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September 23, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Weekend's Playoff Developments

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
It’s not easy to sweep a four-game series, even against the 2013 Astros. The A’s, Angels, Blue Jays, Rays, Rockies, and White Sox all tried to do that, and all of them came up with three wins or fewer. The Indians, though, would not be denied.

Terry Francona’s club smelled blood with the Astros coming to town and the second wild card spot within reach. And they did what contenders are supposed to do in September: they took care of business, holding the visitors to two runs on Sunday and one run in each of the first three.

Thursday’s opener was an 11-inning affair in which Matt Carson delivered the winning knock long after Ubaldo Jimenez—who turned in another stellar effort, tossing seven innings of one-run ball while fanning nine and walking none—was done. The Indians stranded 11 and Nick Swisher managed to go 4-for-4 while scoring only once and driving in zero of his teammates, but the Tribe came out on top.

Game two lasted only seven innings before the skies opened up and the umpires, faced with a bleak Doppler radar projection, decided to call it a night. Again, the Indians went just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left seven on base, but Zach McAllister, Marc Rzepczynski, and Bryan Shaw ensured that the two runs Cleveland did plate would be sufficient. The winning tally crossed the dish when the Astros decided it might be fun to see how many errors they could make in one play

Michael Brantley slugged the Indians’ first homer of the series in the opening frame of game three, a three-spot for the home team that Scott Kazmir protected for seven innings. The left-hander struck out 10 Astros before giving way to Cody Allen and Joe Smith. And on Sunday, the offense really came alive, chucking up a pair of crooked numbers, a three and a four, en route to nine total runs in support of Corey Kluber.

Add it all up, and you’ve got the Tribe’s sixth four-game sweep of the year. Cleveland is the first club to accomplish that feat since the 1961 Yankees, who, with the help of Roger Maris’ 61 homers, won 109 games and the World Series. It’s too soon for Terry Francona’s bunch to think quite that big, even though it would be in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 if the season had ended yesterday.

The Indians, who vaulted into second in the wild card standings with Friday’s win and the Rangers’ concurrent defeat, now enjoy a 1 ½ game lead over Texas (one in the loss column). The Royals trail by 3 ½ games, the Yankees by four, and the Orioles by 4 ½.

Quick Hits from the Weekend
The identities of the five National League playoff teams have been evident for a while now. All that’s left to be sorted out are the details.

Home-field advantage currently belongs to the Braves, who at 92-63 are a game ahead of the Cardinals and two up on the Dodgers. It’s an asset that Fredi Gonzalez’s club would cherish, considering that the Braves are 52-22 at Turner Field and 40-41 elsewhere. And the good news for Atlanta is that all of its remaining regular-season contests will be played at home.

That’s also true of the Reds, whose last road trip of the season ended in Pittsburgh with a showdown of the two teams likely to do battle in the wild card playoff game barring a poor final week by the Cardinals. The Pirates, who came into the three-game set 49-29 at PNC Park, won’t return to Pittsburgh until the playoffs begin.

Clint Hurdle’s team enjoyed a one-game lead over the Reds in the fight to host the one-game showdown as of Friday afternoon. But that edge evaporated when the visitors took two of three, a result that was difficult to fathom when Jose Tabata and Neil Walker kicked off game one with back-to-back home runs.

Francisco Liriano outdueled Mat Latos in the opener, chipping in eight innings of three-hit, two-run work while the Reds righty allowed four runs in six frames. That left a three-run advantage in the hands of Mark Melancon. The Pirates had not dropped a game in which they were up by at least three heading into the ninth inning since 2009, a streak of 163 victories.

Melancon struck out Joey Votto, and the PNC Park crowd went wild. Ryan Ludwick singled, but Jay Bruce grounded out, and with that, the crowd was on its feet. Todd Frazier bounced the first pitch of his at-bat to short, and the crowd was ready to erupt. But Jordy Mercer flung the throw up the line and into the stands, allowing Ludwick to score. Then Zack Cozart singled, and Billy Hamilton, who entered as a pinch-runner, stole second. Devin Mesoraco hit a sharp grounder to the left of Pedro Alvarez, who deflected the ball into shallow left field—away from Mercer, who was ranging into the hole—allowing Frazier and Hamilton to cross the plate and tie the game.

The lead was gone, but the game wasn’t over. The Pirates went down in order in the ninth, but extra innings were on tap.

Two batters later, Votto launched a line-drive homer into the left-field stands. And the Bucs could not counter against Aroldis Chapman in the bottom half of the frame.

The Pirates bounced back behind a 12-strikeout showing from A.J. Burnett in the middle match. Burnett went seven, and Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, and Jason Grilli never put the lead in doubt. But the finale wasn’t in doubt for long for a different reason: Jeff Locke was done early, and Jeanmar Gomez could not stop the bleeding.

Locke’s recent numbers are staggering. He’s packing the box score in all the wrong ways. In 29 1/3 innings since August 17, Locke has allowed 29 runs (28 earned) on 41 hits and 19 walks. That’s quite a fall for an All-Star whose 2.15 pre-break ERA now appears to have been driven entirely by his opponents’ .215 BABIP.

The Pirates are just 2-6 behind Locke since August 11, and the good news is that a scheduled off day on Thursday will enable to them to cut their losses. They’ll see the Reds again next weekend in Cincinnati, where the site of the wild card playoff will be decided.

***

When the Royals last hit a walk-off grand slam in extra innings, the batter was Rey Palacios, the pitcher was Jeff Reardon, the date was May 14, 1990, and Kansas City’s record was 11-20. Justin Maxwell’s bomb off of former Royals closer Joakim Soria on Sunday afternoon carried just a wee bit more weight.

The Royals and Rangers battled to a scoreless draw in the first nine innings of Sunday’s rubber match. Alexi Ogando contributed seven goose eggs, James Shields logged eight, and the bullpens did the rest. Tim Collins kept up the home team’s end of the bargain in the top of the 10th, but Neal Cotts and Soria unraveled for Texas. Cotts, who finished off the ninth, surrendered a leadoff double to Eric Hosmer before giving way to Soria.

Ron Washington opted to let Soria, not Cotts, issue an intentional walk to Billy Butler, after which Salvador Perez loaded the bases with an infield single. Mike Moustakas popped out and George Kottaras grounded into a force play at the plate, so the Rangers were within an out of slithering away unscathed. Maxwell wouldn’t have that.

Thus, the Royals kept pace with the Indians in style. And as a byproduct, the Athletics’ second straight West division title was clinched by a grand slam more than 1,500 miles away, in the city they called home from 1955-1968.

***

Justin Smoak has been much better at the plate this year than he was a year ago, hiking his TAv from .236 to .284, but virtually all of the switch-hitter’s damage had been coming from the left side. In fact, right-handed pitchers were responsible for all 17 of Smoak’s long balls and 13 of his 19 doubles. His triple-slash line versus lefties: .190/.268/.234.

Finally, with the regular season winding down and little time left to do something about the zero in his splits, Smoak got the monkey off his back. That blast, just inside the left-field foul pole on a golf-style swing, was Smoak’s first off of a lefty since September 26, 2012, when he launched this even more impressive bomb to left-center.

If you watched both of those replays, you probably noticed something: the same pitcher was on the mound for both of them—C.J. Wilson. And taking Wilson deep is no easy feat. The 32-year-old entered yesterday’s outing having allowed only 86 homers in 1,108 1/3 big-league innings. Smoak made that 87 in 1,116 2/3, and his shot was the difference in the Mariners’ 3-2 win.

What’s interesting, though, is that Smoak had no trouble taking lefties yard in 2012. In fact, five of his last seven big flies prior to the one off of Wilson on September 26 had also come at the expense of southpaws, including one versus Scott Downs the previous day.

The M’s will hope that Smoak’s first of 2013 is a sign of things to come in 2014. In the meantime, they’ll savor their only victory of the weekend at Angel Stadium—one in which their ace did something that no pitcher had ever done before. Fresh off a three-week stint on the shelf with an oblique strain, Felix Hernandez needed 92 pitches to finish four innings, over which he permitted only one hit, walked four, and fanned 10. When Eric Wedge called for Oliver Perez to relieve Hernandez, he made the righty the first major-league starter ever to strike out 10 batters without recording a fifth-inning out. Perez went on to whiff the Angels side, so the Mariners—who struck out 15 on the day—had 13 at the end of the fifth.

Defensive Play(s) of the Weekend
A couple of Ryans get the honors this weekend…

No pain, no gain, right? Mr. Sweeney agrees:

Mr. Zimmerman might have 21 errors, but there aren’t many other third basemen who could pull this one off:

What to Watch for on Monday

  • It’s Rays 3, Orioles 0 in the four-game series at Tropicana Field, and that’s bad news for Buck Showalter’s squad, which has tumbled to the back of the pack of American League wild card hopefuls. Baltimore is now 4 ½ games behind Cleveland, which holds the second spot, and the O’s have dropped four in a row while scoring only one run in three of them. With run support proving hard to come by, Wei-Yin Chen will need to be at his best on Monday if the Orioles are to keep pressure on the teams ahead of them. The 28-year-old southpaw worked seven innings of two-run ball versus the Rays on August 21, but he allowed a season-high 11 hits in his most recent start, a no-decision versus the Red Sox on Wednesday (3:10 p.m. ET).
  • As the regular season winds down, playoff berths aren’t the only things up for grabs—there are awards to be won and statistical titles to be earned. The junior circuit batting title is just about signed, sealed, and delivered to Miguel Cabrera, who is light-years ahead of Mike Trout (.349 to .326), but the National League race could come down to the wire, with Michael Cuddyer (.334) a few decimal points up on Chris Johnson (.329). Cuddyer, who spent a few days on the bench with a forearm contusion, went 3-for-5 in yesterday’s loss to the Diamondbacks, and he’ll stay there through Monday, because the Rockies are idle. That gives Johnson a chance to gain (or lose) ground. The Braves’ third baseman will take his hacks against Brewers righty Marco Estrada; he grounded into a double play the only previous time they squared off (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Who was the last major-league pitcher to finish a season with at least eight wins, zero losses, and an ERA below 1.50? The answer: nobody—not since 1901, anyway. But Tanner Roark, with seven victories and a 1.08 ERA to his name and two more starts on his docket, has a chance to do it with a strong final week and a little help from his Nationals teammates. At the moment, the rookie is tied in the wins department with Tim Burke of the 1987 Expos, who went 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA over 55 relief appearances but did not make a start. Roark’s date with the Cardinals this evening will be his fourth start following nine bullpen outings, and it might be his most challenging. On the other side: Adam Wainwright and a Cardinals club that is 48-27 at Busch Stadium this year (8:15 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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