Ryan Zimmerman, who had an RBI double in Thursday's game, has been the face of the Nationals' franchise. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
They're starting to fill out the dance cards. On a day that featured games of significance from the early afternoon to late at night, two National League teams secured spots in the playoffs, and the league's wild-card race saw a major move that nobody would have imagined even two weeks ago. The American League was somewhat less eventful, though one of its fading stars did light up the Bronx for the second night in a row.
1. Capital Celebration
With a 4-1 win over the Dodgers, the Nationals clinched just the second playoff berth in franchise history — the first came as the Montreal Expos in 1981 — and their first since moving to Washington in 2005. It's the first time any Washington, D.C.-based baseball team has reached the postseason since 1933, when the Senators won the AL pennant with a 99-53 record, then lost to the New York Giants in a five-game World Series.
The Nationals won on Thursday by getting yet another strong start from what has been the NL's best rotation most of the season, and by taking advantage of sloppy play by their opponents. Washington scored its second run of the game when a pitch from Dodgers starter Chris Capuano squirted through the legs of catcher A.J. Ellis to the backstop, and got its fourth and final run in part because of a throwing error from Hanley Ramirez.
Four runs were plenty for Ross Detwiler, who needed just 82 pitches to work six innings. He struck out five, walked one, and allowed just three hits and the lone run — his second strong start in a row on the heels of a six-inning, one-run effort against the Braves on September 14. He netted 10 swings-and-misses in both of those games, tying his second-highest total of the season; he had 11 against the Marlins on April 20. The likely addition to the postseason rotation in the absence of Stephen Strasburg, he now has a 3.10 ERA, 0.06 lower than Strasburg, albeit with about half the strikeout rate.
The win boosted the Nationals' record to 91-58, keeping them half a game in front of the Reds for the best record in the National League and thus home field advantage for as long as they're in the playoffs (the NL won the All-Star Game, remember). With a 5 1/2 game lead over the Braves in the East, their magic number to clinch the division is eight.
As for the Dodgers, the loss was their 10th in their last 14 games. With a 10-game deficit in the NL West, their only route to the postseason is via the wild-card, but they're now fourth in that race, three games behind the Cardinals and one-half game behind the Brewers. Despite their numerous late-season upgrades, Los Angeles has scored just 2.82 runs per game in September, and has managed more than four runs just twice during that 14-game stretch.
2. Red-Letter Day
With a 5-3 win over the Cubs on Thursday afternoon, the Reds not only completed a three-game sweep of their series, they became the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season, doing so a few hours ahead of the Nats. Alas, manager Dusty Baker, who was also at the helm when the team won the NL Central in 2010, wasn't around to enjoy it. The 63-year-old has missed his team's last two games while being hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat, leaving bench coach Chris Speier to run the team.
The win wasn't exactly a typical one for the Reds, who rested many of their regulars following Wednesday night's game. After Johnny Cueto and Jason Berken matched zeroes for the first six innings, Cincinnati erupted for five runs in the seventh, with unfamiliar names like centerfielder Denis Phipps, shortstop Didi Gregorius, leftfielder Xavier Paul and second baseman Henry Rodriguez figuring in the scoring.
Joey Votto, who pinch-hit for Cueto, did interject an air of familiarity via an RBI single before yielding to a pinch-runner. Since missing 49 games due to a torn meniscus that required two surgeries, Votto had started 12 straight games at first base before taking a breather on Thursday. Despite the layoff, he has gotten back into the swing of things, hitting .325/.509/.425 in 55 plate appearances; that's four doubles and no homers but 14 walks (four intentional) against just seven strikeouts. Since his return, Todd Frazier, who filled in so ably at first base during Votto's absence, has started eight games at third base, while Scott Rolen has started five; the latter missed four games due to the protrusion of two discs in his lower back earlier this month.
Cueto's six innings weren't exactly sterling -- he walked four and allowed five hits while striking out two -- but he did finish with his first quality start since August 28; he had yielded 14 runs and four homers in 15 1/3 innings over his previous three starts. The righty notched his 18th win, tying him with R.A. Dickey for second in the league, and he lowered his ERA to 2.84, which ranks fourth behind Dickey (2.67), Clayton Kershaw (2.70) and Kyle Lohse (2.71). Though he trails Dickey by 46 strikeouts — meaning that the knuckleballing Met has done a greater share of the heavy lifting — Cueto actually came in leading him in terms of Baseball-Reference.com's WAR, 5.2 to 4.9. A big reason for that is ballpark; Great American inflates scoring by six percent, while Citi Field reduces it by five percent.
With a 91-59 record, the Reds have an MLB-high 11-game lead in the NL Central. Their magic number to clinch the division title is two. The bigger suspense involves whether they can secure home field advantage throughout the postseason by finishing with a better record than the Nationals, whom they trail by half a game.
3. Tales of Tiger Woe
Back in the Hot Stove season, when the Tigers decided to sign Prince Fielder and shift Miguel Cabrera to third base, there was plenty of fretting about how bad the team's defense — particularly the infield — might be. While Cabrera has been better than expected at the hot corner, the team came into Thursday with the league's worst defensive efficiency at .676, 19 runs below average. On Thursday against Oakland, it was their outfield defense contributing a couple of misplays amid a four-run sixth inning that broke the game open.
With A's trailing 3-2 with one out in the sixth, Yoenis Cespedes singled off Anibal Sanchez. When Tigers rookie rightfielder Avisail Garcia missed cutoff man Omar Infante on Brandon Moss' double into the corner, Cespedes scored the tying run and Moss took third. Following a strikeout of Chris Carter, an intentional walk of Seth Smith and an RBI single by Josh Donaldson, Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson misplayed George Kottaras' line drive into a two-run triple.
Prior to that, back in the third inning, second baseman Omar Infante made a throwing error that allowed the A's to score a run. With one out and runners on first and second, Stephen Drew hit a one-hopper to Infante, who stepped on second for the forceout, then threw wildly past Fielder at first base and into foul territory. Infante was acquired just prior to the trading deadline in an effort to shore up both the replacement-level offense and subpar defense provided at the keystone by the Ryan Raburn/Ramon Santiago/Danny Worth trio. Alas, he hasn't been much help, hitting just .250/.275/.367 and making nine errors in 49 games — one more than he had made in 83 games with Miami; the team's defensive efficiency has barely budged.
How much has bad defense cost the Tigers? Based on the number of balls in play allowed by their pitching staff, the difference between their conversion rate and the league average one was 68 plays headed into Thursday's action. The marginal value of turning one ball in play from an out into a hit in such a context — some of them doubles and triples as well as singles — is roughly 0.8 runs, according to Baseball Prospectus' Colin Wyers (it was around 0.7 back in 1968, and up to 0.9 in 2000, when offense was at its recent peak). By that measure, the Tigers' defense has cost the team about 54 runs (68 x 0.8), which equates to about five and a half wins. For a team that's now six games back of a wild-card spot, that's hardly trivial. There's already a rumor floating around that manager Jim Leyland may be done in Detroit, but the team's defensive shortcomings are more on the man who will make that decision, namely general manager Dave Dombrowski. If anyone's job should be threatened, it's his.
4. As Mark Twain Would Say…
Reports of the demise of Ichiro Suzuki — and the New York Yankees — have been greatly exaggerated. Building on Wednesday's 7-for-8, 4-steal showing in a doubleheader, Suzuki went 2-for-4 with a double, a homer and three RBIs as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays 10-7, securing their fifth straight win. The homer, a solo shot in the third, cut the Blue Jays' early 2-0 lead in half, and the double, a bases-loaded job, plated the first two runs in what would become a seven-run fourth inning thanks to Nick Swisher's grand slam, blowing the ballgame wide open.
While Suzuki's overall line (.279/.304/.386) is still nothing to write home about, the 38-year-old leftfielder is now batting .321/.341/.464 as a Yankee, with his four homers in 177 PA in pinstripes matching the four he hit in 423 PA with the Mariners. The five-game winning streak is the Yankees' longest since their five-game streak from June 23-27. The win, their ninth in 13 games dating back to September 5, gave the team a one-game lead over the Orioles in the AL East; the O's were idle on the day. New York hasn't held a lead larger than one game since the close of play on September 2, when it was up by two games.
5. Still Brewin'/Still Sinkin'
Milwaukee's unlikely bid for a wild card spot gained a bit more credibility on Thursday with a wild 9-7 win over the Pirates that gave the Brewers their 23rd victory in 29 games dating back to August 20. In conjunction with the Dodgers' loss to the Nationals, the Brewers are now in third place in the wild-card standings, 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals. Not since they were 4-2 at the close of play on April 11 have they been in such a strong position.
It almost didn't happen. After jumping out to an early 4-0 lead keyed by Aramis Ramirez's two-run homer, they surrendered seven unanswered runs to the Pirates from the third to the sixth inning, chasing starter Mike Fiers after just three frames. Trailing 7-4 through seven innings, they erupted for four runs in the eighth via an RBI double by Nori Aoki, a two-run triple by Richie Weeks and a single by Ramirez.
The rally started on reliever Chad Qualls' watch, which reflected a poor decision by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "Qualls is the guy that has pitched more eighth-inning contests than anybody in that bullpen," said Hurdle to reporters after the game in justification for using a pitcher who came in having been lit for a 5.07 ERA in 49 2/3 innings to protect the three-run lead. He further justified it by pointing to Qualls' performance against righty hitters since being traded from the Yankees, a sample size that amounted to all of 26 plate appearances. For the year, Qualls has yielded an unremarkable .263/.302/.373 line against righties, though to be fair, the only righty relievers Hurdle has on hand who have done better against same-siders are Jared Hughes (.201/.281/.359), who had already been used in the game, and Jeff Karstens (.266/.297/.385), who had thrown three innings the day before.
The loss, the Pirates' third in a row and 15th in their last 19 games, knocked them to 74-75, the first time since May 23 that they've been under .500. They're now tied for sixth in the NL wild card race, 5 1/2 games back, and suddenly their first winning season since 1992 is anything but an inevitability. Their next seven games are soft as far as the schedule goes, but they must travel to face the Astros and Mets before hosting the Reds and Braves at home to end the regular season.