Weekend watch: Pen-ultimatum for fading contenders like Dodgers, Angels
With only one more weekend to go in the regular season after this one, time is running out for some of the contenders to make their moves.
Los Angeles Dodgers (77-73) at Cincinnati Reds (91-57)
The Reds clinched a playoff spot on Thursday, their magic number to clinch the NL Central is down to two, and they're just half a game behind the Nationals for the league's best record. They're also hoping to have manager Dusty Baker back in the dugout on Friday night after missing the last two games while being hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. While Cincinnati is sitting pretty, the Dodgers are on the ropes, with a 4-10 skid having increased their deficit in the NL West to double digits and bumped them below the Brewers in the wild-card standings. With Clayton Kershaw sidelined due to a hip injury and Chad Billingsley done for the year, they're working with a makeshift rotation, with Joe Blanton, Stephen Fife and Aaron Harang the best they can muster for what amounts to a must-win series. Blanton has been torched for a 6.07 ERA in eight turns since being acquired from the Phillies, largely due to his allowing 1.4 homers per nine; not helping matters is the regression of his walk rate, which has shot from 1.2 with the Phils to 2.9 with the Dodgers. Fife, a 25-year-old rookie with all of four starts under his belt, whiffed nine in his last turn in place of Kershaw, but his 2.49 ERA is a mirage given a 16/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 2/3 innings. Harang is working on short rest after lasting just 4 1/3 innings in his last outing; he hasn't thrown on three days' rest since he was with the Reds on May 29, 2008, just after Baker used him for four innings of relief work, a stretch that Harang blames for the subsequent arm troubles that have turned him from an effective workhorse to a shaky proposition.
Every bit as big a problem for Los Angeles is an offense that's scoring less than three runs per game this month. Adrian Gonzalez (.245/.299/.378 since being acquired) hasn't homered since his first plate appearance as a Dodger, Shane Victorino (.225/.298/.303 since being acquired) has been worse than a Tony Gwynn Jr./Bobby Abreu tandem, Hanley Ramirez (.239/.271/.388 in September) has cooled off at the wrong time, and Matt Kemp is in the throes of a 10-for-65 slump since injuring his left shoulder in a collision with the wall in Colorado on August 28. He did hit a game-winning homer against the Nationals on Wednesday night, and has five hits over his last four games, so perhaps the shoulder is finally healing. And perhaps he can give advice to A.J. Ellis (.152/.250/.174 this month), who appears to have hit his own wall due to fatigue from career highs in games (123) and plate appearances (466).
Despite losing their last two games to the Royals, the White Sox are in reasonably good shape, with a two-game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central. Perhaps the Sox are looking too far ahead right now; the big news out of the South Side is the pending promotions of Kenny Williams to club president and Rick Hahn to general manager, and the leak of the news that they've decided not to pick up Jake Peavy's $22 million option for 2013. Not that Peavy is worth that kind of money anymore; he has put up a 3.26 ERA and 8.0 strikeouts per nine while throwing 198 2/3 innings this year, but he's still coming off a four-year stretch in which he averaged just 20 starts and 124 innings while battling myriad injuries. He'll get paid by somebody, no doubt — just not at the superstar level to which he has become accustomed. Elsewhere in the series, Jose Quintana takes the ball on Saturday; he has just one quality start out of his last five, a span during which he has been lit for an 8.06 ERA while averaging just 4.5 innings per start. Gavin Floyd, who goes Sunday, has had an up-and-down season due to elbow woes; his seven-inning, two-run outing against the Royals earlier this week was just his second quality start since the end of July.
As for the Angels, they're nearing the point of desperation; with losses in their last two games against the Rangers, they've fallen 4 1/2 back in the wild-card race, and 8 1/2 back in the AL West. Mike Trout (.257/.350/.371 this month) is flagging at the wrong time, and likewise for Albert Pujols (.243/.284/.414), but their starting pitching does appear to have straightened itself out lately. Friday's starter, Ervin Santana, has five quality starts out of his last six to lower his ERA from 5.92 to 5.08, though with seven homers allowed over that 40-inning stretch, his performance is as precarious as ever. Dan Haren, who goes on Saturday, hasn't allowed more than three runs in a game since August 16, and has issued just four walks in that 30 2/3 inning span, though he has fallen short of the six-inning mark twice in five turns. Jered Weaver has delivered two strong seven-inning efforts against the A's and Rangers since being scratched due to biceps tendinitis.
Oakland A's (85-64) at New York Yankees (86-63)
Despite losing three straight earlier this week, the ever-resilient A's — who lost Brett Anderson for the remainder of the regular season on Wednesday night — come into this series tied for the AL wild card lead, and are still keeping pressure on the Rangers in the AL West, where they trail by four games. They're not exactly firing on all cylinders, having been outscored 72-64 this month despite putting up a 10-7 record. Their offense is hitting a mere .231/.308/.388 since the calendar turned, with Chris Carter (.147/.293/.353) and Josh Reddick (.179/.222/.269) slumping miserably, Yoenis Cespedes (.242/.324/.419) battling wrist and foot injuries and Coco Crisp (.228/.333/.386) quarantined due to pinkeye. With Anderson out, they'll throw two rookies at the Yankees, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, sandwiched between Travis Blackley. Griffin, who goes Sunday against Hiroki Kuroda, is coming off a rough outing in Detroit where he was touched for three homers — as many as he had allowed in his previous eight starts combined — in 4 2/3 innings.
The Yankees have won five straight, but they still lead the AL East by just one game. The margin between a first-round bye and a coin-toss game is razor thin, and right now they have plenty of anxiety about ace CC Sabathia, who goes tonight. Amid diminishing fastball velocity and effectiveness, the big man, who has served two stints on the disabled list, has a 3.63 ERA, his highest since 2005, and a career-worst 1.1 homers per nine allowed. He has surrendered leads in his last five starts, four of which resulted in losses. Saturday's turn goes to Ivan Nova, making his second start off the disabled list; his first was a reassuring six-inning, two-run, eight-strikeout effort against the Rays. Though they don't have Mark Teixeira, the Yankees lineup is closer to whole than it's been in awhile, with Ichiro Suzuki (.413/426/.565 this month) red hot, Derek Jeter (.347/.405/.417) battling through an ankle injury and Russell Martin (.255/.375/.489) finally heating up; then again, Curtis Granderson (.212/.276/.538) and Alex Rodriguez (.258/.304/.435) have provided uneven performances at best, and Nick Swisher (.167/.286/.258) is hoping that Thursday's grand slam means that he's on his way to snapping out of his slump.
St. Louis Cardinals (80-70) at Chicago Cubs (58-92): The Cards have won four in a row to build a 2 1/2 game cushion in the NL wild-card race, and they'll welcome back Chris Carpenter, who has returned with amazing speed from surgery to correct for thoracic outlet syndrome; he hasn't pitched since Game 7 of last year's World Series.
Milwaukee Brewers (77-72) at Washington Nationals (91-58): The Brewers try to maintain the momentum from a 23-6 run that has pushed them into third in the NL wild card standings, while the Nationals try to shake off the hangover produced by Thursday's clinching of a playoff spot. Atlanta Braves (86-64) at Philadelphia Phillies (76-74): With three wins in a row, the Phils now have a 13-5 record in September, but even so, they're fifth in the wild card race, four games out of a spot, and between this three-game series and six games against the Nationals, they don't exactly have a cakewalk ahead of them.