1. It was a very good night for Team Entropy.
Maximum chaos continues to ensue in the American League. When I attempted to navigate through the bewildering number of permutations regarding the Junior Circuit's wild-card picture last Thursday, the six teams battling for two spots were separated by 5 1/2 games top to bottom, with the Rangers holding onto the top spot, 2 1/2 games better than their fellow wild-card holders, the Rays. The Yankees (one game back), Indians and Orioles (both 1 1/2 games back) and Royals are all within three games of Tampa Bay.
You call that a race? By the close of play Monday, those six teams were separated by just 2 1/2 games, with the Rangers (81-68) having expended all of their slack via a seven-game losing streak that left them a game behind the Rays (82-67) following their series-opening loss in Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the Indians (81-69) are now half-a-game back, the Orioles (79-70) two games back, and the Yankees and Royals (both 79-71) are 2 1/2 games back. Baltimore and New York were both idle. As for the rest of that bunch...
2. For the second year in a row, the Rangers are in freefall.
Last year, the Rangers closed the regular season by losing seven out of nine games to hand the AL West flag to the A's and wind up in the wild-card game, which they lost. The way they're playing right now, they'll be lucky to make it even that far. After putting together the league's third-best record through August and holding a two-game lead over the A's in the division race, they've gone 2-12 so far in September.
Worse, they've lost seven in a row, including Monday night's opener of a four-game series against the Rays at Tropicana Field. In a game that saw both teams run into outs trying to score in the early innings and show some questionable outfield defense in the dismal, deserted dome (attendance 10,724), the Rays came out on top 6-2 behind eight strong innings from Alex Cobb, who struck out 10 Rangers, including the first four he faced, walking just one. Over their past eight games, Rays starters have delivered a 2.40 ERA while striking out 49 in 48 2/3 innings.
That's a marked contrast to the rotation of the Rangers, which has been battered for a 5.74 ERA this month with just four quality starts in 14 games. Monday night's starter, Matt Garza (who pitched for the Rays from 2008-2010), failed to make it through five innings for the second start in a row and raised his ERA since being acquired from the Cubs on July 22 to 4.94, accompanied by a gaudy 1.4 homers per nine. He's given the team just one quality start in his last eight turns.
Aided by a laser throw from Leonys Martin to nail Yunel Escobar at the plate as he tried to score in the third inning, Garza held the Rays to two hits and one run via a Wil Myers homer over the first three frames. He allowed a run in the fourth on two singles, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly, and with one out in the fifth, he yielded four straight hits and departed with the Rangers trailing, 4-2, with two men aboard. Reliever Jason Frasor followed by giving up a two-run double to Myers, with both of the runs being charged to Garza's room. That was basically the ballgame.
Last year, the Rangers acquired Dempster at the deadline, only to watch as him struggle down the stretch and play a significant role in the team's collapse. He put up a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts and yielded 16 runs in 18 2/3 innings over his final four turns, failing to complete four innings in two of them, including the game that decided the AL West on the regular season's final day. If they're in that spot next year, perhaps the Rangers will avoid acquiring another starter — something they needed given injuries to Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Nick Tepesch and Colby Lewis — or at least another pending free agent from the north side of Chicago.
All of which serves as a reminder of the infamous Ex-Cubs Factor, a theory developed by writer Ron Berler in 1981 that held that no team with three or more former Cubs could win the World Series. As the famous columnist Mike Royko explained in 1993, "Three or more ex-Cubs could infect an entire team with the will to lose, no matter how skillful that team might appear." At the time he devised it, Berler observed that since the Cubs' last World Series appearance in 1945, the only team to buck the trend was the 1960 Pirates. Since then, the 2001 Diamondbacks and 2008 Phillies have done so as well.
For what it's worth, Garza is one of four ex-Cubs on the current Rangers roster, joining Jeff Baker, Neal Cotts and Geovany Soto. Among other wild-card contenders, the Rays have three (David DeJesus, Sam Fuld and Jose Molina), the Orioles have two (Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger, the latter of whom has played only one game), the Indians two (Rich Hill and Clay Rapada), the Royals one (Carlos Pena) and the Yankees one (Alfonso Soriano, though Alberto Gonzalez, Brent Lillibridge and Thomas Neal all made appearances before being bumped off the 40-man roster). All props for this silliness to Baseball-Reference.com's Multi-Franchise Players finder.
4. Speaking of ex-Cubs, Andrew Cashner had the biggest night of his career
Turning to the National League for a moment, the Padres had no complaints about their former Cub. Acquired in the Anthony Rizzo deal in January 2012, the just-turned-27-year-old Cashner has enjoyed a breakout season. He was nearly perfect Monday night against the Pirates at PNC Park, retiring the first 18 hitters he faced, but he may have tired himself out running the bases in the top of the seventh. After reaching via a fielder's choice against opposite number A.J. Burnett, he took second on a sacrifice fly that scored the game's first run, and sped home from second on Jedd Gyorko's single. When he took the mound in the bottom of the inning, he fell behind Jose Tabata 2-1, then served up a single down the right-field line.
No matter. After getting Neil Walker to fly out, Cashner induced Andrew McCutchen to ground into a double play, and didn't allow another baserunner. Facing the minimum of 27 batters, he threw a 97-pitch shutout — a Maddux, to use blogger Jason Lukehart's term for any nine-inning complete-game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches — and a one-hitter at that. Through 25 starts and five relief appearances totaling 168 innings, Cashner has compiled a 3.21 ERA, the best among the staff's starters.
Though they lost, the Pirates remained tied atop the NL Central with the Cardinals, who lost to the Rockies 6-3 in Colorado; both teams are 87-63. Meanwhile, the Reds won 6-1 in Houston, boosting their record to 85-66 and closing their deficit in the division race to 2 1/2 games.
5. The Ex-Rays Factor — whatever that is — was in effect in Kansas City
As Garza was starting against his former team, two other members of the Rays' pennant-winning 2008 rotation squared off for the Royals and Indians in a game that had playoff implications — in Kansas City. Ultimately, James Shields outpitched Scott Kazmir, and the Royals continued piling on the Cleveland bullpen.
Kansas City took the lead in the bottom of the first inning when Emilio Bonifacio singled, stole second and scored on Billy Butler's single, and pushed its lead to 2-0 in the third when Alex Gordon reached first base after striking out on a wild pitch, took third on a single by Eric Hosmer, and scored on a single by Salvador Perez. The Indians trimmed the lead to 2-1 on Lonnie Chisenhall's solo homer to lead off the fifth, but the Royals broke things open when Perez and Lorenzo Cain opened the sixth with back-to-back triples, chasing Kazmir and keying a three-run rally that was aided by errors by Asdrubal Cabrera and Chisenhall.
Alas, Kazmir appears to be running out of gas. Charged with four runs and seven hits in his five innings of work, he has now allowed 22 runs over his past 34 innings over seven starts, making it past five innings just twice and pushing his ERA to 4.34. That said, he is throwing strikes; he whiffed six and walked one Monday night, and has a 38-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that span. For the year, he has 141 strikeouts in 145 innings, not too shabby for a guy who pitched one major-league game in 2011-2012 and got knocked around as a Salt Lake Bee and a Sugar Land Skeeter. As for Shields, he struck out a season-high 10 in six innings, allowing just one run. The homer by Chisenhall was the first one he yielded since Aug. 6, a span of 53 innings. In an AL-high 213 2/3 innings this year, he's pitched to a 3.33 ERA (10th in the league) and ranks seventh in strikeouts (184). He hasn't lived up to his nickname at every turn, but on Monday, he was truly Big Game James.