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The Thursday Takeaway

Wednesday night’s epic collapse by the A’s mathematically sealed the fate that had been apparent for a couple of weeks: The Angels will be crowned the AL West winners. The hangover effect of Oakland’s bullpen meltdown rolled right over into yesterday’s series finale against the Rangers.

On the bump for Oakland in the matinee was Sonny Gray, who flashed good stuff in the opening inning, but was unable to put away Rangers hitters.

Gray got Leonys Martin to hit a soft tapper back to the mound for the first out of the game and then allowed Elvis Andrus to reach on a seeing-eye single through the right side of the infield. Rougned Odor followed by scorching a fastball that caught too much of the plate to Jed Lowrie at shortstop, but the veteran middle infielder made a nice backhand play to turn the hard-hit ball into the second out. The hard contact off Odor’s bat foreshadowed the sequence of events that followed.

Gray got up 0-2 on Adrian Beltre, then missed with a pair of fastballs to run the count even. Beltre lined Gray’s next offering—a heater inside—to center for a single that advanced the speedy Odor to third base. Up next was Jake Smolinski, who laced a hanging 2-2 curveball from Gray into left to give Texas the early lead.

Like he did to the previous two hitters, Gray dug Tomas Telis into a 0-2 hole, but the Rangers' catcher battled back to a full count before lining the payoff pitch the other way for his own RBI single. Ryan Rua joined the party with a single up the middle, which plated Smolinski and was the fourth straight hard-hit base knock allowed by Gray after getting ahead 0-2 in the count. One pitch later, a Gray fastball clanked off Derek Norris’ glove and allowed Telis to score the fourth run of the inning.

In the third, Sam Fuld ripped a two-run triple into the right field corner off Nick Martinez to trim the deficit in half, but the damage done in the first was ultimately too much. Gray buckled down to limit the Rangers to just one more run over the next four frames, but the Rangers scored twice more off Dan Otero in the sixth to extend their lead to the eventual final score of 7-2.

After dashing Atlanta’s playoff chances over the weekend with a three-game sweep, the Rangers got the brooms out for the A’s and spoiled more October dreams. Oakland’s second-half collapse hit a new low after Thursday’s loss, as they fell half a game behind the idle Royals for the top wild card spot while the Mariners continue to creep up on them for the second spot.

With the Angels resting their regulars following their division-clinching win on Wednesday, Felix Hernandez carved up Los Angeles' B squad with 11 strikeouts over seven shutout innings. Logan Morrison broke a scoreless tie in the ninth with a three-run blast and Fernando Rodney closed out the win in shaky fashion to give the Mariners the 3-1 win and move them within a game of overtaking Oakland for the final playoff spot.

Quick Hits from Thursday

The Blue Jays were down 1-0 in the sixth inning and R.A. Dickey had fallen behind in the count 3-0 to Derek Jeter. The knuckleballer snuck in a get-me-over 80 mph fastball for strike one to Jeter.

You don’t need me to tell you how poorly The Captain has performed at the plate during his retirement tour season, but even a struggling 40-year-old Jeter can put a charge into a low-80’s center-cut fastball if he’s sitting on it. That’s exactly what happened next, as Dickey’s second-straight fastball down the middle got deposited in the left-field stands.

The long ball was Jeter’s fourth of the season and first in the Bronx since July 28th of last year, snapping a 75-game homerless streak at Yankee Stadium, the longest of his career. It also gave the Yankees a two-run advantage, a gap that could have been even wider if not for Kevin Pillar, who played the role of human vacuum to rob Jeter and Brett Gardner of extra bases earlier in the game.

After twirling 6 2/3 stellar frames, Shane Greene handed the ball off to Dellin Betances, who got the final out of the seventh. Instead of bringing Betances back out for the eighth, Joe Girardi entrusted Shawn Kelly with the two-run lead. The Yankees' reliever retired the first two batters of the inning before serving up a single to Jose Reyes. After getting two quick strikes on Jose Bautista, Kelly challenged him with a fastball up …

… and the Blue Jays' slugger launched a game-tying two-run blast.

The game remained tied heading into the ninth, when Chris Young led the inning off with a single up the middle off Aaron Sanchez. With Brett Gardner at the dish, pinch-runner Antoan Richardson swiped second on a ball that ran the count to 3-0. Gardner squared around and bunted foul both the 3-0 and 3-1 offerings from Sanchez, but finally got the sacrifice down on the payoff pitch to move Richardson over to third. With the infield in, Sanchez got Chase Headley to do exactly what he wanted: hit a groundball right at one of his infielders. The only problem was, it went through the wickets of Adam Lind at first base.

Ballgame over, Yankees win.

***

If the zeroes across the board after three innings were any indication, Kyle Lohse and Shelby Miller were locked in a pitcher’s duel last night. Unfortunately for the two NL Central hurlers, defensive miscues by each team’s first baseman tarnished their final lines and contributed to the game going into extra innings.

Jonathan Lucroy collected the game’s first hit with two outs in the fourth inning by ripping a double down the right-field line off Miller. Aramis Ramirez jumped on a first-pitch fastball moments later to plate Lucroy and draw first blood for the Brewers.

Leading off the next inning for Milwaukee was Matt Clark, who singled to center field. After striking out Hector Gomez, Miller threw Kyle Lohse’s sacrifice bunt attempt into center to put runners at first and second base with one out. A fielder’s choice moved Clark over to third and the rookie scored soon after on an error by Matt Adams.

Lohse held the Cardinals to just three hits and a walk through seven innings, but the former Redbird started off the eighth by giving up a single to Oscar Taveras. After inducing a fielder’s choice, Lohse hit the showers in favor of Jonathan Broxton, who got A.J. Pierzynski to hit a textbook double-play ball to first baseman Mark Reynolds. There was just one problem: Reynolds forgot how many outs there were in the inning.

Instead of starting what should have been an easy double play with Pierzynski running, Reynolds trotted over to the first base bag to record what he appeared to think was the third out of the inning.

St. Louis made the Brewers pay for the critical mental lapse, as Matt Carpenter drew a walk and Jon Jay singled home the first run of the game for the home squad. Next up was Matt Holliday, who used a little hustle to beat out an infield single—a play that was originally called out, but was overturned after replay review.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was upset that Carpenter—who had hustled all the way home from second on the play—was sent back to third base. That issue ended up being inconsequential, however, as Broxton subsequently walked Matt Adams to bring home Carpenter and tie the game.

Once the game headed into extras, Marco Estrada and Brandon Kintzler matched the zeroes that the trio of Pat Neshek, Carlos Martinez, and Sam Freeman put on the board, but Jimmy Nelson didn’t bring the same stuff to the table. Holliday led off the bottom of the 13th with a single off the Brewers' young hurler and Jhonny Peralta added a base knock of his own two batters later. That set the stage for Tony Cruz, who sent the Cardinals home walk-off winners.

***

With October approaching, things have been falling into place for the Pirates, who entered Thursday winners in 10 of their last 12 games and 2 1/2 games up on the Brewers for the final wild card spot. With a chance to sweep the visiting Red Sox, the Pirates caught just the break they needed to inch even closer to their second straight playoff berth.

Behind seven strong innings from Gerrit Cole and a big fly by Starling Marte in the fifth, Pittsburgh held a 3-2 lead heading into the ninth. Clint Hurdle handed the ball off to Mark Melancon, who got himself into trouble immediately. The right-hander plunked Allen Craig with his second pitch of the inning and then watched pinch-runner Jemile Weeks go first-to-third moments later on a single through the middle by Daniel Nava.

With the tying run 90 feet away with no outs and Pittsburgh’s infield at double-play depth, Melancon needed either a strike out, a groundball to one of his corner infielders, or for Will Middlebrooks to get under a pitch in order to keep the score tied. The Pirates' closer got one better, as Middlebrooks hit a chopper down the third base line that struck Weeks—who was diving headfirst back into the third base bag—in fair territory for the first out of the inning.

With Weeks erased from third, Boston still had runners at first and second, but Melancon buckled down to strike out Jackie Bradley Jr. and get Christian Vazquez to ground out to put the finishing touches on the three-game sweep. Coupled with Milwaukee’s extra-innings loss to St. Louis, the Pirates now hold a 3 1/2–game lead over the Brewers heading into this weekend’s three-game series between the two squads.

***

For a split second, it looked like Michael Bourn might have spoiled Scott Feldman’s shutout with an inside-the-park home run. Here’s a look at the scene out in left-center field at Minute Maid Park after Dexter Fowler raised his hands during the play.

The ball was not lodged underneath the padding, which second-base umpire Angel Hernandez proved moments later when he scooped it up with no problem. However, as you may have noticed, Fowler is pointing to the top of the wall in protest of Hernandez’ call on the field.

What Hernandez didn’t see as the play transpired was the ball disappearing behind the padding after one-hopping the wall and then trickling to the ground after Fowler had turned around to put his hands up. The call on the field was correctly overturned and Bourn’s hit was ruled a ground-rule double after replay review, but it was the type of wacky play that should make us thankful for an umpire crew having replay at their disposal.

That was the end of the line for Feldman, who had given up just three hits over eight scoreless before Bourn’s base knock. With Tony Sipp on the hill, Jose Ramirez moved Bourn over to third on a bunt single, but Bourn was gunned out at the plate a batter later for the first out of the inning. In came Chad Qualls to face Carlos Santana, but the Cleveland slugger delivered with a single to right to spoil Feldman’s gem and send the game to extras.

The two bullpens exchanged zeroes for three innings, but the Indians were finally able to break through against Samuel Deduno in the 13th. Ramirez drilled a one-out double off Deduno and moved to third after a pair of walks by the former Twin. Mike Aviles lifted a sacrifice fly to plate Ramirez and give the Indians a 2-1 lead, which Cody Allen closed out to complete the come-from-behind win.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Gio Gonzalez fired seven outstanding frames for the Nationals during their 6-2 win over the Marlins last night, but he did get some help behind him:

What to Watch this Weekend

Friday:

With Roenis Elias likely to be shut down for the rest of the season after being diagnosed with a flexor bundle strain, the Mariners will turn to prized pitching prospect Taijuan Walker for tonight’s series opener against the Astros. Walker was immediately thrown into the fray after rosters expanded and pitched admirably out of the bullpen on September 1st, tossing six innings of one-run ball after Chris Young hit the showers in the first inning against the A’s. It’s been an up-and-down season for Walker, who missed the first two months of the season with shoulder issues, but bounced back and exhibited solid peripherals in the hitter-friendly PCL. He’ll look to finish off his year by helping the Mariners in their push for the second wild card spot tonight in Houston, where he’ll take the hill opposite Brad Peacock (8:10 p.m. EST).

Saturday:

The Royals and Tigers square off for a final time this weekend, with the pivotal series likely to go a long way in determining the American League Central champs. Kansas City enters the weekend half a game behind Detroit and will trot out Jason Vargas opposite Justin Verlander in Friday’s opener. On Saturday, the two squads will break out their big arms, with Max Scherzer taking the hill for Detroit and James Shields for the home nine. Last week against the Tigers, Shields struck out eight and gave up just a pair of singles over seven scoreless innings. If Detroit wants to hold off their division foes, they’ll need more from their bats in the middle match at Kaufmann Stadium (8:00 p.m. EST).

Sunday:

The chances that we would see Masahiro Tanaka on a mound again this season seemed awfully low in early July when he was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Instead of opting for surgery, Tanaka received a PRP injection and underwent a rehab program with the hope of avoiding having to go under the knife. It’s been nearly 10 weeks since we saw Tanaka in pinstripes, but he is scheduled to make his return Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. Tanaka will be limited to about 70 to 75 pitches in his start against the Blue Jays, and while the Yankees’ playoff chances are practically nil, a healthy outing or two from their ace should provide some peace of mind heading into the offseason (1:05 p.m. EST).

Since being knocked around by Detroit in his shortest start of the season on September 1st, Corey Kluber has bounced back with a trio of excellent outings that we’ve come to expect from Cleveland’s ace during his breakout campaign. He followed his clunker with a shutout of the White Sox, then pitched into the ninth inning of his next start against the Twins. Last time out, he fanned a career-best 14 hitters over seven innings of one-run ball against the Astros. Kluber’s strong second half has elevated him to the top of the WARP leaderboard, while his 2.47 FIP ranks first in the American League over Felix Hernandez’ 2.59 mark and MLB-wide trails only Clayton Kershaw’s absurd 1.86 FIP. The Cleveland right-hander has struck out exactly 10 batters per nine this season, boasted excellent control, and been able to hang with the league’s best in run prevention despite pitching with one of the worst defenses in baseball behind him. Kluber’s showcase for the American League Cy Young Award will make its next stop on Sunday at Target Field, where Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will counter with Tommy Milone (2:10 p.m. EST).