Collapse in Boston makes AL wild card just one race worth watching
No team has ever blown a nine-game lead in September but the Red Sox might
The Rays are just two back for the AL wild card after a big weekend at Fenway
The AL West and NL wild card races are up for grabs as the final 10 days begin
On the morning of Sept. 1, baseball confronted the very real possibility that its final month would be devoid of any compelling playoff races. But now, as the season's final full week begins, both wild-card spots and at least one divisional race remain very much undecided. Here are five things to know as the final 10 days of the season gets underway:
1. The Red Sox could be on the cusp of a historic collapse
After his Red Sox were swept in a three-game series by the Rays from Sept. 9-11, David Ortiz said that it was "time to panic." So what now after the Rays took three of four over the weekend and then Boston dropped the opener of a Monday doubleheader against the Orioles -- all at Fenway Park -- to see its wild-card lead trimmed to 1 ½ games? Mass hysteria? Total bedlam?
No team has blown a nine-game lead in September and missed the playoffs, but the Red Sox will be the first if they're not able to fend off the Rays over the final 10 games of the season. Boston found itself in this position by going 6-12 against the Rays this season, including six losses in seven games over the past 10 days. Only a win by Josh Beckett in his return to the Red Sox' rotation on Friday prevented a four-game sweep that would have left the two teams tied for the AL's final playoff spot.
Injuries have played a role in Boston's September swoon. Beckett's start last Friday was his first since Sept. 5. On Tuesday, Erik Bedard, like Beckett one of the Red Sox' top three starters, will pitch for the first time since Sept. 3. Meanwhile, third baseman Kevin Youkilis may be out for the rest of the season. Others are merely slumping: leftfielder Carl Crawford hasn't exceeded a .260 average or .300 on-base percentage all year; first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is 4 for his last 28 (.143); second baseman Dustin Pedroia is 11 for his last 58 (.190); and top set-up man Daniel Bard has blown three of the last four leads he's been trusted with in a month that has seen his ERA rise nearly a run from 2.03 to 3.01.
Having a healthy Beckett and Jon Lester means that the Sox have four starts in each playoff series accounted for, but many of their starts the rest of the season don't look so promising. Kyle Weiland -- you're not alone if you're asking "who?" -- got pounded on short rest in the matinee of Monday's doubleheader against the Orioles. John Lackey, whose 6.19 ERA is the worst by a starting pitcher in Red Sox history, takes the ball in the nightcap. Bedard will make his Tuesday start without having made a rehab appearance.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's 3.49 ERA from its starters is the best in the AL, as is the 1,000 1/3 innings they've thrown. That the Rays have only used seven starters is tied for the fewest in the AL. And they keep getting better. Through Aug. 7, the Rays were in third place, 11 games behind first-place Boston and their the starters' ERA was 3.69. Ever since then it has been 2.96 as the team has won two out of every three games, going 26-13 (.667) to make up nine games on the Red Sox.
Each of those seven Rays' starters is homegrown, having been drafted and developed by the Tampa Bay farm system, an interestingly parallel to last year's upstart Giants, who rode their four homegrown starters on a hot streak that culminated in a World Series title. While the Red Sox remain the favorites to reach the postseason, the Rays are getting hot at the right time and could make a postseason run on the arms of their starters in an AL playoff picture that lacks a favorite.
2. And now, the good news for Boston
Only three teams in the AL have as many as 35 wins within their division this year: the Tigers -- who are an astronomical 46-21 (.687) against AL Central teams but just 43-43 (.500) against the rest of baseball -- and then the Rays (36-26) and Red Sox (35-27).
This is especially relevant because Boston and Tampa Bay don't stray outside the AL East for their 10 respective remaining games. The Red Sox play the Orioles seven times and the Yankees three times; the Rays play the Yankees seven times and the Blue Jays three times.
The Sox entered the week 8-3 against the O's so far this year and 11-4 against New York, while the Rays are 5-6 against New York and 10-5 against Toronto. Those track records suggest an edge to Boston, especially given that the Yankees have by far the best season record of the divisional opponents, though they've actually played the worst of the three in the last two weeks: Toronto is 8-3, Baltimore is 7-6 and New York is 5-7.
3. Braves' bullpen hasn't locked down NL wild card yet
The bedrock of the Braves has been their stellar bullpen, which showed a rather significant crack at an inopportune time on Sunday. Jonny Venters melted down in the eighth, allowing two runs on two hits and three walks to blow a lead to the Mets for Atlanta's sixth loss in the last nine games.
That, combined with an eight-game Giants winning streak and an 9-2 stretch from the Cardinals, has cut the Braves' wild card lead considerably. At the close of play on Sept. 8 Atlanta led St. Louis by seven games and San Francisco by eight; entering play on Monday, Atlanta now leads St. Louis by 3 ½ games and San Francisco by four.
While the Braves' lead is certainly more comfortable than Boston's in the AL, it is not insurmountable given that they play their next six games on the road (three each at Florida and Washington) before finishing with three games against the vaunted Phillies. Presuming the Braves do reach the postseason, however, they may be doing so with a bullpen whose productivity is declining. Here is a look at how the Braves' relievers have performed in recent days:
The best and most reliable members of that 'pen may finally be showing some wear and tear. Venters, set-up man Eric O'Flaherty and closer Craig Kimbrel, the likely NL Rookie of the Year, all rank among the top eight NL relievers in appearances, due to their tremendous performances. But Venters, who has allowed a run in just nine of his 81 appearances, has done so four of his last 11 times out since Aug. 26. The odd part is that the decline in performance has come as the Braves have tried to give him more rest, as three of those four scored-upon appearances have come with three days of rest. Check out Venters' curious splits based on usage this year:
4. A call to arms in Anaheim
Since Aug. 21 the Rangers' lead over the Angels in the AL West has oscillated between 1 ½ games and 4 ½ games and currently stands at the latter figure. This has prompted Angels manager Mike Scioscia to throw his three best pitchers -- Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana -- on short rest last month and Weaver again with such a quick turnaround on Sunday. (L.A. beat Baltimore 11-2.)
In the bygone era when four-man rotations were common, Scioscia could keep starting Weaver, Haren and Santana on three days' rest for the remainder of the season, which would align them to pitch the three games of the Angels' season-ending series against the Rangers. After all, the Angels are 22-10 when Weaver starts, 18-14 when Haren starts, 17-15 when Santana starts and 26-30 when anyone else starts.
Unfortunately for the Halos, that's no longer practical. The first time the L.A. trio pitched on three days' rest came in a series against Texas in which the Angels won only one of three. Given these starters' inexperience with pitching on short rest, however, their effectiveness would likely suffer and they might have trouble bouncing back for the playoffs (should they overcome the large gap).
Instead, the Angels will call upon Jerome Williams on Monday and Joel Pineiro on Tuesday, but at least Weaver -- who gave up seven runs in six innings in his only short-rest start prior to Sunday's two-run, six-inning outing -- will be on track to pitch Friday against the A's and the finale next Wednesday against the Rangers.
5. Baseball's best second-half teams wrapped up their divisions
The foregone conclusions that were Philadelphia winning the NL East and Detroit winning the AL Central were finalized over the weekend. Impressively, the Phillies were the majors' best team before the All-Star break (57-34, .626), and they've been even better since, going 41-19 (.683).
Philadelphia has been relentless this season, playing .630 or better ball in five of six months this season, falling short only in May with a 16-13 record (.552) that month. On the season the Phillies have a .653 winning percentage that's 50 points better than the next-best team, the Yankees, who clock in at .603 with only one full month at .630 or better.
The Tigers, meanwhile, won their first division title since 1987 -- they reached the World Series via the wild card in 2006 -- by compiling the AL's best mark in the season's second half at 40-21 (.656) after leading the Central by only a half-game at the All-Star break.
Detroit's turning point seems to have come in early July when it changed pitching coaches, replacing Rick Knapp with Jeff Jones. Under Knapp's guidance through July 2, the Tigers were 44-40, with a 4.41 staff ERA, a .261 average against and a 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Since July 3 under Jones, the Tigers are 45-24, with a 3.53 ERA, .249 average against and a 2.67 K/BB ratio.