Wednesday September 24th, 2014

Raise the Jolly Roger: Pirates clinch playoff berth

The Pirates put their twenty years of losing baseball further in their rearview mirror Tuesday night by clinching a playoff berth for the second consecutive season. The Pirates racked up their 15th win in their last 18 games with their 3-2 win over the Braves and expanded their lead over the Brewers, the third-place team in the National League wild-card race, to six games with just five left to play. Pittsburgh had trailed Milwaukee as recently as September 6. However, the Pirates’ hot streak, which began the day before, coincided with a simultaneous collapse by the Brewers, who were then in the process of losing 13 of 14. The Crew dropped two of three in Pittsburgh this past weekend and lost 3-1 to Johnny Cueto and the Reds on Tuesday night.

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The Pirates' victory Tuesday night came on back of a strong outing from sophomore right-hander Gerrit Cole, whose return from nearly seven weeks on the disabled list on August 20 has been key to Pittsburgh’s late-season surge into the playoffs. Cole held Atlanta to two runs over seven innings while striking out eight. The decisive run came in the top of the eighth on doubles by Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, who also combined to help produce the first Pittsburgh run of the game with a pair of singles in the fourth.

The Pirates are the fourth National League team to clinch a playoff berth, following the Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers, and they are still alive in the race for the NL Central title. With the division-leading Cardinals losing to the Cubs 4-3 in 10 innings Tuesday night, the Pirates are just 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central and just one game behind in the loss column. The trick is that the Cardinals, who have won 8 of their last 11, have just four games remaining, all against the lowly Cubs and Diamondbacks. The Pirates, meanwhile, head to Cincinnati after two more games in Atlanta.

Postseason field nearly set

The Brewers’ loss to the Reds made them one of three teams to see their elimination number drop to one on Tuesday night. Joining Milwaukee on the brink of elimination is Cleveland, which lost 7-1 to the Royals behind a rocky start from Danny Salazar (4 2/3 IP, 5 R), and the Yankees, who fell 4-3 to the Orioles with Derek Jeter striking out to end the game with the tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth.

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With those three all but eliminated, there are just 11 teams remaining for the 10 playoff spots. In the National League, the field is effectively set with only the Giants left to clinch via their next win or the Brewers’ next loss. In the American League, the Mariners are the only team not currently occupying a playoff spot to have any real chance of reaching October, and they, too, suffered a potentially crippling loss Tuesday night.

The Blue Jays lit up would-be Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandez for eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in Toronto, handing the Mariners a 10-2 drubbing. Seattle now trails the Royals, the second-place wild-card team, by three games with five games remaining in the season. With four of the Royals five remaining games coming against the White Sox while the Mariners finish with three against the Angels, Seattle looks all but cooked. If they do manage to stay alive to until the final day of the season, however, Hernandez will return to the mound with a huge chance for redemption.

Angel Pagan to have back surgery, further thinning Giants’ outfield

The Giants may be on the verge of clinching a playoff spot, but one Giant who won’t be appearing in the postseason this year is centerfielder Angel Pagan, who will have season ending surgery on Thursday to repair a bulging disk in his back. Pagan had started just one of the Giants previous seven games prior to Tuesday night, that coming on Friday.

The Giants have also been without leftfielder Mike Morse for nearly all of September due to a strained oblique, his lone appearance coming as a mid-game replacement, also on Friday. Morse reportedly aggravated his oblique in that game and is not expected to play in the current series against the division-leading Dodgers.

MORE: San Francisco Giants: In-house options to replace Pablo Sandoval

With Pagan and Morse out, the Giants have been reduced to using Gregor Blanco and 27-year-old rookie Juan Perez in center and leftfields. Blanco is capable of doing a fair Pagan impression, minus the ability to switch-hit (Blanco is a lefty), but Perez has hit an abysmal .161/.220/.269 in 102 plate appearances this season. The only other outfielders on the Giants’ active roster, besides rightfielder Hunter Pence, are rookies Chris Dominguez and Gary Brown, who have combined for 11 major league plate appearances and one major league hit, a home run by Dominguez on Sunday.

One possible solution should Morse’s absence persist would be to play Brandon Belt in leftfield with Travis Ishikawa, who has had some small-sample success against right-handed pitching since being called up at the end of July, at first base. Belt, however, hasn’t started a game in the outfield since 2012, hasn’t played there with any regularity since 2011 and is barely more than a week removed from a disabled-list stay due to post-concussion symptoms.

Given that he started Blanco and Perez again on Tuesday night, Giants manager Bruce Bochy likely considered the current series in Los Angeles too important to experiment with Belt or the rookies, but with Tuesday night’s loss dropping the Giants’ elimination number in the division to one, Bochy should use the final five games of the season to test those alternatives before he has to set his postseason roster.

Nelson Cruz first, possibly only, to reach 40 home runs

The decisive run in the Orioles' win over the Yankees on Tuesday night was a solo home run to leftfield by Baltimore designated hitter Nelson Cruz leading off the top of the fourth against Yankee starter Brandon McCarthy. The blast was Cruz’s 40th home run of the year, expanding his career high and major-league lead, and it meant that this will not be the first year since 1982 in which no player reached the 40-home-run mark. It very well may be the first year since 1989 that only one player reaches the mark, however.

National League leader Giancarlo Stanton will not be adding to his total of 37, and the only man in the American League with more than 35 home runs other than Cruz is the Astros’ Chris Carter, also at 37. Carter, to his credit, is more than capable of hitting three home runs in the season’s final five games. He hit three across two games earlier in the month, the fourth time this season he had clustered three home runs so closely together. He homered in three consecutive games in late August and has hit four home runs in four games on multiple occasions this season as well. However, he’s not likely to hit three home runs in the Astros’ final five games and is not swinging a hot bat, having gone deep just once in his last 17 games spanning 70 plate appearances.

This lack of 40-home run seasons continues a recent trend examined at length by SI.com’s Jay Jaffe earlier this month that has slowly brought home-run rates down to their lowest level since before the 1994 players’ strike. This is a welcome change to someone like me, who prefers pitching matchups to slugfests and believes baseball is at its best when it is most balanced, though there are those around the game that see the drop in offense as a problem that needs to be remedied. Hopefully Cruz’s 40th home run will help quiet those Chicken Littles.

Wrigley renovations to start

Take a good look at Wrigley Field in the Cubs' final home game of the season on Wednesday night. The next time you see it, there will be a video scoreboard in leftfield, expanded bleachers and a big Budweiser sign in rightfield. Those are the first of many renovations planned for the 100-year-old ballpark over the next few years, and the construction on those three will begin this weekend with the scoreboard, bleachers and Budweiser sign all expected to be in place for Opening Day of next season. Wrigley’s famous manual scoreboard in centerfield will not be altered, but the days of Wrigley Field as a baseball Luddites paradise with only a weak public address system and that manual scoreboard to distract from the action will be gone after the Cardinals leave town Wednesday night.

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