Five Cuts: Red Sox punch their ticket, some runs for Darvish and a hidden ball trick
1. The Red Sox joined the postseason party
Hours after the Dodgers became the first team to clinch a postseason berth, the Red Sox (93-61) became the second via their 3-1 win over the Orioles. That guaranteed them their first playoff berth since 2009. They can clinch the AL East flag with one more win or one more Tampa Bay loss.
After losing the first two games of their three-game series, the Sox won on Thursday behind John Lackey, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before surrendering a homer to Adam Jones, and wound up going the distance while yielding just one more hit for his first complete game since Sept. 10, 2009. Rocked for a 6.41 ERA in 2011 before missing all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, Lackey has enjoyed quite a resurgence. In 28 starts totaling 183 1/3 innings, he's put up a 3.44 ERA with 7.7 strikeouts per nine and a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Once Clay Buccholz went down in June, Lackey served as Boston's most reliable starter; in every month prior to September, he's put up an ERA of 3.67 or lower.
2. Yu got runs
Yu Darvish has been on the short end of four 1-0 losses this year, including two in his previous two turns against the Pirates and A's. In fact, the Rangers had lost his previous six starts while scoring a grand total of 11 runs, rendering his good work (3.38 ERA, 11.0 strikeouts per nine) in those games a moot point.
Darvish didn't have his best stuff in Tampa Bay on Thursday night. In fact, he threw 40 pitches in the first inning while walking three, hitting one and allowing two runs. Fortunately for the Rangers, who came in having won just three out of 16 games in September, he pulled himself together long enough to grind through four more innings, none of which went 1-2-3; the closest he came was in the third, when a leadoff walk to Matt Joyce was erased by James Loney grounding into an inning-ending double play on the 15th pitch of the frame, Darvish's low count for the night. In all, he walked six and yielded five hits while striking out just four in five innings; just 59 of his 109 pitches went for strikes.
However, by the time Darvish departed, he had a 6-2 lead thanks in part to three third-inning solo homers off Matt Moore by Mitch Moreland, Elvis Andrus and Alex Rios, no small feat given that Moore came in having allowed just 11 homers in 136 innings this year and had never allowed three in a major league game, let alone an inning. The Rangers chased Moore after four frames and tacked on a couple runs late for an 8-2 win -- just the third time since May 16 they've scored more than five runs in a Darvish start. The outcome left the two teams with an 83-69 record, once again tied in the wild-card race after splitting their four-game series in Tampa Bay.
3. The Tonight Show starring Matt Carson
You're forgiven if you've never heard of Carson, a 32-year-old journeyman drafted out of Brigham Young University by the Yankees in 2002. The righty-swinging outfielder, who had accumulated all of 166 major league plate appearances prior to this year via the A's and Twins, debuted for the Indians on Aug. 28, and while he's played sparingly, he's 7-for-9 with a walk, a homer and an absurd 1.929 OPS.
Carson entered Thursday night's game against the Astros in the 10th inning after Jason Giambi pinch-hit for right fielder Drew Stubbs and came within a few feet of a walk-off homer. After taking over in the field, he came to the plate with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the 11th against Josh Zeid. Carson's hot smash past Astros second baseman Jose Altuve gave the Indians a 2-1 win. Check out what's undoubtedly the highlight of his major league career:
[mlbvideo id="30766511" width="600" height="336" /]
The win, which kept the Indians (83-70) half a game back in the wild-card chase, was their 10th walkoff of the season, third in the AL behind the Rays and Red Sox, both of whom have 11. They have three more games against the Astros, who have played a total of 24 innings over the past two nights but aren't rolling over for anyone, even with their 51-102 record.
4. The Yankees are roadkill
Heading into last weekend's series at Fenway Park, the Yankees were just one game back from a wild-card spot at 79-68. Since then, they've gone 1-5 while being outscored 33-13 in Boston and Toronto, including Thursday's 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Blue Jays. Thanks to that disastrous road trip, they're now 36-42 away from Yankee Stadium, clinching their first losing road record since the strike-shortened 1995 season.
Once again, Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda was shaky, continuing a trend that had seen him get rocked for a 6.69 ERA and six homers in 35 innings over his previous six outings, only one of which was a quality start. Aided by double plays in each inning, Kuroda got through the first two frames on a total of 23 pitches, but he burned through 28 pitches in the third while allowing three hits, two walks and two runs. He kept the score close, and the Yankees cut it to 2-1 on Curtis Granderson's solo homer off Todd Redmond, the first Yankee homer since Brendan Ryan hit one in the third inning off Lackey on September 13 -- a span of 47 homerless innings.
Alas, Kuroda gave up a solo homer to Anthony Gose in the sixth, and then Joba Chamberlain, making a rare non-garbage time appearance, coughed up a three-run homer to Adam Lind in the seventh. That was all she wrote. At 80-73, the Yankees now find themselves on the bottom of the six-team wild-card pile, 3 1/2 games back.
5. The NL Central tightens up
While the Reds (87-66) were idle after Wednesday night's 13-inning marathon victory over the Astros, the Pirates (88-65) gained ground on the Cardinals (89-64) on Thursday afternoon. The Bucs trounced the Padres 10-1 in Pittsburgh while the Cardinals lost 7-6 to the Rockies in 15 innings in Denver.
The big story for the Pirates was Gerrit Cole setting a new career high with 12 strikeouts, surpassing the nine he racked up against the Rangers on Sept. 9th. Cole needed just 97 pitches to complete six innings and allowed four hits, three walks and one run. Meanwhile, the Pirates offense piled five runs on San Diego starter Ian Kennedy in the fourth inning, with Pedro Alvarez's 436-foot solo home run breaking a tie (1-1 to that point) and making one (his 34th homer matched Paul Goldschmidt for the NL lead), and Neil Walker adding a two-run shot as one of his four hits on the afternoon.
After striking out just 11 in 24 1/3 innings over his first four major league starts -- a result wildly incongruous with his triple-digit heat and wicked slider -- Cole has 83 in his last 87 innings over 14 starts, a rate of 8.6 per nine, and his overall ERA is down to 3.23, his lowest since his debut. He has dominated in September, with 33 K's in 28 innings (10.6 per nine) while allowing just four runs and 17 hits. After throwing 132 innings last year in the minors, he's at 179 1/3 this year, but the Pirates have kept him on a short leash; he's gone above 100 pitches just twice.
As for the Cardinals, their own less-experienced phenom Michael Wacha was peppered for 12 hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings, but opposite number Roy Oswalt -- yes, he's still pitching -- was no better. After Colorado took a 4-0 lead in the first three innings, the Cardinals came back to tie it in the fifth and take a 5-4 lead in the eighth. Corey Dickerson drove in the tying run with a triple in the bottom of the eighth, and after the Cardinals scored again in the top of the ninth, Todd Helton led off the bottom of the frame with a solo homer off Edward Mujica. That wasn't even the coolest thing Helton did all day; check out his nabbing Matt Carpenter with the hidden ball trick:
[mlbvideo id="30751957" width="600" height="336" /]Neither team scored after Helton's homer until the 15th, when Dickerson hit another RBI triple, this one scoring D.J. LeMahieu and sending the Cardinals to defeat.