Posted: Wednesday September 26, 2012 1:44AM ; Updated: Wednesday September 26, 2012 4:31PM
Ted Keith
Ted Keith>INSIDE BASEBALL

Braves cap bounceback season with dramatic HR; AL races tight

Story Highlights

Freddie Freeman redeemed himself and the Braves with a playoff-clinching HR

The underachieving Tigers are in position to steal the AL Central crown

The A's produced more drama and held onto a 2.5-game lead in the wild card

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Freddie Freeman
Freddie Freeman reacts to his game-winning home run that pushed the Braves into the playoffos.
David Goldman/AP

Five thoughts on another intense day of baseball that featured one clinching celebration, two teams tying for a division lead and more late-night drama out West.

1. Walking off to October. The Braves won the NL wild card in 2010. They should have won it in 2011. And on Tuesday night they ensured they would win one of them in 2012 when Freddie Freeman launched a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth that beat the Marlins 4-3 at Turner Field for Atlanta's 89th victory of the season, matching its total from a year ago.

It was fitting that Freeman delivered the clinching blow, given that he was the man who bounced into a season-ending and collapse-completing double play in Game 162 last year that ended both Atlanta's extra-inning loss to the Phillies and its playoff hopes.

For the most part, this was the same Braves team as a year ago with one important difference that makes them a legitimate threat to make a deep postseason run. The man who started Tuesday, Kris Medlen, made just two appearances in 2011 but has emerged in the second half of this season as Atlanta's best starter. He didn't get the win against Miami and yielded three runs for the first time all season, but the Braves nevertheless won for the 22nd consecutive time that Medlen started, tying a major league record.

Medlen, who didn't move into the starting rotation until July 31, certainly did his part, notching his ninth consecutive quality start even if his ERA actually rose from 1.51 to 1.64. Still, he is shaping up as a potential October ace for the pitching-rich Braves, who now have the added luxury of being able to set their rotation however they wish in advance of the wild-card playoff game they will almost certainly be taking part in -- and hosting -- on October 5.

2. Not very wild. It's looking increasingly likely that the Braves will soon have company as NL wild-card entrants. The Cardinals won their fifth straight game on Tuesday and losses by both the Dodgers and Brewers lowered St. Louis' magic number for clinching a postseason berth to four.

St. Louis has taken advantage of a favorable stretch in its schedule -- three straight series against the lowly Astros, Cubs and Astros again during which it has gone 7-1 and stretched its wild-card lead from one game to 4.

On Wednesday, the Cardinals get their second look at Chris Carpenter, who returned from thoracic outlet syndrome last week and delivered five solid innings in a no-decision against the Cubs. As he showed throughout World Series-title runs for St. Louis in both 2006 and 2011, Carpenter is one of this generation's best big-game pitchers and he would be eligible for the postseason should St. Louis get that far. First, though, he needs to prove he's as healthy as they would need him to be to defend their championship. He can go a long way toward doing just that during his two remaining starts in the regular season.

3. Tale of the Tie-gers. No team in baseball was a heavier preseason favorite to win its division than the defending AL Central champion Tigers. After virtually an entire season looking nothing like the juggernaut they were expected to be, Detroit is somehow in position to steal the AL Central title.

The White Sox lost on Tuesday to the Indians and when the Tigers shut out the Royals five hours later, Detroit found itself tied for first place for the first time since Sept. 3. Make no mistake: This turnaround has more to do with the White Sox' struggles than it does the Tigers' successes. Chicago lost for the sixth time in seven games while Detroit is now just 10-10 since last being tied for first.

Beyond their newly elevated position in the standings, the best news for the Tigers on this night was that Anibal Sanchez threw by far his best game of the season: he went nine innings for the first time, allowed just three hits (his fewest of the year) and pitched his first shutout. Detroit has been desperately searching for a decent second arm behind Justin Verlander all year, especially with Max Scherzer's recent arm troubles. With a 4-6 record and 3.95 ERA since being traded to Detroit from Miami, Sanchez may not even figure in Detroit's postseason plans. For now, though, the important thing isn't what he can do in the playoffs but if he can do his part to help his new club get there at all. On Tuesday, he did.

4. By George, they did it. You can't spell drama without A's. For the fourth time in their past five games, Oakland was part of an extra-inning or walk-off affair. For the first time in that stretch, the A's won, beating the Rangers 3-2 when George Kottaras hit an upper-deck home run in the 10th inning. With the Angels -- thanks in part to a remarkable five-inning, 13-strikeout performance by starter Zack Greinke -- and Rays winning, Oakland was able to cling to its two-game edge for the AL's second wild-card spot.

A hidden benefit for the A's came when Coco Crisp stole a base as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning. Crisp had not started a game in over a week because of an eye infection but if he's able to play it gives the runnin' A's -- yes, even the Moneyball masters are embracing the stolen base again -- another weapon in their speedy arsenal for an offense that will be facing some of the AL's best teams the rest of the way.

The A's are in the midst of a murderous closing stretch, with all but their upcoming three-game series against the Mariners against playoff contenders (six against the Rangers, four against the Angels and three each against the Orioles, Tigers and Yankees). That challenging schedule makes their close losses all the tougher to bounce back from, but they did just that after losing a walk-off game to the Rangers on Monday.

Injuries to Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy have left the A's with four rookies in their starting rotation and increased pressure on the bullpen, which was especially effective Tuesday. Four relievers combined to allow just one hit in four scoreless innings against the majors' highest-scoring offense.

5. Rays of hope. Left for dead after losing seven of eight games earlier this month, the Rays are making a patented late September push in an effort to swipe a wild-card berth for the second straight season. On Tuesday, Tampa Bay won for the sixth straight time to move within three games of the last playoff spot.

David Price improved his already impressive Cy Young credentials with a complete game, 13-strikeout gem for his 19th win, lowering his ERA to a major-league-best 2.56. The trick now for the Rays will be to still be in contention by the next time their ace takes the mound on Sunday. After Wednesday's series finale in Boston, the Rays close with the White Sox and Orioles, as difficult a closing stretch for any team trying to play catch-up over the season's final week. To make their road a little smoother, manager Joe Maddon announced he would move Jeremy Hellickson up to start on Friday and pushing Matt Moore to Saturday. Because of last Monday's off-day, Hellickson will still be pitching on full rest.

The Rays aren't done yet in the AL East race, either, though at 4 behind it's unlikely they'll catch either the Yankees or Orioles. Speaking of the Orioles, they lost to the Blue Jays, giving them consecutive losses for just the second time in the past six weeks. They still have a 2 game cushion for the first AL wild-card spot and remained just 1 out in the AL East after the Yankees couldn't hold a 3-1 lead in the seventh inning over the Twins and lost 5-3 in Minnesota.

 
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