SweetSpot: Seattle Mariners

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
11:02
PM ET
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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.
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Teams make the playoffs with expected production from their stars, with young players who improve, maybe a couple rookies who step up. But on almost every playoff team, you can find a guy who came out of nowhere to offer a major contribution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Saturday

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

Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at our Hunt for October page.

1. Tigers win appeal, beat Royals. Larry Vanover, Tyler Collins and Raul Ibanez. That unlikely trio served as the three key principles in a contest that might go a long way in determining the winner of the American League Central. In the sixth inning, with the score tied at 1, runners on second and third, and two outs, Kansas City Royals infielder Omar Infante hit a line drive that was caught by Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. In an attempt to double up Eric Hosmer at second, Kinsler threw the ball to shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who missed the throw. With the ball trickling into left field, Royals catcher Salvador Perez scampered home and scored what appeared to be the go-ahead run. The problem is Perez never retouched third base before he ran home.

Crew chief Larry Vanover called a meeting of the umpiring crew before he spoke with replay headquarters in New York. After a few minutes on the headset, the umpires reconvened for another chat. The play had been determined unreviewable, but the call was overturned. Perez was called out. The matter in which the call was made is still up for debate, but the ruling appeared to be correct, as Perez did not make contact with the bag.

A half-inning later, with the score still tied at 1, September call-up Tyler Collins came through with a pinch-hit, RBI single for Detroit to break the tie. Clinging to a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning, the Tigers handed the ball over to embattled closer Joe Nathan.

After recording a leadoff out, Nathan allowed back-to-back singles to put a man in scoring position with one out. A groundout advanced the runners 90 feet and left pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez to face Nathan. Nathan, 39, retired Ibanez, 42, on two pitches to end a strange game and perhaps the Royals' chance of winning the AL Central.

The Royals, however, maintained their standing in the wild-card race after losses by the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners.

2. Williams makes history in win over A's. The A's fell 3-0 to Philadelphia, and a trio of Phillies pitchers completed the shutout led by journeyman Jerome Williams. This season, Williams has worn the uniform of the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and his current club, and he has beaten Oakland while wearing each set of threads. He is the first pitcher in major league history to accomplish that feat.

Williams' latest victory over the A's was a seven-inning effort. He allowed four singles and a walk while striking out three. The veteran right-hander has a 2.45 ERA in just over 50 innings with his new club and has likely earned himself another look for next year.

For the A's, it's the latest in a line of disappointing losses. The team with the best record in baseball on July 31 is clinging to a half-game lead in the AL wild-card race. Lefty Scott Kazmir will take the ball for Oakland in the series finale.

3. Seattle routed in missed opportunity. With the A's and Royals losing, the Mariners had a golden opportunity to advance their place in the wild-card chase with a win over the Astros. Instead, the Mariners were crushed 10-1 and remain tied with the Royals for the final playoff spot in the AL.

M's starter Chris Young has been a pleasant surprise this season, but he was beaten around the ballpark Saturday. Houston belted a pair of two-run home runs off Young in the first inning to take an early 4-0 lead. In the fourth inning, they smashed two more -- back-to-back solo shots that chased the Seattle pitcher. In total, Young was charged with seven runs -- half of them home runs -- on eight hits.

The first home run against Young came off the bat of Astros' designated hitter Chris Carter. The former A's farmhand launched his 37th home run of the season; he now has 18 home runs in 58 second-half games. Power has always been Carter's calling card, but the 27-year-old is showing an improved approach at the place, which includes cutting down the number of swings on pitches out of the strike zone.

4. Dodgers' bullpen squanders a big lead. After scoring 14 runs on Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared to be headed for double digits again Saturday. With two runs in the first and four more in the third, Los Angeles jumped out to a 6-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs. They would add another run and take a 7-2 into the bottom of the seventh inning.

Facing left-hander J.P. Howell, the Cubs nearly erased their deficit and scored four runs in the frame, including a towering, three-run shot off the bat of Arismendy Alcantara. The rookie's 10th home run traveled 394 feet to deep left field and came on an 86 mph fastball. The Dodgers escaped the inning with the lead but would watch it fade for good in the eighth.

Chris Coghlan capped off the comeback with a two-run homer to put the Cubs ahead by the final score of 8-7. It was the second homer of the afternoon for Coghlan, who reached base in all five of his plate appearances. The Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez also had a multihomer game in the loss. Los Angeles has already clinched a spot in the postseason but still has to fight off the Giants to win the division crown and avoid the play-in game.

5. Brewers strike late to stay relevant. Speaking of the play-in game, the Milwaukee Brewers kept their slender hopes of making the wild-card game alive with a victory over the team they are chasing, the Pittsburgh Pirates. A scoreless affair until the ninth inning, the Brewers used a fielder's choice, a double and a sacrifice fly to push across the lone run of the game.

In the top of the ninth of a scoreless game, Elian Herrera reached based for the Brewers after failing to advance Ryan Braun on a bunt attempt. Herrera moved to third following a Lyle Overbay double and crossed the plate on a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Logan Schafer.

Seven Brewers pitchers, including Francisco Rodriguez, combined for the shutout. Rodriguez needed just six pitches to nail the final three outs in his 43rd save. The win brings Milwaukee to within 3 1/2 games of the Pirates, with another head-to-head matchup coming Sunday.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
12:09
AM ET
Check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedules at our Hunt for October page.

1. Max Scherzer versus James Shields on Saturday could be for all the marbles. Kansas City began Friday just a half game behind Detroit in the American League Central, but they were blown out by the Tigers 10-1. Detroit chased Royals starter Jason Vargas in the fourth inning and joined the Nationals as the only teams in baseball with four players who have driven in at least 80 runs this season when Torii Hunter collected his 80th RBI of the season.

On this night, Victor Martinez joined Miguel Cabrera in the 100 RBI club when he drove in Cabrera in the first inning. That was his 45th RBI since the All-Star break, and he continues to build his case in the American League MVP race.

2. The Brewers' chances are slim to none, and slim is packing its bags. Milwaukee took a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning at Pittsburgh, only to see Jonathan Broxton allow a three-run home run to Russell Martin and watch their offense go down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning. The loss was Milwaukee's third straight and 12th in the month of September, and it spoiled a brilliant outing for Yovani Gallardo.

The Brewers needed to sweep this series, and Gallardo was up to the task. He struck out 11 and scattered five hits over seven scoreless innings. Nonetheless, John Holdzkom was awarded the first win of his major league career, and Mark Melancon saved his fifth game in two weeks.

Milwaukee now trails Pittsburgh by 4½ games for the second NL wild-card spot, and the Brewers are in need of a miracle to get to the postseason. The win was the fifth in a row and 12th in the past 14 games for Pittsburgh. The Pirates are still within striking distance of the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central title, but the two teams do not play again during the regular season, and St. Louis will face the Cubs and Diamondbacks in the final week.

3. Clayton Kershaw is (somewhat) human. The Cubs began the day with a .239 team batting average, which was fourth worst in baseball, and they had a league-worst 23.9 percent strikeout rate. Kershaw entered the game with a league-best .190 opponents' batting average and a 31.6 percent strikeout rate. The matchup, on paper, could not have looked more lopsided. Kershaw had made 17 consecutive starts in which he threw at least seven innings. He had made 16 consecutive starts in which he did not allow more hits than innings pitched.

Both of those streaks came to an end against the young and free-swinging Cubs lineup. While Kershaw was still able to pick up his 20th win of the season, he allowed three runs and seven hits in five innings of work. Kershaw did not have his usual command of the strike zone, and he threw 59.4 percent (63-of-106) of his pitches for strikes, which marked just the second time this season that he had thrown fewer than 60 percent of his pitches for strikes. His last regular-season start will come Wednesday night in the critical series against the Giants.

4. A repeat is looking likely for St. Louis. John Lackey took the mound for the first time in nine days, as his latest start was skipped due to his having a dead arm. In his previous three starts, Lackey had permitted 22 hits and 13 runs in 14 1/3 innings.

On Friday, he looked like the version of Lackey the Cardinals acquired from the Red Sox. He pitched into the eighth inning and allowed six hits and one run while striking out five batters. It was the 13th win in September and sixth in the past seven games for St. Louis. Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn will take the ball in the final two games of the series as the Cardinals look to take advantage of a favorable schedule the rest of the way and repeat as NL Central champs.

5. Mariners handling the calm before the storm. Seattle has a tough road next week, as they have a four-game series at Toronto and then host the Angels to wrap up the regular season.

Last week, the Mariners dropped two of three at home to the Astros, and they can ill-afford a repeat this weekend in Houston. Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino were not going to let that happen, as each homered Friday in support of Taijuan Walker in a convincing win over the Astros.

Five Mariners had multiple hits, and both of Ackley's hits were home runs. Seattle is a half-game out of the second AL wild-card spot. A sweep of the Astros this weekend would strengthen the Mariners' odds in the final week, and they started the weekend off on the right note.

Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.
Facing the Los Angeles Angels' Triple-A lineup Thursday (all the starters rested after the Angels clinched the AL West title Wednesday night), Felix Hernandez crushed: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 K. He lowered his ERA to 2.07.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about two unlucky pitchers.

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

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

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 probably spend way too much discussing and arguing about awards, but it's fun and fans like to argue about these things, so straight to the numbers. There are, I'd suggest, five reasonable Cy Young candidates in the American League:

 


Pitcher W-L ERA R/9 IP H BB SO HR OPS FIP Felix GS bWAR fWAR
Felix 14-5 2.14 2.47 219.0 160 41 225 15 .551 2.59 20 65.5 6.8 5.8
Kluber 16-9 2.54 2.87 219.2 195 48 244 14 .631 2.47 17 61.7 6.3 6.5
Sale 12-3 1.99 2.31 163.0 116 34 192 11 .543 2.46 11 66.4 6.5 5.3
Lester 15-10 2.45 3.06 205.2 181 46 206 15 .633 2.81 13 60.8 4.3 5.7
Scherzer 16-5 3.26 3.34 207.1 184 58 237 18 .661 2.88 12 59.3 5.6 5.2


(Some of the numbers above: OPS is OPS allowed; FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching; Felix -- named in honor of Felix Hernandez -- is the number of starts a pitcher had where he went at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer; GS is average Game Score; and bWAR and fWAR are from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.)

A few weeks ago, Hernandez appeared to be a Cy Young lock, with that stretch of 17 Felixes in a row, an all-time record. Over his last six starts, however, he has just one win and a 3.03 ERA. OK, that's not bad when your bad stretch still produces a lower ERA than Max Scherzer has on the season. Hernandez's main culprit in this period has been the home run: After allowing seven in his first 25 starts, he's allowed eight in those six, including four in one game to the Nationals.

Still, this little slump has allowed others to jump into the race. Corey Kluber had another outstanding effort on Tuesday, striking out a career-high 14 to earn his 16th win and lower his ERA to 2.54. He has a 1.84 ERA since the All-Star break and his FanGraphs WAR has also edged ahead of Hernandez's. While Hernandez's changeup is regarded with awe, it's time to view Kluber's curve with same level of appreciation, as opponents are hitting .094 against it in 198 plate appearances with no home runs and 113 strikeouts.

Chris Sale leads the AL with a 1.99 ERA, despite pitching in a tougher park for pitchers than Hernandez. He's closing in on Hernandez in both bWAR and fWAR and starts Wednesday against the Royals. The Condor's slider is reminiscent of another tall, slim lefty: Randy Johnson. Opponents are hitting .135 off it with just four extra-base hits (two home runs).

Jon Lester is close behind in ERA, innings and WAR, but he's also allowed 14 unearned runs, so his actual runs allowed per nine is significantly higher than Hernandez's. Scherzer's ERA is higher but he has solid peripherals; keep in mind that his ERA was hurt by that 10-run outing to the Royals -- all earned runs.

One category I like to look at is dominant performances. That's why I like the "Felix" -- if you go seven and allow two runs or fewer, you should win, or you've at least put your team in position to win. It's a better quick-and-dirty method than quality starts (six innings, three runs or fewer), which don't work as well in this era of depressed offense.

As you can see, Lester and Scherzer trail Hernandez significantly in that area. They've been terrific, but I feel comfortable knocking them off the list.

The problem I have in giving Sale the edge over Hernandez is that large gap in innings -- Hernandez has pitched 56 more innings. So why is Sale so close in WAR? The quality of opposition has been about the same (4.35 runs scored per game on average for Hernandez's opponents, 4.28 for Sale's), so it's all about park effects. But Felix has a 2.16 ERA at home and 2.11 on the road. This isn't a Sandy Koufax type of situation, where Hernandez derives an obvious and large benefit from Safeco Field. Maybe Sale has been slightly better on a per-inning basis, but I can't get over that gap in innings and the benefit has created in resting the bullpen.

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That leaves Kluber. He's got the innings, the strikeouts and more wins than Felix. He's faced an easier group of opponents -- 4.09 runs on average -- and his runs per nine innings is still 0.40 higher than Felix's. That's a minor knock against him.

It could come down to wins, especially if Kluber gets up to 18 by the end of the season and Felix remains stuck at 14 or 15. But we probably all know the tough luck Felix has pitched in this year. Hernandez has seven games where's he allowed no runs or zero runs, tied for most in the majors (with Jeff Samardzija and Hector Santiago). Sale has six such games and Kluber four. If we increase the runs allowed to two, Hernandez has had 11 such starts where he didn't get the win, compared to eight for Sale and seven for Kluber.

I still think Felix is the guy. But it's close enough that these final two starts for each pitcher could make a difference.

video

Jim Caple has a column going up on what Robinson Cano has meant to the Mariners. Eric and I discuss Cano's impact and Cano's underrated season that should place him high in the AL MVP voting.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
1:41
AM ET


Check the standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

1. "That's what speed do." A few years ago, Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, talking about his ability as one of the fastest players in the game, coined the phrase "That's what speed do." It's kind of a popular thing for Royals fan to quote although it's never quite caught on on a national level. Hey, it's the Royals. Well, it may be reaching a tipping point after the wheels of Dyson and fellow pinch runner Terrance Gore inspired a dramatic ninth-inning comeback as the Royals scored twice with two outs to beat the White Sox 4-3. Here's Dyson on second base with two outs, running on the pitch, and scoring as the ball bounces to the backstop; love the excited Royals announcers quoting Dyson. And here's Gore on second base after Norichica Aoki doubled. He's also running on the play and scores the winner on Lorenzo Cain's infield hit.

What a turn of events for the Royals, who trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the seventh. By that time, they knew the Tigers were on their (likely) way to a win over the Twins. Considering Sunday's bullpen fiasco created by manager Ned Yost, it was looking like doom-and-gloom time in Kansas City. So give them credit for coming alive late against the White Sox bullpen. Give Dyson credit for stealing third on his run -- a base that didn't seem all that important to risk with two outs -- especially considering he got picked off second in a similar scenario last week. As I wrote when Dyson got picked off, there are times you can throw the numbers out the window and just say either the player makes a play or he doesn't. Dyson made a big play.

This is one way the Royals have to manufacture runs. They're last in the AL in home runs and last in walks. They're not a good offensive team. But they have speed, ranking first in the league in steals, and FanGraphs rates them as the second-best baserunning team in the majors behind the Nationals (some of their speed advantage is negated by the likes of Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the worst baserunners in the league). It's not a big statistical advantage -- plus-7.8 runs above average entering Monday -- but as Monday showed, there are moments in games where speed can be the deciding factor.

The night got even better when the Mariners lost, so the Royals are two up on Seattle for the second wild card, just one game behind the A's and still 1.5 behind the Tigers. (You know the caveat: The Royals are losing to the Indians in that suspended game.)

2. Kudos to Don Mattingly. The Dodgers' skipper didn't fuss around with Roberto Hernandez, yanking him in the fourth inning of a 2-2 game with the bases loaded. With lefty Charlie Blackmon up, Mattingly went to southpaw Paco Rodriguez. Blackmon doesn't have a huge platoon split, but his OPS against lefties was 70 points lower entering the game. Hernandez doesn't have a platoon split this year but has in the past. With all the extra relievers that September provides, there was no need to keep Hernandez in there as you probably would have before rosters expanded. The player still has to execute and Rodriguez got the groundout. The Dodgers went on to break it open with an 11-3 win, but it was a move that shows Mattingly understands that you can manage September differently from April through August.

Oh ... and the Giants lost, so L.A.'s lead in the NL West is now up to four games.

Oh ... if Hyun-Jin Ryu can't make it back for the playoffs because of his sore shoulder, is Hernandez really the team's No. 4 starter right now?

3. Stephen Strasburg with another gem. Christina Kahrl touched on how the Nationals are winning with roster depth and not on the backs of the heralded duo of Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But Strasburg has put together four straight solid starts now, with no walks, 28 strikeouts and just six extra-base hits allowed. His average fastball velocity those four starts: 95.7, 95.6, 95.9 and 95.3. This doesn't look like a guy tiring down the stretch.

One note, however: The past two starts came against the Braves, next to last in the NL in runs; the one before that came against the Phillies (in D.C.); and before that against the offensively impaired Mariners at Safeco. So I'm not quite ready to declare Strasburg has turned the corner from his inconsistent ways. Still, a good sign.

4. Good night, Yankees. Wait, did I write this on Sunday as well? As blog contributor Katie Sharp tweeted after the Yankees' 1-0 loss to the Rays, the Yankees have scored six runs in their past five games, their fewest in a five-game span since June 30-July 4, 1997. By the way, Derek Jeter got the day off. Understandable and needed. Jeter has completely wilted down the stretch, as much to blame as any player for the Yankees' struggles. Over his past 21 games, he's hit .145/.189/.169. And has still been hitting second in the lineup. Shame on you, Joe Girardi, for putting the individual over the team.

5. Tired Hisashi Iwakuma. Felix Hernandez hasn't been quite as dominant of late and Iwakuma has definitely not been sharp. Over his past five starts, Iwakuma has allowed 22 runs in 21.1 innings. On Monday, the Angels pounded him for seven runs in 3.1 innings. The big blow was Albert Pujols' three-run double with two outs in the third -- after Iwakuma had retired the first two batters of the inning. Now two games behind the Royals, the Mariners' playoff odds have dropped to 31 percent -- this after climbing over 50 percent heading into Saturday's game (with King Felix starting). But three straight losses and now it's a tough climb back.

For the Angels, Matt Shoemaker keeps winning, Mike Trout keeps hitting and they've won 11 of 12, averaging 8.2 runs per game in that stretch.

Mariners' next opponent: the road

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:41
AM ET

When the 2014 schedule was planned last year, I wrote how the schedule-makers hosed the West Coast teams in general and the Mariners in particular.

How bad has it been? The Mariners’ schedule has them flying more miles than any other team this season, including five separate trips to the East Coast to play the five American League East teams and six trips to the state of Texas.

Now, with their postseason hopes on the line, they begin another demanding road trip this week, when they must virtually circumnavigate the continent, playing 11 games in three cities (Anaheim, Houston and Toronto), three time zones (Pacific, Central and Eastern) and two countries (U.S. and Canada). When they finish the road trip in Toronto, they fly back across the country and play their season-ending series in Seattle against the Angels, without a day off.

Nice, huh?

Robinson Cano, playing home games on the West Coast for the first time in his career, says the extra travel makes a big difference. He noted that the Mariners' trip to Anaheim after Sunday’s home game was one of the shortest flights the team makes this season, yet it’s about the same length as the longest trip the Yankees make to play a division opponent.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesFor Robinson Cano and the Mariners, the playoffs depend on the bends in the road over the next week and a half.

“For me, it’s tough this year, because I’ve never been in this division,” he said. “But I know now what I’m going through. Next season will be easier.”

Next season should be easier for Seattle too, because the schedule is fairer and more reasonable, with fewer cross-country trips (just three to play AL East teams) and more West Coast trips. (Their interleague opponents are the National League West teams.)

As bad as this final long road trip is for the Mariners, it’s possible that it’s actually good for their postseason hopes. On the one hand, it involves significant travel, no off-days and four games against the team with baseball’s best record (the Angels). On the other hand, Seattle is a combined 19-12 against the Angels, Astros and Blue Jays, with a winning record against each one.

More importantly, the Mariners are significantly better on the road than at home this season. They are 14 games above .500 on the road and two games under .500 in Seattle. They are 4-8 at home since mid-August. They are averaging nearly one run per game more on the road than at Safeco Field, while their ERA is virtually the same. In fact, the Mariners have been held to two hits at home six times this year, most since the 1978 Giants.

So maybe this last trip benefits the Mariners. The Angels had won 10 consecutive games until they lost to the Astros on Sunday; maybe they’re due for a bad streak. And the Blue Jays could be officially eliminated from the wild-card race by the time that series rolls around.

Whatever happens, Seattle can’t let all the mileage in the air distract it from what it must do on the field to reach the postseason for first time in 13 years.

“One thing as player is you can’t let that get into your mind and get mentally tired for those flights,” Cano said. “You just have to not put that thought in your mind. If you let it affect you mentally, it will get your body tired too.”

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.

Dunn among vets seeking first playoffs

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
2:17
PM ET
For an aspiring major leaguer, the first milestone is reaching the big leagues. Once he's played his first game, another goal -- playing in the postseason -- can be just as long and arduous. Just ask Adam Dunn.

Dunn had played 1985 major-league games over 14 seasons and none of them in the playoffs, the most among active players. The wait to make the playoffs has made his wait to reach the big show -- a relatively short four years and 343 games in the minors -- seem like a flash. So the potential to finally play baseball rather than golf in October was one of the reasons why the big slugger, who announced recently that he plans to retire after the season, approved his trade from the White Sox to the A's on Aug 31. Despite the A's recent swoon, they still have a 92 percent chance of making it into baseball's postseason tournament, according to coolstandings.com (which we use on ESPN).

But Dunn's not the only veteran with a decent chance of fulfilling a playoff dream. Several seasoned players stand a better than even chance of seeing October action for the first time: The Royals’ Scott Downs and Josh Willingham, the Orioles' Nick Markakis, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm and the Nationals' Scott Hairston.

Some of those players have come close. Dunn's best previous opportunity came after the Reds traded him to the Diamondbacks in August of 2008 to help them chase the Dodgers. But the 44-game rental wasn't enough as Arizona fell two games short of the NL West title. Four years later, Dunn's White Sox led the AL Central for most of the second half of 2012 but faltered in the season's final week and finished out of the money by three games.

Markakis, on the other hand, has actually played for a team that made the playoffs. It's just that injury prevented him from playing during the postseason. With less than a month remaining in the Orioles' wild-card season of 2012 season, C.C. Sabathia broke Markakis' left thumb with a pitch, sidelining the right fielder for the team's wild-card game and five Division Series games.

Willingham is a different story. Despite playing for five different clubs in his 11-year career, he hasn't come close to the playoffs. Heading into this season, Willingham's teams have languished with a .438 winning percentage and finished an average of 20 games back of their division leader. So when he came over from the last-place Twins to the first-place Royals on Aug. 11, he was in unfamiliar territory. If the Royals do hold on and win the Central, though, Willingham isn't a sure thing for the playoffs: He only recently returned to the lineup after having been out since Aug. 29 with a sore back.

Willingham's Kansas City teammate Bruce Chen broke in with the Braves when fall ball was as much of a certainly on their schedule as spring training. Chen was part of the NL East title-winning clubs in 1998 and 1999, but didn't make the playoff roster. He played most of the 2014 season with the playoff-hunting Royals, but found out last week that the Royals designated him for assignment, shelving his playoff dream after 16 seasons.

Players can use their beleaguered teammates' pursuit of the playoffs as motivation. Markakis' outfield mate Adam Jones claims the team is "still [angry] about" Sabathia's pitch. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to teams rallying around long-suffering stars: He managed the Yankees in 1995 when the team won their final 11 of 12 games and 26 of 33 to at last take Don Mattingly to the playoffs in his final season. And this year, Mattingly’s Dodgers team includes pitcher Jamey Wright, who is in his 19th season but only last year saw the the playoffs (with Tampa Bay).

But if the A's plan to use Dunn’s quest as a rallying cry for their own, the Cardinals and Pirates will have to look to motivators other than helping forbearing teammates realize a dream. That's because those NL Central contenders simply don't have many veterans who haven't played October baseball. Their longest-tenured players without playoff experience are Peter Bourjos and Ike Davis, respectively, each 27 years old and in only his fifth major-league season.

Given a reprieve from a playoff-less career, Donnie Baseball went out with a .440 OBP and .708 SLG in the Bombers' five-game 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners. As Mattingly later said, "I would have been disappointed had I not gotten at least that one chance to play in the postseason, because you really wanna see how you handle it. And I did get that chance."

It’s a swan song that Adam Dunn would like to emulate this year. Will he -- and others -- get the chance?

Longest-tenured vets who have never appeared in postseason for playoff contenders

Athletics -- Adam Dunn, 14 seasons in majors
Royals -- Scott Downs, 13 seasons
Braves -- Aaron Harang, 13 seasons
Dodgers -- Kevin Correia, 12
Blue Jays -- R.A. Dickey, 12
Nationals -- Scott Hairston, 11
Mariners -- Felix Hernandez, 10
Brewers -- Zach Duke, 10
Orioles -- Nick Markakis, 9
Tigers -- Rajai Davis, 9
Angels -- Chris Iannetta, 9
Yankees -- Brandon McCarthy, 9
Indians -- Scott Atchison, 8
Giants -- Yusmeiro Petit, 7
Cardinals -- Peter Bourjos, 5
Pirates -- Ike Davis, 5

Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.
With the A's, Royals, Mariners and Tigers separated by just 1.5 games in the standings, there's the juicy possibility of a four-way tie, however slim: The Royals and Tigers tie for the AL Central title while the A's and Mariners also finish with the same record.

So, as a reader asked in today's chat, what happens if this happens?

Luckily, MLB has a plan! It's actually not so complicated:
1. Two tiebreak games will be played on Monday, Sept. 30 (tentatively). One will feature the two Clubs tied for the Division to determine the Division Champion, and the other will feature the other two Clubs outside the division to determine one Wild Card Club. Home field advantage in each game will be determined by the rules above for a two-team tiebreaker.

2. A third tiebreak game will be played on Tuesday, Oct. 1 (tentatively) between the loser of the game to determine the Division Champion and the loser of the game between the two Clubs outside the division to determine the second Wild Card Club. Home field advantage in the game will be determined by the rules above for a two-team tiebreaker.


So the Royals and Tigers would play for the division title. The A's and Mariners play for one wild card. The losers of the two games then play each other for the second wild card.

As far as home-field advantage in those games, the Tigers have already locked up the season edge over the Royals, leading 10 to 4 with five games remaining. Seattle leads Oakland 9 to 7 with three games remaining.

And what happens if, say, the Indians end up as a fifth team in the mix? That's a good question, since MLB does not lay out plans for a five-team tiebreaker.

Five things we learned Monday

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
10:34
AM ET
1. The A's can't get Sean Doolittle back soon enough.

For the second day in a row, the A's blew a ninth-inning lead, as Tyler Flowers of the White Sox homered off Eric O'Flaherty with two outs to tie the game and then homered again in the 12th off Jesse Chavez to win it. Doolittle threw a bullpen session on Monday and will face hitters on Wednesday, hoping for a return at the end of the week. The A's have now lost six games they've led heading into the ninth inning (the major league average is three) and their wild-card lead is down to one game over Seattle and 1.5 games over Detroit. Brandon Moss hasn't homered since July 24, a span of 113 at-bats during which he's hitting .159. Maybe it's not exactly desperate times in Oakland, but it's starting to feel like desperate times.

2. Even when he's mediocre, King Felix is pretty good.

Felix Hernandez scuffled through six innings against the Astros, walking four for the second time this season and giving up five hits. But he kept the Astros off the board in getting a no-decision. The Mariners broke open a 1-1 tie in the eighth on Brad Miller's two-run triple to win for the sixth time in seven games. Still, Felix hasn't been quite as dominant over his past five starts, as he's allowed seven home runs and has a 23/9 strikeout/walk ratio in 31.2 innings. He'll face the A's this weekend and the Mariners will hope to see the Felix who had that memorable 17-start stretch where he went seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer each outing.

3. Big night for the Pirates.

With a 6-4 win over the Phillies, combined with losses by the Brewers and Braves, the Pirates increased their lead for the second wild card to 1.5 games over those two clubs. While Jeff Locke pitched seven solid innings -- three hits, one run, nine K's -- it's the Pittsburgh offense that remains underrated. They're third in the NL in runs (just two behind the Nationals for second-most) and second in wOBA. Last year's Pirates were all about pitching, defense and Andrew McCutchen, but this year's lineup runs much deeper. Starling Marte has been huge of late. Since returning from a concussion on Aug. 5, he's hit .342/.402/.575 in 32 games, with 15 extra-base hits, getting on base and adding power from the leadoff spot.

4. Javier Baez is going to have to some interesting projections for 2015.

Baez went 0-for-4 as the Cubs lost 8-0 to the Blue Jays ... although he did strike out just once after whiffing 10 times in his previous three games. His batting average in 34 games is down to .165 and he has 62 strikeouts in 140 at-bats. Yes, he's just 21. Yes, the raw power is off the charts. But 62 strikeouts -- with just eight walks -- in 140 at-bats? That's crazy terrible. That's not even Mark Reynolds territory. Not surprisingly, among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Baez has the highest swing-and-miss percentage at 42.9 percent. Astros rookie George Springer has the second-highest at 41.1 percent. Springer, however, has hit .231/.336/.468 compared to Baez's .165/.209/.350. The big difference? Baez has a chase rate on pitches outside the zone of 40.6 percent compared to Springer's 23.3 percent. Again, Baez is three years younger than Springer, so he has time to learn the strike zone; but if he doesn't, pitchers are going to continue exploiting his aggressiveness.

5. Victor Martinez is the best hitter in the game right now.

After going 3-for-5 as the Tigers pounded the Royals 9-4 in the first game of their big series, Martinez leads the majors in wOBA, just head of Jose Abreu, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. In the park-adjusted wRC+, he's also first. He's hitting .337. He has power (already with a career-high 30 home runs). He rarely strikes out (just 39 K's in 570 plate appearances). Obviously, he doesn't have much defensive value as he's started just 30 games in the field, 28 of those at first base, but shouldn't he be a factor in the MVP voting? Not saying he should win, but he's a good top-five candidate. Oh ... doesn't Tuesday feel like a big game for the Royals? Jason Vargas versus Max Scherzer. Should be a fun one.

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