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The Tuesday Takeaway

With the Nationals sporting an 11 1/2–game lead over the Braves in the NL East and the Orioles running away with the AL East, 12 1/2 games ahead of the Blue Jays entering Tuesday, it was inevitable that the two Beltway clubs would be playing when the calendar flips to October. For the nation’s capital, Tuesday night was as exhilarating as it gets, as the two clubs officially punched their playoff ticket on the same night with wins over their division foes.

The celebration was a bit sweeter for the Orioles, who claimed their last division title in 1997 and had the privilege of hosting last night’s game against the Blue Jays. The visitors sent Drew Hutchison to the hill, and the Lakeland, Florida native turned in his second straight outing with double-digit punchouts. However, the Orioles hung a pair of crooked numbers on the board, both at the expense of the 24-year-old starter.

Toronto got on the board in the top of the first with an RBI double down the left-field line by Edwin Encarnacion. In the home half of the frame, Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz delivered singles off Hutchison, bringing Steve Pearce to the plate with two outs. On a night that the Orioles—who have exceeded expectations this year despite getting just half a season from Manny Machado, a month out of Matt Wieters, and a disappointing year from Chris Davis—clinched the division title, it was only appropriate that their unlikeliest star delivered the night’s opening blow.

Hutchison’s belt-high fastball was deposited into the right-center stands courtesy of Pearce, who has transformed himself from journeyman to All Star–caliber player this season. Pearce has swung a hot stick for the Orioles, posting a .912 OPS across 361 plate appearances while playing above-average defense in left field and at first base. At the end of the day, he’s been a four-win player by WARP despite playing in less than two-thirds of Baltimore’s games.

The two clubs exchanged runs in the third inning to make it a 4-2 game, and spot starter Ubaldo Jimenez prevented any further damage before being lifted after five innings. The score remained unchanged as Hutchison came out for the seventh, but Jimmy Paredes led off with a single to right and advanced to third after a throwing error by Hutchison. The Toronto right-hander buckled down to record his career-best 11th strikeout and gave way to Aaron Loup with two lefties due up. Loup’s first pitch drilled Nick Markakis to load the bases for Alejandro De Aza. The late-season outfield acquisition worked the count full against Loup and turned on an inside fastball from the sidearmer, clearing the bases and breaking the game wide open.

Baltimore tacked on another run in the eighth while T.J. McFarland, Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller, and Tommy Hunter combined to shut down Toronto’s offense in four innings of relief. When Hunter got Ryan Goins to ground out to Pearce for the final out, Camden Yards erupted for Baltimore’s first AL East crown in 17 years.

Just minutes earlier, champagne had been popped in the Nationals' clubhouse in celebration of their second National League East title in the last three years. Tanner Roark needed just 89 pitches to spin seven shutout innings, scattering five hits, striking out four and walking zero. Aaron Harang had matched Roark through the first five innings, but the veteran hurler hung a 2-2 slider to Ian Desmond in the sixth, and just like that, Washington had a 2-0 lead.

Desmond doubled against David Carpenter in the ninth and came around to score from third on a wild pitch later in the inning to give Washington a three-run advantage. Wilson Ramos tried to add to the cushion by driving a pitch into the right-center gap, but Jason Heyward was there to make an outstanding diving catch.

The tandem of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen combined to retire the final six Braves hitters, with Storen standing on the mound when the Nationals rushed out to celebrate their division title. On the other hand, the Braves fell under .500 for the first time since dropping the season opener and hold just a 1 1/2 game lead over the Marlins for second in the NL East.

Quick Hits from Tuesday

Meanwhile, the Mets lurk just 2 1/2 games behind the Braves in the East after last night’s 9-1 drubbing of Miami. Bartolo Colon pitched into the eighth inning, tallying seven strikeouts and zero walks while throwing 77 of his 109 pitches for strikes. Providing the offensive firepower behind the veteran Colon was 23-year-old Wilmer Flores, who had himself a career night.

Flores got the Mets on the board in the fourth with an RBI double off Nathan Eovaldi, part of a four-run frame that gave the Mets a 4-1 lead. When Flores came to bat the next inning, Brad Penny had taken over for Eovaldi, but the Venezuela-born infielder played no favorites when it came to extra-base knocks.

Flores launched Penny’s fastball into the left-field bleachers to give the Mets a 7-1 lead, which they held when the shortstop came up to bat again in the seventh. Penny was still on the hill for Miami, but Flores chased the 36-year-old with his second home run of the night.

Flores’ big night matched his career-high of six RBIs, which he posted against the Phillies as part of an 11-2 drubbing on June 2nd. He became the first Met with a pair of six-RBI games in a season since Carlos Delgado did it in 2008, and is the only player in baseball to boast that feat this season.

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Heading into the seventh inning of last night’s game against the Reds, Jake Arrieta found himself in a familiar position. Back on June 24th, the Cubs' starter hurled six flawless innings against Cincinnati before having his bid for perfection broken up by a single up the middle by Billy Hamilton. Arrieta lost his perfect game last night by walking Hamilton in the fourth inning, but he still had his no-hitter intact and had faced the minimum when the Reds' speedy center fielder came to the plate in the seventh.

This time, Hamilton hit a soft liner to Chris Coghlan in left field for the first out of the inning and Arrieta’s no-hit attempt continued after getting Brayan Pena to ground out to second and Todd Frazier to strike out. By that point, the Cubs had armed their ace with a six-run lead, as Johnny Cueto issued a season-worst five free passes, including two with the bases loaded as part of a five-run sixth inning. Jorge Soler added a solo blast off Sam LeCure in the seventh inning to put the game even further out of reach.

Everything was working for Arrieta, who relied primarily on his fastball-slider combination while mixing in his curveball and changeup for good measure. By the end of the outing, he had generated 17 swing-and-misses, including this nasty curveball against Ramon Santiago in the sixth.

Arrieta zone

For the second time this season, Arrieta headed to the eighth with a no-hitter still alive, as he lasted 7 2/3 innings against the Red Sox back on June 30th. After striking out Jay Bruce to start the inning, Arrieta dug Brandon Phillips into a 0-2 hole. Wellington Castillo called for a fastball low-and-away, but Arrieta made his lone mistake of the night by leaving the heater down Broadway. Phillips scorched the pitch for a double just beyond the reach of a diving Matt Szczur, who was prepared to run through the Wrigley Field wall to make what would have been an awe-inspiring catch.

Arrieta buckled down to retire the final five batters he faced and complete his first career shutout, a one-hit, 13-strikeout performance that required just 109 pitches. According to the Baseball Reference Play Index, Arrieta became just the seventh starter since the turn of the century to twirl a shutout on 110 or fewer pitches while striking out at least 13 hitters.

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Detroit’s lead atop the AL Central remained unchanged after Tuesday’s slate of games, as both the Tigers and Royals watched their bullpens flop in losses to division foes. While Kansas City’s bullpen has been a strength throughout the year, bullpen blowups are becoming uncomfortably familiar for the Tigers, although Joe Nathan didn’t get any help from his defense during his latest blown save.

Detroit had seemingly pulled a win out of thin air after J.D. Martinez hit a three-run blast off Glen Perkins with two outs in the top of the ninth to give the visitors a 3-2 lead. After retiring the first batter in the bottom of the inning, Nathan walked Trevor Plouffe, who exited in favor of pinch-runner Doug Bernier. Up next was Kurt Suzuki, who laced an elevated breaking ball from Nathan into left-center. Charging Suzuki’s sinking liner was center fielder Ezequiel Carrera, who laid out in a do-or-die effort, but ultimately came up empty and allowed the ball to roll all the way to the warning track for an RBI double.

After a groundout moved pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez to third base, Aaron Hicks hit a high chopper up the middle and was able to use his speed to beat out Andrew Romine’s throw for the walk-off win.

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Things were looking rosy for Kansas City after Norichika Aoki broke a 4-4 tie against the White Sox in the bottom of the sixth with an RBI single. After all, Kansas City had their dangerous bullpen combination of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland lined up to mow down the South Siders, and you had to go back to late June to find the last time that either Herrera or Davis had given up a run.

But Josh Phegley led off against Herrera in the seventh with a single and moved into scoring position after Adam Eaton collected his own base knock. Alexei Ramirez grounded into a fielder’s choice to set up runners at the corners and one out for Jose Abreu, which prompted Ned Yost to turn to Davis in a unique situation.

Yost’s flexible bullpen usage didn’t reap the expected benefits, however, as Davis walked Abreu and then Conor Gillaspie promptly ended the two longest scoreless innings streaks in baseball with one swing of the bat.

Gillespie’s bases-clearing triple ended Davis’ streak at 31 1/3 scoreless innings and Herrera’s at 31 while giving the White Sox a 7-5 lead. Eric Surkamp, Ronald Belisario, and Zach Putnam did the rest to take the middle match of the series.

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After winning last weekend’s series against the Reds and taking four of their last five games overall, the Brewers entered Tuesday’s series opener against the Cardinals hanging on for dear life in the NL Central. The Cardinals looked to squash Cincy’s hopes of salvaging a division crown early against Wily Peralta by going single, single, single, walk to start the bottom of the first. Jhonny Peralta stepped to the plate looking to break the game wide open early with the bases loaded, but instead, the slugger brought the rally to a screeching halt by grounding into a 6-4-3 twin killing. The Milwaukee hurler proceeded to make a nice snag on a Yadier Molina comebacker moments later to escape the jam with just two runs to his name.

Squashing St. Louis’ rally in the first turned out to be pivotal for the Brewers, who cut the lead in half against Lance Lynn in the fourth with Gerardo Parra’s ninth home run of the season. The score remained 2-1 in favor of the Redbirds heading into the ninth inning, as Trevor Rosenthal took the ball in search of his 45th save of the season. However, he walked Jonathan Lucroy to start the inning and served up a double to Aramis Ramirez shortly after, which moved the tying run just 90 feet away. Matt Clark brought that run home later in the inning with a sacrifice fly to left field, which sent the game into extras.

The game remained knotted until the 12th, when Kevin Siegrist issued a one-out walk to Carlos Gomez. The Milwaukee outfielder proceeded to swipe second base off Siegrist and Molina, then stole third base later in the inning with two outs. Hector Gomez drove in the elder Gomez moments later with a flare to shallow right field that gave the Brewers the 3-2 lead. Francisco Rodriguez slammed the door on the win in the bottom of the 12th, which allowed Milwaukee to keep pace with the Pirates in the wild card race and cut their NL Central deficit to four games.

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The Astros came up empty time and time again against Corey Kluber last night, as the Cleveland ace fanned a career-high 14 batters in seven innings and tallied 21 swing-and-misses, including 17 on his breaking pitches.

Kluber zone

One of the few times Houston was able to put the ball in play during their 4-2 loss was in the seventh inning, when Jose Altuve tallied his second hit of the night and 211th of the season. That eclipsed Craig Biggio’s single-season franchise record for hits, which the former Houston second baseman set back in 1998. After tallying his single through the middle, Altuve tipped his cap and got a nice standing ovation from the crowd and Biggio himself, who was sitting behind home plate with Nolan Ryan.

The Defensive Play of the Day

A split second was all Dee Gordon had to start one of the most impressive double plays you’ll see this season.

What to Watch for Wednesday

The Rusney Castillo era begins Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, where the Cuban defector is expected to make his big-league debut in center field against the Pirates. Boston signed Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million contract in late August and fast-tracked him through the minors despite the speedy outfielder not playing competitively in over a year-and-a-half. Castillo will kick off his two-week cup of coffee against Francisco Liriano, who struck out a season-best 12 hitters his last time out, while the Red Sox will send Clay Buchholz to the hill to try to spoil Pittsburgh’s playoff push (7:05 p.m. EST).

Yordano Ventura’s streak of not allowing a stolen-base attempt to start his career was brought to light by Sam Miller on a recent Effectively Wild episode and analyzed more extensively by Ben Lindbergh over at Grantland last week. Just one start after Lindbergh’s Grantland article, the Red Sox attempted not one, but two stolen bases against Ventura and halted his streak at 176 innings. Both attempts were with runners at the corners and two outs, with Yoenis Cespedes taking off from first both times. The first ended with Ventura skipping a fastball in the dirt past Salvador Perez, allowing Cespedes to steal second and Daniel Nava to score on the wild pitch. The next time Cespedes reached, he took off again, but Perez faked a throw to second and caught Mookie Betts breaking home from third base for the final out of the inning. While Ventura’s streak is technically over, we still haven’t seen Ventura’s slide step and Perez’ quick pop time go head-to-head against a speedy baserunner due to Ventura’s wild pitch and the no-throw by Perez. The best chance at seeing a showdown between the Royals' battery and a White Sox player today at Kauffman Stadium would be with either Alexei Ramirez or Adam Eaton on the bases. Robin Ventura will trot out his ace, Chris Sale, for the series finale in what looks to be the best on-paper pitching duel of the night (8:10 p.m. EST).

Despite pitching five scoreless innings and picking up the “W,” last Thursday’s start in Miami is one that Mike Fiers will want to forget. The 29-year-old had to watch Giancarlo Stanton be taken off the field in a stretcher as the result of his 88 mph fastball that struck the Marlins slugger square in the face. Obviously shaken up, Fiers plunked Reed Johnson on the hands with his next pitch, which prompted both benches to clear and these comments from Johnson after the game: “We’re not saying you can’t pitch in. He’s a guy that uses his fastball up effectively. He gets guys to swing under his fastball upstairs. But when you’re trying to pound a guy in and then you have a tendency to miss up a lot, it’s just a bad combination.”

Fiers was rattled, the Marlins were upset, and no good arose from the fiasco, but Johnson’s comments did shed light on how Milwaukee’s hurler has been able to bounce back from his horrendous 2013 campaign. After spending his first two seasons trying to keep the ball low in the zone, Fiers has—as Johnson pointed out—attacked hitters up with his three fastball variations despite lacking premium velocity.

Fiers zone

Fiers spent most of the season at Triple-A Nashville, making just a brief bullpen stint with the Brewers in June before being given another crack at the big league rotation in early August. Since then, Fiers has rocked a 1.74 ERA and 54:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in seven starts, which has largely been due to thriving up in the zone. Batters have expanded the zone up against Fiers’ fastball and have a tendency to come up empty when they do offer at it. Even when hitters have made contact against elevated fastballs, they haven’t found much success against the pitch, going just 5-for-45 against heaters at the letters or higher, with just one extra-base hit (this Adrian Gonzalez home run on August 9th) and ten infield popouts. That’s not a typo—twice as many infield popups as hits!

Last start was the ugly extreme of what can happen when a guy who lives up in the zone lets a couple of pitches get away from him, but Milwaukee will need Fiers to shake off last week and get back on track in a critical matchup against the Cardinals, who will counter with Adam Wainwright (8:15 p.m. EST).

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