Tigers, Cardinals win divisions, A's clinch playoff spot on final day
There was plenty left to be figured out as MLB came to its final day of the regular season. Two divisions -- the AL and NL Central -- and one of the AL wild cards were up for grabs heading into Game 162, with seven teams jockeying for position and, in the case of the Mariners, a playoff spot.
There was plenty of potential chaos in play, as well, with three Game 163 scenarios possible. A Tigers loss and a Royals win would have created a tie in the AL Central. A Pirates win and Cardinals loss would have done the same in the NL, and in the AL wild card, an Athletics loss combined with a Mariners win would have forced the rarest of playoff games: a play-in game for the play-in game, as the teams would have been tied for the second wild-card spot.
Entropy was in the air across the league, but by day's end, normalcy had won out. Thanks to a trio of aces, MLB's playoff picture was fully settled on Sunday.
The first dominoes fell in Detroit and Cincinnati. In the Motor City, the Tigers had two options: Beat the Twins and clinch a fourth straight AL Central title, or lose and be forced to sweat out the result of the Royals-White Sox matchup set for later in the day. To that end, Detroit gave the ball to David Price, the ace acquired from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline for just this kind of game.
Price seemed to be perpetually on the razor's edge early on, laboring through the first four innings with 73 pitches. In the fourth, with the Tigers up 1-0 after a solo homer by Ian Kinsler, Price put two on with one out after walking Kennys Vargas and giving up a base hit to Josmil Pinto. From there, he punched out Oswaldo Arcia on four pitches, getting him to swing through a fastball for strike three, then got Eduardo Escobar to ground into a force out to finish the frame.
After that, Price cruised, pitching around a double in the fifth and a walk in the sixth. After retiring Danny Santana to start the eighth, he gave way to Joba Chamberlain, having thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts. Chamberlain got two groundouts to end the inning. The Tigers picked up a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, and the much-maligned Joe Nathan pitched a perfect ninth to seal the 3-0 win and the division for the Tigers.
Over in Ohio, another No. 1 starter was putting his mark on a team's playoff hopes -- just not his own. In any other year, or in an alternate universe where Clayton Kershaw sold insurance for a living, Johnny Cueto would have run away with the NL Cy Young. Going into Sunday, he boasted a 2.29 ERA and 19 wins to go with 235 strikeouts across an NL-best 235 2/3 innings. But with Kershaw torching the competition in a historic season, Cueto will have to contend with a runner-up finish in the Cy Young voting, as well as the knowledge that he singlehandedly ended the Pirates' division title dreams.
Across eight brilliant innings, Cueto stymied a red-hot Pirates team, giving up just one earned run on seven hits and striking out 10. His lone mistake was a fourth-inning four-seam fastball to Neil Walker that caught too much of the plate and was deposited several rows deep in the right-field stands at Great American Ballpark. Aside from that, he was stellar, averaging 95 on his fastball and mixing in an excellent changeup and cutter. Cueto pitched his way out of a two-on, two-out jam in the first and eighth and got around a pair of doubles by Chris Stewart in the second and fifth. In his final inning, with the score knotted at one, Cueto gave up a two-out double to Travis Snider, then plunked Andrew McCutchen with a fastball. Facing Walker again, Cueto went to his offspeed stuff, getting Walker to tap a changeup weakly to first base for the final out.
As if his work on the mound weren't enough, Cueto ended up putting the stake right into Pittsburgh's heart at the plate. In the bottom of the eighth, Jason Bourgeois ripped a leadoff triple to center field off reliever Tony Watson. Zack Cozart lined out, leaving the Reds with a runner on third, one out and Cueto up. Looking to get his starter the win, manager Bryan Price opted to leave Cueto in to hit, despite his ace's career batting line of .099/.127/.102. Cueto came through, however, poking a groundball up the middle to score Bourgeois and give Cincinnati a 2-1 lead. A homer by Kris Negron right afterward pushed the Reds' advantage to 4-1, and Aroldis Chapman pitched around a double in the ninth to secure the win.
Detroit's win and Pittsburgh's loss figuratively took the bats out of the hands of the Royals and Cardinals. For Kansas City, the Tigers' win locked it out of a division title and into the first wild-card spot, making its game against the White Sox meaningless. The Royals took that game, 6-4, spoiling the sendoff for retiring White Sox icon Paul Konerko. For St. Louis, its second straight NL Central crown was assured before the team even stepped onto the field in Arizona to play the Diamondbacks. As such, scheduled starter Adam Wainwright was scratched, as was most of the Cardinals' regular lineup, in what ended up being a 1-0 victory.
With the Central divisions settled, only one spot remained undecided: the second AL wild card. With the Athletics holding a one-game lead over the Mariners, the math was simple. If Oakland beat the Rangers in Arlington, the A's would clinch a playoff berth. If the Athletics lost and Seattle beat the Angels, there would be a 163rd game on Monday afternoon to determine the second wild-card entrant.
The A's and Mariners sent their best to the hill on Sunday, with Oakland tabbing Sonny Gray and the Mariners tossing out Felix Hernandez. Gray had been nails in his last start, striking out 12 over seven innings against the Angels. Hernandez had been torched by the Blue Jays in his worst start of the season, surrendering eight runs, four earned, in 4 2/3 innings. While King Felix was more like his usual self against Los Angeles -- he allowed only one hit in 5 1/3 scoreless frames, striking out seven -- it was Gray who went the distance for his club, shutting out the Rangers to secure Oakland's playoff berth.
Spotted to an early 2-0 lead, Gray was sensational, needing just 103 pitches to blank Texas over nine innings. He ran into his biggest spot of trouble in the fifth inning, after a Tomas Telis double and Ryan Rua infield single put men on first and third with nobody out. But Gray bounced back to strike out Luis Sardinas, and then induced a double-play groundball from Adam Rosales to end the threat. Gray allowed just two hits and a hit batter the rest of the way, finishing the day by getting Jake Smolinski to fly out to left field, for his second complete game of the season.
Oakland's win finished Seattle's season, but the Mariners went out on a high note, with Hernandez exiting the game to a massive standing ovation and earning his 15th win of the season. With the A's wrapping up their victory in the middle of Seattle's game, Hernandez was pulled, with the fans given a chance to give one last cheer for their ace and likely AL Cy Young winner. The Mariners went ahead and finished off Los Angeles, 4-1, and will go down as the final team to be eliminated from playoff contention.
With Sunday's action complete, the playoff field is set. The AL Wild Card Game will pit the Athletics against the Royals in the first postseason game at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium since 1985. The pitching matchup in that game -- Jon Lester against James Shields -- is as good as you can get for a winner-take-all matchup. In the NL, the Pirates will host a second straight Wild Card Game, as they take on the Giants and will have the unenviable task of defeating Madison Bumgarner.
Whichever teams advance from the Wild Card Game will be paired against the juggernauts of their respective leagues. The AL winner will draw a 98-win Angels team that tore the Junior Circuit apart in the second half. The NL winner has a date with the Nationals, who finished their regular season with style by no-hitting the Marlins. The other division series, meanwhile, will feature the Dodgers against the Cardinals in a 2013 NLCS rematch, and the Orioles against the Tigers.