SweetSpot: San Francisco Giants

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.

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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 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
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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
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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.)

video 5. The Dodgers wrap up the NL West and Clayton Kershaw wraps up the MVP. The Dodgers have won 20 of the past 21 games that Kershaw started and 23 of the 27 he started overall. Kershaw is 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. He even tripled in a run while striking out 11 in a 9-1 win over the Giants (the Giants led 1-0 before Kershaw's tying triple in the fifth). Let's not make the MVP debate more complicated than it needs: Clayton Kershaw is the best, and most valuable, player in the National League. There shouldn't really need to be a debate.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
1:31
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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.


It's official: San Francisco Giants center fielder Angel Pagan will have back surgery and miss the rest of the season.

How much will the Giants miss Pagan? The easy answer is "A lot ... unless they don't."

The Giants are 56-35 when Pagan starts (entering Tuesday night's game), meaning they're 29-36 when he doesn't start. So by citing that statistic I just created a story that makes Pagan appear like he's the most valuable player in the league. Twenty-one games over .500 when he starts! Seven games under .500 when he doesn't!

Of course, it's foolish to suggest one player makes that kind of difference, although you hear this kind of stuff all the time when people discuss MVP candidates. Pagan was in the lineup early in the season when the Giants got off to a great start and then again when they turned things around in August and September. That doesn't mean he's the primary reason for those periods of success, however.

I'm not knocking him; Pagan is a good player who hit .300/.342/.389 in his 96 games, giving the Giants solid production from the leadoff spot. Defensively, the metrics are split on him: defensive runs saved says he's slightly below average while total zone rates him above average. Considering he's 32 and played through back issues, my guess is he's probably lost a step out there. The total package adds up 1.5 WAR.

Luckily, the Giants have a capable fourth outfielder in Gregor Blanco. You remember him as the guy who stepped in for the suspended Melky Cabrera two years ago and helped the Giants win the World Series, playing solid defense in left and contributing some timely hits in October. He's hit .260/.337/.378 in 422 plate appearances this season, actually hitting for a little more power than Pagan. Blanco has hit lefties better as well (.283/.333/.375), at least well enough that Bruce Bochy can start him against southpaws. So, based on 2014 numbers, the change from Pagan to Blanco isn't much of a decline, if any.

But the other problem for Bochy is left fielder Mike Morse is currently out with an oblique injury, which has sidelined him for the Dodgers series. The Giants are hopeful he can play this weekend against the Padres, but that's no guarantee and he'd have to shake off the rust as he's batted just twice in September.

The Giants' fourth outfielder at the moment would be Juan Perez, a defensive guy who is hitting .167 in 99 PAs. The other option is Chris Dominguez, a 27-year-old minor league vet who played the past two games. He hit .274/.307/.460 at Triple-A Fresno with 21 home runs but 143 strikeouts and just 22 walks. So if Morse isn't ready by the postseason, the Giants appear to have an obvious hole in the lineup.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
1:42
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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
11:02
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We're starting to see a little clarity. I think. Check the standings, playoff odds and remaining schedule at the Hunt for October page.

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

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

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, meet the wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
10:24
AM ET
A hearty congrats to the Orioles, Nationals and Angels as they prepare for the postseason, especially Orioles fans, who have been waiting since 1997 to once again don the AL East crown. Meanwhile, former doormats (Pirates, Royals, and Mariners) are all sprinting towards the playoffs while past postseason regulars (Yankees, Red Sox, Braves) have wilted. The A's, on the other hand, cannot seem to stop the slide. And how about the performances of Carlos Carrasco and Jake Arrieta? Wow. And wow.

What did we learn this week? The SweetSpot staff has been diligently helping us learn something every day.

On to the best from around the SweetSpot Network this week:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
D-backs have free agent options, limited flexibility in 2015: A recent report has D-backs leadership pointing at a $100 million payroll for next season. Jeff Wiser examines how that restraint may play out in the offseason. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
The Orioles don't have an MVP candidate, so who's the MVO? Pat Holden determines who has been the most valuable Orioles player in 2014. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
Free agent wishcasting: The White Sox have been done for a while now, but have lots of money. Nick Schaefer takes a long look at potential free agent targets. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Projecting Michael McKenry: Ryan Hammon evaluates Michael McKenry, who has played his way into the starting catcher mix for the Rockies. Included is a chat with him about what he plans on working on this offseason and other topics. Follow on Twitter: @RyanHammon.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
What's going on with Glen? All-Star closer Glen Perkins is unraveling late in the season. Parker Hageman digs deep to figure out what's ailing the lefty. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Will Kevin Long be the sacrificial lamb? With the Yankee offense reduced to a punchline this season, William Tasker discusses Long's role in the situation and whether the hitting coach should end up taking the fall. Follow on Twitter: @FlagrantFan.

San Francisco Giants: West Coast Bias
Would Tim Lincecum make the Giants' postseason roster? Dave Tobener takes a look at what has been a horrendous year for Tim Lincecum, and how he stacks up against the other options Bruce Bochy has for assembling a postseason pitching staff. Follow on Twitter: @gggiants.



Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
1:35
AM ET
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at the world-famous Hunt for October page.

1. This is how Mariners fans feel right now. Mariners rookie James Paxton was filthy, matching zeroes with Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson into the seventh inning. Then came a one-out single and soft liner to right that Chris Denorfia let bounce past him, Howie Kendrick scoring from first. Then an intentional walk to Erick Aybar for reasons I don't understand. And then, with two outs, C.J. Cron blasted a loud and long home run off reliever Danny Farquhar. Just like that it was 4-0, the Angels clinched a tie for the AL West title (and later won it as the Rangers rallied to beat the A's in the ninth) and the Mariners' wild-card dreams took a hit as they fell two games behind the Royals.

C.J. Wilson was terrific in his own right, allowing just one hit in seven innings, although the Mariners are pretty inept against southpaws. It was the first time Wilson went seven in 14 starts -- and he went five innings or less in half of those 14 starts. So this was a much-needed strong outing from Wilson as the Angels look to line up their playoff rotation, especially with the iffy status of rookie sensation Matt Shoemaker, who will miss his next start with a mild oblique strain. (Shoemaker said on Wednesday that he's feeling better: "The positive part is it feels better every day. It’s not getting worse. They said it’s going to linger for a few days, and hopefully after a few days it will be gone."

The Angels clinched and they're also three games up on the Orioles for the best record in the league. Would you rather face the wild-card winner or the AL Central winner in the first round? I guess that depends on the opponent. Either way, they'll need Wilson to come up big.

2. Here come the Giants! Crazy day in the NL West as the Giants scored twice in the ninth to beat the Diamondbacks 4-2 -- pinch-hitter Matt Duffy delivered a two-run single -- and the Rockies pounded the Dodgers 16-2. Dodgers starter Carlos Frias, filling in for sore-shouldered Hyun-Jin Ryu, allowed 10 hits while getting two outs, apparently becoming the first starter since 1900 to allow that many hits while getting fewer than three outs. Ouch. The big picture: The Dodgers' lead is down to three games and they're suddenly scrambling in the rotation once you get past Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Before their huge series in San Francisco that starts on Monday, the Dodgers travel to Wrigley this weekend for four games and the Giants to San Diego for three.

3. Maybe that Adam Wainwright guy is OK. Is it time to stop worrying about that little dead-arm slump Wainwright was in? Locked into a great duel with Mike Fiers -- who took a no-hitter in the sixth before Wainwright singled -- Wainwright tossed a nifty 102-pitch, seven-hit shutout for his MLB-leading 19th win. Suddenly, he's Mr. Ace again: Two runs in 26 innings over his past three starts.

It was a tough loss for Fiers, who showed some mental toughness with a good outing after hitting Giancarlo Stanton in his previous start. He deserved better. With Matt Holliday on first in the seventh, Matt Adams hit a slow ground ball that bounced through the shift and center fielder Carlos Gomez bobbled the ball, allowing Holliday to score all the way from first when he threw the ball into second base instead of home.

With Pittsburgh winning, the Brewers dropped to 2.5 games behind the Pirates. Milwaukee has one more game with St. Louis before squaring with the Pirates in Pittsburgh this weekend. No matter the results of Thursday's game, the Brewers will essentially be in a "must sweep" scenario against the Pirates.

4. Chris Sale can be beat. Which is good news for the Royals because they touched up the AL ERA leader (well, Sale is now second in ERA to Felix Hernandez) after giving up nine hits and five runs in five innings. Lorenzo Cain, who a week ago was batting eighth and is now hitting third (Ned Yost, everyone!), hit a three-run homer in the third inning and then Alcides Escobar torched Sale in the fourth. It was just the third time Sale has allowed five runs and the nine hits are the second-most he's allowed in a game -- the Orioles got him for 11 back on June 23. The Royals are now a half-game behind the Tigers for the division lead and two up on Seattle for the wild, the usual "suspended game against Cleveland" not included.

5. Indians barely alive. Carlos Carrasco tossed a dominant two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout over the Astros. His Game Score of 94 tied for the sixth-highest of the season. Do the Indians have any shot at the wild card? Very slim, as they trail the Royals by five games. But they do have a series against Kansas City next week. Get some help from Detroit this weekend, sweep the Royals and hope Seattle falters and you never know. Because ... baseball.
We're getting close enough to the end of the season to start speculating on who could pitch in the wild-card games. Teams won't necessarily have the luxury of lining up their best pitcher -- two years ago, for example, the Orioles went with Joe Saunders (although they didn't really have an ace that season). Last season, the Rays and Indians used Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar, as David Price had to pitch the tiebreaker game for Tampa Bay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Sunday

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

1. The Tigers will win the AL Central.

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

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

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

3. Good night, Yankees.

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

4. Pirates looking good.

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

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

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

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:12
PM ET
Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?

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The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

Five things we learned Friday

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

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

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

1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
2:43
AM ET
video

Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

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


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

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

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

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

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

Yay, wild card?

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