Key players to keep an eye on (cont.)
Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox
The Red Sox are going to score runs, and their bullpen, recently reinforced by the addition of Billy Wagner, is one of the best in baseball. The reason they're 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees is that their rotation fell apart mid-season. Tim Wakefield hurt his back, Brad Penny and John Smoltz got lit up and released, and Justin Masterson was flipped to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez deal -- all of that after getting nothing from Daisuke Matsuzaka all season.
Wakefield has just returned from the DL to give the Sox a solid No. 3 behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and they'll take what they can get from the fifth spot, currently occupied by Paul Byrd with rookie Junichi Tazawa lurking in the bullpen. That brings it down to 24-year-old Clay Buchholz, who rejoined the big league rotation in mid July after again dominating in Triple-A. Buchholz has a 3.38 ERA in his last five starts, four of which have been quality. His 1.57 K/BB ratio in those games has been less than inspiring, but in his last start, he struck out nine Blue Jays while holding Toronto to one run on three hits and two walks in 8 1/3 innings. Buchholz doesn't need to be that good (though long term, he should be), but if he can give the Sox a handful of quality starts down the stretch, they shouldn't have much trouble holding off the Rangers.
Magglio Ordoņez, RF, Tigers
The Tigers have been in first place in the Central since mid-May, which makes them feel like a lock to win the division despite the fact that their 3 1/2-game lead is the slimmest of the six division leaders. That their challenger is just two games over .500 (67-65) makes the threat seam all the more toothless. Still, the Tigers have just the sixth-best record in the American League. Despite their enduring lead, they are anything but a juggernaut.
What's most amazing about the Tigers' hold on first place is that it survived their .417 winning percentage in July (though barely, they slipped into a tie for one day after losing a game to, of all pitchers, Jarrod Washburn on July 23). The Tigers picked the pace back up in August, but in both June and August they posted winning records despite allowing more runs than they scored. For a clue as to how they've done that, just look at the games Washburn has pitched for them thus far. Despite his 6.81 ERA, the Tigers are 4-2 in Washburn's starts, having won four by a total of five runs and lost two by a total of ten runs. That suggests timely hitting and the ability to out-hit bad pitching. Sure, the Tigers are going to win most of the games pitched by Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, but the other three days they're going to need some more thump, and the rejuvenation of Magglio Ordoņez (.348/.425/.536 in August with 10 walks against nine K's) could prove to be key to their ability to hold off the Twins and take the division.
Carl Pavano, RHP, Twins
Twins fans, don't look now. The Twins have a strong end-game with righty Matt Guerrier and rookie lefty Jose Mijares setting up Joe Nathan, and despite only having half a lineup, that half, led by Joe Mauer's historic MVP season, is so good that the Twins are in the top half of the league in runs scored. Their trouble has come from what was supposed to be the team's strength: its young, home-grown rotation. That sounds familiar to Blue Jays fans, and perhaps it can help spread the word about the fragility of young pitching to those who continue to rail against pitch counts and innings limits. Three-fifths of the Twins' Opening Day rotation is on the DL. Two rookies (lefty Brian Duensing and righty Jeff Manship) are helping to fill the space behind remaining incumbents Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. And if Francisco Liriano or Glen Perkins are able to return before the end of the season, it will be one of those rookies who is likely to get bounced. Duensing and Manship are middling prospects anyway, and will simply be doing their best to keep the Twins in games.
Amazingly and sadly, the Twins are looking for real help from Carl Pavano. Pavano has made as many starts this year as he did in all four years of his $39.95 million contract with the Yankees. He's even had some encouraging runs along the way, particularly the eight starts from May 1 through June 5 in which he went 6-1 with a 3.00 ERA and a 4.0 K/BB. Things got a littly rocky after that, but he posted a 3.46 ERA and 3.5 K/BB in six August starts, five of them for the Minnesota. If the Twins are going to catch the Tigers by the tail, they'll need Pavano to do as well or better in September.
Anibal Sanchez, RHP, Marlins
Despite the (utterly predictable) injury to deadline acquisition Nick Johnson, the Marlins are scoring enough runs. And with Opening Day closer Matt Lindstrom back off the DL and setting up for his replacement Leo Nuņez, they finally have a solid end-game in place. Where they've struggled all season, and continue to, is in the rotation. They're strong on top. Josh Johnson has returned to become not just Florida's ace, but one of the best pitchers in baseball. A midseason demotion straightened out last year's ace, Ricky Nolasco (2-5, 9.07 ERA before; 7-3, 3.69 ERA since). Six-foot-eight rookie lefty Sean West has excelled since returning to the rotation in August (3-1, 2.77 ERA). The last two spots, however, are big question marks. Sanchez returned from the DL to replace 24-year-old Dutchman Rick VandenHurk a couple of weeks ago, but by then Chris Volstad was already in the process of pitching his way off the team via a 9.61 August ERA. Volstad's demotion prompted VandenHurk's return to the rotation on Tuesday.
The Marlins will need solid performances from both VandenHurk and Anibal Sanchez to make up their five-game deficit in the wild-card race, but VandenHurk is at the very least likely to stay healthy. It's Sanchez's surgically repaired right shoulder, which has put him on the DL twice this year, that is the big variable in the Marlins' rotation, and thus their season.
Andy Sonnanstine, RHP, Rays
In third place and six games out in the wild-card race on Wednesday morning, the Rays have no margin for error down the stretch, which is why some saw the trade of Scott Kazmir as a white flag. The reason it wasn't was that Kazmir was the team's fifth-best starter this year and headed west with a 5.92 ERA. True, Kazmir had shown signs of coming around over the last month (4-1, 4.38 ERA), but his strikeout rate has been in decline and he's been fragile and volatile throughout his young career.
Nonetheless, it is on Andy Sonnanstine, the team's fourth starter in last year's playoffs, to equal or surpass what Kazmir had given the Rays over the last month in order to keep them in the race. He was unable to do that Tuesday night, giving up eight hits and walking four in four innings as the Rays lost a crucial game to the wild card-leading Red Sox. A couple more like that and Tampa Bay is toast.
The Rejuvenation Machine, Cubs
The Cubs enter Wednesday's action six games behind the Rockies in fifth place in the NL wild-card standings. Despite being the pennant favorites entering the season, they're now the longest shot of any of the 10 teams included here to make the playoffs. I addressed what has gone wrong for the Cubs earlier this season, but it boils down to a lack of offense. The NL leaders in runs scored a year ago, the Cubs have slumped to below-average 4.43 runs scored per game this year, better than just six other NL teams. Alfonso Soriano, who had made seven-straight All-Star teams through 2008, and 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto have gone from slumping to hitting their way out of the lineup. Second baseman Mike Fontenont has done the same, doing his best to make his .305/.395/.514 line in 243 at-bats last year look like a fluke. Aramis Ramirez has hit, but hasn't stayed healthy. Free agent addition Milton Bradley has started to come around, however, hitting .308/.427.484 in August, while Derrek Lee and Kosuke Fukudome have actually been considerably better this year than last.
With Ramirez finally healthy and hitting (.339/.373/.518 since returning from both lingering pain in his shoulder and a flu on August 15), the Cubs might be one comeback at the plate from making a comeback of their own. Don't hold your breath, though, or you might need to be rejuvenated as well.
Follow Cliff Corcoran on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CliffCorcoran.
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