Tigers sweep into first-place tie, Strasburg's end is near, more notes
The AL Central is a toss-up but the Tigers may now have the inside track to win it
The Orioles could tie the Yankees for first in the East in their series next weekend
Shutting down Stephen Strasburg on September 12th may backfire on Washington
As the pennant races heat up, here are Five Cuts on Sunday's action and the significance of the weekend's results.
1. Detroit Rock City: The top story this weekend was the Tigers' three-game sweep of the visiting White Sox, who arrived in Detroit with a three-game lead in the American League Central and depart in a flat-footed tie with the rival Tigers. The star of the series was Tigers left fielder Delmon Young, who went 5-for-10 with two home runs, a double, a triple, seven RBIs and three runs scored. Young delivered what proved to be the game-winning hits on both Friday and Sunday night, breaking a 4-4 tie in the seventh inning of Friday night's game with a bases-loaded double off lefty reliever Matt Thornton that plated all three base runners and set the final score at 7-4, and breaking a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning of Sunday night's game with a three-run home run off lefty starter Chris Sale putting the Tigers up 4-1 in a game they would eventually win 4-2. Young, who golfed a shin-high slider from Sale for his decisive home run on Sunday night, is now 13-for-30 with four home runs and 11 RBIs over the Tigers' last eight games.
Prior to Young's homer, Sunday night's contest was delivering on its promise as a classic pitchers' duel between Cy Young candidates Justin Verlander and Sale. Both had limited their opponent's scoring to a solo home run prior to that inning; Verlander giving up a leadoff shot to the just-activated Alejandro De Aza to start the game, and Sale giving up a solo shot to lefty Brennan Boesch, one of just two left-handers to take him deep all season, in the fifth. Sale struck out the side around Young's shot in the sixth, but was done after six innings, seven Ks and 106 pitches. Verlander, meanwhile, pressed on, racking up 11 strikeouts on 124 pitches over eight innings without allowing another run (the White Sox second tally came against closer Jose Valverde in the ninth, the second time in as many games that Valverde gave up a run in the process of closing out the ninth inning).
Max Scherzer's performance for the Tigers on Saturday night was every bit as good as Verlander's on Sunday, if not a hair better. Both held Chicago to four hits over eight innings, but Scherzer walked just one to Verlander's two and didn't allow a single run while striking out nine and using just 113 pitches (71 percent of them strikes).
In my look at the pennant races on Friday, I reported that Clay Davenport's Postseason Odds, which are based on the former Baseball Prospectus statistician simulating the remainder of the season a million times, had the Central as a complete toss up, but even prior to Sunday night's game, the Tigers had pulled ahead in Davenport's system with a 64 percent chance of winning the division, a figure which surely increased after their victory Sunday night.
The Tigers now hold a 10-4 advantage in the season series between these teams having won each of the last seven games between the two rivals. The series will conclude next week in Chicago with a four-game set that begins on Monday, September 10. The Tigers will have to get through a three-game set against the Angels in Anaheim between now and then, but if they can leave Chicago tied or with a lead in the division, the Central could well be theirs, as they will play all but three of their final 19 games against the sub-.500 teams in their division, while the White Sox will have to play their own three-game set against the Angels in Anaheim plus four at home against the Rays.
2. Bird Is The Word: The Orioles entered their weekend series in the Bronx three games behind the Yankees in the American League East, and while they didn't manage to sweep New York, they did take two of three to shave a game off that deficit. Far from fading, the Orioles are 22-10 (.688) since July 29 and have outscored their opponents 151-123 over that span, which translates to a .601 Pythagorean winning percentage. Their 8-3 win on Sunday also gives them a positive run differential since the All-Star break, albeit by just one tally.
Baltimore first baseman Mark Reynolds was the star of this weekend's series, going 5-for-9 with four home runs, seven RBIs, and five runs scored in the Orioles' two wins, but the reason the Orioles have finally started outscoring their opponents has been their pitching, which has allowed just 3.8 runs per game over those last 32 contests. Given that, Sunday's win could prove to be costly as O's starter Chris Tillman left the game after just three innings due to elbow stiffness. Tillman, who, prior to Sunday's game had gone 7-2 with a 3.26 ERA in ten starts since being called up on July 4, will have an MRI on Monday. No one will know until those results come back whether or not Tillman will make his next start, which is scheduled for Friday in what will be the second game of a four-game set at Camden Yards against the Yankees.
That four-game set, which kicks off on Thursday, will conclude the season series between the top two teams in the AL East. The Yankees started the season series by sweeping the Orioles in Baltimore, but they needed extra innings to get two of those wins. Since then, the Orioles have gone 7-4 against the Yankees. If the standings stay the way they are, the O's could pull into a first-place tie by taking three of four next weekend.
3. The End Is Nigh: The suspense is over. Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced after his team's 4-3 victory over the Cardinals Sunday afternoon that Stephen Strasburg's last start of this season would come on September 12. That won't be the last word on the subject, but it will be the last one that matters. Strasburg struck out nine Cardinals in six scoreless innings on Sunday, allowing just two hits and a walk, but his return to dominance after being cuffed around by the Marlins in his last start did nothing to dissuade the Nationals, who have never wavered from their decision to shut down Strasburg for the year before the stretch-run and the postseason.
That doesn't mean the decision won't hurt their chances going forward. The Nationals have gone 5-1 in Strasburg's last six starts, and all but that one in Miami saw him pitch exactly six innings and allow two or fewer runs. The team is 19-8 on the season in Strasburg's starts, and Strasburg himself has gone 15-6 with a 2.94 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 156 1/3 innings.
Exacerbating the issue is the fact that Jordan Zimmermann, who was arguably even more effective than Strasburg for most of the season (save for those strikeouts, of course) hasn't been the same pitcher since the calendar flipped to August. Zimmermann finished July with a 2.28 ERA after having completed at least six innings in all 21 of his starts to that point in the season, 19 of which were quality. Since August arrived, he has completed six innings just once, posting a 6.23 ERA over six starts, the worst of which came on Saturday and saw him give up eight runs in 3 2/3 innings to the same Cardinals team Strasburg dominated on Sunday.
Zimmermann may yet right his ship, and the Nationals' rotation is deep, with Edwin Jackson's 3.53 ERA being the worst of the quintet and Gio Gonzalez (17-7, 3.10, 9.4 K/9) still going strong (he shut out the Cardinals Friday night). Still, they're facing the distinct possibility of having, effectively, lost their top two starters before even wrapping up the division. Whatever your opinion might be about the Nationals' decision on Strasburg, it's hard to argue that it won't hurt them in the short term.
4. The Kids Are Alright: Active major league rosters expanded from 25 men to 40 on Saturday, allowing teams to add some of their top minor leaguers, and not only did the game's top prospect get the call, but he had an immediate impact. Rangers shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar was listed as the fourth-best prospect in baseball prior to this season by Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, who also made news this weekend when he was hired as the Astros new pro scouting director. The only men Goldstein listed ahead of Profar were Matt Moore, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout. Profar, who won't turn 20 until February, hit .281/.368/.452 with 16 stolen bases for Double-A Frisco this year and was a late addition to the Rangers' lineup on Sunday when Ian Kinsler was scratched due to a sore back.
All Profar did was become just the third teenager in major league history to homer in his first major league at-bat, leading off the top of the third with a solo shot off the Indians' Zach McAllister. He added a double in the next inning and finished the day 2-for-4. Profar, the first major leaguer born in 1993, thus became the youngest major leaguer to homer since 1998, when his teammate Adrian Beltre hit the first of 336 and counting.
Next up: Cardinals' pitching prospect Shelby Miller, who will be called up this week to serve in a long-relief role. Goldstein ranked Miller tenth prior to the season. Baseball America had him eighth, immediately behind Profar, whom they ranked seventh.
5. The Week Ahead: The key head-to-head action remains in the American League this week as the Yankees hit the road to play three games in Tampa against a Rays team that is just 3 1/2 games back in the East and fighting for the Wild Card. That series opens Monday afternoon with CC Sabathia taking on James Shields at 1:10 on Labor Day, a game in which Alex Rodriguez is expected to return to the Yankees' lineup, and concludes with Hiroki Kuroda facing Matt Moore Wednesday night. After that, the Bombers head to Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the A's, who are coming off a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in which they outscored Boston 33-5, host the Angels, who trail Oakland in the Wild Card race by 3 1/2 games. C.J. Wilson, Zack Greinke, and Dan Haren will toe the slab for the Halos against Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, and Brandon McCarthy. Both the Monday and Wednesday contests in that series will be day games.