The American League’s big seriesgot underway yesterday on the South Side of Chicago, and the White Sox came up with a 6-1 win over the Tigers that gave Chicago the first of a four-game set and extended their lead in the AL Central to three games. Rick Porcello was solid through five innings for Detroit and took a 1-0 lead into the sixth, but then Alex Rios left his mark.
Chicago’s rightfielder hit a three-run shot to make it a 3-1 game and A.J. Pierszynski immediately followed with a solo home run of his own. It was plenty for Jose Quintana who worked into the eighth inning and kept Detroit’s power duo of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera under control. The Tigers’ muscle men combined to go just 1-for-8 with a single and no walks. Porcello, and the three relievers that followed him for Detroit, were effective at handling the top of the Chicago order. Alejandro de Aza, Kevin Youkilis and DeWayne Wise went a collective 0-for-11, though they did draw a couple walks. But with Rios bailed everyone out with the long ball and the folks in the South Side can breathe a little easier.
Oakland’s visit to Los Angeles in the hotly contested wild-card race is one of two other big battles going on in the American League in the early part of this week. Jarrod Parker pitched seven innings of one-run ball for Oakland and the A’s got a 3-1 win. Dan Haren pitched well for the Angels, but in a 1-1 game he gave up leadoff home runs to Brandon Moss in the fifth inning and Chad Pennington in the sixth and those lapses were too much to overcome.
Coco Crisp, the A’s centerfielder and leadoff man, continues to swing a hot bat over the past several weeks, as he led the game off with a triple against Haren and scored on a ground ball out. The Halos’ top of the order, Mike Trout and Tori Hunter combined to tie the game in the third when Trout got aboard and Hunter doubled him in. But Albert Pujols went 0-for-4 in the middle.
The third MLB playoff race showdown battle is Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and that gets underway tonight in Camden Yards as Jason Hammel faces Matt Moore. Hammel pitched very well on Thursday against New York, holding the Yanks to one run in six innings of work. With the Orioles’ missing rightfielder Nick Markakis with a broken thumb and the Tampa Bay pitching staff in lockdown mode as it is, Hammel doesn’t have much room for error.
Detroit sends Doug Fister to the mound tonight, hoping their #2 starter can help keep them alive and give Justin Verlander a chance to pitch a big game on Thursday. The White Sox would obviously like to ensure a split prior to then, even if they have Chris Sale waiting for the finale. They’ll send Jake Peavy to the hill tonight. Out west, it’s young Dan Straily for the A’s against veteran journeyman Jerome Williams for the Angels.
In the quieter National League, Pittsburgh suffered its third straight tough loss, losing 4-3 in a 14-inning battle to Cincinnati. Wandy Rodriguez was unable to hold a 3-0 lead, as Chris Heisey—the Reds centerfielder who’s suddenly morphed into the second coming of Eric Davis at the plate—hit a two-run blast and then Cincy tied it in the seventh. And in the NL East, Gio Gonzalez, the new ace for the Washington Nationals, won his 19th game in downing the Mets 5-1. If nothing else, the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg will give Gonzalez some deserved attention in the postseason.
The American League playoff outlook in general and the wild-card race in particular seem to be getting tighter, not looser, with each passing day and you have two big head-to-head series going down featuring four of the five contenders. Tampa Bay, who holds the top spot right now started a series with Oakland last night in the Trop. And Detroit, who is tied with Oakland and Baltimore for the second wild-card berth, plays host to the Los Angeles Angels who are just 2.5 games out. TheSportsNotebook looks at these series, and the rest of the weekend matchups involving contenders…
Oakland-Tampa Bay: The Rays are now 2.5 games up on the field in the wild-card picture and that’s also the same number they now trail the New York Yankees by in the American League East. With Evan Longoria finally back in the lineup, the Rays have taken off and the expectation in this corner is that they’ll keep pulling away for one wild-card and make the final month about AL East supremacy. Even with David Price not scheduled to pitch in this series, they won the opener behind fourth starter Alex Cobb in a 5-0 shutout. That’s rotation depth when you’re #4 man delivers like that in a playoff race and though the A’s aren’t renowned for their hitting, it’s not as though they are in a slump, having won five of six on a homestand prior to this series.
Tampa’s concern has to still be the ability of their offense to completely disappear. They lost a game in Kansas City 1-0 in extra innings. To not score against the Royals in extra frames is probably more embarrassing than having perfect game tossed at you by Felix Hernandez. Tampa can’t waste their pitching with showings like this if they want to catch the Yanks. Note that this series is still a three-game set and ends on Saturday, with preparations for next week’s Republican Convention beginning on Sunday at the dome.
LA Angels-Detroit: Both contenders swept reeling AL East teams this week. The Tigers did it to Toronto taking the last two by 3-2 counts, one in extra innings. The Angels broke out the brooms in Fenway, including last night’s stunner when they were down to their last strike and then won 14-13. The stars won’t be out in this series. Justin Verlander’s turn isn’t up and Albert Pujols is day-to-day with an inflamed calf. Pujols sat on Thursday and the team scored two touchdowns without him, so Mike Scoscia has no reason to rush anything in spite of the playoff race urgency. Miguel Cabrera is out with an ankle sprain and awaiting an MRI. And though the Doug Fister isn’t in a category with the first three names, Detroit’s #2 starter will miss his scheduled start on Saturday.
Two showdown series go in the National League…
St. Louis-Cincinnati: The Cards are still seven back of the Reds, but they bounced back from last weekend’s disappointment against Houston to sweep Houston. Cincy split four with Philly and with their divisional lead are probably more focused on catching Washington for the top seed in the National League playoffs. Johnny Cueto’s not scheduled to pitch this weekend, while the improving Adam Wainwright is for St. Louis. Tonight’s opener will be on the MLB Network and tomorrow’s game will be part of the Fox Saturday collection.
Atlanta-San Francisco: Atlanta’s getting as good a pitching as they have all year, but it’s not translating into success against contenders. They lost two of three in Washington and lost the opener here last night. The positive is they won’t see a contender until September 14 once they’re out of Frisco. The Sunday game is prime-time on ESPN and features Tim Lincecum against Tim Hudson, with the former trying to right his own ship before its too late. His teammates bought him some time with a surprising sweep of the Dodgers in LA and built up a three-game lead in the NL West.
Other series involving contending teams…
NY Yanks-Cleveland: C.C. Sabathia makes his return to the Yankee rotation at an appropriate site, since he built his reputation at Jacobs Field. If ever the big fella was to live up to the term “stopper”, now is it. The Yanks are eight in the AL in ERA in August, they were swept in Chicago and the Rays are charging hard. But Cleveland ‘s utter meltdown continues unabated, so it’s good spot for the Yanks and their ace to get well.
Toronto-Baltimore: The Orioles fought out a split of a six-game road swing through Detroit and Texas and now come home. With games against the White Sox and Yankees looming next week, this would be a big series to win and it would be even bigger if Baltimore finally got something from Friday night’s starter Zach Britton. As mentioned above, the Blue Jays are a reeling team and catcher J.P. Arencibia is hitting the disabled list. But Jose Bautista is coming off and we’ll see if his power snaps back now that the wrist is healthy.
Minnesota-Texas: Ryan Dempster finally turned in a good outing in beating Baltimore this week and he goes on Saturday against the Twins. The Rangers are still plus-six in the AL West and the Twins are down to 51-73 and playing almost as bad as they did in April.
Seattle-ChiSox: The Mariners have had their moments in the second half of the season and they’re hot again right now. At 61-64, they’ve got a shot to finish .500, which would be a major achievement for a team with no expectations that trades it’s most recognizable, albeit unproductive, player in Ichiro Suzuki. This won’t be a case of a last-place team rolling over the hot White Sox, who are coming off the aforementioned sweep of the Yankees and lead Detroit by a game and a half in the AL Central. S
Milwaukee-Pittsburgh: Wandy Rodriguez was acquired by the Pirates to win games like tonight’s opener. Pittsburgh was swept in San Diego, fell a game back of St. Louis for the last wild-card spot and the pitching is a mess. Pittsburgh’s ERA is 13th in the National League for August and since trading Zack Greinke the Brewers have at least treaded water.
Washington-Philadelphia: Washington kept their comfy lead in the NL East, starting off this weeks’ big series with Atlanta with an extra-inning win, taking the series and being in the top two in the National League for both runs scored and ERA in August. With the Stephen Strasburg situation—will he be shut down or won’t he?—building to a head, the Nats need to keep winning.
San Diego-Arizona: The D-Backs have won five of the last seven, crawled to within 4.5 games of St. Louis in the playoff race and start a six-game homestand. But San Diego just swept Pittsburgh and the next series up is against Cincinnati.
Miami-LA Dodgers: I don’t know that anyone outside the most diehard Giants’ fans were expecting what happened to the Dodgers this week with the sweep. Now Los Angeles turns to Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw on Friday and Saturday night. Miami may be out of the picture, but they’re not in meltdown, having split their last ten games. And in our silly storyline of the week, is this Miami-Los Angeles battle a prelude to the two cities going toe-to-toe in the NBA Finals, now that Dwight Howard’s a Laker?
The wild-card race is running full steam in both leagues as we hit the third weekend of August, and both the American & National League have two big head-to-head series going down over the next three days, as TheSportsNotebook dives into what’s ahead for the weekend in baseball..
Pittsburgh-St. Louis: The Pirates are coming off an 11-game homestand that saw them go 4-7, including a disastrous four-game set against the Dodgers that just wrapped up. Pittsburgh’s lead over St. Louis in the race for the second wild-card is down to a single game and the Pirates’ pitching is reeling. The team’s 5.28 ERA for August is 15th in the National League and a big part of the problem will be showcased tonight. James McDonald, the most reliable pitcher on the staff in the first part of the season, has given up 26 runs in his last 26 innings and though he gets the start in the Friday opener, the rumors of his banishment to the bullpen are picking up. These are trying times for Clint Hurdle right now.
LA Dodgers-Atlanta: Both teams are on a roll right now, as the Dodgers have won 5 of 7 on their current road trip and saw rival San Francisco take a blow when Melky Cabrera was suspended for PED use. The Braves have won seven consecutive series and while they haven’t made a dent in the NL East lead of the hot Washington Nationals, Atlanta is now four games up for the playoffs and continuing to get surprisingly good pitching. It could get better when Tommy Hanson makes his return from the disabled list tonight.
Baltimore-Detroit: It’s a contrast in styles, as the Tigers are swinging the bats well, while the Orioles are getting good pitching. Baltimore is 4-0-1 in their series during the month of August, including wins over Tampa, New York and a just-completed two-of-three over Boston. Detroit got a needed series win over Minnesota, cooling down a hot lineup in games started by Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, and now the Tigers are set up with Justin Verlander going in tonight’s opener against the Orioles. The Sunday finale promises to be a good one, with Baltimore’s underrated Wei-Yin Chen getting the ball against Fister.
Tampa Bay-LA Angels: The two best starting rotations in the American League go head-to-head, although with Dan Haren and Zack Greinke struggling, the Angels’ pitchers aren’t acting like they belong. Haren certainly didn’t last night in a 7-0 loss to start this four-game set, although if nothing else the Halos won’t have to see David Price the rest of the weekend. The Sunday finale has Greinke going against Matt Moore, who has a 1.43 ERA in his last six starts. Tampa Bay, in spite of the embarrassment of being victimized by Felix Hernandez’s perfect game on Wednesday and losing the series in Safeco, is still holding down a wild-card spot, while the Angels are two games out after a needed series win in Cleveland.
Other series involving contenders…
Boston-NY Yanks:New York’s pitching held up fine without C.C. Sabathia in taking three games out of four from Texas to start the week, with David Phelps, Hiroki Kuroda and Freddy Garcia all looking sharp. The offense leads the AL in runs scored during August. Unless Red Sox starters’ Josh Beckett (Saturday) and Jon Lester (Sunday) are interested in redeeming themselves on national TV this weekend, the Yanks are going to enjoy these next three days. Incidentally, though I’m a Red Sox fan and will gladly watch them on TV, how is it that none of the four marquee series featured above were seen as more noteworthy than these games for national attention? Note to Fox & ESPN—It’s not 2003-05 anymore.
Texas-Toronto: The Rangers are still swinging the bats well, in spite of the problems in New York, ranking 2nd to the Yanks in scoring runs this month. But the pitching is a bigger concern with each passing day for Texas. If Yu Darvish and Ryan Dempster are going to be impact pitchers down the stretch and in the playoffs, their Friday and Saturday starts would be good places to begin.
ChiSox-Kansas City: The White Sox have won five of seven, including beating up on Toronto north of the border and are getting good pitching. Chicago’s got its 1-2-3 of Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Jose Quintana lined up as they try and get a little payback for the Royals taking two of three on the South Side a week and a half ago.
Cleveland-Oakland: Oakland returns home after losing consecutive series on the road to Chicago and Kansas City and to no one’s surprise, the A’s are struggling offensively, at 12th in the AL during August. But the Indians let the Angels get well against them with a couple wins and now can do the same thing for the A’s.
NY Mets-Washington: The Nationals haven’t lost a series since the All-Star break, are doing everything well and their 73-45 record is the best in the majors. They’re up four on Atlanta for the NL East and two on Cincinnati for the top seed in the National League, that will equate to homefield throughout the postseason. The Mets are a shadow of the team that hung around in contention for a lot of the first half and R.A. Dickey’s not in the weekend rotation.
ChiCubs-Cincinnati: Cincy just finished off a series win over those struggling Mets and is blowing open the NL Central race, with a six-game lead on Pittsburgh and seven-game cushion on St. Louis. The pitching rotation lines up well for the Reds this weekend, as Bronson Arroyo goes Friday, Johnny Cueto on Saturday and Mat Latos on Sunday. The interesting game will be a doubleheader nightcap on Saturday, where Dusty Baker hasn’t yet slotted a starter. The Reds might be relying on their offense to slug their way through in that one. In that regard, Joey Votto’s return from the DL is still at least a week and a half off and with the standings as they are, there’s no reason to rush him.
San Francisco-San Diego: This is a danger spot for the Giants as they deal with the fallout—psychological, practical and PR-wise—from Cabrera’s suspension and they begin a six-game road swing against the Padres and Dodgers. When in a danger spot who better to turn to than Matt Cain? That’s who San Fran sends to the mound tonight in a game that has significance beyond what might have been imagined a week ago.