Six divisions, six big series, six heroes, and one fantastic Tuesday night for baseball. Running through them in no particular order:
Angels/Mariners : Dustin Moseley. While nodding in the general direction of Vladimir Guerrero for his four-hit game and his tie-breaking double, you have to focus on Moseley, who came out of the bullpen to help salvage a very losable game for the Angels. Moseley came into the game with a 7.67 ERA since the All-Star break, but tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings as the Angels clawed back from a 5-0 deficit to tie the game at five. Justin Speier would relieve him and get credited with the win, but make no mistake, it was Moseley, the groundballing swingman, who prevented this from becoming a blowout and canceling out the good done by John Lackey on Monday night. The Angels are once again comfortable in their status as AL West leaders.
The Mariners are being victimized by their rotation, which has been their weakest link all year long. There’s only so far that you can go with a collection of #4 starters, all that they have after Felix Hernandez-who himself hasn’t lived up to expectations. The bullpen, insanely great in the first half, had nowhere to go but down, so its merely good performance in the second half has cost the team wins it couldn’t afford to lose. The Mariners still lead the Wild Card race by a game and a half over the Yankees, so they can’t be written off. They need the King to come up big this afternoon, however; if they don’t win today, they risk a long losing streak that they cannot afford.
Cubs/Brewers : Rich Hill. Hill put together another quality start, striking out nine and walking no one in seven strong innings for the Cubs. He also singled in the team’s first run, chipping away at the Brewers’ lead and setting the stage for the Cubs’ seventh-inning heroics.
Hill showed off the Cubs’ biggest edge over the Cardinals and Brewers–a rotation that is deep and consistently effective, generally pitching into the sixth inning and later, an good at striking out a number of batters while also keeping the ball in the yard. Hill yielded the stage to Bobby Howry and then Ryan Dempster, who represented the bullpen-now lousy with hard-throwing right-handers-with two shutout innings. This is a very good pitching staff, a threat to push the Cubs not just into October, but into the World Series.
I have been getting e-mails for two years about Ned Yost’s handling of his bullpen, and last night’s game inspired another batch. Yost allowed Scott Linebrink to face Jacque Jones with the tying runs on in the seventh, and Jones doubled to tie the game. Jones can’t hit lefties, Linebrink had given up runs in three of his last four appearances, and in a bullpen gone bad, lefty Brian Shouse has been one of Milwaukee’s few bright spots. Shouse would strike out the side in the eighth inning with the Brewers down 5-3, which makes the decision to not get him in for the high-leverage situation even more noticeable.
I’m not reaching conclusions here, just pointing out to all of you who have been peppering my inbox that I’ve noticed. The Brewers’ pitchers are to blame for their collapse, but it’s possible that Yost isn’t helping the cause.
Padres/Diamondbacks : Khalil Greene. The mental picture doesn’t work, but I think I want to show up at Petco Park with a Khalil-O-Meter, because as a player the Padres’ shortstop looks for all the world like Shawon Dunston. He’s a right-handed batter with decent power and all the plate discipline of the former Cub. He doesn’t have Dunston’s arm-no one does-but like Dunston was in his prime, Greene’s an above-average defender, even a marginal Gold Glove guy.
Last night, Greene picked up critical hits in the second and sixth innings, the first to tie the game, and the second to give the Padres a lead they wouldn’t give up. The kicker? Both were off Brandon Webb, he of the recent shutout streak, winner of the 2006 Cy Young Award, and a man with ownership of right-handed batters who like to swing the bat. Like Livan Hernandez the night before, Webb gave up a lead before Bob Melvin could get the game to his bullpen, and just like that, the Diamondbacks’ lead in the NL West is down to a game.
The Padres are the better team between these two, thanks in part to Kevin Towers’ midseason adjustments. They can be expected to be just enough better than the D’backs over the next five weeks to secure their third straight division title. The Diamondbacks are in some danger of being the 2006 Marlins, who collapsed in September just after making it onto everyone’s radar. They’re reliant on a bullpen that’s been worked very heavily, and they don’t have a lot of in-house replacements if things go awry. However, I suspect that they’ll hang on to hold off the Phillies for the NL Wild Card, even if they do fall behind the Padres in the West.
Phillies/Mets : Ryan Howard. Well, this one is easy. Credit Adam Eaton for pulling off a quality start (-ish, as he was pulled after 5 2/3 innings) against a good offensive team in a bandbox, and the Phillies’ bullpen for 4 1/3 shutout innings in that same context. Jimmy Rollins got them on the board in the eighth, and Aaron Rowand legged out a game-tying infield single later in that frame. Howard’s two-run homer in the tenth ended the game.
The Phillies are still four games out in the NL East (and three behind the Padres in the Wild Card chase). Getting Chase Utley back means they can get back to trying to win the “first team to seven” way, because their rotation is just ridiculous at this point. Even with Utley and Eaton, I’d place the Phillies behind the Diamondbacks and maybe the Braves in the Wild Card hunt, but you have to say this: no team will play more entertaining games over the next month. They’d make a fun playoff team; look back at last week’s visit from the Padres to get a sense of what a Division Series between the two might look like.
Yankees/Red Sox : Johnny Damon. The last two years created unrealistic expectations of Damon, who has always been a great player at a .310 average and a so-so one when he hits .270, and sometimes he hits .270. Even with the low average, he’s in line to set a career high in walks, is 20-for-22 stealing bases, and is a defensive asset in left field, where his noodle arm is less likely to be exploited. This is the player he’s likely to be over the next couple of years.
And every now and then, he yanks a ball out. Damon’s two-run homer in the seventh last night broke a 3-3 tie and helped the Yankees cut the Red Sox’ lead to seven games. The AL East race is over-the Yankees are a good team, but the Red Sox schedule down the stretch includes Pawtucket, Amherst, Bryn Mawr, and Warner-Robins. The Yankees have to worry about the Mariners and Tigers now, and not some pipe dream of catching the Red Sox. It’s just about making the playoffs; the rest is just seeding.
Twins/Indians : Ryan Garko. I’m stubbornly including this game for this reason–for all the attention focused on the Yankee and Red Sox, the Yankees entered play last night further back in the standings than any second-place team in baseball. The Twins, in third place, were just 6 1/2/ back going into their game at Cleveland, and could at least entertain thoughts of a run.
Maybe not any longer. The Twins lost 6-5, as their bullpen continued its second-half struggles, giving up a couple of insurance runs in the eighth that made the ninth-inning hill too tough to climb. Garko had an RBI single in the eighth to help the cause, but his real contribution came with the glove. (Go ahead, find another time that’s been written about Garko.) In the fifth inning, with the Twins singling Jake Westbrook to death, Garko made a heads-up cut of a throw home and nabbed Torii Hunter at first base to short-circuit a Twins rally, The Twins would tie the game in the inning, but the baserunner kill by Garko prevented the inning from getting out of hand, allowing the Indians to retake the lead in the bottom of the inning and go on to the win.
Along with the Blue Jays and A’s, the Twins are a .500-ish team, with all three left in the dust in the AL this year. In the NL Central, they’d be allowed to sell playoff tickets. Life’s not always fair.