Wild-card races: What did we learn?

With a low screaming liner down the left-field line that just cleared the fence, Edwin Encarnacion sent the Blue Jays home as winners in the 12th inning and sent the Angels packing ... perhaps for the season. It’s certainly no way a team wants to suffer one of its toughest defeats, with a rookie reliever (7.56 ERA) pitching on the road with no margin for error.

But that, of course, is one of the beautiful aspects of baseball: You can’t always have your best pitchers or best hitters on the mound or at the plate in the most crucial situations. There are 25 guys on your roster -- more in September -- and at some point they all have to come through. We saw this on Thursday, as teams in the wild-card chase scrapped and clawed to stay alive. With their season in desperate straits, the Rays gave a 22-year-old his first big league start. The Cardinals used 22 players, but three relievers couldn’t hold a 6-2 lead in the ninth.

And tied in the bottom of the 11th, Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave the ball to Garrett Richards, a hard-throwing right-hander with just five big league appearances. He got MVP candidate Jose Bautista to pop out and blew away Adam Lind. Richards returned to the mound in the 12th, and Encarnacion worked the count to 2-2, fouled off a pitch, took ball three. The rookie didn’t want to walk the leadoff guy.

He didn’t.

Seemingly out of nowhere, with the Red Sox slumping and the Rays unable to capitalize, the Angels had clawed back into the wild-card race. But Thursday’s loss puts the Angels three games behind the Red Sox and one game behind the Rays, and with just six games to play, overcoming two teams will be too much for them to achieve.

In the end, this game was a microcosm of the Angels’ season: Not enough offense. Starter Ervin Santana did take a 3-1 lead into the seventh, but he hasn’t been sharp this month with 21 walks in five games. Maybe Scioscia left him in one batter too long, as Toronto’s Eric Thames homered to make it 3-2. Bobby Cassevah couldn’t hold the one-run lead, but worse yet the Angels couldn’t touch the Toronto bullpen and didn’t get a hit the final four innings.

So the Angels are all but out of it. That’s one thing we learned on Thursday. Here are a few other things:

  • Maybe Matt Moore should have been up earlier. Yes, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner didn’t play, but the heralded Rays rookie looked absolutely awesome in his first major league start, striking 11 Yankees in five innings and throwing 59 of his 84 pitches for strikes. Considering his domination in Double-A (2.20 ERA, 131 strikeouts in 102 1/3 IP) and then Triple-A (1.37 ERA in nine starts), it seems clear that Moore could have helped the Rays. The rotation has been solid (although Wade Davis has a 4.98 ERA since the All-Star break) so maybe there wasn’t a clear opening, but Moore certainly could have helped in the bullpen. In the end, the Rays may be second-guessing themselves for waiting to call up Moore and Desmond Jennings.

  • The Cardinals played with fire all season and got burned. In retrospect, the biggest blunder of the season for manager Tony La Russa was the decision to leave spring training with Ryan Franklin as his team’s closer. Franklin blew a save on Opening Day and then blew three more save chances in the club’s first 16 games; St. Louis lost all four of those games. The thing is: Considering Franklin’s home run tendencies, low strikeout rates and increasing age, it was risky to trust him for another year. Once Franklin was removed as closer, the bullpen actually fared pretty well. Here are the Cardinals’ records when leading entering the seventh, eighth and ninth innings and the National League as a whole:

    Seventh: 65-10, .867 win percentage (NL average entering Thursday: .860)

    Eighth: 66-9, .880 (NL average: .895)

    Ninth: 74-7, .914 (NL average: .955)

    Of course, one of those seven losses came in Thursday’s devastating loss as Jason Motte walked three batters trying to protect a 6-2 lead, Rafael Furcal made an error and Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas failed to stop the bleeding.

    The knife cut sharp with that loss. It’s the one Cardinals fans will remember if the team falls a game short of the playoffs, but it’s really those losses in April that hurt the most.

  • Bartolo Colon’s chances at joining the Yankees' postseason rotation took a big hit. The Yankees’ Triple-A staff shut down the Rays on Wednesday, but Tampa Bay lit up Colon on Thursday. With two straight bad starts from Colon, manager Joe Girardi is more confused than ever about his options. Don’t count out A.J. Burnett!

  • The Braves would like to offer some high-fives to the Mets. A two-game lead with six to go instead of one? Yes, they’ll take that, thank you.

  • Phillies fans are still confident and not at all nervous about their team. They would never boo their boys over a little six-game losing streak, would they? Not after this great season. No way. Right?