The Thursday Takeaway
Two American League wild-card hopefuls had a chance to sweep their rivals on Thursday. The A’s failed, losing 6-0 in Anaheim. The Orioles succeeded, padding their lead over Tampa Bay, and gaining momentum heading into their showdown at the Coliseum this weekend.

Baltimore’s 3-2, 14-inning victory ranks among the year’s best games, replete with both highlights and oddities, and taking 314 minutes and 454 pitches to complete. When it was all over, Buck Showalter’s squad emerged with its 27th win in 34 one-run games this year and improved its extra-inning ledger to 13-2.

The top four hitters in the Orioles’ lineup—including Lew Ford, who stepped in for Wilson Betemit in the sixth inning—combined to go 3-for-25. As a team, the O’s were just 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position. And yet, they made the most of their three runs, pushing two across to take a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh, and using the third to clinch the win seven innings later.

Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson did not allow a run, but he also lasted only five-plus innings, leaving with 93 pitches after facing one batter in the sixth. Of course, with newfound bullpen studs like Jake McGee and Wade Davis at his disposal, Joe Maddon had little reason to be alarmed. While Fernando Rodney has been Tampa Bay’s greatest relief revelation this year, the closer has enjoyed plenty of company in that department since the All-Star break.

In his first full major-league season, the 26-year-old McGee entered the series at Camden Yards with a 53-to-10 K:BB over 44 2/3 innings—nearly twice as many strikeouts (27) as he recorded in 28 frames last year, and two fewer walks. He had been virtually untouchable in the second half, holding opponents to just 10 hits and three walks in 15 1/3 innings, while fanning 24. And McGee did not disappoint in Baltimore: He faced four batters on Wednesday and three more on Thursday, and all seven of them struck out.

As for Davis, coming into yesterday’s game, he had made 17 relief appearances since the All-Star break, pitched 21 2/3 innings, and given up only one run, posting a 31-to-7 K:BB along the way. Unfortunately, unlike McGee, Davis—who struck out two in a scoreless inning on Wednesday—could not hold the Rays’ 1-0 edge, beginning his outing with a fielding error, then issuing a walk and serving up a two-run double to Taylor Teagarden, before giving way to J.P. Howell. The Orioles tripled Davis’ runs-allowed total for the second half on their way to a 2-1 lead.

But after Wei-Yin Chen walked Desmond Jennings to start the top of the eighth, Teagarden committed a passed ball, putting the speedy outfielder in scoring position with nobody out. Jennings stole third on B.J. Upton’s strikeout, then scored on an infield single by Ben Zobrist, the Rays’ only hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position on the afternoon. The score was 2-2, and the fun was only getting started.

Managers cope with tightly contested, extra-inning games in different ways, and the options increase vastly when rosters expand in September. Maddon took this as an opportunity to try his hand at National League baseball with a youth league, everyone-must-play twist. After attempting to will his team to a go-ahead run with two ultimately futile substitutions in the top of the ninth, and then making five defensive changes to accommodate those moves in the bottom half of the frame, the skipper took things to a new level in the top of the 11th. With nobody on and two away, and his designated hitter already gone thanks to the ninth-inning game of musical chairs, Maddon sent pitcher Chris Archer up to the plate, and then executed a double switch after Archer, predictably, struck out.

By the time the dust settled, Maddon had used 26 players, more than the 25 he would have had at his disposal before the calendar turned to September. That list included nine pitchers and 17 position players, only one of whom entered as a pinch-hitter. Three of the four catchers on the roster appeared in the game.  Six players swapped defensive positions, on two occasions moving from the infield to the outfield or vice versa. And only one of the nine players in Tampa Bay’s starting lineup, Upton, finished the game at the same position where he stood when the team took the field in the bottom of the first.

Yet for all that effort, Maddon’s team produced only one run between the fifth and 14th innings, and Archer could only hold the Orioles scoreless for 3 2/3. On Wednesday, Nate McLouth was the hero, plating Machado with a walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth. On Thursday, the 20-year-old infielder delivered the game-winning knock himself, capping a two-out rally that began when Adam Jones walked and Endy Chavez singled to center, setting the stage for the team’s top rookie.

“It’s a great feeling to get a pie in the face,” Machado said after the game. His single clinched the Orioles’ first .500-or-better season since 1997, and it enabled Baltimore to keep pace with the Yankees and remain atop the American League East with only 19 games left to play.

Now, the Orioles will travel to Oakland to take on the A’s, who have proven equally resilient and remain a game up on Baltimore in the standings. Bob Melvin’s team has a 4 ½-game buffer on the third-place Angels, but with a grueling road trip to Detroit, New York, and Texas looming immediately after this quick, three-game homestand, it would be apt to pad its cushion. The A’s will try to halt the Orioles’ winning streak behind starter Tommy Milone and leadoff man Coco Crisp, who is 7-for-24 with five doubles and a home run in his career against Joe Saunders, who gets the ball for the visitors in tonight’s opener (Friday, 10:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Have you had a rough week at work? Well, what better way to start the weekend than a primetime duel between David Price and CC Sabathia, who will look horns in the series opener between the Yankees and Rays. The aforementioned sweep left Tampa Bay four games behind Baltimore and New York in the American League East, but Joe Maddon’s squad could bridge some of that gap by bouncing back this weekend. Price has logged a 3.20 ERA and a 25-to-13 K:BB in 25 1/3 innings over four starts against the Bombers this year, while Sabathia owns a 3.21 ERA and 33-to-7 K:BB through 28 innings and the same number of outings. Evan Longoria is 14-for-37 with five home runs lifetime versus the Yankees ace (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish squared off in a thrilling NPB season opener three years before the Mariners and Rangers imported the right-handers from Japan. Tonight, they’ll meet stateside for the first time, as Darvish looks to exorcise some bizarre Seattle demons. In three starts against the American League’s feeblest offense, Darvish has coughed up 17 runs (16 earned) in 16 innings, while compiling a dismal 14-to-14 K:BB. But the Darvish the Mariners will see on Friday is not the same one who nibbled and lacked faith in his stuff two months ago. The 26-year-old has amassed a 34-to-6 K:BB over his last four trips to the mound, and he has not fanned fewer than four batters in a start since his most recent outing against Seattle on July 14. Meanwhile, Iwakuma has faced the Rangers twice during his first major-league season, most recently on July 15, when he allowed four runs in five innings and was charged with the loss. His first career meeting with Texas came way back on May 30, when Iwakuma was credited with his first-ever save—for pitching the last three innings of a 21-8 ballgame. Iwakuma did not record a single strikeout in those eight frames (Friday, 8:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Baseball Prospectus crew, including yours truly, will be in attendance at game three of the Cardinals-Dodgers series on Saturday night, when—because of Clayton Kershaw’s balky hip, which pushed his previous start from Sunday to Tuesday—Jaime Garcia is slated to take on Joe Blanton. That’s good news for Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina, who are a combined 9-for-23 with three home runs in their past encounters with Blanton. But Garcia has had his share of trouble with the Dodgers, too, serving up 25 hits in just 14 1/3 innings, en route to a 6.91 ERA (Saturday, 9:10 p.m. ET).
  • Gio Gonzalez became the league’s first 19-game winner this past Monday, and on Sunday, he’ll get a crack at 20 in the series finale between the Nationals and Braves. The Nats enter the three-game set on a three-game winning streak, while the Braves have dropped three straight, and Washington’s magic number for their first East division title since the strike-split 1981 season is down to 11. With a 45-27 record away from Nationals Park this year, Davey Johnson’s squad has fared 3 ½ games better on the road than any other team. If the Nats can win five of their remaining nine away contests, they will join the 2011 Phillies as the only National League teams to win 50 road games in a single season since 2005 (Sunday, 8:05 p.m. ET).
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