This year’s playoff race continues to be something of a war of attrition. But close races are close races, even if they’re just races back down toward .500.
Strike it Rick
Oops. It looks like Ben Cherington was pretty good at his job, after all. That the 2011 draft class he helped choose as Red Sox assistant GM has been successful (centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., first round, 7.7 WAR; rightfielder Mookie Betts, fifth, 16.6; third baseman Travis Shaw, ninth, 3.8) is no surprise, but even most of the big contracts that drove him out of town seem to be panning out. Most notably, Hanley Ramirez (four years, $88 million) has an .881 OPS while playing an unexpectedly adequate first base and proving he's a clubhouse leader. Meanwhile, righthander Rick Porcello has rebounded from a year in which he found himself in the top 10 in the AL in hits allowed, home runs allowed and losses to be the Red Sox’ best pitcher this season.
On Monday night, Porcello, the 10th-most efficient pitcher in the league by pitches per inning (15.4), completed nine innings in 89 pitches, the fewest in baseball this season, as Boston dispatched the Orioles 5–2 to pull ahead by a season-high four games in the AL East. (Baltimore, 16–17 since it last met the Red Sox—a two-game sweep in mid-August—is tied for second in the division as well as tied for the wild-card lead.) Porcello, the MLB win leader and major league K/BB leader (5.759), picked up win No. 21. and made this his 11th start without issuing a walk, while striking out seven.
“Today was Ricky Porcello’s night,” said catcher Sandy Leon simply after the game.
In fact, it’s been Porcello’s season. After 2015 had talking heads wondering how Cherington could have handed him $82.5 million over four years before he ever threw a pitch for the team, he’s more than proved them wrong. Although his peripherals haven't changed too much since last year, it seems he’s executing a lot better than he did in the past. He’s a Cy Young Award favorite who has provided welcome consistency among a Red Sox rotation with a 4.31 ERA, second worst among division leaders. All in all, according to FanGraphs' value metric, which places the worth of a win at about $8 million for this year, Porcello has been worth $36.2 million in ’16 alone.
Maybe it’s time to forgive Cherington for Pablo Sandoval, too.
Not Looking (San) Frantastic
The Giants dropped a stunner to the Dodgers, taking a 1–0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, only to lose it on four straight hits to open the frame. Rightfielder Hunter Pence’s horrified face when he realized he had not gotten his glove around Adrian Gonzalez’s walk-off double seemed to capture the zeitgeist of his team and fan base. It was San Francisco’s ninth loss this year when leading after eight innings. The team lost seven such games during the 2014 and ’15 seasons combined.
The loss gave the Giants a 4–6 record over their last 10, which, for a team that has otherwise gone 18–32 since the All-Star break, might as well be cause for celebration.
The game didn’t exactly carry all the drama of the 1951 playoff series, as Los Angeles now leads the division by six games, but the bitter rivals did find one opportunity to clear the benches. In one of the lamer confrontations this year, rightfielder Yasiel Puig ended the seventh with a groundout to pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who immediately started jawing at him. To be fair, these two have history—Bumgarner took offense to a Puig bat flip in early 2014, and the bases cleared later that year when Bumgarner hit Puig with a pitch—but in general it’s been a pretty boring conflict.
Even Vin Scully sounded a little bewildered as he tried to lip-read. “So we have one saying, ‘Don’t look at me!’ and one saying, ‘What are you gonna do to me?’” he said as seemingly every one of the combined 72 players on the teams’ September rosters congregated on the field. "Oookay, we are going to the eighth inning.”
(Right after the fight, manager Bruce Bochy removed Bumgarner, who had completed seven one-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout innings on only 97 pitches, so maybe Puig is just a genius.)
The loss, combined with a win by the Cardinals, brought San Francisco into a deadlock with St. Louis for the second wild card spot. With 13 games remaining for the Giants against teams with a combined record of .509, the two may not be tied for much longer.
The Mariners’ 3–2 loss to the Blue Jays, a team they are chasing in the wild-card hunt, was less shocking, but no less heartbreaking. It looked early on as though a single base hit would qualify as a success, as Toronto righty Marco Estrada took a no-hitter into the seventh, but Seattle was able to make things interesting when centerfielder Leonys Martin hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. Pinch-hitter Ben Gamel promptly struck out looking on four pitches to put an end to things.
The Mariners, who had increased their playoff odds by 10.7%, to 23.2%, over the past week as they rattled off an eight-game win streak, have two more chances to take down the Blue Jays. They’ll need to do that and get a little help from the teams ahead of them to stay alive into October—after tonight’s loss, which puts them three games behind Toronto with 12 to play, they no longer control their own destiny.