The Monday Takeaway
The American League playoff teams are finally set. But the junior circuit’s Most Valuable Player battle rages on.

Former Rays reliever Grant Balfour fired a 95-mph fastball past former Angels catcher Mike Napoli for the final strike of the A’s 92nd win of the season, which punched Oakland’s ticket to the playoffs and eliminated both the Rays and the Angels. Earlier in the evening, the Tigers downed the Royals, 6-3, to maintain their three-game edge on the White Sox and thus seal the American League Central. We now know that the A’s, Orioles, Rangers, Tigers, and Yankees will vie for the pennant later this month. But which individual will be voted the league’s best when award winners are revealed in November?

Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera have separated themselves in what appears to be a two-horse race. Trout enjoys a sizeable lead in WARP, checking in at 8.7 to Cabrera’s 5.8, but Cabrera could entice voters by capturing the Triple Crown, and he tops all three relevant leaderboards with two games left to play. Robinson Cano and Adrian Beltre are there for those who want to throw a wrench into the process, but they are the Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of this election, with a chance to affect the outcome but not to win the prize itself.

Cabrera bolstered his candidacy by fueling the Tigers’ offense in their division-clinching win at Kauffman Stadium on Monday. The third baseman went 4-for-5, pushing his batting average up to .329, and smacked his 44th big fly of the season, passing Josh Hamilton in the home run standings. That sixth-inning solo shot was the only RBI on Cabrera’s line in the 6-3 decision, but Hamilton is unlikely to bridge the 10-RBI gap between them over the next two days, so only the former two categories remain in doubt for Cabrera’s Triple Crown bid.

Not to be outdone, hours later, Trout catalyzed Anaheim’s attack in an 8-4 win at Safeco Field. That victory ultimately proved futile, as the A’s bounced the Halos from contention shortly thereafter, but the center fielder’s 4-for-5 outing in a showdown with Felix Hernandez may have swayed some undecided voters. Trout finished a home run shy of the cycle, drove in three runs by going 2-for-2 with runners in scoring position, and kept the batting title in play by raising his average to .325. Unlike Cabrera’s Tigers, Trout’s Angels will miss the playoffs—but if anything, voters who consider reaching the postseason a key criterion for MVP selection may be forced to wonder what might have been, had the Angels left spring training with Trout in their major-league lineup.

With the Tigers locked into the number-three seed, and the Angels assured of watching the playoffs on TV, neither team has anything to play for on Tuesday and Wednesday. For Cabrera and Trout, though, the last two games offer an opportunity to make closing arguments.

To that end, Cabrera has gone 7-for-23 (.304 average) with two home runs in his career versus tonight’s Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie (8:10 p.m. ET), while Trout is just 1-for-9 against fellow rookie Hisashi Iwakuma, who gets the ball for the Mariners (10:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • No National League pitcher has won 22 games in a season since Brandon Webb did it in 2008. Gio Gonzalez could join him—and become the first senior-circuit left-hander to accomplish the feat since Dontrelle Willis in 2005—by outgunning a spate of Phillies relievers led by B.J. Rosenberg in tonight’s middle match. Of course, given how quickly things went downhill for Webb and Willis after their 22-win campaigns, maybe Gonzalez is better off sticking with 21. The 27-year-old southpaw has logged a 2.52 ERA and a 29-to-9 K:BB in 25 innings over four starts against the Phillies this year, and he has not been dealt a loss at Nationals Park since Aug. 3 (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Orioles and Yankees have both clinched playoff spots, but the American League East is still up for grabs. Monday’s 10-2 rout of the Red Sox, coupled with Baltimore’s 5-3 loss in Tampa Bay, pared New York’s magic number to two. That means that the Orioles must win out and seek help from Boston to avoid settling for the wild card. Unfortunately, with Bobby Valentine trotting out Grapefruit League split-squad lineups in the Bronx, they are unlikely to get it. David Phelps, who faces Jon Lester, will deliver the first pitch at Yankee Stadium (7:05 p.m. ET); five minutes later, James Shields, who takes on Miguel Gonzalez, will do the same at Tropicana Field (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Like the American League MVP race, the National League Cy Young battle remains muddled with only two games left to play. R.A. Dickey—one of the favorites, with 20 wins, an endearing story, and success to spare—could rise above the competition with a strong effort in Miami tonight. The 37-year-old knuckleballer has dominated the Marlins throughout this season, winning all five of his meetings with Ozzie Guillen’s squad. Those five victories include two complete games, one of which was a shutout, and Dickey’s combined ERA over 39 innings against Miami this season stands at 1.38. He’ll try to snap the Mets’ three-game skid in tonight’s duel with Jacob Turner (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • One down, two to go—that’s the mentality for the A’s, who clinched a playoff berth with Monday’s 4-3 victory over the Rangers, but now have their sights set on the American League West crown. Outfielder Josh Reddick said in the midst of last night’s postgame festivities that Oakland is “ready to celebrate in two days, too.” After rattling rookie Martin Perez early in the series opener, the A’s should face a stiffer test in game two, as Matt Harrison toes the rubber for the visitors in a rematch with Travis Blackley. Harrison outlasted Blackley—who survived only one inning—in a 9-7 Rangers win on Sept. 27, but he was charged with four runs in six frames that day, and has struggled to retire Jonny Gomes, who is 5-for-10 with two doubles against him, in all three of their encounters this season. Blackley figures to fare better at the Coliseum, where he has logged a solid 3.00 ERA in 2012, compared to a bloated 5.37 mark on the road (10:05 p.m. ET).
  • Right-handed pitchers have had their fair share of troubles against Buster Posey, but southpaws have found retiring the National League MVP frontrunner to be a nearly impossible task. Posey has gone 69-for-160 with 18 doubles, a triple, and 12 home runs versus left-handed pitching this year; his .431 average is 36 points better than the second-best mark (Melky Cabrera, .395), and he enjoys a 39-point OPS advantage on fellow MVP hopeful Ryan Braun. Tonight’s Dodgers starter, Chris Capuano, has incurred Posey’s wrath firsthand, serving up two hits, including a double, in three at-bats. Assuming that Posey gets the start at first base—which is questionable, with Hector Sanchez likely to catch Barry Zito and Posey suffering from back spasms—Capuano will need to tame his bat to earn his first victory against the Giants since July 31, 2005. The Dodgers must win and hope for another Cardinals loss to stave off elimination for one more day (10:10 p.m. ET). 

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A quick update: The Nationals shut Gio Gonzalez down for the regular season today, so Tom Gorzelanny will get the start instead.
Apparently Gio will not get the chance for #22 ... Tom Gorzelanny is the SP listed for tonight.
Wow, looking at the timestamp, you posted that comment at the exact same time I posted the update
Well .... I'm rooting for a Dickey Cy Young award, so Gio sitting this one out can only help?