Thursday September 24th, 2015

The AL East and AL West races may be at an end. On Wednesday night, the Blue Jays won the finale of a three-game series against the Yankees, boosting their division lead to 3 1/2 games over New York with just one week left in the season. Out west, the slumping Astros dropped the rubber match of a three-game set with the Angels, putting them three games back of the Rangers for first place ahead of an essentially winner-take-all matchup with Texas this weekend and giving Los Angeles new life in the AL wild-card chase.

Of those four AL playoff contenders, it was Toronto that helped itself the most on Wednesday. Led by seven shutout innings from Marcus Stroman and a late three-run home run by Russell Martin, the Jays took one step closer to the team’s first division title in 22 years with a 4–0 victory over the Yankees at home. That win gave Toronto two out of three in its final head-to-head matchup with New York—the Jays are 13–6 against the Yankees this season—and the aforementioned 3 1/2-game lead in the East with just 10 games left on the Jays’ schedule. The Yankees, meanwhile, saw their middle relief come up short yet again and couldn’t solve Stroman in a loss that likely consigns them to the Wild Card Game.

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For Toronto, the stellar night from Stroman (7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K) was the highlight of the win, as the young righthander continued to dominate in his unexpected return from a torn ACL. Stroman sliced his way through the Yankees’ lineup with an array of fastballs, sliders and changeups, tossing 61 strikes amid his 95 pitches and hitting 94.6 mph with his two-seamer. He allowed only one extra-base hit, a double to Dustin Ackley in the fifth, and let just two runners reach scoring position: Ackley in the fifth and Carlos Beltran in the seventh. That final inning was the closest the Yankees came to getting a run off Stroman, who walked Beltran with one out and then gave up a two-out single to Chase Headley to put runners on first and second. The next batter, Ackley, hit the ball hard but right to Kevin Pillar in centerfield to end the threat.

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With Wednesday’s game in the books, Stroman has given up just four earned runs in 19 innings to go with 10 strikeouts and four walks. More importantly, Stroman has not struggled to throw strikes, and while his velocity is down from last season, the difference isn’t severe; his average four-seam fastball was 94.4 mph in 2014 and is 93.4 so far this year (not counting Wednesday’s start). The Jays will likely find room for Stroman in their playoff rotation behind David Price, Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey. But if Stroman can’t carve out a spot in that group, then Toronto could use him to bolster a bullpen that has been shaky in September, with an ERA of 4.97 across 63 1/3 innings. With fellow young righty Aaron Sanchez being removed from late-inning work after some recent struggles (6 1/3 IP, 11 H, 5 ER, 5 BB, 3 K in September), Stroman could give the Jays a hard-throwing option against tough righthanders in high-leverage situations.

Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

As for the Yankees, they have just 11 games to try to make up a 3 1/2-game deficit—not an impossible task, but an unlikely one, especially given that the team will have no off days from here until the end of the season. Working in New York’s favor is four games left against the Red Sox, against whom the Yankees are 10–5 this year, and four matchups with the White Sox, albeit with one against Chris Sale. But Toronto’s schedule isn’t much more difficult: Six against the Rays and four against the Orioles, albeit with seven of those games on the road, where the Jays are just a .500 team.

While the Yankees are a virtual lock to win the wild card—they have a four-game lead on the Astros for the first spot and a five-game lead on the Twins for the second—the loss of the AL East will have to sting, particularly given New York’s seven-game lead in the division as recently as July 28. Since that day, the Yankees are just 26–26, as injuries and poor pitching have dragged the team down. Nathan Eovaldi’s elbow inflammation thinned the rotation and bullpen, as Adam Warren was forced into the starting five, robbing Joe Girardi of a trusted righthanded reliever. Masahiro Tanaka’s hamstring strain cost him the start for Wednesday’s must-win game, with Ivan Nova, recently banished to the bullpen, taking his turn. Nova did his part, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings before a walk to Martin ended his night, but Girardi's middle-relief options failed him, as James Pazos, Caleb Cotham and Andrew Bailey combined to give up all four Toronto runs (one charged to Nova) over the final 3 1/3 innings.

The Yankees are almost guaranteed to be in the Wild Card Game, but their opponent remains to be seen. Wednesday’s series finale between the Astros and Angels did little to clear up the mess. The rubber match of a three-game set was marked by mistakes and meltdowns on both sides and for the umpires, with the teams trading runs across the afternoon before Houston’s suddenly awful bullpen coughed up another late lead in Los Angeles’s 6–5 win. The big blow was a two-run double in the eighth inning off the bat of David Freese, who once again tortured Texas-area baseball fans with a clutch hit in the final frames and helped the Angels rally for the narrow victory.

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Freese’s game-winning hit was the latest blow struck against an Astros relief corps that has been anything but in September. Since the start of the month, Houston’s relievers have posted a ghastly 6.63 ERA in 57 innings (42 earned runs) and allowed nine homers and 20 walks over that span. On Wednesday, it was the duo of Will Harris and Pat Neshek that turned a 4–3 Astros advantage into a 6–4 deficit, with Harris starting the eighth and giving up a leadoff double to Mike Trout, then retiring Albert Pujols on a groundout before walking David Murphy. That brought out manager A.J. Hinch, who called on Neshek. The side-arming righty got C.J. Cron for the second out, but Freese lifted a 2–2 slider to left center, where it banged off the wall just beyond the reach of Colby Rasmus to score Trout and pinch-runner Collin Cowgill. An RBI single from catcher Carlos Perez gave the Angels a much-needed insurance run and ended Neshek’s day, with Tony Sipp cleaning up his mess.

The Astros’ bullpen wasn’t alone in blundering, however, as a bad mistake by the umpiring crew took Houston out of a scoring opportunity in the fifth inning. With one out and George Springer on first and Jose Altuve on third in a 3–1 game, Carlos Correa grounded a would-be double-play ball to shortstop; Springer was forced out at second, but Correa made it safely to first as Altuve scored. With two outs and a 2–1 count on Jed Lowrie, the rookie shortstop took off for second and appeared to beat Perez’s throw and the tag by Erick Aybar. Second base umpire Angel Hernandez, however, called Correa out; the Astros challenged, and replay showed that Correa had gotten in safely. But strangely, the review umpires upheld Hernandez’s original call. What should have been a runner in scoring position with two outs in a one-run game was turned into an inning-ending caught stealing.

Regardless of the blown call, Houston has only itself to blame for Wednesday’s loss and its current predicament. Amid a 7–14 September, the Astros face a do-or-die situation this weekend in a three-game series against the Rangers at home, the final head-to-head matchup between the two teams this season. Lose that series, and the Astros could be as many as six games down in the division with just six games left, essentially ending the AL West race. Win or sweep, however, and Houston would turn the last week of play into a true toss-up. The schedule should also help, as the Astros will finish the year with six games against the Mariners and Diamondbacks, while the Rangers will have seven games remaining against the Tigers and the Angels, who will likely still be fighting for a playoff spot.

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That said, as thin as the Astros’ AL West hopes are, they are no locks for the second wild card, either. The Twins’ 4–2 win over the Indians has Minnesota just a game shy of Houston for that second spot (and more or less ended Cleveland’s playoff hopes), with the Angels lurking half a game behind. A series loss to Texas, then, wouldn’t just ruin the Astros’ division chances; it could also put them in grave danger of missing the playoffs altogether.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has given itself new hope by taking two of three from Houston. The Angels still face an uphill climb thanks to those final four games with the Rangers, but before that season-ending series, Los Angeles gets six games against the Athletics and Mariners to try to make up some ground. The division is likely out of reach—the Angels are 4 1/2 back with 10 to play—but a Houston series loss to Texas would give Los Angeles a fighting chance at that second wild card, assuming the Angels can take care of the last-place A’s.

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