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September 30, 2013

What You Need to Know

A Wild Final Weekend

by Andrew Koo, Chris Mosch and Satchel Price

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The No-Hitter
With most eyes focused on the AL Wild Card race over the weekend, Henderson Alvarez turned heads on Sunday with an outstanding performance that ended the season for the Marlins in dramatic fashion.

Through eight innings, Alvarez had rendered the Tigers hitless and allowed just two batters to reach base. The right-handed hurler plunked Prince Fielder with a slow curveball in the first inning, while Jose Iglesias reached base on an Adeiny Hechavarria error in the fifth.

Alex Avila led off the ninth inning with a harmless ground ball back to the mound, which Alvarez tossed over to first for the first out. Next up was Don Kelly, who hit a tougher ball back to Alvarez, requiring a nice snag by the 23-year-old to preserve his no-hit bid. Two away.

Against Andy Dirks, Alvarez missed off the plate with four straight sinkers, issuing his first free pass of the game. Matt Tuiasasopo, who had replaced Fielder in the fourth inning, worked a 3-1 count before whiffing on consecutive sinkers from Alvarez.

Nine hitless innings. Alvarez had done it. His first no-hitt… But wait, not quite.

While Alvarez had subdued the Tigers for nine innings of no-hit ball, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello had combined to blank his teammates through eight innings. Alvarez pumped his first after retiring Tuiasasopo and was given a standing ovation by the home crowd as he jogged off the mound, but was without a no-hitter to his name as the Marlins headed to the home half of the ninth inning.

Nobody was warming up in the Marlins bullpen as Luke Putkonen got Justin Ruggiano to ground out to short, but the Tigers reliever subsequently ceded back-to-back singles to Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison. Putkonen bounced a 1-2 curveball against Hechavarria in the dirt, which catcher Brayan Pena kept in front of him, but the Detroit backstop was unable to prevent Stanton and Morrison from advancing a base. With the infield in, Hechavarria’s grounder to short was unable to plate Stanton and Chris Coghlan proceeded to work an eight-pitch walk to load the bases.

With Greg Dobbs at the plate and Alvarez watching from the on-deck circle, Putkonen’s first offering—a curveball—bounced in the dirt past Pena and Stanton crossed the plate, securing Alvarez the fifth no-hitter in Marlins history. The last Marlin to throw a no-no, Anibal Sanchez, watched the celebration from the Tigers dugout. It was only the sixth time in history that a no-no has ended in walk-off fashion.

In preparation for their first-round matchup against the Athletics, the Tigers trotted out a lineup on Sunday that was absent Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez. While Alvarez may not have been facing the same Tigers lineup that trailed only Boston in TAv this season, a no-hitter is still a no-hitter, and Alvarez needed just 99 pitches to record the season’s third such gem.

Alvarez relied on his defense for much of the game— garnering just four strikeouts—and was incredibly efficient, throwing 66 of his 99 pitches for strikes and needing no more than 13 pitches in any single inning. The 2013 season wasn’t the easiest of campaigns for Marlins fans to endure, but it ended in theatrical fashion centered on one of the four 25-and-under hurlers around which the club hopes to build its future. —Chris Mosch

The Wild Card Race

Indians vs. Twins
The Indians entered the weekend smack-dab in the middle of the three-team chase for the two AL Wild Card spots—one game behind the Rays and one game up on the Rangers. Riding a seven-game winning streak, the Tribe struck early and often in Friday’s game at Target Field, chasing Pedro Hernandez to the showers before the end of the second inning. Hernandez made an unfavorable first impression last week on our four-man panel, when he was annihilated at the hands of the Athletics. Friday’s outing was unlikely to change any minds.

Nick Swisher started the offensive barrage with a one-out double in the first inning that landed just beyond the reach of a diving Darin Mastroianni and was promptly driven home by a Jason Kipnis triple. Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera added opposite-field RBI doubles and Yan Gomes singled to bring home Cabrera, putting the finishing touches on the four-run frame.

Hernandez allowed the first two Indians to reach base in the second inning before inducing a Swisher double play with runners at the corners, but promptly gave up his seventh hit of the night to Kipnis. That was all manager Ron Gardenhire needed to see from Hernandez, as the 24-year-old gave way to reliever Shairon Martis. The 26-year-old Curacao native entered the game with a career 5.38 ERA and immediately gave up a double to Santana before allowing a two-run single to Ryan Raburn, giving the Indians a quick 7-0 lead.

Corey Kluber didn’t have his best stuff for the Tribe, serving up six runs and 10 hits across 5 1/3 innings. It was the fifth straight start in which Kluber failed to make it out of the sixth inning, but the sinkerballer departed with a 9-6 lead and the bullpen cast of Rich Hill, C.C. Lee, Marc Rzepczynski, Justin Masterson, and Matt Albers was able to prevent any further damage. After tacking on three more runs to close the 12-6 win, the Indians moved into a tie with Tampa Bay for the first wild card spot and held a one-game lead over Texas.

Following Friday’s game, manager Terry Francona announced that Chris Perez was out as the Indians’ closer. Perez was hit hard in each of his previous two outings and finished the regular season with a 5.07 FRA. Francona announced that the team would proceed with a closer-by-committee, while Perez ended his several month-long media silence after Sunday’s game.

The former Indians stopper told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, “I'm here to help the team. I went into Tito's office the other night and said, 'I'm not going to cost this team a playoff spot. You need to make a change right now. You've got four or five guys who are throwing the [heck] out of the ball. I don't have an ego. Make the change.' And he did.”

After being trapped in the elevator of the team’s hotel on Thursday night, Scott Kazmir was able to spin six innings of one-run ball for Cleveland on Saturday.

The 29-year-old southpaw didn’t allow an extra-base and fanned 11 batters, marking his third 10-strikeout game of September. Kazmir finished the month with a 2.57 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and a 43-to-4 K:BB ratio across 28 innings. His 13.82 K/9 for the month was the highest rate by an Indians pitcher in a single month in over 95 years and was much the product of opposing right-handed batters coming up empty on fastballs up in the zone.

The Indians drew first blood against Cole DeVries on Saturday, as Santana blasted a two-run homer in the top-half of the fourth inning. Michael Bourn returned to his customary leadoff spot after missing three games with a wrist injury and knocked in two runs with a double in the fifth inning, part of a three-run uprising for the Tribe. Rzepczynski, Cody Allen, and Joe Smith were able to limit Minnesota, securing a 5-1 win. Coupled with Tampa Bay’s loss, Cleveland moved into sole possession of the first wild card position and was in line to clinch a spot in the AL wild card game with a win on Sunday.

The Tribe sent Ubaldo Jimenez to the mound on Sunday in hopes of securing their first playoff appearance since 2007 and their ace finished up his strong second half by stifling the Twins. Through six innings, Jimenez had given up just two hits and a walk and the right-hander started the seventh inning in dominating fashion, punching out Ryan Doumit and Chris Parmelee—his 12th and 13th strikeout victims of the day. Jimenez proceeded to surrender three straight singles, the third of which plated Minnesota’s only run of the day and forced manager Terry Francona to pull Jimenez after 106 pitches. Masterson recorded the final five outs of the contest, notching both the Indians’ first and final outs of the regular season.

The Indians became just the fourth team to ever head into the playoffs with a 10-game winning streak and the first since the 1971 Orioles. Aside from Perez, the bullpen has performed admirably down the stretch, allowing just two runs (one earned) in 30 1/3 innings during the Tribe’s winning streak. Rookie Danny Salazar will take the mound for the Indians in Wednesday’s wild card game against the winner of Monday’s contest between the Rays and Rangers. —Chris Mosch

***

Rays vs. Jays
Schedule makers envisioned major drama when they slated the Rays and Jays at Rogers Center on the season’s final weekend. The perennially contending Rays versus the league’s most improved team; both were primed to overtake the AL East, per the consensus in March. Thankfully, stakes indeed emerged: the Rays’ playoff odds fluctuated throughout the series as they competed for the wild card, and the Blue Jays… well, the Blue Jays were playing to beat last season’s win total.

The Rays had a one-game lead as they entered the first game. Unfortunately, three errors in the fourth and fifth innings led to six Blue Jay runs, enough to seal R.A. Dickey’s 14th win. Dickey’s season might be regarded as disappointing, but his 224 2/3 innings pitched were a significant contribution and a good sign for his health. That mark ranked fourth in the league (and fourth in age-38 seasons, post-1994).

With less margin for error in game two, the Rays started Chris Archer. Unfortunately, he was relieved early and the Jays piled seven runs on the bullpen, with homers by rookies Ryan Goins and Kevin Pillar. That gave the Blue Jays their 74th win, triumphantly exceeding their 2012 total. The Rays now needed to win the rubber match to clinch at least a wild card tiebreaker.

Tampa got off to a lightning start on Sunday, scoring six runs in the first inning and chasing Blue Jays starter Todd Redmond. Seven relievers followed him, and notable among them was Darren Oliver, whose 11-pitch seventh was the final inning of his 21-year career. Oliver’s last out was Evan Longoria, who watched a 75 mph slider paint the black for a backwards K.

The Rays pushed it to 7-0, but final days of the season aren’t without drama, as the Blue Jays closed in and loaded the bases in the 7th and 8th. With eight relievers spent in the first two games, Rays bench coach Dave Martinez sent his three most trusted bullpen arms, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and Fernando Rodney, to erase the threats. Martinez took over for the ejected Joe Maddon, who took exception with home plate umpire Paul Schrieber’s strike zone.

It was messy, but Rodney limited the damage and protected the 7-6 lead. He closed the game in the ninth to vault Tampa Bay into the wild card tiebreaker this afternoon. —Andrew Koo

***

Angels vs. Rangers
Entering the series opener against the Angels last Thursday, the Rangers trailed the Rays by two games and the Indians by one. At that point, it seemed like a sweep would be the only way for Texas to extend its World Series dreams for at least one more contest. With the completion of Sunday’s 6-2 win over Los Angeles, that outlook proved exactly right for Adrian Beltre and company.

With the Rays and Indians refusing to falter in the final days of the 2013 season, Texas couldn’t afford a single defeat. Now, the Rangers are staring at a one-game tiebreaker on Monday night against Tampa Bay, but even this scenario seemed unlikely when the final series of the season began four days ago. Four wins later, Texas just needs one more to officially earn its post-season invitation.

The Rangers’ season was practically on the brink in the series opener against the Halos, when starter Matt Garza faltered early before a walk-off home run from rookie Jurickson Profar kept the team alive. The next three nights would see the Texas bullpen avoid trouble, polishing off victories despite the massive pressure hanging over the team.

The Rangers’ closer, Joe Nathan, pitched a scoreless inning in each of the four games, recording saves on Friday and Saturday. He also earned a victory in the series opener on Profar’s home run and finished off Sunday’s victory in a non-save opportunity.

Texas catcher A.J. Pierzynski had an especially strong series for the team, starting all four games (one at DH) while contributing offensively in every contest. He finished the series 6-for-15 with one double and four RBI, including the game-winning hit on Friday night in Arlington.

While the procession of must-win games for Texas won’t end without a loss any time soon—and a big one-game playoff looms this afternoon to determine who faces Cleveland in the wild card playoff game—the Rangers haven’t shied away from big moments. Over the past few days, the team has played a quasi-playoff docket of sorts, getting integral victories every time along the way. We’ll see if they can carry that momentum through the home date with the Rays, in which Martin Perez will be asked to duel David Price (8:07 p.m. ET). —Satchel Price

Defensive Play of the Weekend
Every no-hitter tends to be highlighted by at least one outstanding defensive play. Earning that honor on Sunday was Adeiny Hechavarria, who came over with Alvarez in last offseason’s blockbuster trade between the Marlins and Blue Jays.

Andrew Koo is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Andrew's other articles. You can contact Andrew by clicking here
Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here

Related Content:  Wild Card,  No-hitter,  Henderson Alvarez

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