The longshots have faded, and the early-season flukes have fizzled out. The six-month dogfight is nearly done, and only the strongest teams have survived.
This week’s four featured teams are all either contenders to watch or potentially dangerous spoilers. The Athletics end the season with a four-game series that could decide one American League West contender’s fate. The Marlins have their own chance to play spoiler but must also wrestle with how to handle their two superstars. The Cardinals need a big finishing kick to topple their wild-card opponents. The Indians are closing in on a division title, but their starting rotation is falling apart.
Two weeeeeeeks. It’s Week 24 of The 30.
Best Prolonged Ted Williams Impression: Joey Votto
He’s not going to win MVP or even finish in the top five, and his team, yet again, is absolutely terrible. Hell, we’ve already sung his praises in this space earlier this season. No matter: We’re going to talk about Joey Votto anyway—again.
The four-time All-Star and one-time MVP started this season in uncharacteristic fashion, batting just .229/.327/.313 in April and .200/.333/.484 in May. He warmed up with the June weather, batting .319/.466/.549 that month. But it wasn’t until the start of July that he truly burst into flames: Since the start of that month, Votto’s hitting .398/.493/.619 in 67 games. That’s nearly three months of flirting with the magical .400 mark, something no hitter has done over a full season in 75 years.
That’s not the only way Votto has evoked the Splendid Splinter this year. According to baseball statistician and author Joel Luckhaupt, Votto is trying to become the first everyday player to bat .390 or better in three straight calendar months during the same season since ... Ted Williams in 1941.
After batting .413 in July and .394 in August, Votto’s .387 mark in September makes him a long shot to achieve that goal. Even if he falls a little short, though, we are watching one of the greatest hitters in recent baseball history at the height of his powers. Votto being a bit of a loon to boot only adds to the mystique.
Finally, A Davis Worth Celebrating In Oakland
Khris Davis has become a lethal power threat, giving the A’s spoiler potential down the stretch.
30. Minnesota Twins (55–95 record, minus-144 run differential, last week: 30)
29. Atlanta Braves (58–91, minus-151, LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (63–86, minus-144, LW: 28)
27. Cincinnati Reds (63–86, minus-131, LW: 26)
26. San Diego Padres (62–87, minus-87, LW: 25)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (67–83, minus-154, LW: 24)
24. Oakland A’s (66–83, minus-89, LW: 27)
23. Los Angeles Angels (65–84, minus-38, LW: 22)
22. Tampa Bay Rays (64–85, minus-22, LW: 23)
21. Milwaukee Brewers (68–82, minus-52, LW: 21)
Oakland is on its way to a second straight losing season since the Josh Donaldson fiasco trade, with a chance to lose 90 for the second straight time. But the A's have a real chance to play spoiler down the stretch, with a three-game set at home against wild card-chasing Houston starting Monday and a four-game series against another wild-card contender, Seattle, to end the season.
If you’re one of those playoff hopeful opponents, you’re racking your brain right now trying to figure out how to pitch to Khris Davis. The 28-year-old leftfielder blasted two home runs in Oakland’s 5–2 win over the Rangers on Sunday, giving him five round-trippers and 13 RBIs in his past seven games. It also made him the fourth player this season to reach the 40-home run mark.
Our friends at TruMedia offer the details on Davis’s hot zones. In short, he profiles like a stereotypical power hitter, annihilating pitches down and in, as well down the middle of the plate high, low, or middle-middle. Pound him low and away, though, and he hits like a blindfolded Jon Lester.
Other than Davis and surprisingly red-hot rookie Ryon Healy, A's hitters have mostly been pushovers for the past several weeks. But if the top three hitters in Oakland's lineup can get on base, the Astros and Mariners could end up watching helplessly as a bunch of Earl Weaver Specials leave the yard.
To Spoil, Or Not To Spoil
That is the question for the Marlins, who must decide whether or not to shut down their two star players.
20. Chicago White Sox (72–77, minus-29, LW: 20)
19. Colorado Rockies (72–77, plus-14, LW: 19)
18. Miami Marlins (74–75, minus-11, LW: 17)
17. Pittsburgh Pirates (74–75, minus-4, LW: 18)
16. Kansas City Royals (76–73, minus-32, LW: 16)
The best remaining playoff battle might be the National League wild-card race, with three teams that are separated by just two games vying for two spots. All other NL wild-card hopefuls are all but eliminated at this point. That includes the Marlins, who now face some tough decisions.
Currently trailing the Giants by five games for the second wild-card spot (and also behind the Cardinals in that chase), the Fish would need to go on a monumental run to have any kind of a shot. That creates some tough decisions when it comes to figuring out how to handle Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez.
Stanton returned from a bad groin injury on Sept. 6. He logged just a single at-bat in that game, as well as the next two; didn’t play in three of the following five games; and again stepped to the plate just once on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13. He drew a pair of walks and scored a run in last week’s series opener against the Phillies, sat again for Saturday’s game and then again managed just a single pinch-hit appearance on Sunday. Already unable to resume his regular duties as Miami’s everyday rightfielder and middle-of-the-order masher, he could get shut down soon. With Miami set to host the Mets for a three-game set in the second-to-last series of the season, a hobbled Stanton might not around to get into those games.
The decision gets trickier when it comes to Fernandez. The Marlins' ace has been a strikeout machine this season, punching out 241 batters in 174 2/3 innings. Even after giving up four runs or more in three of his past six starts, he remains Miami’s best chance to shut down the opposition (by a mile) and a Cy Young candidate.
The potential good news for the Mets is that a shutdown of another kind might be coming. Two weeks ago, reporters asked Marlins manager Don Mattingly if the team might put an early end to Fernandez's season should Miami’s quest for the playoffs fizzle out, given that this is his first full season following Tommy John surgery (as well as the importance of keeping the big righthander healthy for future seasons). “Absolutely,” Mattingly replied. “We'll look at that as it goes. Obviously, we've been paying attention to his innings all along.”
Granted, Fernandez facing New York next week might take some schedule reshuffling. Still, if you’re a Mets fan, you might want to hold your nose and root for the Nationals for the next three nights. If Washington can finish off the Marlins in the series that starts tonight at Marlins Park, Miami will likely send its two best players to the golf course before that potentially pivotal Mets matchup.
The Cardinals’ playoff chances could hinge on the right arms of two rookies.
15. New York Yankees (77–72, minus-19, LW: 13)
14. Houston Astros (78–71, plus-43, LW: 15)
13. Detroit Tigers (79–70, plus-1, LW: 10)
12. St. Louis Cardinals (78–71, plus-63, LW: 11)
11. San Francisco Giants (79–70, plus-64, LW: 9)
10. Seattle Mariners (79–70, plus-52, LW: 14)
9. New York Mets (80–69, plus-26, LW: 12)
8. Toronto Blue Jays (81–68, plus-75, LW: 7)
7. Baltimore Orioles (82–67, plus-27, LW: 8)
Facing their biggest game of the season, baseball’s winningest team of the past half-decade turned to a 22-year-old righty making just the third start of his major league career. Alex Reyes rose to the challenge, firing seven innings of four-hit shutout ball en route to a 3–0 Cardinals victory. That win salvaged a series split against the Giants, leaving St. Louis within striking distance of a playoff spot with two weeks to go in the season.
Reyes is one of two rookie starters who could decide the Cards’ fate from here. The top pitching prospect in the organization and arguably the best in all of baseball, Reyes missed the first 50 games of the season due to a suspension for marijuana use. This was a misguided and downright stupid penalty given how other transgressions are handled in baseball, but also no big surprise for a sport that hangs its minor leaguers out to dry without the protection of a union. When Reyes returned, he struck out seemingly everyone in sight, with 93 punchouts in 65 1/3 innings at Triple A Memphis. But he also walked a batter every other inning and ran into enough trouble to push his ERA to 4.96, suggesting he might not be ready for the Show.
In this case, necessity became the mother of invention. With Lance Lynn out for the season, Michael Wacha hurt and Jaime Garcia demoted to the bullpen, the Cardinals have leaned increasingly heavily on Reyes, first relying on him to pitch in big spots late in games as a reliever, then slotting him into the rotation to take Garcia’s place. The gambit has paid off in a big way: Reyes’s dominant performance Sunday lowered his ERA to 1.03 in 35 2/3 innings with the Cardinals. He’s still walking a batter every other inning, but he’s also fanned 40 and has been nearly unhittable when throwing his two best pitches, his fastball and changeup.
Though Luke Weaver wasn’t as highly touted as Reyes, he came with a strong pedigree of his own, as the Cards’ first-round pick in the 2014 draft. His minor league numbers this season were far more impressive, though: 92 strikeouts, just 12 walks and four homers allowed in 83 innings in Double and Triple A with a combined 1.30 ERA. Called up last month, Weaver showed flashes of brilliance, including a four-start stretch in which he allowed just seven runs in 22 innings with 30 strikeouts and just five walks. But his most recent start at AT&T Park on Friday night was a disaster—a six-run beatdown that chased Weaver from the game after 2 2/3 innings. The question now for the Cardinals is whether this was a one-game aberration (caused in part by an errant Yadier Molina throw) or if Weaver now being past his career high in innings pitched is reason for concern.
We’ll have our answers soon enough. Both Reyes and Weaver could make two more starts between now and season’s end, with the latter's next turn coming at the house of horrors that is Coors Field and the former due to face the best-in-baseball Cubs at Wrigley Field. If the rookies can hold their own in those four remaining starts, toppling the Giants or Mets to win a wild card could be attainable. If not, the longest current stretch of consecutive playoff berths by any team could be about to end.
The Cookie Crumbles
Carlos Carrasco’s season-ending injury casts a potential dream season into doubt.
6. Los Angeles Dodgers (84–65, plus-79, LW: 6)
5. Cleveland Indians (86–63, plus-103, LW: 3)
4. Boston Red Sox (85–64, plus-176, LW: 5)
3. Texas Rangers (88–62, plus-8, LW: 4)
2. Washington Nationals (88–61, plus-149, LW: 2)
1. Chicago Cubs (94–55, plus-224, LW: 1)
It happened almost immediately, on the second pitch of the game. When an Ian Kinsler line drive struck Carlos Carrasco on his pitching hand, it cost the Indians one of their best pitchers for the rest of the regular season, as well as the playoffs. The reaction was swift and brutal: According to one long-time Indians beat writer, Cleveland’s postseason dreams had ended before the playoffs had even begun.
Though Cleveland Plain Dealer scribe Paul Hoynes’s prediction might have seemed a bit harsh, that pessimism wasn’t entirely unfounded. Carrasco’s injury, coupled with a Danny Salazar forearm injury that’s knocked that electric righthander out for the rest of the regular season and very possibly longer, leaves the Indians with just one reliably better-than-average starter: Corey Kluber.
Indians fans got a glimpse of their potential postseason future the day after the Carrasco injury. Facing the Tigers on Sunday, Trevor Bauer was horribly wild, hitting three Detroit batters in the first two-plus innings and surrendering six runs on 10 hits over 5 2/3 frames for the day. That performance came hours after Bauer called Hoynes a coward for taking a scheduled day off from the beat on Sunday, right after his doomsday comments about the team.
With command problems long holding back what many thought might be a path to stardom, it’s fair to wonder if Bauer might get smoked by tough opponents in, say, Boston or Texas if he’s the team’s default No. 2 starter. All of that ignores what the Tribe might do with the rest of its rotation too. Josh Tomlin is a home-run dispensary, having served up 35 long balls in 153 1/3 innings this year with a 4.75 ERA. Cody Anderson figures to take Carrasco’s spot in the rotation, and he’s posted a sky-high 6.24 ERA. Rookie righthander Mike Clevinger has been somewhat better, though with 25 walks in 45 1/3 major league innings, plus potential workload concerns, he’s hardly a reliable option himself. What was once arguably the best rotation in the AL now looks like little more than Corey Kluber-and-pray-for-an-Uber (to speed you far away from the beatdowns the team’s staff might soon endure).
Now for the good news. The Indians still slammed the door on Detroit’s division hopes, taking two out of three to extend Cleveland’s lead to seven games with just 13 left to play. They’ve withstood other key losses this year, with Jose Ramirez doing a spot-on impression of Michael Brantley following his season-ending injury and an improved bullpen picking up the slack for the short-handed rotation. Saturday’s game showed off the contributions of both, with the 'pen tossing 10 shutout innings to pick up Carrasco and Ramirez winning it on a walk-off single in the bottom of the 10th, setting a new individual record with 22,816 walk-off hits this season (approximately).
Cleveland's deadline deal for Andrew Miller—and manager Terry Francona using Miller as a Swiss army knife to be deployed in the toughest high-leverage situations, rather than as a traditional closer—gives the Indians an advantage no other playoff team can match. Once regarded as arguably the team’s biggest weakness, the fortified bullpen now becomes the Indians’ greatest hope for overcoming the rotation’s multiple holes, and for raising championship hopes yet again in Cleveland.