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Wild Card: AL Contenders
There's been a crisp, cold spell in the Northeast this past week. It smells like playoff baseball. September is almost here, and the pennant races are heating up with half of the teams in the majors within five games of a playoff spot with just five weeks left in the season. With that in mind, here's a quick guide to the contenders in the American League (I'll look at the NL contenders next week):
Boston Red Sox
Status: 5-game lead in the AL East
Record since the All-Star break: 23-17 (.575)
Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds: Division: 91.5 percent, Playoffs: 98.6 percent
The Red Sox don't have much to worry about other than perhaps home-field advantage in the postseason. They do, however, have six games left against the Yankees. To that end, all the Sox really have to do to seal the division is to beat the Yankees head-to-head. Heck, they don't even have to beat them that badly, just split those six games and the Bombers will be hard pressed to make up the difference against the rest of the league, no matter how easy their September schedule is. To do that, however, the Sox are going to have to sock. The Yankees are pounding the ball against everyone in the second half, scoring 7.17 runs per game and scoring five or more runs in 32 of their 41 games since the break. Meanwhile, the Yankees have allowed fewer than six runs in just two of their 13 losses over that span. The Sox have scored 5.43 runs per game in the second half, so they should be up to the challenge.
Key Player: Kevin Youkilis, who has hit just .209/.320/.314 in the second half after a .328/.419/.502 first half. Since protecting David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the order with J.D. Drew didn't work out, the Sox need Youkilis to start getting on base ahead of their two mashers again.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Status: 1-game lead in the AL West
Record since the ASB: 21-18 (.538)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 71.1 percent, Wild Card: 12.9 percent, Playoffs: 84 percent
The Angels are just two games behind the Red Sox for the best record in the majors, but their hold on their division is far more tenuous, with seven head-to-head games left against a pesky Mariners team that has defied not only expectation, but explanation. The good news for the Angels, who play .689 ball at home but are 32-34 on the road, is that, with the exception of three games in Seattle starting on Monday, they host all the tough teams remaining on their schedule and play only patsies on the road. They also have an 8-4 record against Seattle this season, though they dropped two of three to the M's at Safeco Field at the end of July.
Key Player: Ervin Santana, who was demoted shortly after the break after going 0-3 with a 12.56 ERA in three July starts, returned with a gem against Boston last Friday but struggled in a loss to Toronto yesterday. The last quality start the Angels have gotten from the fifth spot in the rotation other than Santana's outing against the Red Sox was by the currently disabled Barolo Colon, on June 30.
Status: 2.5-game lead in the AL Central
Record since the ASB: 18-20 (.474)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 69.1 percent, Wild Card: 2.3 percent, Playoffs: 71.4 percent
The Indians are three games behind Seattle in the loss column and a game behind the Yankees in the win column, which means they can't count on the Wild Card should they lose their grip on the division. The good news is that the Tigers are in freefall. The bad news is that the Tribe isn't doing much better. (Just look at that losing record since the All-Star break.) Cleveland has a soft schedule remaining, with just three head-to-head games against the Tigers, all at home (they just took two of three in Detroit this week), and 16 games against losing teams. Still, it would behoove them to start scoring runs again. The 4.13 runs per game they've scored since the break won't suffice.
Key Player: Travis Hafner has been missing in action since the end of April. Now that everyone else in the lineup is tailing off as well, Pronk needs to go back to being the Central's version of David Ortiz.
Status: 2-game lead in the Wild Card, 1 game behind in the AL West
Record since the ASB: 23-17 (.575)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 28.5 percent, Wild Card: 22.5 percent, Playoffs: 51 percent
The M's looked like they were finally going to tumble when they went 5-10 coming out of the break, but they've recovered to go 18-7 since. The key victory in that stretch came in the rubber game of their home series against the Angels on Aug. 1 when they recovered from just the second blown save of the season by J.J. Putz to win in 12 innings. The M's are in a great position in the standings, leading the Wild Card and threatening the division, but they have a doozy of a schedule remaining with those seven games against the Angels, five against Cleveland and three each against the Tigers and Yankees. In fact, just nine of the Mariners' remaining 37 games are against teams that currently sport losing records compared to 15 of 35 for both the Angels and Yankees.
Key Player: Putz. The Mariners have only scored four more runs than they've allowed in the second half. That means every lead is precious. If Putz, whose only two blown saves on the season have come in the last month, stumbles, the team will fall.
New York Yankees
Status: 2 games behind for the Wild Card, 5 games behind in the AL East
Record since the ASB: 28-13 (.683)
BP Playoff Odds: Division: 8.5 percent, Wild Card: 50.1 percent, Playoffs 58.6 percent
The Yankees have the best second-half record of any AL contender by far and have scored a staggering 7.17 runs per game since the break, which is good because they've also allowed 5.1 runs per game during that span despite facing a series of cupcakes coming out of the break. Something's got to give, and it could just be the Yankees' playoff hopes. Then again, their remaining schedule isn't that much tougher. They have six games left against Boston and three games left against Seattle. Beyond that and a four-game set that starts tonight in Detroit against the plummeting Tigers, the only "winning" team they face the rest of the way is the 64-63 Blue Jays, though they will have to figure out how to beat the Orioles, against whom they're 4-8 this season and have six games remaining, if they want to keep playing into October.
Key Player: Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees have enough age-related question marks that they can't afford for a star in his prime such as Wang to perform like he has of late, posting a 6.42 ERA in his past six starts.
Status: 2.5 games behind in the AL Central, 5 games behind for the Wild Card
Record since the ASB: 16-25 (.390)
BP Playoff Odds: Division 27.8 percent, Wild Card: 3.8 percent, Playoffs: 31.6 percent
Things aren't looking good for the defending AL Champs. They just got Joel Zumaya and Andrew Miller back, but Zumaya took the loss to Cleveland yesterday, and Gary Sheffield's out indefinitely with a sore right shoulder. Meanwhile, despite their well-regarded pitching staff, they can't keep runs off the board, allowing 5.98 runs per game since the break. The Tigers have not won a series since sweeping the Twins in Minnesota in mid-July. Since then they're 11-23 (.324) and have allowed 6.5 runs per game. The Tigers probably have the easiest remaining schedule of any of the six contenders listed here, but if they keep playing like that, it won't matter.
Key Players: Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Andrew Miller. Just look at the second-half ERA's of the Tigers' young studs: Verlander (5.83), Bonderman (7.16), and the recently reactivated Miller (6.08). No team can win like that.
Labels: Wild Card
NL East: Linked In
Just the links this week, as I dig out from a flurry of reader responses impugning Hanley Ramirez's defense:
Labels: NL East
AL West: The Anti-Yankees
Since Joe Torre took over as Yankees manager in 1996, the Bronx Bombers have undoubtedly been baseball's most dominant franchise. Winning four World Series titles and 10 division crowns during this stretch, the Yankees have compiled a winning record against every American League team ... except the Angels.
After taking two of three games from the Yankees this week, the Angels improved their record against the Torre-led Yankees to 61-55. Even more impressive, over the past 33 games, Los Angeles has managed 21 wins (including six wins in nine games this season). And this doesn't even include the postseason, in which Los Angeles ousted New York in 2002 and 2005.
It's difficult to identify exactly why the Angels give New York such well-documented fits, but Los Angeles' aggressive approach may have something to do with it.
The Angels' game plan couldn't be more foreign to the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees annually field a dynamic offense; this year's lineup ranks leads the majors in runs (758), home runs (160), batting average (.293), on-base percentage (.367) and slugging percentage (.468). Torre in recent years has had a station-to-station mentality, letting his sluggers take care of business on their own. Angels manager Mike Scioscia employs a far more active modus operandi. Los Angeles' offense is constantly in motion. With a lineup chock full of capable baserunners (including Chone Figgins, Orlando Cabrera, Reggie Willits, Gary Matthews Jr., Vlad Guerrero, Maicer Izturis and Howie Kendrick), Scioscia rarely sits back and waits for the three-run homer. The Halos lead the American League in stolen bases (115) and go first-to-third better than any team in baseball.
"They put pressure on you," Torre said to the New York Times. "They're distracting. They don't stop."
Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui likes to also give credit to Los Angeles' pitching staff, which seems to perform at its best against the Bombers.
"You get the feeling that they really study the Yankees," Matsui told the Los Angles Times. "And they've assembled the talent to execute their game plans, particularly the pitchers. They don't make mistakes. They don't self-destruct."
The Angels don't have any more regular season games against the Yanks, but the teams could face off in the playoffs, possibly in the first round.
Labels: AL West
AL Central: Jenks' brush with history
With the fans at U.S. Cellular standing and chanting "Bob-by! Bob-by! Bob-by! Bob-by!" White Sox closer Bobby Jenks took the hill hoping to nail down a save to preserve a 4-3 win over the Royals.
But let's be honest, the South Siders had long since stopped caring about a win that would move the ChiSox out of the AL Central cellar and back into a fourth-place tie with Kansas City. The fans were there to see history, and Jenks needed to retire just one hitter, Joey Gathright, to set a major-league mark by recording 42 consecutive batters, dating back to July 17.
Jenks nearly lost it on the second pitch, as Gathright laced a line drive down the left-field line. It landed a mere foot foul, leading the oft-obnoxious Hawk Harrelson to cry "mercy!" On the very next pitch, Jenks unleashed a 96 mph fastball, high and tight, as Gathright tumbled to the dirt.
And in just two pitches, the magic of Jenks' streak was demonstrated. Had that liner been one foot to the right or had that fastball been six inches more inside, Gathright would be standing on first base. As many fluky ways as there are to reach base -- from bloop base hit to error to catcher's interference -- to retire 41 in a row as Jenks had done, which is roughly a game and a half of perfection, is inconceivable.
Sure enough, after a few foul balls, Jenks shook off a slider and threw a hanging curve, which Gathright grounded through the left side of the infield for a single (cue Hawk: "Dadgummit!"). Just like that, Jim Barr -- co-holder of the record from his time with the Giants in 1972 -- could rest a little easier, his name still etched in the history books.
Jenks settled down to get his 34th save, in itself an impressive number considering Chicago only has 55 wins, and he finally broke his media silence after the game. Not wanting to be distracted by incessant queries about the streak, he self-imposed a gag order, and frankly, I don't blame him for having done so. Jenks told reporters after the game that he "messed up" on that curve, explaining, "I was so amped up facing him that I got out of control a little bit."
For the record, Gathright didn't know he was almost the historic batter, claiming he thought Jenks already had the record.
(Oh yeah, a worthless footnote from the game: the White Sox broke an eight-game losing streak with the win. But no one really cares.)
I'll still remember Jenks more as the tall, fat reliever Ozzie Guillen signaled for in the 2005 World Series, but this was an historic streak. Jenks' performance places him in great company among the top five pitching performances of the season, four of which have been completed by members of the AL Central.
Yankee fans, always prone to nauseating hype, will likely protest that all seven innings of Joba Chamberlain's career ought to make this list, and Phillies fans will only acknowledge the following as secondary to Cole Hamels' bullpen sessions, but I stand by my list.
Top Five Pitching Performances of 2007:
1. Brandon Webb's consecutive scoreless innings streak. At 42 innings and counting, the Diamondbacks' ace has thrown three consecutive complete-game shutouts, which follow two straight starts of seven shutout innings. No one else in the majors has three total shutouts, much less three consecutive. Webb hasn't allowed a run -- earned or otherwise -- since July 20.
2. Justin Verlander's no-hitter. On June 12, Verlander fired 112 pitches for the season's second no-hitter against Milwaukee, whiffing 12, walking four and compiling an 11:4 groundout-to-flyout ratio. With 100-plus fastballs in the ninth and breaking pitches with unholy movement, Verlander could have thrown another complete game without allowing a hit that night.
3. Mark Buehrle's no-hitter. Back on April 18, the southpaw threw the year's first no-no against Texas, needing only 106 pitches to strike out eight, walk one and have a 11:7 groundball-to-flyball ratio. Always efficient and pitching to contact, Buehrle was obviously unhittable in his no-hitter, but he's one spot behind Verlander for having less dominating stuff.
4. Jenks (see above). As great as 41 consecutive outs is, considering the aforementioned pitfalls of fluke base runners, Jenks still benefited of never getting more than three outs in any one appearance. He was always well-rested, wasn't pitching in a pennant race and didn't have to face any team's entire lineup, much less worry about hitters making adjustments between at bats. I don't mean to slight the man, as it's still ranked fourth on this list, but I thought I'd clarify why it's not higher.
5. Johan Santana's 17-strikeout, eight-inning masterpiece on Sunday. Any other week I'd be writing about Santana's gem in Minnesota's 1-0 win over Texas, except I did write about him last week. Instead I'll defer to the Star-Tribune's Joe Christiansen, and I'll only add that this game was mildly reminiscent of Pedro Martinez's 17-strikeout, one-hitter against the Yankees.
Honorable Mention: Curt Schilling's 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball against Oakland on June 7 and Erik Bedard's 15-strikeout, complete-game shutout of the Royals on July 7.
Arugments about the order? Think I missed something? Fire away in the comment box below ...
The Tigers' bullpen gets a boost with the return of Joel Zumaya in time for tonight's home game against division-leading Cleveland. The Indians lead the Central by 1.5 games and have 14-game winner Fausto Carmona starting in the opener of a three-game series.
Labels: AL Central
NL West: Predictions
Over the past three weeks, Arizona has taken control of the National League West. I asked team bloggers from around the division whether they thought the Diamondbacks would hang on and what the NL West order of finish would be. Here's what they said:
Jim McLennan, AZ SnakePit:
I think it comes down to the Padres and D-backs for the title. The Dodgers are too far back and (until very recently) playing badly -- a fatal combination -- though I think the Rockies could still be involved, at least in the role of spoilers. I'm really glad we played them so much earlier on, as I do not fancy facing that lineup now.
Arizona is in the driver's seat, but I am concerned about our bullpen, with both Tony Pena and Brandon Lyon showing signs of fatigue of late. They've been crucial to our success, especially with us being involved in so many close games. But if they can stand firm, I present to you, your 2007 NL West Champion (and slayers of run differential as a predictive tool!) Arizona Diamondbacks.
Geoff Young, Ducksnorts:
I'll stick with my preseason prediction of Arizona, San Diego, Los Angeles, Colorado and San Francisco because I'm stubborn that way. The Diamondbacks get knocked by a lot of analysts for their poor run differential, but those are wins in the bank and, like Jim, I don't see them folding.
The Dodgers and Rockies will stick around a while longer, but with so many injuries to both pitching staffs, I'm not sure either has enough to reach the playoffs. I still like the Padres for the NL wild card.
Mark T.R. Donohue, Bad Altitude:
Lame as it might be to predict that the current standings order will be the final one, I don't see enough separation between the top three teams in the division to favor anyone either than the team with the advantage of the most wins in the bank. I've also been afraid all year that Arizona's young hitting would break through and pick up its pitching -- could still happen. San Diego's lack of a dominant middle-of-the-rotation hitter dooms it, I feel, and while Matt Holliday is the most dangerous offensive player in the division, Colorado isn't going anywhere with Elmer Dessens, Josh Fogg, and mere babes Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales in the rotation. The Dodgers obviously don't want anything to do with the playoffs, and the Giants' season effectively ended last week.
Andrew Grant, True Blue L.A.:
I considered the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Padres equals coming into this year, but I think it's time to drop the Dodgers from the discussion. Over the last 10 years, only four teams have come back from a deficit of more than a game and a half (at this point in the season) to make the playoffs, so even if you believe the Dodgers are due to improve, six and a half games is simply too much to make up.
If you break it down between the Diamondbacks and Padres, I think you have a dead heat. Arizona is on pace to have the best record ever for a team that has been outscored on the year, but as you get further and further into the season, regressions that should happen are less and less likely to occur. Meanwhile, the Padres main concern was depth, but they've dealt with that at the deadline by acquiring solid players like Morgan Ensberg and Scott Hairston.
If I had to pick a winner, I would say the Padres, because while the Diamondbacks have been underperforming offensively between Chris Young, Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson, they've been getting above-average performances out of pitchers like Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez, who have been overperforming based on their peripheral stats (walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate). When you combine that with an inevitable regression the team should experience thanks to their overperformance, I would bet that the Padres catch them as the season draws to a close. The final race for the NL West title should be very close between the Padres and the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers, Rockies, and Giants will follow them.
Grant Brisbee, McCovey Chronicles:
I stopped following the NL West race when the Giants fell out of the race, which was in, oh, February. So I might be the wrong guy to ask.
Like most of you, I'm caught between acknowledging the Diamondbacks' luck and acknowledging that their offense should improve. Their young hitters have been super-prospects like Sean Burroughs instead of super-prospects like Grady Sizemore, and that should change.
If I'm going to concede an automatic offensive upgrade to the D-Backs, though, I should do the same with the Padres. They don't have a good offense, but they have some players who could improve from "wretched" to "tolerable." With that pitching staff, "tolerable" could get them to the World Series.
The Rockies' bullpen shouldn't be that good, and the starting staff is a lump of average at best, but replacing half of their lineup with an amphetamine-free Neifi Perez would still leave them with the best offense in the division.
I can count about seven hitters on the Dodgers who could be the No. 3 hitter on the Giants, and yet the Dodgers are still having trouble scoring runs. That reflects more on the Giants than the Dodgers, but it's tough to make up six games in the standings with a limp offense.
My guess: Padres, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies, 1962 Mets, Giants
Labels: NL West
AL East: R-E-L-I-E-F
As the Red Sox begin the week set to face the Devil Rays again -- Boston won two of three against Tampa Bay last week -- they hold a four-game lead over the Yankees. While New York has a tough three-game series this week in Anaheim, followed by a four-game set in Detroit, Boston follows up Tampa Bay with a trip to Chicago to play the White Sox. The Red Sox and Yanks meet next week in New York, their second-to-last meeting of the year. Though the Yanks have crept closer, given the schedule, the time is now for the Red Sox to put the AL East away. Dan Shaughnessy contemplates whether the glass is half-full or half-empty for Boston. Bryan Tsao thinks the Red Sox will be just fine.
Eric Gagne has struggled so far for Boston, prompting Joel Sherman to write that the Yankees may have won the Gagne sweepstakes after all. A few weeks is too soon to write off the trade, however, and Boston manager Terry Francona insists that he will continue to use Gagne:
"I don't think using him differently helps," Francona said. "You put a guy who pitches on adrenaline in a blowout game, it's not going to help him. When a hitter goes through a slump, your good hitters, you stay with 'em. You might give 'em an occasional day off, and that's what we'll do with Gagne today, because he threw a lot of pitches. But you try to put the players in the best position that they can succeed, and if you run away from that, it's not going to work. It's kind of weird, when you're pitching late in the game, there's such a glare. K-Rod [Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels] came in and gave it up. Manny Delcarmen came in and gave it up, but you don't hear about it because of circumstances. If we don't score, all the questions [would be], 'What happened with Manny?'
The Yankees haven't missed Gagne, of course, because of the emergence of Joba Chamberlain -- and to a lesser extent, Edwar Ramirez. Chamberlain's fastball is clocked in the high-90s, he's got a nasty slider in the high-80s and has displayed good control. Chamberlain has quickly become a fan favorite in the Bronx, and why not? He's yet to allow a run. He buzzed through the heart of the Tigers order on Sunday (Sheffield, Ordoñez, Guillen). Chamberlain was profiled in the Daily News by Anthony McCarron yesterday -- an excellent background piece. Over at the New York Times, Tyler Kepner describes The Joba Rules.
The attention that Gagne and Chamberlain have gotten of late -- in addition to credit that Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Paplebon have richly deserved all season long -- has overshadowed perhaps a bigger bullpen story: Mariano Rivera is quietly having his worst season as a reliever. Rivera strikes out more than a batter per inning and has only allowed six walks in 53 innings this year. But his ERA is 3.40, a run higher than his career mark of 2.35. He's allowed 20 earned runs so far this season -- something he hasn't done since 2001. Rivera is 37 and his contract is up at the end of the season. Teammates Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez are also in "walk" years (A-Rod can opt out of his deal), but they are performing as well, if not better, than could be expected. The same cannot be said for Rivera. This is not to say that he -- like Gange -- won't return to form over the next six weeks. And it is not to say that the Yankees won't re-sign him -- it would be hard to imagine the new Yankee Stadium opening in 2009 without Rivera. It's just to say that the once-automatic machine at the end of Yankee bullpen has been far from that lately. No wonder Yankee fans are salivating over some kid named after a Hut.
Labels: AL East
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)