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How can people not be baseball fans? Just look at this week:

  • On Monday, the Angels came back from a seventh-inning deficit to take the first game of a critical four-game series. A little while later, the A’s beat the Mariners in the bottom of the ninth and the Dodgers did the same to the Rockies, each team holding or extending its hold on first place.
  • Tuesday, the Astros shut down the Cardinals’ vaunted offense and won one of the week’s most tense games, 2-1. The A’s and Cubs lost their holds on first place in their races with blowout losses at home to bad teams, while the Angels and Giants took advantage with solid wins on the road against division rivals. And the Dodgers…the Dodgers scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth to overtake the Rockies and win 5-4.
  • Wednesday brought loads of free baseball. The Cubs, finding runs as hard to come by as debate answers that actually address the question, lost to the Reds in 12 innings. The Angels scored in the top of the ninth to tie the Rangers, then eliminated the upstarts with two in the 11th. The Padres extended their own hopes by one day by beating the Giants–or more accurately, letting them beat themselves–in the 10th inning.

  • Yesterday, the Cubs lost in extra innings for the third straight day, slipping out of any share of first place in the wild-card standings. The A’s won in walkoff fashion again, as Bobby Crosby added an exclamation point to his Rookie of the Year argument with a game-winning homer, a win that knotted the AL West race with three games to play. In the last action of the night, the Dodgers got a two-run home run in the 11th inning by the much-maligned David Ross, a shot that clinched a tie for the NL West title.

Prologue. All prologue, appetizers to prepare the palate for what should be the most dramatic last couple of days to a season in years.

Thanks to these four days, we’ve effectively got a play-in round to the American League playoffs in Oakland, where the Angels and A’s enter tonight’s game in a flat-footed tie at 90-69. The A’s finally got a respectable start by someone other than Rich Harden yesterday, but still needed 3 1/3 one-hit innings from the bullpen to set up Crosby’s heroics.

Mike Scioscia’s decision to go to a four-man rotation for the season’s last two weeks doesn’t look very good so far. While Kelvim Escobar pitched well Tuesday night on three days’ rest, neither Jarrod Washburn nor John Lackey has adapted well, neither getting out of the fifth inning. Each will make a second start on short rest against the A’s, and whether they can adapt to that circumstance might be the determining factor in the series.

Would the Angels really have been that much worse off plugging in someone like Matt Hensley or Kevin Gregg, allowing Washburn–coming off of an injury–and Lackey–lousy on the road for his entire career, and brutal in Texas–to pitch in turn? Heck, even Aaron Sele isn’t that far removed from a good outing. The small loss in having the inferior pitcher starting one game would seem to be more than offset by the gain in having your better pitchers throwing within their routine.

I certainly believe that yesterday’s game was the chance to use someone else. As mentioned, Lackey’s performance on the road has been poor since he reached the majors, and he’s been notably bad in Texas. The difference between Sele and Lackey on short rest on the road might no even bend Lackey’s way. Moreover, the Angels had a small cushion; one way to look at their situation is that they had to win three of their last five games, counting a potential playoff, to win the division. A 4-0 or 3-1 record would clinch outright, while 2-2 would lead to a playoff game.

So Bartolo Colon will start tonight on short rest, then Escobar and Washburn will both make their third starts in nine days. It’s virgin territory for both pitchers, one of whom is already past his career high in innings, the other three weeks removed from the disabled list.

Back in March, when we were making predictions, I ended up choosing both of these teams to win the AL West. I went back and forth a number of times, and I changed my mind between submitting for staff picks and writing my own preview piece. So no matter what happens, I’ll be wrong, except in that I fully expected it to be in doubt heading into this series.

An informal poll of BP staffers shows none of the “groupthink” we’re perceived to employ. Five people pick the A’s to make it to Tuesday, three the Angels. I’m in the former group, barely, and I think it’s going to come down to the A’s excellent play at home combined with the Angels’ decision to push their starting pitchers just a little bit too far, nullifying the edge they currently have over the Athletics’ rotation. It’s not the 1964 Phillies by any means, but in a race that will be decided by one game, any mistakes can be seen as decisive.

Speaking of managers…I wrote last October that the Cubs would never get as far as they had last season as long as Dusty Baker was their manager. If, as I’ve been told, Nomar Garciaparra‘s 12th-inning bunt with one out and a runner on first base was called from the bench, I have more conviction than ever in that statement. It’s a ridiculous idea to bunt in that situation with anyone remotely adept with a bat in their hands. To call a bunt with one of your best hitters at the plate is baseball malpractice.

The Cubs don’t need any help losing games right now. They’re not scoring runs, always a danger for an offense that’s a little light on OBP. When they don’t hit homers, they tend to have trouble scoring; that’s not about fundamentals or “little ball.” It is about low OBP and a lot of double plays for a team that doesn’t put runners on first base or hit than many ground balls. They’re the trailing team in the Astros/Giants/Cubs mix, with the toughest matchup and needing to make up a game, but also with home-field advantage. They’ll probably need at a sweep, given that the Astros are a good bet to win at least two games in Houston, and a sweep is highly unlikely.

Clearly, I was wrong about the end effects of the Cubs/Red Sox deadline trade. I still stand by my analysis and conclusion, but “the Red Sox traded their playoff spot to the Cubs” may end up being one of those things that follows me around for a while.

The Giants are still in this race, but have a tall order, taking on the Dodgers in L.A. with the chance that the Dodgers can not only clinch the division, but replay the last day of the ’93 season, when they eliminated their rivals from the NL West race in the season’s final game. The Giants can also tie the Dodgers with a sweep, one that would force at least a one-game playoff and possibly a two-game setup. The Dodgers aren’t playing great baseball right now, and have to be happy that they only need one win to lock up the NL West.

By default, I guess I’m saying that the Astros will be the wild card. I still have memories of last season’s embarrassing finish, but when you look at their standing–tied for first–and their opposition, it’s hard to not see them as having things in the palm of their hand. If they make it, it will be one of the greatest comebacks in recent memory. The Astros are 33-10 since a blowout loss to the Expos on August 14 dropped them to their low point, 56-60. With no great teams in the NL–I’ll have more on the Cardinals next week–it’s not hard to see the Astros going from left-for-dead to the NLCS or even World Series, much as the ’03 Marlins did.

It will be frustrating to not able to see all the relevant games on Saturday. Fox’s exclusivity rights mean that no part of the country will see more than two of them, and it’s only the Southland that’s likely to get one. It’s a disappointing situation, and one that will turn off more fans than it turns on. That fans in Houston and Chicago won’t be able to watch the Giants play–or seamheads in, say, New York, might not see any relevant baseball–is a marketing mistake of major proportions.

Speaking of watching baseball, I’m way past deadline and have to watch the Cubs. Back tomorrow with more on the races.

Thank you for reading

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