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September 3, 2013

What You Need to Know

Taking Three Teams' Playoff Temperatures

by Daniel Rathman

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The Labor Day Weekend Takeaway
As the Athletics won seven straight games at the tail end of the 2012 regular season to surge past the Rangers and capture the American League West crown, Coco Crisp went 10-for-25 (.400) with four doubles, a homer, and four steals on four attempts. It’s no secret that a team’s offense is more potent, and its win probability higher, when its leadoff man is hot. And as we head into the home stretch of the 2013 campaign, few major-league hitters are swinging the bat better than Crisp.

After sweeping the Rays over the three days preceding the holiday, the A’s entered Monday’s matinee versus the Rangers trailing Texas by one game. There were 26 games left on each team’s docket, six of them head-to-head meetings, and in a year with relatively few playoff berths up for grabs, this horse race was only getting started.

Now, 137 games are in the books, and the A’s and Rangers are tied. Bob Melvin’s squad withstood a formidable test during the last 10 days of August, going 4-3 on a road trip to Baltimore and Detroit and then taking advantage of the scuffling Tampa Bay lineup at home. The Rangers flew in on Sunday night, and whether or not the Bay Bridge closure—which ended last night—was to blame for their malaise, their bats were rendered just as dormant as the Rays’ in the key moments of game one of three at the Coliseum.

Dan Straily worked five innings for the home team, holding the visitors to three hits, one of which was a two-run home run by David Murphy. That was all the damage the Rangers would do to the second-year right-hander—and, in fact, all the damage they would do on the afternoon. Dan Otero stumbled into a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth, but Lance Berkman lined out and Murphy grounded out to second. The Rangers had the tying run on first in the eighth inning, but Ryan Cook struck out Mitch Moreland and Berkman lined out again. Grant Balfour wasn’t sharp in the ninth, but with two on and nobody out, Jurickson Profar grounded out to first, Ian Kinsler flied out to right, and Adrian Beltre grounded out to third to make the A’s 4-2 win official.

The A’s got on the board first in the bottom of the second inning, which Yoenis Cespedes kicked off with a long ball. Alberto Callaspo doubled with one away and crossed the plate on a single by Chris Young, who sprinted all the way to third on an error by Leonys Martin and then was gunned down at the plate after stumbling on his way around the third-base bag. The Rangers pulled even on Murphy’s big fly, but Crisp put the A’s back on top in the very next frame.

Outfielder Michael Choice, fresh up from Triple-A Sacramento and making his big-league debut as the designated hitter, reached on an error by Beltre. Two pitches later, Crisp clanked a meaty fastball off the left-field foul pole, bringing home both Choice and himself. The 335-foot homer was upheld on review.

That one didn’t clear the wall by much, but it counted just the same as the other six home runs that Crisp has slugged in his last 12 games, a power-up that has hiked his total for the season to a career-high 17. That’s quite a feat for a switch-hitting stolen-base wizard who did not exceed eight homers in any season between 2008 and 2011.

Crisp went yard in the last game of the A’s homestand preceding the aforementioned trip, then went 4-for-5 in the first contest at Camden Yards. He hasn’t looked back since. In total, he has collected 17 hits in 48 at-bats (.364) over this 14-game stretch, nine of them for extra bases, while walking three times and striking out only five.

The Athletics can scarcely afford to lose the 33-year-old Crisp for more than a day or two, and even two days on the pine with a bum leg could prove costly with the Rangers in town. With 3.2 WARP to his name despite a two-week stint on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, Crisp has been a critical sparkplug for the A’s, both at the plate and in the outfield, where his range is among the most significant components of Oakland’s league-best defensive efficiency.

“When he goes, our team goes,” Kurt Suzuki, who returned to Oakland in a waiver trade with the Nationals a few days ago, told reporters about Crisp. Look for updates on the center fielder’s status in the hours leading up to game two this evening, in which Martin Perez will duel Bartolo Colon (10:05 p.m. ET).

Quick Hits from the Weekend
Despite losing the first two games of their penultimate showdown of the season with the Pirates, the Cardinals escaped with a share of first place, thanks largely to the continued excellence of fifth starter Joe Kelly. (St. Louis is now a game back, after losing to Cincinnati 7-2 while Pittsburgh topped Milwaukee 5-2 on Monday.)

Adam Wainwright imploded on August 28, getting shelled for nine runs in just two innings of a date with the Reds, and fared only a bit better yesterday, when Dusty Baker’s lineup plated six runs in as many innings. Lance Lynn, tasked with equalizing the series with the Pirates on Saturday, coughed up seven runs on 10 hits in only four innings on the bump. Shelby Miller, who worked the opener, recorded only one more out than Lynn did, and he put the Cardinals in a five-run hole that left them helpless versus Francisco Liriano.

As St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Bernie Miklasz pointed out on Sunday, between July 6—when manager Mike Matheny added Kelly to his rotation—and September 1, the Cardinals’ other starters posted an aggregate 4.76 ERA. Wainwright brought that figure closer to 5.00 yesterday. And throughout those two months, Kelly has been far and away the most reliable member of a rotation in which he failed to earn a spot out of spring training.

The 25-year-old right-hander has allowed more than two runs only once in his last nine starts and only twice in the two months he has spent in the starting five. And in the 10 games in which he has toed the rubber, the Cardinals are 9-1.

Kelly lacks the electric arsenal possessed by teammates such as Miller or top prospect Carlos Martinez, but he throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground, two handy traits for a back-of-the-rotation starter. Kris Johnson, who got the ball from Clint Hurdle in Sunday’s finale, needed 54 pitches to get out of the second inning. If the Redbirds hold off the Pirates for the National League Central crown, it will be partly because Wainwright and company righted their ships, but depth is likely to be the deciding factor. And the success enjoyed by Kelly, a swingman who ranked 16th in St. Louis’ farm system entering the 2012 season, epitomizes it.

***

Losing three straight to the Braves and then two more to the Tigers before winning on Sunday to avert a second straight sweep sent the Indians’ murky playoff chances into a tailspin. In the seven days before Labor Day, they plummeted 22 percentage points to less than 1-in-6. On Monday, they fell some more.

The Tribe suffered two setbacks yesterday afternoon—a 7-2 defeat at the hands of the Orioles, one of the other teams in the American League wild card hunt, and the possible loss of Justin Masterson, Cleveland’s most consistent starter, who left in the second inning with what was later termed “rib soreness.” Preston Guilmet and Nick Hagadone imploded in long relief, permitting two runs each, and Bud Norris kept the Indians off the scoreboard until the seventh, when Jason Kipnis launched a solo home run.

Terry Francona’s team now trails the Yankees by a game, the Orioles by a game and a half, and the Rays—who currently hold the second junior-circuit wild card berth—by 3 ½ games with 25 left to play. If there is any hope for the Indians, it rests on the fact that, once this series with the Orioles is finished, they will face only one more over-.500 opponent, the third-place Royals, six times. Cleveland has plenty of encounters left with the American League Central bottomfeeders—six against the White Sox and four against the Twins—and the Tribe will host the Mets for three and the Astros for four later this month. Francona dismissed the idea of a “cupcake” schedule, but it certainly beats the alternative.

However, with so many teams to surpass and a new hurdle to clear, the climb may prove too daunting. Masterson brought a 3.07 ERA over his past 11 starts into Monday’s outing in Baltimore, and if “rib soreness” turns out to be an oblique strain that sidelines him for more than a start, he’ll be missed by a rotation whose aggregate ERA stands at 4.10. Corey Kluber, out since August 6 with a strained middle finger on his pitching hand, is on the mend, but the Indians are likely to need both of them to enjoy the cupcake over the next four weeks.

General manager Chris Antonetti revived the Indians by bringing in a new skipper, Francona, and a new leadoff man, Michael Bourn, and the fans at Progressive Field were treated to the resurgence of Scott Kazmir and the surprising emergence of Kluber. The Tribe, a 68-win team in 2012, is clearly trending in the right direction. But unless all the stars align between now and September 29, its return to the postseason will have to wait at least another year.

Defensive Play(s) of the Weekend
Two fine plays from National League West rivals, complete with outstanding calls from two of the game’s best broadcasters:

Duane Kuiper: “This is gonna be a tough play… Sandovaaaaaaaaaaaaal… daaayahbool GOT HIM!”

Vin Scully, more eloquently: “Oh, to be 22 and a Dodger…”

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • If both pitchers are on their best behavior, game two of three between the White Sox and Yankees could produce a terrific duel in the Bronx. But in order for that to happen, Hiroki Kuroda must bounce back from a rare series of rough outings over which he has allowed a whopping 29 hits, five of them home runs, in 16 2/3 innings. The 38-year-old’s ERA has shot up from 2.33 to 2.89, and while he is still throwing strikes—he hasn’t walked more than one batter in an outing since July 12—too many of those strikes are finding barrels. Opposing Kuroda is Chris Sale, who was rocked by the Rangers for eight runs in seven innings on August 23 but resembled his usual self while fanning 12 Astros in eight innings of one-run ball on August 28. Tune in to see if both bring their “A”-game to the mound tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Only two Indians pitchers since 1970 have struck out at least 10 batters in three consecutive starts. Those two are Chuck Finley and CC Sabathia, who became the first to do so since Sam McDowell did it on five separate occasions between 1968 and 1970. This afternoon, Ubaldo Jimenez will have an opportunity to join that club. The 29-year-old right-hander suffered losses against the Twins and Braves in his two most recent starts, but he fanned exactly 10 in each of them. Next up: a date with the Orioles, whose team strikeout total of 927 is the fifth-lowest in the league. Jimenez fanned six O’s hitters in 5 1/3 innings on June 24, and he’ll need to work more efficiently to beat that total in the middle match at Progressive Field (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Barring something inconceivable, the Pirates’ march toward their first winning season since 1992 will be completed in the coming days. Whether it takes two days, a week, or longer, the outcome is a matter of when, not if. Tonight, Gerrit Cole, the team’s top prospect coming into the year and possible future ace, could deliver victory no. 81, the symbolic first step in the upstart Bucs’ plan to contend for a pennant. Standing in Cole’s way are the Brewers, a club that dealt him his seventh loss of the season last week, when the right-hander permitted 10 hits for the second consecutive start. Cole is set to square off with Yovani Gallardo, who fired seven shutout innings in that 4-0 Brewers victory on August 29, shaving his ERA down to 4.39, its lowest point since June 26 (8:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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