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The Thursday Takeaway
The 2015 season has been filled with unpredictability. The Nationals collapsed. The Mets clinched the NL East with a week and a half to go in the season. The Blue Jays became a super team. The Royals defied the projections and have had the AL Central in the bag for a couple of months. The Twins are still playing meaningful games!

But no single division has been turned on its head like the AL West. The Angels came into the season as the favorites according to PECOTA, and the BP Staff picked the Mariners to emerge with the division title. Most people imagined that those two clubs, along with the Athletics, would spend the dog days of summer battling for a playoff spot. By now you know that things couldn’t have gone much more differently.

Entering Thursday, the Rangers held a 2 ½ game lead over the idle Astros, who held a half-game lead over the Angels for the second AL Wild Card spot. Two Rangers wins over the weekend would clinch the division. So would one win and anything less than an Astros sweep against the Diamondbacks. With the Twins looming behind the Angels and the second AL Wild Card spot up for grabs, the only predictable outcome was that chaos would ensue at some point over the next four days.

On the mound for the Rangers was Derek Holland, who couldn’t have imagined a much better first inning. The veteran left-hander started off the game with three straight strikeouts of Erick Aybar, Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout.

But things got a little trickier the next inning. Albert Pujols led things off with a double in the left-center gap and then advanced 90 feet on a grounder to the right side of the infield. Holland wanted little to do with Rangers arch nemesis David Freese, setting up runners at the corners for Shane Victorino. The Flyin’ Hawaiian may not have the wheels he once had but he can still hold his own against left-handed pitching. He ripped a 2-1 hanger from Holland down the left field line, but Josh Hamilton was there to make an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch.

Somehow, Pujols almost got thrown out at home despite Hamilton diving and banging up against the outfield wall. It’s hardly a secret that Pujols is one of the slowest position players in the league at this point in his career, but there’s no excuse for his first move on a ball hit that deep to be anything but other than a tag up.

Meanwhile, Andrew Heaney was skating uneasily despite keeping the Rangers off the board through the first four innings. The young left-hander worked his way out of jams in the first and second innings and had issued three walks by the time he took the mound in the fifth inning. That’s where things began to fall apart.

Elvis Andrus started the inning by working a full count, then ripped the payoff pitch from Heaney into left field for a single. Rougned Odor popped out and then Roberto Chirinos drew a walk to put the go-ahead run on base. Delino DeShields took advantage of his speed and one of Mike Trout’s few deficiencies (his arm) to leg out an RBI double that tied the game at 1-1. Heaney got ahead 0-2 on Shin-Soo Choo but let the at-bat get away from him, issuing his fifth walk of the game to load the bases.

By this time, it was clear that Heaney was struggling to execute his pitches. With Adrian Beltre stepping to the plate for the third time in the game, a move to a right-handed reliever might have been the ideal move by Mike Scioscia. Instead, the Angels skipper left his young starter in and Beltre cleared the bases.

In Heaney’s defense, it’s not as if he didn’t execute his pitch. I mean, seriously, look at how far down Beltre went to go get it. Nevertheless, Beltre’s bases-clearing double gave Texas a 4-1 advantage and immediately prompted Scioscia to pull Heaney from the game. The Angels crept back to within one run, with Albert Pujols drilling a solo home run in the sixth and the visitors mounting a rally in the seventh against High Leverage October Reliever Ross Ohlendorf. The Angels pulled to within 4-3 and had runners at the corners with two outs before Jake Diekman was brought in to retire Kole Calhoun. Elvis Andrus showed off some solid range and made a strong throw to quash the rally.

Texas would tack on an insurance run in the seventh inning, with the rally started by none other than Beltre. The 36-year-old third baseman and Prince Fielder started the inning off with back-to-back singles, and Beltre would come around to score later in the inning on a sacrifice fly. Sam Dyson and Shawn Tolleson teamed up to send down the final six Angels in order to clinch a spot in the playoffs for the Rangers and reduce their AL West magic number to one.

Quick Hits from Thursday
While the Rangers and Angels were busy slugging it out in Texas, the Twins and Indians were dealing with heavy winds in Cleveland. The unpredictable weather, paired with some shaky outfield defense, aided the scoring of Minnesota’s first run. Joe Mauer worked a full count against Trevor Bauer with one out in the fourth and then drove a line drive over the head of left fielder Michael Martinez. The wind might have been a factor here, but regardless, the route taken by Martinez was less than ideal.

Bauer buckled down to retire Miguel Sano but then fell behind 2-0 to Trevor Plouffe. The Indians starter threw Plouffe a slider that stayed up and the third baseman ripped a deep fly ball to center. Abraham Almonte got turned around on the ball, which landed just beyond his reach for an RBI double that gave the Twins a 1-0 lead.

Meanwhile, Tyler Duffey was working on a gem for the Twins. The 24-year-old has posted nine strong starts for Minnesota down the stretch, largely due to a curveball with an 18 percent whiff rate and 65 percent groundball rate; he throws it two out of every five pitches. The right-hander sits in the low 90s with his fastball but mixes in a two-seamer that he was working the outer part of the plate against a lefty-heavy Indians lineup.

As you can see, Duffey was doing a good job at keeping his curveball down and got eight swing and misses with the pitch. He kept the Indians scoreless through six innings and fanned Lonnie Chisenahall to start the seventh inning for his sixth strikeout of the game. But Almonte knocked a hook back up the middle for a single and Roberto Perez followed up with a laser over the center field wall on what would be Duffey’s final pitch of the night.

The Twins would tie it back up the next inning. Bryan Shaw came in to relieve Bauer and issued a one-out free pass to Danny Santana, just the sixth walk the infielder has drawn this season. Paul Molitor played a little hit-and-run with Santana and Eduardo Escobar, resulting in a double down the left-field line that plated the tying run.

Cody Allen got the call for Cleveland with the game tied 2-2 in the ninth inning and immediately retired Sano for the first out. Plouffe looked like he would be out number two but Jose Ramirez skipped his throw to first and Carlos Santana was unable to pick it. Plouffe went first-to-third on a single by Eddie Rosario, who moved up to second base on the throw. A wild pitch and sacrifice fly gave the Twins the 4-2 lead, which Kevin Jepsen was able to preserve in the ninth inning. Minnesota is now tied with the Angels and just one game behind Houston for the AL’s final playoff spot.

***

Tim Hudson wrapped up his brilliant career on Thursday, tossing 2 1/3 innings against the Dodgers in his final start. Giants manager Bruce Bochy lifted the 40-year-old pitcher to a standing ovation from the AT&T Park crowd.

Hudson was greeted by a line of hugs from his Giants teammates, who congratulated him on a durable 17-year career. The right-hander was never the hardest thrower and didn’t rack up a ton of strikeouts, but was among the league leaders year after year when it came to generating groundballs.

As R.J. Anderson covered yesterday, Hudson was never expected to be much more than a back-end starter or bullpen arm as a sixth-round senior signee out of Auburn University. Yet he managed to rack up 51 WARP over the course of his career, was part of the one of the best homegrown starting pitcher trios in recent history, made four All-Star teams, persevered through two separate major injuries, won a World Series ring in his penultimate season and by all indications was a pretty cool guy beloved by his teammates. Farewell, Tim Hudson, and congratulations on a career.

***

After Hudson’s exit from the game was appropriately celebrated, another Giants pitcher we learned will retire at season’s end, Jeremy Affeldt, entered. Hudson had left Affeldt a pair of runners with only one out in the 1-0 game and the Dodgers extended their lead against the lefty reliever. Adrian Gonzalez immediately singled home the second run of the game and an RBI fielder’s choice by Andre Ethier made it 3-0.

Three runs proved to be more than enough of a cushion for Dodgers starter Brett Anderson. The left-hander was one of several oft-injured starting pitchers the Dodgers signed during the offseason but the only one who has panned out. With 7 2/3 innings of work on Thursday, Anderson upped his season total to a career-high 180 1/3 innings pitched, which earned him a little extra dough.

Anderson surrendered a pair of runs in the eighth inning but Kenley Jansen tossed a clean ninth inning to close out the 3-2 win for Los Angeles.

***

The Orioles are eliminated from playoff competition but Manny Machado just keeps on stuffing the stat sheet and flashing the leather at the hot corner. It’s been a true breakout season for Machado, who has made dramatic strides in his selectiveness at the plate, which has led to fewer strikeouts, more walks and a spike in power. Pair that with Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base and you have a player who has been worth approximately seven wins by WARP in his age-22 season.

Machado opened the scoring against Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison by smacking a two-run homer in the first inning.

Rain delayed the game by nearly 3 and 1/2 hours but when the teams retook the field Machado picked right up where he left off. He singled off Jeff Francis in the fourth inning and swiped his 19th and 20th bases of the season. With the pair of steals, Machado joined Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Alex Rodriguez as the only players to hit 30 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season at age 22 or younger. Machado might not add as much baserunning value as his stolen bases suggest (he’s been caught stealing eight times) but he did enter the day with three runs added on the bases by BP’s metric.

Two innings later, Machado added his second dinger of the day and 33rd of the season.

The youngster also made a sweet diving stab in the sixth inning to rob Darwin Barney of a base hit.

The Orioles went on to beat Toronto by a final of 6-4.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Two months ago I delved into the defense of Rays center field Kevin Kiermaier, who at the time was lapping the field in defensive metrics. Since then he’s only continued his defensive dominance, entering Thursday with 38 Defensive Runs Saved. Andrelton Simmons has racked up the second most DRS this season, with 25. One of the things that I noted about Kiermaier was that he appeared to be playing deeper this season, a trade off that wasn’t as detrimental to him in part because of his strong arm. Here’s the GIF I used at the time to demonstrate how strong Kiermaier’s arm is.

If I were re-writing that article today I would probably use this video instead.

What to Watch this Weekend
As we enter the regular season’s final weekend, all eyes will be on who nabs the final AL Wild Card spot. The Yankees clinched a berth in the AL Wild Card game and will host the play-in game with either one win or one Astros loss against the Diamondbacks this weekend.

The Astros are in control of their destiny as they head to Arizona for a three-game series starting on Friday. They hold a one-game lead over both the Angels and Twins, and can simply clinch a playoff spot by sweeping the Snakes. Winning out is also the only chance Houston has at catching the Rangers in the AL West (Texas would have to lose out; in that scenario the two teams would play Game 163 in Arlington with the winner getting the division and the loser getting the wild card). Meanwhile, the Twins will host a three-game series against the Royals starting on Friday.

A tie between two out of the Astros, Angels and Twins would force a 163rd regular season game between those teams on Monday, with the winner facing the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday. If all three teams finish with the same record after Sunday… Well, I’ll just direct you here for further information.

***

The only things still in question in the Senior Circuit heading into the weekend is where the NL Wild Card game will be played and who will host the NLDS between the Dodgers and Mets.

Chicago’s 5-3 win over Cincinnati on Thursday cut Pittsburgh’s lead to host the play-in game to two games. In the event of a tie between the Cubs and Pirates, the NL Wild Card game will be played at Wrigley Field because of Chicago’s 11-8 series advantage over the Pirates this season. Hence, there are two possible combinations for Chicago to host the Wild Card game: a Chicago sweep in Milwaukee paired with Pittsburgh dropping at least two of three at home to Cincinnati or Chicago taking two of three from Milwaukee paired with a Cincinnati sweep. Anything else results in next Wednesday’s expected duel between Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole taking place at PNC Park.

The Phillies completed their three-game sweep of the Mets on Thursday, behind seven scoreless innings from former Rangers farmhand Jerad Eickhoff. The right-hander carved up New York’s “B” lineup, with most of the regulars sitting in the day game after a night game. Nevertheless, the right-hander fanned 10, joining Cole Hamels as the only Phillies rookies since 1964 to rack up consecutive double-digit strikeout games.

Coupled win the Dodgers’ 3-2 win over the Giants on Thursday, the two NL Division winners share 89-70 records heading into the season’s final weekend. New York holds the tiebreaker over Los Angeles by virtue of their 4-3 season series advantage. The Dodgers will host the Padres over the weekend while the Mets welcome the Nationals into Queens.

Perhaps even more important for the Mets than locking up home-field advantage this weekend will be getting to the NLDS in one piece. The team got a scare earlier this week when Yoenis Cespedes was nailed on the hand by a Justin De Fratus fastball. The diagnosis was two bruised fingers for the Cuban slugger, a scenario that could have been much worse for Cespedes and the Mets.

Wilmer Flores left that same game with back tightness, the same injury that has also put Steven Matz’s NLDS status up in the air. The Mets hope to get Matz 5-6 innings over the weekend to test whether he can start a potential Game Four of the NLDS. Whether he gets the chance to get that work in could also be dictated by Hurricane Joaquin, which is expected to hit the East Coast this weekend and could also impact the series in Baltimore between the Yankees and Orioles.

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