SweetSpot: Buck Showalter

No, not for players -- that's a tired old assumption that should be discarded with the leftovers sitting in your fridge since the Brewers were still mathematically alive.

I'm talking managers.

Take Buck Showalter.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBuck Showalter has learned over the years to trust your bullpen in the postseason.
In his first postseason, which was with the Yankees in 1995, he suddenly lost faith in his closer, John Wetteland, after he'd faced four batters in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Mariners. All had reached base, topped off by Edgar Martinez's grand slam. In Game 5, he let a fatigued David Cone walk in the tying run in the eighth inning on his 147th pitch of game. He didn't yet trust a rookie reliever named Mariano Rivera, even though he'd pitched well in the series and kept the game tied in the eighth. So he brought in Game 3 starter Jack McDowell, who couldn't hold the lead the Yankees had taken in the top of the 11th. (Really, this article is just an excuse to link to this video. And just because: Here's the grand slam.)

Then, while managing the Diamondbacks in 1999, Randy Johnson took a 4-4 tie into the ninth inning. Yes, it's Randy Johnson. But he'd faced 32 batters. Showalter let him face four more. Three got on, and then Edgardo Alfonzo hit a grand slam off a reliever named Bobby Chouinard.

Showalter learned: Trust your bullpen. We saw quick hooks in the Orioles' series against the Tigers. Yes, some of that is a function of not having a Cone or Johnson to overextend, plus a deep bullpen you can rely upon, but I believe Showalter has learned not to let your starter go too deep. He's also showed the willingness to stick with the hot hand. He used Andrew Miller twice against the Tigers to get five outs and once in the sixth inning (earlier than he had used him all season).

Bruce Bochy managed the Padres to four playoff appearances before the Giants hired him. He's learned that you can't manage the playoffs like you do the regular season, whether it's putting Tim Lincecum in the bullpen like he did in 2012 or pulling a starter with a 3-1 lead in the third inning like he did with Barry Zito that same year. I was actually a little surprised he let Ryan Vogelsong start the sixth inning against the Nationals in Game 4 the other night, but he did pull him with two outs and nobody on to bring on Javier Lopez to face Adam LaRoche.

Mike Matheny is now in his third postseason, but for the most part still seems to take a regular-season approach to managing his starters. He lost Game 5 of the World Series last year when the Red Sox scored twice off Adam Wainwright in the seventh to win 3-1 and then had a surprisingly slow hook with Michael Wacha in Game 6 (he allowed six runs). He got five good innings out of Shelby Miller in Game 4 against the Dodgers and then had a bit of a slow hook in the sixth inning. The Cardinals got three outs that inning -- two on a double play and the third when Andre Ethier got caught off third; that inning easily could have exploded in their faces, in part because Miller was left in too long.

Ned Yost? Yost certainly has a plan: Get a lead and then hand the ball in the seventh inning or later to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The problem with him is if that plan doesn't unfold exactly like that, what does he do? His bullpen is deeper than those three with the emergence of Brandon Finnegan, the solid Jason Frasor and even starter Danny Duffy. He doesn't have to rely on his starters to go six or seven innings every game. It will be interesting in particular to see if he rides James Shields, who has scuffled in his two postseason starts. Yost has the bullpen depth to go to it early, especially if he's willing to extend his best relievers for more than three outs like Showalter did with Miller.

All this gets back to what I wrote Wednesday about when to remove a starter. All four of these teams have good bullpens. All four managers should be using them as much as possible. On paper, we should have two low-scoring series. The key innings may very well be those precarious sixth and seventh innings when the starter is getting tired and it's too early for your closer. How these four managers handle those innings will play play a key role.

Oh, and if you're facing a lose-and-go-home game and it's tied in the seventh inning, I recommend not using your 10th-best pitcher.
The most important decision a manager has to make in any individual postseason game usually involves when to pull his starting pitcher. There can be other important decisions -- whether to bench your best hitter, for example, or whether to bring in your sixth-best reliever in a tie game in the seventh inning -- but baseball games revolve around pitching, and it's the starter who has to carry the biggest workload.

The question, then: When should a manager remove his starter?

Obviously, there are myriad influencing factors in any game: how the starter feels, his pitch count, how many days of rest he's pitching on, the score of the game, how tired or rested the bullpen is, the quality of the relievers, the state of the series and so on.

So we're talking in broad terms here. One of the hot topics among sabermetric writers and analysts this offseason has been the idea that starters generally do worse the third time through a batting order. The batters have seen him twice by then, plus the starter is getting tired. It's certainly no coincidence that both times Clayton Kershaw blew up against the Cardinals came in his third time through the order as he approached and went beyond 100 pitches.

Here are the numbers we're talking about, all starting pitchers in 2014:

First time through the order: .246/.304/.377
Second time through the order: .256/.313/.395
Third time through the order: .268/.327/.421

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly, Zack Greinke
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNothing spurs debate in the postseason like a manager's call to the bullpen.
The most hardcore sabermetricians will advocate for a quick hook; overall, relievers have lower ERAs than starters, so the theory is that going to your bullpen over a tiring starter is the way to go. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote a piece the other day praising Buck Showalter for his quick hooks in the Orioles' series win over the Tigers. Buster Olney wrote a few days ago that there's no perfect time to remove a starter.

And it's hard to say that there should be a hard and fast rule. If managers always managed like that, we wouldn't have had Jack Morris pitching his 10-inning shutout in the 1991 World Series or Chris Carpenter beating Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 of the 2011 NL Division Series or any number of great postseason performances. You have to allow for a manager to adjust to what's going on in the game.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see how World Series winners have managed their rotations in recent years.

2013 -- John Farrell, Red Sox (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 24.2
Long outings (28+ BF): 3
Short outings (20 or fewer BF): 5

Farrell did extend his starters a few times, but all were in games when the Red Sox had big leads: 6-1, 8-1 and 12-2 were the finals of those three games. The Red Sox won three of the five short outings, including Game 4 of the World Series when he pinch-hit for Clay Buchholz with the score tied 1-1 in the top of the fifth. There were some extenuating circumstances as Buchholz was pitching through a sore shoulder that was limiting his velocity. But Farrell also pulled Jake Peavy after 74 pitches in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the division series. The Red Sox were down 1-0 and Peavy hadn't walked a batter; they ended up winning 3-1. In Game 5 of the ALCS, he pulled Jon Lester after 24 batters in the sixth inning with a 4-1 lead. Lester was at 98 pitches and there were two runners on, but Farrell didn't wait.

2012 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 23.7
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 4

Two of the long outings came with big leads. The one exception was Matt Cain in Game 4 of the World Series, when he faced 28 batters. He was at 102 pitches and had retired the side in order in the seventh, but Bochy pulled him with the game tied. The Giants would win in 10 innings.

The Giants won two of the short outings. In Game 3 of the division series (the Giants were down two games to none), Ryan Vogelsong was removed after 20 batters (and five innings). The game was tied 1-1 and Vogelsong led off the sixth; plus he was at 95 pitches, so that was strongly dictated by circumstances. In Game 4, Bochy removed Barry Zito in the third inning, after 20 batters faced. The Giants were ahead 3-2 at the time. Bochy's decision was certainly influenced by Zito's four walks, but he took him with two outs and a runner on first, not the most threatening of moments. In the same game, Dusty Baker left in Mike Leake to give up two more runs in the fifth inning and the next game he left in Mat Latos to give up six runs, including a grand slam to Buster Posey the third time through the order.

2011 -- Tony La Russa, Cardinals (18 total games)
Average batters faced: 22.0
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 6

La Russa had a very quick hook throughout this postseason, with five other outings of 23 or fewer batters. Two of the long outings were from Chris Carpenter, including that memorable duel with Halladay, when he faced 31 batters. In the ninth inning, La Russa left him in to face Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard. He probably shouldn't have, but it worked out. Sometimes it does.

It's possible La Russa adapted after losing Game 3 of that division series. Jaime Garcia took a 0-0 tie into the seventh inning but gave up a single, intentional walk and a two-out, three-run homer to Ben Francisco (pinch-hitting for Cole Hamels, so he was the 27th batter Garcia had faced). After that, La Russa was determined not to let his starters lose a game late.

2010 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.7
Long outings: 6
Short outings: 2

Bochy rode his starters longer this postseason, as he also had four starts with 27 batters faced. In Game 1 of the division series, he let Tim Lincecum finish off a 1-0, 14-strikeout gem with 119 pitches and 30 BF. In Game 5 of the World Series, leading 3-1, he let Lincecum face the 9-1-2 batters in the eighth inning, but Lincecum retired the side.

Bochy also had two interesting quick hooks, however. In Game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, he removed rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner in the fifth inning after 20 BF, a 2-1 lead and two runners on. The move backfired at first, as Santiago Casilla allowed the two inherited runners to score plus one of his own, but the Giants rallied to win 6-5. The critical one came in the clinching Game 6 when he removed Jonathan Sanchez in the third inning of a 2-2 game. Sanchez had walked a batter and hit a batter. Jeremy Affeldt got out of the jam and Bumgarner would pitch two scoreless innings, Lincecum would retire a batter and Brian Wilson got a five-out save.

That was some unconventional managing and it helped the Giants win the series. But to manage like that, Bochy had to have a plan of attack ready in place in case Sanchez faltered.

2009 -- Joe Girardi, Yankees (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.9
Long outings: 4
Short outings: 1

Girardi was pretty much by the book. All four long outings came from CC Sabathia, and the short one was a blow-up A.J. Burnett start in the World Series (two innings, six runs). He did have a quicker hook on Andy Pettitte, but that was in part because Pettitte made some starts on three days' rest.

* * *

Is there anything to learn from this? In the five postseasons from 2009 to 2013, there were 175 postseason games (so 350 total team games). There were 72 "long outings" of 28 or more batters faced -- 21 percent of all games. You'd think the team with the long outing would win most of those games, right? After all, you're usually leaving in a pitcher that long only if he's been pitching well or has a big lead. The long-outing teams were 47-25 (.652), but the starting pitcher lost 17 of those 25 games. Not all of those were bad losses -- Halladay faced 32 batters in losing to Carpenter, for example.

But some were bad decisions. In the 2011 division series, Charlie Manuel left in Cliff Lee to face the Cardinals' 2-3-4 hitters for a fourth time in a 4-4 game. Allen Craig tripled and Albert Pujols singled and the Cardinals won 5-4. (Meanwhile, La Russa yanked Carpenter after 16 BF and the bullpen threw six shutout innings.) In Game 1 of the 2011 division series, the Brewers led the Diamondbacks 2-0. Kirk Gibson let Ian Kennedy face Prince Fielder a fourth time and Fielder hit a two-run homer, cementing the game for Milwaukee.

By the way, in the Oakland-Kansas City wild-card game, holding a 7-3 lead in the eighth, A's manager Bob Melvin let Jon Lester face the first four batters a fourth time. Three of them reached base.

Looking ahead, we know Buck Showalter will have quick hooks and Ned Yost will go to his back-end trio if he's leading in the seventh inning. (The fifth and sixth innings will be Yost's test.) Bochy isn't afraid to pull a starter quickly -- Vogelsong and Peavy faced 21 in their starts against the Nationals, both leaving with leads -- although he'll go longer with Bumgarner.

That leaves Mike Matheny as the key guy in this area. For the most part, he's pretty by the book. In the 34 postseason games he's managed, only twice (Adam Wainwright both times) has a starter gone beyond 27 BF. But one of those was Game 5 of last year's World Series, when the Red Sox scored twice in the seventh to take a 3-1 lead -- with the 26th and 28th batters Wainwright had faced knocking in the runs. He also left in Michael Wacha in Game 6 to give up six runs when a quicker hook in a must-win game was necessary.

Of course, none of this touches on that gray area around 24 batters faced -- that crucial sixth- or seventh-inning time when a starter is tiring and managers are loath to use their setup guys too early. But that's another article.

Buck Showalter: Replay gamesmanship?

August, 16, 2014

The Cleveland Indians' past five games have gone like so: 3-0 win, 4-1 win, 3-2 win, 1-0 loss (12 innings), 2-1 win (11 innings). The 3-2 victory (over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first of a doubleheader) and Friday's 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles were both decided on Cleveland's final swing of the bat. Zach Walters and Mike Aviles, respectively, did the honors by way of solo homers.

The narrow victories have pulled Cleveland back into the tail end of the chase for the second wild-card spot, though at 61-60, they'll need to leapfrog the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers and Mariners and make up five games in the standings over their next 41. It's not impossible, though they'll need every last nail-biting win, but the team is so thoroughly a .500 squad that it's hard to imagine them making up the gap. Their run differential (+10) doesn't show a sleeping giant, their roster has more players who are at risk to trend downward (Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Corey Kluber) than upward (Nick Swisher), and their starting pitching, which essentially amounts to "Kluber and pray for a four-day deluge," is not of the quality they'd need to rip off six weeks of hot baseball.

Baltimore, meanwhile, finds itself in the opposite position. Even after Friday's loss, they have a big lead in the AL East, and the three teams behind them with even a quasi-realistic shot at winning the division are the Rays, who traded their ace, David Price, to Detroit; the Yankees, who have four starting pitchers on the disabled list, including their ace, Masahiro Tanaka; and the Blue Jays, who might have a roster capable of doing some damage but don't have the depth to cover for injuries to players such as Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion and consequently find themselves with seven games to make up and not nearly enough time to do so.

Still, whether a team has a clear path to the playoffs or a struggle just to stay halfway relevant, it's more fun to win close, extra-innings games than lose them, which might explain why Orioles manager Buck Showalter appeared to go out of his way to engage in gamesmanship Friday. To set the scene: Kluber had cruised along through seven innings and struck out nine Orioles while allowing four hits and two walks. After catching Chris Davis looking with an absurd 95 mph sinker on the outside corner, Kluber ran another of his filthy two-seamers in on the hands of Adam Jones, who tried to pull back his bunt attempt but wound up taking the ball off his fingers. Jones believed he successfully brought his bat back from the strike zone but neither home plate umpire Dana DeMuth nor first base umpire Ron Kulpa saw things his way.

After the usual back-and-forth that, as we've learned, attends all manager discussions with umpires prior to the men in blue donning headsets and chatting with their colleagues in New York, DeMuth and Kulpa did just that. The call, unsurprisingly, was upheld. Video technology is remarkable and improving every day, but getting a good, close look at the bat as a ball traveling 90-plus mph approaches the hands of the batter, which are themselves in motion? Whatever call the umpires made on the field was almost destined to stand. The standard for overturning a call, remember, is that the replay must provide "clear and convincing evidence," which requires the replay umpires be able to "definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect."

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter, Dana DeMuth, Ron Kulpa, Ed Hickox
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesWhile Orioles manager Buck Showalter pleaded his case with the umpiring crew in the eighth inning, Corey Kluber and the Indians waited.
All of this took a handful of minutes -- minutes Kluber had to stand around, tossing a ball with his teammates, waiting for them to end. Showalter, though, was not satisfied when DeMuth relayed New York's answer. He stayed on the field and chatted something less than amiably for minutes more. He even pulled a "start to walk back to the dugout but then turn around and continue arguing" move, perhaps to squeeze every last second out of the delay. As Cleveland's broadcast team grew ever more indignant, and as Indians manager Terry Francona stared on impatiently from the top step of his dugout, DeMuth, bafflingly, failed to give Showalter the heave-ho. The replay rules could not be clearer on this point:

Once Replay Review is initiated, no uniformed personnel from either Club shall be permitted to further argue the contested calls or the decision of the Replay Official. Onfield personnel who violate this provision shall be ejected.

Whatever Jedi mind trick Showalter had in his back pocket worked, though, and the umps let him stay in the game.

To be fair, we can't read Showalter's mind, and I, at least, can't read his lips. Perhaps he had a legitimate argument and felt honestly aggrieved by the outcome of the play. (Jones certainly did, as he barked at the first-base umpire after grounding out weakly once the game finally resumed.) Perhaps none of this was intended to ice a hot pitcher on a relatively cool Cleveland night. But Showalter has a history of delaying games to ice pitchers. And of psyching out hitters. And of throwing bulletin-board material at an entire slate of division foes.

Kluber had just thrown his 111th pitch of the night, so regardless, he was not long for the mound. Although he gave up a single to Nelson Cruz, who eventually came around to score the tying run, he had just retired Jones on a filthy breaking ball and handed the Cleveland bullpen a simple task: Prevent the slow-as-molasses Cruz from scoring from first with two outs. That Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were unable to do that can no more be put on Kluber than it can on Showalter.

Still, Showalter's non-ejection is one more annoyance in this first season of the expanded replay era, one more wrinkle to be ironed out. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Strictly enforce the rule requiring ejection for further argument. There's no reason not to; arguing about the results of a replay with the on-field crew, who have no input in the replay process, is pointless, as futile as reasoning with the lamppost you just ran your car into. Managers truly committed to the cause might holler and scream and delay the game via the histrionics accompanying an ejection anyway, but at least they pay the price for doing so. Given the outcome in Cleveland, what's to stop Showalter from pulling the same stunt again?

Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.
Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado is a month shy of his 22nd birthday, one of the bright young talents in the game.

But age is no excuse for his bush league move in Sunday's 11-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics in which he clearly, with intention and deliberate action, attempted to throw his bat at Oakland pitcher Fernando Abad. The bat ended up flying down the third-base line instead of toward the pitcher's mound, though Machado claimed the bat slipped out of his hands. No one is buying that piece of fiction: Machado should be suspended for at least five games.

Here's the longer version of the play as it unfolded. Decide for yourself, but note the lateness of the swing and when the bat "slipped." Even Orioles play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne accused Machado of deliberately releasing the bat.

Machado's bat throwing was the culmination of a series of events that began Friday night, when Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson tagged out Machado on a ground ball with two outs in the third inning, leading to a benches-clearing incident when Machado took exception to the play. Normally, the third baseman throws to first on that play, and the tag appeared to catch Machado off-balance and he flung his helmet to the ground as he fell and had words with Donaldson. But Donaldson didn't do anything improper; he obviously has the right to tag Machado.

That fracas cleared pretty quickly, but later in the game, Wei-Yin Chen threw high a couple times to Donaldson and hit him once. That set the stage for Sunday.

Earlier in the game, Machado hit A's catcher Derek Norris with a backswing. Then in the sixth inning, Machado whiffed on a pitch with another exaggerated follow-through that hit Norris on the top of his helmet and knocked him from the game.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Gail BurtonMachado caused another stir Sunday when he threw his bat -- and it appeared intentional.
From my view, the A's now had two reasons to be upset at Machado: He overreacted during Friday's play in which Donaldson did nothing wrong, leading to Donaldson nearly getting a pitch in his face; Machado's swing that knocked Norris from the game may not have been intentional but it's interesting that Machado didn't even glance back at Norris as the catcher attempted to shake off the blow. Factor in that it was the second time it happened in the game, and you can draw your own conclusions about Machado's actions.

So with a 10-0 lead in the eighth inning, Abad threw a fastball near Machado's knees, a pitch that was easy to jump away from. On the next pitch, Machado let the bat fly. Can you defend Abad's pitch? We get into the complicated area of retribution here. It's easy to argue, "Let it go. You're up 10-0. Finish off the game and go home." On the other hand, Machado had been acting like a punk.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter supported his third baseman after Friday's dust-up, saying, "Manny cares. Until you've walked a mile in a man's shoes you don't really know what goes on. It's a pretty easy call for me what side of the fence I'm on."

Look, I can't pretend to be in anybody's shoes here, but I'm trying to figure what Donaldson did on Friday that would deserve Chen throwing at him. This is where Showalter -- as a leader of men and the manager of the team -- should have said, "This is where it ends. Move on."

Showalter had a little more difficulty defending his young third baseman on Sunday.

"If you look at it realistically, it was two competitive guys. Both were probably a little right and a little wrong," he said in reference to Friday's incident. "Two days later, somebody decided to do something else. I'll manage my club accordingly and they'll live with their decisions."

Look, managers these days aren't going to publicly reprimand their player. But this wasn't a 50-50 situation; this was Machado throwing his bat and trying to injure a pitcher, after he may have tried to injure a catcher. No, this isn't as bad as Juan Marichal attacking Johnny Roseboro with his bat or Bert Campaneris throwing his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow in the 1972 American League Championship Series. I would, however, suggest it's worse than the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza incident in the World Series. To a certain extent, the game polices itself, but I'm going to predict that Joe Torre in the league office is going to find good reason to suspend Machado.

After the game, A's catcher John Jaso brought up the proverbial "play the game the right way" stuff you hear from players after incidents like this, and in this case I actually agree with him. This isn't the same thing as Yasiel Puig flipping his bat or David Ortiz watching a home run, in which the "play the game the right way" stuff is nonsense. There's a big difference between playing the game with joy and playing the game with the intent to injure.

I don't agree, as Jaso said, that a player like Machado who acts "like he's got 10 years in the big leagues" has "to be brought down a little bit." That leads to incidents where players can and do get hurt. But we can all agree that Machado failed to play the game the right way on Sunday and must pay a severe penalty.

Norris called Machado's actions "a disgrace to baseball." Those are strong words, but I have to agree.

Here are some of the position players to suit up for the Yankees in 2013: Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Austin Romine, David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Luis Cruz, Ben Francisco, Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Thomas Neal, Corban Joseph and Travis Ishikawa. (What you don't remember the two at-bats -- both strikeouts -- Ishikawa received?)

Those 16 players had combined for 1,988 plate appearances entering Wednesday's game in Baltimore, about the playing time of three full-time players. None have provided a positive offensive contribution, Nunez being the best, and he's hittng .257 with one home run. This group had combined to hit .223 with 24 home runs and 162 RBIs and on-base percentage well south of .300.

Those totals don't even include the 73 awful plate appearances Derek Jeter made or the 63 bad ones from Mark Teixeira or the 118 from Kevin Youkilis. You get the idea. This is a Yankees team that the rest of the American League should have kicked to the curb, elbowed in the stomach and then thrown into the gutter alongside the Astros and Mariners.

For much of the season, it's been a team with a $228 million payroll fielding a replacement-level lineup. Well ... replacement level plus Robinson Cano.

It's the ninth inning on Wednesday night. The Yankees had trailed 3-1 before Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez tied the game with home runs in the fifth and sixth. You can guess which guy received a loud chorus of boos as he rounded the bases.

[+] EnlargeTommy Hunter
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyTommy Hunter wasn't the only one who averted his eyes after what was done to him.
Cano is leading off the inning. Tommy Hunter, who got the final out in the eighth, is pitching for Baltimore, the only reliever Buck Showalter has used all night. Cano eats up right-handers like Adam Richman facing a plate of pancakes. He has the sixth-best OPS against right-handers in the majors, nearly 200 points better than his mark against lefties. The game before Showalter had let Cano face righty Kevin Gausman in the eighth and Cano singled to tie a game the Yankees went on to win. Surely he wouldn't let Cano face a righty again in a key situation?

Left-handers were hitting .175 off Brian Matusz. Showalter didn't bring him -- and, no, it doesn't look like rest was an issue. Matusz had thrown 14 pitches on Tuesday, his first appearance in eight days. Troy Patton is another lefty in the pen although he hasn't been all that great against lefties this year, .275 with five home runs allowed. Still ... Tommy Hunter. Left-handed batters were slugging .527 off him before this night; he'd allowed nine home runs on the season, all to lefties. He crushes righties; he's not good versus lefties. Clear?

Cano saw two pitches. He fouled off a 95-mph fastball. Then he swatted an 88 mph changeup to center field. The Yankees would add another run when Adam Jones misplayed a catchable deep fly ball into a Granderson triple, a key run as it turned out when the Orioles scored once off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Yankees 5, Orioles 4.

Orioles fans forced live through another ninth-inning meltdown. Yankees fans, somehow seeing their underdog team getting a game closer to the playoffs. Tommy Hunter versus Robinson Cano, a matchup that never should have happened.

* * * *

We're in the top of the 10th inning in St. Petersburg. Rays manager Joe Maddon had already run through five relievers, including closer Fernando Rodney, who had thrown 15 pitches in the ninth. Closers don't pitch two innings these days -- even Maddon, the guy all the smart kids love, doesn't buck that trend -- so Joel Peralta started the 10th. Dustin Pedroia walked. Shane Victorino sacrificed him to second, bringing up David Ortiz. You can actually argue that John Farrell should have let Victorino hit away considering (A) Victorino has been hot; and (B) Maddon would likely intentionally walk Ortiz.

Which is what he did, a predictable move since he'd already used his two best lefties in the pen, Jake McGee and Alex Torres.

Like he did in the third inning, when he walked Ortiz to load the bases to face Mike Napoli (who singled in two runs), Maddon again elected to face Napoli. He replaced the fly-balling Peralta with the ground-balling Roberto Hernandez. The right move? Overthinking it? Hernandez versus righties: .254/.281/.377; Peralta versus righties: .206/.287/.299.

Napoli walked on four pitches. Oops.

What was the biggest mistake of the night


Discuss (Total votes: 3,094)

Farrell sent southpaw-swinging Mike Carp up to hit for Jonny Gomes. Hernandez has a huge platoon split -- lefties were hitting .303 and slugging .529 off him. Maddon did have one left-hander left in the pen in Cesar Ramos but he was starting to run out of relievers by now, so he stuck with Hernandez, still hoping for a double play.

Rays pitching coach Kevin Hickey visited the mound. We can assume his advice was not "Throw a first-pitch hanging slider."

Carp crushed it to dead center for a grand slam. With expanded rosters and with the depth the Red Sox have coming off their bench, it's hard to win a matchup game with them right now. Maddon tried and got burned.

* * * *

Did Showalter and Maddon make mistakes? Hey, we all second-guess when the moves don't work. The key is to second-guess before it happens. I was definitely surprised Showalter didn't bring in Matusz to face Cano; it's just not a good matchup for Hunter. Maddon had started his matchup game back in the sixth inning -- he used Wesley Wright to get Jackie Bradley Jr. to get out of a jam and then McGee got Ortiz to ground into a double play in the seventh. That kept the game close, which the Rays eventually tied in the eighth, but limited Maddon's options later in the game. I think he got a little too cute there in the 10th. He probably should have just let Peralta pitch to Ortiz. Any intentional walk helps increase the chances of a big inning. That's what happened.

This is what makes September baseball so much fun. Every move gets scrutinized. Every bad pitch that turns into a bad result gets amplified. We debate, discuss, watch the out-of-town scoreboard with intense scrutiny and suffer through the pain or revel in the joy when Robinson Cano and Mike Carp turn into heroes.

AL Wild-Card Standings

Texas 81 64 --
Tampa Bay 78 66 --
New York 78 68 1
Cleveland 77 68 1.5
Baltimore 77 68 1.5
Kansas City 77 69 2

Thursday night: Yankees at Orioles, Red Sox at Rays. Let's do it again. The five-way tie is still very much in play!

It was 86 degrees in Baltimore on Wednesday night, the ball was flying and we had one of the most exciting games of the season, a 9-6 Orioles victory over the Washington Nationals and one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, including a six-run rally in the seventh inning.

Here are 30 thoughts/observations/random tidbits on the game ...

1. Chris Davis. It was Chris Davis T-shirt night at Camden Yards and he didn't disappoint, slamming his 18th and 19th home runs, going 4-for-4, scoring three runs, driving in three, selling pretzels between innings. After his second home run, the camera panned to him a few moments later in the dugout, his helmet off -- and if you ever want to know the look of a man in the zone, Davis had it. Sort of part-bemused, like he was reliving the moment, part-amazed, like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, eyes wide, soaking it all in.

2. Electric atmosphere. As the Orioles announcer said, it had the feel of a Friday-night college crowd, with a buzz going all game, the fans exploding after each hit during Baltimore's big seventh. Baseball at its best.

3. Last season, it seemed Orioles fans were a little reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, as the support -- at least as shown in attendance figures -- was slow to get going, certainly understandable after years of losing. Looks like the support is getting back to levels we saw in the mid-1990s, when you couldn't get a ticket to an O's game.

4. Davis versus Miguel Cabrera. For all the attention that Cabrera has rightfully been generating for chasing the Triple Crown again, Davis is having the better season at the plate:

Davis: .359/.447/.755, 19 HR, 18 2B, 50 RBIs, 1.214 OPS
Cabrera: .368/.444/.656, 15 HR, 13 2B, 59 RBIs, 1.099 OPS

5. Of course, as one Tigers fan tweeted to me the other night, let's see the numbers at the end of the season.

6. Still.

7. Fifteen players have slugged .700 in the first half since 2000, but only two since 2009: Albert Pujols in 2009 (.723) and Jose Bautista in 2011 (.702).

8. This isn't the same Chris Davis who had a big breakout season last year, when he hit 33 home runs. Last year, he struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 6.6. This year, those figures are 21.9 and 13.2. A man with his power and better control of the strike zone is a scary proposition. OK, so maybe he's not a .359 hitter, but he's not doing it by accident.

9. Manny Machado hit another double. That's 24. He's on pace for 73. The record is 67, set way back in 1931 by Earl Webb.

10. He doesn't turn 21 until July. That's Machado; Webb is dead.

11. Will it upset everyone to suggest that Machado -- with his brilliant defense at third -- has arguably been as valuable as Davis and Cabrera? I mean ... he's hitting .332/.365/.517 and has more range than Meryl Streep. Baseball-Reference wins above replacement leaders, American League, entering Wednesday: Machado 3.4, Dustin Pedroia 3.0, Cabrera 2.8, Davis 2.7. FanGraphs: Machado 3.1, Davis 2.9, Cabrera 2.9, Mike Trout 2.9.

12. It's a legitimate argument if you can look beyond RBIs.

13. Ryan Zimmerman, have a day. Tough to hit three home runs -- he homered his first three times up -- and get upstaged, but that's what happened. Is it fair to say that Zimmerman is one of the most important players in the National League? With the Nats' offense struggling -- although a little better of late -- it desperately needs a second big bat behind Bryce Harper. Zimmerman has to be that guy, or maybe Adam LaRoche. Or, preferably, both. Zimmerman's throwing troubles have been an issue all season, although also better of late.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyChris Davis' second homer of the night, a two-run blast, gave the Orioles their final margin.
14. Davey Johnson's beard. Google it. Let's hope the Nationals turn this into a promotional event down the road.

15. Jordan Zimmermann was due for a bad game, but did make some bad pitches. Davis' first home run was off a slider over the middle of the plate. Nick Markakis' home run came off an 0-1 fastball that Kurt Suzuki wanted in but was also over the middle of the plate.

16. Both were hit to the almost identical location in right-center -- in fact, you can see the same guy in the white tank T-shirt reaching for both homers.

17. Steve Pearce's two-run shot off Zimmermann just cleared the fence in left-center. On another night, with a little more luck, it's maybe three long outs to the warning track.

18. Davis' second home run, off an 0-2 changeup from Tyler Clippard, was the most impressive of the night as he showcased his huge raw power, with an easy, almost one-handed swing. How strong is this guy? This one landed near where T-shirt dude was sitting as well, except he must have been off in the beer line this time around.

19. Zimmermann hadn't walked a batter since May 8. So now he has 10 in 11 starts. Terrible.

20. The Orioles can hit. That's 10 or more hits in 27 of their 53 games.

21. The Nationals' bench was supposed to be a big strength heading into the season, but it's been a weak spot. Roger Bernadina did homer, but he's hitting .149. Tyler Moore is hitting .149. Chad Tracy is hitting .170. Steve Lombardozzi is hitting an empty .234. And they've had to play a lot, accumulating more than 300 plate appearances among the four of them so far. Along with struggling Danny Espinosa, they're a huge reason the Nationals are just a game over .500.

22. Remember when Nate McLouth was washed up?

23. He's 17-for-18 in steals. The O's lead the American League in home runs and are tied for the lead in stolen bases. When's the last time that happened?

24. I'm sure Orioles fans were a little nervous when Jim Johnson entered for the save in the ninth, considering his last outing in Toronto on Sunday -- his fourth blown save and fifth loss. But he had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, albeit against the bottom three hitters.

25. Tommy Hunter was unfair in the eighth inning. He threw a 100 mph fastball to Moore followed by a two-strike curve that Moore missed. No chance.

26. I still don't know what to make of Chris Tillman. Four home runs tonight, 11 over his past five starts. Yes, four of those games came at Camden, but he's going to continue having gopher ball problems with such a low ground-ball rate (37 percent on the season).

27. A Beltway Series would be fun in October. Nearly happened last year, but I think the Orioles will need to make a deal for a starting pitcher. I mean, Freddy Garcia goes on Thursday.

28. Buck Showalter can manage my team.

29. I still think second baseman Ryan Flaherty can produce some offense. He returned to the Orioles lineup' and had two hits. I'm less confident about Espinosa.

30. How do I get one of those Chris Davis T-shirts?

Does picking top skippers make sense?

November, 13, 2012
Johnson-MelvinAP Photo, US PresswireDavey Johnson, left, and Bob Melvin were particularly adept at managing lineups and pitching staffs.

It was the managers' turn Tuesday in Major League Baseball's awards week, and you can understand why this might be greeted by a collective yawn by the performance-analysis community. The throwaway comment is that it's the award for whichever guy in the dugout saw his team improve by 15 or more games from one year to the next.

If that's true, I guess that means we could have ruled out Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox (six-game improvement from 2011) and Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants (eight games) right off the bat. Given that the Washington Nationals' Davey Johnson and Oakland A's Bob Melvin are bringing home the trophies in their respective leagues, that fulfills that bit of prophecy.

You could just chalk up the results to simple luck, with voters picking who was luckiest. Buck Showalter, Melvin and all three National League finalists were in the black as far as seeing their teams finish with records better than expected via Pythagorean projections. By that standard, Showalter was most fortunate of all, with his Orioles finishing 11 games better than the 82 wins they were “supposed” to wind up with, while Dusty Baker and Bochy tied for the NL lead at six games better than expected.

Admittedly, Showalter's plus-11 tally represents an unusually good year, and also reminiscent of Mike Scioscia's best years in the Aughties, when the Angels would exasperate statheads yearly by consistently finishing with better-than-expected records. Calling that luck risked losing sight of the Angels' execution and exploitation of opportunities, or the virtues of those teams, and I wouldn't be so quick to consign Sciosia's pair of manager-of-the-year trophies to mere luck. Similarly, I wouldn't say Showalter's Orioles were just lucky.

Certainly, describing a manager's impact on his team defies easy description. Thanks to stats, we like simple, measurable answers, but analyzing managers brings in a broad category of soft factors -- whether managing players' workloads, placing players in the best position to succeed or exploiting their abilities to best effect, or even something as ill-defined as “leadership.” But because we can't ascribe a numerical value to those things doesn't mean we can't pretend they don't have an impact. (Whether or not the people voting for the award have a perfect grasp on those things is another matter altogether.)

Not even the best book on the subject, Chris Jaffe's comprehensive "Evaluating Baseball Managers," succeeds entirely at quantifying a manager's impact, because on some level it's impossible to separate player performance from managerial predilection, and as responsibility for roster design became more and more the general manager's turf over time, you can't credit skippers with most of who's on the team. And in-game tactical options, one of the more obvious places where managers make an impact, are fundamentally rooted in personnel.

Besides which, fixating on that kind of offensive information is particularly pointless today, because for all sorts of reasons, one-run strategies just aren't in vogue. The total difference between the leading teams in position player sac bunts (the Angels and Brewers with 60 apiece) and the last-place team (the Cubs with 19) that had them bunt the least is noticeable, but it isn't anything like the difference between teams managed by Gene Mauch and Earl Weaver in the '70s.

So how do you sort out who did a great job managing his team in a particular year in today's game? I'm someone who thinks the award still matters because -- as someone who has voted twice on managers of the year, in 2010 and again in 2011 -- I think the careful voter can validate the best dugout efforts. But on some level, you have to address the changing nature of the role of managers.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Tim Heitman/US PresswireBuck Showalter's Orioles greatly exceeded projected win totals, and finished just shy of the ALCS.
Pitching-staff management almost automatically demands the primary place for evaluating a manager's impact, particularly bullpen management. In today's game, you don't necessarily have to be great at it, and you don't have to turn in virtuoso performances like Bochy has in his club's World Series wins or Tony La Russa did in 2011, but as a matter of handling multiple players, varying workloads, game situations and securing the right matchups, it may well be the most important task a manager has to get right across 162 games, not just in a single game. It's equal parts logistics and tactics, foresight and reaction.

On that score, all of the candidates have their merits. Baker's bullpen wound up leading the NL in fair run average, while Johnson cobbled together a fairly effective 'pen despite losing key relievers for extended periods of time. Johnson also had to deal with -- or perhaps fight against -- the tight rein kept on Stephen Strasburg's workload, but ran a deep rotation effectively despite that distraction all season. In the American League, both Showalter and Melvin had to adjust their rotations constantly, and both struck upon effective late-game formulas despite relying on relatively lightly regarded relief corps. Crediting them with getting tremendous mileage out of guys such as Pedro Strop or Sean Doolittle is the least we can do.

Lineup-card management is another thing you have to take into account. Not so much the batting orders themselves, but who gets to play, and to what effect. The mileage that Melvin and Ventura got out of unknown quantities such as Brandon Moss or Alejandro De Aza in their lineups certainly deserve shout-outs. Johnson deserves especially high marks for sticking with a couple of past established habits, stocking a strong bench and using it to good effect (Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy and supersub Steve Lombardozzi in particular).

The other thing I like to look at is how well a skipper adjusted in-season to when he had to adjust his roster, either because of injuries or slumps. Essentially, how well did he adapt when things started going wrong? Because things always go wrong -- players get hurt, somebody earns his release, a rookie earns a shot.

Again, looking at how Showalter, Johnson and Melvin tweaked their rotations and lineups constantly, I think you have to credit them with remarkable adaptability and flexibility. Whether Johnson's willingness to move Lombardozzi all over the diamond or shift Danny Espinosa across the keystone to play short while Ian Desmond was injured or Showalter's aggressiveness in moving Chris Davis around between first base, the outfield corners and designated hitter to try to squeeze every last bit of offense out of the slim pickings he had to work with, some managers were clearly put on the spot and came up with creative solutions.

In the AL, Melvin had to cycle through a variety of options at third base, shuffle around his outfield, and had to work without a perfect answer at first base until the stretch run, when he had the benefit of balancing Moss and Chris Carter's playing time.

Those kinds of decisions and reactions have a place in being honored, in this or any season. I'm glad for dugout favorites old and new -- congratulations to Davey Johnson and to Bob Melvin. They weren't the only managers who did great work, but they were deserving of their honors just won.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

In the seventh inning of Game 2 on Monday, with Ichiro Suzuki at second base and two outs and the Orioles leading 3-2, Buck Showalter decided to intentionally walk Robinson Cano to face Nick Swisher. On Twitter I wrote, "Let the second guessing begin," referring to the unusual move to put the go-ahead run on base.

It's obvious why Showalter made the move:

1. Cano is red hot and was 9-for-28 (.321) in his career against Matusz.
2. Swisher was 1-for-19 against Matusz and 1 for 32 in his career in the postseason with runners in scoring position.

On Twitter, @andysturgill responded, "Agreed, but with such drastic differences in success against Matusz between Cano and Swisher, you can't let Cano beat you." A reader named @BossOfRenfield wrote, "I guess I was so with Showalter, on that, I never even questioned it."

The runners moved up a wild pitch so at that point all the Yankees needed was a Swisher bloop single to take the lead. He worked the count to 3-2 and then flew out to left, so Showalter's move worked. But was it the right move?

Sabermetricians aren't big fans of the intentional walk, primarily because it increases the possibility of a big inning. In this case, Showalter was willing to assume that risk against the higher probability of getting the one out he needed to escape the inning. Some other numbers to consider: Since moving to the bullpen, Matusz has had left-handed batters to a .179 average (5-for-28, with 14 strikeouts and one walk); on the other hand, right-handed batters had been 0-for-16, with five K's and two walks. You can certainly see why Showalter now trusts Matusz as more than a one-out lefty.

As for Swisher, it's also important to note that his true ability isn't the 1-for-32 with runners in scoring position, or even the 1-for-19 against Matusz. At some point, he will get a hit in the postseason with a runner in scoring position. Studies have also shown that when a hitter or pitcher dominates a matchup over a few plate appearances, it has no predictive value for future results. Nineteen plate appearances is simply not enough data to know that Matusz "owns" Swisher. I'm not saying Showalter made the wrong move here, just that it was far from the obvious move and wasn't without risk.

Surprisingly, this seems to be a new pet postseason move for managers. There have been 73 intentional walks in postseason history where the team giving the walk was ahead by one run. Of the first 46 of these, 40 came with runners on second and third, so the primary reason was to set up a double play since the go-ahead run was already in scoring position. But of the next 27 (which takes us back to 2000), only seven occurred in a second-and-third situation. Of those other 20, 18 came with a runner on second, one came with a runner on third and one came with the bases empty. Let's review the last 10 (before Cano) and see what happened.

2011 World Series: Scott Feldman (TEX) walks Albert Pujols (STL)
The situation: 10th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Lance Berkman singles in the tying run, Cardinals win in the 11th.

2011 NLCS: Chris Carpenter (STL) walks Prince Fielder (MIL)
The situation: 5th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Rickie Weeks strikes out.

2010 ALCS: A.J. Burnett (NYY) walks David Murphy (TEX)
The situation: 6th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Bengie Molina hits a three-run homer. Rangers win the game to take 3-1 series lead.

2009 World Series: CC Sabathia (NYY) walks Jayson Werth (PHI)
The situation: 1st inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Raul Ibanez strikes out.

2009 ALCS: Brian Fuentes (LAA) walks Alex Rodriguez (NYY)
The situation: 9th inning, nobody on, two outs
What happened: Fuentes walks Hideki Matsui and hits Cano, but our man Swisher pops out and Angels win.

2009 ALCS: Darren Oliver (LAA) walks Alex Rodriguez (NYY)
The situation: 7th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Earlier in the same game, Matsui singled in a run and then Cano tripled in two runs (off Kevin Jepsen).

2009 NLDS: Randy Wolf (LAD) walks Albert Pujols (STL)
The situation: 4th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Matt Holliday hit by a pitch, Jeff Weaver enters and gets Ryan Ludwick.

2007 ALDS: Kelvim Escobar (LAA) walks David Ortiz (BOS)
The situation: 5th inning, runner on third, one out
What happened: Mike Lowell hits sacrifice fly.

2007 NLDS: Kyle Kendrick (PHI) walks Yorvit Torrealba (COL)
The situation: 4th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Seth Smith hits for the pitcher and loads the bases with an infield single. Kyle Lohse enters and Kaz Matsui hits a grand slam.

2006 World Series: Jeremy Bonderman (DET) walks Aaron Miles (STL)
The situation: 4th inning, runner on second, two outs
What happened: Pitcher Juff Suppan grounds out.

So there you go. Some huge backfires there, notably in last year's World Series. As good as Pujols is, that was an odd move since Berkman had a great year and it set up a lefty-righty matchup instead of righty-righty. The Burnett walk to Murphy in 2009, followed by the Molina, was one of the key plays in the series. Likewise the Kendrick walk to Torrealba, which occurred in the middle game of a three-game sweep.

Look, sometimes the move pays off. In Game 6 of the 2006 NLCS, the Mets' John Maine walked Pujols in the third inning with a runner on second and out. He got Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion and the Mets eventually won the game to force a Game 7. It worked for Buck Showalter on Monday. But it could have just as easily cost him the game -- and, in all likelihood, the series.

The Atlanta Braves playing a wild-card game where they committed three throwing errors, got burned on a controversial umpire’s call, and saw their fans delay the game after littering the field with debris?

Sure, I can envision all that happening.

But Joe Saunders doing this? Delivering 77 pitches of one-run baseball in his own personal house of horrors against a lineup that should devour a pitcher like him?

No way did I see that coming.

Welcome to postseason baseball. You just never know.

Here’s what the numbers said about Saunders: 0-6 in six career starts in Arlington with a 9.38 ERA. In 2012, right-handed batters hit .307/.349/.500 off him, meaning the typical righty becomes something akin to Albert Pujols or Adam Jones against Saunders. All 21 home runs he allowed were hit by right-handers.

The Rangers had eight right-handed batters in their lineup. Most with power.

So of course the Orioles eliminated the Rangers 5-1, on a night where Yu Darvish pitched well but received no support.

What I liked about Buck Showalter’s approach in this game is he clearly he had a plan. Certainly, it becomes it easier to execute that plan when your players perform. But he knew that given a tight game, Saunders wouldn’t pitch past Josh Hamilton (lefty on lefty, and Saunders crushed lefties this season) and Adrian Beltre (who hit much better against righties). So when Nelson Cruz came up with two out and nobody on with the Orioles leading 2-1 in the sixth, that was it for Saunders. No gambling by Showalter. No leaving in Saunders to give up a game-tying home run.

[+] EnlargeJoe Saunders
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJoe Saunders held the potent Rangers offense to a single run in its home park.
In the eighth, he knew he had another lefty waiting for Hamilton and Brian Matusz blew him away on three pitches. But he also left in Darren O'Day to start the inning -- instead of going to Pedro Strop -- because O'Day had cruised through four batters with just 14 pitches. O'Day ended up pitching two innings of one-hit relief.

Showalter had the bullpen stirring in the first inning when Saunders ran into trouble. He wasn’t going to let the game get away early from the Orioles. And you know Showalter had a plan if he needed to remove Saunders in the third inning or the fifth inning. Compare that to Fredi Gonzalez, who couldn’t figure out how to get Craig Kimbrel, who had the most dominant relief season in history, into the game until the Braves already trailed 6-3. Gonzalez had only one contingency plan for Kimbrel: Use him in a save situation.

Or compare to Ron Washington, who started Geovany Soto at catcher and Mike Napoli at designated hitter, but then lost his DH spot when he pinch-hit for Soto and inserted Napoli behind the plate. This potential problem could have been avoided by simply starting Napoli at first base and Michael Young at DH. The defensive advantage wasn’t so great as to be concern; Young ended up making a crucial first-inning error that led to an unearned run anyway.

Let’s not give too much credit to Showalter, however. Give it to Saunders, of course, for battling his way through 5 2/3 innings. After that, it wasn’t a surprise the Baltimore bullpen closed it out. That’s been the strength all season for a team that was 74-0 when leading after seven innings and 75-1 when leading after eight innings. Closer Jim Johnson's job got a little easier in ninth when the Orioles scored twice off Joe Nathan to pad their 3-1 lead. As is, the Rangers got the tying run to the plate with two out but Johnson got David Murphy to fly out to end it.

For the Rangers, it was the finale of a fairly epic collapse, leading the American League West by five games with nine to play, yet going 4-9 down the stretch and losing the division title on the final day of the season. The Rangers have shown us just how tough it is to win a World Series: They lost it in 2010, were one strike away in 2011 and now go home in bitter disappointment.

This anger was summed up when the fans booed Hamilton after he struck out in the eighth. Think about it: Miguel Cabrera hit 44 home runs and drove in 139 runs and Tigers fans think he had the greatest season of all time. Hamilton hit 43 home runs and drove in 128 and he gets booed. I know Hamilton had a strange season, but if that was his final game with Rangers, it seems a sad way to go out considering all the great memories he’s given Rangers fans.

For the Orioles, the miracle run continues against the hated Yankees. The best part of all this: Orioles fans will get a home playoff game, their first since 1997. The Orioles actually clinched a playoff spot on a plane ride to Tampa, so this will be a chance to acknowledge their fans and for the fans to acknowledge this magical season.

Not to mention the chance to beat the Yankees.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

Who should win the AL wild cards?

September, 27, 2012

I sent an email to my pal Jim Caple, asking: Would you rather see the A’s or Angels in the playoffs?

I could also ask: Would you rather see the Orioles or the Rays?

All four teams won on Wednesday, which means good news for the Orioles and A’s -- one game closer to the playoffs! -- and bad news for the Rays and Angels, who need to keep winning and get some help.

My thought on the A’s is I want them to make it because they’re the ultimate underdog, Cinderella, small-market franchise, and it’s good for baseball for a team like that to make it to show success doesn’t depend solely on a high payroll. But I’d also like to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the postseason. And I’d like to see if the Orioles can keep their magical success in one-run games and extra-inning games going. And I’d like to see the Rays make it, because how can you not root for the Rays?

But only two of the four teams can win the wild cards (and we shouldn’t discount the Orioles’ chances of winning the American League East). Here’s the case for each on why we want them to make it.


Which of these teams do you most want to see in the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 10,309)

Baltimore Orioles: Because there are Orioles fans now in high school who haven't seen their team post a winning record. … Because they were once baseball’s premier franchise from the late 1960s to the early '80s (18 consecutive winning seasons, including 13 with 90-plus wins) and Baltimore was once a great baseball town, finishing first or second in the American League in attendance every year from 1992 to 2000. … Because we need to see if Adam Jones can hit another home run in extra innings. … Because we have no idea who Buck Showalter would start in the wild-card game. … Because we may see Cal Ripken throw out a first pitch. … Because they wear orange jerseys. … Because nobody believed in them when they won five in a row in New York and Boston in May -- including The Chris Davis Game -- to improve to 19-9, or when they tossed back-to-back shutouts in Atlanta in June to go to 39-27, and certainly not when they lost 17 of their next 24. … Because they’ve won 16 extra-inning games in a row. … Because they’ve brought back the tri-colored '80s hats. … Because they had the guts to call up 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado and make him their starting third baseman down the stretch. … Because an Orioles-Nationals World Series would be pretty cool. … Because it’s time to exorcise the demons of that brat in the Yankees cap.

Tampa Bay Rays: Because they keep doing this every season despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and it’s time to see them go all the way. … Because we could see a David Price vs. Justin Verlander showdown at some point. … Because Evan Longoria is a stud and deserves some time on the big stage and 11 Yankees make more money than he does. … Because we want to see if Matt Moore can replicate that “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!” performance from last October, when he blanked the Rangers for seven innings on two hits in Game 1 of the Division Series. … Because Fernando Rodney has had a season for the ages (45 saves, 0.63 ERA) and nobody has paid much attention to it. … Because Joe Maddon had the guts to move Ben Zobrist to shortstop in August and the Rays have gone 27-18 since. … Because they have a 2.48 ERA over their past 63 games and if pitching is what takes you all the way then this team can go all the way. … Because we could get Jose Molina facing brother Yadier in the World Series. … Because at least it won’t be 38 degrees inside Tropicana Field.

Oakland A's: Because they were ranked No. 29 in the first week of the ESPN.com Power Rankings, one slot below the Orioles (hey, at least we got the Astros right). … Because it was just announced that Travis Blackley is officially a rookie, meaning the A’s are currently going with an all-rookie rotation -- and that is just awesome. … Because they signed Yoenis Cespedes and nobody else did. … Because Jarrod Parker's changeup is so good it can be compared with Felix Hernandez's and not make anyone think you’re crazy saying that. … Because Chris Carter has more power in one arm than many big leaguers have in two. … Because maybe we’ll get a wild-card game against the Orioles featuring yellow jerseys versus orange jerseys and we can pretend it’s the '70s all over again. … Because they have the sixth-best record since 2000 and four of the other five teams won a World Series (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels; the Braves being the exception). … Because they’ve used 18 different rookies. … Because Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Pedro Feliciano make more money combined than the entire A’s roster. … Because they have 13 walk-off wins, most in the majors, and is there anything sweeter than a walk-off win in the postseason? … Because we could see an A’s-Giants Bay Area World Series. … Because with Blackley and Grant Balfour, a World Series with the A’s in it would be HUGE in Australia.

Los Angeles Angels: Because America wants to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because America needs to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because we could get Albert Pujols going back to St. Louis and we can all spend three days wondering if Cardinals fans will boo him or cheer him. … Because Jered Weaver throws high fastballs in the upper 80s and gets away with it. … Because when he’s on, few pitchers are as fun to watch as Zack Greinke. … Because a World Series featuring Trout and Bryce Harper would remind us of the 1951 World Series that also featured two rookie center fielders named Mays and Mantle. … Because Mark Trumbo may hit one 500 feet. … Because maybe we’ll see C.J. Wilson face off against Yu Darvish and his ex-Rangers teammates. … Because you know a World Series game in Anaheim means we won’t see players wearing earflap caps and drinking coffee in the dugout while wearing ski gloves.

As for my question to Jim, what was his response? "I want them both to make it!"

Thanks, Jim. Way to take a stand.

Yadier MolinaTroy Taormina/US PresswireYadier Molina shows why he's incomparable when it comes to the rough dance around home plate.

This is Baltimore Orioles baseball.

This is Seattle Mariners baseball.

Watching the last few innings of their game against Seattle, you knew how it would end: The Orioles would win. They'd wait out Felix Hernandez. They'd wait out Tom Wilhelmsen. They waited 18 innings to win on Tuesday and they'd wait as long as it took to win their 15th consecutive extra-innings game on Wednesday. Eventually, they'd run into a Mariners reliever who didn't have it. Or maybe they'd wait for the Mariners to make a mistake or Eric Wedge to make a dumb move or Jeff Reboulet to come off the bench and hit a home run.

You knew. You knew BECAUSE THE ORIOLES DON'T LOSE IN EXTRA INNINGS. GOT THAT? THE ORIOLES DO NOT LOSE IN EXTRA INNINGS. The game was over. It was just a matter of how the baseball gods wanted the O's to win on this night.

It didn't take 18 innings. Adam Jones belted a two-run home run off Josh Kinney in the 11th, off a "hit me hard, please" 3-2 hanging slider. It was Jones' 30th long one of the season, his fourth go-ahead home run in extra innings (no other player has more than two) and his sixth in the seventh inning or later (no other player has more than four). You don't have to call that clutch if you don't want to, but you can call it awesome.

As for the bottom of the 11th, the Mariners' first two hitters singled. I'll let Joe Sheehan take over from there:

Joe wasn't quite accurate on the pitch count, but you get the idea.

Justin Smoak, displaying all the speed of a Molina, grounded into a 3-6-1 double play, pitcher Jim Johnson making a nice scoop to complete the play. Michael Saunders walked. Wedge then pinch-hit his best hitter, John Jaso. At least he managed to get him in the game this time; in Tuesday's loss he was outmaneuvered by Buck Showalter, pinch-hitting Jaso only to see Showalter bring in a lefty, which forced a pinch hitter for Jaso.

Trouble is, Jaso never got a chance to swing the bat. Saunders tried to steal on the first pitch. The Orioles saw it coming, as Johnson threw a high-and-away fastball, the perfect pitch for catcher Taylor Teagarden to gun down to second base. He nailed Saunders with a perfect throw right on the corner of the base.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenAdam Jones' winning blast was his fourth this season in extra innings -- twice as many as anyone else.
Orioles baseball. Mariners baseball.

It wasn't necessarily the worst move to send Saunders, who had been 20-for-23 in steal attempts. Give credit to Showalter or Teagarden for reading the tea leaves, as Johnson normally throws his heavy sinker pitch after pitch.

* * * *

I'm jealous of Orioles fans right now. I want to be in your seat, rooting for a team I've suffered with for far too long, to keep doing the improbable, to keep winning games like this. There is nothing in sports more exciting than the daily adrenaline rush of pennant-race baseball, sweating through every pitch and sometimes forgetting to breathe. Orioles fans deserve this; there are high school seniors who had never seen the O's even experience a winning season until this year.

Earlier in the day, I wrote a post titled "It's just an Orioles kind of season." Indeed. I've never seen anything like this; and unless you were rooting for the 1949 Cleveland Indians -- who won 17 straight in extra innings -- neither have you.

The Yankees swept a doubleheader from the Blue Jays on Wednesday, leaving the Orioles a half-game behind their wealthy neighbors in the American League East. But the remaining schedule seems to slightly favor Baltimore: The O's have a day off on Thursday and then three at Boston, four against Toronto, three against Boston and three at Tampa Bay. The Yankees have one with Toronto, three against Oakland, three at Minnesota, four at Toronto and three against Boston.

When Bobby Thomson beat the Dodgers to win the pennant in 1951, Red Smith wrote, "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention." When Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Dick Young wrote one of the great first sentences in sports writing: "The imperfect man pitched the perfect game."

The Orioles' story in 2012 is far from its end, but that's how I feel about this group: The imperfect team has strangled invention.

If you missed it the other day, check out Steve Wulf's excellent story on Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Is he the top manager of 2012? Eric Karabell and myself each rank our top five managers ... and discuss the worst.

The best time of the season is here

September, 14, 2012

As the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles played on in the late-afternoon shadows, the managers turned to Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter, a rookie with just 18 innings of big league experience making his first relief appearance of the season and a veteran starter banished to the bullpen, respectively.

This is pennant-race baseball.

In Anaheim, Angels ace Jered Weaver took the mound, making his first start in 11 days because of biceps tendinitis, and all he had to do was prevent the A's from completing a four-game sweep and keep the Angels within shouting distance of the playoffs.

This is playoff-race baseball.

In Houston, the Phillies -- who punted back in July when they traded two-thirds of their starting outfield -- had suddenly found themselves smelling the sweat of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. They started a rookie named Tyler Cloyd, making his fourth major league start. Not only that, he was starting on three days' rest. I knew nothing about him, so I looked up a few facts. He was the International League pitcher of the year, but he's a finesse right-hander who rarely reaches 90 mph. He was an 18th-round draft pick in 2008 out of Nebraska-Omaha, but his lack of velocity meant he wasn't one of Baseball America's top 30 Phillies prospects entering the season despite good minor league numbers in 2011.

This is wild-card baseball.

I intended to watch the monumental Chris Sale-Justin Verlander showdown, two Cy Young contenders facing off in a crucial game in the American League Central, but that game was rained out, so I focused on the Yankees-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park. Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had allowed the second-most home runs in the major leagues, was trying to pitch the Yankees back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. All he did was pitch one of the best games of his career, allowing no runs for just the second time this season.

This is baseball.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles should be celebrating. They're in playoff contention after not having a winning record in 15 seasons.
I'm riveted to my television set, flipping channels, checking box scores, watching a second game on my laptop. It's the best time of the year, when nearly every game matters, when important outs in important games start taking on an October-like intensity. It's why we watch the first 140 games, to build up to these moments: Archer versus 20-year-old rookie Manny Machado with the game on the line.

Archer had used a little magic in the 13th inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to extend the game another inning. During that high-wire act, he fell behind Matt Wieters 3-0 but came back to strike him out on a 94 mph fastball, his seventh consecutive fastball of the at-bat. No tricks, just heat, and it worked. I tweeted something along the lines of: "If the Rays win this game and eventually make the playoffs, remember this inning."

But Buck Showalter has been around this game a few years. They say he's pretty wise. In the 14th inning, Archer got the first batters out, but Adam Jones fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drew ball four. Endy Chavez singled to left. That brought up the rookie Machado, 0-for-5 on the day, 2-for-his-past-20. Archer fell behind 3-and-0.

You don't give a rookie the green light.

Buck gave Machado the green light.

Machado swung and lofted a sinking line drive near the left-field line. Matt Joyce ran in, dove, stretched out, his glove reaching for the baseball, reaching for hope -- to keep the game going, to give the Rays hope of getting a win closer to the playoffs rather than a loss further away. Off the glove. Base hit. Orioles win 3-2 -- their 13th in a row in extra innings; 27-7 in one-run games, the best percentage in history. How can you not believe in the Orioles?

Joyce came up a few inches short. If Sam Fuld, an outfielder with more range, had been in left field, he makes the play. But Fuld had been removed in the 13th inning when Joe Maddon had replaced him with Reid Brignac to give the Rays five infielders after the Orioles loaded the bases. And that strategy worked when the Rays got the first out of the inning on a force at home. Maddon used 26 players in the game, clawing for any little edge.

That's what you do this time of year.

* * * *

Cloyd pitched three scoreless innings against the Astros but then gave up a single -- single -- home run and got the hook. He was replaced by another rookie, B.J. Rosenberg, with an ERA of 9.00. Rosenberg pitched two scoreless innings. In the eighth, the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead, Charlie Manuel turned to yet another rookie, Phillippe Aumont, once the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners. Big stuff, no command: He averaged 6.9 walks per nine innings in Triple-A. He walked a guy, but got a caught stealing. He walked another guy. He hit a batter.

Two outs, two on, the Phillies cannot afford to lose. They have a $50 million closer in the bullpen.

Manuel brought in yet another rookie, Jake Diekman. He gave up a two-run double and an RBI single, and the Phillies lost 6-4.

Jonathan Papelbon sat in the bullpen, and suddenly that playoff run seems a little less likely.

The victories are extra sweet. The losses extra bitter. Welcome to the best time of the season.

Zach Britton's gem O's latest surprise

August, 19, 2012

The Orioles are the team that won’t go away. For months now, they’ve been predicted to, expected to, and they have no end of excuses for why they’re supposed to be long since out of the expanded wild-card picture already. Injuries, run differential, relative anonymity plus generally underwhelming performances from most of the people you have heard of -- the Orioles are supposed to be goners.

They aren’t gone, but they might be going places. On Saturday, it was Zach Britton’s bend-don’t-break stylings that were their latest “that’s not really possible, is it?” feat. Seven shutout innings against the Tigers make for some sort of Saturday night special, not bad for the latest transient solution in Buck Showalter’s constantly fixed-up rotation.

Go by appearances alone, and it seemed like Britton had no business matching zeroes with the Tigers’ Rick Porcello, allowing nine baserunners to Porcello’s four through the first six innings. But three 6-4-3 double plays were enough to keep his head above water. Porcello had retired 11 men in a row heading into the seventh, but so what? A pair of dink singles and Chris Davis’ three-run shot later, it didn’t matter what Porcello had done beforehand or how good he looked doing it, because the O’s had a decisive lead thanks to Davis’ just-enough bit of bopping, making Britton a winner.

That in itself might be a bit of a surprise, considering that Britton’s shot at pitching this year was no sure thing in March, when shoulder surgery seemed likely. But opting for platelet-rich plasma (or PRP) treatments put him on the shorter road to rehab, and he’s been the skippable, sometime-fifth starter for a team that barely goes a week without having to change something in its rotation.

The Orioles have managed to keep the identity of their rotation’s third or fourth or fifth starter a matter of a near-weekly surprise to everyone, including themselves. Some of that has been a matter of effective roster management by general manager Dan Duquette: Early in the season, the Orioles could afford to flip the optionable Tommy Hunter back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk, rostering him only when they had to. Despite that time spent shuttling back and forth, it says something about Baltimore’s lot that Hunter is now second on the team in total starts because almost everyone queued up ahead of him has broken down or pitched his way out of a job.

This yo-yo role Britton found himself in on Saturday, as he was called back up into the latest breach in the rotation after already blowing his initial call-up after the All-Star break, getting clobbered in five of six starts. In the Orioles’ ad-hoc rotation, he was back up because he was on the 40-man roster and had four days’ rest, and little else -- he was four days removed from getting chewed up by Charlotte, pitching through a split nail on his pitching hand.

Britton briefly dealt with the burden of being blown up too soon as a sign of better times to come in the spring of 2011, after he notched a quick eight quality starts in his first 10 turns as a rookie in the big-league rotation. But just like Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, his success didn’t last -- Britton managed just five starts of six innings or more and three runs allowed or less in his last 18 turns in 2011, putting him well on his way toward a new entry on the Orioles’ list of mound disappointments. But like every other expectation for an Orioles setback, it seemed to merely set the stage for this latest improbable bit of heroics.

Where the rotation woes of the Yankees or the Red Sox get featured prominently, the Orioles have been scrambling all season. Only Chinese import Wei-Yin Chen has lasted the season. Chen plus Britton, Hunter, former Mariners prospect Chris Tillman and journeyman Miguel Gonzalez represent the latest front-five confection in a rotation that has already had to use 10 starters. Every day, the four non-Chens are all pitching for their jobs, because Jason Hammel is on the mend and due back in another two weeks.

Contenders aren’t supposed to start TBD in three or four rotation slots this late in the season, are they? But this comes on top of their playing TBNL in left field. Davis was briefly their answer there, but so was Nolan Reimold, Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery and Steve Pearce. They’re down to a Nate McLouth-Lew Ford platoon that would be entirely plausible if we were talking about a contender -- in the International League.

All of which is part of what makes the Orioles so entertaining. As they scrape to keep pace with the Rays in the wild-card chase, it might be hard to call them the underdog, but that’s only if you keep your eyes peeled on payrolls. It’s easy to root for the Rays -- every statistically savvy smart kid goes fanboy on sabermetrics’ poster team. And they’re supposed to beat Baltimore -- they’re supposedly smarter, and stocked up on the really good players you already know, like Evan Longoria and David Price. And yet the Orioles still will not go away. Fun, ain’t it?

Mike TroutKelvin Kuo/US PresswireRyan Roberts might do a little dance, but it's Mike Trout who has a steal to celebrate.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.