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September 28, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
A Night in the Life of Team Entropy
Welcome to Team Entropy! Grab a seat on the couch, and here, have a beer. You've been invited to this party because after almost exactly six months and 160 games of regular-season baseball, you've suspended the need to root for a specific team and are working for the greater good, more interested in maximizing the amount of end-of-season chaos the remaining schedule can produce. The amount of season, even, if it comes to a 163rd game—or two.
A few weeks ago, it didn't look like this party was going to happen, though even when I shoveled dirt on the playoff races, there was roughly a 1-in-6 chance that one of the eight teams positioned for the postseason would drop an axle before reaching the finish line. What's even more amazing is that the teams that have crashed the party weren't the ones with the best odds at the point when I dug those all-too-shallow graves. The Cardinals had a 2.1 percent chance of reaching the playoffs on September 7, the Rays just 0.1 percent, with the Angels (9.8 percent), Giants (4.2 percent), and even the White Sox (0.7 percent) rating as more likely to rise from the dead.
Since then, the Cardinals came into Tuesday night having gone 12-5 while the Braves had gone 7-11, largely due to starting pitching. St. Louis' rotation had delivered 11 quality starts out of 17 with a 2.71 ERA thanks to a remarkable 0.34 HR/9 rate straight out of Dave Duncan's fantasies; until Jaime Garcia served up a homer to Matt Downs on Monday night, the last Cardinal starter to do so was Chris Carpenter back on September 13, 12 games prior. Meanwhile, the Braves' rotation had pitched to a 4.58 ERA with just two quality starts out of 18, in part a product of regularly using three rookies—Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, and Randall Delgado—with innings and/or pitch count concerns, plus a spot start from Julio Teheran. It hasn't helped that Derek Lowe has worn a 7.98 ERA thanks to a scorching .423 BABIP. In all, Fredi Gonzalez's quick-hook strategy has backfired by taxing a tired bullpen, with Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters both coughing up late leads twice.
Monday night, though, it was the Cardinals' late-game failures that prevented the two teams from being tied with two games remaining. With the Braves having lost to the Phillies, the Cardinals headed into the eighth inning trailing lowly 104-loss Houston 4-2. They quickly plated two runs thanks to an Albert Pujols single, a Matt Holliday walk, and a Lance Berkman double, and they were poised for more when Yadier Moliona walked against Enerio Del Rosario, the third Astros pitcher of the inning. Tony La Russa replaced Berkman with pinch-runner Adron Chambers and then, still with nobody out, had Ryan Theroit sacrifice both into scoring position. Skipping the obvious sermon about giving up outs when you've got a team on the ropes, let's just say the strategy failed. Jon Jay popped out, and then Nick Punto did the Nick Punto-est thing ever, grounding to first baseman Carlos Lee and failing to beat out a close play because he slid headfirst instead of running through the bag. Chambers, a 24-year-old with six prior major-league plate appearances, would come to bat in the top of the 10th and line out to lead off an inning that would see the Cardinals squander a Molina double via a force out and then a Theriot caught stealing. In the bottom of the inning, Brian Bogusevic doubled against reliever Octavio Dotel, who then misplayed consecutive bunts, the first scored as an error, the second as a single that brought home the winning run.
As all of that was going on, the AL wild-card race was both complicated and simplified. The Red Sox continued their slide by losing for the 14th time in 18 games. Facing the Orioles, Josh Beckett coughed up early one-run leads twice, then surrendered four runs in the sixth inning via an RBI double by Chris Davis and a three-run inside-the-park homer by Robert Andino. In perhaps the most Masshole-ish moment of the entire season, CSN New England's Steve Buckley and Lou Merloni blamed Jacoby Ellsbury, who's having an MVP-caliber season, for failing to hold onto the ball as he collided with a wall, not once questioning what Beckett's meatball was doing 400-some feet away from the plate against a guy who came in slugging .342. The Sox brought the tying run to the plate with one out in both the eighth and ninth innings, but Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson limited the damage to a combined one run. Meanwhile, the Rays overcame an early 2-0 deficit against a split-squad Yankees lineup that started Hector Noesi and shuffled through five other pitchers, the majority of whom won't likely wind up on the playoff roster. Out west, the Angels gave up the ghost with a 4-3 loss to the Rangers, foiling any hopes of a three-way cluster**** that would have required two games to settle.
Tampa Bay's win marked the first time since May 23 that the Rays were higher than third place in the AL East. More importantly, it guaranteed meaningful baseball on the final day of the season, since regardless of Tuesday's outcome, the two teams would be separated by a maximum of one game. With that setup, and accompanied by 1) a 42-inch TV hooked up to an Apple TV with MLB.tv; 2) a 21-inch TV in the bedroom running the Yankees-Rays game via TiVo; 3) an iPhone with the MLB At-Bat app; and 4) a laptop for checking scores and assembling piece, the night's action began.
7:13 p.m.: The Phillies strike the first blow of the night for Team Entropy, a one-out solo homer by Chase Utley off Lowe, who for all of his other woes has yielded just 0.6 homers per nine. It's been a dismal month for Utley, who came in hitting .173/.262/.280 for September and just .254/.339/.415 for the season, his worst since 2004.
7:21 p.m.: The Orioles draw first blood against the Red Sox and Erik Bedard, as Vladimir Guerrero pounds a two-out RBI double to plate Nick Markakis, who had walked on four pitches. Bedard lasted just 2
7:24 p.m.: Bartolo Colon gets through a scoreless first for the Yankees, working past a throwing error by shortstop Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees have nothing at stake with regards to seeding tonight—they've clinched home-field advantage though the first two rounds—but the identity of their third Division Series starter behind CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova remains a mystery, with none of the three candidates (Colon, Freddy Garcia, and A.J. Burnett) having more than one good start in their last two, or September ERAs below 4.34.
7:32 p.m.: Adam Jones leads off the Orioles' second inning with a double to left center as Bedard leaves one in the middle of the plate. One out later, Jones is gunned down by Ryan Lavarnway as he tries to steal third. It's Lavarnway's first major-league start behind the plate, as Jarrod Saltalamacchia left Monday night's game after taking a foul tip in his collarbone, and Jason Varitek is nursing a bruised knee.
7:39 p.m.: Leftover skirt steak, sauteed mushrooms, grilled Walla Walla Sweet onions, and white beans with garlic and parsley. Playoff-caliber meal that I cooked myself the night before, planning that I'd be camping in front of the TV tonight.
7:41 p.m.: Following a Johnny Damon single, Ben Zobrist belts a towering two-run homer off Colon. Homers have been the big man's undoing, as he's yielded 1.6 per nine in August and September while posting a 5.58 ERA.
7:44 p.m.: Marco Scutaro lashes a two out-double off Zach Britton, turning the lineup over. Jacoby Ellsbury follows by smashing a two-run homer to give the Sox the lead, his 31st homer of the year. Sunday's 14th-inning, game-winning homer against the Yankees renewed calls for him to win the AL MVP award ahead of Jose Bautista and Justin Verlander; those were muted after the Andino play, but they should be back on now.
7:45 p.m.: The Phillies add another run against Lowe via a Carlos Ruiz double, sacrifice bunt by Oswalt that sees Lowe try unsuccessfully—apparently on the signal of catcher Brian McCann—to get the out at third, and a Jimmy Rollins single. They run the lead to 3-0 when Hunter Pence plates Oswalt on a sacrifice fly. If there's one thing for sure, it's that Atlanta isn't wrapping up anything tonight. Bad for Braves fans, but great for Team Entropy.
7:51 p.m.: The Yankees cut Tampa Bay's lead to 2-1 when Russell Martin drills a solo homer off Jeremy Hellickson. Brett Gardner follows with a walk and a steal, and two outs later, Hellickson intentionally walks Cano, freshly moved up to the third spot in the order against righties, to face Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez battles to a full count and walks, but the Rays get off the hook when Mark Teixeira, whose struggles against righties keyed the aforementioned move, skies Hellickson's first pitch to right field.
8:04 p.m.: Bedard labors through a 30-pitch scoreless third inning. Twelve of those pitches come on a strikeout against Andino. He's not long for this game, bad news for a team whose starters are averaging less than five innings per turn this month.
8:07 p.m.: The Phillies score again via singles by Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez and a sacrifice fly by Placido Polanco to make it 4-0. Lowe now has one quality start out of his last five, but Gonzales has to be torn, as he needs the innings almost as badly as he needs the win.
8:12 p.m.: Jed Lowrie is nearly ejected when home plate umpire Wally Bell calls a very inside strike three pitch. With Kevin Youkilis out since September 15, Lowrie's presence has taken on major importance, but he comes into the night just 6-for-38 in September. That K is sandwiched between singles by David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez, and Britton falls behind Lavarnway 3-0. He gets back to 3-2, but Lavarnway crushes a three-run homer—the first round-tripper of his major-league career—to give Boston a 5-1 cushion. Darnell McDonald follows with a double as Andino and Markakis nearly collide, and takes third on a wild pitch, but Britton recovers to retire both Carl Crawford and Marco Scutaro.
8:20 p.m.: After allowing a leadoff single to Rollins to start the fifth, Lowe is history, pulled in favor of rookie Arodys Vizcaino. Don't bet on Lowe to start a playoff game given his late rut.
8:27 p.m.: Guerrero leads off the Baltimore fourth with a single, and Wieters follows with a two-run homer to left-center, his 22nd of the year. The Oriole backstop has had a nice campaign, but one can't help noticing his extreme splits; he came into the night hitting .342/.431/.684 with 10 homers in 137 plate appearances against lefties, .237/.294/.373 with 11 homers in 401 plate appearances against righties.
8:29 p.m.: Pence hits a two-run homer off Vizcaino, running Philadelphia's lead to 6-0. For a Braves team averaging just 3.32 runs per game in September, that may as well be 16-0. We can already call this a win for Team Entropy, assuring that there will be meaningful baseball in both leagues on the final day of the season.
8:35 p.m.: After yielding a walk to Mark Reynolds and a single to Chris Davis, Bedard departs. He's thrown 84 pitches to get just 10 outs. Alfredo Aceves, who by all rights should have been placed in the rotation weeks ago, comes on in relief, and gets a pair of big outs to hold the score 5-3.
8:37 p.m.: With Phillies-Braves all but decided, I flip the iPhone over to the Cardinals-Astros game, where Houston leads 1-0 thanks to three singles and a sacrifice fly by .186-hitting J.R. Towles, whose jawing with the home-plate ump after a strikeout the night before was amusing, to say the least.
8:40 p.m.: The Yankees tie the game at 2-2 on a pair of singles by Brett Gardner and Eduardo Nunez, followed by an "RBI of Shame" by Curtis Granderson, who grounds into a double play (and doesn't get an RBI—hey, we have a name for blown saves, right?). With just 40 strikes among his 74 pitches, Hellickson hasn't exactly been dominant, but he does escape further damage.
8:47 p.m.: Britton's relationship with the strike zone grows too tenuous for Buck Showalter's discerning tastes as he issues back-to-back walks to Dustin Pedrioa and David Ortiz with one out and is hooked in favor of Jason Berken. Thus endeth the up-and-down rookie season of the 23-year-old lefty, who finishes with a 4.61 ERA in 154
8:50 p.m.: Matt Holliday, who has been battling an injury in his right hand, comes out of the game after three innings in favor of Allen Craig. Showing no sympathy, the Astros break the game open via an infield single by Up and In Podcast mascot Jose Altuve, a double by Brian Bogusevic, an intentional walk to Carlos Lee, a two-run single by Brett Wallace, and a two-run triple by Jimmy Parades to run the score to 5-0. That chases Jake Westbrook in favor of Mitchell Boggs. A team that has gotten so much strong starting pitching this month has gotten short outings on consecutive nights, and the NL wild card is suddenly full of #FAIL.
8:57 p.m.: Nick Markakis makes a diving, sliding catch on a two-out bases-loaded bloop by Lavarnway, keeping the score 5-3. "Put that one on your VCR and hang onto it!" says MASN play-by-play man Gary Thorne, who obviously hasn't upgraded his home entertainment system since 1985.
8:58 p.m.: Nick Swisher doubles home Rodriguez to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead, but after an intentional walk to Jorge Posada, the Rays pull off an around-the-horn triple play on a Russell Martin grounder that Evan Longoria takes right at the bag. The final leg of the triple play features substitute first baseman Sean Rodriguez—in for Casey Kotchman, who was hospitalized with chest pains—making a nice outstretched grab while Martin foolishly makes a headfirst dive into first. Has any team ever saved its season with a triple play?
9:01 p.m.: Phillies 7-0 on a Rollins homer off Julio Teheran. Yawn.
9:05 p.m.: Colon departs after 81 pitches over 5
9:10 p.m.: Carl Crawford bashes a one-out triple off Berken. Andino's throw hits him in the butt, and as the ball skips away, he starts toward home, only to reconsider. He gets to come home anyway when Scutaro takes a hanging slider from Berken over the wall for his seventh homer of the season, running the score to 7-3 Boston.
9:10 p.m.: The Rays put men on first and third with two out, but Wade gets Desmond Jennings on a harmless fly out to right field.
9:13 p.m.: The Cardinals finally show up, as Yadier Molina strokes a bases-loaded, one-out single to bring David Freese home. Skip Schumaker follows with a bases-clearing double, chasing Astros starter Henry Sosa and cutting the lead to 5-4. Team Entropy is on the comeback trail!
9:21 p.m.: Adam Jones socks a solo homer to center field off Aceves to lead off the sixth. It ain't over.
9:25 p.m.: The rally continues in St. Louis against reliever David Carpenter. Nick Punto's single sends Schumaker to third, and then pinch-hitter Corey Patterson draws a rare walk to load the bases. Jon Jay hits a fly deep enough to center field to score Schumaker with the tying run, and a lousy throw allows Patterson to advance to second. "Cards tie game at 5, enabling TLR machination machine to gain sentience," tweets BP reader Diane Firstman
9:28 p.m.: Perhaps smarting over having coughed up Wade, the Rays exact vengeance against last year's closer, Rafael Soriano in the form of a no-out, three-run homer by Matt Joyce, giving them a 5-3 lead. My Twitter feed, full of Yankees and Rays fans, goes crazy in opposite directions. Will Joe Girardi stick to his plan to get his A-list relievers work—so he can rest them on Wednesday—even with the team down?
9:36 p.m.: The Braves finally put a run on the board in the bottom of the ninth when Martin Prado hits a solo homer against Kyle Kendrick. The comeback falls short, and the NL is assured of meaningful baseball on the final day of the season. Chalk up the W for Team Entropy, baby!
9:40 p.m.: Markakis' two-out double against Aceves draws pitching coach Curt Young to the mound while Daniel Bard warms up. Aceves gets Guerrero to ground out to end the threat, making it 3
9:46 p.m.: Lavarnway assures himself of a spot in Red Sox lore with his second homer of the night, a solo shot off Zach Phillips, 8-4 Sox.
9:48 p.m.: Rodriguez is out of the game in favor of scrub Ramiro Pena, but David Robertson dutifully takes his eighth-inning call while trailing 5-3. He hits Kelly Shoppach in the shoulder to lead off the frame, gets a pair of outs via a sac bunt and a strikeout of Jennings, and yields to Mariano Rivera, who Mo's down (sorry) B.J. Upton looking to end the frame.
9:55 p.m.: The Astros load the bases with no outs against lefty Mark Rzepczynski via a Bogusevic single and walks by Lee and Wallace. They get one, but it comes via a GIDP by Paredes, and then Barmes strikes out swinging. That's how you lose 104 games, kids—except here, the Astros have the lead. Baseball is a funny game.
9:58 p.m.: The Orioles keep coming. Wieters greets Bard with a single, and advances to second on Jones' ground out after Pedroia tried in vain to tag him in the basepaths before throwing to first base to ensure at least one out. Reynolds does the most Mark Reynolds thing ever by striking out against Bard, his 195th K of the season.
10:05 p.m.: Kyle Farnsworth avoids doing the most Kyle Farnsworth thing ever by setting the Yankees down in order, giving Tampa Bay their 90th win of the season, not to mention a momentary half-game lead in the wild card.
10:06 p.m.: Davis cuts the Red Sox lead to 8-5 with a two-out RBI single off Bard. Nolan Reimold follows by driving a cutter left out over the plate off the right-field wall, over J.D. Drew's head for an RBI triple. Now it's 8-6. The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham tweets Bard's ugly numbers for the month: 10 IP, 11 H, 14 R, 13 ER, 9 BB, 11 K. Bard escapes by getting Andino to fly to right, but the lead is cut in half.
10:18 p.m.: Albert Pujols swings at a pitch that hits him in the right elbow, drawing the Cardinals' trainer from the dugout as the game is delayed. Ouch, ouch, ouch. He flies out.
10:23 p.m.: Jonathan Papelbon comes for the Red Sox to protect a two-run lead. The Orioles came back against him on September 20, when he and Bard teamed up to yield three eighth-inning runs, sending Baltimore to victory, but that was so many disappointments ago. J.J. Hardy lashes a single through the left side on an 0-2 count to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Markakis. Bell makes a horrible strike call on a 2-1 pitch that looks a foot off the plate.
10:26 p.m.: The Cardinals tie the game in the seventh against Del Rosario when Berkman strokes a two-out single, and Craig doubles to deep right-center. Team Entropy is back in this one!
10:33 p.m.: On the 11th pitch of his at-bat, Markakis grounds right to Adrian Gonzalez on top of first base to get the first out of the inning, with Hardy advancing to second. Guerrero singles to put runners on the corners with one out, then gives way to pinch-runner Matt Angle. Say what you will about these Orioles, but they've gone 14-12 against Boston, New York, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Detroit, and Anaheim this month, qualifying them as bona fide pains in the ass.
10:34 p.m.: The Cardinals add two more runs on Ryan Theriot's pinch-triple off Wesley Wright. Yes, really! Nick Punto follows that, improbably enough, with an RBI double on a ball that just gets under Paredes' glove. No, I'm not joking. That runs the score to 9-6, Cardinals.
10:37 p.m.: Wieters' slow roller down the first-base line continues for an eternity while Papelbon and Lavarnway debate the merits of the other guy fielding it. The catcher finally does, and gets the out at first base, but Hardy scores, and Angle, the tying run, is in scoring position with two outs. Such utter craziness can't have the Sox feeling much better about their late-game bullpen than they do their rotation.
10:42 p.m.: Papelbon gives Jones nothing but a steady diet of high heat, and Jones battles him to a 2-2 count. The Boston closer finally throws his first breaking pitch on his 25th pitch of his outing and eighth of the at-bat, and it's fouled off. The next one is in the dirt, running the count to 3-2. Finally, he grounds to third base and is put away, giving the Sox their 90th victory to keep pace with the Rays. Team Entropy is now 3-0 on the night!
11:00 p.m.: Jay leads off the St. Louis eighth with what appears to be a double down the left-field line, but Bogusevic plays the carom off the wall perfectly and with a laser of a throw, nails Jay sliding into the bag. I'm not sure I had seen this guy play before the last two nights, but he's hitting .292/.354/.466 in 179 PA stretched out over 86 games, and has nine assists in right field.
11:08 p.m.: One out later, both Pujols and Berkman reach base via a single and a walk, respectively, and with a chance to blow the doors off the game, Craig does with a three-run homer to run the lead to 12-6.
11:09 p.m.: Beer status: Peak Organic Nut Brown Ale, one of my recent go-tos.
11:30 p.m.: My attention has faded as I try to whip this piece into shape, but Tony La Russa calls upon Edwin Jackson to pitch the ninth inning with a seven-run lead. You'd think the Genius would save a starter who could give him multiple innings for Games 162 or 163 in case somebody has to depart early, but here we are. In any event, the Cardinals win, moving them into a tie with the Braves at 89 wins apiece.
In all, it was a fabulous night for baseball, with one barnburner and two other come-from-behind wins. All four results that needed to occur to bring the two wild-card races into ties going into the final day of the season did so, and because they're four separate games, we may yet have two Game 163 play-ins. I'm not sure I can take another night at this pace, but the Team Entropy spirit will continue to ride on Twitter and in the hearts of those who root for end-of-season chaos above all else.