We’re near the end-game. Two more September updates, and then it’s time for playoffs, aka: that time when everyone else on staff hates me because the Recorder will be swarmed with baseball articles. Tuesday night, the first two division berths were secured by Beltway powerhouses Washington and Baltimore (let that sink in for a moment), both of whom easily clinched their divisions with leads of 12.5 and 13.5 games (as of Wednesday). In addition, the Angels are assured of a berth of some kind – barring a monumental collapse of infinitely small odds, they’ll clinch their division sometime this week. (Before Wednesday’s games, they had a magic number of 2 to clinch the division – one A’s loss and an Angels win would grant them the title, in other words. Again, we’re talking an unprecedented collapse for them not to win the division.)
(Thursday update – Sure enough, last night, the Angels clinched the division by winning 5-0 against Seattle as Oakland dropped a game against Texas 6-1. Rather than edit everything, I’m simply noting that I submitted my copy for deadline before Wednesday’s slate of games. You’re on your own.)This then leads to my first topic of choice:
Postseason Roster Crunch
I.E. who makes it in? The Orioles and Nationals are in somewhat dissimilar boats. The Nationals can make a push for home field advantage throughout the playoffs (well, the National League playoffs). The Orioles would have to catch the Angels (not likely), but are still playing for a divisional round series at home as the second-ranked team in the Al playoffs. They can continue to try and play balls-to-the-wall baseball to try and clinch these positions…or they can rest players in their time of need. One such player – who will play a key role – is Ryan Zimmerman, third baseman extraordinaire for the the Nats. He’s been out since July with an injury and is one of the key cogs of the Nats lineup. Current plans are for him to make an appearance during the last week of the season as a form of tune-up – going blindly into the postseason after a long period of time off in the regular season doesn’t always end well. *glares at Dusty Baker in last year’s Wild Card game*
One other factor that goes into the home stretch for teams who have clinched their divisions is trying to figure out who to pitch in the postseason. The Nats have a surplus of quality starters, with Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, and Stephen Strasberg all capable of dominating in any given game. However, there’s never enough room for everybody – don’t be surprised if we see Strasberg take a role a la Tim Lincecum in the 2012 postseason, appearing out of the bullpen in times of great need during the divisional series. Even though he’s leading the NL in strikeouts (for now), he’s had an up and down year, and when compared with his rotation mates, might not be able to crack that three-man rotation in the opening round. Meanwhile, over in Baltimore, they simply have to figure out who can pitch. Chris Tillman has emerged as Baltimore’s de facto ace, but beyond that, it’s anybody’s ball game. Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris are capable, but hardly the kind of pitchers one wants going up against the Adam Wainwrights and Michael Wachas of the world. Miguel Gonzalez has been good for the past month, but he’s young and untested. Ubaldo Jimenez has done his best impersonation of a tire fire this season.
These are questions that every team with October aspirations will be asking, once they’ve reached the promise land. In the meantime…
…there’s still 28 other teams fighting for postseason/draft positioning. Several of them are looking to play spoiler. *looks ahead hopefully to the Reds/Cardinals series this weekend* Others are just playing all of the young guys, trying to figure out if anyone might have a future for next year. *looks sadly at Cubs/Reds from Monday night* Others just want to get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. *cut to Rangers, nodding approvingly*
The most interesting games left are the ones where the also rans play the contenders. Will they make an extra effort? History says no – a bad team is a bad team is a bad team, and they end up where they end up for a reason. This has never stopped teams like the Braves from trying to deny the Nationals home field advantage or the Reds trying to knock the Cardinals down into the Wild Card, but it seems like there’s no real correlation between upset teams knocking others down in the ranking. (Out is a different story – again, I reference Game 163 of 2011 as the shining moment for teams knocking others out of the postseason. Nothing quells the agony of defeat quite like a heaping spoonful of schadenfreude.)
State of the Races
We’re shaking things up this week for two reasons:
1. Two division races are over, with a third so absurdly close to being over that it’s over before it’s over. (Suck on that, Yogi Berra.) Consequently, there will be no recap of the AL East, West, or NL East.
2. Several teams have fallen past the 5 game mark in my pre-determined rankings. Therefore, Thoughts from the Dugout bids adieu to the Atlanta Braves, who have fallen out once and for all, and to the New York Yankees, with Derek Jeter forced to contemplate what life is like without going out on top.
(2.5. I’ve been called out on “sprawling columns of unintelligible baseball boringness blah blah football bean bean bean”, so I’m looking to trim space any way that I can.)
To further complicate things, I’m ranking the five races in terms of what I find most interesting. DEAL.
Note: All standings and playoff percentages are current as of last night’s games. You’re welcome.
5. NL West
1. Los Angeles
Kershaws Dodgers: 86 – 66, 99.9%
2. San Francisco Giants: 84 – 68, 2 games back, E – 9, 99.6%
We’re not talking anything spectacular here. Sure, the Giants could pass by the Dodgers, but they’re both getting in. Let’s be realists here. Even if the Dodgers fall into a Wild Card berth, they get Kershaw in that crucial play-in game. Thanks for coming, whichever team emerges from the NL Central. Nice to see you. Toodles. Now sit back and enjoy this Kershaw gif.
4. NL Wild Card
1. San Francisco Giants: +2.5 games up
2. Pittsburgh Pirates: even
3. Milwaukee Brewers: 2.5 games back
That’s it. We’re down to three teams after the Braves went 2-8 over their last 10. The real question that everyone’s wondering is how does this Brewers late season collapse compare to other late season collapses? The answer: it doesn’t. Nobody picked the Brewers to do anything this year, so the fact that they’re not doesn’t change anything. Their rotation just doesn’t have the oomph needed to get them where they need to go. Sorry, J.
3. AL Wild Card
1. Oakland A’s: even
2.Kansas City Royals: even
3. Seattle Mariners: 2 games back
4. Cleveland Indians: 5 games back
5. Toronto Blue Jays: 6 games back
I don’t want to cause any further despair in the boroughs of Toronto and Cleveland, but this ain’t happening. You’d have to win out and pray that everyone above you loses forever. Not gonna happen.
Meanwhile, back on August 10th, the A’s had a 4.5 game lead over the Angels. Their run differential (+156) is that of a team that should have a win-loss record at least ten wins better than what it is. What happened? Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. The offense went cold. The bullpen crapped out. The starters couldn’t pull out their inner Kershaw, and what you got was a lot of 4-1 and 5-2 losses. That’s a swing of fifteen games in the standings; the only comparable swoon is the 1969 Chicago Cubs.
Now, a difference two games is all that separates the Mariners (currently the last ones out of the postseason) from a home game in the Wild Card playoff. Given the A’s swoon and the fact that the Royals are technically “managed” by Ned Yost, there’s every good chance that Seattle can surge past somebody and into the game. If they don’t, this is still a wildly successful season for Seattle – they were expected to get good, but not quite this soon. Should they make it into the Wild Card and Oakland continues its free fall into the abyss, the Angels and A’s had better be watching their backs next year. Seattle is younger than their teams, with Robinson Cano anchoring the lineup, multiple players such as Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager coming into their own, and a killer starting rotation headlined by that King guy. They’re one of my teams to watch next year, based on what I’ve seen this year.
2. NL Central
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 84 – 68, 99.0%
2. Pittsburgh Pirates: 81 – 70, 2.5 games back, E – 9, 89.4%
3. Milwaukee Brewers: 79 – 73, 5 games back, E – 6 , 11.4%
While I’ve lambasted Milwaukee for their late season woes once already in this column, I do have to commend them for winning four of their last five and keeping pace with the Cardinals and Pirates. Meanwhile, the Bucs are on an 8-2 tear (more on them later), while the Cardinals have showed zero interest in sealing away the division. Fortunately, for those who crave exciting September baseball, some of this might be answered this weekend. The Cardinals visit their hated enemies the Reds, looking to salvage any kind of glory in a lost season, while the Brewers and Pirates battle it out for that second Wild Card slot, and to possibly surge into first place. A sweep by either of the latter teams would go a long way towards making this race all the more fascinating.
Also, the Cardinals can suck it.
1. AL Central
1. Detroit Tigers: 84 – 68, 91.9%
2. Kansas City Royals: 83 – 68, 0.5 games back, E – 11, 84.9%
3. Cleveland Indians: 78 – 73, 6.5 games back, E – 6, 5.1%
(Okay, I put the Indians in there because I’m a masochist. Sue me.)
Much has been written elsewhere about the baffling decisions Ned Yost makes. Now, these decisions are in great danger of costing his team the playoff berth it has long sought. Should that happen, the unfortunate reality is that K.C. may not be built to repeat their success next year – their ace, James Shields, is a free agent this offseason, and probably looking to command a contract somewhere in the $100 million range. He won’t resign, barring a minor miracle occurring (Think the end of A Christmas Carol, and you’ve got your miracle). Meanwhile, Detroit has gotten their collective shit together, mostly fueled by the core of their line-up. Miguel Cabrera has regained some of his lost power stroke, and is hitting .400 with 4 home runs over his last 10 games. J.D. Martinez continues to earn his own dap, while Victor Martinez is as steady as he’s been all year. The odds of the Royals overtaking them might be considered slim… but they have a three game series this weekend at Kaufmann Stadium. Crazier things have happened.
Big League Chew of the Week Award – Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates
Sometimes, it takes a player a few years to figure things out. Josh Harrison, in his first full year as the Pirates starting right fielder, was performing decently in the first half of the season with a .297/.333/.450 split as the Bucs’ leadoff hitter. Post-All Star break, he’s stepped it up a notch, with a .339/.370/.569 slash line that includes his (relatively speaking) absurd .356/.382/.610 in August. He’s elevated himself into contention for the National League batting title, and with the help of perennial excellence Andrew McCutchon and stalwarts Neil Walker and Russell Martin, has propelled the Pirates into the top ranks of the National League. Combine that with excellent pitching by Edinson Volquez (of all people), Francisco Liriano, and closer Mark Melancon, and you’ve got a recipe for a dangerous team that won’t be on many opponent’s favorites list in October. (Seriously, has anyone forgotten how crazy PNC Park got last year? This year should be even more gonzo.)
Series to Watch This Weekend
I’ll be honest – there’s only a handful of competitive series happening this weekend. This is the kind of weekend where big teams host the crappy teams and fatten their records and stats on the Triple-A garbage being thrown at them. The Mariners visit the Astros, the A’s host the Phillies, the Cards host the Reds (gulp), etc. There’s only two series with high stakes, so I’m throwing in a wild card match-up because I can do what I want with my own column.
1. Tigers at Royals
This is the last Royals home series of the year, and the last time these two face each other. A sweep by either team will probably result in the Central being decided, as both teams will be rewarded with series against the White Sox, Twins, and Indians. Kaufmann Stadium should be rocking, if Royals fans are willing to come back to the park after years of being perpetually degraded by shitty teams.
2. Brewers at Pirates
This is likewise the Pirates last home series of the year. PNC will also be rocking. If the Bucs can sweep, or take two out of three, the Wild Card race is over, at which point, it’s a race to see if the team beats the sausages home to Milwaukee. (See, it’s funny because at Miller Park, where the Brewers play, they race these sausages as a between-innings gag…fine, I’ll shut up.)
3. Blue Jays at Yankees
Because there’s a chance that the Jays could pull this off? More so, the Yankees have two series left at home, which means we’re running out of chances to see Derek Jeter play baseball at Yankee Stadium. Expect a tearful goodbye next Thursday night, as he plays his last game before the Yankee faithful.