Just more than two weeks ago, the Texas Rangers were in pretty good position, leading the A’s by 2.5 games in the American League West and coming off a 20-7 August that had them angling for the best record in the league, even with the Red Sox and Tigers in the lead as September began.
In other words, they were at least making preliminary plans on how to line up their postseason rotation. Matt Garza, acquired from the Cubs on July 22 for four players, would be a big part of that rotation, slotting in behind Yu Darvish and perhaps ahead of Derek Holland. He was one of the big fish at the trade deadline, the top-of-the-rotation starter teams desired to bulk up their rotation.
Well, Garza has proven to be one of the key deadline acquisitions -- only in a negative way. The Rangers are a disastrous 2-12 in September, collapsing down the stretch for the second straight season, and Garza has become the symbol of this horridness. He had another poor effort in Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Rays, getting knocked out in the fifth inning while allowing eight hits and six runs. Over his past nine starts, he has a 5.72 ERA and just one quality start. He has hardly been an improvement over the replacement-level pitchers the Rangers had been throwing out there.
Garza is not the only reason the Rangers have struggled. Their success in August was masked somewhat by their schedule -- they played only four games against winning teams in the month, beating up on the likes of the Astros, Mariners and White Sox. As the schedule got tougher, the Rangers’ weaknesses have been highlighted. As Gerry Fraley pointed out on Twitter, the Rangers haven’t led now in seven consecutive games, the first time that has happened since the franchise moved from Washington. That was 1972. The Rangers have a great bullpen, but they can’t get the lead.
Meanwhile, Alex Cobb delivered another solid outing for the Rays, with 10 strikeouts over eight innings, improving to 9-3 with a 3.02 ERA and giving the Rays temporary breathing room in the wild-card race (one game over Texas, 1.5 over Cleveland).
With that game in mind, speaking of playoff rotations, how do the contenders line up? Let's check some of the things managers are looking at.
Mike Minor probably lines up as their No. 1, but it’s possible that Kris Medlen slots ahead of Julio Teheran even though Teheran has better numbers on the season, especially if the Braves lock up home field for the first round (they currently have the best record in the NL). Medlen has pitched well of late, but he also has a sizable home/road split (2.45 ERA at home, 4.27 on the road).
Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are the easiest one-two on the board, with Ricky Nolasco (terrific with the Dodgers other than his last start) and Hyun-Jin Ryu after that, perhaps depending on who finishes best over these final two weeks.
Pitchers who started on Monday in the NL are lined up to also start the wild-card game, which takes place on Tuesday after the season ends on Sept. 29, given four days between starts. For the Pirates, that suggests that if they don’t win the division, A.J. Burnett draws the assignment for that game. Here:
Monday, Sept. 16: Pitch
Tuesday, Sept. 17: Off
Wednesday, Sept. 18: Off
Thursday, Sept. 19: Off
Friday, Sept. 20: Off
Saturday, Sept. 21: Pitch
Sunday, Sept. 22: Off
Monday, Sept. 23: Off
Tuesday, Sept. 24: Off
Wednesday, Sept. 25: Off
Thursday, Sept. 26: Pitch
Friday, Sept. 27: Off
Saturday, Sept. 28: Off
Sunday, Sept. 29: Off
Monday, Sept. 30: Off
Tuesday, Oct. 1: Start wild-card game
Now, that’s assuming the NL Central division race goes down to the season’s final day and rotations aren't altered. However, the Pirates have another option: Francisco Liriano is scheduled to start this coming Friday, then again on Wednesday the 25th. So he could also pitch the wild-card game on five days’ rest if he doesn’t start the season finale on short rest (otherwise that would be Gerrit Cole’s game). If the Pirates end up facing the Reds, Liriano could get the start in an attempt to neutralize the Reds’ left-handed batters of Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
Using the same math we did for the Pirates, the Cardinals would be lined up with Shelby Miller (Sunday’s starter) or Lance Lynn (Monday’s starter) in the wild-card game. Adam Wainwright starts Wednesday and Monday, putting him in line for a Saturday start in the final weekend and out of the wild-card game (he’d be pitching on two days’ rest). Again, all that is contingent on the division not being settled until the very end.
Perhaps the most interesting result from Monday was Johnny Cueto's making his first start for the Reds since June 28 and going five innings and 82 pitches against the Astros, allowing no runs. Yes, it was the Astros, and Reds fans on Twitter said Cueto was bailed out a couple of times but that his curveball looked great. If Cueto can get up to 100 pitches, Dusty Baker has to consider him for the rotation. Of course, the Reds have to get past the wild-card game first, and Baker has Mat Latos or Homer Bailey lined up full rest to start that game, as he’s going with six starters this week (with a day off on Thursday). He’s starting Greg Reynolds on Wednesday against Houston, lining up Latos and Bailey to pitch against the Pirates (and Liriano and Burnett) on Friday and Saturday. Good stuff.
Jon Lester is presumably the No. 1 here, although Clay Buchholz has shown good results in two starts since coming off a three-month DL stint. Jake Peavy and John Lackey would fill out the 3-4 spots in some order.
Bartolo Colon has the better season numbers, but would Jarrod Parker draw the A's Game 1 start? He was Oakland’s Game 1 starter last year as a rookie, losing twice in the Division Series to Justin Verlander. He’d been on a roll until Monday’s start against the Angels, going 9-1 with a 2.60 ERA in 21 starts since struggling early in the season. Colon had a little blip in early August with back-to-back five-run starts, but has a 1.13 ERA over his past four starts. This could be a matchup thing: If the A’s play a team with a heavy dosage of left-handed hitters (like Boston), maybe Parker gets the start since his changeup is so effective against lefties. Against a right-handed team (Detroit), maybe Colon draws Game 1. After that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see rookie Sonny Gray get Game 3 over the homer-prone Dan Straily or A.J. Griffin.
Two questions: (1) Anibal Sanchez or Justin Verlander as the No. 2 starter behind Max Scherzer (I’d go Sanchez, as he’s simply better than Verlander right now); (2) Has Rick Porcello jumped over Doug Fister as the Tigers' fourth guy? Porcello has pitched well his past two starts, but those came against the Mariners and the White Sox. Before that, the Red Sox pounded him for nine runs. But Fister has also been inconsistent, with two seven-run starts mixed in with a one-run and no-run effort in his past four outings.
I’m not going to go through all the wild-card contenders, but since the AL wild-card game is played on Wednesday, Oct. 2, here’s each team’s probable wild-card starter:
Tampa Bay: David Price. He’s scheduled to go on Friday and next Wednesday, giving him six days of rest before the wild-card game.
Cleveland: Zach McAllister, Scott Kazmir or Corey Kluber. The Indians have an off day next week, so they could end up skipping Danny Salazar and starting Ubaldo Jimenez next Tuesday and then again on the final day of the season (if needed) or the wild-card game (if not needed the final day).
New York: With an off day, next week, the Yankees can skip Phil Hughes and go with Hiroki Kuroda (Tuesday), CC Sabathia (Wednesday), Ivan Nova (Thursday), Andy Pettitte (Friday), Hughes (Saturday), Kuroda (Sunday). So, it could be Sabathia, Nova or Pettitte in the wild-card game.
Kansas City: James Shields. The Royals have an off day on Thursday, so Shields is slated to pitch again on Sunday, then next Friday, which sets him up for the wild-card game on four days’ rest.
Whew. Got all that? And I'm sure I'll hear it from Nationals fans for not including them ...