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September 25, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (96-62) at Tigers (71-86), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (147 1/3 IP, 3.48 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 158 K) vs. Armando Galarraga (171, 4.05, 1.19, 121)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 90-68 (754 RS, 647 RA); Detroit, 76-81 (795 RS, 829 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Detroit, #17
Prospectus: On the heels of securing their first playoff berth earlier in the week, Tampa Bay can clinch the AL East tonight for the first time in franchise history. It is fitting that Scott Kazmir, the longest-tenured starter in the organization, would take the mound on the night that they can take home the title. Kazmir will face off against the Tigers who, PECOTA darlings from the start, failed to live up to their expectations after acquiring the services of slugger Miguel Cabrera, hurler Dontrelle Willis, and shortstop Edgar Renteria, and they will finish the season with a losing record, and potentially in last place. This shouldn't be shocking to anyone who was paying attention early on-their supposed greatness was built up on the basis of their scoring 1,000 runs in a season, a number used solely for its round and impressive nature, often employed by analysts who are overly giddy about a team with an improved offense. Their rotation had little depth, they had pitchers with injury and age risks, and their bullpen was and is a black hole of production, somehow getting worse as the year dragged on.

If the Rays are to win the division, they will face off against whichever team comes out of the Minnesota/Chicago scrape on top. They outrank both clubs on Hit List, and even with their actual record ahead of their expected record by a substantial bit, are ahead of both the Twins and White Sox in that regard as well. They have the whole weekend to take the division against one of the AL's weaker clubs, and seeing as their magic number sits at one, it would take quite the showing from Detroit to keep that dream from being realized. A win tonight keeps the drive to 100 wins on the season going as well, in what has shaped up to be a memorable year of firsts for the Rays organization.

Matchup: White Sox (86-71) at Twins (86-72), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Gavin Floyd (194 2/3 IP, 4.67 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 133 K) vs. Kevin Slowey (156 2/3, 3.91, 1.14, 120)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 86-71 (777 RS, 696 RA); Minnesota, 87-71 (813 RS, 726 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Minnesota, #12
Prospectus: This is the one race left in the American League with some drama attached to it-as much as Rays fans may want the division title, calling their race to remain ahead of the Red Sox dramatic is overdoing it, seeing as they already have a seat in October reserved for them. This is also the final game between these two on the schedule, and with the White Sox losing the first two games of the series, they have seen their lead cut to just a half-game. Things won't get any easier for the Sox this weekend, as they'll face off against the Indians for a three-game set; during the first half, that was the stuff that cakewalks were made of, but with the Tribe posting a 38-26 record (and plus-36 run differential) since the All-Star break to get their record back to .500 just in time to try for a winning season, the White Sox may have their work cut out for them.

As far as tonight's game goes though, the implications are huge for Minnesota's own chances. Their playoff odds sit at 38.4 percent against the White Sox 61.6; with the wild card coming out of the AL East, it's win or miss October for both of these clubs. If they were to lose tonight, giving the Pale Hose a 1-game lead in the Central, their weekend against the Royals would become that much more difficult. After all, the Twins are one back in the loss column to the White Sox, and Chicago may have to play a makeup game against the Tigers that could factor into the division race; if the Twins were to lose tonight, that would make the White Sox's job easier, while a Twin win would not only put Chicago behind, it would mean we would get a chance to see some Monday regular-season baseball with playoff implications. The teams have been evenly matched all year, with the White Sox winning eight and the Twins taking nine of the 17, with Minnesota winning the last three, and five of six during the second half of the season. Look no further than Chicago's inability to sustain their first-half success against their rivals for the reason they are in this position tonight.

Matchup: Cubs (96-61) at Mets (87-71), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Rich Harden (142 IP, 2.22 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 177 K) vs. Pedro Martinez (103, 5.68, 1.55, 78)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 95-61 (831 RS, 647 RA); New York, 87-70 (781 RS, 690 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; New York, #4
Prospectus: The Mets are still in the playoff mix, as they share the wild-card lead with the Milwaukee Brewers, but their shot at the NL East title continues to dwindle; they have gone 4-6 over their last 10 games while the Phillies have gone 7-3 to open up a 1-game lead. Last night's loss to the Cubs did not help matters any, as the team saw a 17.6 percent drop in their playoff odds, reversing any positive work they had done in the six days prior and giving them a negative 8.1 percent swing over the last seven days. Things won't get any easier for the Mets tonight. Pedro Martinez has not exactly been a beacon of hope for New York this year or recently, allowing 5.1 R/9 and 1.5 HR/9 over his last 10 starts, but he takes the mound against Rich Harden, arguably the best pitcher in baseball when he's healthy.

At this juncture, with just a handful of games to play, there are still a lot of things that are mathematically possible. The Mets have a 15 percent chance of wresting the division away from the Phillies, and 39.6 percent chance of winding up in the wild-card slot. Overall, that gives them a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs, but given they are not the favorite for either, their chances aren't that impressive. Every remaining game is a must-win match for the Mets, but with the Brewers taking on the lowly Pirates at the same time they are stuck facing the most dominant force in the National League, things look even more dire. If the Brewers were able to swing their chances of making the playoffs up 18 percent because of last night's win coupled with a New York loss, the Mets can do the same; they are just running out of time to hope that happens.

Matchup: Pirates (65-93) at Brewers (87-71), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Zach Duke (178 IP, 5.56 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 85 K) vs. Yovani Gallardo (20, 1.80, 1.25, 13)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 65-93 (720 RS, 872 RA); Milwaukee, 85-73 (734 RS, 679 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #30; Milwaukee, #9
Prospectus: The Brewers woke up this morning tied for the wild-card lead, and tonight they will do their best to keep their share by sending Yovani Gallardo back to the mound for the first time since May 1, when he tore his ACL. Gallardo has not made any official rehabilitation starts, as his last minor league appearance came prior to his first one with the Brewers this year when he was working back from off-season surgery. Instead, Gallardo has pitched in simulated games. Before Gallardo went down, he managed to throw just 20 innings, with 13 strikeouts, six walks, and a pair of home runs allowed, and after missing almost the entire season, making any kind of judgment call as to how we can expect him to be seems silly; the Brewers just hope he's good enough for 50 pitches atop a "bullpen game" that they stay alive in the playoff race.

Gallardo has lucked out as far as his opponent goes, as the Pirates have a league-average offense (.257 EqA), but that's a bit misleading, as that season total includes the time that Jason Bay and Xaxier Nady were Bucs; since August 1 and dealing the two starting corner outfielders, the Pirates have hit .246/.305/.366, well below the production they were capable of before. They have kindly rolled over for other Milwaukee pitchers during this time period as well, as they have hit a paltry .227/.287/.337 while striking out 51 times-the most against any opponent since the trade deadline-in their recent matchups.

Matchup: Padres (61-97) at Dodgers (83-75), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jake Peavy (168 2/3 IP, 2.88 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 163 K) vs. Greg Maddux (188, 4.98, 1.23, 96)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 67-90 (619 RS, 733 RA); Los Angeles, 84-73 (675 RS, 627 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #27; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: Los Angeles has whittled their magic number to one game; the one thing that could keep them out of the playoffs is if they manage to lose their remaining games while the Diamondbacks win all of theirs, and then the boys in blue would have to botch a one-game playoff to determine the NL West leader. At worst, they have a share of the division, which they secured in last night's contest, and their chances of missing the playoffs round up to less than one-tenth of a percent, meaning we more than likely won't be seeing any champagne bottles popping in the Arizona clubhouse during 2008. This is the Padres' last chance at playing spoiler, with a three-game set against the Pirates their remaining series on the schedule. They lost the previous two games against Los Angeles, but tonight's game may be a stumbling block for the Dodgers, as Maddux is set to face his former teammates and one of the National League's best in Peavy.

While it is unsurprising that Peavy is one of the best pitchers in the NL this year, coming in at ninth in the league in SNLVAR heading into tonight's contest, he's been especially exceptional against the Dodgers this year: he's pitched against them three times, throwing 21 innings, and come away a winner in all three matchups, striking out 16, and walking just three while giving up one homer and just four runs. Considering how much of a train wreck the Padres have been this year, and given that they have nothing left to play for outside of the chance to avoid their sixth 100-loss campaign in franchise history-and the first since 1993-there's no reason not to root for another bout of brilliance from the San Diego right-hander.

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