Posted: Sunday September 30, 2012 1:22AM ; Updated: Sunday September 30, 2012 9:27AM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>FIVE CUTS

AL East tied again, White Sox fall, another walk-off win in Oakland

Story Highlights

With four games remaining, the Orioles are tied atop the AL East with the Yankees

The White Sox's 10-4 loss to the Rays felt a lot like the proverbial nail in the coffin

The A's moved closer to the postseason, while the Dodgers kept their hopes alive

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The Orioles are now 28-9 in one-run games, the best record in major league history.
The Orioles are now 28-9 in one-run games, the best record in major league history.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Five thoughts after another wild day at the races in which the Orioles pulled even with the Yankees, the White Sox imploded again, the A's pulled out another improbable victory and the Dodgers earned a stay of execution ...

1. The four- (or five-) game season starts Sunday

With the Yankees having already lost to the Blue Jays in Toronto on Saturday afternoon in a listless 3-2 game in which neither team nor the umpires distinguished themselves, the Orioles went out and beat the Red Sox 4-3 in Baltimore Saturday night, despite a strong start from Boston starter Felix Doubront, to move into a tie for first place in the American League East for the first time since Sept. 14. That leaves those two teams just four games in which to determine a champion in their division, five if they finish the 162-game schedule tied and need a one-game playoff on Thursday to settle the matter.

The Jays are doing an excellent job of playing spoiler in this race, having gone 4-2 against the two combatants over the last six days, but after their series finale against the Yankees on Sunday, which pits Henderson Alvarez against Phil Hughes, they'll be out of the picture. Sunday's games favor the Orioles, as they'll face Zach Stewart and the Red Sox at home while the Yankees wrap up in Toronto. But after that, the outlook changes considerably. On Monday, the Yankees come home to face Boston with CC Sabathia taking the mound, while the Orioles head to Tampa Bay to face the hottest team in baseball, the Rays, who have won nine of their last 10 and are still clinging to their own postseason hopes.

The Orioles are 9-6 against the Rays this season, including taking two of three in Tampa in early August, the last time they met, and the Rays' elimination number is two, meaning they could be out of the wild-card race by the time the O's arrive. Still, it's hard to argue that the Yankees don't have the more favorable matchup in the season's final series, as they'll be playing at home against team that has played .296 ball since the calendar flipped to August. The Yankees, meanwhile, have won 10 of their last 14 games, including series wins against the A's and Rays, so it's not as if they're limping to the finish.

Still, the Orioles seem to be the team of destiny here. Since finishing July six games above .500 -- despite being outscored by 51 runs on the season -- the O's have gone 36-18 (.667) and outscored their opponents by 59 runs to bring their differential into the black on the season. The Yankees, meanwhile, coughed up the 10-game lead they held in the division on July 18 and have done well simply to hang with the upstart Orioles since Baltimore first pulled even with them on Sept. 4.

Amazingly, not only are these two teams tied in the season standings, but they also split their head-to-head series this season, meaning that if they are tied after Wednesday's regular season finale, homefield advantage in Thursday's playoff game would be determined by the better intra-division record. That means the game would be played in Baltimore, as the Orioles are 40-27 against the rest of the AL East while the Yankees are 37-31. Both teams play their remaining four games against intra-division opponents, but to finish tied, they'd have to have matching records over those four games, leaving the Orioles with the advantage in that tie-breaker.

Here, then, are the projected pitching matchups for each team for the remainder of the season:

The Battle For AL East Supremacy
Yankees Opponent
Sun. at TOR Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.10) Henderson Alvarez (9-14, 4.91)
Mon. vs. BOS CC Sabathia (14-6, 3.42) Clay Buchholz (11-7, 4.22)
Tue. vs. BOS Ivan Nova (12-8, 5.02) Jon Lester (9-14, 4.94)
Wed. v.s BOS Hiroki Kuroda (5-3, 2.71) Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-6, 7.68)
Orioles Opponent
Sun. vs. BOS Joe Saunders (2-3, 3.62) Zach Stewart (1-3, 7.91)
Mon. at TB Wei-Yin Chen (12-10, 4.11) Alex Cobb (10-9, 4.18)
Tue. at TB Miguel Gonzalez (8-4, 3.45) James Shields (15-9, 3.62)
Wed. at TB Chris Tillman (9-2, 2.78) Jeremy Hellickson (9-11, 3.20)

Don't be surprised if the Yankees start rookie David Phelps (4-4, 3.34 ERA) over Nova on Tuesday. They might also have Mark Teixeira back in their lineup, or at least available off the bench, for the Boston series as Teixeira played in an instructional league game on Saturday without reporting any issues with his strained left calf.

This should be fun ...

2. Sock-less Sox

The AL East has now completely taken over the spotlight from the AL Central, which had been the major league's closest race for much of the month. The White Sox pulled back within one game of the Tigers on Friday night, but they gave that game back on Saturday, as the Tigers held off the Twins 6-4 while the Rays' stomped the Sox 10-4. The White Sox had been three games up as recently as Sept. 18, but have gone 2-9 since then, a skid that is almost entirely the fault of their offense, which has managed just 2.6 runs per game over that stretch. Through the first 10 games of that skid, the White Sox's pitching had actually been fairly stingy, holding opponents to 3.9 runs per game, but everything fell apart on Saturday as the Sox gave up a double-digit tally for the first time since Sept. 4 and just the second time since July 18.

The Sox are still technically alive, but that game felt an awful lot like a nail in their coffin. Chris Sale, their best pitcher this season making the final start of a Cy Young-contending campaign, gave up five runs in a mere 3 1/3 innings, sadly pushing his season ERA above 3.00. The relievers that followed him gave up five more runs in the remaining 5 2/3 frames, in addition to allowing one of the runs charged to Sale to score. The offense, meanwhile, did nothing for seven innings, making 13 outs before putting their first man on base against Matt Moore in the fifth. Even when the White Sox did finally score, it was a condemnation of their starting lineup. Manager Robin Ventura sent up five straight pinch-hitters with two outs in the eighth. The first three loaded the bases, and the fourth, Orlando Hudson, hit a grand slam. The only White Sox starter with a hit in the game was Alex Rios and none of Chicago's starting nine was involved in a run-scoring play.

3. Walk-off wonders

Things were about to get very interesting in the AL wild-card race Saturday afternoon. The Mariners held a 4-2 lead over the A's in the bottom of the ninth and Seattle closer Tom Wilhelmsen had just struck out pinch-hitter Seth Smith to start the inning. If the A's lost, the Angels would be just one game behind Oakland in the loss column and the Rays two back. Then Wilhelmsen walked Josh Reddick on four pitches and Josh Donaldson hit an 0-1 curveball over the center-field fence to tie the game at 4-4. In the bottom of the 10th, Coco Crisp singled on Oliver Perez's first pitch. After a line-out by Stephen Drew, Yoenis Cespedes drew a four-pitch walk from Stephen Pryor, and Brandon Moss hit Pryor's very next offering, a first-pitch fastball on the outer half of the plate, over the right-field wall to give the A's a 7-4 win, their major league best 14th walk-off victory of the season.

Close wins have been the hallmark of both the A's and the Orioles this season. The Orioles' record in one-run games, which improved to 28-9 (.757) on Saturday night, is the best in major league history and their 16-2 (.889) record in extra-inning games includes a streak of 16 straight victories. The A's can't quite match those marks, but in addition to pacing the majors in walk-off wins, they also improved their extra-inning record to 11-5 (.688) with Saturday's win and have a solid 24-18 (.571) record in one-run games, to which Saturday's victory did not apply. The similarities don't end there. The two teams have similar strengths, specifically pitching, defense, and home runs, which add up to a nice recipe for a close, late-inning win. However, in their nine head-to-head games this season, of which the A's won five, they didn't play a single extra-inning game and only one of the nine was decided by a single run (the O's won 3-2). If these two do wind up facing off in the wild-card game, it would almost seem a shame for it to be decided by a run scored before the ninth.

4. Not dead yet

Being two games out with four to play isn't an enviable position for any team. That's where the White Sox are and they're as good as done. The Rays are three out with four to play and are only in a better spot than the Sox because a) they're playing the Sox on Sunday and b) their final three games are against one of the teams they're chasing (albeit one they now trail by four games). The Angels were rained out in Texas on Saturday and will play a day-night double-header on Sunday, but even if they win the opener, they'll still be two games behind the final AL playoff spot with four to play as they're two behind the A's in the loss column after Oakland's comeback win on Saturday.

The team that's happiest to be two out with four to play is likely the Dodgers, as they're in that position because they gained a game on the Cardinals on Saturday night. The Cards occupy the only unclaimed playoff spot in the National League, the second wild-card spot, and are virtual locks to clinch it, but despite a late-inning rally that saw them overcome a 4-0 deficit to force extra-innings against the Nationals at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals couldn't push across that final run and ultimately fell 6-4 in 10 innings. The Dodgers, meanwhile, cruised to a 3-0 victory over the Rockies behind a pair of Matt Kemp solo homers, one of them going 461 feet into the left-field pavilion at Dodger Stadium, and a solid six innings from Joe Blanton followed three perfect innings from their top three relievers. The home crowd was jubilant after the win, but the Cardinals' magic number is still a mere three, while Monday brings the division champion Giants to town. The Dodgers may have gained a game in the standings, but it was more likely a stay of execution, like the one the Brewers received despite entering Saturday's action with an elimination number of one, than a meaningful change in the standings.

5. The pantomime slam

The early 4-0 lead the Nationals took on the Cardinals on Saturday night came on a first-inning grand slam by Michael Morse that almost didn't happen. Morse's ball just barely cleared the right-field wall in Busch Stadium, ricocheting off a close back wall and onto the field, and was initially ruled a single by the umpires. What's more, the confusion resulting from the umpire's call led to Morse being blocked by the runners ahead of him on base and doubled up at first base for what looked like the inning's first out. Fortunately, we now have instant replay for such calls and the umpires quickly conferred and got the call right.

You might have seen what happened next. To make sure the Nationals didn't make any mistakes rounding the bases (such as having a trailing runner pass a leading runner, which would result in an out, something that has indeed happened on home run trots in the past), the umpires made Morse run the bases backwards to the batter's box, then had Morse and his teammates execute their jog around the bases. Making light of a somewhat silly situation, and reportedly prompted by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who may have just earned some extra MVP bonus points for the suggestion, Morse mimed his home run swing before beginning his trot. Playing along, Nationals announcer Bob Carpenter called the pantomimed grand slam as if it was happening live.

The playfulness is what will be remembered about that sequence of events, but the more important take-away is that, had the umpire's initial ruling stood, it could have changed the result of a game between two team's jockeying for playoff positions (the Nationals moved a game ahead of the Reds in the battle for homefield advantage with the win) with just four games left in the season. If that play isn't reviewed, everything I wrote about the Dodgers and Brewers above might have been different. It's incredibly reassuring that baseball now has the ability to get plays like that one and Alex Rodriguez's Game 3 home run in the 2009 World Series right, and not only didn't it create an excessive delay in the game, it led to a quirky moment that's sure to pop up in bloopers packages and retrospectives for years. Baseball continues to resist expanded replay, but watching that sequence on Saturday night I found myself once again dumfounded as to why.

 
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