Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Yankees (2nd) @ Toronto Blue Jays (6th)

Forget Vernon Wells‘ walk-off homer: it was great to see Mariano Rivera pitching in that situation last night. Why? Because, as has been argued many times by many people at BP and elsewhere, why would you not want to expend innings on your best reliever in high-leverage situations? Yankees manager Joe Torre has not been afraid to leave Rivera in for more than one inning. What follows is a list of the 12 closers with the most saves. The numbers next to their names are appearances they’ve made that have exceeded one inning followed by total games pitched.

14/44: B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays
13/43: Rivera
11/44: Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
9/42: Bobby Jenks, White Sox
6/36: Francisco Rodriguez, Angels
5/41: Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals
4/38: Chris Ray, Orioles
3/37: Todd Jones, Tigers
3/40: Tom Gordon, Phillies
3/46: Brad Lidge, Astros
2/44: Derrick Turnbow, Brewers
0/38: Trevor Hoffman, Padres

John Gibbons has also use his closer for longer stints than the rest of his fellow managers. Ryan went an inning-plus last night as well. That both pitchers prolonged their teams’ agony on this particular night is beside the point. If a player is worth the big dog money, use him.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): St. Louis Cardinals (9th) @ Los Angeles Dodgers (12th)

How shredded is the National League? Consider that of its eight matchups this weekend, only one features two teams with records above .500. Sadly, this isn’t it. That distinction belongs to the Giants and Padres. Thanks to an excess of expectations on the Cardinals part, and a shortfall against them by the Dodgers, these teams meet on about equal terms. Actually, the entire League is even more compressed than it appears on the surface. From top to bottom, there is a spread of just 13 games in third-order wins. From the Mets to the Pirates is a much shorter trip than it seems.

Like a lot of teams that experience a run of years at the top, the Cardinals will win the division this year in spite of themselves. In other words, because of luck and a conspiracy of non-participation by the other teams in their division, they’re getting a free ride this year. It’s no less of a free ride than the team that will eventually snag the Wildcard (I capitalize it as a tribute to its Decider, the People’s Commissioner-Bud Selig) will have. The Reds currently lead the ‘card race with a winning percentage of .521. If they-or some other eventual winner should they elect not to accept the position-were to win it at that level of achievement, it would be the single-worst Wildcard record ever. The previous lows:

.535: Rockies, 1995
.543: Orioles, 1996
.549: Yankees, 1995
.549: Astros, 2005
.552: Cubs, 1998

Actually, the Wildcard had a pretty nice run there. Between the ’98 Cubs and last year’s Astros, no Wildcard winner won fewer than 91 games. An 84-win Wildcard team is the antithesis of the inclusiveness that drove its creation in the first place. Apologists for Wildcard scenarios love to point out the “great teams” that didn’t make the playoffs and how unfair that is. We’re often reminded of the 1993 Giants and their 103 wins during this argument. While the Wildcard has only operated at that level once (the 2001 A’s) it has produced its share of very good teams, not to mention World Champions. However, the ’06 National League entry is going to be a serious mediocrity, unless someone catches fire in a hurry.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Chicago Cubs (28th) @ Washington Nationals (26th)

Last time out, I listed the teams that had spent at least a decade under .500 and how they fared their first year above that margin. Reader Christian Ruzich correctly pointed out that I left out one team: the 1953-1962 Cubs-they broke the schneid with an 82-80 record in 1963. Christian also mentioned that the last years of the sub-.500 run came under the helmsmanship of the college of coaches. This was a pool of coaches who would assume the duties of manager on a rotating basis. There’s an excellent article on the subject by Richard J. Puerzer in the latest edition of The National Pastime, a Society for American Baseball Research publication. (Joining SABR is worth it for this publication alone, by the way.)

While the college was ultimately a failure, Puerzer discusses how it may have helped created the environment that allowed Buck O’Neil to become the first African-American coach at the major league level. When the college was dissolved, the Cubs had an excellent opportunity to name the first African-American manager. However, as Puerzer tells us, they weren’t even letting him coach on the basepaths at that point, so that was a great leap forward that, sadly, the club was not about to make.

No matter how bad the Cubs may seem right now-and it’s pretty bad indeed-there is every possibility they will be considered contenders by spring training of next year. The National League is just volatile enough that a team with some gumptiion can make a nice jump in the offseason. Of course, we’ll all do what we do every spring and pencil in a rotation anchored by Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano, even though we should know better by now. That will do what it always does: skew our view of how could the Cubs will actually be. Even without Prior and Wood, however, the right moves could put the Cubs back in the mix sooner than we think. Whether Jim Hendry is the man to make those moves is the problem, though.

Second-Closest Matchup (opponents second-closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Minnesota Twins (8th) @ Cleveland Indians (11th)

My bold prediction of a four-team 1967-style pennant race in the American League Central has died on the twin prongs of the Twins early-season decision-making dysfunction and the Indians inability to play up to their third-order win projection. This series will feature the best hitter in the league (Travis Hafner) facing the hottest pitcher (Francisco Liriano), so regardless of its impact on the outcome of the division race, there’s that matchup for your amusement.

This series will also feature the second-most productive hitter in the league, in the person of Joe Mauer. The Twins backstop could well be on the way to the second-best season by a catcher in the expansion era. His VORP is currently 46.3. With more than two months of the season to play, that’s already a top 50 season since 1960. If he keeps playing this well, he going to end up in the high 70’s, which would make him well-situated in this neighborhood:

Highest Catcher VORP since 1960:

101.7: Mike Piazza, 1997 Dodgers
 76.8: Mike Piazza, 1996 Dodgers
 72.3: Javy Lopez, 2003 Braves
 70.2: Mike Piazza, 2000 Mets
 67.8: Mike Piazza, 2001 Mets
 66.2: Mike Piazza, 1995 Dodgers
 63.6: Mike Piazza, 1998 Mets
 63.2: Johnny Bench, 1970 Reds
 62.9: Jason Kendall, 1998 Pirates
 62.6: Johnny Bench, 1972 Reds

He can slot in just ahead of Piazza’s ’96 year. Mauer is simply having one of the best seasons ever by a catcher. His high batting average may actually be detracting from people realizing just how great a year it is. Because he’s contending for the arcane batting championship, he’s constantly being mentioned in the same breath as the other catchers who managed to win batting titles, Ernie Lombardi and Bubbles Hargrave. Being mentioned in the same sentence as Hargrave, a 33-year old when he won his title in just 353 plate appearances, does no service to Mauer. Forget Bubbles, Mauer is showing he’s upper crust by having a Piazza-in-his-prime class season.