SweetSpot: Seattle Mariners

Mariners make strides, but fall short

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
10:47
PM ET
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SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has pitched 10 years in Seattle, winning a Cy Young (and maybe a second this year), establishing himself as the American League’s premier pitcher ... and has yet to pitch a single inning in the postseason.

But at least he finally had this Sunday. When Felix took the mound on the final day of the regular season, with the King’s Court packed full of yellow-shirted subjects and more than 40,000 fans throughout the stadium, he actually had a chance to pitch the Mariners into the playoffs. Which is far, far more than most everyone thought possible when the season began -– or when Seattle lost eight games in a row in April.

Seattle entered Sunday needing to beat the Angels and have Oakland lose to Texas in order to tie the Athletics and force a one-game playoff for the second wild card spot. King Felix accomplished the first part by pitching 5 1/3 dominant, scoreless innings to secure the American League ERA crown and lead the Mariners to a 4-1 victory. But the tumbling Athletics thwarted the second part by beating the Rangers 4-0.

The Mariners fans had been chanting "Let's go Rangers!'' so they were very disappointed when they saw the Oakland-Texas final go on the scoreboard. But the fans soon erupted in appreciative applause for the entire season. And for good reason. This was an exciting season for the Mariners, whom Seattle fans figured would not contend again until the Highway 99/waterfront tunnel project is finished (hint to non-Seattleites, that project is our version of the Big Dig.

“It was fun. It was fun all year round,’’ Felix said. “We would go down. Then we would get up. We had some struggles, but I’m proud of this team and proud of my teammates.’’

Seattle didn’t make the playoffs or even win 90 games, but the Mariners gave fans something to cheer and hope for until the final afternoon. And considering the past 13 years, that means a lot. As manager Lloyd McClendon told his team, “You’re no longer the prey. You’re the hunters.’’

“I think this was a tremendous learning experience for this ballclub, and we took a tremendous step forward,’’ McClendon said. “We’ll be better. We have a lot of work to do.

“I told you guys when I took the job this was a golden era for the Seattle Mariners and they haven’t let me down. And we’re only going to get better.’’

How does next season look? A lot like this year -- which is both good and bad.

The pitching staff, which led the league in ERA, looks solid. Felix will be back, as almost certainly will Hisashi Iwakuma (who has a team option for 2015), though comeback player of the year candidate Chris Young is a free agent. Rookie James Paxton pitched brilliantly after returning from injury. Taijuan Walker also pitched well when healthy.

And then there is the offense.

Signed to a $240 million contract, Robinson Cano was a terrific addition in the lineup, on the field and in the clubhouse while first-time All-Star Kyle Seager keeps getting better. But the rest of the lineup needs a significant upgrade. Seattle was shut out 19 times and finished last in OPS. General manager Jack Zduriencik, whose contract was extended this summer, has his work cut out for him to improve what has been a serious weakness for several seasons.

“It’s sad now that we have to go home,’’ Cano said. “You look back and say, we should have won this game or that game. But you can’t look back. You have a sour taste in your mouth, but you have to go home, work out and be ready for next season and think about what we need to get better for next year. We’re pretty close.’’

Seattle fans hope so, which is more than they usually feel at the end of most seasons.

As the Mariners took the field for the ninth inning Sunday, Earth Wind and Fire’s classic hit “September’’ played over the stadium loudspeakers while their fans danced, swayed and waved their rally towels. It was a wonderful moment, but what Seattle still awaits is an October song, like “We are the Champions.’’

The implications of Game No. 162

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
2:30
AM ET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Wednesday

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:38
AM ET


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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

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

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    15%
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    20%
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    19%
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    32%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 847)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
1:31
AM ET


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned Monday

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
1:42
AM ET


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
PM ET

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

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

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

2. Hisashi Iwakuma, meet the wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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