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September 24, 2013

What You Need to Know

Monday in Playoff Implications

by Daniel Rathman

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Defensive Play(s) of the Day
That’s right—we’re starting with the defensive play of the day, and it comes from the bottom of the ninth inning of the Pirates-Cubs game at Wrigley Field. With two away and Nate Schierholtz on first, representing the tying run, Ryan Sweeney singled to right field off of Jason Grilli. That should have put runners at the corners and brought Brian Bogusevic to the plate, but Marlon Byrd booted the ball.

Cubs third base coach David Bell saw the misplay in right-center field and decided to go all in on Schierholtz’s wheels versus Andrew McCutchen’s arm. That gamble, thanks to a fine throw from the center fielder and an outstanding relay by Justin Morneau, proved unwise.

The Monday Takeaway

Schierholtz was gunned down at the plate, and the Pirates emerged with a 2-1 victory. Moments later, the Reds, who began the day knotted with the Bucs atop the National League wild card standings, earned a walkoff victory over the Mets on a 10th-inning double by Shin-Soo Choo. Those wins shaved both Cincinnati’s and Pittsburgh’s magic numbers down to one.

All that separated the Reds and Pirates from a guaranteed playoff berth was a Cardinals win over the Nationals, who hung around as long as they could but were bound to eventually fall short. Not long after the second-place teams in the division drew a half-game closer to the first-place Cards, Mike Matheny’s club restored its two-game lead, eliminated the Nats, and ensured that three teams would represent the Central in October.

The Redbirds's magic number to become division champions for the first time since 2009 stands at four, but we know that 2013 will mark their third straight postseason appearance, a streak that dates back to their World Series championship in 2011. The Pirates and Reds have no such recent résumé.

For the Reds, who outlasted the Cardinals to capture the Central in 2012, Monday’s results locked up a second consecutive postseason berth, which the franchise had not earned since 1975-76. For the Pirates, next month will bring the first taste of playoff baseball since 1992.

Clint Hurdle’s team scored its two runs last night on a pair of solo shots, the first by Neil Walker and the game-winner by Starling Marte. Walker’s blast was his fourth in five games, coming on the heels of a 14-game drought over which he batted just .102/.170/.122.

The Reds’ victory was driven in part by a solid effort from Johnny Cueto, a strong follow-up to his five shutout innings on September 16. Cueto has made three separate trips to the disabled list this year with lat strains, and the most recent one cost him 70 games. Late-season matchups with the Astros and Mets enabled the Reds to ease the right-hander back into action. But with a head-to-head showdown with the Pirates on tap this weekend, and with home-field advantage for the wild-card playoff game on the line, manager Dusty Baker will soon need to render a final decision on Cueto’s role.

Cincinnati, which will play the rest of its regular-season slate at home, hosts the Mets again this evening, with Mike Leake set to duel Jonathon Niese (7:10 p.m. ET). The Pirates get going an hour later in Chicago, where Gerrit Cole will try to sustain his recent strikeout surge while taking on Chris Rusin (8:05 p.m. ET).

Quick Hits from Monday
If you have any friends or coworkers who are Orioles fans, you might want to give them a hug this morning. Yesterday afternoon was about as rough as it gets.

With their hopes of returning to the playoffs fading quickly, the O’s badly needed to win the series finale at Tropicana Field. And with a two-run edge at the end of six, it seemed like they might.

That’s when things went terribly, terribly wrong. Following a fly out by Brian Roberts, Manny Machado hit a cue shot into no-man’s land on the left side of the dirt for an infield single. But Machado’s left knee buckled (warning: not for the squeamish) as he hit the corner of the first-base bag, sending him crumbling to the ground, writhing in pain.

After the 21-year-old was taken away on a stretcher, Buck Showalter sent Alexi Casilla in to pinch-run. Casilla eventually rounded third and headed for home on a base hit by Nick Markakis, only to be thrown out. A fine plate-blocking effort by Jose Molina left Casilla with no angle to touch the dish on his slide, and Molina eventually applied the tag to record the out, earning Ben Zobrist an outfield assist.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, Casilla—who would do his best in the next half-inning to protect the aforementioned two-run lead—wasn’t long for this game, either. With the bases loaded and two out, he made a leaping attempt to snag a looper off the bat of Wil Myers, had the ball in his grasp, and then slammed head-first into Markakis. The collision jarred the ball loose and left Casilla with concussion-like symptoms, the second scary scene at the Trop in a matter of minutes.

To add insult to injury, the Rays tied the game on the play and would complete the four-game sweep a couple of innings later on a walk-off home run by James Loney. With the O’s 2013 season virtually over, all eyes and ears are now on the prognoses for Machado and Casilla. We should learn more about their injuries later today.

***

The Indians took full advantage of their four-game date with the Astros over the weekend, bringing the brooms to Progressive Field to move ahead of the Rangers in the race for the junior circuit’s second wild card spot. The next stop for the Astros: Arlington, Texas, where they ran into a Rangers squad eager to regain lost ground.

No Ranger was as excited to see Bo Porter’s club as Alex Rios, who needed only two-thirds of the contest to hit for the cycle. Rios doubled in two runs in the first, led off the third with an infield single, slugged a solo shot in the fourth, and tripled home a run in the sixth, joining Mike Trout and Brandon Barnes as the only players to notch cycles this year.

He offered more than enough support to Derek Holland, who struck out nine en route to a six-hit shutout, but the other Rangers weren’t willing to let Jordan Lyles and David Martinez off the hook that easily. Lyles wound up with seven runs on his line in three innings, and Martinez, who also worked three, was charged with five more in the 12-0 Texas win.

The blowout brought the Rangers a half-game closer to the Tribe, which was idle on Monday and will carry a one-game advantage into its three-game series with the White Sox. The Astros, meanwhile, secured the first-overall pick in the amateur draft for the third consecutive year.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • After the Indians and Yankees took Monday off, the American League wild card hopefuls are all square at 156 games played and six to go. The Tribe, which swept a four-game weekend series over the Astros and has won nine of 11 and 14 of 19, now welcomes the White Sox to Progressive Field, where the home team is 49-30 this season. Terry Francona is scheduled to hand the ball to Ubaldo Jimenez in the opener, and the right-hander has fanned at least nine without walking a batter in three of his last five starts, bringing his ERA since the All-Star break down to 1.70, tops among junior-circuit starters. Jimenez delivered 8 1/3 innings of one-run ball at U.S. Cellular Field on September 14, and he’ll aim to match that effort while dueling Hector Santiago tonight (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Generally an excellent command-and-control pitcher, Doug Fister didn’t walk more than two batters in any of his first 17 starts this season. But the right-hander’s pinpoint aim has eluded him over the past month and change, and the results haven’t been pretty. In his last 52 1/3 innings, spanning eight starts, Fister has allowed 25 runs on 68 hits and 17 walks while striking out only 37. Combine a pitcher finding barrels with a porous defense, and you’ve got a .382 BABIP, which has bloated the right-hander’s ERA during this stretch to 4.30, even though he has served up only two home runs. With the playoffs around the corner, the Tigers need Fister to get back on track, and he seemed to take a step in that direction by amassing a 10-to-1 K:BB ratio in 7 2/3 innings versus the Mariners his last time out. Still, the 29-year-old was charged with four runs in that start, so there’s room for improvement in this evening’s battle with the Twins (8:10 p.m. ET).

  • The Red Sox have visited the Rockies only once since the 2007 World Series between the clubs, and, as you might expect, that three-game set did not lack for offense. Twenty-four runs were scored in the finale alone, as Dustin Pedroia went 5-for-5 and whacked three home runs. Somehow, the Rockies managed to keep up with the Red Sox’ powerful attack despite notching only one extra-base hit, a double, the entire game. Pedroia should find it more difficult to go yard this time around, with Tyler Chatwood—who has allowed just one homer in 252 plate appearances by righties this season—on the hill in game one of two. He’ll go up against John Lackey, who earned his first complete-game victory since 2009 on September 19 (8:40 p.m. ET).

  • When the Royals and Mariners needed extra innings to decide their contest last night, that game became the 237th this season to head into the 10th and beyond, tying a big-league record set in 2011. With six days left in the regular season, that record will almost certainly be broken—and the number could increase significantly before the week is out. Will no. 238 happen tonight? Tune in to find out.

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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