Well, you can't say this American League wild-card race is lacking in drama. Hey, the eventual payoff is small -- one game to keep your season going! -- but it sure is giving us a fun September.
A crazy Wednesday was followed by a crazy Thursday as AL East teams battled each other. Some thoughts on another night of playoff-like baseball.
It's been an awful stretch of baseball for the Tampa Bay Rays. Go back two-plus weeks, to Aug. 24, after they had just defeated the New York Yankees for the second game in a row. They were 74-53, tied for first place with the Boston Red Sox and humming along as The Little Engine That Could and looking like a playoff lock, either as division champion or a wild card.
Things can turn quickly in baseball, however. The Rays lost to the Yankees in 11 innings on Aug. 25. Jeremy Hellickson got pounded in a makeup game in Kansas City. Evan Longoria stopped hitting. They went 3-7 on a 10-game road trip -- the offense dying -- and went home and got shut out on Tuesday and lost on a grand slam in extra innings on Wednesday.
So when they jumped out to a 3-1 lead over Jake Peavy in the series finale against Boston only to see the Red Sox rally to tie it, the sense of dread had to be sweating out of the pores of Rays fans, maybe even manager Joe Maddon. But Red Sox manager John Farrell gave him a little lifeline in the eighth inning. After taxing his bullpen in recent days, Farrell brought in little-used rookies Drake Britton and Rubby De La Rosa. Britton got the first out, but then Longoria hit a ground rule double to left center off De La Rosa. Longoria had swung through an 0-1 slider, and De La Rosa came back with the same pitch, but left it over the plate. After Matt Joyce popped out, Wil Myers doubled to right off an 0-1 fastball.
The Red Sox got an infield single and walk off Fernando Rodney in the ninth, but Will Middlebrooks' screaming liner went right to Longoria and Dustin Pedroia popped out. The Rays kept their one-game margin over the Yankees for at least one more day.
Longoria had been hitting .190 with just three extra-base hits in his past 16 games, but two of those were doubles on Wednesday. He also tripled on Thursday, so maybe he's getting back on track. Myers, meanwhile, had two homers and three RBIs against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 4, but that had been the only game in which he'd driven in a run in his past 18, so his RBI double was a much-needed lift.
I thought Maddon tried to go one inning too far with Hellickson, who had scuffled through the first five innings but allowed just one run. Other than his previous start, when he tossed 5⅓ scoreless innings, Hellickson has been awful since late July. David Ortiz homered off him leading off the sixth and he walked Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who later scored when Stephen Drew doubled off Jamey Wright.
The Yankees-Orioles game had an even more dramatic eighth and ninth inning. The Yankees led 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Alfonso Soriano made a leaping grab in left to rob Manny Machado of a home run and David Robertson fanned Chris Davis, but Adam Jones singled, Nick Markakis singled and Danny Valencia crushed a first-pitch cut fastball over the fence in left center to tie it up. After J.J. Hardy doubled, Robertson finally struck out Matt Wieters for the final out of the inning. For Robertson, it was his first back-to-back appearances since missing several days with shoulder tendinitis, and he didn't face too many batters on this night.
The Yankees then rallied off Orioles closer Jim Johnson with help from one of baseball's worst sins: not taking an out when the other team gives it you. Brendan Ryan led off the ninth inning by lining a single to right, and Chris Stewart sacrificed, but Johnson fielded the bunt and shot-putted the ball into center with a ghastly throw. The winning run eventually scored on a wild pitch and then Mariano Rivera got the save, and the Yankees remained a game behind the Rays while the Orioles fell 2½ back (tied with the Royals).
As for Johnson, I called him baseball's least valuable player this season on Twitter. The Orioles have blown nine games they led heading into the ninth inning this season, compared to the MLB average of three. This was a tie game entering the ninth, but Johnson is now 3-8. When your closer has eight losses, bad things have happened, and Buck Showalter's decision to stick with Johnson all season has proved costly.
Last season, the Orioles set the major league record with a 29-9 record in one-run games. Were they good, or was there a degree of luck involved? As Joe Posnanski pointed out today: The Orioles are now 16-27 in one-run games in 2013, the worst record in the majors -- worse than the Astros or Marlins or anybody else. So they've gone from being THE BEST TEAM EVER in one-run games to the worst in the majors in one season. And you wonder why the Orioles are miserable right now.
The Orioles gave Rivera a bronzed broken bat. Isn't all this Rivera love getting to be a bit much? I mean, it's kind of like, "Hey, Mariano, thanks for beating the crap out of us all these years!"
I liked the way Joe Girardi managed his pitchers. He started the awful-of-late Phil Hughes but took him out after three innings and went to lefty David Huff. Of course, that decision looked good only because Hughes and Huff combined to allow only two runs in six innings.
You do wonder, however, if the Yankees bullpen -- so good most of the season -- can hold on down the stretch. Robertson looked awful in the eighth and Rivera has been used heavily down the stretch and has five blown saves in his past 16 appearances.