There’s one team in the National League that’s on a pace to win 100 games this season and it’s not any of the usual suspects, from the Dodgers to the Cubs or the Nationals. Nope, it’s the Milwaukee Brewers who are setting the tone in the NL. The Brewers have a win percentage of .632 (.617 being the baseline for 100 wins on the season) and lead the Central Division by 4 ½ games heading into the weekend.
How are they doing it and is it sustainable? Those are the questions we’ll look to answer here.
The answer to those questions start with a bullpen that has been spectacular, leading the NL in ERA. Even better for the Brewers, that’s been accomplished despite an early portion of the season that should have been a little rocky. Corey Knebel, their fine closer, had a DL stint and has otherwise struggled to a 5.07 ERA and two blown saves in only seven opportunities.
But there have been plenty of arms to pick up the slack. Names like Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader and Matt Albers aren’t marquee. But they all have sub-2.00 ERAs. Even serious baseball fans outside Milwaukee might struggle to know names like Jacob Barnes, Dan Jennings and Taylor Williams. They’re ERAs are all under 3. And those six arms are the single biggest reason the Brewers are playing the best baseball in the National League.
Offensively, Milwaukee has done it in a way that wakes up the echoes of the best teams in franchise history, the 1978-83 run that produceda pennant in 1982. That’s hit home runs. These might not be Harvey’s Wallbangers or Bambi’s Bombers of days gone by, but they are second in the National League in going deep. Travis Shaw is the team’s best offensive player, hitting 13 home runs, slugging .518 and further underscoring what a steal the front office pulled off in getting him from Boston in exchange for reliever Tyler Thornburg.
The pitfalls that may lie ahead for the Brewers include other facets of the offense. The reliance on the long ball is a little excessive. To put it in perspective, while Milwaukee ranks fourth in the NL in runs scored, there is no individual statistical category, other than home runs, where they rank that high. That can be a very unstable way to live as we move into the long summer months.
But the big concern is starting pitching, where the Brewers rank 10th in the NL in rotation ERA. This is not a surprise—staff ace Jimmy Nelson went on the disabled list late last season and is yet to return. The organization is hoping he makes it back by the All-Star break. Zach Davies, the 25-year-old with two good, full major league seasons under his belt has also struggled. The ERA is 5.23 in eight starts and he just hit the DL with shoulder problems.
Earlier this week, when writing about the Chicago Cubs, I said they were the best team in the National League. I suppose that gives away where I think this division race will eventually end up. But that’s not out of a lack of belief in the Brewers. Craig Counsell was a brilliant find as manager four years ago. The Brewers have some trade pieces, as Eric Thames comes off the disabled list and a numbers problem crops up at first base and in the outfield.
The possibility of getting Nelson back in late July would be a de facto trade deadline addition for an organization that’s not flush enough with cash to get in the bidding for the highest-profile late summer targets.
So do all these positive add up to at least a wild-card game appearance? That will come down to whether Nelson can give this team two quality months down the stretch. Since I’m not a doctor, I’ll be able to bail on a straight Yes/No answer to the question. But simply by surviving the early part of the season with him gone is a big step forward for Milwaukee.
There’s no guarantee the NL Central will sweep the wild-cards, nor is there even a guarantee they will get one, with both the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves in the pictures. So the stakes are high for the NL Central’s power trio. The Notebook Nine will focus on the Brewers, Cards and Pirates, with three pertinent thoughts for each team as we head into the homestretch…
*The two key under-the-radar players for Milwaukee are Khris Davis in left field and starting pitcher Mike Fiers. Davis has quietly hit 20 home runs, while Fiers has made four starts and four relief appearances and posted a 1.54 ERA in the process. With Matt Garza on the disabled list and Ryan Braun now hitting like he’s not on PEDs, the bat of Davis and the arm of Fiers will continue to be critical.
*Speaking of Braun, a common theory held at the start of the season was that, if clean, he might prove to be the kind of hitter who would hit .280, hit 20 home runs and finish with 85 RBIs. In other words, still pretty good, but no longer an elite player. Braun’s numbers to date—he’s hitting .277 with 17 home runs and 74 RBIs. Let’s never again here the “he would have been good anyway” argument that gets thrown up the enablers of PED-using players. Clearly, the drugs are the difference between being good and great.
*Braun’s failure to play up to his $10 million per year contract would normally kill a small-market franchise, but the Brewers have gotten big-time production all year from Carlos Gomez in centerfield (.347 OBP/.483 slugging percentage) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.367/.481). Both players are showing a little bit of slippage though, and they need to find way to keep producing for one more month.
*The training staff in St. Louis is either the greatest in the world, or they notoriously overstate how bad injuries are. Yadier Molina is the latest to make a faster-than-expected recovery. The catcher, one expected to be out to mid-September at least, and possibly gone for the year, will make his return to the lineup tonight. This comes with the Cardinal offense already improving—they still rank 12th in the NL in runs scored, but that’s after a season mostly spent at 14th.
*Two big keys behind the pickup of the St. Louis offense are shortstop Jhonny Peralta and left fielder Matt Holliday. Peralta began to gain steam prior to the All-Star break after a terrible start, and now has a stat line of .339/.455. Holliday has been effective getting on base all year (.364 OBP), but has finally elevated his slugging percentage past the .400 mark. The Cardinal offense is still far from the force it’s been in recent years, but at least the lineup is no longer doing a fair imitation of the San Diego Padres.
*The trades to bolster the starting rotation have not worked. John Lackey has been disappointing, with five starts and a 4.50 ERA. Justin Masterson has been an absolute disaster, with a 7.43 ERA in his five times to the post. In fact, the Cleveland Indians, who dealt Masterson, appear to be the real beneficiary, as they’ve nudged back into the American League wild-card race since the deal. With Michael Wacha still rehabbing his shoulder, and Adam Wainwright struggling since the break. St. Louis’ starting pitching is in bad shape at a bad time.
*Your key under-the-radar contributor in Pittsburgh is third baseman Josh Harrison, at .338/.494. We’ve also seen a good year from Starling Marte in left, with a .349 OBP and Neil Walker continues to be a steady offensive producer at second base.
*Pittsburgh has had pitching problems all year, but perhaps their rotation is coming together while St. Louis’ falls apart. Gerrit Cole is back off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano has been better of late, and Vance Worley seems to have again found the form that made him a rising star in Philadelphia. In fact, every single Pirate starter has an ERA in the 3s. There’s no real ace, but Pittsburgh can expect to be in the game each night.
*Could Andrew McCutchen steal another MVP award? He’s not gotten a lot of media attention, with the focus going on Giancarlo Stanton in Miami and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. But what if the writers take their usual route of deciding they don’t want to vote for a player on a non-playoff team (presuming Stanton’s Marlins can’t make up the 5 ½ games separating them from the postseason) and they don’t want to vote for a pitcher? McCutchen, with shiny numbers of .402/.537, stands ready to win the award again if the Pirates at least get a wild-card.
At the start of the season, I picked St. Louis to win this division, Milwaukee to make the playoffs and Pittsburgh to be strong enough to get into the playoffs, but knocked out by the strength of the division’s schedule. If the Brewers and Cardinals just flip and the Pirates stay where they’re at, we’ll have an unprecedented situation—I’ll have been right. Just for that alone, I’ll stay with my preseason picks and call that as the final outcome, with Atlanta riding the weak NL East into the second wild-card slot.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The Milwaukee Brewers had a good night on Tuesday at the All-Star Game in Minneapolis. The three Brewer starters all made good early contributions—Jonathan Lucroy doubled twice, while Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Gomez each made nice plays in the field. But that’s about all that’s gone well for the Brewers in the month of July.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Milwaukee has gone 2-10 in this month, and their once-comfortable lead in the NL Central is gone. The Brewers have lost 4 ½ games to the Pittsburgh Pirates and 5 ½ apiece to the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. I fully expected this race to tighten—more out of regard for the opposition than concern about the Brewers, but wasn’t expecting it to happen quite so fast.
So is this slide destined to continue, albeit in more moderate degrees, carry the Brewers out of the playoff picture and again ensure the Green Bay Packers have the sports market to themselves in August & September? Or is this just one of the hiccups, albeit a severe one that the Brewers ran into?
Before answering the question, let’s break down, in general terms, how Milwaukee enjoyed their early success and then what’s gone awry in July.
The Brewers have been a team built on power hitting all season. They’re second in the National League in runs scored, while only ranking 10th in ERA. That offense has been driven primarily by the long ball—while Milwaukee does a good job at getting runners on base, they do a great job at hitting the ball out of the park.
The offense is second in slugging percentage because they are second in home runs. A town that remembers fondly the 1982 edition that won the pennant when they were still in the American League can appreciate the formula.
But the formula does invite a sharp slump, especially as the summer grinds on and offenses are known to have a little tailspin. And what the Brewer attack is experiencing is most definitely that.
Four players are batting under .200 for the month. The only player really hitting the ball well is Ryan Braun (.400 on-base percentage/.576 slugging in July) while Gomez and second baseman Scooter Gennett are the only other everyday players who haven’t completely tanked.
If the starting pitching were consistent, Milwaukee could navigate a stretch like this and at least break even, but there have been problems there. Wily Peralta was hit hard two consecutive starts before finally righting the ship on the final Sunday before the break. Kyle Lohse has been spotty. While Yovani Gallardo has mostly pitched well in recent weeks, he got hit hard in this recent stretch.
Nor has the bullpen been immune. Will Smith, one of the best setup men in the game this season, was knocked around in a couple outings and then positively annihilated by Philadelphia when he faced five batters and gave up three hits and two walks, all of whom scored. Smith blew a save and his previously stellar ERA blew up.
Francisco Rodriguez, the closer who also made the All-Star game came into a 6-6 tie against the Cardinals and gave up a home run to Matt Holliday—a hitter whose power struggles this year was the subject of commentary last week on TheSportsNotebook (actually, given the tendency of whatever trend I write about to reverse itself immediately on publication, maybe that home run was my fault and not K-Rod’s).
The only consistent pitcher in this stretch has been Matt Garza. After a slow start, Garza has been steadily locking in since the beginning of June, lowering his ERA from 4.84 to 3.69. He won a 1-0 duel with Homer Bailey in Cincinnati, one of the two Milwaukee wins this month.
That’s the hard data, but saying “everyone has sucked for two weeks” really doesn’t get us closer to understanding the Milwaukee prospects going forward.
I submit that the key figure here is Peralta. The 25-year-old righthander has electric stuff and pitched like it in the early going. If he settles back down, the rest of the rotation falls back into place with him.
Garza and Lohse are both pitchers with big-game resumes. Gallardo has pitched very well in five of his last seven starts. Even with the fifth spot being a train wreck—Marco Estrada has been sentenced to the bullpen, a Peralta revitalization gives the Brewers four arms good enough to steady the ship. It would still be a rotation significantly deeper than Pittsburgh or Cincinnati’s, and a little bit deeper than St. Louis, at least until the Cardinals get Michael Wacha back off the disabled list.
In the bullpen, Smith is the key figure. He combined with K-Rod to completely lock down the final six outs of a game. He was able to settle himself in the final series of the first half against St. Louis, appearing twice and pitching a scoreless inning both times. And Peralta threw a gem on the final Sunday—a game in which the Brewers could have fallen out of first place. I’m optimistic that’s a sign of things to come for both pitchers.
Whether that means Milwaukee wins the NL Central is another question. St. Louis isn’t going anywhere, they were the preseason favorite and even without Yadier Molina, they’re an imposing threat. I would still expect them to somehow end up in first. But the Brewers can still get in the playoffs, they can still win the wild-card game and still keep the local fan base at least keeping one eye on baseball, even after Aaron Rodgers and the beloved Packers take the field.
The St. Louis Cardinals might be riding high with the best record in the National League, but there’s three worthy contenders right on their heels in the Central Division. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a snapshot look at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, assess how each has looked through the first 5 ½ weeks of the season and what might lie ahead. Today’s MLB coverage will lay out each team’s pros and cons and then move into an extended discussion of each.
PITTSBURGH (18-14, 2 games behind St. Louis) PROS: Bullpen great, power on offense, reasonably productive CONS: Problems with starting pitching and getting runners on base
The Pirates’ ‘pen was supposed to be a weak point after they traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox. But instead, the revamped bullpen is the biggest reason Pittsburgh is in second place coming into Wednesday’s games. The relievers’ ERA is fifth in the National League and more importantly, they’re closing out their save chances. Pittsburgh has nailed 14 of 17 save chances, well above the league average, which is two-thirds success.
Jason Grilli has been unhittable in the closer’s role, with Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon being the same in setup. Meanwhile, Hanrahan is struggling, and the Red Sox’ early success has come in spite of the former Pirate closer, rather than because of him.
The offense needed someone besides Andrew McCutchen to hit and 24-year-old Starling Marte has stepped up. With a .393/.524 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage, Marte is outperforming McCutchen in the early going. This is what Pittsburgh needs—while McCutchen is hardly performing badly (.331/.457), he’s not MVP-level. Last year the Pirates relied on McCutchen to be at MVP pace every month and when that predictably didn’t work out, he began to press and the offense completely tanked. This year’s team is also getting help from veteran catcher Russell Martin, over from the Yankees, and putting up a .362/.543 stat line in the early going.
What the offense does not do, however, is get runners on base consistently. While the team slugging percentage is a solid 6th in the National League, the on-base percentage is only 11th. It’s the latter that keeps you going during the inevitable stretches during the summer when power slumps. Pedro Alvarez has been a disaster at third, and even when he’s not, his value is hitting for power. Garrett Jones is the same at first base, and second baseman Neil Walker is hurt. Furthermore, even Marte’s high numbers are driven by his batting average of .325, rather than walks. That’s fine, but again, you need players who can draw walks to keep an offense up in down times.
And if the starting pitching does not improve, the offense will need to be kept up. While A.J. Burnett and the surprising Jeff Locke have been solid, James McDonald has been a disaster is now being sent to the disabled list. The big question mark right now is how effective will Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens be when they come off the DL over the next few weeks. Your answer to that probably determines your outlook on the 2013 Pirates. I’m pessimistic—this team has possibilities, but after last September I’ve really got them on the “prove it to me first before I believe” list.
CINCINNATI (19-15, 2 games back of St. Louis) Pros: Great pitching from start to finish, consistent runners on base and MVP candidates in the lineup. Cons: Lack of depth to the offense, very poor power early on.
The Reds are fourth in the National League in ERA, with the starters being even higher at second. This is in spite of Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto being on the disabled list. Cincy already had a deep rotation, with Mat Latos stepping up to be great (2.23 ERA), Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey solid and Mike Leake serviceable. What they also got was a call-up in Tony Cingrani, who’s posted a 2.63 ERA in four starts.
Had Cincinnati kept to its original plan of moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, they would likely have never called up Cingrani, the pen would lack a closer—Chapman’s 7-for-7 on save chances—and it’s at least possible Chapman’s career would be negatively altered (see Daniel Bard, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz). Give the Reds credit for at least recognizing their own stupidity and changing course.
Joey Votto is having a vintage year, with a .463/500 stat line—not to beat a dead horse here, but Votto draws walks. It’s why, even his power is a little down, with only four home runs, he remains a supremely productive offensive player. And I think it safe to say the home runs are going to come. Shin-Soo Choo has embraced his new team and new position in centerfield with a monster start, at .465/.587. Choo was a very underrated rightfielder across the state in Cleveland until injuries slowed him the last couple years. It’s easy to envision a dark-horse MVP run in hitter-friendly Cincy.
The problem the Reds have to deal with is an offense that’s only 10th in the National League in slugging percentage. When you consider how easily the ball flies out of Great American Ballpark, it makes you wonder just how bad the power showing would be if this team played in San Diego. Jay Bruce is the big culprit, with only one home run. Bruce is a streaky hitter and will likely get on a tear that will lift his numbers, and the team’s overall. But even during last year’s run to the NL Central title, the Reds’ slugging numbers were low for the park they’re in.
If you have to pick a weakness though, that’s the one to pick. It’s better to have great starting pitching, solid relief and a lineup that consistently puts runners on base, with a couple MVP-caliber players mixed in, and live with some low power totals across the board. It’s why, of the three teams under review today, Cincinnati is clearly the one with the brightest future over the next twenty weeks of the regular season.
MILWAUKEE (15-16, 4.5 games back of St. Louis)
Pros: Great offense in all phases, with young players performing and good veterans on the way back. Plus a late-inning combo in the bullpen. Cons: The pitching staff is a disaster for the first seven innings of a game.
Remember Jean Segura? He’s the minor league shortstop that was the focal point of the deal that shipped Zack Greinke to the Angels last year. Segura’s putting up huge numbers, at .384/.530, while Greinke is no longer with the Angels and on the disabled list. Someone in Anaheim needs to get fired and Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin deserves a big thumbs-up. Even allowing for the inevitable cool-down, Segura is a good defensive shortstop and has quickly established he can contribute with the bat.
Carlos Gomez is also tearing it up, at .412, and an otherworldly .636 slugging percentage. Ryan Braun continues to be steady, with a .410/.571 stat line that has him well on pace to be in the MVP conversation if voters overlook his latest controversy regarding PEDs (unlikely) and his team turns it around (up in the air). The Brewers rank in the National League’s top four in both OBP and slugging. Even if you allow some slumps from the players currently hitting, you can factor in better months ahead for Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy, each of whom are slow out of the gate.
When the offense can slug the team to a lead, the Brewers can turn to Tom Gorzelanny and new closer Jim Henderson to close the game out. But anything prior to these two is a complete crap-shoot. Actually that might be kind, because a crapshoot implies you don’t know what will happen, whereas the Brewer pitching staff has been predictably bad.
The team-wide number of worst ERA in the National League speaks for itself. We can add to this that John Axford has definitely proven that his masterful 2010 season as the closer was a fluke. He was awful last year and quickly lost his job to the flame-throwing Henderson this season. The rotation is 14th in the NL in starters’ ERA, with only Kyle Lohse pitching effectively. Yovani Gallardo has been mediocre, with only a DUI arrest being noteworthy in his early campaign.
Where the Brewers did get some help, was three nice starts by 25-year-old Hiram Burgos. Now the team is in the midst of a schedule stretch where they can get by on four starters due to off days, so manager Ron Roenicke has decided to skip Burgos. Let’s see if I’m following this—your rotation is a train wreck, you get a kid who comes up and starts pitching well, and the first chance you get, you bury him in the bullpen. Brilliant.
It’s the latest reason why I don’t see the Milwaukee pitching staff making this a playoff team. The offense will keep hitting and if Gallardo joins Lohse in making an effective 1-2, the Brewers can have a winning season, which probably keeps them on the fringes of the wild-card discussion throughout the summer. But I wouldn’t expect September baseball in my home area to have anything to dent the fanaticism for the Green Bay Packers when the time comes.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL EAST: Roy Halladay going to the disabled list is the big news here, but I wouldn’t write the Phillies off too quickly. They’re off to a slow start at 16-18, but still lurking behind Washington and Atlanta and any staff with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee can keep a team in the wild-card conversation. Especially with Kyle Kendrick pitching well.
NL WEST: If you were in Las Vegas at the start of the season, I wonder what the odds were on the Colorado Rockies being in first place, and the Los Angeles Dodgers in last. Or the odds if you parlayed the two. After an offseason of trying to rival the Yankees in spending, the Dodgers are now trying to rival the Pinstripes in the length of the injury list.
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 Pittsburgh Pirates all but kissed their fading playoff hopes goodbye earlier this week when they lost three straight at home to the Milwaukee Brewers, and the “Buccos”, as the locals on the Allegheny River call them might get some more company in the coming few days as even the most optimistic observer of the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays recognizes that these teams are down to zero margin for error as we size up the MLB playoff race entering the weekend’s games.
Los Angeles dropped two of three at home to Texas, and Tampa Bay split four on their homefield with Boston, all the while New York and Baltimore were administering sweeps. The wild-card picture is perilously close to being pseudo-settled, as we pencil in Oakland against the AL East runner-up and with the Angels 4.5 games out and Tampa Bay a full five back, it will take something dramatic on both ends to alter that picture.
The Rays have a chance to do something bold this weekend as Toronto, fresh off getting beaten three straight in the Bronx pays a visit to the Trop, but the Angels have a tough weekend ahead. Chicago comes west, and the White Sox are still barely clinging to a two-game lead in the AL Central over Detroit. The Angels get a break in that they won’t face Chris Sale, but LAA’s temperamental bullpen continues to do them in, as Ernesto Frieri took the loss last night, and as we noted Wednesday in discussing this team in conjunction with the AL East, Los Angeles simply has given away any cushion it had for blown saves. With the Angel pen being the American League’s worst at closing saves, there’s no reason to assume they won’t cough up at least one more and at this point in the season that’s all it takes.
Another team that will be counting blown saves if they miss the playoffs is the Milwaukee Brewers, who have the worst save percentage in the National League, but Milwaukee is coming on because it’s a problem that seems to be in the past. John Axford nailed down all three wins in Pittsburgh and Francisco Rodriguez has started to pitch better. No one’s going to compare them to the 1990 Nasty Boys in Cincinnati (Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, Randy Myers) that won the World Series and turned Dibble into a brief celebrity on ESPN Radio, but Brewer opponents can no longer feel like they’re in command of the game if they trail 5-4 after seven. Milwaukee’s sweep of Pittsburgh has nudged them past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild-card race with only St. Louis still to catch.
The next week of games is going to be St. Louis’ opportunity to put the final playoff berth away. Milwaukee continues its road trip with four games in Washington, followed by three more in Cincinnati. Both teams still have divisions to clinch, particularly the Nationals who’s 5.5 game over Atlanta is comfortable, but not so much that a team will let its foot off the gas. Meanwhile, St. Louis plays road games against the Cubs and Astros, with Chris Carpenter making his return to the mound this afternoon in Wrigley.
If St. Louis can’t finish off Milwaukee and Los Angeles (who is in Cincy this weekend) by the time we get to next Thursday, the schedule flips in the Brewers’ favor. Then it’s St. Louis who’d been playing the Nats and Reds, while the Brewers host the Astros and Padres. While one might think St. Louis would play two teams who have nothing to play for, remember Washington and Cincy might not be resting starters. With the wild-card game there’s now an extra day off for division winners before their three-of-five series’ begins. Which means, for example, that Cincinnati could line up Johnny Cueto to pitch the opener of a three-game set against St. Louis and have him on normal rest for Game 1, and do the same down the line with Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo.
In other action this weekend, Baltimore finishes a nine-game road swing in Boston, with Oriole manager Buck Showalter reminding people that the Orioles spoiled the Red Sox’ playoff hopes in the season finale last year and that Boston would surely like to do the same. It’s a good motivational reminder from Buck, but speaking as a Sox fan, I can say that presumes this current Boston lineup is motivated by anything other than the desire for a new manager next year. And just as a fan, I’d much rather ruin the Yankees’ season in the final weekend at the Bronx. I think you always root for your own team, regardless of the consequences in the biger picture, but let’s just say if the Sox lost this series, I’d take it considerably better than any other loss in the last ten years.
Speaking of those dastardly Yanks, they are hosting Oakland, which is the last set of games New York plays against a contender. And Detroit hosts Minnesota. With the Tigers two games back, they have to be thinking about a home sweep in this spot and then if the Angels get two must-win games against the White Sox, it would bring the AL Central back to even.