September serves baseball fans a more varied diet than it did in the years before expansion, before divisions, and before the Wild Card. It’s not always better—there are nights when even close games with some kind of playoff implication merely take up one’s time and provide no nourishment, like a trip to IHOP. On most nights, though, there are at least a couple of contests between teams with something real for which to play, and which reward careful attention with genuine drama and an earned payoff.
So it was on Tuesday night. The Blue Jays and Yankees had a taut, low-scoring game going into the seventh inning, after which all Hell broke loose. The Cardinals and Pirates played about five innings of sloppy, slugfest baseball, then each team’s bullpen shut down the opposing offense for a few frames to keep things interesting until the very end. At the end of the night, the Mariners and Rangers held a hit parade, with each team scoring in each of its first three trips to the plate. The Yankees won the seesaw battle in New York, inching closer to the Wild Card berth that remains a worthy goal, even if their hope is fairly remote. The Cardinals hit three home runs in the ninth inning to pull out the game in Pittsburgh, perhaps driving the final nail in the Pirates’ coffin.
I spent most of my night, though, feasting on what I considered the main course. The Astros won Monday night in Cleveland, thus holding two games back of the Orioles and Tigers for the second Wild Card spot, and keeping legitimate hope alive a while longer. They had a tough task before them, though, with Corey Kluber taking the mound for the Indians and Brad Peacock getting a spot start.
Kluber is a rough matchup for the Astros. He entered Tuesday night having allowed right-handed batters to hit just .207/.258/.349 this year, with a strikeout rate right around 28 percent and a walk rate just south of 6 percent. Lefties have fared a bit better against Kluber (.224/.283/.361 entering Tuesday, including .271/.328/.452 at Progressive Field), but here’s the thing: the Astros don’t have good lefty hitters right now. The top six batters in their lineup every day (George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Yulieski Gurriel, and Evan Gattis) are formidable, but they all bat right-handed. Luis Valbuena was the best lefty bat the team had for most of the season, but he’s out for the remainder of it. Preston Tucker, A.J. Reed, and Tony Kemp have been disastrously bad, and since a hot first month, Colby Rasmus has been, too. Switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez is better as a right-handed batter, and in 95 plate appearances as a lefty since the All-Star break, he came in hitting .244/.277/.400. Only five teams have been worse as left-handed batters facing right-handed pitchers than the Astros have been this year.
Normally, simply drawing a bad matchup for a given lineup in a regular season game wouldn’t be that big a deal. One of the key lessons this game eventually reinforced, though, is that there’s only one kind of margin for error in September in MLB, and it’s the margin a team created for itself over the first five months of the regular season. In the Astros’ case, thanks to their dreadful start to the season, that margin is virtually non-existent. If they want to climb into playoff position, they have to get every win they can down the stretch, and their schedule isn’t going to help them do so. (They faced the division-leading Rangers over the weekend before this series in Cleveland, and they host the mighty Cubs this weekend.) One bad matchup can be the difference between making it to the Wild Card Game, and going home on Oct. 2.
The Astros caught a break, though. Kluber likes to lean on his sinker early in games, to find his rhythm and to keep opposing hitters from getting a read on his other four pitches the first time they see him. Six of his nine first-inning offerings were sinkers, and it was a nice, clean frame. In the second, he seemed immediately to be having trouble commanding his primary pitch. Sinkers sailed on him, to Correa (whom he eventually struck out on a slider) and to Gurriel (who popped out in foul territory on the first pitch, a sinker that ran off the plate inside and got onto his hands, but not one Kluber wanted to place there), and then they really sailed on him to Gattis and Rasmus (both of whom walked). Kluber was missing high and badly with the sinker, so he tried to adjust and pitch off his slider. He got ahead of Gonzalez 0-2, but then he threw a terrible pitch, a slider without the life typical of Kluber that ended up thigh-high over the inner half. Gonzalez put a great swing on it, and hit a long home run to right field. Kluber only got out of the inning because home plate umpire James Hoye was calling a liberal high strike, and Tony Kemp took a sailing sinker a little too close to letter-high.
The third inning didn’t start much better. Kluber got ahead of Springer 1-2, but after getting foul balls on a slider and then a sinker away, he then tried to tie Springer up with a sinker in. The ball had too much of the inner half and was a bit above the belt. Springer had been looking away, and maybe even guessing slider, but he still hit a clean (if not exactly scalded) double down the right field line. Kluber then laid in a first-pitch sinker that was either thrown without sufficient purpose or lacking badly in execution, because it was a bit above the knees and over the inner third. Bregman, too, had been cheating, waiting for the slider, but the harder pitch he got was easy enough to read and handle that he slammed a triple into the right field corner. The score was 4-1, and as it turned out, that was as much as the Astros would get. Kluber found his groove, established his cutter, and would finish seven innings by retiring the final 10 batters he faced, and 15 of the final 17.
Again, though, the only margin for error in September belongs to those who have positioned themselves to withstand a loss. The Astros used their expanded roster to make their lead stand. Peacock allowed the Indians’ leadoff hitters to reach in each of the first three innings, and seemed to be in big trouble in the bottom of the first, especially, with runners on second and third and no outs. Cleveland squandered that chance, though, and when Tyler Naquin reached second with two outs in the fourth, A.J. Hinch removed Peacock in favor of James Hoyt, not even allowing the tying run to come to the plate against his starter. The Astros would get 16 outs from five relievers, in total, giving back two runs and allowing the Indians to bring the winning run to the plate twice in the bottom of the ninth, but they held on and won.
The Indians will probably survive losing this winnable game. The Tigers lost in Chicago, softening the blow and keeping the Tribe’s lead at a semi-comfortable 4.5 games. Within the game itself, though, there was no way for Kluber to get back the runs he allowed during the rocky patch he hit in the second and third frames. The Astros clearly weren’t going to get boundless opportunities, but they made the most of the few chances Kluber gave them, and then had the relief depth to convert a lead into a win. The Orioles rolled again over the Rays, so Houston couldn’t gain ground, but they remain in the thick of the playoff chase. There’s a strong argument to be made that, with Bregman and Gurriel in the mix, they’re the most talented team in the group (Houst, Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Kansas City) vying for the second Wild Card berth. Games like Tuesday night’s, when even the new-look lineup is stymied for much of the game and the starter can’t deliver a quality start and it comes down to whether Marwin Gonzalez can get all of a hanging slider, are the ones the team will have to keep winning in order to reach the postseason.