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The Weekend Takeaways

The Rangers and the Astros.

Those two teams, in whichever order, were picked to finish in the basement of the American League West by the staff of Baseball Prospectus and most other prognostication sources. But you know what they say: You can’t prognosticate baseball.

After a staggering 11-10 defeat on Saturday in which Texas blew a four-run deficit in the top of the ninth, the Rangers responded emphatically with a 9-2 win on Cole Hamels' back to win the division title and put the Astros in the Wild Card game against the Yankees.

The misery from the previous game didn't immediately dissipate. Hamels retired the first two hitters of the frame, but then Mike Trout doubled and Albert Pujols slugged a two-run homer.

An ideal start it was not. Garrett Richards proved erratic in his most important start of the year, though. He walked Delino DeShields and Shin-Soo Choo to open the first inning and gave up a single to Prince Fielder to let the Rangers' first run score.

Richards held the Rangers scoreless the next two innings, but his pitch count had climbed to 65 by that point. In the bottom of the fifth, he gave up a two-run dinger to Adrian Beltre, who showed some serious grown-man strength in muscling the ball over the right-field fence.

The Angels held on for one more inning before the bullpen imploded. Cam Bedrosian, Cesar Ramos and Mike Morin were tagged for two runs apiece and only retired one batter between them. The Rangers chipped away for the first four runs of the inning, getting them on a bases-loaded walk, an infield single and a sacrifice fly. Elvis Andrus’ two-run double put the capper on the jubilant rally.

Beltre might have even let Andrus pat his head after that. (Kidding, of course.) Though that would be a nice reward. Hamels was the only pitcher the Rangers needed, as he allowed one hit after Pujols’ dinger in the first inning and threw a complete game. Man, if the Phillies hadn’t traded him, they might’ve had a chance this year!

The Astros wound up losing to the Diamondbacks in a pretty uninspiring fashion, as is the case with any loss to the Diamondbacks. At one point, Lance McCullers let a batter reach on an error and then let him score on a balk. And here’s the thing: That run was unearned. Baseball scoring is so stupid, because that run literally could not have been more earned by McCullers.

But the Astros could have lost by 30 and it would have been okay, because they only way they were going to have to play a game 163 is if the Angels won. And since the Angels lost, the 2017 World Series champions have a shot to get one two years in advance.

***

The Nationals have gotten more craptastic even after the games have stopped mattering, as the Jonathan Papelbon trade has blown up in the front office’s face and Matt Williams keeps getting buried in his own incompetence.

There’s still Max Scherzer, though. His August was uninspiring, to say the least, but Scherzer has proven to be one of baseball’s most exciting characters, a man heterochromic pitching monster who seems to legitimately contend for a no-hitter every time he comes out, even the day after having to play catch inside a hotel.

On Saturday, Scherzer threw not just his best game of the season, not just the best game of his career, but one of the best games of all time. By the (imperfect) measure of game score, it was a 104, which is just behind Kerry Wood’s 105 from his 20-strikeout game against the Astros.

It was a no-hitter, with 17 strikeouts and no walks, with the only baserunner coming on Yunel Escobar’s throwing error.

Scherzer normally throws his changeup quite a lot. In this game, he threw it just six times. It was a strike three of those times and a swinging strike twice. Scherzer’s real whiff-getter was his fastball, which generated swinging strikes 29 percent of the time, the pitch’s second-highest percentage of the year. Those whiffs accounted for half the total strikes Scherzer got with that pitch, which is just an absurd total. And it would make sense that, on Saturday, he had the second-most horizontal movement on that pitch of any Scherzer start this year. His slider and changeup, meanwhile, each had the most horizontal movement of any Scherzer starter. And he threw 80 of his 109 pitches for strikes, so this was just a game where the Mets’ hitter had absolutely no chance at all.

This season was one to forget for the Nationals, to say the least. But they could be in much worse shape as a team, possessing in Scherzer and Bryce Harper two of the most exciting players in baseball. Washington might lose a lot of season ticket holders over the offseason, but if I were someone with the means to have season tickets, I’d hold onto those babies with my life. — Ian Frazer

***

Clayton Kershaw entered his final start of the regular season six strikeouts shy of 300. He was up against a Padres offense that came into play with 1,313 Ks, the seventh-highest total in the majors. But the southpaw wouldn’t have all day, with manager Don Mattingly more concerned about Kershaw’s work over the rest of the month than with ensuring he’d reach the coveted punchout plateau at all costs.

Kershaw’s pitch limit was 60. He’d have to be both dominant and efficient to record the 34th 300-strikeout season in the Modern Era.

With little time to mess around, Kershaw began his day with—what else?—a strikeout, no. 295 of his season. Two batters later, he got no. 296. A couple more in the second inning ran his total to 298. And at that point, the question wasn’t whether Kershaw would reach 300, it was who the historic victim would be. The future trivia answer: Melvin Upton Jr., who joined many of his big-league brethren by swinging well over the top of a 74-mph Kershaw curve:

That was no. 300, and Kershaw, ever the overachiever, had left himself 23 pitches with which to pad his total.

The Padres, though, showed more discipline in the top of the fourth inning, perhaps aware that they were approaching the light at the end of the dark tunnel that is staring at Kershaw from the batter’s box. The defending NL Cy Young Award winner fanned Yangervis Solarte with one away, but he hit his pitch allotment for the afternoon after a two-out single by Jedd Gyorko. Mattingly came out to make a double-switch, and Kershaw finished the 2015 season with 301 strikeouts to his name.

Sunday’s game was otherwise meaningless to the Dodgers, who’d secured home-field advantage over the Mets earlier in the weekend. They won 6-3—behind homers from Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and Chris Heisey—but the fans in attendance at Dodger Stadium came to see Kershaw, and the fireworks were merely a welcome sideshow.

The 42,863 who paid for admission got to see 3 2/3 scoreless innings, with no walks and seven strikeouts. They got to see 13 whiffs in 60 offerings. And they got to see their ace become the first pitcher to log 300 Ks in a season since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it for the D’backs in 2002.

***

The 21,734 faithful who bought tickets to the equally meaningless season finale at Citizens Bank Park were also treated to a pitching appearance for the ages. Only the man on the mound for the visiting Marlins in the last of the eighth had a grand total of zero major-league strikeouts under his belt:

Yes, that’s Ichiro Suzuki, kicking and dealing for the Fish in the final game of his 15th stateside season. Be sure to check out Dan Rozenson’s pitchf/x analysis of Ichiro’s stuff (insert link) for more detailed insight into his outing.

The 41-year-old topped out at 88 mph while mixing a far deeper assortment of pitches than most position players bring to the bump:

He wound up allowing a run on two hits in an inning of work that took 18 pitches, 11 of them strikes. But he shouldn't feel too bad about his debut: It was still vastly more effective than Andre Rienzo’s appearance, which consisted of two hits, three walks, four earned runs, and no outs. Rienzo was charged with the loss in the 7-2 Phillies win.

The Marlins’ offense was powered almost entirely by leadoff man Dee Gordon, who doubled and scored in the first inning, and then cranked his fourth homer of the season in the third:

Gordon later tacked on a single, finishing a triple shy of the cycle and—more importantly—with a .333 batting average for the season. Bryce Harper went 1-for-4 in the Nats’ 1-0 loss to the Mets Sunday, so the Miami second baseman eclipsed the Washington outfielder to win the 2015 NL batting title.

As for the Phillies, the victory prevented them from losing 100 games. They wrap up the rebuilding year at 63-99, one game worse than the Reds…

***

…who made a spirited run at the first-overall pick but couldn’t finish the job. Cincinnati dropped 13 in a row before Saturday, when Bryan Price’s club topped Pittsburgh, 3-1. That result ensured that the Phils would hold the no. 1 selection for the first time since 1998.

But it also meant that the Reds could play spoiler for the Pirates. Another victory on Sunday, coupled with a Cubs win over the Brewers, would’ve moved the looming NL Wild Card duel between Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole from PNC Park to Wrigley Field.

Chicago took care of business by defeating Milwaukee, 3-1. But the Reds couldn’t help the Cubs out.

J.A. Happ, who’s been outstanding since coming to the Pirates in a deadline trade with the Mariners, was excellent again in game 162, stifling the Reds over six scoreless innings. He mitigated the threats posed by three hits and three walks by striking out seven, shaving his ERA with the Bucs down to 1.85.

Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez sent a 1-2 mistake from Reds starter Josh Smith soaring toward the bank of the Allegheny:

That 479-foot bomb gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead, on which Happ and the bullpen kept a close watch the rest of the afternoon. Joakim Soria, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon sealed the 4-0 decision, assuring the fans in the Steel City of at least one more home game. They’ll host the Cubs on Wednesday.

***

Speaking of home games, the Royals are quite fond of them. Ned Yost’s bunch went 51-30 in the friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium this year. But Kansas City would need to down the Twins on the road to clinch home-field advantage for as long as it’s in the playoffs.

Yost sent Johnny Cueto to the hill to do that job, and while the right-hander continued to fight erratic command, he was more than adequate. Cueto held Minnesota—eliminated from contention earlier in the weekend—to a run on six hits and four walks in five innings. Three relievers held the line the rest of the way.

By then, the game was well in hand. Paul Molitor countered Cueto with a feeble Ricky Nolasco, who was starting in the majors for the first time since May 31st after coughing up three runs in relief on September 30th. The result was predictable—which is to say, it was poor.

Nolasco was shelled to the tune of five runs in 2 2/3 innings, and he was fortunate to make it that far after the top of the second began walk, single, double, double. The last of those, Alex Rios’ two-run two bagger, made it 3-0 KC, and Salvador Perez’s third-inning blast

ended Nolasco’s day. It was no. 21 of the season for Perez, who broke the single-season Royals backstop record previously shared with Mike Macfarlane.

The Royals, up 5-0 following that two-run shot, went on to win 6-1. As it turned out, they would’ve been just fine losing, because…

***

…the Jays fell 12-3 to the Rays. A day after word surfaced that Sunday’s outing would be the last of Mark Buehrle’s career, the southpaw turned in one of the weirdest pitching lines you’ll ever see.

Buehrle had 492 big-league starts under his belt when he climbed the mound Sunday, and though there were more than a handful of duds in the pile, he’d at least survived the first inning every time he pitched. So, naturally, this time—the last time, if the weekend rumors prove true, that he’ll ever pitch in the majors—he didn’t.

The 36-year-old got no help from the Toronto defense, as the bottom of the first began with an error by second baseman Ryan Goins. With one out, Buehrle allowed back-to-back singles that loaded the bases, before an error by first baseman Edwin Encarnacion brought home an unearned run. The next batter, James Loney, fouled out, which mean that every subsequent run would be unearned, too.

And that’s a good thing for Buehrle, because he proceeded to walk Tim Beckham with the bases loaded, and then give up a grand slam to Joey Butler:

The bases were now empty with two down, but Luke Maile doubled and scored on a single by Brandon Guyer—who, oddly enough, had been hit by three Buehrle pitches on Friday, a career-worst for the southpaw. At that point, John Gibbons felt compelled to pull the plug on his veteran starter, even though it would prevent Buehrle from reaching, for the 15th straight season, 200 innings. Gibbons made the move, only to watch Mikie Mahtook plate the inherited runner with a two-run jack off mopup man Ryan Tepera.

Add up the carnage, and you get this line for Buehrle: 0.2 IP, 5 H, 8 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K.

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Buehrle is the first pitcher to give up eight unearned runs in less than an inning of work since Rob Stanifer did it for the Red Sox amid a 22-1 beating on June 19, 2000. But, believe it or not, the above line isn’t the first 0.2-5-8-0-1-0 booked in the annals of Major League Baseball. Bill Wegman logged precisely those numbers for the Brewers on August 3, 1991. — Daniel Rathman

Defensive Play of the Weekend

By UZR, Kevin Pillar has been the fourth-best defensive center fielder in baseball this year. But get this: He’s not even the best center fielder named Kevin! That honor would belong to Mr. Kiermaier of the Rays, whose 31.3 score as of Sunday night is the almost twice that of Lorenzo Cain and Billy Hamilton, who are tied for second place. I kind of want to read a book about Kevin Kiermaier’s defensive season.

But in the Blue Jays’ last regular season series, which took place on Kiermaier’s home field, Pillar took the opportunity to show off what he has undoubtedly done better than basically any defender this year, which is make spectacular catches.

Eat it, Kiermaier!, Pillar’s probably thinking. You may get the Fielding Bible award, but I get the highlights. You know who reads the Fielding Bible? Nerds. You know who watches highlights? Chicks. Lots and lots of chicks, baby. — Ian Frazer

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caminante1
10/05
Thank for a great regular season of What You Need To Know. There should really be a few more weeks of this column because baseball still happens and there are still things we need to know.
lonechicken
10/05
I'm going on 15 minutes of googling and I still can't find a good list of best regular season game scores. Wikipedia comes close with a list of ones 100 or higher, but I'm hoping for a bigger list. :(
WaldoInSC
10/06
Try Googling "best ways to waste 15 minutes."
lonechicken
10/06
Haha. Eventually, I realized how unreliable that stat is when Kevin Brown's was a 94 when he did something similar to Scherzer's first no-hitter. Which was 1 HBP.
statsrath
10/06
This is why the B-Ref Play Index is the best thing ever: http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/7Q0WB
gjhardy
10/06
Pillar wasn't even the best CF named Kevin in the ballpark that day.