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The Wednesday Takeaway
They call baseball a game of inches. But sometimes, during a September playoff race, in the replay-review era, an even smaller unit of measurement comes into play in a critical game.

The Astros entered play Wednesday two games behind the Rangers in the West and just 2½ up on the Angels for the junior circuit's second Wild Card berth. Their shaky footing became even shakier when the Halos carried a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth of their series finale at Minute Maid Park.

But then the Astros began to rally. Max Stassi singled with one away in the inning, and a throwing error by Erick Aybar gave Houston runners at the corners. George Springer plated Stassi with a single that also advanced Jose Altuve to third, and that was all for Angels starter Nick Tropeano. Mike Morin took over and got Carlos Correa to hit into a run-scoring fielder's choice that got Anaheim its second out of the frame but narrowed its lead to 3-2. Then Correa took off for second, and …

… the rally came to an abrupt end. But wait, said Correa and his manager, A.J. Hinch, who challenged the call by second-base umpire Angel Hernandez. There was no shortage of slow-motion footage from an abundance of angles:

These two offered the clearest view:

From the first angle, it seems that Correa's foot is jarred by the contact with the bag a fraction of a second before Aybar's glove bends as it would from tagging Correa's leg. From the second angle, it appears that the glove bends immediately upon contact with the leg—that no stray lace flaps into Correa's sock before the body of the glove arrives. Put together, that ought to erase all but the very nitpickiest of doubts that Correa was safe by the narrowest of margins.

But the replay crew in New York chose to nitpick, deeming the evidence inconclusive and the fifth inning over. There's no 100% guarantee that Correa was in fact safe, and certainly no assurance that he would've scored from second, but in a game where every run counted, all the advances in slow-motion technology weren't enough to grant Jed Lowrie a chance to drive him in.

The significance of the replay ruling was diminished somewhat after the seventh-inning stretch, when the Astros not only completed their comeback but briefly took the lead. PCL Most Valuable Player Matt Duffy got them going with a one-out infield single, and pinch-runner Jake Marisnick stole second with Jonathan Singleton at the plate. Singleton struck out, allowing Trevor Gott to intentionally walk Altuve, a decision that was nonetheless curious because it put the go-ahead run aboard. And Mike Scioscia would rue that strategy, at least for a bit, because Springer brought home both runners with a triple:

But the Angels bailed out their skipper in the very next frame, sparked by a leadoff double from Mike Trout. David Murphy drew a one-out walk from Will Harris to put men on first and second with one out, and that led Hinch to replace Harris with Pat Neshek, who got to the cusp of preserving the lead when C.J. Cron flied out. Then, David Freese dashed those hopes with a two-run wall-ball double

and scored on a single by Carlos Perez. Just like that, the Halos were back on top, 6-4.

The Astros were down, but not out. With one out in the last of the ninth, Jose Altuve put himself in scoring position with a ground-rule double. Two batters later, Correa cashed him in and put the tying run on first. This time, with Huston Street on the bump, there was no steal attempt, no inning-ending out at second, no replay review, and no controversy about the umpire's findings. Instead, there was a groundball to second and a surefire 4-3 out at first, cementing save no. 40 for Street and the 6-5 victory for the visitors.

It was the second straight loss at home for the Astros, who were 50-25 at Minute Maid when the series began, and 42-16 in the friendly confines since May 7th. Excellence in Houston previously drove the Astros to the top of the division standings, but their 29-46 road mark kept the Rangers and Angels alive. Now that they've faltered before their own fans, going 5-6 in south Texas this month, the pressure is on and the door has swung wide open for the clubs aiming to dash their October dreams.

As the Angels leave town, the Rangers are coming in, fresh off a 10-3 romp over the A's that means the Astros will have to sweep them to earn back a share of first place. The three upcoming tilts with Texas are Houston's last series at home before they embark on a six-game trip to Seattle and Arizona. While Hinch's bunch is in the desert, the Halos will visit the Rangers for four. That head-to-head series between their division rivals may be music to the Astros' ears, but they also can't sleep on the Twins, who are one back after downing the Indians 4-2, and who will spend the final weekend of the season playing a Royals squad that might have little at stake.

If the Astros resume taking care of business at home, their spot in the playoffs—whether by way of a division crown or a Wild Card ticket—is probably safe. If they don't, the Angels and Twins will enter the final week in prime position to knock them out.

Quick Hits from Wednesday
Here's a welcome sight for Tigers fans:

That's Justin Verlander, blowing 98-mph smoke by Geovany Soto on his 111th pitch of the day. The 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner has resembled his vintage form of late, not just in results, but in his fastball-velocity arc within starts:

Slow and steady in the low-90s, then a spike toward triple digits when the pressure mounts in the late innings. That's Verlander being Verlander, and it's a nice consolation for Tigers fans, whose team is in last place after finishing atop the AL Central in four consecutive seasons.

Verlander wasn't dominant Wednesday afternoon, as the South Siders got to him for three runs in seven innings, including a two-run homer by Melky Cabrera in the fourth. But he flashed premier stuff, getting ahead with first-pitch strikes to 22 of 27 foes, and racking up nine whiffs with 45 fastballs, most of them up in the zone.

The Tigers backed their 32-year-old starter early and often, taking advantage of a change in the White Sox's rotation plans that put Frankie Montas on the bump in place of Chris Sale. Montas brought only a two-pitch mix to the table, tossing 48 fastballs in the upper 90s and 22 sliders between 84 and 88 mph. Each of the offerings elicited four swings and misses, but neither was a reliable weapon, as the Tigers' offense got four hits on the heat and three more on the breaker.

When Montas took a little off his fastball and left a 94 mph cookie over the middle, Victor Martinez tattooed it for his 200th career homer:

The Tigers scored four more times in the third inning, two of them on a ground-rule double by J.D. Martinez, and went on to win 7-4.

***

Freddie Freeman carries a hard-earned reputation as a Nats killer, batting .340/.400/.522 in 340 career plate appearances against Washington, much to the chagrin of baseball fans across the nation's capital. On Wednesday, he threatened to kill the Nationals by sitting out the Braves' game against the Mets, who led the NL East by 6 1/2 when play began.

Both managers sprung into action in the seventh inning of this game, when the Mets led 2-0 and still had their starter, Bartolo Colon, on the hill. After three of the first four Braves singled to load the bases with one out, Terry Collins made a double switch, putting Addison Reed on the mound and in the seventh spot in the order, previously occupied by Michael Conforto, who was replaced by Kirk Nieuwenhuis. The new left fielder was immediately pressed into duty, but not in the way Collins would have liked, as Michael Bourn's ensuing single made it 2-1. Smelling blood, Fredi Gonzalez inserted Freeman—who was out of the lineup with a wrist ailment—as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Williams Perez. And Freeman made his skipper look smart

by drilling an 0-2 mistake off the wall for a two-run double.

Now up 3-2 in the last of the seventh, Gonzalez left Freeman in the game at first base and double-switched reliever Matt Marksberry into the no. 3 spot in the order, previously occupied by Hector Olivera. When Ruben Tejada singled to begin the frame, Collins pinch-hit Michael Cuddyer for Nieuwenhuis. At this point, Gonzalez entered Brandon Cunniff into the no. 2 hole and Pedro Ciriaco for Marksberry. So, to recap, the second- and third-place hitters in the Braves order were gone in a one-run game.

All those machinations didn't get Gonzalez very far, as Collins used Eric Young Jr. to pinch-run for Tejada, then watched happily as the speedster stole second and scored on a single by David Wright. Now, the game was tied, and the Braves were without (ostensibly) two of their best hitters. On the other hand, the Mets had—in the course of an inning—downgraded from Conforto to Young, via Nieuwenhuis and Cuddyer, in left field. And the Braves had gained Freeman …

… who broke the tie with an opposite-field no-doubter off Jeurys Familia with two aboard in the top of the ninth.

A two-run double and a three-run homer makes five RBI for Freeman, who came off the bench in the seventh. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he's just the second player in Braves history to amass five RBI off the bench, joining Tyler Houston, who did it on May 20, 1996.

Arodys Vizcaino tossed an uneventful ninth to cap the 6-3 win.

***

So, could the Nats take advantage, and turn the Nats killer into a Nats savior for one night? They were all set to, with Max Scherzer collecting a dozen strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings, until Manny Machado intervened:

The third baseman's 30th blast of the season was a two-run shot that gave the O's a 4-3 lead. It came on Scherzer's 122nd pitch of the night, the highest count for any Nationals starter under Matt Williams' watch, and in fact, since August 30, 2012, when Edwin Jackson used 123. The fateful fastball registered 98 mph on the gun, so fatigue wasn't impacting Scherzer's velocity, but he caught too much of the plate with the 2-2 heater, and Machado made him pay.

Washington never recovered from that blow, and in the top of the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon appeared to vent his frustrations in the form of a beaning:

Machado was none too pleased with the HBP, and plate umpire Mark Ripperger quickly gave Papelbon the thumb before both dugouts emptied. When the field cleared and the dust settled, the O's held on 4-3. The Mets stayed 6½ up, and their magic number to win the division is down to five.

***

Marcus Stroman pitched well in his first two outings off the disabled list, but he struck out only five batters over 12 innings, relying on his ability to keep the ball on the ground to compensate for a K/9 that had shrunk in half from his 2014 rate. Tasked with leading the Jays to victory in the rubber match with the Yankees on Wednesday, though, the diminutive right-hander showed that he's as good as ever three starts after an accelerated recovery from a torn ACL in his left knee.

That injury was supposed to end the right-hander's season, but he went into the rehab process determined to return for the stretch run and came out the other side no worse for the wear. Stroman shut down the Yankees for seven innings last night, scattering five hits and a walk while striking out five.

If there was any rust left on the 24-year-old's arm, it dissipated Wednesday, when he commanded his two-seamer in the lower reaches of the strike zone and picked up a half-dozen whiffs on 28 sliders. He added 10 groundball outs to his five Ks and the Yankees didn't get a runner to second base until Dustin Ackley doubled with two outs in the fifth. They didn't score then, or in the seventh, when Ackley lined out with two on and two down to end Stroman's night.

By then, the Jays were up 1-0, staked to that small margin by Kevin Pillar's RBI single in the bottom of the sixth, after Yankees starter Ivan Nova left the game. A few insurance runs would go a long way toward lowering blood pressures around the Rogers Centre stands, though, and Toronto got those at Andrew Bailey's expense in the seventh. Bailey was New York's third reliever of the night, and Josh Donaldson greeted him with a leadoff double. Jose Bautista's groundout advanced Donaldson to third, where he stayed while Bailey intentionally walked Edwin Encarnacion and struck out Justin Smoak. That left it all up to Russell Martin, the Jays' $82 million man, and this swing went a long way toward rewarding that investment:

No. 21 of the season for Martin pushed the lead to 4-0, and the Yankees wouldn't score. The blanking was the third of the season for Toronto against New York, accounting for half of the Yanks' shutouts in 2015 and stretching the AL East gap to 3½ games.

More importantly in the long run, the Jays can now rest assured that they have a pleasant September surprise to go with the ace they acquired in July. If the Stroman who pitched Wednesday is here to stay through October, he and David Price could well form the AL's premier 1-2 punch.

***

Before yesterday, the Cardinals—the team with the best record in the majors—were the only club without a four-homer game this season. Their longest-in-the-bigs drought had reached 219 games, dating back to July 11, 2014, when Matt Adams, Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, and Kolten Wong went yard at Miller Park. None of them partook in the barrage that got the Redbirds off the schneid.

Instead, Matt Carpenter led the way with a pair of two-run jacks, one in the third inning and this one in the fifth:

Carpenter now has 26 homers on the year, more than double his previous career high of 11, set in 2013. He's forgone some contact to boost his power, and while the jury's out on the merits of that exchange, it was just what the doctor ordered for the Cards to break their four-tater rut. The infielder teamed up with Randal Grichuk, who slugged his 17th of the year,

and Peter Bourjos, who cranked his fourth, a solo shot in the seventh, to get the job done.

Three of those homers came against Brandon Finnegan, who gave up six total runs in five innings and was no match for Lance Lynn. The Cards' right-hander has struggled to miss bats of late, but that didn't stop him from tossing six goose eggs onto the Busch Stadium scoreboard Wednesday, when he held the Reds to three hits, kept them without a walk, and struck out four along the way.

St. Louis' 4-2 win and Pittsburgh's 13-7 slugfest victory over the Rockies was a bad-news double whammy for the Cubs, who fell 4-1 to the Brewers. The gap between the Cards and Pirates stayed at four games, but the Bucs are now three up on the Cubs. At seven back, Chicago's elimination number in the Central has dwindled to four, and the NL Wild Card game is now very unlikely to be played at Wrigley Field.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Jake Peavy was a bit stunned to realize no one was covering first when he fielded this broken-bat doink off the bat of Derek Norris. So he took it himself and beat the catcher to the bag with—you guessed it—a head-first dive:

What to Watch on Thursday
If you get bored at work this afternoon, just fire up the Diamondbacks-Dodgers game and treat yourself to Clayton Kershaw on the bump and Vin Scully on the call. The getaway matinee features the league's strikeout leader, at 272 and counting, 28 shy of becoming the first pitcher to reach 300 Ks since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both did it for Arizona in 2002.

Kershaw has only faced the D'backs once this year, way back on April 11th, long before he settled into his typical groove. He gave up six runs (five earned) on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings that day, arguably his worst outing of the year. The lefty's ERA in 28 starts since then? 1.95.

He'll duel another intriguing southpaw, Patrick Corbin, who's coming off seven scoreless innings at AT&T Park. Corbin owns a 1.44 ERA over his last five starts, one of them a tough-luck, six-inning, two-run loss to the Dodgers on September 13th. The 26-year-old has demonstrated outstanding command of late, compiling a 25-to-2 K:BB ratio in his past 31 1/3 innings on the mound, and he'll need it to keep it up to keep up with Kershaw in this one (3:10 p.m. ET).

***

September hasn't been kind to White Sox ace Chris Sale, who finished August with a 14-strikeout mastery of the Mariners and seven scoreless innings against the Red Sox, but has since slipped into the worst rut of his career. The left-hander's ERA through four starts this month is a bad-but-not-atrocious 5.40, but that excludes the six unearned runs he gave up in a loss to the Indians his last time out. Sale has 30 strikeouts in 23 1/3 September innings, but when he's getting hit, he's getting hit hard.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what's plaguing Sale as the season winds down. Matt Goldman took a stab over at Beyond the Box Score, noting a change in Sale's horizontal release point and a decrease in his whiff rates. Here's a third possible factor:

Sale's release points aren't the only thing converging: His velocities are, too. The separation between his four-seamer and changeup has fallen to about 7.4 mph this month, and his sinker and cambio are now only 4.6 mph apart. With a smaller gap between the hard stuff and the offspeed offerings, hitters might be able to sit dead red and adjust more easily when Sale pulls the string. That, in turn, might help to explain why, after batting just .191 and slugging .352 off the four-seamer between April and August, opponents have blasted it to the tune of a .424 average and .788 slugging percentage since the calendar flipped to September.

After an extra day of rest, Sale's search for answers continues this afternoon, when the White Sox begin their series in the Bronx. Michael Pineda will be on the hill for the Yankees (7:05 p.m. ET).

***

Perhaps the league's most dangerous pitcher at the plate, Madison Bumgarner swings for the fences, striking out in nearly one-third of his plate appearances while occasionally bopping one high and far. Ten major-league pitchers have faced Bumgarner at least seven times, and only one of them has never fanned the Giants ace or given up a homer to him.

That lone exception is Ian Kennedy, who in nine head-to-head meetings has kept Bumgarner 0-for-6 with a walk and two sacrifices. Chris Mosch examined how best to approach Bumgarner earlier this month, and his advice was simple: Treat him like "a major-league-caliber hitter." Kennedy has done that, actually throwing his four-seamer less frequently to Bumgarner than right-handed batters on the whole.

More problematic for the 30-year-old is the fact that other big-league batters have done a whole lot of yardwork at his expense. He's served up 29 homers in 157 1/3 innings, quite the dubious feat for a pitcher who makes half his starts at Petco Park. Nonetheless, Kennedy was enjoying a fine second half before the Giants slapped him around for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings on September 12th in San Francisco. He'll be out to avenge that defeat in the series finale (9:10 p.m. ET).