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September 26, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Nationals (59-99) at Phillies (89-70), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Collin Balester (78 1/3 IP, 5.29 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Joe Blanton (191 2/3, 4.98, 1.41, 109)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 62-96 (631 RS, 805 RA); Philadelphia, 90-69 (779 RS, 670 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: Two straight Philadelphia losses combined with a Mets come-from-behind win last night while the Phillies were idle have returned some pressure to the current possessors of first place in the NL East. Philly's lead is down to one game with three to play. If Philadelphia were to end up tied with New York, and both teams are ahead of Milwaukee, then the Phillies would lose out on a second straight division title, and would consequently have to travel to Wrigley Field to play "Destiny's Team" in the first round. If the Phillies end up tied with the Mets, and both teams are behind Milwaukee-not a very likely scenario at this point-then Citizens Bank Park would play host to a game between the Phils and Mets for the division crown. If all three squads end up tied, the loser of that contest in Philadelphia for the NL East would host Milwaukee for the wild card.

All of this will require at least one loss by Philadelphia to the lowly Nationals, who are trying to avoid joining Seattle in the 100-loss club this season, and avoid the franchise's first 100-loss campaign since 1976. One week ago it looked like the Nationals would be safe from that fate, but six defeats in their past seven games (and 11 in the last 14) have them right up against the century mark and at the butt of every baseball joke, including a particularly witty rejoinder recently from Ralph Nader. If this September series seems familiar, it's because the Phils and Nats played at the Cit in the last three games of 2007, as well. Philadelphia entered that series tied with the Mets, and took two of three, which was enough to win out in the East by one game.

Matchup: Yankees (87-72) at Red Sox (94-65), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Alfredo Aceves (26 IP, 1.38 RA, 1.00 WHIP, 15 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (163 2/3, 3.02, 1.32, 149)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 84-75 (761 RS, 713 RA); Boston, 95-64 (831 RS, 666 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #10; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The schedule-makers likely anticipated that this series would have playoff implications, or at least be contested by two playoff teams, but that is obviously not the case, as the Yankees will close out their disappointing season in always-hostile Fenway, where Red Sox fans are sure to remind them of their exclusion from next month's festivities. At 18-2, Matsuzaka will look to finish up the best season by Won-Loss percentage in Red Sox history tonight, and if he gets a no-decision or a win will become just the seventh pitcher in major league history to qualify for the ERA title while putting up a winning percentage of at least .900. The others are Randy Johnson (18-2) and Greg Maddux (19-2) in 1995, Johnny Allen (15-1) for the 1937 Indians, and three pitchers from the 19th century, one from the Union Association and two from the National Association. The Sox have scored 5.8 runs a game for Dice-K, the best support that any of Boston's starters have received. Matsuzaka has put just about as many runners on base this year as he did last, primarily because he leads the American League with 92 walks allowed, which has led to short outings and not many innings pitched. But he has also been extremely tough to hit-the fewest given up of any ERA title qualifier, 6.8 H/9, nearly half a hit per nine lower than the second-best pitcher, Tim Lincecum (7.3/9). His .209 opponents' batting average is also a good deal better than everyone else's, with Lincecum next at .223.

Bobby Abreu enters this final series sitting on 99 RBI. If he gets one more, it will be his sixth straight season with at least 100. The only other players who have knocked in 100 or more in every year since 2003 are Abreu's teammate Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. It's possible that Abreu could be playing his final games for the Yankees, as he is a free agent after the season, along with Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, and Jason Giambi (assuming the Yankees exercise the $5 million buyout on Giambi's $22 million option; given their likely pursuit of Mark Teixeira in the offseason, Giambi appears to be the Yankee whose days in pinstripes are almost certainly numbered).

Matchup: Marlins (82-76) at Mets (88-71), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chris Volstad (78 1/3 IP, 3.33 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 48 K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (194 2/3 IP, 3.84 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 107 K)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 79-79 (760 RS, 762 RA); New York, 88-71 (794 RS, 705 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #16; New York, #4
Prospectus: The Mets enter their final regular-season series at Shea Stadium in nearly the same position they were in last year: tied for a playoff spot with three games left against the Marlins. In 2007 the Fish came into Shea with 90 losses, but appeared to be especially fired up to play the Mets with a chance to finish off New York's slow bloodletting, and ended up doing just that by taking two out of three. That the squads had no love lost was evidenced by the brawl that broke out in the second game: New York went up 9-0 in the fifth when Lastings Milledge led off with a home run, his second of the game. Milledge had already upset some around the game for what they viewed as his grandstanding after big plays, and the Marlins apparently did not take well to his post-homer celebratory routine with Jose Reyes. Marlins reliever Harvey Garcia threw behind Luis Castillo later that same inning after a Reyes double, which prompted Castillo to walk towards the mound and both benches to clear. Things got testier one batter later, when catcher Miguel Olivo charged off the mound during a pitching change to throw a punch at Reyes, now on third base. (Olivo did not connect, and the fight did not escalate.) "There's no doubt we riled them up, and the fight just added to it," Tom Glavine said in John Feinstein's recently-published book on the 2007 seasons of Glavine and Mike Mussina, Living on the Black. After the Mets finished off a 13-0 win, Hanley Ramirez responded by saying "F*** everybody on the Mets. I'm going to kick their butts."

The next game was the last of the season, the now-infamous affair where Glavine made the worst start of his career, giving up seven runs while getting just one out. Hanley Ramirez began the carnage by walking to lead off the game. "His approach to that at-bat was the kind you see in a big game-he really worked at it. That told me that these guys weren't here just to get it over with and go home. They had come to play," Glavine said in Living on the Black. Although Milledge, Olivo, and Glavine aren't around now, Ramirez and Reyes will both be leading off for their respective clubs, and there's little doubt that the emotions on both sides haven't faded any from last season's white-hot rivalry.

Matchup: Cubs (96-62) at Brewers (88-71), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ryan Dempster (201 2/3 IP, 3.30 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 183 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (172 2/3, 5.68 RA, 1.54 WHIP, 85 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 97-61 (846 RS, 660 RA); Milwaukee, 86-73 (739 RS, 680 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Milwaukee, #9
Prospectus: Last night was perhaps the most exciting of the baseball season: there were three games affecting the tight pennant races in the AL Central and NL East/wild card, all three were tied heading to the ninth inning, and all three were won by the home team in its final at-bat with two outs in walk-off fashion. Milwaukee's winning blow was the most spectacular, as Ryan Braun clobbered a hanging slider from Pirates rookie Jesse Chavez deep into left field for the Milwaukee slugger's first career grand slam. Braun entered the game in a bad slide, with a 595 OPS and a lone home run in 98 September plate appearances. The slam was Braun's 70th career homer, which is more than all but four other players have ever hit in their first two seasons: Joe DiMaggio (75), Ralph Kiner (74), Eddie Mathews (72), and Albert Pujols (71) are the only names ahead of him. Milwaukee, still locked in a tie with New York for the wild card, now closes the regular season with three against its chief divisional rival, and it will be interesting to see how Lou Piniella plays it: go all-out against the Cubs' main enemy by playing every starter, or continue to rest his big guns as he did last night, when Ryan Theriot, Jim Edmonds, and Kosuke Fukudome were the only regulars in the lineup. Catcher Geovany Soto has had the longest rest, sitting for the last three games and five of the last seven, so he will likely be back behind the plate during this series to tune his bat up for the postseason.

The Brewers put it off as long as they could, pushing him back two straight days, but tonight they will have to give the ball to Suppan, who has been their worst starter this year. Suppan has not pitched since last Friday, when he was bombed by Cincinnati, and over his last four starts has given up 20 runs in 16 1/3 innings. Dempster, meanwhile, lowered his ERA below 3.00 with his last outing, a win over St. Louis, and has gone 4-0 in four starts against the Brewers this year, giving up just eight runs in 25 innings. With Carlos Zambrano running into injury-related trouble recently, Ryan Dempster has set himself up as the Cubs' first-game starter for the LDS round.

Matchup: Royals (73-86) at Twins (87-72), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Kyle Davies (107 IP, 4.71 RA, 1.48 WHIP, 63 K) vs. Francisco Liriano (71 2/3 IP, 4.27 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 62 K)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 70-89 (679 RS, 772 RA); Minnesota, 88-71 (820 RS, 732 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Minnesota, #12
Prospectus: The Twins completed their enormously important sweep of the White Sox with an extra-inning win last night, erasing a 6-1 fourth-inning deficit to move a half-game ahead of Chicago and even in the loss column. The Twins won in their classic fashion-they didn't hit a home run, but got three triples, two from Carlos Gomez and one from Denard Span that drove home the tying run off of closer Bobby Jenks in the eighth. Last night's game was so big that Ron Gardenhire asked Joe Nathan to pitch two innings, just the second time all year that the closer has been extended for that many outs. Nathan did not allow a baserunner in the two frames and picked up his first win of the year. The Twins closer is having another fantastic season, his fourth with an ERA below 2.00. There are only two relievers in major league history who have more sub-2.00 ERA, 60-plus inning campaigns: Mariano Rivera, who is wrapping up his eighth such season, and Hoyt Wilhelm, who had six in the pitcher-friendly '60s.

The Twins now get to play Kansas City at home in their final three games, a team they have dominated this season by going 11-4 against them, while Chicago has to play Cleveland, which is playing very good baseball in the second half. Then again, playing Kansas City right now might not be so easy, for the Royals enter the Twin Cities as the hottest team in baseball, having taken 11 of their last 13 games, a span in which they are hitting .322/.382/.512 with a 2.69 RA. Kansas City won both of the last two times Davies took the mound, his best pair of starts this season: eight shutout innings against the Mariners, and then a seven-inning, two-run performance against the White Sox last Saturday. After entering this season with a 6.68 RA and 1.72 WHIP in 287 major league innings, Davies has taken a step forward in his first full season wearing Royals blue. The 24-year-old right-hander has improved chiefly through limiting the home run-he has given up 10, the same amount as he allowed last season in less than half as many innings (50) after coming over to Kansas City from Atlanta.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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