It happens in the last two months of most baseball seasons—a team surges from off the radar and makes a push for the playoffs. If you look in the American League at teams on the playoff fringe, the Baltimore Orioles are the most likely team to make that run.
Let’s begin with the definition of “the playoff fringe.” It includes the Orioles, Twins, Angels and Rangers, all of whom are a handful of games under .500 and approximately five games out of the second wild-card spot. The teams ahead of them are full-blown contenders, the teams behind them are dead in the water.
One of these teams, Texas, has already waved the white flag with the trade of Yu Darvish. Los Angeles is a one-man show. Minnesota is going in the wrong direction, falling from the race rather than playing their way back into it.
That leaves Baltimore and not just by process of elimination. Consider how much has gone wrong for the Orioles in 2017—the pitching has been a catastrophe and the everyday lineup is filled with disappointments. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop has been terrific, but if you told anyone in Baltimore that Schoop would be the best offensive player, they would know something had gone terribly awry elsewhere.
Whether the Orioles can be the surge team of 2017 depends largely on the performances of five underachieving players…
Manny Machado—A year ago he was in the conversation with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as the game’s brightest young stars. This season, Machado has an on-base percentage of .313, easily the worst of his career and his power has been mediocre.
Chris Davis—The dropoff in Davis’ production isn’t quite as severe, but with a .321 OBP, a .450 slugging percntage and 17 home runs, this is still one of Davis’ weaker seasons since his emergence as a top-tier slugger in 2013.
Chris Tillman—Injuries have limited Tillman to 14 starts and even those have been dreadful, with a 7.65 ERA. He symbolizes the entire pitching staff in that he can’t get much worse. With a track record of a sub-4.00 ERA in four of the previous five years. he’s more than capable of a strong August and September.
Dylan Bundy—The highly regarded 24-year-old started strong, but recent struggles have left his ERA at 4.53, a regression from last year’s 4.02.
Kevin Gausman—A steady starter over the last three years with a good upside, Gausman has gone the other direction, with a 5.37 ERA.
So if you’re the Baltimore Orioles and you’re 4 ½ games off the wild-card, 6 ½ out in the AL East and you’ve thus far gotten lousy years from Machado, Davis, Tillman, Bundy and Gausman and you’re also getting closer Zach Britton back healthy for the stretch drive, would you like your chances?
I would, and it’s why those who advocated the Orioles deal Britton at the deadline were foolish. Baltimore’s margin for error is gone, but they aren’t dead yet.
The American League is wide open this season and I think the Baltimore Orioles are the most likely candidate to fill the void at the top. My view is not a byproduct of their 6-0 start—although that certainly doesn’t hurt. I held this view prior to the season, as expressed in a preseason podcast with Prime Sports Network and host Greg DePalma.
My reasoning is twofold—the Oriole pitching will not struggle as much as it did in 2015. And there’s more room for improvement in a potent offense than conventional wisdom would have you believe.
Let’s start with the pitching, because that’s the big bugaboo with this team for most observers. The biggest reason for the struggles in 2015 was that rotation ace Chris Tillman took a step backward. Tillman had been a steady upward trajectory each year from 2012-14, and Baltimore made the playoffs in two of those years.
Last season, Tillman struggled to a 4.99 ERA, whereas he had not been higher than 3.71 the previous three years. He’s only 28-years-old and I think last season was just a temporary fall. I also like the signing of Yovani Gallardo, who has been a key part of two different division-winning teams, one in Milwaukee (2011) and another in Texas last season.
The loss of Wei-Yin Chen to free agency hurt, but there’s two good young arms that are ready to step up. Kevin Gausman made 17 starts last year and finished with a 4.25 ERA. He’s only 24-years-old and is a highly regarded talent. Gausman is dealing with some tendinitis in his right shoulder at the moment, but is expected back before April is out.
The other live young arm is Dylan Bundy, a 23-year-old who was drafted out of high school and been working his way up through the Oriole system. You don’t want to pin too much hope on the quick development of a kid, but if Tillman, Gallardo and Gausman come through, Bundy could be eased into the rotation if manager Buck Showalter desires.
Ubaldo Jiminez, at age 32, is what he is—he’ll occasionally showcase electric talent and often frustrate. But his overall numbers are still respectable—he’s still good for an ERA in the low 4s. Baltimore’s problem isn’t that Jiminez is in the rotation, it’s that last year they had to rely on him way too much. If Tillman returns to form as the ace, Jiminez can slide into a role more suited to his production levels.
The bullpen is consistently one of the American League’s best and Showalter is as good as any at getting the most of it. Darren O’Day and Zach Britton are as reliable an 8th-9th inning combo as there is. Bundy could be getting some innings here. If 26-year-old Mychal Givens has as good a stuff as he showed yesterday in Boston, then the Orioles have someone special. Whomever ends up getting the work, the Birds won’t have to demand too much of their starters.
It’s assumed this offense is going to score runs and I agree with the presumption. Mark Trumbo is in the fold and should find Camden Yards to his liking. Chris Davis is re-signed and yesterday he hit a mammoth three-run blast to dead center in Fenway to beat Craig Kimbrel and break a 6-6 tie in the ninth inning. From Adam Jones to Matt Wieters, to the best third baseman in baseball in Manny Machado, the Orioles can hit and they can play defense.
I won’t go so far as to say they have no weaknesses. The scenario I outlined presumes question marks getting answered affirmatively and there’s always risk there. But every American League team has questions right now. I like Baltimore’s potential answers better than any other.
The last time the Baltimore Orioles clinched an AL East title was 1997 and I was with a friend at old County Stadium in Milwaukee when it happened. The fact that this was pre-Miller Park and when the Brewers were still in the American League tells you how long it’s been. I couldn’t have foreseen at the time that I would eventually live four years in the city of Baltimore and the Orioles couldn’t have foreseen the long dry spell that lay ahead. Is that spell finally coming to an end?
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Baltimore was on Fox’s Saturday night prime-time telecast in a lot of the country when they visited Fenway Park to face the Boston Red Sox. As the commentators, Joe Buck, Tom Verducci and Harold Reynolds discussed the state of the AL East, they seemed to move to a consensus that the Orioles are at least the slight favorite if not the outright team to beat. Let’s take closer look at Buck Showalter’s team and see if they measure up.
The Oriole record coming into Monday night is 48-40, and they are two games up on theToronto Blue Jays. Here’s a basic rundown on the key stats for the Orioles as a team, and then the starting lineup, rotation, and key relievers.
Comment: Baltimore seems to be destined to be the Anti-Moneyball team. The Oakland A’s of 2002 made Hollywood fame and got millions of female movie-goers to see Brad Pitt’s face when they hear the name of Billy Beane, but using the drawing of walks to compensate for a lack of offensive punch. It produced a division title.
Baltimore goes at it the opposite way. They attack aggressively, and don’t have a good OBP, but they can sure hit. The Orioles are second in the AL in batting average and second in home runs.
Normally I would dismiss this and say that they won’t survive the inevitable summer slump that most offenses go through. But the Orioles have produced winning seasons (including a trip to the 2012 playoffs) with this formula, so maybe it just works for them. More likely, the post-PED game is changing to the point where pitchers feel free to challenge more, and don’t give up as many walks—thus shifting the benefit away from selectivity and towards aggressiveness. That’s one theory—the other is that the Orioles will slump in August.
The below save percentage is misleading, at least when it comes to projecting the rest of the season. Tommy Hunter had problems in the ninth inning role, and has been replaced by Zach Britton, who his thriving. Whether any of the relievers continue to thrive is going to depend, at least in part, on the starting pitching providing some help and pickup more of the workload as we move forward.
THE EVERDAY LINEUP
Nelson Cruz (.356 OBP/.582 slugging percentage)
Adam Jones (.334/.504)
Stephen Pearce (.381/.581)
Nick Markakis: .353 OBP
Chris Davis (.319/.386)
Manny Machado (.295/.375)
J.J. Hardy (.317/.365)
NOT LIKELY TO IMPROVE
Caleb Joseph (.254/.310)
Nick Hundley (.286/.404)
Jonathan Schoop (.264/.332)
Comment: Nelson Cruz is having a great year, but the bigger story for this offense is that they’re scoring runs at a respectable rate even while Davis and Machado endure terrible years, and Hardy deals with a modestly disappointing year.
I’m not sold that Hardy will pick it up, but Davis and Machado have to be considered locks for significantly stronger second halves. Machado, the young third baseman who tore up his knee last September and missed a good chunk of the early schedule, is already gradually gaining steam.
Davis is at least taking his walks—with a .201 batting average, his pattern runs counter to the rest of the offense, and his 13 home runs are respectable. But the O’s desperately need him to start driving the ball in the gaps consistently.
We should also note here that the Baltimore offense got some bad luck when catcher Matt Wieters was lost for the season to an elbow injury. Wieters had a stat line of .339/.500 when he went out, and he has a strong reputation for his ability to call a game behind the plate. The platoon of Joseph and Hundley has not worked, and options for finding catching help are pretty limited.
One player not listed, as he’s not a regular, is Delmon Young, but this is someone who could be an X-factor for the offense down the stretch. Already with respectable numbers (.339/.431), Young could see more playing time and is capable of a hot streak. This possibility helps cancel out legitimate concern that Pearce will come back to earth.
Comment: Jiminez’s struggles have gotten the most attention, after he signed a four-year deal for $50 million in the offseason. Based on the money, that makes the most sense, but I’m personally most disappointed in Tillman. He’s got the stuff to be a true ace, and he’s spent the first half of the season pitching like a viable #4 starter.
I’ll take it a step further and say that Chris Tillman might be the most important person in the AL East—if he starts pitching really well, it will lift the entire Oriole rotation and combined with their offense, would almost certainly push this team into the playoffs as a division champ.
Please note that Norris is just coming off the disabled list after a groin injury and makes his first start since coming back on Tuesday.
Zach Britton (14 saves, 1.36 ERA)
Darren O’Day (1.19 ERA)
Comment: This isn’t quite as deep as the last couple years, but the O’Day-Britton combo is pretty well ensuring that you only have seven innings to beat Baltimore. O’Day looks like an eighth-inning version of what Koji Uehara did in Boston last year—a veteran who had a track record of being pretty good, suddenly reaches a level beyond that and becomes unhittable.
Showalter squeezes as much out of a bullpen as anyone in baseball and he has options prior to the eighth. Hunter and Brian Matusz are a decent righty/lefty combo. And Ryan Webb and Brad Brach are both respectable arms.
This is a town that appreciates defense, going back to the run Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Co., had with the Baltimore Ravens, with a Super Bowl win in 2000 and another in 2012. This year’s Oriole team could be the baseball version of that. Consider the following…
*Using the Range Factor stat, available on ESPN.com, Hardy has the most range of any American League shortstop.
*Schoop has the best range of any AL second baseman.
*Davis ranks third among AL first baseman.
*And this doesn’t even include Machado, who hasn’t played enough to get a ranking this year. But watch this kid one night and tell me if he’s not the best defensive third baseman in the game.
The bottom line? Hit the ball in the air if you want to get a hit on this defense. Ground balls aren’t going through, and the outfield ranks aren’t quite as strong. In particular, Jones has consistently graded out below average in this area for his entire career, a disappointment given his tremendous natural athletic ability.
In any event, Baltimore’s defense is still a clear strength. They get to a lot of balls and they make the plays they’re supposed to make.
I don’t have any doubt about saying this is the team to beat in the AL East. You’re talking about a team that got to first place in spite of nothing from Chris Davis and Manny Machado and with inconsistent pitching. All of those are things a reasonable person could expect improvement on after the All-Star break.
If the improvement happens, Baltimore blows this thing open. If it doesn’t happen…well, they’ve still gotten to first place with the status quo and I don’t see Toronto or New York, the teams in pursuit, as having any more of an upside than the Orioles. Boston and Tampa Bay both do, but they’ve also dug the deepest holes.
Thus, while in no way would I say it’s a lock that Baltimore pulls away and win the division, I’ve shifted the focus in my own mind to asking about their chances at getting to the World Series and winning it. We’ll save discussion of that for another time, but for now I’ll leave you with these numbers: 15-1 and 30-1. Those are the odds Las Vegas gives Buck’s boys of winning the AL pennant and World Series respectively. Both of them look bet-worthy to me.
The American League East is jammed packed with four teams within 2 ½ games of each other and the division has a “flavor-of-the-week” quality. Boston and New York have each had runs in first place, with the Red Sox still there. Tampa Bay has gotten very hot of late. Churning along almost unnoticed, like a horse in the middle of the pack at nearby Pimlico Racetrack, is the Baltimore Orioles.
Baltimore comes into Monday’s games at 32-25 and have slipped into second place. The Orioles had a lot of doubters coming into this season. Their heavy reliance on the bullpen and one-run wins during the surprise playoff drive of 2012 were seen as sure signs of a fall to earth in 2013, given the fickle nature of those two attributes. But while Baltimore has had predictable adversity in both areas this year, they’ve compensated with continued improvement elsewhere and continue to win games.
AN OFFENSIVE BARRAGE AT CAMDEN
It’s the offense that’s the prime reason for the Orioles’ success, in particular hitting the ball for power. They’re second in the American League in runs scored, and are first in slugging percentage. It’s no secret who the biggest reason for this is, and that’s first baseman Chris Davis.
With a league-leading 20 home runs, an on-base percentage of .440 and a surreal slugging percentage of .749, Davis is the only player in the American League who’s even in shouting distance of Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in the MVP race, as noted in this weekend’s MLB coverage. And while we talk up Cabrera’s chances at a repeat Triple Crown, don’t overlook that Davis is second to the Tiger third baseman in both batting average and RBIs.
Manny Machado is on the opposite side of the infield and last September’s hot prospect is becoming 2013’s rising star. With a .363/.506 stat line for on-base percentage & slugging percentage, Machado might end lurking in the MVP discussion himself before the year is out. He doesn’t have the big home run totals—five on the year—but with 25 doubles, Machado drives the ball into the alleys, gets on base and plays a sharp defensive third base in a town where the legacy of Brooks Robinson is still very much appreciated.
It speaks to the depth of the Oriole offense that we’ve listed the two most productive players thus far, and haven’t even gotten to centerfielder Adam Jones, who’s posted a solid .340/.521 line. The good news for Baltimore is that Jones is capable of lifting that OBP even higher, something that can compensate when Davis’ numbers temper a bit.
Jones is flanked in the outfield by Nate McLouth, at .372/.432 and Nick Markakis, putting up a .355/.455 after returning from the broken thumb that sidelined him for the stretch drive and postseason last year.
The players that need to improve most drastically in the Oriole lineup are Matt Wieters at catcher and J.J. Hardy at short. Each has hit some home runs—seven for Wieters and a healthy twelve for Hardy—but there’s not enough consistent contributions to really impact the offense on a daily basis. If I were a betting man, I’d put my chits on Wieters to pick up the pace, whereas Hardy’s track record makes me less confident in him.
A BULLPEN HICCUP
Jim Johnson has struggled in the closer’s role this year after an impeccable 2012 season. He’s coughed up four save opportunities already and the ERA is up there at 4.67. If I’m looking down the road, I think there’s reason to be hopeful—Johnson’s blown saves came in succession, something that does tend to happen to closers—in a job where the margin for error is narrow, it’s the equivalent of a blackjack player who suddenly sees the table go cold for a bit. Johnson’s track record as a good closer going back to 2009 make it likely he’ll return to form.
The Orioles have quality setup men in front of him. Tommy Hunter, a converted starter, is having a fantastic year with a 1.74 ERA, and reliable vet Darren O’Day also has a sub-2.00 ERA. Brian Matusz is at 3.18, and this trio gives Buck Showalter plenty of chances to build the bridge to the ninth inning.
By normal standards, the Baltimore bullpen measures up well. But it doesn’t when compared to this same unit last year, when they were so deep it seemed Showalter might be better off just having a series of pitchers work two innings at a time. The fact it’s a more “normal” pen this year is fine, but it means the starting pitching has to be more consistent. And that’s been a problem.
STARTING PITCHING NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
The combined ERA of Baltimore starting pitching is only 12th in the American League, and we can start by looking at the performance of Jason Hammel. After emerging as the team’s #1 starter a year ago, Hammel has a 5.43 ERA in 12 starts. Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez haven’t been bad, at 4.26 and 4.33 respectively, but given they’re both young and had good second halves last year, more has to be demanded.
Wei-Yin Chen is the best pitcher and his trip to the disabled list didn’t help matters, especially given that he was pitching well, with a 3.04 ERA in eight starts. Baltimore got surprise help from veteran castoff Freddy Garcia, who’s put up a 3.57 ERA in his six trips to the post, but the Orioles need Chen back healthy and effectively. Fortunately for Showalter, it looks likely his ace will return in the early part of this month.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Chen isn’t the only prominent Oriole whose return from the disabled list looks imminent. Nolan Reimold is also supposed to be back, and while his left field job has been lost to McLouth, Baltimore has a need at DH that Reimold could fill. Pedro Strop, whose bullpen work was so important last year, is expected to return. And later in the month, it looks like Brian Roberts will be back at second base. While I don’t think we should get overexcited about Roberts’ return, given his troubled health history of the last few years, second base is a big liability this season and anything Roberts can give will help.
Baltimore’s current path, of relying on power to cover up for starting pitching isn’t sustainable, but it’s also reasonable to expect some improvement in the latter area, and to think that Johnson’s worst days of the season are behind him. At the start of the season I had the Orioles begged for the mid-to-high 80s in wins and the second wild-card spot. Nothing has taken place this season that would change my mind.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL East: The Yankees are in a free-fall, and the problems with their offense are catching up to them. The Yanks are now 12th in the league in runs scored, behind the Houston Astros. As long as C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera are in the house, I don’t expect the bottom to fall out, but the narrow margin of error this pitching staff has really becomes apparent if any of the arms start to look human.
AL Central: Detroit and Cleveland are both slumping, and the Tigers still hold a half-game lead over the Tribe. The beneficiary has been Minnesota, who’s moved up to a respectable 25-29 and within 4 ½ games of the lead.
AL West: Oakland is coming on strong and now within two games of front-running Texas. The battle for this division title, and the accompanying battle between the runner-up here and the #3 AL East team for the last wild-card promise to be exciting all the way through.
Baseball on the Beltway got a big lift in 2012, as both the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs and stretched their Division Series showdowns to the full five games. The Orioles’ arrival was more surprising than the Nationals, but with giants in each dugouts—Davey Johnson in D.C. and Buck Showalter in Charm City—you had to know each organization would get it done eventually. Now they have the tougher task though, which is to make the second act of success. Let’s take a look at both the O’s and Nats as they prep for 2013…
Washington: Most people are expecting Washington to repeat in the NL East and it’s because of the quality of their pitching. Stephen Strasburg will get a full season this year, with the foolish shutdown controversy now behind him. Add Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman and they anchor Washington’s rotation with three legitimate Cy Young candidates. In addition, Washington acquired Dan Haren from the Angels to replace the departed Edwin Jackson. Haren’s ERA jumped to 4.33 a year ago, but coming to the DH-less National League will help that and he’s made at least thirty starts every year since 2005. Then you throw in Ross Detwiler, the 27-year-old who would be the prize young arm with most teams, but is almost an afterthought in Washington. The bullpen now has Rafael Soriano to close and the setup team is deep and good. This is a staff with no weaknesses.
It’s scoring enough runs to keep the Nats competitive in a division that includes Atlanta and Philadelphia that will be their defining issue. Ian Desmond popped 25 home runs, as the young shortstop showed why Washington was uninterested in Jose Reyes on last year’s free agent market. Bryce Harper posted a .340 on-base percentage and .577 slugging in a dynamic rookie year, while Ryan Zimmerman has established himself as a steady offensive force at third base. The question marks are what the Nats will get from Jayson Werth, whether Adam LaRoche can repeat his .343/.510 season, and whether Denard Span is as good as a lot of people seem to think. I’m optimistic on Werth, but less so on LaRoche and Span. But any kind of split decision among these three hitters, combined with the offensive core, and then added to the pitching staff will put Washington in the playoffs again.
Baltimore: The Orioles’ pitching isn’t as heralded or even as good as their Beltway cousins, but Baltimore does have an underrated rotation. Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman came on in the second half of last year and will be in the rotation from the outset this time around. Asian import Wei-Yin Chen established himself as a consistent major league starter, and Jason Hammel had a good first year in Baltimore. Even if Hammel slips from his 3.43 ERA of last year, or can’t overcome the injuries that bedeviled him down the stretch last year, the advantage of having Gonzalez and Tillman rolling from Day One will make up for that.
The bullpen was one of the best, if not the best, in the game last year and even if Jim Johnson doesn’t repeat his 51-save performance, he’s been a very good reliever going back to 2008 and isn’t going anywhere. Pedro Strop is a talented young setup man, and then you mix in Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz, giving Showalter plenty of options from the sixth inning on.
Just as is the case in D.C., the issue will be offense. The Orioles have young stud third baseman Manny Machado from the outset, and the 21-year-old slugged .445 after being called up in the second half of last season. Nick Markakis is healthy again, as is Nolan Remold in the outfield. Adam Jones has established himself as a bona fide star in centerfield, though I’d like to see him improve that .334 on-base percentage.
Our big question marks here will be the health of Brian Roberts—he’s fine right now, but after back problems and concussions for the past couple years, how long will he hold up? J.J. Hardy has hit 52 home runs over the last two years, but his batting average and ability to draw walks is a significant liability. Nate McLouth resurrected his flailing career here after a midseason trade last year. Can he regain his 2009 form for a full year? And can Chris Davis hit 33 home runs again, and will Matt Wieters elevate his production beyond the .329/.435 stat line he put up last year?
I’m mostly pessimistic on a lot of these questions, although I’d give McLouth and Wieters the best chance of answering affirmatively.
HOW MANY WILL THEY WIN?
As we’ve done throughout the spring MLB coveragehere at TheSportsNotebook, let’s answer the question of how Baltimore and Washington will fare against their Over/Under win props posted in Las Vegas. The Orioles are listed at 79, with the Nationals at 92.5.
The Baltimore number is crazy. I understand that the raw number of games they won in extra innings and by one run make them every sabermetrician’s candidate for a big drop-off. But do you mean to tell me that I can take a team that won 93 games last year, take the Over and still win the bet if they come in under .500 at 80-82. Yeah, I’ll take my chances. Furthermore, while there is definite truth to the notion that winning close games is the toughest way to win consistently, it’s easily overlooked that Baltimore became a much stronger team in the second half of last year, thanks to the emergence of the starting pitchers discussed above. To the extent they caught a luck wave, it was in the first half of the season. Finally, if you have a team with a deep bullpen and a good manager, is it really just a statistical fluke that they win a disproportionate number of close games? I’m not saying the Orioles are going to win 93 again, but I certainly think they’ll be the mid-80s and in the playoff conversation.
Washington is a tougher pick. I hate picking Overs on these nigh numbers, but I think I’m going to make an exception here. The Nats’ pitching is so good that I can’t see them winning fewer than 90 games, and I could easily envision them going into the 98-100 range. That gives me more room on the Over side of the number, so that’s where I’m going.
The AL Central race is all but over after this weekend, and it’s because Detroit’s pitching come through, while Chicago’s big hitters did not. The Tigers won a series over the Twins, while the White Sox dropped three of four from the Rays. The end result is that Detroit is plus-3 games with the same number left.
Detroit got the usual stellar outing from Justin Verlander on Saturday, who pitched seven innings and allowed just an unearned run. Less expected was great work from Drew Smyly on Friday and Anibal Sanchez on Sunday. Though neither went deep into the game—they combined for 11.2 innings—both starters shut down the Minnesota bats, and though Friday’s opener ended up in Twins’ hands, the Tiger bullpen—with help from a big home run by Prince Fielder—delivered the Sunday victory that all but sealed this division title.
Chicago’s bats had a tough task in taking on Tampa Bay in the Trop, and the White Sox hitters certainly didn’t do anything to exceed expectations. The 2 thru 7 hitters on this team are Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and A.J. Piersynzki, and together they have given Chicago a consistent offense. Over the last four games in Tampa the quintet combined to 14-for-66, a collective batting average of .212. If we mix in the few walks they drew, the on-base percentage is still a terrible .278. Was there any power you ask? Other than a Rios home run, the other hits were all singles. That’s a good way to hit your way home for October and that’s what happened to the Southsiders.
Detroit needs one more win or one more Chicago defeat to make this official. The Tigers are in Kansas City, while the White Sox go to Cleveland for the final series. Let’s note this is the same Indians’ team that just took two of three in Chicago and now needs only one win to end their rival’s season. Let’s further note that if the miracle happens and the White Sox pull back even, it still just means a one-game playoff. And by the way, Verlander would be on full rest to pitch that game. I don’t think it’s jumping the gun to plan on watching the Tigers in action this coming Saturday when the Division Series begins.
Around the rest of the MLB playoff picture…
*Baltimore & Oakland both came up with weekend sweeps. The Orioles pulled even in the AL East with the Yanks and clinched at least a wild-card. The A’s are on the verge of doing the same, holding a three-game cushion on the Angels & Rays with three to play. Coco Crisp came up big for Oakland, with seven hits in the first two games of the wins in Seattle, Brandon Moss had a big five-RBI game on Saturday and Josh Donaldson hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning that same day, a tying blast that set up a later three-run jack by Moss.
Baltimore’s sweep of Boston was aided considerably by Chris Davis, who homered on Friday night and had two hits both Saturday and Sunday. And Jim Thome got two starts in the series and had multiple-hit games both times. The Birds’ sweep went in conjunction with New York splitting four in Toronto and allowing the Orioles to wipe out a 1.5 game deficit. The Yanks had a scare when Robinson Cano needed his hand X-rayed, but they came back negative. Cano otherwise spent the weekend giving Toronto pitching a scare, with a 10-for-16 run through the four games.
Thus, we can realistically conclude that we know the five teams that will be in the American League playoffs. Baltimore, New York and Texas are all clinched. Detroit and Oakland are right on the brink of doing so. But the brilliance of the new playoff format is now shining through, because we don’t yet know who will win the AL East & AL West. The Rangers should take care of business in the West, but they’re still only up two on Oakland and the teams go head-to-head out west. You’d like to say with certainty that Texas will pick up the one win they need to clinch, but they have inconsistent starters Martin Perez and Ryan Dempster scheduled for Monday and Wednesday. And if the Rangers do clinch, they still need to keep an eye on Baltimore/New York, whom they only lead by a game for homefield advantage.
New York and Baltimore both have tougher challenges, particularly the Orioles who go to Tampa. The Yanks theoretically have it easier with a home series against Boston, but the Red Sox have Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz set for Monday and Tuesday and all it takes is either pitcher to perform to his ability one time and the Yanks could find themselves in a one-game showdown come Friday. As a Red Sox fan, hoping for such an outcome is all I have left this season.
Over in the National League, Washington isn’t quite there in the NL East, but they are up three on Atlanta. The Braves are playing Pittsburgh, a dead team walking, so Washington likely needs to take care of its own business one time against Philadelphia at home. The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the top overall seed, a factor that can impact pitching decisions on Tuesday and Wednesday if the NL East doesn’t get settled tonight. The #1 seed doesn’t open Division Series play until Sunday, while the #2 seed plays on Saturday.
The only postseason berth really left up in the air is the final NL wild-card, which has been narrowed to St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Cards are still in firm control with a two-game cushion. They play at Cincinnati, while the Dodgers host San Francisco. In theory, both division leaders can spoil the postseason hopes of a rival they hate. In practice, Johnny Cueto for Cincy pitched yesterday and won’t see the mound in this final series.
If Los Angeles can push this race to the final day, they have Clayton Kershaw set to pitch on Wednesday against a San Francisco team that is all but locked into the #3 seed. Still, making up two games realistically requires a sweep and with Matt Cain making his last regular season start tonight that’s a lot to ask. I know it’s not over, but I’ve already started to look forward to a Cardinals-Braves wild-card game on Friday.
Every team in baseball has two series left as the MLB playoff race hits its final week. Let’s take a look at how the races shape up, who plays who and what we have to look forward to in these closing days…
AL CENTRAL: The Chicago White Sox are fading fast, having lost seven of nine, a stretch that includes series losses to Kansas City & Cleveland. Meanwhile, Detroit took advantage of the chance to play the Royals in rattling off a four-game sweep. Detroit now leads the division by two games. They close on the road, but the trips are to Minnesota and Kansas City.
Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch Saturday, a circumstance that means he could come back on short rest for Wednesday’s season finale if necessary. Meanwhile, the White Sox are in red-hot Tampa, then go to Cleveland. The most high-stakes race in baseball—its winner-take-all, with no wild-card cushion—could be over by the end of the weekend.
AL WILD-CARD: Tampa Bay and Los Angeles have played their way back into this race right now, and only trail Oakland by two games. Baltimore currently holds the top wild-card spot, and the Rays get the Orioles in a home series to end the season. But both challengers have tough schedules. Tampa has the aforementioned matchups with Chicago and Baltimore, while LAA has to deal with Texas—a team that still has to clinch the AL West—this weekend, and then a road trip at pesky Seattle. The Angels have to face Felix Hernandez on Monday, and as NFL fans now know, some strange things can happen in Seattle on a Monday Night.
AL EAST: Baltimore’s not just looking over their shoulder in the wild-card race, they’re looking ahead in the division race. New York lost the opener of a four-game set in Toronto last night and the Yankee lead is back to a single game. The Yanks will finish out their series north of the border, and Baltimore has that tough series in Tampa ahead. That leaves the Boston Red Sox to possibly settle the division, as they pay a visit to Camden Yards this weekend and the Bronx next week. The pitching for Boston has Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester pitching against the Yankees, and while they doesn’t mean the same this year as it has in years past, I’m sure it’s not a situation Joe Girardi finds idea.
The Yanks, meanwhile, have to feel heartened by the strong outings from Andy Pettite and C.C. Sabathia of late and these two, along with consistent Hiroki Kuroda, will pitch four of the remaining games. Any time a race is this close, anything can happen, but the matchups—plus having the one-game edge—work in New York’s favor.
AL WEST: I suppose you can read Texas’ split of a four-game set with Oakland earlier this week any way you want—because the Rangers have a four-game cushion, they held the course and knocked a few more days off the calendar. But if you’re Oakland you look at that three-game home set with Texas to end the year and figure you dodged the bullet on the road and gave yourself a shot for the final games. The Rangers have hot pitchers Yu Darvish and Derek Holland set up to pitch once apiece, while Ryan Dempster will go twice.
NL WILD-CARD: The race that seemed to be heading for a glorious mess suddenly cleaned up and got stable. St. Louis mostly took care of business in games against Houston and Chicago, while Milwaukee and Los Angeles couldn’t keep pace. The Brewers, at four back, are realistically done, while the Dodgers at three out have a tough uphill fight. St. Louis does have to go on the road to play Washington and Cincinnati. The Cards have Adam Wainwright set to pitch twice, and 16-game winner Kyle Lohse goes Saturday, meaning he’s another one who can go on three days rest if need be.
The one caveat in all this is that the Dodgers have three home games with lowly Colorado ahead, while Milwaukee faces Houston & San Diego. It’s hard to see the Cards blowing this, but after last year’s ending, they’re the last franchise that would ever write anybody else off.
NL EAST: Atlanta’s gotten hot and is still chasing Washington at four games back. But unlike Oakland, the Braves don’t get head-to-head games with the leader, so this is a longshot. But Atlanta does have the favorable schedule, playing at home against the Mets, then on the road against the collapsing Pirates whose fans have again forgotten they exist. Kris Medlen, perhaps the hottest starting pitcher in baseball is going on Sunday, which works perfectly for bringing him back on normal rest for the wild-card game on Friday, so perhaps that tells you what manager Fredi Gonzalez is thinking. Washington does have to play at St. Louis this weekend and then hosts Philadelphia, a team they just took two of three from.
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Texas & Washington are holding down the #1 seeds, although neither one is in the bag. New York is two back of Texas and would win a tiebreaker, while Washington is only plus-one on Cincinnati. Further down the bracket, the AL Central winner is locked into the #3 seed. Over in the NL, Western Division champ San Francisco is two back of Cincy to try and get the two-spot and earn homefield for at least the Division Series.
FIGHTING FOR .500: Nothing can change the disappointment Philadelphia fans over this season, but in the big picture they’ll appreciate it if their 78-78 team can post their seventh straight winning season. Those are the kind of streaks that look very good as they build up, even if some individual years are a disappointment. On that same note, that’s the worst part of the Pittsburgh collapse—at 76-80, the Pirates have to sweep their home games with the Reds & Braves to have their first winning season since 1992, and with just two losses extend their historic streak of losing seasons.
AT THE BETTING WINDOW: Earlier this week, we reviewed how each team was doing against the Over/Under win totals that were posted in Las Vegas at the start of the season. The Yankees, Rays and Brewers were the teams whose number was in serious doubt. If you bet New York to go Over, you’re still sweating, needing them to split their last six. Milwaukee needs to sweep to go Over, although a 5-1 closing record and push is realistic. Tampa Bay’s given their bettors nervous moments, but at 86-70, they look set to go Over the posted number of 87.
LOOKING AHEAD: The wild-card games are both held Friday, with Thursday being reserved for any one-game playoffs. Please note that division races—notably the AL East—that may end in a tie, with both teams going postseason, will now be settled in a one-game playoff. Previous rules had used tiebreakers to see the teams, but with the reward of a division title so much higher under the new format, they now play it off. Any deadlocks that are just over homefield advantage in the Division Series are still settled via the head-to-head tiebreaker system. Division Series play begins on Saturday with the 2 vs. 3 bracket in both leagues, and then the 1-seeds open on Sunday against the wild-card winners.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ll chronicle all the races outlined here, and also mix in articles picking a season-ending All-Star team in both leagues, plus separate posts with final MVP selections. All that’s on tap between now and Friday, and then it’s time to start previewing the battles of October.
The AL East race is still running close to a dead heat, with the New York Yankees holding a half-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles entering Wednesday night’s games. As part of a look at the landscape in this division race, we’re also going to include the Los Angeles Angels. Because it looks like the Angels’ place in the MLB playoff picture is trying to chase down the AL East runner-up for the second wild-card.
It looks like both Texas & Oakland are in out of the AL West. It looks like Detroit and Chicago will be winner-take-all in the AL Central, with the loser out of the wild-card race. Tampa Bay is slumping and looks finish. With the regular season set to conclude two weeks from tonight, there’s time for hot streaks or slumps to alter the dynamics of the race, but barring something major, the AL East has been paired to New York and Baltimore and LAA is the only team with a real shot at catching the runner-up.
NY Yanks: There’s hope in the Bronx that New York has finally started to stabilize, having won consecutive series over Boston and Tampa Bay and seen Andy Pettite pitch well this afternoon in his first start back from an ankle injury. The Yanks desperately need Pettite to be his old self, because C.C. Sabathia is struggling—a 5.40 ERA in three September starts, including poor outings in games against the Orioles and Rays were the team needed its stopper. Hiroki Kuroda also has a 5+ERA down the stretch.
The offense has been struggling with Mark Teixeira out (and not doing anything spectacular when he was in), and Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher really struggling in the season’s final month. The talk of this team’s fabled bench looks like New York media hype—Eric Chavez’s .484 slugging percentage is an asset, but everywhere else looks no better than any other team.
What New York does have going for them is a bullpen that leads the league in closing its save chances and is 6-for-6 in that department in September. Rafael Soriano ably stepped in for Mariano Rivera and has posted a 41-save/2.02 ERA season, with David Robertson sitting on a 2.98 ERA. There are some depth issues and a Robertson meltdown in a big game at Baltimore reminded everyone how this team would really miss Mariano in big situations. But the overall performance of the pen in the absence of the game’s greatest closer is a vindication to sabermetricians who felt the position was overrated. And when it comes to getting the bullpen lead, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are the two position players acting like they know they’re in a fight for their lives, and while Joe Girardi has squeezed some decent starts out of Phil Hughes and David Phelps.
On balance though, this is a team that’s crawling to the finish line and beating Boston—which everyone is doing—and Tampa Bay—which over the last two nights has proven to be the only team that can’t beat Boston—doesn’t prove anything.
Baltimore: The Orioles have done almost a complete reversal in the way the win since the All-Star break. The overall season numbers tell you they are overly reliant on the home run ball—J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds have all hit 20-plus homers, but all needed improvement in the on-base percentage area. In the month of September, they all seemed to learn how to draw walks. Reynolds, Davis, Wieters, along with second baseman Robert Andino and new acquisition Nate McClouth all have OBPs that range from .365 to .441, more than enough to keep the runs churning. And a closer look at the stats tell you it’s not just a hitting streak—each player really is more patient at the plate and taking their walks. And this doesn’t even factor in how much Nick Markakis contributed, with an OBP over. 400 since the break before breaking his wrist a week and a half ago.
Buck Showalter continues to squeeze what he can out of the starting rotation, as Wei Yin-Chen appears to be wearing down. The Japanese import has turned in a good year, winning 16 games with a 3.98 ERA against a diet of AL East lineups, but that ERA is at 5.25 in September. The staff has been saved by the addition of veteran Joe Saunders—a 2.55 ERA in his last three starts and Chris Tillman. And the staff as a whole has been saved all year by a bullpen that’s somehow gotten even deeper in recent weeks. Showalter put struggling young starters Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta in the pen and all three suddenly became unhittable. They are added to a relief corps that was already anchored by stellar work from Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson.
I’m half-expecting Showalter to just junk the traditional notion of the starter and have a few pitchers work a couple innings at a time. While that might be an exaggeration, the manager certainly has the depth to put his starters on a short, playoff-type leash the next two weeks.
LA Angels: The road won’t be easy, as the Angels are three games back of Baltimore, and the power has gone out in September, as Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo all have seen their slugging percentages drop sharply. Trout is still getting on base consistently, but Trumbo has been in a prolonged slump in all facets of his offense since the All-Star break. Pujols is hitting .226 with one home run in September. Mike Scoscia has gotten help from an unlikely source in shortstop Erick Aybar, who is slugging over. 500 in the season’s second half and Kendry Morales is also swinging the bat well.
LAA’s offensive problems put the pressure on a pitching staff that’s up and down and the starters have come through. Zack Greinke, after struggling right after his acquisition from Milwaukee, has really gotten locked in and the rest of the staff—Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana—have all dominated in September. This was the pitching rotation the baseball world feared and why as long as the Angels are breathing, their World Series chances will be taken seriously.
But when you’re trying to come from behind in a playoff race, you can’t cough up games and the Angels’ bullpen is the worst in the American League at closing out their save chances, and they’ve been consistently bad—whether we measure the entire season, the second half or just September. It’s a franchise that essentially is asking to have its heart ripped out.
THE REST OF THE WAY: Not only do the Angels have to play from behind, but they have the toughest schedule. The last two games of a home series with Texas are ahead, as is a visit to Dallas to play the Rangers. LAA will also host Chicago. New York’s only games against a contender are this weekend’s three-game home set with Oakland. Otherwise it’s Toronto, Minnesota and Boston on tap. The Orioles get six games against the dysfunctional Red Sox, four more against Toronto, although a closing series in Tampa could be a little hairy if the race is still close.
It’s going to take everything Mike Scoscia has to steal a playoff berth from either AL East foe. And as far as the AL East race itself goes, a lot hinges on the continued health of Pettite and the possible late September return of Baltimore ace Jason Hammel.
The American League wild-card race might not be clear, but it’s starting to look we might have one fewer contestant for the two berths in the one-game showdown that will kickstart the MLB playoffs in less than a month. The AL Central race between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox is starting to look like a winner-take-all affair. The Tigers went west over the weekend and were swept by the Los Angeles Angels. The White Sox dropped two of three to Kansas City and concluded a six-game homestand where they could only split against the Royals and Twins. Detroit, currently two games back in the division race is now 4.5 back in the wild-card race and have the Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles all to catch. With only three and a half weeks to go in the regular season that’s going to take a lot.
Furthermore, let’s not the obvious which is that if Detroit gets that hot, the wild-card won’t be relevant to them—they’ll win the AL Central. Both the Tigers and White Sox have to stop their current backpedal to the finish line. And since they go head-to-head in a four-game series to start the week it’s apparent that such a double hot streak can’t begin until at least Friday.
That might hurt the AL Central’s wild-card chances, but it sure ratchets up the intensity for these coming four nights on the South Side. Just a week ago Detroit beat Chicago three straight in Comerica Park, and now the White Sox try to return the favor. And just like in that previous series, the schedule works out so that Justin Verlander and Chris Sale each pitch the finale.
The Detroit-ChiSox battle is the biggest in the first half of the week, but two more showdowns are going to be crucial in the American League race, both wild-card and for division titles. The Orioles & Rays go head-to-head in Camden Yards. Baltimore split four with the Yanks over the weekend to stay one game back in the East, while Tampa grabbed two of three from Texas to keep within two games. What are the odds that when you said “AL East Showdown” for this spot in the schedule, you’d be thinking Rays-Orioles, and not Yanks-Red Sox, who hook up in the Fens? Boston is collapsing fast and if they’re interested in playing spoiler at all, we’ve seen precious little evidence on the field. If we don’t see it at home these next three nights, it’s never going to surface—and with still two more series against Baltimore and one more against New York, the Red Sox state of mind will be a factor in this race.
Los Angeles ‘ sweep of Detroit has pulled them even with Tampa Bay and both teams are only one game back of Baltimore for the last berth. Oakland, currently the #1 wild-card, has a 2.5 game cushion between themselves and elimination. Now the Angels host the A’s for a three-game set, though the hot Halos have a biceps problem for Jered Weaver looming over their heads and the ace’s start in Wednesday’s matinee finale is in question.
These three big series are where the action is at in baseball this week and over the next three days, TheSportsNotebook will essentially tune up for the playoffs, but having morning reaction to the results from all three locales, the same as will be the case for each day of the postseason.
Here’s the rundown on other series involving the contenders…
Pittsburgh-Cincinnati: The standings tell us the Pirates are a contender, only 2.5 games out of the playoffs. The results on the field tell us they just lost three straight to the Cubs, concluding a 2-4 homestand where the Astros were the other opponent. Their only hope is lack of focus from Cincinnati, who has run away with the Central.
Washington-NY Mets: Wednesday’s game will be the focal point, as John Lannan gets the ball. It’s Lannan who’s taking the place of the now-shutdown Stephen Strasburg. Keep in mind while Washington’s lead of 5.5 games is comfortable, it’s not insurmountable.
Atlanta-Milwaukee: The Braves just polished off the Mets three straight and have opened up a seven-game lead for one of the wild-card berths. After last year, no one in Atlanta is going to breathe too easy, and the Brewers are sneaking up on the .500 mark, having just knocked off St. Louis in a road series this weekend. Where I write, just outside of Milwaukee, there’s cautious talk of a miracle September run, although the Brewers would need to sweep a series like this for such talk to go beyond the hard-core fan base.
San Francisco-Colorado: Great weekend for the Giants, who grabbed two wins over the Dodgers and hold a 5.5 game lead in the NL West. Between now and the season-ending series with their rival to the south, San Fran has an exclusive diet of Arizona, Colorado and San Diego. It’s all there for the Giants to clinch before the final battle with the Dodgers even begins.
LA Dodgers-Arizona: Clayton Kershaw is dealing with a nagging injury, but is expected to pitch tonight to open the two-game series. This is a sandwich spot for the Dodgers, right between the weekend in Frisco and a coming four-game set with St. Louis, with whom they are battling for the last wild-card slot.
St. Louis-San Diego: The Cards come off a disappointing home series with Milwaukee, losing two of three and have been unable to put distance between themselves and the slumping Pirates and the sluggish Dodgers. Now they start a West Coast swing that could leave them regretting missed opportunity.
Cleveland-Texas: Ron Washington’s Rangers can’t shake Oakland and the AL West lead is just 3.5 games, but after finishing a weekend in Tampa Bay—and two series with the Rays over the last week and a half—the Texas schedule gets easier and it starts right here.
We’ve talked about the Baltimore Orioles more often than most media outlets here at TheSportsNotebook during the season. Not only is that a byproduct of my having lived in Charm City from 2008-11, but the fact that somebody needed to talk about the Orioles and at least examine why they were winning instead of casually assuming the winning would stop. Now the rest of the media is on the bandwagon, and they’ll get a lot of TV coverage for a four-game weekend series with the New York Yankees that started last night in dramatic fashion.
The elephant in the room for the Yankees right now is their starting pitching on any night that C.C. Sabathia or Hiroki Kuroda aren’t the listed pitcher and David Phelps was rocked off the mound quickly in Camden Yards. Then the moment everyone was waiting for happened—the Yankees rallied with five runs in the eighth inning to tie the game 6-6 against Pedro Strop, the incredibly talented relief pitchiner who looked exactly like a young kid tossed into a pennant race against Cano, Jeter, Ichiro & Co.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what seemed New York’s inevitable back-breaking win. The Birds crushed three home runs in the bottom of the inning, won anyway 10-6 and pulled back into first place. Now the AL East race is tied, the stage is set for the next three days and Tampa Bay is lurking two games back with a big series of their own at home against Texas.
New York has not won a series since late August, and that was against Cleveland. Phil Hughes, who’s got the talent, but also the consistency problem, gets the ball tonight to try and keep his team in first place. Freddy Garcia, the veteran at the other extreme of the spectrum goes on Sunday afternoon. Baltimore counters with steady Wei-Yin Chen, veteran Joe Saunders who’s fresh off taking a perfect game deep into a game at Toronto and then Zach Britton in the finale, who’s a more extreme version of Hughes, both good and bad.
There’s no mystery behind why the Yanks are slip-sliding in the standings and it’s because the starting pitching is hardly a matchup advantage, even against an Oriole staff that’s been questioned all year. Furthermore, Derek Jeter is the only hitter who seems to be locked in right now, while Baltimore is watching Nick Markakis swing a hot bat and Mark Reynolds on a massive tear that’s seen him hit 12 home runs in a month, including eight straight games and including a pair last night.
One team that has no pitching issues whatsoever is Tampa Bay, who is the most recent team to win a series against New York. The Rays are two back of the co-leaders and if they can win their home series with Texas, the Rays naturally stand to be within at least one game of whoemver loses the O’s-Yanks battle in the race for the wild-card. Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist are all hot and David Price is set to go Saturday, as he seeks some redemption for when the Rangers pounded him a week and a half ago down in Arlington.
The other showdown series this weekend is on the other coast and in the other league, where the Dodgers-Giants go at it in San Francisco. All the pressure is on Los Angeles here. They missed a chance to close the 4.5 game margin this week when they dropped two of three to San Diego while San Fran was doing the same to Arizona. The Dodgers are getting some good hitting from a new player, but it’s not any of the big names they got at the deadline or in the deal with Boston—it’s Luis Cruz, the shortstop who came up and has a .409 on-base percentage and .517 slugging percentage in the last month. Frisco is treading water a bit right now, but Buster Posey and Brandon Belt are both locked in at the plate and if they even pick up one win at home they’d still be in command of the division on Monday morning.
Other notable weekend action…
The Los Angeles Angels got what they needed this week. Not only did they sweep Oakland and move to within 2.5 games of their division rival for the last wild-card spot, but the Halos did it with great pitching from Zack Greinke and Dan Haren, and the lineup is producing up and down the order. Now they get a visit from Detroit, with each team just outside the playoff picture. The Tigers had a disappointing early week, losing a pair of one-run games to Cleveland and slipping a game back of Chicago in the AL Central. We’re at the point in the season where it’s not to much to think the Angels-Tigers games in Anaheim are elimination battles, at least far as the wild-card goes.
Detroit would still be in it to catch the White Sox, who won two of three from Minnesota and play Cleveland on the weekend—but the ChiSox loss to Minnesota came by an 18-9 score and that’s hardly comforting work from your pitching staff. Oakland goes to Seattle, hardly an easy series and the A’s two best hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are both slumping.
Over in the National League, St. Louis plays host to Milwaukee. The Brewers are quietly playing good baseball and after sweeping Pittsburgh last weekend, would surely love even more to stick it to the division rivals who ousted them from last year’s NLCS. The Cards send Kyle Lohse to the hill tonight, but Adam Wainwright is not on the weekend docket, so a series win for the road underdog is within realistic reach. The Pirates get the Cubs at home and trail the race for the last wild-card by a game and a half.
Atlanta enjoyed a big week. Getting three of four from Colorado doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface, but it was set up to a disaster—the Braves only scored one run in each of the last two games, but Mike Minor and Tim Hudson stepped up on the mound and delivered 1-0 wins. While Atlanta is a distant 7.5 games back of Washington, they’ve opened up some breathing room for a wild-card berth, leading by five games and a soft schedule in September.
Washington, Cincinnati and Texas are the three teams that are rolling. We’ll debate the merits of shutting down Stephen Strasburg for October, but the Nats’ lead in the NL East is sufficient that it won’t matter before then. Cincy may have lost a series to Philadelphia this weekend, but are plus-eight in the Central and more focused on getting Joey Votto back in the swing of things for October. Texas isn’t quite as home free yet, with the lead over Oakland at 5.5 games, but the Rangers have won six straight series, including a pair of four-game sets mixed in there and they’re still holding a 4-5 game lead after this weekend in Tampa, they’ll have survived their toughest schedule run left.
No two teams in the American League have been bigger surprises than the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A’s. The Orioles, in spite of sluggish play through the summer continue to set the pace for the AL’s second wild-card spot, with a 46-41 record. Oakland isn’t far behind at 45-43. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at both teams here on the first weekend of the seasons second half…
Baltimore (46-41): Battle through five and then win it in the end. That’s got to be the war chant in Baltimore this season. The offense isn’t that good, ranking just 10th in the American League in runs scored, in spite of being a fairly hitter-friendly environment at Camden Yards. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, lacks depth and is currently a mess. But the bullpen is the best in the AL, if not all of baseball and if you don’t finish off the Orioles by the sixth inning, they’re going to battle you to the end.
Jim Johnson, with 26 saves and a 1.41 ERA is one of the game’s top closers and Buck Showalter has put together a very deep setup team around him, one that’s led by Pedro Strop and his buck-59 ERA. You can mix in Darren O’Day, a veteran of Texas’ recent pennant runs, and Luis Ayala and that’s a core four who have been very good. Showalter can also turn to arms like Kevin Gregg, who’ve been reasonably consistent.
Jason Hammell and Wei-Yin Chen have anchored the rotation this season, with sub-4.00 ERAs, something not easy to do in a hitter’s park against a steady diet of AL East lineups. But Hammell now has a knee injury and is expected to do some disabled list time, and no one else has stepped up for Showalter. The manager can hope that Miguel Gonzalez, with a 1.93 ERA in 18 IP will fill one role. Ultimately though, the Orioles need some of the young pitchers who have done to the Baltimore-to-Norfolk shuttle these past couple years, with repeated Triple-A stints to finally stabilize as major league starters. I’m talking about Brian Matusz, who has been working to regain his solid 2010 form and is probably on his way back to the big leagues to replace Hammell. Or Zach Britton, who’s missed this season with injury and is building up his velocity in Norfolk right now. Another wild-card might be Chris Tillman. With 36 career starts and a 5.58 ERA my instinct was to dismiss him before double-checking and realizing he’s only 24 years old. Tillman will get a chance to be in the rotation again starting next week. Britton, Matusz and Tillman have to succeed—or at least two of them do—for the long-term future and it wouldn’t hurt if that long-term future started around now.
Oakland (45-43): Billy Beane’s team is the case of the extremes, with the worst offense in the league and the best pitching, although given the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the team probably isn’t literally that polarized. But close enough. Like Baltimore they have a strong and deep bullpen and like Baltimore they’re counting on some returning arms in July and August to give much-needed help to the rotation.
Ryan Cook has earned the closer’s job here recently and has a 1.37 ERA with nine saves. He made the All-Star team and will likely be one of the game’s top ninth-inning arms in the second half. Grant Balfour, Jordan Norberto and Jerry Blevins have been consistent around him, and young additions like Sean Doolittle and Pedro Figueroa have given even more depth to a unit that makes the A’s tough to beat from the sixth inning on.
Starting pitching here is in pretty good shape, with Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffn and Travis Blackley being the latest young starters Billy Beane has brought up, and added them to Tommy Milone, who’s logged a workhorse-like 114 IP. Bartolo Colon has been a pleasant veteran addition, but a 3.80 ERA in this park isn’t spectacular and Colon’s history suggest nagging injuries are a virtual lock.
What Beane is banking in is the return of Brandon McCarthy, who had a 6-3 record with a 2.54 ERA when he hit the disabled list, along with Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson whose season-long recoveries are said to be progressing well and will likely have them pitching again in the next month. Beane will have depth in starting pitching and room to add a bat, which is team desperately needs.
Make that two or three bats, because rightfielder Josh Reddick, with a .348/.526 stat line for his on-base percentage/slugging percentage has carried the team. Seth Smith has started to pick it up, as his power gradually rises, up to .447 slugging and keeping Yoenis Cespedes healthy for the second half will be a big boost. As will first baseman Brandon Moss, if he does anything close to his current pace of 11 home runs in 90 at-bats. But the team needs second baseman Jemile Weeks to return to the form he showed in his 2011 rookie year and get on base. Because while the players mentioned are good, they aren’t get-on-my-back-and-I’ll-carry-you kind of talent. Everyone has to pull their weight and Weeks is the most flagrant offender of those who are not.
Baltimore has similar offensive problems, although they got Nick Markakis back from the disabled list this weekend. The rightfielder already has a respectable stat line of .339/.469 and his history suggests the OBP can go up further. They Orioles picked up Jim Thome to give some power and a veteran presence at the DH spot and they’re getting a very good year from Adam Jones and a pretty good one from Matt Wieters. What the O’s could use is a hot second half from shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose meager stat line of .258/.380 wasn’t what the front office had in mind when they gave him a three-year deal for $21 million last summer.
Oakland started the second half with two wins in Minnesota, while Baltimore split two with Detroit, including an epic 13-inning win yesterday where they rallied in both the 11th and 13th and won a walk-off home run by Taylor Teagarden, the backup catcher making his second at-bat of the season. After closing out those series today, the Orioles hit the road, while Oakland gets marquee opponents coming in. Texas and New York visit the Bay Area for a total of six games, while the Orioles play eight in Minnesota and Cleveland. The teams go head-to-head in Baltimore on July 27, as the trade deadline approaches and each front office evaluates its options.