The Tuesday Takeaway
The Athletics, Orioles, Rangers, and Yankees played the 161st games of their regular seasons on Tuesday, yet the American League playoff picture remains in flux. The Tigers are the Central division champions and the league’s number-three seed—that much we know. Everything else will be decided in games 162 … or 163.
After watching Baltimore overcome a 15-strikeout masterpiece from James Shields—arguably the best nine-inning effort in a Live Ball Era defeat—and win 1-0 at Tropicana Field, New York came to the brink of losing its East division lead, trailing Boston 3-1, in the bottom of the ninth. But 40-year-old Raul Ibanez rescued the Yankees with a two-run blast off Andrew Bailey, sending the game into extra innings by lining a grooved, 1-2 fastball just over the W.B. Mason sign in right field.
Three innings later, with nobody on base and a 13th frame seemingly inevitable, Andrew Miller gift-wrapped a two-out rally for the home team. Miller dug Francisco Cervelli, who was making his first major-league plate appearance of the season, an 0-2 hole, but then put the backup catcher aboard with four straight balls. He missed with his next four pitches, too, issuing a free pass to Curtis Granderson and moving Cervelli into scoring position. That set the stage for Ibanez, who brought Cervelli home with a ground-ball single through the Red Sox’s mild overshift, securing a 4-3 win and preserving the Yankees’ hold on first place.
All that now stands between New York and a second straight East division title is a battle with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been a veritable piñata since returning from Tommy John surgery in June. Matsuzaka carries a 7.68 ERA into Wednesday’s outing, and he has coughed up at least five runs in each of his past four starts. His countryman, Hiroki Kuroda, will be tasked with wrapping things up, and a Yankees win would also give Joe Girardi’s team the number-one seed (7:05 p.m. ET).
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles to the south, the Orioles must win to either force a tiebreaker with the Yankees at Camden Yards or earn a chance to host the one-game wild-card playoff against either the Athletics or Rangers. Baltimore, Oakland, and Texas are all knotted up at 93-68, but both the A’s and Rangers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the O’s, so home-field advantage in the playoff is at stake. Buck Showalter’s squad has won five of its last six behind Chris Tillman, who beat the Rays on July 26 and has allowed exactly one run in each of his last three starts (7:10 p.m. ET).
On the West Coast, it’s two down, one to go for the A’s, who clinched a wild-card spot on Monday night but are now just one win away from an improbable upset and the West division crown. Travis Blackley, who was shelled for five runs in just one inning of work in Arlington on Sept. 27, limited the Rangers to one run in six innings on Tuesday, paving the way for Oakland’s 3-1 win.
The greatest challenge for A’s manager Bob Melvin, who sends A.J. Griffin to the mound to oppose Ryan Dempster, may be navigating his bullpen, which has been taxed heavily in recent days. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour worked the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, respectively, in the first two games of the series, and Balfour—who is 17-for-17 in save opportunities since resuming the role—has been used in four consecutive games. Rangers skipper Ron Washington has a deeper stable of relievers at his disposal, including closer Joe Nathan, though the Rangers are without primary setup man Mike Adams, who's suffering from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
But the A’s have overcome much more formidable obstacles on their way to first place, which the Rangers—who led by five games with only 10 left to play—had all to themselves from April 9 until last night. Tuesday’s game marked the 100th time that Melvin has deployed a rookie starting pitcher in 2012, and Blackley’s victory was the 53rd by an Oakland rookie this season, breaking a league record.
Griffin blanked the Rangers for six innings in a 4-3 loss in Texas on June 29, one of only three defeats the A’s have suffered in the 24-year-old’s 14 assignments. Oakland is 6-1 with Griffin on the hill at the Coliseum, and the University of San Diego product has amassed a 2.52 ERA in 39 1/3 innings at their home park, though he has not completed the sixth inning in any of his last three tries. (3:35 p.m. ET).
Amid all the excitement we have enjoyed over the past week, from the stunning campaigns of the A’s and O’s to the down-to-the-wire races across the junior circuit, perhaps no fact sums up the chaotic finish better than this: The Rangers, who just two games ago stood alone atop the American League, are two defeats away from watching the rest of the postseason from home.
What to Watch for on Wednesday
- With home-field advantage in the one-game playoff secured, and the Nationals out of reach, the Braves will send Ben Sheets to the bump at PNC Park in this afternoon’s finale. Sheets said earlier this week that Wednesday’s start will mark the last appearance of his major-league career, which has spanned 249 games over 10 seasons broken up by a spate of injuries. The 34-year-old stabilized a then-scuffling Braves rotation in late-July, helping the team stay atop the wild-card race, and after missing five weeks with shoulder inflammation, he’ll now be rewarded with a chance at one final hurrah. Sheets is set to face A.J. Burnett, whom he previously dueled in a wild contest on Aug. 6, 2004, when Triple Crown hopeful Miguel Cabrera was batting sixth and playing left field for the Marlins (12:35 p.m. ET).
- The Astros have played 8,132 regular-season games in the National League since joining the majors as the Colt .45s in 1962, but today’s matinee will mark their last before they shift to the American League for 2013 and beyond. A victory over the Cubs would end Houston’s 51st season on a high note, giving the Astros their first four-game winning streak since May 21-25 and ending their 51-year stay in the senior circuit with an even 4,000 wins. Edgar Gonzalez, who was signed out of the Mexican League less than six weeks ago, gets the ball at Wrigley Field, where he will take on Travis Wood and try to maintain a scoreless streak that dates back to the eighth inning of Saturday’s loss. That’s not a misprint: the 55-106 Astros have won each of their past three games in shutout fashion (2:20 p.m. ET).
- R.A. Dickey appears to be the favorite—at least among starting pitchers—for the National League Cy Young award, but Clayton Kershaw has one more chance to change the voters’ minds. The Dodgers were eliminated from the playoffs in last night’s 4-3 loss to the Giants, so the 24-year-old will be out there solely for pride, as he tries to become the first pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Young honors since Tim Lincecum did it in 2008-2009. Kershaw has pared his ERA down from 3.14 to a league-best 2.56 since July 29 by holding opponents to no more than three runs in each of his 11 starts during that span, and no more than one run in each of his past four trips to the mound. To sustain that streak, he’ll need to be careful with Marco Scutaro, who is riding a career-high 20-game hitting streak and has gone 4-for-7 in their past meetings (7:15 p.m. ET).
- After taking the Ted Williams approach and putting his batting average lead on the line in yesterday’s loss to the Royals, Miguel Cabrera sits on the verge of earning the league’s first Triple Crown since 1967. Cabrera went 2-for-3 before leaving in the fifth inning on Tuesday, padding his batting average to .331, which is likely out of range for Mike Trout, who tumbled down to .324 with a 1-for-5 outing in Seattle last night. Thus, an eleventh-hour shift in the home-run leaderboard is the only thing that could prevent Cabrera from inheriting Carl Yastrzemski’s torch. With 44 big flies on the season, Cabrera is one ahead of Josh Hamilton, two above Edwin Encarnacion, and three up on Adam Dunn and Curtis Granderson. He is 4-for-11 lifetime, including one homer, against Wednesday’s Royals starter Luis Mendoza, and the late start time at Kauffman Stadium means that Cabrera will likely know where he ranks in each of the three categories before first pitch (8:10 p.m. ET).