SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

Hey, we weren't going to top the American League wild-card game. But we certainly hoped for a more exciting game than this one. Here are five things to think about in the San Francisco Giants' 8-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

1. Madison Bumgarner: Ace.

He was dominant, efficient and in complete control from the first inning on. He finished with a four-hit shutout and 10 strikeouts, 109 pitches of excellence. The only pitcher in Giants history with a higher Game Score in a postseason game was Tim Lincecum in 2010, when he pitched a two-hit, 14-strikeout gem against the Atlanta Braves in the division series.

OK, that's pretty sweet.

2. Brandon Crawford's fourth-inning home run.

Brandon CrawfordJason Miller/Getty Images

As I wrote here, Crawford's grand slam off Edinson Volquez was preceded by an excellent plate appearance by Brandon Belt, taking a 2-2 curveball below the knees and then walking on a 3-2 fastball. Volquez had allowed a .136 average on 1-2 counts on the season; he just made a terrible pitch to Crawford, a curveball up in the zone that catcher Russell Martin wanted down and in, where Crawford would swing over the top of it.

Crawford's home run was the first grand slam by a shortstop in postseason history, which is kind of random but also kind of cool. It was just the fifth grand slam in a win-or-die game, joining Bill Skowron (Yankees, 1956 World Series), Troy O'Leary (Red Sox, 1999 division series), Johnny Damon (Red Sox, 2004 ALCS) and teammate Buster Posey (2012 division series).

3. Pirates decide to pitch Gerrit Cole on Sunday.

It may not have made a difference with the way Bumgarner pitched, but in some fashion this game turned when the Pirates made the decision to start Cole on Sunday, even though they had a slim chance of winning the division (they needed to beat Johnny Cueto and the Reds, hope the last-place Diamondbacks beat Adam Wainwright and then beat the Cardinals on Monday in a one-game playoff). It's understandable why the Pirates made the decision -- it's hard to turn away from giving your best effort to win a division -- and you can even argue that Volquez was every bit as good as Cole right now considering Volquez's 1.85 ERA over his final 17 starts and consecutive scoreless outings to end the season.

Despite that ERA, Volquez's peripherals aren't great, although his hard sinker is more of a ground-ball pitch than a strikeout pitch. Still, not many out there consider Volquez a better pitcher than Cole, as he's still prone to command issues. As our colleague Curt Schilling tweeted before the game:

That's exactly what happened on the pitch to Crawford. He missed big.

Of course, on the other hand, maybe this game showed why the Pirates were smart to go all-out in trying to win the division and avoid facing Bumgarner.

4. Panda's catch.

Just because.

5. The night's other big winner: The Nationals

OK, there weren't a lot of big moments in this game, so let's consider this: The Giants will now travel to Washington for the division series. I actually thought the Pirates would have provided a good test for the Nationals if they had won this game, given their deep lineup and that Cole would have been ready to start Game 1. Instead, the Nationals draw a depleted Giants lineup that is missing Angel Pagan and Mike Morse and Bumgarner will get only one start in the series. Big advantage to the Nationals. I am not saying the Giants don't have a chance, just that the series certainly lines up as well as possible for the Nationals.
Through three innings, Edinson Volquez and Madison Bumgarner were dealing, with Curt Schilling praising both pitchers on Twitter. Volquez had thrown 38 pitches, 27 for strikes, although the Giants had helped him by swinging at a few pitches outside the strike zone.

The top of the fourth began innocently enough. Pablo Sandoval lined a 2-2 curve into right field for a base hit. Hunter Pence grounded an 0-1 fastball into left field. Brandon Belt worked the count full, checking his swing on a tough 2-2 curve below the knees, setting up a crucial pitch. Volquez gets a strikeout and he has a chance to work out of the jam. Give up something else and he's in serious trouble.

Volquez threw a terrible fastball, up and way out of strike zone to load the bases.

That brought up shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has some surprising pop at times -- 10 home runs and 10 triples, and that's in San Francisco, a tough home run park for left-handed hitters. The count went to 1-2: changeup away, fastball for a called strike, a curveball at the knees that was foul tipped. Volquez threw another curveball, Russell Martin wanting it low and inside again, but the pitch was up and ...

It was a bad pitch and Crawford didn't miss. Batters hit .136 against Volquez on 1-2 counts and he'd allowed only two home runs all season on that count. But one mistake can cost you the season. With Bumgarner dealing at 45 pitches through four innings, a comeback looks unlikely for the Pirates.

But that's what we said last night.
Can we top the American League wild-card game? Unlikely, but PNC Park promises to be one of the best atmospheres you'll see all postseason, just like last year when the Pirates beat the Reds in the wild-card game.

Giants lineup
CF Gregor Blanco
2B Joe Panik
C Buster Posey
3B Pablo Sandoval
RF Hunter Pence
1B Brandon Belt
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Travis Ishikawa
P Madison Bumgarner

The late-season injuries to Angel Pagan (back) and Mike Morse (oblique) have weakened the San Francisco outfield to the point where Bruce Bochy will start Travis Ishikawa in left field -- where he's started three games in his major league career, the first time in Game 159. He has played some outfield in the minors (25 games in left, 50 in right) but his lack of experience out there could be a big factor as the Pirates load their lineup with right-handed batters against Bumgarner.

While Panik has hit .305, it's a soft .305 with one home run in 269 at-bats. The Giants would have been better off leaving Hunter Pence in the No. 2 hole, where he's more likely to get an extra at-bat late in the game. Expect the Pirates to pitch carefully to Posey, who hit .354/.403/.575 in the second half. And don't forget that Bumgarner is a threat at the plate after mashing four home runs and hitting .258. He actually had a higher OPS than Blanco, Panik, Sandoval, Crawford or Ishikawa and the same as Belt.

On the bench
Position players -- C Andrew Susac, C Guillermo Quiroz, 1B/3B Adam Duvall, IF Joaquin Arias, IF Matt Duffy, OF Gary Brown, OF Juan Perez

Pitchers -- Jake Peavy (R), Yusmeiro Petit (R), Tim Lincecum (R), Hunter Strickland (R), Jean Machi (R), Sergio Romo (R), Jeremy Affeldt (L), Javier Lopez (L), Santiago Casilla (R)

The Giants elected to go with 10 pitchers. Maybe they watched last night's game. That's a pretty weak bench, a reflection of the injuries to Pagan and Morse. The top pinch-hitting options are probably Duffy and Susac, thus the need to carry a third catcher in Quiroz. Brown is a pinch-running option while Perez would be a defensive replacement in the outfield for Ishikawa. The lack of pinch-hitting options should allow the Pirates to match up as desired, as Bochy is unlikely to hit for any of the top seven guys in the order.

Peavy started on Saturday, so he could be the long man if Bumgarner gets hurt early or knocked out, although that role could fall to either Petit or Lincecum. Lincecum threw just eight innings in September and he's probably more of an emergency guy, although remember that he pitched well out of the bullpen in the 2012 postseason. Bochy will mix and match with the rest of his relievers. Lopez is more of a true LOOGY while Affeldt can pitch to righties if needed. Romo lost his closer job to Casilla, who converted 19 of 20 save opportunities after taking over. Keep an eye on Strickland, the rookie with a 97-99 mph fastball who threw seven scoreless innings down the stretch with nine K's and no walks. Will Bochy trust him in a big situation?

Pirates lineup
3B Josh Harrison
SS Jordy Mercer
CF Andrew McCutchen
C Russell Martin
LF Starling Marte
2B Neil Walker
1B Gaby Sanchez
RF Travis Snider
P Edinson Volquez

Clint Hurdle lines up right-handed batters in his first five spots to counter Bumgarner, moving Walker and Snider down in the lineup. Martin has been battling a hamstring injury and missed the final two games of the regular season. Volquez is coming off back-to-back scoreless outings and had generally better results down the stretch than in the first half. But he's still prone to control issues, so it will be interesting to see how long of a leash he's given.

On the bench

Position players -- C Chris Stewart, C Tony Sanchez, 1B Ike Davis, IF Clint Barmes, IF Brent Morel, OF Gregory Polanco, OF Jose Tabata, OF Andrew Lambo

Pitchers -- Vance Worley (R), Jeff Locke (L), John Holdzkom (R), Bobby LaFromboise (L), Jared Hughes (R), Justin Wilson (L), Tony Watson (L), Mark Melancon (R)

The Pirates went with nine pitches, with starters Worley and Locke backing up Volquez. Worley is on full rest so is probably the long man ahead of Locke. In the bullpen, Hurdle would love to bridge the gap to Watson and Melancon, as there has to be some concerns with the rest of the group. Holdzkom is a hard-throwing rookie who began the year begging for a job in independent ball and rose to pitching important innings in September.

Davis platoons at first base with Gaby Sanchez, so expect to see him if the Giants have a right-hander pitching with Sanchez up (although Bochy has Affeldt and Lopez in the pen to counteract if necessary). Polanco has the best wheels off the bench and Tony Sanchez gives the club a third catcher if Martin's hammy proves problematic.

After last night's results, predictions are a foolish thing, but I'll go Giants 4, Pirates 3, as Volquez gives up some runs early and Bumgarner pitches deep into the game and maybe even delivers and a crucial RBI hit.

You can't fault the way Gerrit Cole pitched Sunday for the Pittsburgh Pirates: Seven innings, four hits, one run, 12 strikeouts. But it wasn't enough as Johnny Cueto throttled the Pirates' lineup, and the Reds scored three runs in the eighth off the Pittsburgh bullpen, giving the NL Central title to the St. Louis Cardinals.

So the question: Should the Pirates have started Cole? Three things had to happen for the Pirates to win the division:

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
AP Photo/Al BehrmanGerrit Cole had his good stuff on Sunday, but it went to waste against the Reds' Johnny Cueto.

--The Pirates had to beat Cueto, one of the top starters in the majors, and a guy you figured would bring his A-game as he aimed for his 20th victory.

--They would need the Diamondbacks to beat the Cardinals, with Adam Wainwright the scheduled starter for St. Louis.

--They would then have to beat the Cardinals on Monday, with the struggling Jeff Locke the likely starter.

If all those things didn't happen, that meant the Pirates would have to dig deeper into their rotation for their starter in the wild-card game, either Vance Worley or Edinson Volquez.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said it was an easy decision to go with Cole. Hurdle said everyone in the organization was on the same page -- general manager Neal Huntington, team president Frank Coonelly and chairman Bob Nutting. "We tried to play the logical game," Hurdle said before the game. "At the end of the day, after every conversation with every player, the coaching staff, Neal, Bob, Frank -- no way we walk away from an opportunity to win our division."

It's easy to second-guess the decision after the fact, but I had raised the issue before this game. Clearly, the math was against it working: You had to rate the Reds the slight favorite Sunday with Cueto starting, and the Cardinals the big favorite against the Diamondbacks with Wainwright starting, and if it got to Monday, the edge to the Cardinals with Locke starting and the Pirates on the road, where they don't play as well.

But it's also easy to understand why the Pirates started Cole. "To pitch [Stolmy] Pimentel or [Casey] Sadler after 161 games of grit and fight and battle ... We're trying to make history here," Hurdle said. "There is no guarantee of how to cut this thing up. So you do what you believe in, and we'll attack it this way."

Plus, you can look at the wild-card game two ways: You have to win that to advance, so you want your best possible starter in that game; or, you can view it as just one step along the way, and since it's essentially a coin-flip game anyway, having your best setup for the division series is important, and by starting Cole on Sunday, he'll now be available (along with Francisco Liriano) to start Game 1 of the division series Friday if the Pirates get there.


Who would you start for the Pirates in the wild-card game?


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My first thought was that I would not have started Cole and saved him for Wednesday. But after reading Hurdle's quote, I think maybe he's right: You can't tell your players you're not giving them the best effort to win the division.

Plus, all of that undersells Worley, who is 8-4 with a 2.85 ERA in 17 starts (and one relief appearance) ... except all indications are Volquez will start Wednesday. But Volquez is coming off back-to-back scoreless starts and has allowed just seven runs over his past six starts. His control can still be shaky, and his 10-strikeout game in his last turn came against the hapless Braves, so you don't want to overrate that, but he is pitching his best baseball of the season.

And Hurdle will have the luxury of Worley in the bullpen if needed in long relief and a deep bullpen. You would expect Volquez to be on a short leash if he starts walking guys.

Still, if I'm the San Francisco Giants, I'm happy about how Sunday unfolded. As Cole showed, he's capable of a dominant effort every time out with his big-time stuff. The Giants will have Madison Bumgarner going against Volquez, and even though the game is in Pittsburgh, the Giants have to like that matchup.

The implications of Game No. 162

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28

We began Saturday with six teams playing for something: Trying to win a division title, trying stay alive for a division title, trying to clinch a wild card, or, in the case of the Seattle Mariners, just trying to keep alive the faintest of hopes that the final game of the regular season on Sunday might mean something.

It will. After the Texas Rangers held on to defeat the Oakland Athletics 5-4, the Mariners needed a win against the Angels to avoid elimination. They tied the game 1-1 in the seventh and had a runner on third with one but couldn’t score. They loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth and couldn’t score. They got a leadoff single in the 10th but couldn’t score. In the 11th, Brad Miller doubled with one out and Chris Taylor blooped a single to center, but Miller had to hold up and didn’t score, even after center fielder Tony Campana bobbled the ball. The Mariners had just one walk-off win on the season -- every other team has at least four -- and it looked like Miller’s hesitation might haunt the Mariners.

With five infielders in for the Angels, Austin Jackson -- who failed to come through in the seventh and ninth, bounced a two-hopper to second baseman Grant
Green, who paused briefly before finally deciding to turn two instead of throwing home. The flip was slow and Jackson beat the relay. That led to my favorite moment of a strange day of baseball, when none of our other five teams had won: Felix Hernandez, celebrating on the field with his teammates, his hat off, his hair looking like he just crawled out of bed, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face.

You see, Felix is going to start on Sunday. It will be the most important start of his career, a chance for redemption after he lost his last in Toronto with his worst outing of the season.

Felix is the biggest winner of the day. Here are some other winners and losers as we set up Sunday’s slate of action when, once again, we’ll have six games that mean something.

Loser: The Oakland A’s. They have to be feeling the pressure now, don’t they? A little bit? After owning the best record in the majors at the All-Star break they’ve now lost 20 of 29 games and have to win Game No. 162 to clinch a wild card. They’ll send Sonny Gray to the mound against Nick Martinez of the Rangers, so they have the starting pitcher advantage on paper. But the Rangers have now beaten them five out of six times this month.

Winner: Josh Donaldson. He hurt his ankle Friday and despite looking a little hobbled went 3-for-4 with a home run in Saturday’s losing effort.

Winner: David Price. He’ll get the chance to show everyone why the Tigers acquired him. Throw a gem on Sunday and those rocky outings will be forgotten. Win and the Tigers clinch the AL Central. Lose and the Royals will have opportunity to tie with a win of their own.

Winner: The Kansas City Royals. They’re still alive and they have a good matchup with Yordano Ventura going against Chris Bassitt in a battle of rookies. Ventura has allowed more than three runs just once in his past 10 starts and has a 2.08 ERA and .195 average allowed over that span.

Winner: The Minnesota Twins, for being a thorn in the side all season to the Tigers. They’re 10-8 against Detroit and have averaged over six runs per game, including outbursts of 20, 12 twice and 11. In other words, it’s no guarantee that Price shuts them down.

Loser: Clint Hurdle. The Pirates manager faces a tough decision. Do you start Gerrit Cole as scheduled on Sunday, knowing the Cardinals will be starting 20-game winner Adam Wainwright later in the day in Arizona, and thus eliminate Cole as a possible starter in Wednesday’s wild-card game?

While winning the division is important, think of all that has to go right for the Pirates for that to happen: You have to beat Johnny Cueto, who is going for his 20th win; you have to hope the Diamondbacks somehow beat Wainwright; then you have to beat the Cardinals on Monday with Jeff Locke starting.

Hurdle didn’t make an announcement on Saturday, since the Pirates played in the afternoon before the Cardinals result was in. But I have to think he’ll scratch Cole to line up the guy generally considered the No. 1 or 2 guy on the Pittsburgh staff (behind or ahead of Francisco Liriano) in the wild-card game. Put it this way: You’re probably more likely to beat the Reds without Cole than you are to beat the Giants with Edinson Volquez.

Loser: Liriano. He’s supposed to be the Pirates’ ace, but he walked five in five innings against a Reds lineup that didn’t exactly resembled the ’75 Big Red Machine. That’s 14 walks for Liriano in his past three games; he avoided damage his past two starts but the walks haunted him on Saturday. No matter what happens to the Pirates in the division race, if they reach the Division Series, Liriano would be the guy to start Game 1. He needs to rediscover the strike zone if the Pirates advance that far.

Winner: The Giants. If Cole ends up starting on Sunday.

Potential loser: The St. Louis Cardinals, if they blow Sunday’s game and the Pirates win. Luckily, they do have Wainwright going, but if they have to play a tiebreaker game on Monday, neither of their top two starters will be available since Lance Lynn pitched Saturday. And neither would presumably be available for the wild-card game on Wednesday if they lose on Monday.

Winner: Bud Selig. Isn’t this what Bud dreamed of with the wild card and then the second wild card? Teams battling to the final day to win division titles, more teams with meaningful games down the stretch, small-market teams like the Pirates and Royals in the playoffs. You can debate the merits of calling the wild-card game a postseason game, and two of these teams we’ve been paying so much attention to lately will be gone from the playoffs after a few hours of baseball, but there’s no denying Selig’s version has made September baseball more interesting.

Winner: The fans in Arizona and Texas. Their teams entered the night with the worst records in baseball but give them credit for creating playoff atmospheres in those parks. They haven’t had much to cheer about but it was nice to see them on their feet in the ninth, cheering like it was the Diamondbacks and Rangers playing for a division title or wild card.

Winner: Sunday baseball. We could have had no meaningful baseball on Sunday, instead of six games with potential playoff implications.

Potential winner: Monday baseball. If the Pirates win, Cardinals lose, Royals win, Tigers lose, Mariners win and A’s lose, we get three Game No. 163s. We can dream, can’t we?

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?


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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 ...
The playoff teams are set in the National League, but we don't yet know the order. Three things are still in play:

1. The Cardinals lead the Pirates by one game in the NL Central.

2. The Pirates lead the Giants by one game in the wild-card race, although this is effectively a two-game lead because the Pirates own the tiebreaker advantage over the Giants. Considering the Pirates have the biggest home/road split in the majors, if they can't win the division, holding off the Giants is important.

3. The Nationals hold a 2.5-game lead over the Dodgers for best record. (And also hold the tiebreaker, so it's effectively a 3.5-game lead.)

Let's address those first two items, in particular the state of the Pirates' rotation. Right now, their scheduled starters against the Reds this weekend are Vance Worley on Friday, Francisco Liriano on Saturday and Gerrit Cole on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThe Pirates want Gerrit Cole pitching in important games. But how to ensure that next week?

A lot can happen between now and Cole's start Sunday. The Cardinals could clinch the division. The Pirates could clinch the first wild card. If those scenarios both happen, I would expect the Pirates to hold back Cole and start him in the wild-card game Wednesday. Otherwise, however, things get tricky. Remember, the Saturday game will be in play no matter what happens Friday (the Pirates have a day game while the Cardinals play at night), so Liriano will start. As Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports:
That means the only way the Pirates would be able to use Liriano in a potential wild card game is on three day's rest, which is often ill-advised. ...

The scenario in which the Pirates play a tiebreak 163rd game on Monday in St. Louis, the only pitcher on regular rest would be Jeff Locke; and as we saw Wednesday, he is by far the club's shakiest starting option. Locke pitching on the road in St. Louis will be quite a challenge.

But if the Pirates win that game, they would be in great shape to set up their rotation for the NLDS.

1. Liriano
2. Cole
3. (Edinson) Volquez
4. Worley

(vs. WAS or LAD)

If they lost such a game, they couldn't use Cole in the Wednesday wild card game and Liriano would be on three days' rest ... and well, that spells trouble. Or does it? Maybe Volquez can extend his scoreless innings streak.

Got that? If the Pirates do end up tied with the Cardinals, it appears Locke would have to start the tiebreaker game. If they lost that, the options in the wild-card game would be: (A) Volquez on five days' rest; (B) Worley on four days' rest; (C) Liriano on three days' rest.

Interesting choice there for Clint Hurdle. Considering teams will set up their rotations for the stretch as early as late August, the Pirates had to have foreseen this possibility (or maybe not, considering a division title seemed unlikely back in early September). I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Liriano starting on three days' rest, because as Sawchik implied, Edinson Volquez would make me very nervous.

As for the Cardinals, their weekend starters in Arizona will be Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright.

The Division Series doesn't start until Friday, so even if they need Wainwright to clinch the division Sunday, he'd still be ready to start Game 1 of that series on regular rest.

Where things take a complicated turn for St. Louis is if the Pirates catch them for the division. Wainwright and Lynn, their two best starters, wouldn't be available for Monday's division tiebreaker. That game would go to either Shelby Miller, who started Tuesday, or John Lackey, who started Wednesday. Miller has been better than Lackey of late, although he got knocked out in the fifth inning in that last outing.

If the Cardinals lose the tiebreaker, the wild-card start Wednesday could go to either Wacha on four days' rest or Miller or Lackey. Wacha has yet to deliver a confidence-inspiring performance since his return from the DL, so I think that start would be predicated on his Friday performance. Lynn would have to go on three days' rest, probably unlikely.

The odds still favor the Cardinals -- FanGraphs gives them an 80 percent chance of winning the division compared to 20 percent for the Pirates. But all that needs to happen is for the Pirates to sweep the Reds and the Cardinals to go 2-1 and suddenly we'll have a crazy few days in the National League.

(As for the Giants, Madison Bumgarner will start the wild-card game. It's possible that not being in a division race will end up being to their advantage, as they'll get to pitch their ace while the Pirates or Cardinals may end up having to use their No. 4 or 5 starter.)

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.

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

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

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

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

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


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


Discuss (Total votes: 850)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Monday

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21

We're starting to see a little clarity. I think. Check the standings, playoff odds and remaining schedule at the Hunt for October page.

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

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

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, meet the wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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