impressive is how often he throws it -- 48 percent of the time. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only five threw their slider a higher percentage of the time.

The Royals were 90 feet from tying the game. Assuming the A's would close it, I had written, "Royals fans will have all offseason to think about those seven sliders."

Instead the postscript will read: How do you leave in a starter to give up six runs in a do-or-die game? (Actually, I was surprised that it has happened 14 times out of 182 sudden-death games, the last in 2012, when Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos both allowed six runs in Game 5 of the division series.

The difference is those guys weren't still in there in the eighth inning with a four-run lead. The last comparable game was Nolan Ryan in Game 5 of the NLCS for the Astros, when he took a 5-2 lead into the eighth and coughed up the lead. Melvin let the game slip out of his hands even though the A's bullpen -- despite a couple notable tough losses -- had actually pitched well. Obviously, if Lowrie doesn't make the error the inning probably unfolds differently, but in this day of dominant pens, Melvin waited too long to go it.

2. Geovany Soto leaves with a thumb injury.

Soto was a controversial starter at catcher over Derek Norris, in part because he had never caught Lester. But he's the best defensive catcher on the A's, with the best arm. When he left in the third inning, unable to catch, it allowed the Royals to take advantage on the bases against Norris. They stole seven bases, with five of those thieves eventually scoring.

video 3. Royals' bunting finally pays off! OK, the sabermetrically inclined folks on Twitter were having a fun time with Yost and his bunts -- the Royals had four sacrifice bunts in the game. But in the ninth inning, the Royals tied the game off Sean Doolittle on a Josh Willingham flare to right, with Jarrod Dyson pinch-running (Willingham had hit for Mike Moustakas); Dyson was bunted to second and then, in maybe the most important play of the game, stole third, the first steal of third Doolittle had given up in his career. Dyson then scored on Norichika Aoki's sac fly.

4. The dropped pitchout. In the bottom of the 12th inning, after Hosmer tripled and Colon scored him on a high hopper of an infield hit to third base, Colon was running against Jason Hammel, who had just entered the game. The A's had called a pitchout, but Norris dropped the ball.

5. Oakland's No. 5 starter gave up the winning hit.

To be fair, Hammel pitched very well in September, with a 2.20 ERA and .198 average allowed. He was one of eight pitchers on the Oakland roster, kind of the designated long man. Sonny Gray had started Sunday and Jeff Samardzija on Saturday, so the choice probably came down to Hammel to Scott Kazmir (although Kansas City put Ventura on its roster, despite his starting on Sunday). This wasn't a bad call by the A's so much as you just hate to lose a game with a guy pitching in an unconventional situation. Hammel actually threw Perez -- who had had awful at-bats all game -- a pretty good 2-2 slider that was off the plate, knowing Perez will chase any pitch within the vicinity of Kauffman Stadium. Perez was just able to pull it inches past a diving Josh Donaldson -- a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman -- for the winning hit.

I'm all for thinking outside the box in the postseason, especially in a one-game situation like a wild-card game. But it's another thing to think so far outside the box and pull off one of the worst managerial decisions in recent history.

The Kansas City Royals led the Oakland Athletics 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning when James Shields, who had cruised through the previous two innings, gave up a broken-bat bloop single to Sam Fuld and then walked Josh Donaldson on a borderline 3-2 fastball. Up stepped Brandon Moss, who had homered in the first inning.

Yost has three of the best relievers in baseball in Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, who usually pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He pulled Shields and could have stretched those guys out for 12 instead of nine, or even used lefty reliever Brandon Finnegan to pitch to the lefty-swinging Moss (who was unlikely to be pinch-hit for after his earlier home runs)..

Ventura threw a 99-mph fastball up high for ball one. A 98-mph fastball was up and out of the zone. Moss hit the next pitch up and out over the center-field fence for a game-turning three-run home run. The A's went on to score two more runs in the inning -- one run charged to Ventura, the second to Herrera, who finally entered with one out.

The Royals got a prime position, leading in the sixth inning with the game's most dominant bullpen trio available. Instead, they used a pitcher who had thrown 70-something pitches two days prior. They got #Yosted.
The Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals have announced their 25-man rosters for Tuesday's wild-card game and since rosters can be changed before the Division Series, it's no surprise that both teams left several starting pitchers off their rosters. For Oakland, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir are all inactive; for the Royals, Jason Vargas is inactive. The surprising inclusion for the Royals is Yordano Ventura, who started Sunday and threw 73 pitches. Obviously, Ned Yost believes he's available for an inning if needed.

A's lineup
CF Coco Crisp
LF Sam Fuld
3B Josh Donaldson
DH Brandon Moss
RF Josh Reddick
SS Jed Lowrie
1B Stephen Vogt
C Geovany Soto
2B Eric Sogard
SP Jon Lester

The big news here is Adam Dunn is on the bench, even though right-hander James Shields is starting for the Royals. Manager Bob Melvin decided to go with Fuld's defense in left, with Moss moving over to the DH spot. Geovany Soto also gets the start at catcher over Derek Norris, a bit of a surprise since Soto has never caught Lester before (of course, they've only been teammates for a few weeks).

This is one of the fun things about baseball: You know many times the A's fielded this lineup during the regular season? Yep. Zero. Dunn had started the final four games of the season at DH and started nearly every game against a right-hander since coming over from the White Sox, but has hit just .212/.316/.318 with Oakland. Considering this is his first time in the postseason after 2,001 career games (and he's retiring after the season), let's hope he gets into the game.

On the bench
Position players -- DH Dunn, C Norris, IF Nick Punto, IF Albert Callaspo, IF Andy Parrino, OF Jonny Gomes, OF Billy Burns, 1B Nate Freiman

Pitchers -- Jason Hammel (R), Drew Pomeranz (L), Fernando Abad (L), Ryan Cook (R), Dan Otero (R), Luke Gregerson (R), Sean Doolittle (L)

The A's went with just eight pitchers compared to nine for the Royals. Hammel and Pomeranz are the two long guys available if Lester gets hammered or injured or the game goes in deep extra innings.

Speedster Burns is the pinch-running option off the bench. If a pinch-hitter is required late in the game, the Royals' big trio of relievers are all right-handed, so expect to see the switch-hitting Callaspo or Punto if a single is needed or Dunn if a home run is needed. Norris, Gomes and Freiman would be a matched up against a left-hander, while Parrino could be used as a defensive replacement.

Royals lineup
SS Alcides Escobar
RF Norichika Aoki
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Billy Butler
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Mike Moustakas
SP James Shields

Yost used this exact same lineup the final eight games of the season, so I guess he didn't want to overthink things too much. Escobar and Aoki didn't settle into the 1-2 spots in the lineup until Sept. 13, when Yost finally realized he should get Infante and his sub-.300 OBP out of the two-hole. Aoki stays in the No. 2 spot even with the left-handed Lester pitching since he had a .428 OBP against lefties this year. Plus, Lester is actually tougher on right-handed batters, so no need to worry too much about platoon splits anyway.

The odd thing is that Gordon spent most of the season hitting third, fourth or fifth and has the highest wOBA on the team -- but is hitting sixth. No, this isn't a lefty-lefty thing. Gordon hits left-handers better than Hosmer. It could be a September thing though, as Gordon hit just .190 the final month.

On the bench
Position players -- C Erik Kratz, IF Christian Colon, IF Jayson Nix, OF Jarrod Dyson, OF Josh Willingham, OF Raul Ibanez, OF Terrance Gore

Pitchers -- Ventura (R), Jeremy Guthrie (R), Danny Duffy (L), Jason Frasor (R), Brandon Finnegan (L), Kelvin Herrera (R), Wade Davis (R), Greg Holland (R)

The perfect scenario for Yost is for Shields to take the lead into the seventh or eighth, where he can give the ball to his power trio of Herrera, Davis and Holland. Guthrie pitched on Friday, so he's more likely to be the long man ahead of Duffy and Ventura.

The two position players to watch are Dyson and Gore, two of the fastest players in the game. The Royals led the majors in stolen bases while hitting the fewest home runs, so don't be surprised to see both of these guys get in at some point. Dyson was 36-for-43 stealing bases and will be used as a defensive replacement for Aoki if the Royals are leading late. Gore is strictly a pinch-runner, having spent most of the season in the minors before going 5-for-5 on the bases in the majors.

Tim Kurkjian has some of the key questions for the game here. To me, the big one is this: How will Yost use his bullpen? If Shields gets into a tight spot in say, the fifth or sixth inning, will he be willing to go to Herrera before the seventh? Will he trust rookie lefty Finnegan -- with just seven major league appearances -- in a crucial spot against one of the A's lefty sluggers if such a situation arises? You have to think Yost has the utmost confidence in Herrera, Davis and Holland but I can also see him riding Shields one inning too long. He has big weapons down there in the pen; he can't go down in this game without maximizing those three relievers.

For Melvin, he's probably a little more dependent on Lester delivering a big performance. The bullpen had a couple tough losses down the stretch but actually pitched pretty well overall in September, with a 3.05 ERA. Still, his late-inning options aren't as dominant as Kansas City's. Melvin will have better matchup opportunities, however, as Yost is unlikely to use his bench for much more than pinch-running. Maybe Willingham would hit late for Infante or Moustakas, but that's about it.

It should be a low-scoring game. I guess I'm leaning on Lester's postseason history here -- 1.97 ERA in 11 career postseason starts -- and excellent work down the stretch and predicting the A's win 3-1.
Imagine the weight Sonny Gray carried on his shoulders on Sunday afternoon. How much do 30-plus ballplayers weigh? Add in a coaching staff and front office and all the other personnel that help a team through a season. Add in the losses the Oakland Athletics have accumulated of late, one after another after another, many by one run, 20 out of their last 29 games all told as Oakland plummeted from a division lead to desperation. If you want, add in the history of the A's over the past 15 years, with a lot of good ballclubs that couldn't get the job done.

The A's still have a lot of work to do, but thanks to Gray they'll have that opportunity. The right-hander pitched a six-hit shutout, recording 17 ground-ball outs, as the A's beat the Texas Rangers 4-0 to clinch the second wild card. With the Seattle Mariners later beating the Los Angeles Angels behind Felix Hernandez, it was a win Oakland needed to avoid a tiebreaker game on Monday.

When the A's scored twice in the top of the ninth, there was little doubt Gray would return in the bottom of the inning to close it out. He probably would have been out there even if the lead had remained 2-0. It was the kind of starting pitching performance the A's never received in a must-win game from Mark Mulder or Tim Hudson or Barry Zito back in the Moneyball days. It was the kind of performance Justin Verlander delivered for the Detroit Tigers the past two seasons in eliminating the A's from the postseason in the division series. It was what the A's needed.


How far will the A's go in the postseason?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,104)

Now they can wipe out the past six weeks of bad baseball, forget the blown leads and tough defeats. They have to win only one game to get where everyone thought they would be back at the All-Star break when they owned the best record in the majors: Playing in the division series. It will be Jon Lester versus James Shields, Tuesday in Kansas City. This is a reason why the A's acquired Lester in July and why the Kansas City Royals acquired Shields two years ago.

For what it's worth, Lester has an impressive postseason history, with a 1.92 ERA in 11 career postseason starts. He allowed just six runs in five starts last October for the Red Sox. So he's a guy who has come up big in big games. Shields, on the other hand, has a 4.98 ERA in six playoff starts, the last one coming in 2011.

Of course, one win doesn't cure some of the ills that have plagued the A's down the stretch. Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp and power bat Brandon Moss have remained in the lineup despite struggling through injuries. Crisp has hit .191/.272/.258 in the second half while Moss has hit .173/.310/.274. Adam Dunn, making his first postseason appearance after 2,000 games in the majors, hasn't done much in his limited time with the A's, hitting .212 with two home runs in 25 games. Josh Donaldson twisted his ankle on Friday night, but he played over the weekend and had three hits, including a home run, on Saturday.

If the A's get by the Royals, you have to like their chances to keep advancing. Their rotation depth means they can line up Jeff Samardzija in Game 1 of the division series against the Angels, followed by Gray in Game 2 on regular rest. The Angels, meanwhile, are still hoping that Matt Shoemaker -- he says the pain from his rib-cage strain is almost gone -- will be able to join Jered Weaver and an erratic C.J. Wilson in the playoff rotation.

After spending all of September facing "What's happening?" questions, the A's can finally face "How's it feel?" questions.

Now they get to face the ultimate question: How are you going to fare in the postseason?

Maybe, after all the frustration in the early 2000s, after the tough losses to Verlander the past two years, after all these losses in September, maybe this will finally be the year for the A's.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27

The big news of the night was the Kansas City Royals clinching their first postseason berth since 1985, ending the longest playoff drought in the majors. (That honor now belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, last in the playoffs in 1993, when they won the World Series on Joe Carter's home run.) Doug Padilla was on the scene for the Royals' win over the White Sox, so he has that covered, but one quick note about the Royals before we get to five other things we learned on Friday.

The Royals don't have the best starting rotation in the American League -- they're fourth in ERA and that's playing in a pitcher's park with perhaps the league's best defense behind them. But it's a good rotation that has done a nice job of pitching deep into games. Only the Tigers have received more innings from their starters among AL teams. Now, the gap between the Royals and the bottom teams isn't large -- 80 innings -- but they've also thrown nearly 100 innings more than two years ago, before they acquired James Shields. When the Royals made that controversial deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, trading away top prospect Wil Myers, this is exactly why general manager Dayton Moore thought it necessary to add a guy like Shields. He's not the best pitcher in the league, not a Cy Young contender, but he's a durable workhorse who annually ranks among the leaders in innings. He led the AL last year with 228⅔ innings and has thrown 227 this year. He's been exactly what the Royals desired, and maybe it doesn't show up in the sabermetric evaluations, but you have to believe having a staff leader like him has had some effect.

So, congrats, Royals. The wild-card game isn't necessarily much of a reward if you go one and done, but there's always this: The Tigers lost. You're only one game from tying them for the division lead.

1. The Pirates win but suffer a potentially big loss.

The Pirates broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth with the Reds when Jay Bruce misplayed a line drive into a run-scoring, go-ahead double for Travis Snider, but their 17th win in 21 games came with potentially bad news when Russell Martin left the game after drawing a seventh-inning walk, his lingering battle with a sore hamstring getting the better of him. Martin didn't discuss the issue after the game but manager Clint Hurdle said, "Some days are better than others, and today it just seemed to be tougher for him to get loose." Chris Stewart will start Saturday afternoon. For a spell, it looked like the Pirates would tie the Cardinals for the NL Central lead when Arizona led early and almost rallied late, but …

2. The Cardinals win in extra innings to keep their one-game lead.

St. Louis caught a huge, huge break in this one. Leading 6-3 in the eighth, Pat Neshek couldn't hold the lead, and the Diamondbacks appeared to take the lead when Ender Inciarte hit a double over left fielder Jon Jay's head, which would have scored Arizona's seventh run … except the ball bounced into the stands and Didi Gregorius had to return to third base. Neshek got the next batter and Jhonny Peralta eventually delivered the go-ahead single in the 10th. (By the way, Peralta is a worthy top-10 guy on the NL MVP ballot.)

Michael Wacha had another mixed review. He gave up two runs in the first and then nothing else, leaving after 98 pitches and a leadoff single in the sixth, but he still walked three in his five-plus innings. If the Pirates do end up catching the Cardinals to force a one-game playoff, Wacha could potentially be in line to start the wild-card game. Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright will go on Saturday and Sunday.

3. The Oakland A's magic number is down to one.

Scott Kazmir has been the one Oakland starter struggling -- the first-half All-Star has a 5.42 ERA in the second half and owned an 8.58 ERA over his six previous starts entering Friday's game -- but he came up big in a 6-2 win over the Rangers, going seven innings and allowing four hits and just one earned run. Kazmir threw 72 percent strikes, his highest percentage since Aug. 8 and fourth highest of the year, throwing more cutters and fewer sliders than he had recently. "It's been a long time coming it feels like. Just feels good," Kazmir said. Keep an eye on Josh Donaldson's knee. He tweaked it in the third inning and played the rest of the game (he went 2-for-4) but looked hobbled and took it slow on the bases.

The Mariners held on to beat the Angels 4-3 as Fernando Rodney allowed a run in the ninth but recorded his 48th save in 51 opportunities, so Seattle needs two wins and two Oakland losses to force a Monday tiebreaker game.

4. Doug Fister might be the real ace of the Nationals.

Fister threw a brilliant, three-hit shutout in the first game of a doubleheader against the Marlins, clinching the NL's best record for the Nationals and a Division Series date against the wild-card winner. Fister improved to 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. While Fister fanned a season-high nine in this game, he's an anomaly in this age of strikeouts: He has just 98 in 164 innings, but he also has just 24 walks in 26 starts and induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls even though he tends to pitch up in the zone, a testament to the movement he gets on his two-seam fastball and ability to change speeds. Fister isn't starting Game 1 of the Division Series, but he has a 2.98 career postseason ERA in 48⅓ innings.

5. Corey Kluber couldn't keep the Indians alive but did help his Cy Young case.

Kluber finished his season with another dominant effort: 8 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 SO. When Cody Allen closed out the 1-0 win, the Indians were still alive, but they were officially eliminated once the A's won. But Kluber's three-start finish -- 39 K's, including becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 with back-to-back games of 14 strikeouts -- might have pushed him past Felix Hernandez as the Cy Young favorite. The final opposing-batter stats against Kluber's curveball: .091 (19-for-209), with no home runs, 126 strikeouts and five walks. Wow.

What are odds of Monday baseball?

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
Heading into the weekend, we have the slim possibility of three potential tiebreaker games Monday. This wouldn't be unusual in the wild-card era. We had one last season between the Rays and Rangers (the Rays won 5-2 behind David Price's complete game) and we have had six others since 1995: Mariners over Angels in 1995, Cubs over Giants in 1999, Mets over Reds in 1999, Rockies over Padres in 13 innings in 2007, White Sox over Twins in 2008, Twins over Tigers in 12 innings in 2009.

The possible Monday games:

--Oakland at Seattle for a wild-card berth.

--Kansas City at Detroit for the AL Central title.

--Pittsburgh at St. Louis for the NL Central title.

There are actually two permutations on the first one. Kansas City, Oakland and Seattle could each end up with 87 wins if the Royals go 0-3, the A's go 1-2 and the Mariners go 3-0 over the weekend, creating a three-teams-for-two-spots scenario. The A's, Mariners and Indians could also each end up with 86 wins if the A's go 0-3, the Mariners go 2-1 and the Indians go 3-0, creating a three-for-one scenario. (Here are the rules for those tiebreakers, in case you believe in the impossible.)

While acknowledging either of those things could happen, they probably won't. Baseball Prospectus gives the Indians the worst playoff odds at 0.7 percent. I'm not sure if that's just reaching a Game No. 163, or winning the tiebreaker and making the wild-card game. Either way, it's a long shot.

Anyway, sticking to three scenarios above, let's review.

A's two games up on the Mariners
A's at Rangers: Scott Kazmir vs. Nick Tepesch; Jeff Samardzija vs. Derek Holland; Sonny Gray vs. Nick Martinez.

The Rangers have won four in a row over the A's in the past two weeks and have improbably won 12 of their past 13 games. Which either means they're really hot or they’re due for some losses.

Angels at Mariners: Jered Weaver vs. Hisashi Iwakuma; Cory Rasmus vs. James Paxton; C.J. Wilson vs. Felix Hernandez.

Iwakuma, Paxton and Hernandez are all coming off horrible outings, and Iwakuma has been bad over his past five starts. The Mariners also aren't a good home team, with a 38-40 record at Safeco. One possible advantage is that the Angels probably won't ask their starters to go deep into these games as they gear up for the playoffs. You may also see some of the regular position players rest a game (although, since the Angels won't play again until Thursday, I don't think you'll see too much sitting.) Seattle has to hope it can at least get to Sunday with Felix in play.

What needs to happen for a tie: Mariners sweep the Angels and the Rangers beat the A's two of three, or Seattle takes two of three and the Rangers sweep. FanGraphs gives the Mariners a 4.1 percent chance at the wild card, but Baseball Prospectus is at just 0.5 percent. That doesn't make sense to me: Why would the Indians, with one fewer victory than the Mariners, have better odds? (I assume because they've played better lately.)

Most likely scenario: The A's beat the Rangers two of three, and the Mariners win just one from the Angels.

Monday matchup if there is a tie: Probably Jon Lester vs. Taijuan Walker.

Tigers two games up on the Royals
Twins at Tigers: Anthony Swarzak vs. Rick Porcello; Ricky Nolasco vs. Kyle Lobstein; Kyle Gibson vs. David Price.

Sorry, Royals fans, but none of those pitching matchups favor the Twins. The Twins have, however, split 16 games so far with the Tigers.

Royals at White Sox: Jeremy Guthrie vs. Hector Noesi; Danny Duffy vs. John Danks; Yordano Ventura vs. Chris Bassitt.

While the Royals are on the road, the good news is no Chris Sale or Jose Quintana for the White Sox in these final three games, so they have the starting pitching edge on paper in each matchup. The Royals are 11-5 against the White Sox.

What needs to happen for a tie: Considering a Twins sweep is unlikely, the Royals need to sweep the White Sox and hope the Twins take two of three.

Most likely scenario: Both the Tigers and Royals win two of three and the Royals host the wild-card game. FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both give the Royals about a 4 percent chance of winning the division.

Monday matchup if there is a tie: Justin Verlander vs. Jason Vargas. (Max Scherzer and James Shields would be going on three days' rest.)


Prediction for this weekend?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,720)

Cardinals one game up on Pirates
Cardinals at Diamondbacks: Michael Wacha vs. Trevor Cahill; Lance Lynn vs. Wade Miley; Adam Wainwright vs. Josh Collmenter.

The Diamondbacks are 6-17 in September and have the worst record in baseball. The Cardinals do have a losing record on the road, however.

Pirates at Reds: Vance Worley vs. Mike Leake; Francisco Liriano vs. Alfredo Simon; Gerrit Cole vs. Johnny Cueto.

The Reds are 8-14 in September, but the Cueto game will be the tough one for the Pirates as he goes for his 20th win.

What needs to happen for a tie: You have to think the Cardinals will take at least two from Arizona, so the Pirates will need to sweep. Still, since there is just one game separating the two, this is certainly the race most likely of the three to end in a tie. If so, I wrote earlier about what that means for the Pirates and Cardinals rotations.

Most likely scenario: Cardinals and Pirates both win two of three, giving the Cardinals the division.

Monday matchup if there is a tie: Jeff Locke vs. Shelby Miller or John Lackey.

Prediction? Well, I guess I'd say none of three races will end up in a tie. But the Mariners fan in me holds out hope ...

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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.
Oakland A's slugger Brandon Moss made the All-Star team after a monster first half in which he hit .268/.349/.530 with 21 home runs in 89 games. In the second half, he's hit .179/.312/.280 with four home runs in 52 games.

He missed Wednesday's game and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Moss has been playing through a hip injury that will require offseason surgery:
"It was worse that we thought it would be," said Moss, who had an MRI and a cortisone shot before the game. "The shot should help me get through the rest of the season, but it won't fix it."

Moss told The Chronicle that the previously unreported problem has affected him much of the year and the MRI showed so much torn cartilage that he has bone-on-bone issues. He didn’t want to blame his second-half numbers dip on the problem but Moss said that he does not have much range of motion or strength in the joint as a result.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest the hip has affected Moss' production more than the loss of Yoenis Cespedes "protecting" him in the lineup.

Moss' types of contact haven't changed all that much from the first half to the second half:

First half
Groundballs: 33 percent
Fly balls: 45 percent
Line drives: 22 percent

Second half
Groundballs: 31 percent
Fly balls: 48 percent
Line drives: 21 percent

The big change? His fly balls traveled an average distance of 283 feet in the first half but just 261 feet in the second. Moss didn't use the hip injury as an excuse but it certainly seems to help explain the second-half decline.

For more on Moss and his approach as a hitter, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs just had a great interview (with Adam Dunn joining in as sidekick). Their exchange about the value of batting average is priceless (note: some salty language involved) as is Moss talking about how, when he was in Triple-A with the Phillies, Ruben Amaro didn't believe in him. ("He was like 'We just don't believe Brandon Moss is consistently able to hit a major league fastball.' And I was like, that's really all I kinda hit. It's my best pitch. Everything else, I just hope I hit it.")

Moss' groundball rate did go up in August -- which he noticed, telling Eno:
And that's what I was doing a lot in August, I was swinging wildly, trying to do too much. And therefore, that's when the weak outs, and that's when the ground balls started coming, was in August. My ground-ball rate kinda skyrocketed. Strikeout rate went up, chase rate went up, walk rate went up because I was taking more pitches, but when I was swinging, I wasn’t swinging to drive the ball, I was swinging to get a hit. That’s why I said in late August, screw this, I’m going to cover this pitch, I’m going to gear for this pitch, and if I walk I walk, and if I strikeout I strikeout.

From the interview, you can see why Moss is an A's type of player: Analytical, fun, understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. He didn't talk about the hip injury but he's going to play through it as the A's inch closer to clinching a wild card (their magic number is two).

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 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.

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.
Facing the Los Angeles Angels' Triple-A lineup Thursday (all the starters rested after the Angels clinched the AL West title Wednesday night), Felix Hernandez crushed: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 K. He lowered his ERA to 2.07.

And he didn't get the win. The Mariners did finally capture the victory when Logan Morrison hit a three-run homer in the ninth, but Hernandez was left with a no-decision.

That's now three no-decisions this season for Hernandez in games in which he allowed zero runs, on top of four no-decisions and a loss when he allowed one run. Plus two no-decisions and two losses when he allowed two runs. You get the idea: The Mariners don't score many runs for their King.

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsWhat more can Felix Hernandez do? (Maybe his run support would improve if they let pitchers hit in the American League.)

From ESPN Stats & Info: This was the 16th time in his career that Hernandez has fanned 10 or more batters, allowed zero earned runs and did not receive the win. The pitchers with the most such games over the past 100 years:

Nolan Ryan: 19
Chris Short: 18
Vida Blue: 17
Felix Hernandez: 16
Jake Peavy: 16
Sam McDowell: 16
Bob Veale: 16

Also, from ESPN Stats & Info: The Mariners have scored three runs or fewer in more than half of his career starts. Highest percentages since 1969:

Jon Matlack: 54.1 percent (172 of 318)
Steve Rogers: 52.7 percent (207 of 393)
Felix Hernandez: 52.5 percent (158 of 301)
Mike Scott: 52.1 percent (166 of 319)
Nolan Ryan: 51.7 percent (390 of 754)

Interesting list. Matlack spent his best years in the 1970s with some mediocre Mets clubs, pitching in Shea Stadium, a low run-scoring environment. In 1974, he tossed seven shutouts and still went just 13-15. He then finished with some bad Rangers teams in the late '70s and early '80s. Rogers pitched his entire career with the Expos from 1973 to 1985. They were well above .500 from 1979 to 1985, so a lot of those games must have come early in his career. He led the NL in losses in 1974 (even though he was an All-Star that year) and 1976, when he had a 3.21 ERA. Scott and Ryan both pitched in the Astrodome, where runs were hard to come by. Ryan spent a lot of years in Anaheim, another pitchers' park, and he had some awful offenses behind him in his early Angels seasons. He went 19-16 in 1972 for a team that averaged just 2.93 runs per game, an offense that makes the 2014 Mariners look like the 1927 Yankees.

Then we have Jeff Samardzija of the A's. On Wednesday, he tossed eight scoreless innings, left with a slim 1-0 lead and then saw Sean Doolittle cough up the lead in the ninth. He's now 6-12 despite a 2.98 ERA. You know how many pitchers have ever started 30 games, had an ERA below 3.00 and won six or fewer games? One! Some poor sap named Fred Glade for the 1905 St. Louis Browns. His nickname: Lucky.

(Actually, Glade wasn't some poor sap. He came from a wealthy family who owned a milling business that would eventually become part of ConAgra.)

Samardzija has allowed zero runs five times this year -- twice with the A's, three times with the Cubs -- and has received a no-decision each time. He's allowed one run five times and is just 2-0 in those games.

Going back to 1969, here are the pitchers with the most starts in a season of allowing no runs without getting the win:

Dustin Hermanson, 1997: 6 (33.1 IP)
Roger Clemens, 2005: 6 (40 IP)
Clayton Kershaw, 2009: 6 (38.2 IP)
Jimmy Key, 1985: 5 (27 IP)
Chris Young, 2007: 5 (25 IP)
Jeff Samardzija, 2014: 5 (35 IP)

Samardzija has eight games where he allowed no runs or one run and failed to get a win. Since 1969, two pitchers have had nine such games in a season: Kershaw in 2009 and Jose DeLeon in 1991. (Felix also has eight such games this year.)

Talk about two unlucky pitchers.

And yet we still hear some people talk about how there is an "art" to winning games.

Sure, it's called pitching well and getting run support.
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.