Monday September 7th, 2015

Monday’s national holiday provided some afternoon baseball that was particularly relevant to the East division races in both leagues, with the two New York teams coming from behind to gain ground in their respective races.

1. Mets down Nationals

After losing two out of three to the Marlins in Miami while the Nationals completed a four-game sweep of the Braves, the Mets entered the day with just a four-game division lead, their smallest since Aug. 20, as well as a swirl of controversy over Matt Harvey’s usage plan for the remainder of the season. In their biggest game since the end of the 2008 season, they gave themselves—and Harvey, who’s scheduled to start on Tuesday with all eyes upon him—some extra breathing room via an 8–5 victory in Washington, as their revamped offense picked up the struggling Jon Niese and roughed up Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

Scherzer entered the start on something less than a roll, having managed just two quality starts out of his last five turns while allowing eight homers and 19 runs in 28 innings despite a 38–4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He quickly got into trouble, as Jayson Werth lost leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson’s fly ball in the sun, resulting in a ground-rule double. Granderson took third two pitches later via a wild pitch, but Scherzer managed to strand him thanks to a shallow fly out and a pair of strikeouts. He wasn’t so lucky in the second, as both Michael Conforto and Kelly Johnson clubbed solo homers, their sixth and fourth since joining the team in late July. Yoenis Cespedes added another in the third with a shot that bounced off the top of the leftfield wall, necessitating a review by the umpires:

The homer was Cespedes’s fifth in six September games and 13th since being acquired on July 31. That’s third in the majors in that time frame behind the RockiesCarlos Gonzalez and the OriolesChris Davis, each with 15.

Scherzer wasn’t the only pitcher who couldn’t keep the ball in the park. Niese, who had worked around a pair of hits and a pair of walks in the first three frames, allowed the first three batters to reach in the fourth, then served up a grand slam to Wilson Ramos, giving Washington a 4–3 lead. The lefty couldn’t stop the bleeding, yielding another run via a Michael Taylor single, Scherzer’s sacrifice bunt and a Werth double. That spelled the end of his day, and swelled his ERA over his last four starts to 10.53.

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The Mets clawed their way back against the struggling Scherzer, however, with Ruben Tejada and Granderson each doubling to net a run in the fifth and then Cespedes doubling, taking third on a balk and coming around to score the tying run in the sixth. They rallied for three more against a parade of four Nationals relievers in the seventh, with Casey Janssen serving up the tiebreaking single to David Wright that just evaded the outstretched glove of Ian Desmond, and then Matt Thornton yielding a sacrifice fly to Daniel Murphy and an RBI double to Cespedes.

For as lousy as Niese was, the Mets bullpen sparkled, with Carlos Torres, Erik Goeddel, Dario Alvarez, Hansel Robles and Jeurys Familia combining for 5 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and one walk while striking out nine. Torres, who yielded three of the four base runners, left after straining his left calf while fielding a ground ball and is likely to miss some time. Alvarez, a 26-year-old lefty with all of four previous major-league appearances under his belt, faced just one batter, but it was a big one, as he came back from a 3–0 count to strike out Bryce Harper to end the sixth. He, Goeddel and Robles, all rookies, combined to set down every one of the 10 batters they faced. Alvarez, Niese and Familia all whiffed Harper, who had just one three-strikeout game over the Nationals’ previous 46.

With the victory, the Mets’ NL East lead is back to five games, and the Nationals’ five-game winning streak is history. New York’s magic number to clinch its first division title since 2006 is down to 21.

2. Bird beats Birds

Continuing his strong work in place of the injured Mark Teixeira, 22-year-old rookie first baseman Greg Bird clubbed a tiebreaking three-run homer in the seventh inning, one of three homers the Yankees hit en route to an 8–6 win over the Orioles in the Bronx.

Baltimore struck first via the long ball, however. After the Yankees scratched out a first-inning run off Wei-Yin Chen via a trio of singles, Michael Pineda served up a towering three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the top of the second. Despite missing a two-and-a-half months due to a right knee sprain, the 23-year-old Schoop has shown signs of living up to his top prospect billing, hitting 12 homers in 236 plate appearances while batting .283/.311/.502 overall.

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The Orioles added another run in the frame via a hit-by-pitch, a bunt single, a sacrifice bunt and a Manny Machado infield single off the glove of Yankees third baseman Chase Headley that scored Nolan Reimold. Baltimore would have had another run had shortstop Didi Gregorius not picked up the deflection and made a strong throw home to nail Ryan Flaherty for the second out. After a Gerardo Parra double that sent Machado to third, Pineda didn’t escape until Adam Jones lined out to Headley. But for as shaky as that inning was for Pineda, he didn’t allow a run outside of it, holding the Orioles to just one hit and one walk in the process.

A throwing error by Flaherty on a Headley grounder to lead off the third came back to bite the O's, as Chris Young, who had driven in the Yankees’ first inning run, doubled home Headley to trim the lead to 4–2. The Yankees took the lead in the fifth when Alex Rodriguez led off with a solo shot and John Ryan Murphy added a two-run homer following Chen’s two-out walk of Bird. It was Rodriguez’s 29th homer of the year and third in four games; he appears to have emerged from his dog-days slump by going 8 for 29 with eight RBIs in his last eight games. For Murphy, it was just his third homer of the year but his second in his last three games.

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A seventh-inning solo homer by Machado (his 27th of the year) off Justin Wilson tied the game at 5–5, but in the bottom of the frame, reliever Jorge Rondon issued a leadoff walk to Carlos Beltran and then a single to Young, his third hit of the day. Manager Buck Showalter summoned lefty Brian Matusz to face the lefty-swinging Bird, who sent a hanging 0–2 curve into the Yankees bullpen for his fifth homer in 22 games since being recalled. Filling in for Teixeira, whose deep bone bruise on his right shin is so severe that he was put on the disabled list last Friday, Bird has hit a respectable .263/.345/.500.

Despite the crushing blow, the Orioles made it interesting against relievers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. They loaded the bases with a trio of walks against the former, who needed a trio of strikeouts to escape unharmed, the last of which came as Caleb Joseph swung through a hanging slider and then broke his bat in frustration. They did manage a run against the latter via Steve Pearce’s two-out walk, advancement to second on defensive indifference and an RBI single by Chris Davis, but Miller fanned Jimmy Paredes to end the game, giving the Yankees (77–59) their eighth win in their last 10 games. With the Blue Jays’ loss to the Red Sox, New York is just a half-game behind Toronto in the AL East, while the Orioles (65–72) are in free fall, having lost 15 of 18 to slip into a last-place tie with Boston.

3. Buehrle chased early

The streaking Blue Jays have been almost unstoppable since late July. They came into Monday having won 28 out of 35, but the Red Sox stopped them in their tracks thanks to a barrage of 17 hits, including nine off Toronto starter Mark Buehrle over 3 1/3 innings. Red-hot Jackie Bradley Jr. went 4 for 4 with a double and a homer from the ninth spot in the batting order, and each Boston starter collected at least one hit to back Rick Porcello in an 11-4 rout.

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The Jays got on the board first thanks to Josh Donaldson’s first inning solo homer, his 37th of the year, but the Sox tied the game in the second via a David Ortiz double, a Travis Shaw single and a Rusney Castillo sacrifice fly. Bradley led off the third with a single and came around to score on a Xander Bogaerts groundout, with Ortiz adding an RBI double to give Boston a 3–1 lead. It extended in the fourth via singles by Castillo, Brock Holt and Bradley, the last of whom brought home Castillo and served as the coup de grâce in Buehrle’s shortest start since Aug. 10, 2014 against the Tigers. Reliever Aaron Loup allowed an infield single to Mookie Betts which plated Holt, extending the lead to 5–1.

Justin Smoak hit a solo homer off Porcello to lead off the fifth, his 14th of the season, but Bradley's two-run homer off reliever Ryan Tepera upped the lead to 7–2. Bogaerts added an RBI double later in the inning, and Bradley would add an RBI double in the seventh, with Shaw's two-run homer capping Boston's scoring.

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The 25-year-old Bradley now has 17 hits in his last 10 games, 10 of which have been for extra bases. After bouncing back and forth between Triple A Pawtucket and Boston for the first four months of the season, he’s now hitting .312/.385/.631 with eight homers in 161 PA, and the Sox appear committed to a future with him in the outfield along with Betts and Castillo. Thanks in part to his hot bat, the Sox have won 13 of their last 19, climbing from 14 games below .500 to seven below at 65–72.

One note on Buehrle: the 36-year-old lefty is vying for his 15th straight season with at least 200 innings pitched, but reaching that plateau can’t be taken for granted. He’s at 174 1/3, and given that the team has 25 games remaining, he presumably has five starts left. Given that he’s totaled just 26 1/3 innings over his last five turns, chances are that he’ll make it, but with another early exit and the possibility of being skipped or pushed back to provide extra rest and restore his flagging velocity, the streak could be in jeopardy.

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