AL East down to final series, Fielder leads Tigers, Angels all but done
New York appears to have an easier schedule than Baltimore to win the AL East
Prince Fielder's game-winning homer all but locked up the AL Central for Detroit
The Brewers, eliminated Sunday, stayed in the hunt longer than anyone expected
Sunday brought at least some clarity to baseball's formerly murky playoff picture. As each major league team prepares for its final regular-season series, all of which will begin on Monday and end on Wednesday, here are five observations on where things stand:
1 Down to The Wire
Even though the clubs ended Sunday tied atop the AL East, and even though Baltimore has not spent a single day alone in first place since early June, doesn't it seem as if the Yankees are trying to keep pace with the Orioles, and not vice-versa?
On Sunday, the Orioles again raced out to an early lead against the wretched Red Sox, who could muster no energy to play spoiler and now have their first 90-loss season since 1966. Baltimore led 5-0 by the bottom of the third, and coasted from there to a 6-3 win and series sweep. The Yankees, meanwhile, spotted the Blue Jays -- who should also end up as the losers of 90 -- a 5-1 fifth inning lead before tearing apart Toronto's bullpen to win 9-6. In the game's final three frames New York saw seven relievers and produced seven runs on eight hits.
Even so, a few factors suggest that the Yankees should emerge after Wednesday night as the division's champions. One is that they will finish with three games at home against those broken, feckless Sox -- and on Wednesday are set to receive the greatest gift any title hopeful can be given, a start by Daisuke Matuszaka -- while the Orioles must play three in Tampa, where the Rays will still possess slim wild-card hopes (which will be extinguished with one more loss, or one more A's win).
A second is that Mark Teixeira is due to come back on Monday from a left calf strain that has forced him to miss all but a single game since August 27. The 32-year-old Teixeira is by most measures -- including his 23 home runs, his 81 RBI and his OPS of .814 -- having his worst year since he was a Rangers rookie in 2003, but his return will make the Yankees' lineup whole at just the right time.
One note on a potential tiebreaker: if the Orioles and Yankees finish the regular season with identical records, they will play a one-game playoff on Thursday to determine which will be named the AL East champion and which a wild-card team. Since the clubs went 9-9 against each other this year, home field advantage will be determined based on their respective intra-division records. Baltimore is currently 42-27 against the AL East and the Yankees 38-31 -- and, as each has three more games within the division, that's how the rankings will stay should they finish in an overall tie. That means that there seems to be at least the possibility of one unforgettable night in Baltimore, four days from now.
2 Prince of Detroit
Days like Sunday were what Tigers' owner Mike Ilitch envisioned when he swooped in with a nine-year, $214 million offer for free agent Prince Fielder in late January, days after Victor Martinez had torn his ACL while training in Florida. Detroit was trailing Minnesota 1-0 with two outs in the top of the eighth when reliever Jared Burton threw a belt-high, 93-mile-per-hour fastball with his first pitch to Fielder. Seconds later, Fielder was bouncing around the bases, as his opposite field shot had given him his 30th home run of the season -- he has now hit that many in six straight seasons -- and the Tigers a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.
Fielder's heroics, combined with the continuing late season collapse of the White Sox (Chicago's 6-2 loss to the Rays was its 10th defeat in its last 12th games), means that an AL Central title is now all but assured for the Tigers, who have held the divisional lead for just 43 days this season, to the White Sox's 126. Just one more Detroit win (in Kansas City), or one more Chicago loss (in Cleveland), will put an end to things.
3 Witch's Brew
A three-game set at home against a team that lost its 100th game nearly two weeks ago and ranks last in the league in runs scored seemed to be just the thing the Brewers needed to continue their magical run to a wild card. On Friday, though, the Astros torched Yovani Gallardo -- who hadn't lost a start since late July -- for five runs on eight hits in a 7-6 win, and on Sunday they crushed Milwaukee's dreams once and for all. Jordan Lyles, he of the 4-12 record and 5.44 ERA entering the day, spun a complete game, four-hit shutout, sending the Brewers meekly into the night by the score of 7-0.
Milwaukee should be credited for staying alive far longer than anyone thought possible, as they went to sleep on the evening of August 19 with a record of 54-66, but have gone 27-12 since then. Still, their elimination on Sunday means that the National League race will be far less interesting than that in the American League, as only two clubs, the Cardinals and the Dodgers, remain in contention for the single playoff spot that is still up for grabs, the second wild card. Both won on Sunday, meaning St. Louis maintained a two-game lead over L.A.. They will finish up with home series against the Reds and the Giants, respectively -- rivals, yes, but rivals who long ago clinched their divisions and will likely be looking to rest up for their own playoff runs. St. Louis's magic number is two.
4 The Missing Linc
The Giants pulled off a spectacular ninth-inning comeback in San Diego on Sunday to win 7-5, but the already playoff-bound club would have likely traded it for a solid start from Tim Lincecum, their former ace. They didn't get it. In six innings of work, Lincecum allowed five runs, four of which were scored on a trio of homers.
Lincecum will finish the regular season with an ERA of 5.18, which is better than it was in early July (6.42), but not all that much better. He has allowed 23 home runs, five more than his previous career high, and has struck out fewer batters than ever before (190) while walking more (90). He's only 28, but as a bad stretch turned into a bad month turned into a bad season, it's worth wondering whether all the old concerns about his stature and taxing pitching motion might be proving to have been correct all along. According to PitchFX data, back in 2008, when he won the first of two consecutive NL Cy Young awards, his fastball averaged 94 miles per hour. This season, he didn't throw a single pitch that exceeded 94. On Sunday, his fastest pitch came in at 91.2.
This iteration of the Giants is rather different from the World Series champions of two years ago. Their offense is somewhat more productive -- this is the first Giants lineup to score more than 700 runs since 2006 -- but their pitching staff is not as dominant. In 2010, the Giants led baseball with a 3.36 ERA, and in the postseason their starters combined for a 2.23 ERA and a batting average against of .194. This season, the Giants team ERA is 3.68 -- 3.74 for the starters -- but more troubling is that the rotation does not have that relentless quality of two Octobers ago, when opponents knew they were never in for an easy night. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are still very good, of course. But Ryan Vogelsong, the probable No. 3 starter, had a 6.32 ERA in August and a 6.46 ERA in September, and the fourth starter will be Lincecum.
Everything, of course, would be different were Lincecum throwing like himself. He is simply not, and might never again.
5 Angels' Demons
The Angels more or less needed to sweep the Rangers on Sunday, and things looked promising as of the first inning of the nightcap. A two-out, ninth inning RBI double by Torii Hunter off of closer Joe Nathan had won the first game, and then they raced out to a 4-0 lead against starter Derek Holland in Game 2. Then the Rangers' offense awakened, led by Mike Napoli, who rarely passes on the chance to take vengeance against his former team and hit two home runs and drove in six. Texas won 8-7.
The Rangers' victory had several implications. For one, it not only clinched a playoff berth for themselves, but for the Yankees and Orioles too, both of whom are now assured of at least a wild card. But it also put the Angels on the ropes. Their season is now only barely alive, as they trail the A's by three games for the second wild-card spot with only three games to play. A single Oakland win in their upcoming series against the Rangers, or a single Angels loss in Seattle, will mean elimination for Anaheim.
It's difficult to determine how the Angels aren't currently in a better position, given that they have that pitching staff, which now features four annual Cy Young contenders; and that free agent signing, Albert Pujols, who rebounded from an awful first month to put together a typically outstanding season (.287/.346/.523, 30 homers, 102 RBIs); and that rookie, Mike Trout, who on Sunday became the youngest member of the 30/30 club, and the first ever rookie to hit 30 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season, and who is now all but certain to finish second to Miguel Cabrera in the MVP voting. The Angels are on the verge of embarking on a long off-season, in which they'll have plenty of time to figure out what went wrong.