If the Milwaukee Brewers end up missing the playoffs by one game, their fans are going to spend all winter having nightmares about Thursday's ninth inning.
It was a great game at Miller Park against the Chicago Cubs, a game that had that postseason feel, with tension and deeper breaths between pitches and players hanging over the dugout railing and Brewers fans cheering loudly -- half enthusiastically, half nervous energy.
With a slim chance at chasing down the Cubs in the NL Central -- a four-game series sweep would mean the Brewers move into first place -- the series opener was essentially a must-win game for Milwaukee. Win and they would be 2.5 games back with nine left and have a puncher's chance; lose and they're 4.5 back.
With an overworked bullpen, the Brewers needed a strong effort from Zach Davies, and he delivered, departing after seven innings with a 2-2 tie. The Brewers scored the go-ahead run in the eighth as Domingo Santana doubled, swiped third against a sleepy Justin Wilson, and then scored as Eric Thames lined a single over the drawn-in second baseman.
Then came the ninth inning.
Corey Knebel and Anthony Swarzak were unavailable after pitching three days in a row. Josh Hader had pitched twice in three days and thrown 42 pitches. So Craig Counsell had to dig deep into his bullpen. He called on Jeremy Jeffress, the former Brewers closer reacquired at the trade deadline, who had thrown 30 pitches Wednesday.
2. Jeffress hesitated just a bit coming off the mound. If he gets to first a blink quicker, Happ is out.
3. Happ chugged it down the line. This kid is a terrific athlete.
Still, you have to get the out there. Javier Baez would later tie the game with a two-out, two-strike little grounder up the middle. Just like Knebel's errant toss to first hurt them in Wednesday's loss to the Pirates, infield defense was once again painful.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers loaded the bases with one out against Wade Davis. Joe Maddon went to five infielders. Santana struck out on a fastball up and out of the strike zone. Orlando Arcia worked the count to 3-1, took a cutter down the middle and then bounced back to the mound. The Brewers would strand 12 runners. They fanned 11 times (they have the second-most 10-strikeout games in the majors with 78).
You knew what was coming next. Hello, Kris Bryant:
A little kiss from the MVP. pic.twitter.com/UTJCwbr755
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 22, 2017
Bryant had actually been terrible in the big moments all season, hitting .162 in late & close situations before this game. I guess he was due. The Brewers fell to 4-10 in extra-inning games. How many similar moments were there in some of those losses? We don't talk enough about the little things that can decide a baseball game. On this night, they did.
One final note. I'm not going to pound Counsell for not using his best relievers. Nobody pitches four days in a row anymore -- it has happened only nine times all season (Edwin Diaz and Jerry Blevins did it twice, plus Jose Alvarez, Peter Moylan, Hansel Robles, Fernando Salas and Nick Vincent). Knebel had thrown 44 pitches over his three outings. Here's how many those others had thrown in their first three outings:
Mariners manager Scott Servais used Diaz twice for a fourth day despite similar pitch totals to Knebel. He's also the most comparable pitcher to Knebel, a hard-throwing closer. If there was ever a game to use Knebel for a fourth straight game, this would have been it. (To be fair, Jeffress wasn't hit.)
Anyway, the NL Central race is just about over, but the wild card is still in the play. The Brewers remain a game behind the Rockies. I predict Knebel, Swarzak and Hader will be available if needed Friday.
Wild-card winner of the night. You know how this is going to end, America. Baseball writers, you might as well reserve your World Series hotel rooms in St. Louis right now. The Rockies lost 3-0 to the Padres, the Brewers lost, and the Cardinals are now just 1.5 behind the Rockies for the second wild card.
Wild-card loser of the night. The Angels lost 4-1 to the Indians in an afternoon game, and then the Twins pounded the hapless Tigers 12-1. So the Angels dropped 2.5 behind the Twins and have actually been caught by the Rangers, who completed a three-game sweep of the Mariners. Hmm. Cardinals-Rangers World Series?
Indians win again. I just mentioned that. Francisco Lindor hit a three-run homer in the game, his 32nd, and they've won 27 of 28 games, which is an incredible thing to type. Here's another to look at it:
Ballgame. Tribe 4, Halos 1.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 21, 2017
Lindor's surge during this streak -- he has hit .349 with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs -- is earning him some MVP talk. I'm going to disagree. The entire season counts. Jose Ramirez has an OBP 30 points higher and slugging percentage 64 points higher with good defensive metrics while playing two positions. Ramirez is still the best MVP candidate on the Indians, although Lindor has maybe climbed into the top five or six overall.
Jose Bautista's Blue Jays career might be winding down. The Royals beat the Jays 1-0 as Jason Vargas and four relievers combined on a two-hitter. Bautista hit cleanup, as he has been doing since late August but went 0-for-4.
At one point, the fans in right field starting chanting his name, as if their collective will alone could summon some greatness from Bautista. Back in spring training, the popular story was Bautista was poised for a big season, ready to prove everyone who ignored him in free agency had made a mistake. He was forced to take a one-year deal from Toronto.
Instead, he has had a miserable season, hitting .203/.309/.369. Injuries aren't an excuse, as he has played 148 of the Jays' 153 games. Manager John Gibbons moved him from second or third in the lineup to leadoff back in late June in an attempt to get going, and then to cleanup. Bautista never did get going. Of 148 qualified hitters, Bautista ranks 139th in wOBA. Once one of the most feared hitters in the game, he has been one of the worst in 2017.
As Dave Cameron wrote a couple days ago on FanGraphs, this could be it for Bautista. He turns 37 in October, will be coming off a bad season and has limited defensive value, and nobody wanted him last offseason. There's certainly the sense that at the minimum his Blue Jays career is coming to an end:
Gibbons says #BlueJays dugout would love to see another memorable Jose Bautista moment this weekend. "I know everybody's rooting for him"
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) September 22, 2017
The Blue Jays wrap up their home schedule this weekend against the Yankees before finishing with a road trip to Boston and New York. Let's hope he gives Blue Jays fans one final home run.
The Rockies had already lost, shut out 4-0 in an afternoon game in San Francisco. With a win, the Brewers would tie the Rockies for the second wild card.
Milwaukee's starter in this crucial game with 12 days left in the season: Aaron Wilkerson.
Baseball in September can be a strange thing as even playoff contenders scramble to fill holes on pitching staffs worn down by injuries and fatigue. In Milwaukee's cause, the Brewers needed somebody to start for Jimmy Nelson, their best pitcher who went down for the season -- and part of 2018 -- when he partially tore a labrum diving back into first base after a base hit on Sept. 8.
Wilkerson had gone undrafted out of Cumberland University, played independent ball in 2013 and part of 2014, then signed with the Red Sox and was traded to the Brewers last summer in the Aaron Hill deal. He spent the season at Double-A with good numbers (3.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 143 K's in 142⅓ IP), made a start for Colorado Springs in the Pacific Coast League playoffs and tossed seven no-hit innings. Still, he's not even included in MLB.com's top 30 Brewers prospects, a nod to his age (he's 28) and lack of pedigree.
But here he was, making his first major league start.
"We'll just see how far he can get," manager Craig Counsell had said before the game. "Obviously, it's his first big league start and it's a big spot, but we feel like he's been pitching in a way that we think he can have success out there."
Wilkerson would last just 2⅓ innings on Wednesday, giving up three runs in the third, but it was All-Star closer Corey Knebel who would fail in the end. The Brewers had taken a 4-3 lead over the Pirates in the seventh. In the eighth, Andrew McCutchen doubled off Anthony Swarzak and Counsell brought in Knebel for a four-out save. David Freese hit a little dribbler down the third-base line, a do-or-die play for Knebel. He had a chance with a perfect throw, but he also could have just eaten the ball and gone after the next batter. Instead, his throw sailed wide and McCutchen scored the tying run. Then in the ninth, Adam Frazier won it with a two-out homer off a 98 mph heater:
— Pirates (@Pirates) September 21, 2017
So, tough one for the Brewers. Now comes their biggest test of the season: A four-game series at home against the Cubs. Hey, sweep them again and the Brewers move into first place. (The Cubs lead the National League Central by 3½ games.) You wonder who's going to available in the Milwaukee bullpen in that first game, however. Knebel has pitched three days in a row. Swarzak has pitched three days in a row. Josh Hader has pitched twice in three days and thrown 42 pitches.
Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson have done a terrific job with the Brewers' staff. They've had to churn through 13 different starting pitchers. They're still in it. They have 10 games left in 11 days, and they can still catch the Cubs. Who's available? Everyone.
We love our round numbers in baseball. Chris Sale needed 13 strikeouts to get to 300, and he got 13 in a 9-0 victory over the Orioles:
— MLB (@MLB) September 21, 2017
Sale became the first American League pitcher to get 300 K's since Pedro Martinez in 1999 -- and joined Pedro as the only Red Sox hurler to get there. He's the seventh lefty in AL history to do so, joining Rube Waddell (look him up!) and Sam McDowell ("Sudden Sam" -- one of the best nicknames ever), who each did it twice, plus Randy Johnson, Vida Blue and Mickey Lolich. Five NL lefties have done it: Clayton Kershaw, Johnson (four times), Sandy Koufax (three times), Steve Carlton and Lady Baldwin back in 1886. (More on Sale's 300 strikeouts from ESPN Stats & Information here.)
Anyway, awesome milestone, but the important number from this game was that zero runs allowed. The Yankees had won earlier, so the Red Sox kept the margin in the AL East at three games. Since Sept. 5, the Yankees have gone 11-3 -- but the Red Sox have gone 11-3. Boston's magic number to clinch the division drops to eight, but they clinched a playoff berth with the Angels' loss to the Indians on the West Coast.
Wild-card winner of the night. Well, we just told you the Rockies and Brewers lost. But the Cardinals won! They're 2½ back of the Rockies. My man Tommy Pham had three hits, while Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Paul DeJong all homered in a 9-2 victory over the Reds. The Cardinals get the Reds again on Thursday, with a decisive advantage in the pitching matchup -- Carlos Martinez versus Homer Bailey. Does it feel like the final mile of a marathon and the Cardinals might still have their legs for that final sprint?
Wild-card loser of the night. The Rockies have held a playoff position since April 14, and they're safe for at least another couple of days. Despite these two road losses to the Giants, the Rockies could still finish with the best road record in franchise history. They're 39-38, and they have finished above .500 on the road just once, going 41-40 in 2009, which was the year of their last playoff appearance. Their home winning percentage, however, is just 10th best in franchise history.
The Rockies have hit reasonably well on the road (for them) with a .706 OPS, the highest since 2009. But they haven't hit as well at home as they have in some years. Their home/road OPS differential:
If the Rockies end up missing the postseason, most will blame the pitching staff. And yes, the young starters and the bullpen haven't been as good in the second half. But another reason to think about: They haven't scored enough runs at home.
If you can mention Bye Bye Balboni, you have to do it. One of the most cherished records in team sports was finally broken on Wednesday. Steve Balboni's Royals record of 36 home runs had stood since 1985, but Mike Moustakas finally broke it with this homer:
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) September 21, 2017
Moustakas had been in a huge home run slump. He hit his 35th way back on Aug. 15. Since then, he had homered just once in 28 games and 91 at-bats. Some Royals fans wondered if Balboni had placed a curse on Moustakas. Apparently not the case. Remember a couple of years ago when Moustakas tried to focus more on hitting the ball to the opposite field? He went back to pull-heavy Moustakas this season. He has hit 15 more home runs than his previous career high.
He's also the owner of my favorite oddballs stats of the season. Moustakas has struck out looking once all season -- on a pitch low and away off the plate. Baltimore's Chris Davis has fanned looking 72 times. That seems incredible, but Davis did it 79 times last season. Aaron Judge and Wil Myers are tied for second at 60.
Anyway, there were five team home run records older than Balboni's:
Hank Greenberg, Tigers -- 1938 (58)
Ralph Kiner, Pirates -- 1949 (54)
Roger Maris, Yankees -- 1961 (61)
Harmon Killebrew, Twins -- 1964, 1969 (49)
George Foster, Reds -- 1977 (52)
Big boys go yard. Giancarlo Stanton hit No. 56 and Aaron Judge hit No. 45. Judge also joined an exclusive club with Ted Williams and Al Rosen as rookies to reach 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. There is some dispute over whether Rosen should be a considered a rookie: He wasn't at the time (1950), but he would be under today's standards, as he had just 65 plate appearances before that season.
Oh, J.D. Martinez hit another one as well:
— MLB (@MLB) September 21, 2017
That's 41 in 111 games for Martinez. That's a pace of 59 homers over 160 games, but he missed time with an injury. His slugging percentage with Arizona is over .700 and it's .672 overall -- and 38 points higher than Stanton's. Incredible.
Disaster strikes Puerto Rico. There have been 28 major leaguers to play in 2017 who born in Puerto Rico, including Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa and Jose Berrios. There are other players of Puerto Rican descent born in the States. Hurricane Maria -- the first Category 4 hurricane to make a direct hit on the island since 1928 -- has devastated the country. The entire island is without power. It could take months to repair the aging power grid, depending on the damage discovered, the governor said.
You can check the Twitter handles as many players sent out their thoughts. It couldn't have been easy to play as they waited for news. As ESPN's Marly Rivera reported, "I have talked or texted with a lot of the Puerto Rican players in MLB, and a lot of them have not heard from their families regarding the impact of Hurricane Maria." Without power, communication is limited.
As the Houston area sets out on the long recovery from Hurricane Harvey and Florida from Hurricane Irma, don't forget Puerto Rico, if you can afford a financial donation. Remember, these are our fellow U.S. citizens.
Then there was the earthquake in Mexico City that already has left more than 200 dead, as workers continue to dig through the rubble. These are our neighbors to the south. There are 15 major leaguers this season who were born in Mexico -- interestingly, 14 of them pitchers -- and, of course, many others of Mexican descent.
So, as we enjoy these final days of this little diversion called baseball, I think of those not as fortunate.
I think of a quote from Carl Sagan: "This is where we live, on a blue dot. ... On that blue dot, that's where everyone you know, and everyone you ever heard of, and every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives -- it's a very small stage in a great cosmic arena. I think this perspective underscores our responsibility to preserve and cherish that blue dot, the only home we have."
Let’s look at the 10 teams currently holding down a playoff position and what lineup questions they might still need to resolve as we inch closer to the postseason.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Who starts in the outfield? Depth is fun, until everyone stops hitting and the manager doesn’t know who to play. I think we can determine this: Chris Taylor will start in center field (and hit leadoff) and Yasiel Puig will start in right field. Taylor has struggled in September (.212, 19 strikeouts, three walks), but he has been the regular starter in center field ever since Joc Pederson was demoted in mid-August, making some starts at shortstop only because Corey Seager has rested a sore elbow at times.
So that leaves left field. Curtis Granderson is still the likely starter against right-handed pitchers, even though he has hit .126 in 101 plate appearances since coming over from the Mets. That’s a scary number, and I’m sure manager Dave Roberts would love to see Granderson have a couple of big games before fully committing to him. That leaves two other options in a platoon with Kike Hernandez, Cody Bellinger (with Adrian Gonzalez playing first base) or Andre Ethier. I have trouble seeing those as realistic options. Ethier has barely played the past two seasons; you don’t know how he can move out there and you’re basically expecting him to fall out of bed after two years of injuries and expect him to hit. Gonzalez doesn’t look healthy and has barely played in September; he probably doesn’t even make the postseason roster.
As an aside: Please, Dodgers fans, quit complaining that Granderson ruined the team chemistry. It’s a ridiculous and embarrassing excuse for a teamwide slump.
Washington Nationals: Who starts in the outfield? The good news is that Bryce Harper took batting practice on the field Sunday for the first time since injuring his knee in August; he did some running and said he’s aiming to be ready for Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Obviously the Nationals would love to get him some game action before then, but for now it appears he’s on target to play.
With Michael Taylor in center field, that leaves manager Dusty Baker multiple options in left field. The Nationals have started five left fielders in September, plus three more players who started in right field. That’s eight options! The sentimental favorite would be veteran Jayson Werth, but he has hit just .133 in 13 games since returning from the disabled list in late August. Werth really hasn’t hit right-handers since 2014, so I would consider him a viable option only against lefties.
That leaves Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind as the best options. Kendrick has hit well since coming over from the Phillies, while Lind has had a terrific season as a bench bat, hitting .306/.361/.508. He hadn’t played the outfield consistently since 2010 but has started 23 games in left; his ability to hit righties means he could draw some starts out there, even as a defensive liability.
An intriguing bench option might be 20-year-old rookie Victor Robles, who could beat out Andrew Stevenson, Rafael Bautista or Alejandro De Aza for a final spot. He has only nine major league at-bats after hitting .300 in the minors with 27 steals, but his speed makes him a pinch running option. Baker hasn’t ruled out the idea of Robles making the roster. “If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t play him at all,” Baker told MLB.com the other day.
As an aside: If Harper makes it back, Baker would be wise to hit Harper or Anthony Rendon second instead of a lesser hitter. Rendon had occupied the sixth spot for most of the season before Harper was injured.
Chicago Cubs: Where does Ian Happ play? Joe Maddon’s head might explode with all of his options. Happ has hit his way into a regular role -- somewhere -- with 22 home runs and a .507 slugging mark. Addison Russell just returned from his foot injury and was making Gold Glove-caliber plays at shortstop, so the Cubs’ best defensive lineup would be Russell at short and Javier Baez at second.
That could mean the switch-hitting Happ ends up in the outfield. Since returning from the minors, Kyle Schwarber has hit .253/.338/.567, and you know Maddon will want that bat in the lineup against right-handers. The power that Happ and Schwarber offer would help offset the lower OBPs Russell and Baez bring to the table. There’s also Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. (.910 OPS against left-handed pitchers) to consider. Most likely scenario: Schwarber and Almora platoon in the outfield, with Happ switching back-and-forth between center and left. That leaves Zobrist, Jon Jay and Tommy La Stella coming off the bench. It’s a deep roster with lots of flexibility and pinch-hitting options.
An aside: For most of August, Maddon hit Kris Bryant third and Anthony Rizzo fourth. The past few games he has gone back to Bryant second and Rizzo third. Willson Contreras has been hot in the second half (.320/.412/.670), so Maddon might stick with him in the cleanup spot.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Is Chris Iannetta the unlikeliest No. 2 hitter for a playoff team? Yes. Iannetta hit .188 with the Angels in 2015. He hit .210 with the Mariners in 2016. Now he’s a 34-year-old catcher suddenly hitting second for the first time in his career (he has started 21 games in that spot in his career, 18 of them coming this season). Of the past 14 games he has started, 13 have seen him hitting in the 2-hole (he hit cleanup in the other game). Obviously getting away from that marine layer in Seattle and Anaheim has helped rejuvenate the bat, and he has crushed lefties in particular with a .902 OPS.
One thing to note: The odd thing about manager Torey Lovullo’s lineups is that he has Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez in the fourth and fifth spots, no matter the pitcher. Jake Lamb and A.J. Pollock rotate hitting third. Lamb, however, has collapsed in the second half (.195/.315/.369), so it would make sense to move him down and get Goldschmidt/Martinez up earlier.
Colorado Rockies: Where does Ian Desmond play? He doesn’t. The first year of a five-year, $70 million contract has been a disaster as Desmond has hit .275/.322/.368, with the hand fracture he suffered in spring training perhaps limiting his ability to drive the ball. Mark Reynolds will play first, Gerardo Parra will play left and Carlos Gonzalez, finally heating up, will play right, especially with righty Zack Greinke the likely wild-card game starter for Arizona.
Cleveland Indians: Who plays in the outfield? With Bradley Zimmer likely out for the playoffs with a broken bone in his left hand, and Michael Brantley slow to heal from his ankle injury (he hasn’t played since Aug. 8), manager Terry Francona’s options in the outfield are suddenly limited. Almost by default, it seems we’ll get Jay Bruce in right, Austin Jackson in center and Lonnie Chisenhall in left.
Jackson has primarily been used as a platoon starter this season (almost half his plate appearances have come against lefties), but without Zimmer, he’s Cleveland's best option for center field. Chisenhall doesn’t play much against lefties -- although he has hit them well in limited time this year -- so the Indians will likely carry Brandon Guyer as a platoon partner, or perhaps September call-up Greg Allen, a switch-hitter who hit .356 from the right side in Double-A. Allen doesn’t have any power, but has speed and defensive ability.
All that seemed reasonably straightforward … and then Jason Kipnis returned from the DL and started in center field on Sunday. That was his first game there in the majors, but he was a center fielder in college at Arizona State. He has had a bad season, battling a strained rotator cuff coming out of spring training and then landing on the DL twice with hamstring injuries, so he might be a utility guy in the playoffs with Jose Ramirez remaining at second and Yandy Diaz at third. If he can play center, that gives Francona options such as pinch hitting for Jackson or even starting Kipnis against a right-hander. Still, the defensive problems in center that hurt the Indians last October -- including the Game 7 loss to the Cubs -- could mean Francona plays it safe out there.
Houston Astros: Who bats second? With Carlos Correa back, manager A.J. Hinch looks like he’s back to his preferred order of Jose Altuve hitting third and Correa cleanup. It looks like the second spot will be shared by Josh Reddick (versus right-handers) and Alex Bregman (versus lefties). Reddick has quietly had a superb season at the plate, hitting .317/.365/.483, while Bregman has had a big second half (.308/.360/.515). Hinch lost some versatility when defensive whiz Jake Marisnick fractured his thumb, so that leaves George Springer in center on a regular basis with Marwin Gonzalez and Cameron Maybin in left.
Boston Red Sox: Who hits leadoff? This is also known as the “Where does Eduardo Nunez play?” question. Since coming over from the Giants, Nunez has hit .319/.351/.534 in 51 games, although he’s currently sidelined with a right knee sprain. He had taken over the leadoff spot, but in his absence manager John Farrell has turned to Xander Bogaerts in the past week. Nunez also was able to play regularly because Dustin Pedroia was on the DL, but now Pedroia is back. Maybe Nunez ends up at third base, as Rafael Devers has gone 28 games and more than 100 at-bats without a home run. Or maybe Nunez is the DH, as Hanley Ramirez is battling a biceps injury and had just one at-bat the past week.
One thing: Bogaerts hit .315 in April and .351 in May, but just .216 in the second half. The hand injury he suffered in July no doubt affected his production. See how he finishes, especially whether he’s driving the ball at all.
New York Yankees: Who plays first base? Manager Joe Girardi keeps giving Greg Bird playing time to see if he can get going, but he’s still hitting .144/.255/.297, including .125 in September. Even though the Yankees would likely face a right-hander in the wild-card game if they play the Twins -- Ervin Santana, probably -- Chase Headley seems like the guy here unless Bird suddenly heats up in the final two weeks.
As an aside, Aaron Hicks’ oblique strain limits Girardi’s options, as he would have been a nice option in the outfield. That leaves Jacoby Ellsbury in center field -- he has been productive in the second half with a .376 OBP -- and Matt Holliday at DH.
Minnesota Twins: Will Miguel Sano return? The impressive thing about the Twins' offensive surge the past eight weeks is they’ve done it in part without Sano, who has been out since Aug. 20 with a stress reaction in his left shin. He took swings off a tee over the weekend, but there remains no timetable for his return. Eduardo Escobar has been playing third base in Sano’s absence and has been hitting like … well, like Sano, with seven home runs in September. That’s more than he hit all of last season in 352 at-bats.
With a week and a half left in the season, let's take stock of baseball's biggest awards. With one exception, the MVP and Cy Young awards are highly debatable. Here's a look at where things stand.
The favorite: Jose Altuve
The outlook: It's probably his, unless a Troutian miracle occurs.
Altuve seems to have both the numbers and the narrative on his side. The greatness in Altuve is not just that he had the one amazing month but that his idea of a slump is what he has done the past month, with a slash line of .287/.353/.508 since Aug. 11. That allowed him to maintain an off-the-charts performance record as someone such as Aaron Judge cratered.
The only way Altuve loses this award is if Mike Trout goes on an all-time run to put the Angels into the postseason over the final 10 days. We're talking not just hitting .450 with eight home runs but also hitting some memorable ones that stick in the mind of voters and drive the narrative to overwhelmingly support his candidacy (think Chipper Jones, September 1999).
AL Cy Young
The outlook: It depends what you like.
Do you prefer the guy who started strong? Do you want the one who made every start, who was durable, whose strikeout-per-nine-innings rate is off the charts? Then you're taking Sale.
Or do you want the guy who has been better than that guy for four months since getting healthy? The one who has a half-run lead in ERA (his defense has done right by him)? Then you're probably voting for Kluber.
The gap between Sale and Kluber is extremely narrow, such that (a) both positions are reasonably justifiable (b) whatever happens in the last 10 days -- short of one of them pitching a 27-strikeout perfect game -- isn't going to have much impact on the voting.
The outlook: Do you want your MVP to be from a non-contender?
This is an odd year for NL MVP in that the success of each of the three division-leading teams is a group effort. The Dodgers have five players worth at least 4 wins above replacement but none worth more than 5.5, and their MVP is arguably Kenley Jansen. In this day and age, a closer isn't winning the MVP (though there's a good case here).
The Nationals have three pitchers (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez) and a position player worth at least 5.5 WAR, but they all hover around the same number, and for a pitcher to win an MVP, he has to be far better than his peers. Although Kris Bryant leads the Cubs in WAR, he's down about two wins from last season, so the narrative is that he isn't as good.
On top of that, the two best players in the league -- Stanton and Votto -- are basically dead even in quality. The next-best player, Arenado, has a teammate (Charlie Blackmon) who is maybe a sliver behind him. And Goldschmidt's outstanding season has been overshadowed by the home runs J.D. Martinez has hit since the Diamondbacks got him in trade.
Stanton is the one player who can probably win the MVP by doing something concrete: reaching the 60-homer mark. But it will probably be quite the logjam when voting is announced in November.
NL Cy Young
The favorites: Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw
The outlook: There are more worthy candidates than you think.
The narrative will tell you that two-time Cy Young winner Scherzer is the best pitcher on the Nationals. But not so fast. Strasburg has an identical ERA and a better strikeout-to-walk and home run combination (Gonzalez has great surface numbers, too, but his peripherals don't put his candidacy up with his teammates).
Kershaw has stumbled since returning, but it's going to be hard for old-school voters to overlook 17-4 with a 2.26 ERA. Even with the increased home run rate, his candidacy is strong, albeit not the best of the best. Let's put in another plug here for Jansen, whose dominance has been extraordinary from day one. If you need to get one out to win a game this season, he should be the choice (however, games require 27 outs, thus putting a damper on his chances).
Similar to in the AL, there probably isn't much these guys can do to impact their candidacies. Their track records are locked in because they aren't pitching under make-the-playoffs pressure.
The pitcher sneaking up on everyone but fans of his team is Zack Greinke, whose ERA is a little higher than his competitors' but who has given his team more high-quality innings in an environment in Arizona that is highly hitter-friendly. Greinke is atop the WAR leaderboards at both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.
Remember when the baseball world wondered whether Greinke would ever return to greatness after his 2016 struggles? Turns out he's just fine. And he might be a couple of good starts away from a second Cy Young.
In a season in which everyone has hit home runs, I suppose it makes perfect sense that the worst hitter in the majors would hit the home run that set the record for home runs in a season:
Alex Gordon has the lowest wRC+ (57) for a qualified hitter this year, so of course he's the one to break the all-time HR record.
— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) September 20, 2017
OK, that's a little unfair to Alex Gordon. He isn't really the worst hitter in the league. He's just the worst hitter who has managed to hold on to a regular job all season. His 409-foot home run off Ryan Tepera in the eighth inning of Kansas City's game at Toronto was Major League Baseball's 5,694th of the season, breaking the previous record set in 2000. With more than a week of games remaining, the projected final total should surpass 6,100 home runs -- or nearly 2,000 more than were hit in 2014, when everyone suddenly worried about the lack of power in the game.
It could have been Tim Beckham, Didi Gregorius, Justin Turner, Stuart Turner, Logan Morrison or Tim Anderson -- some of the other guys who were batting at the same time as Gordon. It could have been Jose Altuve, who hit the 5,695th home run of 2017. Instead, it will be Gordon who goes down in the history books -- at least for now -- after fouling off a 3-2 fastball and connecting on a hanging slider:
— MLB (@MLB) September 20, 2017
It was Gordon's eighth home run of 2017, a rare highlight in what has been a miserable season at the plate. He's hitting .209/.286/.314, and he has just 29 extra-base hits in 137 games. This from a guy who once hit 51 doubles in a season and ranked sixth in the American League in extra-base hits.
After helping the Royals reach back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015, Gordon re-signed as a free agent on a four-year, $72 million contract. He was coming off three straight All-Star seasons and probably took less money to remain in Kansas City. At the time, it was hailed as a nice coup for the small-market Royals, bringing back one of their homegrown players with the largest contract in Royals history.
Instead, it has been a disastrous signing, as Gordon didn't hit well in 2016, and he is owed $44 million after this season. His defense has remained excellent, but after averaging 5.4 WAR per season from 2011 through 2015, he has been worth just 1.0 WAR over the past two seasons combined.
It's the latest twist in a career full of them. Gordon was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft out of the University of Nebraska and was immediately hailed as the new George Brett, a left-handed hitting third baseman who would hit for average and power.
Gordon's first two seasons were solid if unspectacular, but then things fell apart. In 2009 and 2010, he found himself back in the minors. However, while in Omaha in 2010, he moved to the outfield and a new phase of his career was born. He became Kansas City's starting left fielder in 2011 and had the best season of his career, hitting .303/.376/.502 with 23 home runs and 101 runs, while winning the first of four straight Gold Gloves.
As the Royals slowly rebuilt into a World Series winner, he became one of the veteran leaders of the club. Players such as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who came up after Gordon, praised him as the guy who had suffered through all the bad times and helped develop a winning attitude.
When the Royals won it all in 2015, it was Gordon who arguably had the biggest hit of the World Series: a game-tying home run off Jeurys Familia in the bottom of the ninth in a game the Royals eventually won in 14 innings.
Where are all the 2017 home runs coming from?
Well, rookies are hitting a lot. Entering Tuesday, they had hit 708 home runs, the most by rookies in one season and nearly double the total that rookies hit in 2000 (363). With 44 home runs, Aaron Judge has a chance to break Mark McGwire's rookie record of 49 set in 1987. Cody Bellinger has 38, tied for third most by a rookie; one more and he'll set the National League record.
Other theories include batters changing their launch angles (though the percentage of fly balls hasn't changed) and PEDs. The most likely answer, however, is a change in the way the ball is manufactured.
The rate of home runs turned sharply upward in the second half of 2015. In comparing new baseballs to older ones, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer and sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman found that the balls became smaller and the seams got lower -- changes that would make the ball smoother and subject to less air resistance. Rob Arthur, of FiveThirtyEight, had findings that expanded on that, noting that there has been a significant decrease in the air resistance, or drag, of the ball, which has led to an increase in fly ball distance and, therefore, more home runs.
MLB has denied any alterations to the ball, but even small changes in the manufacturing process could alter the ball while keeping it within the range of acceptable measurements.
Whatever the cause, everyone is hitting home runs now. The chase for the record home run reminded me somewhat of an infamous story from 1975. Baseball had determined that the one millionth run in major league history would be scored that season and made a big publicity stunt of it. Tootsie Roll signed on as a sponsor (with Joe DiMaggio as pitchman), and the player who scored the millionth run would receive a $1,000 watch from Seiko (back when the average MLB salary was $44,000).
Anyway, everyone was aware as the total got close to one million. Houston's Bob Watson was on second base when Milt May homered, and Watson sprinted home, apparently four seconds ahead of Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion, who homered in a different game and also sprinted around the bases. News reports said Rod Carew of the Twins could have scored the millionth run but was thrown out at home plate.
Watson became the answer to a trivia question. Maybe that too will be Gordon's legacy -- at least until the record is broken next season.
Red Sox love extra innings: The Red Sox beat the Orioles 1-0 in 11 innings as the winning run scored on a wild pitch with two outs. They're now 15-3 in extra innings, tying the franchise record for extra-inning wins. It's also the first time the Red Sox have recorded two shutouts of 11 innings or longer since 1916 -- when some guy named Babe Ruth was pitching for them. Note that Carson Smith faced two batters and fanned both of them. That Boston bullpen could be getting even deeper.
Anyway, that extra-inning record is the reason the Red Sox lead the American League East. They have a plus-114 run differential, while the Yankees are plus-178; but the Yankees are 5-6 in extras (and 17-25 in one-run games). Let's see who Boston's extra-innings heroes have been:
- April 5: Sandy Leon hits three-run walk-off HR in the 12th (the other shutout win).
- April 20: Mookie Betts hits two-out, three-run double in 10th.
- May 17: Fernando Abad with two scoreless innings; Ben Taylor with the save (13 innings).
- June 12: Matt Barnes fans five in two innings for the win; Pablo Sandoval starts winning rally with a hit. (Probably the only good thing he did all season.)
- June 13: Abad wins again with two scoreless innings.
- June 30: Three runs in the 11th, as Deven Marrero knocks in two; Blaine Boyer goes two for the W.
- July 3: Andrew Benintendi with a two-out, two-run single in the 11th.
- July 18: Hanley Ramirez hits a walk-off homer in the 15th; Hector Velazquez pitches four scoreless innings for the win.
- July 29: Leon doubles and later scores winning run on a slow grounder.
- Aug. 4: Mitch Moreland with the walk-off home run.
- Aug. 13: This was the game in which Rafael Devers homered off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth to send it to extra innings. Benintendi knocks in the winning run.
- Sept. 5: The 19-inning marathon finally ends when Ramirez doubles and Betts singles him home. Eleven relievers combined for 13 shutout innings, with Velazquez pitching the final inning for the W.
- Sept. 15: Against the Rays, both teams score in the 14th, but the Red Sox put up seven runs in the 15th.
- Sept. 18: Benintendi with the two-out go-ahead hit in the 11th.
- Sept. 19: Barnes follows his win on Monday with a save.
Going through these extra-inning games speaks to the importance of bullpen depth. Some no-name relievers have stepped up for the Red Sox, guys such as Abad, Velazquez and Boyer. Barnes is 3-0 with a save in five appearances. Two of the three losses actually belong to Doug Fister, who has allowed five of the eight runs Boston has yielded in extras. Check Boston's combined pitching line in extra innings: 57⅔ IP, 36 hits, 20 walks, 55 K's, two HRs, 1.25 ERA. Boston's pen hasn't been as heralded as the Yankees', but it's arguably been more clutch.
Wild-card winner of the night. The Brewers beat the Pirates 1-0 for their second straight shutout, and then they picked up a game on the Rockies when the Giants won 4-3 via a walk-off. The Brewers have gone 8-2 in their past 10 contests and now are just one game back of Colorado for the second NL wild card.
One of Milwaukee's unsung under-the-radar players has been Domingo Santana, whose fourth-inning home run held up as the game's only run. He has 26 home runs and a .371 OBP in his first full season (he missed time last year and played just 77 games). Santana has been around a long time -- he was traded from the Phillies to the Astros way back in 2011 -- but just turned 25 in August. He could cut down on his strikeouts a bit, but the walks are nice and this looks like a breakout type of season.
Wild-card loser of the night. The Angels missed an opportunity to pick up a game on the Twins with a 6-3 loss to the Indians. What also hurt is that it was 3-1 when Mike Trout grounded into a double play in the sixth and 3-2 in the eighth when Trout grounded out sharply to second with runners at the corners and two outs. The Indians then broke it open in the ninth.
American League center field Gold Glove update. Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier made another outstanding catch, a few days after his catch of the year candidate:
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) September 20, 2017
Meanwhile, Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr. made his third home run robbery of the season, although it was a fairly routine play in front of the short fence in Baltimore. Both are strong Gold Glove candidates in a field crowded with excellence. Neither is going to win. Your Defensive Runs Saved leaders among AL center fielders entering Tuesday:
On a per-inning basis, Kiermaier is tied with Buxton with Hicks just a tick behind them, but Kiermaier has started just 88 games out there because of injuries. It would have been a fun debate if Kiermaier had remained healthy, but Buxton should win his first Gold Glove.
Nolan Arenado is an MVP candidate. Charlie Blackmon is an MVP candidate. But they both can’t be the MVP! (Well, technically it is possible; Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell shared National League MVP honors in 1979.)
Before we determine if either is a strong contender for NL MVP, we have to first establish the MVP of the Colorado Rockies. Both are having superlative seasons as the Rockies try to hold on to the second wild card and make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Arenado is closing in on his third straight RBI title and will undoubtedly win his fifth Gold Glove in five seasons, while Blackmon leads the majors in runs scored and total bases.
Arenado has a lot of RBIs -- but he has Blackmon hitting in front of him. Blackmon has a lot of runs -- but he has Arenado driving in him. On a rate basis, Blackmon has been the slightly better hitter, thanks to a 25-point advantage in on-base percentage.
Note the differences in WAR for each player. Those numbers are essentially the result of how each player’s defense is evaluated. Arenado rates better in Baseball-Reference WAR, which uses Defensive Runs Saved, in which he is plus-20 runs saved above average; FanGraphs WAR uses UZR, in which he rates at plus-7.4 runs. Likewise, Blackmon rates at minus-6 DRS but +0.1 UZR.
In Arenado’s case, I’m inclined to go with the DRS number, which is the highest among third basemen. He is second in UZR behind Anthony Rendon, though he rates just 10th in the range component of UZR. You think nine third basemen have more range than Arenado? Going with Baseball-Reference WAR certainly helps Arenado’s case. Still, there’s enough of a debate here to dig into some of the secondary numbers.
Let’s start with RBIs, because that’s going to be a big argument in Arenado’s favor. Although voters are getting smarter in their statistical analysis, some still love RBIs. But how much of Arenado’s RBI total is a function of his spot in the lineup? Baseball-Reference tracks runners on base for hitters compared to the MLB average given a player’s plate appearances. Arenado has had 409 runners on base compared to an average of 376; Blackmon has had 269 runners on base compared to an average of 399.
Subtracting home runs, Arenado has knocked in 22.2 percent of the runners on base for him; Blackmon has driven in 21.6 percent. Very close! Both have been terrific with runners in scoring position: Arenado is hitting .404/.483/.829 and Blackmon is hitting .368/.449/.689.
The interesting thing here is that Bud Black’s batting order is a little suboptimal. DJ LeMahieu basically hits singles; it would arguably make more sense to hit him leadoff and Blackmon second so that Blackmon would be hitting with more runners on base, rather than hitting after the No. 8 and 9 hitters.
OK, so as well as Arenado has hit with runners in scoring position, I don’t think RBIs separate him from Blackmon. Let’s go to clutch hitting. We can look at a couple different stats. Win Probability Added looks at when a player contributed his numbers; for example, a home run in a tie game is worth more than a home run in a 10-2 game. Both players rank high in FanGraphs’ WPA: Arenado is fifth among position players at 4.45 WPA, and Blackmon is seventh at 4.27. Not much to pick at there.
Let’s go to “Late & Close” situations:
Arenado: .246/.315/.600, 6 HRs, 19 RBIs in 74 PAs
Blackmon: .269/.372/.463, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs in 78 PAs
The edge here goes to Arenado. He hit the most memorable home run of the season for the Rockies, a walk-off, three-run homer to beat the Giants 7-5 on June 18, a blast that not only won the game but also completed a cycle:
Arenado also hit a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning to beat the Brewers 2-1 on April 6 and a three-run homer off Arizona’s Jake Barrett in the eighth inning on Sept. 11 to break a 2-2 tie. And don’t forget the three-run homer off Clayton Kershaw in the first inning Sept. 7. The Rockies entered the four-game series at Dodger Stadium reeling, with a playoff spot that once seemed secure in jeopardy. Arenado’s home run kick-started a 9-1 victory and four-game series sweep.
Not to ignore Blackmon, who has had a couple huge home runs as well. He homered off Cleveland's Zach McAllister in the top of the 12th on Aug. 9 to give the Rockies a 3-2 win. Later in the month, he clocked a two-run shot off the Braves' Arodys Vizcaino in the top of the ninth for a 6-4 lead (the Rockies won 7-6).
Finally, let’s see how the two players have done against the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, their key rivals in the NL this year:
Arenado: .310/.387/.611, 8 HRs, 28 RBIs, 22 runs
Blackmon: .294/.360/.463, 4 HRs, 13 RBIs, 21 runs
Arenado has done some of his best hitting against the two teams the Rockies most needed to beat.
Finally, there’s the matter of home/road splits. Arenado has hit .289/.359/.543 on the road compared to Blackmon’s .283/.339/.453. You can’t simply compare the splits and say Arenado is better because he doesn’t have as severe a split as Blackmon (who has hit .387 and slugged .784 at home). You can turn that around and ask why Arenado hasn’t hit better at the most hitter-friendly park in the majors. Still, for those who want to use Coors Field against Rockies players, that argument has less weight for Arenado since he has fared well on the road.
Add it up, and I have to give the slight edge to Arenado. He has fared better in the areas WAR doesn’t capture, such as clutch hitting and playing well against your toughest opponents. I don’t know if Arenado is the National League MVP, but he’s my choice -- with two weeks remaining -- for Rockies MVP.
As Yogi Berra would say, the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton wasn't in no slump, he just hadn't been hitting. In his previous 11 games, Stanton went 7-for-40 with just one home run. After slugging 18 home runs in August, he had just three in September entering Monday's game in Miami against the Mets. Sitting on 54 home runs, his pursuit of 60 home runs looked ambitious. Then came his 55th, and we can once again dream of 60:
— MLB (@MLB) September 19, 2017
Yes, it counts even though it came off Matt Harvey. It was a 114 mph blast that traveled 455 feet and left the park in 4.5 seconds. You knew it was a Stanton special just from hearing the crack of the bat; we need to add "decibels" to the other Statcast measurements. Stanton would probably lead the league in that category as well.
Back in 2001, Barry Bonds set the single-season record with 73 home runs. The same year, Sammy Sosa hit 64, Luis Gonzalez hit 57, and Alex Rodriguez hit 52. Here are the 50-homer seasons since then:
Stanton climbs to third in what we'll call AB -- After Barry. He has 12 games to hit five home runs and reach 60, or six to tie Roger Maris at 61, or seven to reach 62, a figure topped only by Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sosa, and you can make your own judgment on whether that bothers you or not.
Stanton has homered every 10.0 at-bats this season, so given 50 at-bats the next 12 games, he would project to 60. Working in his favor is the Marlins' remaining schedule: two more games against the Mets (Seth Lugo and Rafael Montero will start), a six-game road trip to Arizona and Colorado (two hitter-friendly parks) and finally four at home against the Braves.
Does Stanton have a chance at MVP honors? It's still a race in which five or six players could get first-place votes, but with the Marlins 10 games under .500, Stanton would have to be above and beyond the other candidates to have a chance to win. Even if he finishes with 60, I don't think it would be enough to outpace Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado in the voting. Only five players have won the MVP Award on a losing team: A-Rod (2003 Rangers), Cal Ripken Jr. (1991 Orioles), Andre Dawson (1987 Cubs) and Ernie Banks (1958 and '59 Cubs).
Yankees win, Red Sox win. Interesting night in the AL East. Yankees manager Joe Girardi had to turn to Aroldis Chapman for a five-out save after Dellin Betances loaded the bases with a hit batter and two walks. Chapman struck out Joe Mauer and got Byron Buxton to fly out and then pitched a one-two-three ninth. His final pitch:
— #Statcast (@statcast) September 19, 2017
The Yankees failed to pick up a game on the Red Sox, however, as Boston beat Baltimore 10-8 in 11 innings, rallying from 5-0 and 6-1 deficits thanks to a six-run fifth. Mookie Betts doubled to clear the bases in that rally. There were a couple of interesting relief notes as the Red Sox improved to 14-3 in extra-inning games:
- Manager John Farrell used Craig Kimbrel in the bottom of the ninth. Note that he did not wait to use Kimbrel for a save situation, instead using him against the Orioles' No. 5-6-7 hitters. The strategy made sense for this reason: The Orioles had already burned through six relievers, so Farrell was betting that the back end of his bullpen was better than Baltimore's -- even though he had already used seven relievers after starter Doug Fister lasted just two innings.
- Matt Barnes pitched the 10th, and then Carson Smith tossed an 11-pitch 11th for the save after Andrew Benintendi singled in two runs with two outs. Remember, Smith had that dominant rookie season with Seattle in 2015 before getting injured last year. He has made just four appearances so far, but he was lethal on righties pre-surgery. Don't rule him out from making the postseason roster if he finishes strong.
— MLB (@MLB) September 19, 2017
From Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Info: Kershaw had faced 103 batters in his career with the bases loaded without allowing a grand slam. The only active pitchers to face more batters with the bases loaded without allowing a grand slam are Matt Cain (133) and Zach Duke (114).
This game also featured one of the craziest catches of the season.
Wild-card winner of the night. The Brewers blanked the Pirates 3-0 with a five-man shutout, gaining a half-game on the idle Rockies. They're two games behind Colorado and 3 1/2 behind the Cubs in the NL Central. Brent Suter threw five scoreless innings, and Corey Knebel closed it out for his 36th save in 40 chances since taking over as closer on May 14, but two of the Brewers' secret weapons helped bridge the gap from Suter to Knebel.
Josh Hader fanned three in 1 2/3 innings, and Anthony Swarzak pitched a one-two-three eighth. Those two have helped the Brewers to the eighth-best bullpen ERA in the majors and a 2.53 mark since Aug. 1 -- tied with the Rays for best in the majors in that span.
Hader is the rookie lefty who throws 95 mph with a funky delivery while sporting long, golden locks. A starter in the minors, he has the repertoire to pitch multiple innings, and manager Craig Counsell has used him for more than three outs in 14 of his 31 outings. With 58 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings, he has quickly emerged as one of the better lefty relievers in the game. The veteran Swarzak, meanwhile, has been a key trade-deadline pickup, coming over from the White Sox on July 26. Never a big strikeout guy, he has ditched his curve and changeup and become a fastball/slider guy. He has 84 K's in 69 innings, including 32 in 20 2/3 innings with the Brewers (with just three walks).
Wild-card loser of the night. The Twins went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in that 2-1 loss to the Yankees. This was the first of a 10-game road trip, with two more in the Bronx, four in Detroit and three in Cleveland. Don't print those playoff tickets just yet.
As for Matt Harvey ... Since his return from the DL, he has allowed 21 runs in 14 1/3 innings and has recorded just eight strikeouts in 83 batters faced. He has had just 18 swing-and-misses. Back in 2015, he had nine starts with at least 15 swing-and-misses. The stuff has simply regressed. Harvey had no answers after the game:
This is Matt Harvey. It's raw, it's honest. Baseball can be awfully cruel, folks: pic.twitter.com/mA297Y8EoE
— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) September 19, 2017
With each bad start, it seems less likely that the Mets will bring Harvey back for 2018. It's sad to say, but Harvey's Mets career could end with a non-tender in the offseason.
Two weeks left in the regular season. Stay focused. You're not going to win your fantasy football league anyway. Here's a quick rundown on the important races to follow:
Division races still up for grabs
The New York Yankees last led the American League East on July 31, but have been closer than three games on just two days since Aug. 4, both times 2.5 games behind. You get the feeling that, if they could get it down to two games, then maybe the Boston Red Sox feel that little added bit of pressure. The Yankees have gone 11-5 in September, but the Red Sox have gone 9-6. So Boston's lead is three games with 13 remaining. Remaining schedules (of course, the schedule-makers couldn't do the fun thing and schedule two Boston-New York series the final two weeks):
Yankees -- Minnesota (3), at Toronto (3), Kansas City (1), Tampa Bay (3), Toronto (3)
Red Sox -- at Baltimore (3), at Cincinnati (3), Toronto (3), Houston (4)
Prediction: Tie. We deserve a tie somewhere, somehow. A tiebreaker game would be played Oct. 2, a Monday, with the loser then hosting the wild-card game on Oct. 3. Who would start that game? Right now, our pitching schedules have Chris Sale in line to start the final Sunday of the regular season, but it's much more likely he goes Wednesday-Monday-Saturday, which would give him four days of rest before the division series starts on Oct. 5. In other words, no matter how the rotation falls, he's unlikely to be in line to start either a division tiebreaker game OR a potential wild-card game.
Meanwhile, in the National League Central, the Chicago Cubs basically eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals with a three-game sweep this weekend. Their lead over the Milwaukee Brewers is four and the Cubs do play four in Milwaukee the final week -- and remember that the Brewers swept the Cubs at Wrigley last weekend.
Prediction: Cubs take it.
American League second wild card
Well, so much for our seven-way tie. This has basically turned into a two-team chase between the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels. The Twins are just 8-8 in their past 16 games, but in this race to mediocrity, that has been good enough to keep a two-game lead over the Angels. That's not even a joke. September records for wild-card contenders:
Good job, everyone!
Twins -- at Yankees (3), at Detroit (4), Cleveland (3), Detroit (3)
Angels -- Cleveland (3), at Houston (3), at White Sox (4), Seattle (3)
The Twins get seven games against the Tigers. That should help them hold on.
National League second wild card
That road trip to Los Angeles and Arizona probably saved the Colorado Rockies' season -- they won all four games in L.A. and the first two in Arizona. With a 2.5-game lead over the Brewers, their odds of winning the second wild card register about 88 percent. They head out on another road trip, but it's to San Francisco for two games and San Diego for four, before finishing up at home against the Marlins and Dodgers. The Brewers are without ace Jimmy Nelson the rest of the way and have tough series against the Cubs and Cardinals.
Prediction: Rockies hold on.
In the AL, the Cleveland Indians are 1.5 games up on the Houston Astros. In the NL, the Los Angeles Dodgers have recovered from losing 16 of 17 and are six up on the Nationals. Cleveland's next three series are at the Angels, at the Mariners and hosting the Twins, so no easy ones there, but they're so hot right now they should hold off the Astros. They also hold the tiebreaker edge if they finish with the same record, having won the season series 5-1.
Prediction: Indians, Dodgers
American League Cy Young race
I was listening to the Kansas City Royals-Indians game on the radio on Sunday as Corey Kluber was spinning seven shutout innings and, at one point, the Indians broadcaster cheered that "Chris Sale has had a terrific season, but Corey Kluber has had a better season." My first thought was that enthusiasm may have been ripe with a little homerism, but it does feel like Kluber has the momentum. He now owns a notable lead in ERA and has cut into Sale's lead in innings and strikeouts:
Kluber: 17-4, 2.35 ERA, 191.2 IP, 129 H, 34 BB, 252 SO, 7.1 bWAR, 6.5 fWAR
Sale: 16-7, 2.86 ERA, 201.1 IP, 153 H, 41 BB, 287 SO, 5.9 bWAR, 7.6 fWAR
Sale should get those final three starts, but Kluber may get only two more starts -- with an off day on Monday, he probably starts again on Saturday and then once the final week. If Sale gets to 300 strikeouts that could help his case, and he also owns the lead in FanGraphs WAR. It wouldn't surprise if Terry Francona backs off Kluber's pitch counts a little bit as well, although he'll have plenty of time off between his final start and the first game of the division series. Point being: I think it's still basically a coin flip. When Kluber won in 2014, he barely edged out Felix Hernandez. This one will be close as well.
National League Cy Young race
Max Scherzer has allowed 11 runs in his past two outings, which suddenly opened up this race. Zack Greinke has had a run of outstanding starts while Clayton Kershaw leads in ERA and is tied with Greinke in wins. Those seem to be the top three guys, with apologies to Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. And don't ignore Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who is 5-0 with 38 saves, a 1.27 ERA and 101 strikeouts against just seven walks. Relievers don't get the support they once did, so he's probably a long shot.
Prediction: Kershaw. He starts Monday, so should get three more starts, which gives him a chance at 20 wins. If he gets 20 while leading in ERA, I think that may push him over the top in a split vote, even though he won't come close to 200 innings because of the 40-day DL stint.
American League MVP race
Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor got a lot of play for their unbelievable production during Cleveland's 22-game win streak, but this still looks like Jose Altuve's award thanks to his .348/.409/.556 line. He leads Mike Trout and Aaron Judge in both Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs WAR (with Ramirez fourth in both). My only hesitancy is that while MVP voters have gotten a lot smarter, they still naturally side to the RBI guys and Altuve has only 77 RBIs. That seems a little weird since he has hit third in the order almost all season -- yet he's .348 with men on and .310 with runners in scoring position.
Prediction: Altuve. Trout's only chance is if the Angels make the playoffs. Even then, he'll likely fall short as voters can't look past the 45 games he missed.
National League MVP race
No consensus has developed here, although public opinion seems to have narrowed the field to Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and maybe Anthony Rendon (Joey Votto will get a lot of top-five votes, but with the Reds mired in last place, he is an unlikely winner). Stanton had possibly emerged as the favorite despite playing for a non-playoff team, but he has hit .170 in September with three home runs, so his pursuit of reaching 60 is in jeopardy. If he gets to 60, maybe he's back to being the front-runner. Can he hit six in 13 games? The Marlins do have three games in Arizona and three in Colorado, two homer-friendly parks. The two Rockies need to make the playoffs to have a chance.
Prediction: Goldschmidt. With Arenado right behind. They're 1-2 in RBIs. Arenado has the amazing defense, but also carries the Coors Field anchor (although he has hit a solid .289/.359/.543 on the road). Goldschmidt has a much higher OBP without playing half his games at Coors. Arenado has the best chance to do something dramatic these final days to help the Rockies clinch a playoff spot. Another big moment -- like his three-run homer off Kershaw that kicked off that four-game sweep of L.A. -- could get him the extra credit he needs.
The Houston Astros have their swagger back.
Remember, before the Los Angeles Dodgers had the greatest two months in major league history and before the Cleveland Indians reeled off the longest winning streak in 100 years and before the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East and the Chicago Cubs inched closer to the NL Central title, the Astros were the big story in baseball. They were 42-16 through June 5 and seemed invincible, with a high-powered offense, two All-Star starters in Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. and a deep bullpen.
Then came some injuries. Some of the pitchers regressed. The offense finally cooled off in August. The Astros went 11-17 that month and, with some uncertainty about the performance of Keuchel and McCullers, the front office made the big move it needed to make: On Aug. 31, the Astros acquired Justin Verlander.
He has made three starts with Houston and won them all, allowing two runs and just 10 hits over 21 innings. On Sunday, he fanned 10 in seven innings in a 7-1 win over the Seattle Mariners, as the Astros clinched their first AL West title and their first division title since winning the NL Central in 2001. At 91-58, the franchise record of 102 wins is probably out of reach with 13 games remaining, but a 7-6 finish would give them the second-most wins in Astros history. Here's the final out of Sunday's win:
— #AstrosHarvey (@astros) September 17, 2017
Verlander's performance has undoubtedly erased the issue of who will start the first game of the division series. It has to be Verlander. While A.J. Hinch obviously has a huge amount of loyalty to Keuchel for what he has done for the Astros the past several years, Verlander is the better pitcher at the moment. Sure, two of his three starts with the Astros have come against the Mariners and the other against the Angels, but he owns a 1.99 ERA over his past 14 starts with 110 strikeouts and 23 walks in 95 innings. His swing-and-miss rate on Sunday was 38.6 percent, his highest of any game this season.
In looking through Verlander's season, one thing pops out at me: He's throwing his fastball more than he did early on. Through July, he was throwing it about 57 percent of the time, but that has been around 62 percent the past two months. That translates to only an extra five or six fastballs per game, but it does suggest more confidence in the command he has of the pitch. We can see that in his rate of 0-0 fastballs:
Through July: 65.7 percent
Since Aug. 1: 79.7 percent
It's the oldest philosophy in pitching: Get ahead with the fastball and put 'em away with the breaking stuff. While this isn't the Verlander who throws 100 mph, he still throws plenty hard. His average fastball velocity on the season is 95.3 mph. When Verlander posted a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and saw his strikeout rate drop drastically (159 in 206 innings) and then made just 20 starts in 2015, there were concerns his best days were behind him. Instead, he has made the transition from power pitcher to ... well, still a power pitcher. Maybe he hasn't had the overall season of dominance that Chris Sale and Corey Kluber have had, but Verlander looks like an ace right now. And that's going to give the Astros all the confidence they need heading into the postseason.
Cardinals collapse. The Mariners had a bad weekend, seeing their slim playoff hopes all but wiped away in getting swept in Houston (they went 0-6 against the Astros in September), but the worst weekend belongs to the Cardinals. They entered Friday's series at Wrigley just three games behind the Cubs. They left six games behind. The offense scored just six runs in three games, and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Sunday's 4-3 loss.
The Cardinals haven't played well against the better teams all season. Their recent 11-3 hot streak came against the Giants, Padres, Pirates and Reds, but they're now 4-11 against the Cubs and 7-9 against the Brewers. They went 0-7 against the Red Sox and Yankees. They're not officially dead yet, as they finish the season with a seven-game homestand against the Cubs and Brewers, but they have to leap over two teams in the NL Central and two teams in the wild-card race.
Wild-card winner of the day. The Twins trailed the Blue Jays 5-0 entering the bottom of the second but reeled off a seven-run inning that included a home run and double from Byron Buxton. They went on to a 13-7 victory, while the Angels lost, increasing the Twins' lead to two games. The once-crowded AL race for that second wild card now looks like a two-team race. Boring.
Wild-card loser of the day. The Rockies still have a grip on the second NL wild card, but Sunday's loss hurt. They led the Padres 3-1, but gave up two runs in the eighth and one in the ninth. The winning run scored on this crazy play at home plate:
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) September 18, 2017
Holland was charged with an error on the play, but the rally started when he walked Matt Szczur with one out (and Szczur went first to third on an infield single). So Holland didn't get hit hard, but that's his fifth loss since Aug. 6.
— #Statcast (@statcast) September 17, 2017
Gallo is hitting .211, but because he has 38 home runs and draws walks, he has still been a productive offensive player, ranking 31st among all regulars in wOBA. He's finally proving his game will translate to the major leagues and, if he can somehow cut down on the strikeouts and hit .261 instead of .211, he could be an MVP candidate some day.
Matt Boyd's near no-no. You have to feel bad for Tigers lefty Matt Boyd, who was one out away from the first no-hitter by a left-hander in Tigers history:
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) September 17, 2017
— Matthew Boyd (@mattboyd48) September 18, 2017
Boyd came to the Tigers in 2015 in the David Price trade with the Blue Jays. He throws 92-94, with a curveball, slider and changeup, but is still learning the ropes in the majors. He was a strike-throwing machine in the minors but has had issues with the long ball with the Tigers -- 16 in 123.1 innings in 2017, which at least is a better ratio than in 2016. As he continues to figure out what works for him, he has thrown fewer sliders than he did earlier in the season. That makes sense because batters have slugged .587 against it; however, the lack of a good slider means he has had issues against left-handed batters, who are hitting .329 with a .400 OBP against him.
Anyway, it was a bright moment in a miserable season for Detroit. In what will be a rebuilding season in 2018, Boyd is one of the young Tigers who will get a chance to prove himself over a full season.
The St. Louis Cardinals missed the playoffs last season and haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2007 and '08, so falling short again would qualify as tough times in Cardinals Nation.
I go on St. Louis radio every so often, and the running thought throughout the season from hosts, such as the great Bernie Miklasz, has been that the Cardinals simply aren’t good enough -- they've looked like a .500 team.
And that certainly appeared to be the case. The bullpen blew some games early as the Cardinals faltered to a 3-9 start. There was the wacky Matt Adams experiment in left field. Manager Mike Matheny again was having trouble settling on an infield rotation. Free agent Dexter Fowler got off to a slow start, as did fellow outfielder Stephen Piscotty. At the All-Star break, the team was two games under .500 at 43-45. The one hopeful sign was that the Cubs were coughing along with the same record and both teams were just 5½ games behind the Brewers, and many expected Milwaukee to fade in the second half.
So here we are in mid-September … and the Cardinals are right there. Of course they are. They’re the Cardinals! You thought they were going to go away easily, America? They were 66-66 on Aug. 30 but since then have gone 11-3 entering Friday's action to leave them tied with the Brewers at three games behind the Cubs and 2½ games behind the Rockies for the second wild card.
So how did they get here? We can focus on four surprising contributors:
Tommy Pham: Here’s what the Cardinals thought of Pham heading into the season: He started in the minors. That’s not a positive outlook for a 29-year-old outfielder. Pham had been a solid backup the past two seasons and was essentially the final cut, squeezed out by Adams and Jose Martinez (more on him in a second). "It came down to one spot," Matheny said at the time. "And sometimes the best thing that can be done is to tell the truth. And the truth is another guy (Martinez) truly earned that spot."
Now? Pham leads the Cardinals with 5.0 WAR, tied for 16th among all MLB position players, even though he wasn't called up until May 5. He’s the first Cardinals player with 20 home runs and 20 steals since Reggie Sanders in 2004 and has provided strong defense in both left and center.
It’s been a remarkable journey for a player originally drafted way back in 2006. Pham has a degenerative eye condition known as keratoconus. From Derrick Goold’s excellent May feature on Pham’s eye issues:
Keratoconus causes structural abnormalities in the cornea, warping it and leaving it similar to the shape of a football’s tip. Instead of light bending toward the retina to be processed as an image, the light scatters, splinters. Halos or double images can appear. Pham said he is legally blind in his left eye due to keratoconus.
“It’s like driving a car with someone who is holding a jar of Vaseline,” said Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, a Beverly Hills, California-based surgeon and ophthalmologist, “and then they smear it all over your windshield.”
Pham is in a constant battle to make sure his special contact lenses are fitting properly. As Goold wrote, “One flaw can throw his vision off.” That makes Pham’s breakout one of the best stories of the season. Even then, there’s an element of good luck involved. He was called up because Piscotty landed on the DL and Fowler was battling a sore shoulder. In Pham's first series, he had six hits and three home runs against the Braves. He hit .333 in his first 20 games. If he hadn’t hit right away, who knows what would have happened.
Jose Martinez: He entered spring training as a 28-year-old with 18 career plate appearances in the majors. The Cardinals purchased him in May 2016 from the Royals, and he hit .278 with 11 home runs in Triple-A. Solid, but unspectacular. As a 6-foot-7 outfielder/first baseman not known for his defense, he looked more like Triple-A roster depth than anything.
He revamped his swing -- yes, creating a better launch angle to hit more fly balls and fewer grounders -- and made the roster with a big spring training. Now he’s hitting .314/.379/.546. He’d always made hard contact and didn't strike out much; now he’s learned how to tap into his natural extra-base power. He’s hit .356 in the second half as he continues to get more playing time (playing first base of late, with Matt Carpenter sliding over to third).
Paul DeJong: A fourth-round pick in 2015 out of Illinois State, DeJong had a solid year in Double-A in 2016, hitting .260 with 22 home runs, although the 144 strikeouts were a concern. He played third base, with 11 starts at shortstop sprinkled in, but looked comfortable enough there that the Cardinals sent him to the Arizona Fall League to continue working at shortstop. The Cardinals had Aledmys Diaz, a 2016 All-Star, but Diaz had slowed down in the second half and nobody thought much of his defense. Hey, it couldn’t hurt trying DeJong at shortstop. Still, he wasn’t on prospect radar lists heading into 2017.
The Cardinals couldn’t have dreamed of this: 22 home runs in 93 games. DeJong was called up May 28, originally to play some second base when Kolten Wong landed on the DL. DeJong didn’t get his first start at shortstop until June 24, his 21st game. The job was his a couple of days later. The defensive metrics say he’s played an average shortstop -- plus-2 defensive runs saved -- and the power has held up despite a poor 108/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
This is how you turn things around: two guys who started the year in Triple-A and another guy who began the season as the 25th man on the roster.
Luke Weaver: Even as the Cardinals were scuffling, one key was that the rotation had been healthy (well, other than Alex Reyes blowing out in spring training) until Adam Wainwright landed on the DL in late July and then again in August. Still, the Cardinals have used just eight starting pitchers (and one of those for just one start). They traded Mike Leake in August, in part because Weaver had been called up and quickly established himself as an impact performer. After beating the Reds on Thursday, he’s 6-1 with a 1.89 ERA in seven starts (and three relief appearances).
Weaver is proving to be another astute first-round pick by the Cardinals, taken 27th overall out of Florida State in 2014. The right-hander's slight frame masks a fastball that sits at 92-94 mph, and he throws across his body a bit, creating some deception in the delivery. But with fastball command and a plus changeup and curveball, he’s effective against left-handed batters, who are hitting .171 against him. He doesn’t come with the hype that Reyes had, but it appears that Weaver knows what he’s doing out there.
So the Cardinals are still alive in the playoff race. Can they make it? They still have two games left against the Cubs in this series, and then end the season with a seven-game homestand against the Cubs and Brewers. They entered Friday 4-8 against the Cubs and 7-9 against the Brewers. But these are the Cardinals -- they almost always find a way, and this is starting to feel a lot like 2011. I don’t need to remind Cardinals fans about how that season ended.
Baseball always seems to be in this uphill fight against the critics, against the pace of the game, against performance-enhancing drugs, against its place in the sports landscape. It always manages to escape from those shadows, however, and give us moments of joy and artistry and exhilaration that bring us together as fans, helping us escape, for nine innings and sometimes 10, everything else that is going on.
There was no way the Indians' Jose Ramirez should have had that double there in the 10th inning Thursday night. How did he make it? It was the best double of the season. It required desire and hustle and, most importantly, the simple belief that you're going to get there, the belief that you're going to extend this winning streak to 22 games. He lined a ball in the right-center gap; 99.5 percent of the players in the majors take a wide turn at first base and turn around. With no outs, you don't risk getting thrown out. Ramirez challenged Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain, beat the throw that went a little wide -- Cain seemed a little surprised -- and two batters later Jay Bruce sent the crowd and the Cleveland dugout into a frenzy with the game-winning hit down the right-field line.
— MLB (@MLB) September 15, 2017
You don't think the players wanted this? Oh, they wanted it.
"I didn't think it was going to be a double, and then I saw the center fielder slow down," Ramirez said on the postgame TV interview after the 3-2 victory. If Cain slowed down, it was maybe a half second of slow, but just long enough to let Ramirez make the instinctive decision to keep churning for second base.
"This guy ... he plays the game with his hair on fire," Bruce said of Ramirez. "He's amazing."
It was unlikely the Indians even got to the 10th. They were down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth, trailing the Royals 2-1. With the crowd on its feet, stomping and clapping, and that drum banging and everyone basically acting like it was a playoff game, Kelvin Herrera threw a 2-2, 96-mph fastball to Francisco Lindor, who lined a game-tying double off the wall in left, inches over the glove of a leaping Alex Gordon.
— MLB (@MLB) September 15, 2017
It was the first walk-off win of the streak for the Indians. As amazing as the streak has been, they've been so dominant they actually lacked a signature game, unlike the 2002 A's who had the Scott Hatteberg game and the Miguel Tejada game. Now the Indians have that moment to remember for ages. The question: Is it the Francisco Lindor game or the Jose Ramirez game or the Jay Bruce game?
I guess that's how you win 22 in a row. It's everyone's game.
The Indians have been a model organization for a long time now. Whatever happens in October, they'll always have this record. Fun to see.
— Tyler Kepner (@TylerKepner) September 15, 2017
Wild-card winner of the day. The Cardinals won and the Rockies lost, so that's good for the Cardinals and bad for the Rockies. With the Brewers off, that means the Cardinals and Brewers are 2.5 back of the Rockies, which means a four-way Cubs-Cardinals-Brewers-Rockies tie is still in play.
Anyway, the star in the 5-2 win over the Reds was rookie starter Luke Weaver, who tossed six innings of two-hit baseball, allowing only an unearned run. He's 6-1 with a 1.89 ERA and has won five straight starts, and you wonder if the front office isn't wishing they'd called him up a little sooner. He throws 93 with location, but it's his curveball and changeup that may have made him so successful, giving him two effective off-speed pitches against lefties, who are hitting just .171 against him with a 32 percent strikeout rate.
Weaver was a typical Cardinals draft pick: a college player (Florida State) taken late in the first round (27th overall in 2014). There were 14 pitchers selected ahead of him. Imagine if, say, the Brewers had selected Weaver instead of Hawaii high schooler Kodi Medeiros with the 12th pick. This is how the Cardinals stay competitive without ever drafting high.
Wild-card loser of the night. Sorry, Royals. They fall two games under .500 and are running out of time to catch the Twins.
"[He] recognizes the limited available of time to build back up, so logically this is a spot and he's accepting of the role," manager John Farrell said.
Farrell said the Sox will ease Price into the relief role by giving him advance notice of when he will pitch (he won't be available until at least Sunday). They also prefer to have him start an inning rather than coming in with runners on base, and Farrell said they view Price as a multi-inning reliever.
Can Price play a key role in the Boston pen in the postseason? Obviously, he'll have to prove he's healthy and not rusty these final two weeks. The two lefties in the Boston pen are Fernando Abad and Robby Scott, with Scott serving as true LOOGY (54 appearances, 33.2 innings). The setup guys in front of Craig Kimbrel are Joe Kelly, Addison Reed and Matt Barnes. Even Brandon Workman has been very good in the second half. Basically, it's already a solid pen with depth, so the idea of making him a long man who can go two or three innings certainly makes sense. Of course, if he comes out throwing 95 mph, Farrell is going to be tempted to use him in key situations late in games if he hasn't pitched. It'll be interesting to see how he fits in.
An Aaron Judge home run highlight because we love an Aaron Judge highlight. This was his 42nd home run, and I love how the two outfielders momentarily started to chase after the ball like they might have a chance to catch it:
— MLB (@MLB) September 15, 2017
Then he hit his 43rd, another three-run blast, and it was smoked:
— #Statcast (@statcast) September 15, 2017
Avisail Garcia is hitting .333. That's now second in the majors to Jose Altuve. He went 5-for-5 with seven RBIs in the White Sox's 17-7 victory over the Tigers. I'll admit: After Garcia made the All-Star team, I didn't expect him to keep it up. He was riding a high BABIP in the first half and all the peripheral numbers suggested it was kind of a fluke hot streak.
Instead, he's hit .373/.426/.530 in the second half while riding an even more unlikely BABIP (.441). His season BABIP is now .397, which would be one of the highest ever recorded, so there's some unsustainable hit rates going on here. Still, he's hitting line drives all over the field, even while continuing to have one of the highest chase rates in the majors. It doesn't add up, but the hits are falling.
This looked like one of those games that gets away. The Minnesota Twins led the San Diego Padres 1-0 in the eighth behind six scoreless innings from Ervin Santana, but then Austin Hedges homered in the eighth off funky sidearmer Trevor Hildenberger. The Padres left two runners stranded in the eighth and two in the ninth, Jason Castro nailed a runner trying to steal, Matt Belisle escaped one jam and pitched a 1-2-3 10th inning and then Eddie Rosario swung from the heels on a 2-0 fastball from Phil Maton -- falling backward after the swing -- and made Twins fans happier than a 36-degree day in January:
— MLB (@MLB) September 14, 2017
Despite blowing the save in this game, the Minnesota bullpen has been very good since the beginning of August. It had a 4.83 ERA through the end of July, 28th in the majors. Since Aug. 1, it has a 3.73 ERA, eighth best in the majors. The veteran Belisle has seven saves replacing the traded Brandon Kintzler, but three others have picked up one as well. Hildenberger has been a key weapon in Paul Molitor's no-name group, appearing in 18 of 42 games since Aug. 1 with a 1.86 ERA. The star of Wednesday's game was Rosario, and he has been one of several Twins hitters tearing it up the past six weeks. He has 23 home runs, but 12 of them have come since Aug. 6 -- he's hitting .308 with 33 RBIs in 36 games since that date. Rosario has always had power potential since coming up in 2015, but he was undone by a poor approach that led to sub-.300 OBPs his first two seasons. While he's still not exactly Joey Votto at the plate, he has cut his chase rate by 4 percent from last season while also cutting down his swing-and-miss rate. Against Maton, he laid off two pitches just off the outside corner to get into a favorable hitter's count. With Miguel Sano out since Aug. 20, Molitor has even entrusted Rosario to bat cleanup at times, as on Wednesday. He's a big reason why the Twins lead the majors with 6.07 runs per game since Aug. 1 and why they have a good chance to become the first team ever to make the playoffs after losing 100 games the previous season. In fact, with seven of their final 17 games against the counting-down-to-the-season's-end Detroit Tigers, I'm calling it: The Twins will win that second American League wild card. Will the Cleveland Indians ever lose again? The Indians beat the Tigers 5-3 in an afternoon affair in Cleveland, moving past the 2002 A's with their AL-record 21st consecutive victory. I covered that game and the highlights of their magical run in an earlier post. Up next: Four games at home against the Royals, a team the Indians have already shut out six times this season. The scheduled pitching matchups:
- Thursday: Jake Junis vs. Josh Tomlin
- Friday: Jason Vargas vs. Trevor Bauer
- Saturday: Jason Hammel vs. Carlos Carrasco
- Sunday: Sam Gaviglio vs. Corey Kluber
The Indians are heavily favored in all four of those games:
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) September 14, 2017
The obvious trap game here is Thursday. Now that the Indians have the AL record, I can see manager Terry Francona sitting a couple of regulars. Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana, for example, played 20 of the 21 games. With a 5.13 ERA, Tomlin has been the one weak Indians starter, although he has pitched twice in the streak and given up only three runs. Junis is a rookie but has been solid of late with a 3.26 ERA and a 37-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his past 38 innings (his one bad outing, however, was a relief appearance against Cleveland). Anyway, here's a piece to check out: As good as the Indians have been, FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine reports that they've actually underperformed over the season. Wild-card winner of the night. Besides the Twins, let's go with the Los Angeles Angels, who pounded the Houston Astros to remain two games behind Minnesota. Mike Fiers was the fill-in starter for Lance McCullers Jr., who couldn't go because of arm fatigue, and the Angels jumped on him for five runs in the first. Thank you very much. Wild-card loser of the night. The Texas Rangers had a chance to gain some momentum with a four-game series at home against a Seattle Mariners team with a battered rotation. They won the first game, but the Mariners won 10-3 on Tuesday and 8-1 on Wednesday. Mike Zunino hit two home runs, including this 470-foot blast:
— #Statcast (@statcast) September 14, 2017
So the Mariners have leapfrogged the Rangers, with Mike Leake winning his third game in three starts since coming over from the Cardinals. Their very slim hopes get a possible boost as Felix Hernandez returns Thursday for his first start since July 31 (and he missed all of May as well) and James Paxton returns Friday against the Astros for his first start since Aug. 10. They'll need a winning streak and the Twins to suddenly fall apart, but in the AL wild-card race ... well, I guess you never know what will happen. Max Scherzer was good and then awful. I'll let Eddie Matz take over:
A 2-2 game turned into an 8-2 victory for the Atlanta Braves. It not only hurts Scherzer's Cy Young chances and the Nationals' odds of catching the Dodgers for best record, but it points to a bigger question: Will Washington manager Dusty Baker trust Scherzer to go deep into a game in the postseason? Scherzer had given up runs in the fifth and sixth innings, so there were signs he was tiring a bit. Remember in Game 5 of the NLDS last season, Baker pulled Scherzer after six innings and 99 pitches and watched the bullpen immediately give up four runs to blow a 1-0 lead. Check back in October. For now, here's Matz's take. By the way, the winning pitcher for the Braves was Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara, who earned his first major league win, becoming only the second pitcher from Brazil to win a game (joining André Rienzo). Gohara, just 21, has a chance to be one of the steals of last offseason. The Braves got him from the Mariners for Mallex Smith and Shae Simmons (the Mariners then flipped Smith for Drew Smyly, who got injured soon after pitching in the World Baseball Classic). Gohara always had big upside but still hadn't advanced beyond low Class A. With the Braves, he has jumped all the way from the Class A Florida State League to the majors, cutting down on the walks while striking out 147 in 123T innings. One more Braves note: Jon Heyman reports that the front office is still mulling over whether to bring Brian Snitker back as manager. Ron Washington, a Braves coach, and Bo Porter, who works in the front office, would be candidates to replace Snitker, who is working with a team option for 2018. The Rhys Hoskins Show is still awesome. The Philadelphia Phillies rookie went 2-for-2 with a walk, sac fly and three RBIs in an 8-1 victory over the Marlins. One of those hits gave Hoskins 17 home runs in his first 33 games, with 37 RBIs -- matching two guys named Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams (and Zeke Bonura). He's hitting .310/.434/.784 with 24 walks and 26 strikeouts.
Signs of extraterrestrial life spotted in South Philadelphia. =} pic.twitter.com/46Ss0MqGsS
— Phillies (@Phillies) September 14, 2017
Here's a fun list:
A list where Ryan Schimpf outperforms Aaron Judge and Mike Trout: pic.twitter.com/ctDEe51iI8
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) September 14, 2017
Hoskins' dynamic debut will come under a lot of scrutiny in the offseason: How good is he? Seventeen of his 21 extra-base hits have been home runs, which is an unsustainable ratio. His exit velocity on fly balls hasn't been elite. His average home-run distance isn't anything special (scroll down). That suggests good power more than Aaron Judge/Giancarlo Stanton kind of power. But he seems to have a terrific approach and does a nice job zeroing in on pitches he can drive (he has pulled all 17 of his home runs). It's a fun story and at least gives Phillies fans something to dream on for next season. Hey, how about that second guy on that list there? Hoskins has gotten plenty of attention, but Oakland Athletics rookie first baseman Matt Olson has been bashing in more obscurity. He's hitting .273/.364/.636 with 18 home runs in 154 at-bats. His extra-base ratio is even more extreme: He has only two doubles. Weird. Olson, who homered in a 7-3 victory over the Red Sox on Wednesday, has been even better after getting recalled Aug. 8, after a couple of trials earlier in the season. Since then, he has hit .311 with 14 home runs in 31 games (26 starts). Olson doesn't quite have Hoskins' eye at the plate and he owns a career .249 average in the minors (compared to Hoskins' .287 mark), so even though he's a year younger, I'd give the edge to Hoskins in future value. Still, in what has been a tough season for the A's, they've come up with a couple of potential foundation pieces in Olson and third base defensive whiz Matt Chapman.
When the Oakland A's set the American League record with a 20-game winning streak in 2002, they did so in dramatic fashion. Wins 18, 19 and 20 were all walk-off victories, with No. 20 the famous Scott Hatteberg pinch-hit home run after the A's had blown an 11-0 lead. A's executive Billy Beane recently said he knew the streak was over at that point; the team was gassed.
After the Tigers took the lead in the top of the first, the Indians immediately struck back when Jay Bruce hit a three-run homer with two outs, just clearing the fence in left-center. After the Tigers clawed back to 4-3, Roberto Perez iced the win with a home run in the seventh and Cody Allen closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth. Cleveland tied the 1935 Cubs at 21 straight, with only the 1916 New York Giants looming on the horizon at 26 straight wins.
It's a remarkable, dominant stretch of baseball. The Indians have trailed just four innings in the 21 games, have needed just three one-run victories, and have obliterated their opponents on both sides of the ball with a plus-104 differential -- that's an average winning margin of 4.95 runs per game.
Some highlights from the streak:
MVP during the streak: This is a tough one. Jose Ramirez has hit .388 and slugged .910 thanks to eight home runs and nine doubles and has 16 RBIs. Francisco Lindor has hit .370 with nine home runs and 19 RBIs. Neither has made an error, and Ramirez's ability to slide over from third base to second base with Jason Kipnis out has been vital.
Ramirez went 4-for-4 in a 2-1 win over the Yankees in Game 6 and had five extra-base hits in an 11-1 win over the Tigers in Game 11. Lindor had the go-ahead single in the ninth inning against the Tigers back in Game 8, had the leadoff home run in a 2-0 victory in Game 20, and had home runs in the sixth and seventh innings against the Orioles in Games 17 and 18 that turned one-run leads into two-run leads.
Ramirez had the higher win probability added heading into Wednesday's game, but it seems that Lindor has had a few more big more hits. So I'll say Lindor. Or maybe Ramirez.
Cy Young during the streak: Mike Clevinger hadn't allowed a run in his three previous starts before giving up three on Wednesday. Carlos Carrasco is 3-0 in four starts with a 0.62 ERA, two runs allowed and a 34-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Corey Kluber is 4-0 in four starts with a 1.41 ERA and a shutout in Game 20. Flip a coin, my friends, but I'll go with Kluber, since he's pitched three more innings than Carrasco and that shutout on Tuesday helped save the bullpen for Wednesday's record-setting win.
Unsung hero: The bullpen has been great, but it has been great all season, leading the AL in ERA. How about Ryan Merritt? Remember when he was pressed into service last October against the Blue Jays in the ALCS and delivered a clutch performance? He has made two starts during the streak and allowed just one run in 12 innings.
Biggest overachiever: Perez has played 12 games in the streak and is hitting .378/.439/.811 with four home runs and 13 RBIs. He had two home runs and 22 RBIs in 50 games before the winning streak started.
Best quote: "I went from being in one of the least fun situations in baseball to the most fun." -- Jay Bruce (via @jareddiamond), who was acquired from the Mets on Aug. 9.
— WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW (@Indians) August 27, 2017
Zimmer later suffered a broken hand and will likely miss the rest of the season and postseason.
Best tweet. This one:
1. Present to boss/teacher
2. Run away
3. Get tickets
4. Possibly be part of history
Please, please, please arrive early -- gates @ 11AM. pic.twitter.com/wfmbBR4iEo
— WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW (@Indians) September 13, 2017
Or this one, trolling the A's for an earlier tweet:
— WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW (@Indians) September 13, 2017
Seven of the 10 playoff spots look pretty secure, with only the National League Central and the second wild-card spots in both leagues up for grabs. So, let's take a look at the 10 teams who are currently holding a playoff spot and ask one pitching-related question to consider down the stretch or heading into the postseason.
The rotation is in great shape compared to last season. Miller's return from knee tendinitis -- an injury that has sidelined him for all but 1 1/3 innings since the beginning of August -- is the biggest health question on the staff. Miller threw 30 pitches in a simulated game Monday and manager Terry Francona described the lefty as "raring to go." They'll have to see how the knee responds, but he should return to game action in a low-leverage spot this week, putting him on course to resume his vital bullpen role in the postseason.
Houston Astros: How does the rotation line up?
This is really multiple questions folded into one. First off, who will be the Game 1 starter? Right now, Justin Verlander is following Dallas Keuchel in the rotation, but that seems subject to change given that Verlander has been terrific for a couple of months while Keuchel has a 5.02 ERA since returning from the disabled list in late August.
The other issue is whether All-Star Lance McCullers Jr. will be deemed rotation-worthy ahead of Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton or Collin McHugh (Mike Fiers has already been sent to the bullpen). McCullers has made only one start since returning from his own DL stint, and Peacock (150 strikeouts in 115 innings) has been the big surprise of late with a .651 OPS and 3.01 ERA since mid-June. No matter whom he chooses, manager A.J. Hinch will certainly have a quick hook with his third and fourth starters and rely on bullpen depth.
Price's availability remains uncertain as he just recently faced lived hitters for the first time since July 22, when he went on the DL because of elbow inflammation. He'll pitch another simulated game this week and go from there, but he might not be stretched out in time for the playoffs and could end up in the bullpen. Drew Pomeranz has probably earned the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Chris Sale with a strong season, although Doug Fister has been excellent since Aug. 1 (2.88 ERA over six starts). That probably leaves 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello as the No. 4 starter.
New York Yankees: Who starts the wild-card game?
The American League East title is obviously still in play, but if the Yankees end up in the wild-card game, manager Joe Girardi will have a tough decision: Do you start Luis Severino or Sonny Gray? That's an important call, because whomever doesn't start that game probably lines up to start Games 1 and 5 of the division series.
Severino has been the Yankees' ace all season, but Gray has a 2.74 ERA since coming over from the Oakland Athletics. Has he really been that good though? His FIP is 4.06 with the Yankees, so I think it's clear Severino is still the No. 1 guy. On the other hand, Gray has postseason experience and you could start him in the wild-card game but rely on that deep bullpen, freeing up Severino to start Game 1 of the division series (if you win).
Minnesota Twins: Who starts the wild-card game?
The Twins could be in a battle down to the final day of the season to secure a playoff spot or even have to play a tiebreaker game, so there's no guarantee Paul Molitor will get to line up his rotation exactly how he wants. My guess is veteran Ervin Santana would still get the call over Jose Berrios, even though Santana hasn't been as effective in the second half compared to the first half, when he spun seven scoreless starts. Berrios has flashes of brilliance with his wipeout stuff but still lacks consistency.
OK, Alex Wood's velocity is down and Yu Darvish hasn't been good his past two starts, but the rotation seems set, leaving manager Dave Roberts still mapping out his bullpen, which seems weird for a team that -- horrific slump and all -- still has the best record in the majors.
Oft-injured Brandon Morrow has emerged as the top setup guy, with a 2.37 ERA and no home runs allowed in 38 innings. He also has appeared in back-to-back games only five times all season and gone more than three outs only four times in 39 appearances. It's the rest of the pen that has issues at the moment. Pedro Baez has a 2.64 ERA, but a 4.58 FIP and has been awful of late. Josh Fields has given up 10 home runs in 52 1/3 innings. Luis Avilan can get lefties out but struggles against righties, and trade acquisition Tony Watson has been decent, but not great.
You don't have to have defined bullpen roles heading into the postseason, but it certainly helps. And in the Dodgers' case, none of their starters have been pitching deep into games. And remember that even Clayton Kershaw has a history of bombing out in the postseason in the seventh inning. So the solution might be Morrow in the seventh and some two-inning saves from Jansen.
Washington Nationals: Who is the closer?
Dusty Baker has settled on Sean Doolittle, who is a perfect 17-for-17 in save opportunities since coming over from the A's. Ryan Madson did get the save Sunday, entering with a 3-0 lead, so that seems to have been just a day off for Doolittle. There is one blip in Doolittle's usage, however: On Aug. 24 against the Astros, Doolittle pitched the eighth and Brandon Kintzler came on in the ninth for the save (which he blew). If there are a bunch of lefties due up in the eighth inning -- say Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger -- will Dusty be open to using Doolittle and then Madson or Kintzler for the save?
Chicago Cubs: Who is the Game 1 starter?
Of course, that question assumes the Cubs win the Central, which is no guarantee considering they still have seven games left against the St. Louis Cardinals and three against the Milwaukee Brewers. Jon Lester was the No. 1 guy last year and he has that sterling 2.63 career postseason ERA over 133 2/3 innings. He also hasn't been as good this year, oddly prone to some blow-up starts (a 10-run outing, a nine-run outing and three six-run games). Jake Arrieta, meanwhile, has a 1.98 ERA over his past 10 starts, although he strained a hamstring on Sept. 4 and missed his last start.
The Diamondbacks are pretty set, as they're essentially locked into hosting the wild-card game. Zack Greinke should pitch that game, meaning Ray would start the division series opener if they advance, especially if Arizona faces the Dodgers, a team he dominated in the regular season (2.27 ERA in five starts with 53 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings). If the Diamondbacks are to pull off a surprising run in the postseason, it's probably because Ray (12.3 K's per nine) has a big October.
Based on the current rotation, it's Jon Gray, German Marquez, Chad Bettis and then Tyler Chatwood or Kyle Freeland. That means it would be Gray in the wild-card game and Marquez in the division series opener. That leaves Holland as the big concern down the stretch. Coming off Tommy John surgery, he had a great first half but certainly looked tired in August when he blew three saves and lost a fourth game, giving up 14 runs and four home runs in just 9 1/3 innings. He's been better in September with only one hit (a home run) in six innings. If they do anything in October, they're going to need Holland to get back on track.
To be honest, I thought the game was over on Corey Kluber's ninth pitch. Ian Kinsler had led off with a double and was sacrificed to third. Bunts are usually bad, but this one was somewhat defensible: As good as Kluber has been, the Detroit Tigers' best hope for a win over the Cleveland Indians very well might have been to scrape across a run and then hope for a shutout.
Kluber's ninth pitch was a 3-2 fastball to Miguel Cabrera. It had good movement as it started outside and spun back toward the outside corner. Cabrera took it, but plate umpire Scott Barry rang him up. It was outside, but you don't win 20 games in a row without a few generous calls from the umpires. Cabrera shook his head and mouthed "wow" as he walked to the dugout. Then Nicholas Castellanos struck out, and the Tigers got only two runners as far as second base the rest of the night, both on two-out doubles.
The Indians won 2-0, tying the 2002 A's with a 20-game win streak, the American League record.
— MLB (@MLB) September 13, 2017
The Indians also had a little message for the A's after this one:
— WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW (@Indians) September 13, 2017
The best thing about this game was Kluber coming out for the exclamation point in the ninth inning. He had thrown 102 pitches, and I'm guessing most managers (maybe every manager?) would have gone to the closer there. Cody Allen didn't pitch Monday, though he did pitch Saturday and Sunday; still, Terry Francona trusted Kluber to finish it with an efficient inning.
We hyperventilate these days when a pitcher reaches 100 pitches, but Kluber often gets stronger the deeper he goes. Heading into this game, he had allowed a .460 OPS the third time through the order, and on pitches 101 and beyond, batters had hit just .122 against him.
He did give up a two-out double in the ninth, but then he retired Cabrera on a bouncer to third base on his 113th pitch of the game. After the game, Francona did admit that was going to be Kluber's final batter. So Kluber ends up with his fifth complete game and his third shutout this season, and he improves to 16-4 with a 2.44 ERA, making the Cy Young battle with Chris Sale even tighter.
As always, Kluber didn't look any different than he does when he brushes his teeth in the morning:
Wow, incredible emotion from Corey Kluber here as the Indians clinch their 20th win in a row pic.twitter.com/obWtWB78yj
— Emma Span (@emmaspan) September 13, 2017
The amazing thing about this streak is how few of the games were ever in jeopardy. The Indians have thrown seven shutouts and have needed just three one-run victories. There was one game, however, that made the streak possible. Game No. 8 was the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers on Friday, Sept. 1. The Tigers tied the game 2-2 with a run in the bottom of the eighth, but Jay Bruce hit a pinch-hit triple with one out in the ninth and scored on Francisco Lindor's base hit.
Allen had allowed the game-tying hit in the eighth and came back out for the ninth. He gave up singles to James McCann, Jose Iglesias and, with two outs, Alex Presley. Pinch runner Andrew Romine advanced only to third, however, which brought up Cabrera. Francona replaced Allen with Joe Smith. Here's what happened.
That's one inning that nobody cared much about at the time. If Cabrera's liner is a foot to the left or right, the streak is at zero instead of eight. Isn't baseball wonderful?
Dodgers win! Dodgers win! Here's what kind of roller coaster it has been for Los Angeles Dodgers fans. My editor is a Dodgers fan, and as the Giants loaded the bases in the ninth inning with one out, down 5-3 with Buster Posey coming up, she messaged me, "My best friend just texted me, 'I feel like it’s the World Series.'" This is what baseball does to us.
The Giants loaded the bases against Kenley Jansen with a hard-hit single and two infield tricklers, one off Jansen’s glove and one down the third-base line. This was the biggest moment of a terrible season for the Giants: Posey vs. Jansen. The camera panned to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts in the dugout, and he looked like he was about to undergo a colonoscopy.
As a neutral observer, I was seeing Posey line a three-run double in the gap. Instead, the Dodgers' 11-game nightmare is over. Jansen fanned Posey swinging on a 3-2 fastball. It was up to Nick Hundley, who was 0-for-9 with nine K's in his career against Jansen. Three pitches later, he was 0-for-10 with 10 K's.
The major takeaway from this game: Man, the Giants are horrible. Clayton Kershaw wasn't particularly sharp. Giants left fielder Austin Slater butchered Kershaw's line-drive "double" in the fourth, which led to three more runs after Chase Utley homered to tie the score.
It was 4-2 in the sixth when the Giants loaded the bases with two outs for the pitcher's spot. The pinch hitter? Career third-string catcher Tim Federowicz, owner of a .194 career average. Anyway, we don't have to talk about the losing streak now. But the Dodgers have still lost 16 of 18. (I kid, Dodgers fans, I kid. You still have the best record in the majors.)
Jason Kipnis to center field? Kipnis isn't even off the disabled list from his hamstring injury yet, but he's close and has been taking fly balls in the outfield the past couple of days. With Bradley Zimmer out, possibly through the postseason, Francona said the Indians could try Kipnis in center field, where he played in college.
"If he's comfortable enough to do it, we might play him out there a little bit just to see how he does," Francona said.
There's nothing wrong with trying it. Note that Francona isn't yet saying that Kipnis is going to be his starting center fielder in the playoffs or anything. We all remember that poor center-field defense might have cost the Indians the World Series in Game 7. This is also the team, however, that started Carlos Santana in left field twice against the Cubs when he hadn't played out there all season. So you never know.
The biggest hitch I see is that Kipnis hasn't hit this season (.228/.285/.409), so I don't see a desperate need to get his bat in the lineup. With Jose Ramirez able to handle second and Yandy Diaz at least getting on base while playing third (.378 OBP), Kipnis might be most useful in the postseason as a bench guy.
Wild-card winner of the night. The Minnesota Twins pounded the Padres 16-0, becoming the first team in MLB history to homer in each of the first seven innings (though the 1999 Reds also homered in seven consecutive innings). Jason Castro hit two of the seven home runs, and Brian Dozier clubbed his 30th.
Wild-card loser of the night. Justin Verlander seems to be enjoying pitching for a team headed to the playoffs. In his second start for the Houston Astros, he gave up a leadoff double to Brandon Phillips ... and then no more hits the rest of the way, pitching eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 victory over the Angels (who fell two games behind the Twins). Verlander finished with nine strikeouts and had his second-highest swing-and-miss rate of the season.
It's interesting that Verlander is following Dallas Keuchel in the rotation. Once the playoffs start, you have to think that's going to be reversed. Verlander will be the Game 1 starter in the division series.
One of the biggest surprises of the season has been Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, who went 3-for-4 with his 22nd home run and is hitting .292/.325/.547. He wasn't on the prospect radar before the season, in part because he played third base at Double-A Springfield, where he hit 22 home runs but also hit .260 with 144 strikeouts. The Cardinals tried him at shortstop in the Fall League, and he played well enough to remain there at Triple-A.
The power is legit. The defensive metrics are solid. The red flag is 107 strikeouts and just 14 walks, so he hasn't done a great job controlling the strike zone. On the other hand, while the chase rate is high, at 32 percent, it isn't extreme. Same goes for his strikeout rate. As a young player, the hope is that he can improve in these areas and learn to tap into his power even more.
Colorado Rockies fans: Where has this been all season? Big win for the Rockies as they beat the Diamondbacks for the second straight time. That's six straight for the Rockies on this road trip to L.A. and Phoenix, and remember that they had been stumbling heading into these games. Jon Gray fanned 10, and Carlos Gonzalez slammed two home runs, including this monster shot off David Hernandez:
— MLB (@MLB) September 13, 2017
That's four home runs in five games for CarGo, and suddenly the Rockies are just three games behind the Diamondbacks.
New home for the Oakland A's? The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the A's have chosen a preferred site for a new stadium. Good luck, A's.
Shohei Otani heading to the majors? Yahoo's Jeff Passan tweeted, per multiple Japanese reports, that the Japaense two-way star will be posted this offseason. By leaving Japan before he's 25 (he's 23), Otani will be subject to MLB's new rules on international free agents, which means the maximum contract he can get is $10.1 million -- way below the $150 million-plus he'd get if he waited until he's 25 and limited by the age restrictions.
Otani, who can hit 100 mph, just returned to pitching after battling an ankle injury all season. He has started two games on the mound, though he has batted 185 times and has hit .346/.416/.574. His future in MLB is definitely as a pitcher, but his desire to play both ways could certainly influence where he signs.
As Passan tweeted, "Can't think of a free agency as fascinating as Otani's will be. Think about it: Free agency where money almost literally isn't a factor."