SweetSpot: St. Louis Cardinals

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.

video 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.

video 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.

video 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.

video 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.

video 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.

SweetSpot TV: Cardinals' rotation

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:56
AM ET
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With the Cardinals looking like good bets to win the NL Central -- a 3.5-game leading with an easy schedule remaining -- Eric and I discuss what their playoff rotation should look like.

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 Tuesday

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
2:43
AM ET
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Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

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


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

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

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

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

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

Yay, wild card?
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To be honest, this hasn't been that great of a St. Louis Cardinals team. The Cardinals barely outscored their opponents (plus four on the season), they don't hit for much power (last in the National League in home runs), they don't have much team speed (13th in stolen bases), they don't score a lot of runs (10th in runs), their pitching/defense is OK but not terrific (seventh in runs allowed), and their best player this season was one of the most maligned signings of last winter (Jhonny Peralta).

Yet here they are, leading the NL Central by 4.5 games over the Pirates and five games over the Brewers as Adam Wainwright tossed a complete game in a 9-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, his best outing since before the All-Star break. In taking three of four from the Brewers this weekend, the Cardinals essentially wiped out the Brewers in the division race, kept a comfortable margin over the Pirates and perhaps made this bigger point: It's that time of the year when the Cardinals start playing their best baseball.

Back in 2011, the Cardinals entered September 8½ games behind in the NL wild-card race but went 18-8 in the final month to chase down the Atlanta Braves. Then they kept that momentum going all the way to a World Series title.

In 2012, they went 13-6 over the final 19 games to win one of the wild-card spots, beat the Braves in that game, had that dramatic four-run ninth inning in Game 5 of the division series to upset the Washington Nationals, and then took the San Francisco Giants to seven games in the NLCS.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Tom Lynn/Getty ImagesShortstop Jhonny Peralta hit his team-leading 20th home run on Sunday.
In 2013, the Cardinals entered September tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for first place but went 19-8, including a three-game sweep of the Pirates early in the month, to win the division. They beat the Pirates in the division series, with Michael Wacha and then Wainwright pitching gems in Games 4 and 5, and then beat Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS to reach the World Series.

Have the Cardinals been the best team in the NL from April through now? No. Do you want to play them right now? No. Especially if Wainwright is getting back on track.

I'm still not sure if Wainwright is back after he recorded just three strikeouts, but strikeouts aren't everything and he took a shutout into the ninth, throwing 71 strikes out of his 100 pitches. His average fastball velocity of 90.5 mph was right up there with his highest of the season (91.0 mph), so the arm fatigue he has battled has seemed less of an issue his past couple of outings.

Peralta went 3-for-5 on Sunday with his 20th home run. He really has been the team's secret weapon all season, batting .268/.342/.459. He's third among major league shortstops in home runs (Ian Desmond has 22 and the injured Troy Tulowitzki 21). In a year when few shortstops have provided much offense -- only nine have double-digit home runs -- Peralta's power and production have been huge. He also has played his usual underrated defense. His range may not be great, but he has a strong arm and is sure-handed. He's third among all shortstops in defensive runs saved at plus-17 (behind Andrelton Simmons and Zack Cozart), which ranks tied for seventh among all defensive players entering Sunday.

The total package has created one of the most valuable players in the league, not that he has gotten any attention for his season. Peralta ranks fifth among NL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR and sixth in FanGraphs WAR. How's that $53 million contract look now?

Despite the various setbacks the Cardinals faced during the season -- the lengthy injury to Wacha, the season-ending injury to Jaime Garcia, the nearly two months without Yadier Molina -- they're also getting things lined up. Wacha is back, Molina is back, Matt Holliday's power has returned in the second half, Matt Carpenter is quietly eighth in the NL in OBP, and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong has slugged .474 since July 6.

Back in March, everyone raved about the Cardinals' depth. That depth won't lead to a 97-win season like they had in 2013 but it did help them survive and get to this point. In fact, think of the struggles this year of the Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, three deep-pocketed franchises regarded as preseason World Series contenders. In Boston's case, its young players didn't play up to expected levels; the Rangers were unable to overcome a slew of injuries (granted, it was a lot of injuries); the Tigers may yet make the playoffs but their lack of depth, especially in the rotation, has hurt them down the stretch.

The Cardinals always seem to have somebody to plug in (they've used 11 different starting pitchers for at least four starts). They bide their time, don't overreact or panic and understand it's a 162-game season, and you don't make the playoffs just because you have a hot April (that's you, Milwaukee).

They're going to win the division and return to the playoffs. Get used to it, America. There's a reason they're the best organization in the game.

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
12:45
AM ET
1. Michael Wacha will be able to help the Cardinals.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Cardinals started Michael Wacha in a key divisional game against the Brewers even though the second-year righty had pitched just two innings in his one minor-league rehab appearance as he comes back from the stress reaction in his right shoulder that caused him to miss 11 weeks. Most teams won't start a guy until he's ready to go at least 75 to 80 pitches, but the Cardinals were willing to give Wacha 50 pitches and turn it over to the bullpen. And why not? With expanded rosters, Cards manager Mike Matheny had plenty of relievers to work with once Wacha exited after three innings.

The decision paid off as Wacha gave up one run in his three innings, throwing 50 pitches on the nose. He gave up an RBI double in the first inning but settled down and most importantly his velocity was excellent, averaging 95.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. With Adam Wainwright still struggling and Justin Masterson booted to the bullpen, Wacha's return comes right as the Cardinals are ready to put the hammer on the Brewers and Pirates.

The Cardinals held on to win 3-2, handing the Brewers their ninth straight loss and increasing their division lead to a suddenly cushy four games. Wacha should slowly get extended out, throwing another 15-20 pitches in his next start.

2. Cardinals' outfield played some defense.

In the sixth inning, right fielder Jon Jay totally robbed the Brewers' Khris Davis with two runners on base. That wasn't even the play of the game. In the bottom of the eighth, with two runners on and one out for the Brewers, Logan Schafer lined a ball to deep center that Peter Bourjos flagged down. Two great catches, four runs saved. This is what happens when teams lose nine games in a row.

3. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke may have overmanaged just a bit.

In that eighth inning, Aramis Ramirez reached on an error and then Davis singled. Trailing 3-2, Roenicke ran for Ramirez, his cleanup hitter, at second base. As much as you hate to take your cleanup hitter out of the game, you can certainly understand the reasoning there. You need to get that run home. So that wasn't the worst decision. Except ... Roenicke then bunted with the next batter, but Martin Maldonado, pinch-hitting for Lyle Overbay, lined the bunt attempt back to the pitcher. Why run for Ramirez and then play for one run? A runner's speed is less important at third base than at second base. Plus, if you do tie the game, Ramirez's spot is likely to come up again but he'll be out of the game. I can see running for Ramirez, but only if you're going for the big inning.

As it turns, Ramirez's spot came up in the ninth, with two outs and two runners on, against Trevor Rosenthal. Roenicke pinch-hit Jason Rogers for Hector Gomez; Rogers was making just his second major-league plate appearance. He flew out to right field.

I'm not really blasting Roenicke. Without expanded rosters he certainly wouldn't have run for Ramirez in the eighth inning. It shows the ripple effect of moves. I think the error was not trying to go for the big inning when he had a chance.

4. Big win for the Yankees.

On a night the Tigers and Mariners would both win, the Yankees would have dropped another game back in the wild-card standings. Instead, they hit two dramatic home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning off Koji Uehara, with Chase Headley's walk-off blast giving the Yankees the 5-4 win in Derek Jeter's final game at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. Headley has hit a solid .256/.353/.391 for the Yankees in a key trade-deadline pickup (and would make for a better No. 2 hitter than Jeter right now). The bullpen was once again key, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Can the Yankees overcome Seattle and Detroit/Kansas City to win a wild card? I still don't see it. They host the Royals this weekend; maybe they don't need a sweep but a sweep would be nice. After that the schedule doesn't get much easier with Tampa, Baltimore, Tampa again, Toronto and Baltimore. Only a season-ending trip to Fenway looks easy. We finally get a season-ending series between the two rivals in the one year it may not matter.

5. Robinson Cano.

Well, everyone did say he wouldn't get the same attention playing for the Mariners. That, they were right about. He had his first four-RBI game with Seattle, raising his season line to a pretty nice .322/.388/.463. He's second in the AL in OBP, 10th in OPS, fifth among position players in WAR. He's on the short list of American League MVP candidates.

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
8:05
AM ET
1. The Tigers had the biggest win of the night.

J.D. Martinez's magical season continued with a three-run shot to dead center off Cody Allen in the ninth to give the Tigers a 4-2 lead that Joe Nathan then protected. With Allen struggling to throw his breaking ball for strikes, Martinez had to be sitting fastball and he didn't miss. If we did an "All-Surprise Team" for 2014, Martinez would certainly be on it. (Hey, good idea for a blog post!) While it was a big win for the Tigers, keeping them a half-game behind the Royals, it was even more of a crushing defeat for the Indians, who dropped 5.5 games behind the Royals. (Keep in mind that Cleveland leads Kansas City 4-2 in the 10th inning of that suspended game.)

2. Buster Posey: Late entry into the MVP discussion.

The Giants rallied from a 6-0 deficit at Coors Field to beat the hapless Rockies 12-7. Posey went 3-for-4 with three runs and four RBIs and is now hitting .302/.355/.484 thanks to a big second half so far. While Hunter Pence has probably been more valuable over the course of the season for the Giants, if Posey continues his surge and the Giants catch the Dodgers, I can see Posey getting MVP support for the whole "carried the Giants to the division title in the second half" thing that voters love. It would be reminiscent of 2012, when he hit .385 in the second half to win MVP honors.

3. Brewers can't be feeling good.

A 7-1 loss to the Cubs was their seventh in a row -- two to the Cubs, three to the Giants and two to the Padres. Carlos Gomez is still out with a sprained wrist and will miss another week. After another game with the Cubs comes a four-game series at home against the Cardinals. That could be a make-or-break series for the Brewers. Hard to see a rebound coming at this point: After that 20-7 start in April they've been four games under .500.

4. Big night for Jose Altuve's quest for a batting title.

The Astros' second baseman went 4-for-5 to raise his average to .340, eight points ahead of Victor Martinez. The pennant-race implication was that the Astros beat the Angels 8-3 as C.J. Wilson struggled again and got knocked out in the fourth inning. Even his two "good" starts in recent weeks weren't that good as he struggled with his walks. The Angels maintained their lead as the A's lost 6-5 to the Mariners when a late rally fell short, but Wilson's issues are, well, an issue. I know I just wrote that the Angels will win the West, but Angels fan and SweetSpot TV guest host Cary Chow informed me that I was premature with that suggestion.

Let's be honest: Clayton Kershaw is the MVP, the Cy Young, the Everything.
Eight innings, three hits, one run, eight K's. Although Bryce Harper did tag him for a home run, the first he's given up to a lefty all season. Put that one in your back pocket, just in case the Dodgers and Nationals meet in October.
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The good news for the St. Louis Cardinals: They secured an important 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Combined with the Milwaukee Brewers' seventh straight loss, the Cardinals now lead the NL Central by two games over the Brewers and four games over the Pirates. Until taking the division lead on Monday, the Cardinals had been tied for first place for seven days, but hadn't had sole possession of the top spot. Now they do -- even though they've been outscored on the season (last team to win a division while being outscored: the 2007 Diamondbacks) -- and they may not look back.

The bad news for the Cardinals: Adam Wainwright got the win but struggled once again, and the concerns about his dead arm or fatigue or whatever are going to get more serious with each mediocre outing.

Wainwright lasted six-plus innings but gave up three home runs for just the fifth time in his career and first since 2010. I was actually a little surprised manager Mike Matheny brought him back out for the seventh inning with the Cards up 5-2 and Wainwright already at 91 pitches. He hadn't really dominated up to that point with three strikeouts, but the two home runs he allowed had been solo shots. Why not call it a night, chalk up his best performance in several weeks and turn the game over to the bullpen with a good feeling? Instead, Wainwright walked Ike Davis, and Starling Marte crushed a 2-1 slider to left field, leaving the Cards still worrying about their ace.

They have to, don't they? At the All-Star break, Wainwright was a legitimate Cy Young contender, maybe even the favorite over Clayton Kershaw since he had pitched more innings. But it's been a Jekyll and Hyde two halves for Wainwright:

First half: 12-4, 1.83 ERA, .201 average, .258 BABIP, 4.26 SO/BB ratio
Second half: 4-5, 4.82 ERA, .282 average, .315 BABIP, 2.0 SO/BB ratio

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAdam Wainwright didn't have his best stuff Tuesday, and he hasn't had it in a while.
Besides the ERA, the important number here is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the first half, he averaged more than four K's for every strikeout, but that rate is down to just two K's for every strikeout since the All-Star break.

There had been speculation about Wainwright suffering from a dead arm or fatigue, and he did finally reluctantly admit to an issue a few days ago -- again, leading me to wonder why Matheny didn't pull him after six innings. That fatigue hasn't shown up in the velocity readings -- his fastball averaged 89.8 mph on Tuesday, right near his season average of 90.1, and he's averaged 89-91 every start this season -- although it's possible he's exerting more effort to create the same velocity.

Of course, the other thing that happened right before the All-Star break was the injury to Yadier Molina, who went down on June 29. There was speculation that maybe Wainwright just missed Molina and his game-calling and artful pitch framing of Wainwright's offerings. You can read the piece from Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs for some evidence in that regard. As a team, the Cardinals' ERA on the season is 3.31 with Molina catching, 4.24 with Tony Cruz and 4.29 ERA with A.J. Pierzynski. Sabermetricians dislike catcher ERA due to concerns about sample size and personal catchers and so on, but successful pitch framing should show up in fewer runs allowed, right?

But Molina was back there Tuesday and that didn't seem to help. It just hasn't been the same Wainwright. Witness the three home runs. The pitch to Marte was a flat slider with no bite. Russell Martin homered on a 2-0 fastball that was down the middle. The 2-1 pitch to Jordy Mercer was a 90 mph inside fastball at the belt with no movement. Three bad pitches when behind in the count. Big league hitters don't miss those kinds of pitches too often.

The Cardinals can certainly win the division even if Wainwright continues to scuffle. But if he doesn't show signs of getting back to something resembling what he was in the first half or the past two seasons, Matheny will have a difficult decision: Does he still make Wainwright his No. 1 starter in the postseason? Is he still the guy you want to line up for two potential starts in a five-game series, to potentially match up against Kershaw?

Maybe Matheny turns to Lance Lynn, who has a 2.85 ERA ... but has also never made it through six innings in five career postseason starts. Maybe he turns to John Lackey, who hasn't been that great since coming over but pitched well in the postseason for the Red Sox last year. Maybe Michael Wacha manages to get healthy and join the rotation (he just pitched two innings in his first rehab stint).

Put it this way: I don't think it should be automatic that Wainwright will be the No. 1 starter come the postseason, from what we're seeing right now.

Of course, you do have to get there first.

Five things we learned Friday

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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1. Another Friday, another no-hit bid against the Cincinnati Reds

Last week Atlanta Braves starter Mike Minor tossed 7 2/3 innings before the Reds put a hit on the board. Friday, it was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez who kept Cincinnati hitless for the first six frames. Volquez, a former 17-game winner with the Reds, was picked up off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh this winter and has been a pleasant surprise. Although his peripheral statistics don't necessarily support his 3.45 ERA, he is unlikely to turn into a pumpkin down the stretch after nearly 160 innings of work this season.

Volquez tied a season high with 114 pitches Friday. He was charged with one earned run on three hits and three walks. He struck out six. He pounded the ground with 10 ground-ball outs. Although he has done a lot of work close to the earth, it is his work in the air that has been the big key in 2014. Last year, opposing batters had a .310 average on fly balls against Volquez. This season, that mark sits at .172. Advanced metrics place the Pirates' outfield in a negative light, but someone is converting those fly balls into outs on a consistent basis.

Despite the lack of knocks, the Reds were able to keep both games close, losing in the 12th inning last Friday and briefly taking a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday before conceding the lead and the game soon after. The wins were important to Atlanta and Pittsburgh as both are still chasing the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. In fact, the Pirates' three-game winning streak has them sneaking back into contention in the NL Central as well.

For those interested, the Reds host the New York Mets next Friday at the Great American Ballpark.

2. DeGrom continues strong season

The Mets are in the midst of another lost season, but once again a trio of young arms gives the organization and its fans some hope. They lack the cool nickname of "Generation K," but Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom may be the foundation of a rotation that gets New York's other baseball team back to the postseason. DeGrom, the only active member of the trio, was on the bump Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without the hype of Harvey or Syndergaard, deGrom has snuck up on most people this season. The lanky right-hander tossed seven strong innings against the Phillies, allowing just one unearned run. Of his 18 starts, deGrom has gone at least six innings in 14 of them. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests.

The rookie boasts a full arsenal of pitches, but Friday night's game plan centered around a mid-90s fastball that he commanded well. It accounted for nearly 75 percent of his pitches thrown Friday, as deGrom honed in on the lower half of the zone to his arm side. The heater was the weapon of choice on 16 of the 22 outs he recorded.

It's been said before, but "maybe next year" for the Mets.

3. Orioles continue to pound away

After taking three of four from the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles were back at it Friday night, blowing out the Minnesota Twins 9-1. Baltimore's pitching staff has been largely mediocre this season, but its offense packs a powerful enough punch to push the O's past the opposition on most nights. The club's .163 ISO -- isolated power measures the ability to hit for extra bases by stripping singles from slugging percentage -- is tops in the AL, trailing only the Colorado Rockies in the majors.

Chris Davis is having a disappointing season after his breakout 2013 campaign, but he hit another home run -- this one a grand slam -- on Friday that gives him seven in August and 24 on the season. While that is a far cry from last year's pace, Davis appears to be getting a bit more into the swing of things even if his average sits below .200.

In Davis' void, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce have picked up the offensive slack. Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore after a difficult time finding work on the open market. His 34 home runs lead the majors. Pearce was once a top prospect in the Pirates' system, but has spent most of his career shuttling between the majors and minors. This season, he has broken out in a big way with an OPS approaching .900 and 16 homers in limited action. He left Friday's game with an abdominal strain. Considering Manny Machado's injury, the team can ill afford to lose Pearce, as crazy as that may sound.

4. Verlander better versus White Sox

The Detroit Tigers have one of the game's top pitchers (Max Scherzer) and traded for another one (David Price) on July 31. Meanwhile, the team's former top hurler was on the mound Friday night, looking to close the gap in the highly contested AL Central race.

Justin Verlander has been off his game for most of this season. His ERA is approaching 5.00 and he has allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2006. Friday's effort was not vintage Verlander; however, it was still encouraging since he is no longer considered the team's top gun.

Facing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Verlander worked seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits and two walks. He struck out seven batters, throwing 77 strikes in 116 pitches. It was the first time since April 17 that he allowed one run or none in a start.

Despite a recent run of inconsistency, the Tigers are within arm's reach of the division lead. With Anibal Sanchez's future in doubt, Verlander once again becomes a key figure in Detroit's rotation. If he can be just part of what he once was, it may go a long way in the club's quest for a fourth straight division title.

5. Young Cubs on the prowl

The Houston Astros have been painted by some as the poster boys of "process." Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have also been in rebuild mode and, unlike Houston, which may have some sour grapes among its bunch, their organizational tree is starting to bear fruit at the highest level.

Javier Baez was first to capture the nation's attention this summer with his risk-versus-reward approach at the plate. His big swings have left nearly an equal amount of oohs and ughs depending on whether he made contact or not. This week, the club promoted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to the big leagues. That decision is already paying dividends.

Though he is just three games into his major league career, the 22-year-old Soler has seven hits in his first 12 plate appearances. On Friday, he recorded his first multi-home run game, belting a pair of homers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Soler's first homer was a solo shot in the seventh inning that tied the game at 2-2. Baez put the Cubs ahead 4-2 with an RBI double the next inning, but the big blast came once again from Soler, who smacked a two-run homer to left field. Two innings, two at-bats and two home runs that covered 858 feet. Not bad for the third night on the job.

As exciting as the win was for the Cubs, it was equally devastating for a Cardinals team that is clinging to an NL wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins.

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


I'm not sure it was the Pittsburgh Pirates' biggest win of the season, but watching from afar it sure felt like it. It may not even have been Ike Davis' biggest pinch-hit home run of the season -- back on April 5, he hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Reds -- but considering the opponent, the time of the season and how the game unfolded before Davis crushed a three-run shot to center field in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and deliver the Pirates a 5-2 win over the Cardinals, it was one of the blows to remember if this season turns to roses for Pittsburgh.

A few small-picture and big-picture thoughts off this game. ...

1. Andrew McCutchen departed in the sixth inning with discomfort in his left rib, the injury that forced him to recently miss two weeks. He left two innings after making a leaping grab against the wall that preserved the no-hitter Gerrit Cole was working on at the time. He batted one more time after the catch, striking out. Obviously, the MVP candidate isn't at full strength, although he did homer on Monday. Hopefully, this was more precautionary and not a severe re-aggravation. Despite missing the two weeks of action, McCutchen stands a good chance of winning back-to-back MVP honors, especially with a big September that pushes the Pirates into the postseason.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGerrit Cole flirted with no-hitting the Cardinals, the latest proof he's the Pirates' indispensable starting pitcher.
2. Gerrit Cole looked terrific. In his second start since returning from a six-week stint on the DL with soreness in his right lat (he also missed three weeks in June with a sore shoulder), the hard-throwing second-year righty was dominant, with a no-hit bid until Kolten Wong doubled with two outs in the sixth. He averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball, maintaining the velocity he had in his last start, a good sign that he's healthy.

Leading 2-0 in the seventh, Clint Hurdle let Cole start the inning against Matt Adams, the Cardinals' lefty masher. Cole was at 105 pitches entering the inning, so it was a curious decision in this day in which pitchers rarely go much past 110. Why not bring in a lefty to face Adams to start the inning? By the time Adams doubled and Jhonny Peralta singled, the Pirates were in trouble. Tony Watson couldn't escape the inning as the Cards hit a sac fly and soft looper to center -- reminiscent of Monday's rally when a few seeing-eye singles gave the Cards a late comeback.

3. Ex-Mets great Davis to the rescue. With Pirates fans sensing doom and gloom after McCutchen's departure and the blown lead, Davis entered for Watson with two outs against righty Seth Maness and hit a 2-2 change to deep center -- a definite no-doubter that Davis watched and admired for a split second. Considering Davis is hitting .100 against lefties this year (granted, that's in just 32 plate appearances), it was a little surprising Mike Matheny didn't bring in Randy Choate, although maybe he suspected Hurdle would have countered with a right-handed bat. But considering McCutchen and also Pedro Alvarez (foot injury) had left the game, the Pirates' bench was already thin by then; I doubt Hurdle would have wasted Davis in a tie game.

Anyway, the other option would have been to have Pat Neskek and his 0.86 ERA pitch the eighth instead of Maness, but Matheny figured Maness could get through the bottom of the Pittsburgh order. Maness is certainly a serviceable middle guy, he just hasn't pitched at Neshek's level. You hate to lose games like this without getting your best guys in there. (Neshek had thrown 18 pitches on Monday, didn't pitch on Sunday, threw 16 pitches on Saturday but hadn't pitched in four days before then, so he appeared to be rested enough.)

4. First base and right field. As for Davis, he hasn't provided a ton of power in his platoon role at first but at least he has been getting on base with a .352 OBP. Last year, first base and right field were offensive problems for the Pirates (rectified somewhat late in the year with the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd) and Davis was supposed to help that production as was rookie midseason call-up Gregory Polanco.

Their first basemen have a .232/.320/.376 line this year versus .264/.346/.422 last year (Garret Jones hit when he played first but not right field); their right fielders are hitting .247/.305/.345 compared to .242/.299/.385 last year and Polanco was just sent down to the minors.

The Pirates are scoring more runs this year (4.24 runs per games compared to 3.91), but it's not because they've upgraded their production from those two spots. Most of that credit goes to Josh Harrison and Russell Martin and a bench that has been more productive (in part because of Harrison).

5. Oscar Taveras needs to start hitting for the Cardinals. Part of the reason for trading Allen Craig in the John Lackey deal was the Cards' faith in their rookie right fielder, but Taveras is still muddling along at .233/.272/.306 with two home runs in 180 at-bats. Considering the Cards are still last in the NL in home runs, they desperately Taveras -- or somebody -- to start popping a few home runs.

Anyway, good game. It's not September yet, but it certainly had that September feel to it. The best part: Same two teams Wednesday afternoon, Adam Wainwright versus Jeff Locke, as Wainwright tries to turn around his second-half slump. The Pirates are 3.5 behind the Cards in the wild-card race, so it's a bigger game for them. Let's hope McCutchen is out there in center field.
1. The Angels need Bartolo Colon.

Journeyman left-hander Wade LeBlanc, replacing injured ace Garrett Richards in the rotation, was shelled in a 7-1 loss to the Marlins, giving up six runs and getting knocked out in the fourth inning. Do the Angels give him another start? Trouble is, that would come this weekend against the A's. Other internal options don't look much better than LeBlanc: Randy Wolf? Chris Volstad? Triple-A Salt Lake is 57-80, so you know there isn't much help down there. That brings the Angels to Colon. According to reports, Colon cleared waivers, meaning the Mets can trade him to any team. But if the Mets didn't trade Colon at the non-waiver deadline, are they going to be any more interested now?

2. Giancarlo Stanton is still in the MVP race.

He launched a long three-run home run off Cory Rasmus, his NL-leading 33rd -- and became just the 12th player to reach 150 career home runs before turning 25 (seven of the first 11 are in the Hall of Fame and the other four are Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols). He also leads the NL in RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and tops NL position players in WAR. MVP voters historically don't go for players on non-playoff teams, but in a year where the leading candidate may be a pitcher who missed an entire month of action, Stanton needs to be heavily considered.

3. Michael Pineda looked good.

Here's the scary thing about the Yankees: If they do somehow get to the postseason, don't underestimate them. Pineda hasn't been healthy enough to make many starts this year, but when he's been out there, he's been effective. He beat the Royals, allowing one run, five hits and no walks in 6.1 innings, the one mistake a Mike Moustakas home run. In 37 innings, he has a 1.95 ERA. Against the Royals, Pineda averaged 93.9 mph with his fastball (2.6 mph faster than his final start in April before he went on the DL), and in his three starts since coming off the DL he's thrown more 70 percent strikes all three outings. He's not the flamethrower with sometimes shaky command he was as a rookie in Seattle but has turned into a guy who can spot his fastball, with just four walks in those 37 innings. If Masahiro Tanaka returns at 100 percent and with the way Brandon McCarthy has pitched since coming over from Arizona, that trio suddenly looks playoff-caliber.

4. The Pirates suffered a tough loss.

John Lackey allowed just one run in seven innings, but the Pirates actually hit him pretty hard, with seven hits and several hard-hit outs. But the Cardinals turned four double plays behind Lackey (give him credit for inducing the groundballs), turning what could have been another shaky outing into a solid line in the box score. Meanwhile, after Francisco Liriano tossed six scoreless innings, the Cardinals scraped together three runs in the seventh off Jared Hughes, with a walk and some seeing-eye singles. Andrew McCutchen's home run in the ninth made the final score 3-2, but it's one of those games you lose a little sleep over if you're a Pirates fan.

5. The Mariners' punishing travel schedule may have affected them.

No team will travel more miles this year than Seattle and after playing in Boston on Sunday, they had to fly across the country to host the Rangers. They got shut down by Miles Mikolas, who entered with a 7.48 ERA and tossed eight scoreless innings. This is the kind of series the Mariners have to win against the worst-in-baseball Rangers, so the pressure is on these next two games, and the Mariners already announced that Felix Hernandez will be pushed back from Wednesday to Friday against the Nationals (Wednesday's starter is undecided, although it will likely be Erasmo Ramirez). The long plane ride isn't the only reason they lost 2-0, but it's one obstacle East Coast teams don't have to face nearly as often.
video

Eric and I discuss the St. Louis Cardinals and their chances of winning the NL Central.
With the pennant races heating up, I'm thinking of trying this each morning the rest of the season: Sort of a quick-hitting look at some key results from the previous night and what may mean or not mean. Let's see how it goes.

1. Oakland's rotation isn't carrying the A's.

Scott Kazmir got bombed on Sunday night (10 hits and seven runs), although the A's still won the series from the Angels, winning two of three and getting better results from Sonny Gray on Friday and Jon Lester on Saturday. Jeff Samardzija made his first start for the A's on July 6 and Billy Beane later added Jon Lester; nonetheless, the A's are just 22-20 since Samardzija's debut. Don't point fingers just at the offense; the rotation has a 4.00 ERA since then, 17th in the majors and just ninth in the American League. The offense, meanwhile, is fourth in the AL in runs scored since July 6, averaging 4.38 runs per game. True, that's down from 5.0 runs per game through July 5, but good enough if the starting pitching was performing better.

2. Brewers' rotation depth is paying off.

Who would have thought that it would be Milwaukee's depth in the rotation compared to St. Louis' that could pay off in the long run? Mike Fiers allowed two hits and two runs in seven innings in a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh and is 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in four starts filling in for Matt Garza. His success isn't unprecedented; remember, he had a solid rookie season in 2012 before collapsing last year. But he had pitched well in Triple-A (2.55 ERA, great peripherals), suggesting he had turned things around. Analysts have had a hard time believing in him due to his lack of fastball velocity but he keep hitters off-balance and has a deceptive delivery. Rookie Jimmy Nelson has been solid in his eight starts (4.15) as well. Meanwhile ...

3. Cardinals may have to reconsider Justin Masterson's rotation slot.

Masterson had another bad start for St. Louis, lasting just three innings in a 7-1 loss to Philly. He's 2-2 with a 7.53 in five starts with the Cardinals (and John Lackey hasn't been great either, with a 5.40 ERA). Among 124 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Masterson is 124th in OBP allowed -- .388. Considering that Adam Wainwright's second-half ERA has risen from 1.83 to 4.70, with a corresponding decline in strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.26 to 1.76, and it's amazing the Cardinals remain just 1.5 games behind the Brewers. The Cardinals may have to stick with Masterson, as there isn't a clear option to replace him unless they want to give Carlos Martinez another shot (unlikely) or rookie Marco Gonzalez, who struggled with his control in three earlier starts.

4. The Nationals are the best team in baseball right now.

I had Washington No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings, over the A's and Angels (who lost ace Garrett Richards for the season). They pounded the Giants 14-6 to win that series. Earlier in the week, they completed a stretch of five walk-off wins in six games and they're 17-5 since Aug. 2. All season, we've been waiting for the Nationals to click; they're finally clicking. If there's minor cause for concern, it's the continued inconsistency of Stephen Strasburg. Coming off back-to-back one-run outings, the Giants knocked him out after four innings and five runs. If you're Matt Williams, how do you line up your playoff rotation? I have to think Strasburg, at best, goes after Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann.

5. The Yankees aren't dead yet.

Brian McCann delivered a dramatic two-out, full-count, pinch-hit three-run homer in the 10th inning to give the Yankees their second walk-off win in three days and their fourth win in a row. The Yankees continue to play above .500 ball despite getting outscored; they're minus-34 runs on the season and they're 12-9 in August while getting outscored 81-77. They have a chance to become the first team ever to finish above .500 in consecutive seasons while getting outscored both years. We can analyze that any number of ways, but the Yankees keep finding ways to win; in shorthand, they win the close games (21-16 in one-run games) and lose the blowouts (10-18 in games decided by five or more runs). This week will be interesting: A seven-game road trip against playoff contenders Kansas City (one game), Detroit (three) and Toronto (three). The playoff odds for the Yankees remain slim -- 8.8 percent to win the division, just 3.3 to win the wild card, so the analytics suggest their best path to the postseason is a Baltimore collapse.

I don't see that happening, but we've all learned never to count out the Yankees when the lineup card suggests they're not very good.


ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
5:49
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With a little more than a month left in the season and many division races still not settled, it's not too early to talk about what might have been, what might still could be, and what kinda is what we thought it kinda is ... or was ... or whatever. Just within the last week, we've had two new division leaders and a slew of injuries to reshuffle expectations. Did I mention that the waiver wire deadline hasn’t passed yet? Yup, it's a changing landscape, and whoever's doing the painting is keeping the 2014 baseball season a little squiggly.

Feel free to chime in on what you think might happen in the comments section below.

And without further ado -- because if we wait too long, these thoughts might go out of date faster than the Tulowitzki-to-Yankees rumors – on to the best of the SweetSpot Network contributing sites from the past week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Roundup: Jackson Trade, Lessons from Saber Seminar: Ryan P. Morrison examines the D-backs' trade for Brett Jackson and discusses a dozen or so nuggets of cutting-edge sabermetrics wisdom from last weekend's Saber Seminar in Boston. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Jon Shepherd takes the Ice Bucket Challenge: Jon Shepherd, whose family has been impacted by ALS, has his take, but highlights the need to secure more long-term funding beyond episodic viral campaigns. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Should the Cubs Pass on Signing an Ace this Offseason?: As we get closer and closer to the offseason, Joe Aiello wonders whether the Cubs should be looking at a nontraditional route when it comes to building their rotation for next season. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
The Evolution (or Devolution) of the Indians Pitching Staff: Stephanie Liscio takes a humorous month-by-month look at the fans' confidence level in the Tribe's starters. Follow on Twitter: @StephanieLiscio

Don't Give Up on Tomlin: Ryan McCrystal analyzes how Josh Tomlin has been a victim of bad defense and bad luck in recent weeks. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Honoring Todd Helton: The Colorado Rockies retired Todd Helton's jersey number, the first Rockies player afforded such an honor. Richard Bergstrom reminisces on his career.

Rockies Bloggers Panel Recording 8/16/14: It was one of the most anticipated panels of the year, filled with bloggers flying into town to commemorate Todd Helton's retirement and a special guest. Members of Rockies Zingers, Purple Row, Rockies Review and Mile High Sports discuss the Rockies injuries and trainers/coaches along with the potential offseason moves. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers


New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Brian McCann's Crazy Reverse Platoon Split: Brad Vietrogoski attempts to explain the flip-flop of Brian McCann's production against right- and left-handed pitching this season. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

What If: The 1994 World Series: Domenic Lanza looked at how the '94 Fall Classic could have played out if the Yanks and Expos had stayed on track as the best teams in baseball that year. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals walk off via hit-by-pitch for second time this season: Jon Jay helped the Cardinals win their second straight game in their final at-bat Tuesday night when he drew a bases-loaded plunking from Reds reliever J.J. Hoover. The Cardinals hadn’t had a walk-off hit-by-pitch in more than 25 years, but now -- including Greg Garcia back on May 13 -- they’ve had two in 2014. Pip lists all of the walk-off HBPs over the last 25 years. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes

San Francisco Giants, West Coast Bias
Giants pursuing Rusney Castillo: Tim Kennedy delves into the Giants' dealings with Cuban player Rusney Castillo. With the possibility of being a contributor to a major league team in 2014, he could certainly help out a Giants ball club fighting for its life. Follow on Twitter: @giantsbaseball

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Replacements: Brandon Land takes a look at the current roster for the Rangers, and why it's unreasonable to have high expectations in a season so rife with injury. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away

Cardinals' chef helps team eat healthy

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
10:03
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ST. LOUIS -- Chef Simon Lusky strolled through a supermarket just outside of Philipsburg, Pa., with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Adams and his parents. The country store looked like a slice of Americana and they were looking for a lean piece of meat.

They found a small butcher shop in the store with fresh venison for sale. It was December of 2012, snow was on the ground, baseball was a few months away and Adams’ eating habits were about to change.

The Cardinals organization had just begun a groundbreaking endeavor. In 2012 the club hired Lusky to prepare healthy food. With a team effort from the medical staff, clubhouse staff, strength staff and coaches, food has become a source of fuel for the players instead of empty calories. Manager Mike Matheny played a big part in Lusky getting hired but the push also came from the front office.
[+] EnlargeSimon Lusky
St. Louis CardinalsSimon Lusky makes sure the Cardinals get something good to eat.

"John Mozeliak, he's really into health and eating right and working out," Lusky said of the team's general manager. "He's all about it too, so organizationally everybody is on board with it."

To really make an impact though, Lusky had to help Adams become self-sufficient with his food choices in the offseason.

"He flew in for a couple of days and took us out to eat, and taught us what to look for on the menu out at a restaurant -- healthy options," said Adams, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound first baseman who weighed a few pounds more that winter. "Then we went to the grocery store and went through all the aisles."

Adams, who debuted in the majors in 2012, was living with his parents; both are busy, hard-working people. So Lusky, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Johnson and Wales, put an emphasis on showing them quick and healthy meals.

"A piece of salmon takes just as long to cook as it does to heat up a Stouffers lasagna," Lusky said.

Adams and his whole family watched and helped prepare the food as Lusky taught them how to cook healthy. "His mom, his dad, his uncle, his aunt, a cousin, they were all like, 'What’s kale?'" Lusky said. "They never had asparagus or brussels sprouts."

Adams lost 25 pounds after the 2012 season, then another 20 pounds after the 2013 season; his dad lost 30 pounds and now enjoys healthy eating so much he maintains his own vegetable garden.

Adams said he is seeing results on the field. His body is not breaking down. "I’m feeling strong and waking up with energy and ready to go on a daily basis," he said.


From doughnuts to gator jerkey

Before Lusky was hired as the team chef everything in the clubhouse was catered. The players were getting a wide variety of foods but it was not the right food.

"There was a big emphasis on pastas and cream sauces," Lusky said. “Fattier meats, not leaner cuts. Maybe a lack of vegetables with some certain meals."

He helped them make a cultural change in how they viewed food.

"Before, they said they'd go through four or five dozen doughnuts throughout the course of the game," Lusky said.

Now, the clubhouse walls are lined with dispensers of all different kinds of nuts. The most popular in-game snack is a protein bar homemade by a childhood friend of St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The team focuses on nutrient-dense foods with a lot of good calories. This helps their muscles and their recovery time.

"A handful of nuts can be as high as 400 or 500 calories depending on the nuts," Lusky said. "I tell the guys to snack on nuts constantly, constantly. Any time you are feeling just a little hungry grab a handful of nuts."

Fruit is also always available.

"The whole fridge is full of nectarines, apples, and oranges and bananas, kiwis," Lusky said. "We have every type of jerky; we use a company that specializes in wild game jerky -- pheasant, gator, elk -- every sort of animal you can imagine in jerky form, a bunch of different flavors.”

Besides healthy snacks, the meal he prepares for the club every home game consists of lean proteins like chicken breast and turkey, but no fried meats.

"Red meat is fine, we eat a lot of red meat," Lusky said. "It's a clubhouse full of guys so if we took red meat away my head would be on a stick. The biggest thing I do as a chef is I vary the protein." Besides red met, he'll have pork, lamb, wild boar, shrimp and different types of fish.

Lusky has a very simple motto: green, clean and lean.

"I always tell the guys get some green vegetables on your plate, get some clean carbs -- a clean carb is quinoa, sweet potatoes, something that's not going to be a white rice or a white pasta -- those are things we don't have. If we're going to have a pasta, it's going to be gluten-free or whole wheat."

When the team is on the road, Lusky also ships food to about half the team -- about 120 pounds to every destination, at a cost of about $1,000.

Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, like many players, struggles to keep weight on during the season, or he'll run out of energy during the game.

"Now we have a little routine where I do a smoothie for him," Lusky said. "I don’t say anything. I just go at the end of the third [inning] and I make him a smoothie and I put it where the bats are underneath the dugout and just leave it there, and he goes at it."

"Diet is one of the things you don’t think about," infielder Daniel Descalso said. "You think about working out, you think about taking batting practice and ground balls, but diet is a huge part of what goes into maintaining your health and well-being through the entire season."

Change in baseball isn't always easy, however.

"A guy when I first met him who I thought would never want to get on the healthy board was Randy Choate," Lusky said of the veteran reliever. "He was like, 'I eat doughnuts and Coke for breakfast, and I love fried chicken and McDonald's.' He was an uphill climb from the first day. He was outspoken about it."

This past offseason, Choate and his wife had Lusky come to their house to teach them how to eat healthier.

"To say it hasn't made any difference would be a lie," Choate said. "I definitely came in this year with less body fat and it had a lot to do with the things he showed us at our house, to help us cook healthier."

Still, baseball players have their superstitions.

"On day games, it's called the doughnut diet," Choate said. "I have one doughnut, and that's just my theory for a sinker -- you've got to eat one to throw one."

Beyond baseball

The crux of Lusky's influence is worrying more about the person than the ballplayer.

"Anything [teams] can do to help keep these guys healthier and on the field, you are going to see the Matt Hollidays playing another year, longer careers, happier fans, happier players and healthier lives when the game is done," Lusky said.

In Lance Lynn’s car, driving to the airport, Lusky saw a light click in Lynn's eyes as they talked.

Lusky had just spent the week with Lynn and his wife. "He taught us what to look for on the back of the box, and all the way to how to prepare it," said Lynn, who has lost 70 pounds.

Lusky told Lynn he wanted to see him succeed and get a huge contract one day. "But I was like, 'Really, you are going to play baseball for 10 years, let's be honest, you'll be 35 by then. You'll have a lot of your life left. If you keep eating, and doing what you are doing right now, it's not healthy. You can shave years off of your life, and that's less time with your family.'"

This was the moment where Lynn understood: Not eating well is not only bad for baseball, but it's not good for life.

With long games, a difficult schedule and the demands of baseball on the body, Lusky wants to see baseball do more for the players.

"You can change baseball," Lusky said. "We're not only helping our team right now, but we are making the game a healthier game."

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