Wild card making September more exciting


Look, the wild-card game is goofy. Or dumb, depending on your personal taste. Having teams play 162 regular-season games and then a one-game playoff to move on in the postseason is akin to having an NFL playoff game that lasts about six minutes.

But it certainly makes for an exciting September, at least when we have a mad scramble like we do this year in the American League. With more teams in play, we get more games in play, and that's a good thing for baseball.

I spent Wednesday night watching the Orioles and Red Sox. And the Rangers and Rays. And the Yankees and Blue Jays. And the Indians and Royals. When those games ended, I watched the end of the Reds-Astros contest. I had the TV on, the laptop, the phone. Multiple games, multiple screens, lots of action.

The great thing about this September rush is that momentum -- such as it is -- changes daily. A week ago the Orioles lost three in a row to the Yankees and looked dead. But then they beat unhittable Koji Uehara in the ninth inning on Tuesday and then they beat the Red Sox in 12 innings on Wednesday and suddenly they aren't the team that's lost games late all season but a team that looks like the squad that won all those close games last year. The Orioles are now just one game back of the Rangers for the second wild card and very much alive.

Baltimore probably had the biggest win of the night. With Tampa Bay and Texas tied for the wild card heading into the evening's action, the teams behind them were guaranteed to pick up a game in the standings with a win. The Red Sox had many opportunities to pull away but grounded into double plays in the second, third, 10th and 11th innings. In the 10th, David Ortiz grounded into a defensive-shift assisted double play -- 6-5-3, with Manny Machado showing off his old shortstop skills with a lovely turn.

Finally, the Orioles broke through in the 12th against Franklin Morales. Two singles and wild pitch put runners at second and third. John Farrell had the lefty Morales intentionally walk pinch-hitter Steve Pearce to face Machado. Not sure I agreed with the move -- Pearce was just activated from the DL and hadn't batted since Aug. 27. Morales got Machado to pop up, bringing up MVP candidate Chris Davis, a lefty-lefty showdown. Davis is a .233 hitter versus left-handers (.284 OBP); Morales had held lefties to a .167 average in limited duty.

That's the other great thing about these games: Dissecting every move, every mistake. Davis got out in front of a curveball, but managed to keep his hands back and ground the ball up the middle for a two-run single. Farrell's move was debatable; credit Davis for finding a hole just out of the reach of Dustin Pedroia.

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The biggest loss of the night goes to the Rangers. They had taken a 3-2 lead over the Rays when rookie right fielder Wil Myers made a crucial mental mistake: With Elvis Andrus on first and two outs, Adrian Beltre lined a base hit into right-center. Myers was slow to the ball and then lobbed a throw in to second baseman Ben Zobrist. Andrus hustled all the way home.

Mistakes are magnified this time of year. It's quite likely that Myers had never faced that kind of play before in the minors -- a runner with Andrus-grade speed and heads-up baserunning trying to score from first on a single. But games can be won and lost not just on physical aspect but mental aspects. Myers had a brain fart and it appeared it would cost the Rays.

Except in the bottom of the inning, Joe Nathan -- 39 for 41 in save chances -- walked Matt Joyce with two outs. Freddy Guzman pinch-ran. And that's a little story right there. Guzman had last appeared in the majors in 2009. He had spent the past two summers playing for Ciudad del Carmen of the Mexican League, where he had stolen 73 bases this year in 99 games. The Rays apparently signed him in late August and stashed him at their minor league complex. He was activated before Tuesday's game and there he was in 11th, suddenly a key player in a key game.

He stole second -- maybe he was out -- and David DeJesus singled up the middle off a hanging 2-2 slider from Nathan. Game tied, blown save, flash to Myers in the dugout saying "Thank god."

The Rangers failed to score in the 12th after getting the first two runners on and the Rays won it off Joe Ortiz, who had allowed runs in three of his five September appearances. This is the risk when you pull Jason Frasor after 13 pitches and Tanner Scheppers after 11 and Neal Cotts after 14. Eventually you run out of good relievers if the game goes deep and you end up using your seventh-best reliever in a big moment. Desmond Jennings, who had misplayed a fly ball into two runs earlier in the game, drove in the winning run.

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The Yankees need help to win the wild card. It looked like time to put the fork in them after they trailed 3-0 to Toronto through seven innings; a loss would leave them at 3.5 games behind the Rangers/Rays loser, but also behind the Orioles, Indians and Royals (who would beat the Indians). But they scored four runs in the eighth and turned it over to the invincible Mariano Rivera.

Which sounds good, except Mo hasn't been so invincible of late and two singles started the bottom of the ninth. Munenori Kawasaki pinch-hit. We could have done an entire blog on the bunt strategies on this night. The Jays were at their No. 6 spot in the order. Moises Sierra has actually hit well -- .307/.354/.547 -- but John Gibbons elected to go for the bunt and let two worse hitters take a crack at Rivera. Except the Yankees knew the bunt was coming and first baseman Lyle Overbay was so close to Kawasaki that the Kawasaki probably knew what cologne Overbay had on. Overbay fielded the bunt and threw the lead runner out at third. Rivera got a ground out and struck out J.P. Arencibia to end it.

I would have let Sierra hit. He was the best hitter of the next three, plus Rivera gets so many infield popups that he's not the easiest guy to get a sacrifice fly against. Basically, I'd rather bet on the next three guys going 1-for-3 then giving up an out and hoping the next two guys go for 1-for-2 or hit a sacrifice fly.

On this night, the Yankees climbed one game closer. Momentum is now on their side.

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In the National League, the Pirates lost a heartbreaker as the Padres scored twice in the ninth off Mark Melancon to win 3-2. Combined with the Cardinals' 4-3 win over the Rockies -- Edward Mujica struck out Todd Helton with the bases loaded to end it -- St. Louis now leads Pittsburgh by two games in the NL Central.

As Wil Myers might say to the Pirates: "Thank god."

As in: At least there's the wild card to fall back on.