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The Strike Zone

Five Cuts: Three teams clinch playoff spots; Yanks, Orioles nearly done; the Tigers’ secret offensive star

(David Banks/Getty Images) The Atlanta Braves clinched the National League East for the first time since 2005. (David Banks/Getty Images)

1. Triple clinch

First, by virtue of the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Marlins, the Braves clinched the NL East for, remarkably, the first time since 2005. The Nats’ loss also gave the Cardinals cause for a more muted celebration, as it assured them of at least a one-game Wild Card round appearance in October. The NL Central remains up in the air, though St. Louis had a 2.5 game lead with a Sunday night matchup against the Brewers ahead.

Then, the Rangers’ 4-0 loss to the Royals, which came on a tenth inning grand slam by Justin Maxwell off of former Kansas City closer Joakim Soria, gave the AL West to the A’s for, perhaps even more remarkably, the second season in a row.

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After Sunday, with exactly one week of games remaining in the regular season, every division save the two Centrals has been decided, and five of ten possible playoff spots have been locked up.

2. No storybook ending for retiring Yanks

Andy Pettitte certainly did his job: he threw seven innings during what was to be his last regular season start at Yankee Stadium, allowing just two hits while striking out six. Mariano Rivera did his, on Mariano Rivera Day. He got the game’s final five outs, allowing just one hit in the process.

CORCORAN: 42 things you need to know about Mariano Rivera 

But things did not go according to plan for the two longtime Yankees, thanks largely to someone named Ehire Adrianza and someone else named Tony Abreu. The pair of Giants, who on Sunday formed their double play combination and batted eighth and ninth, combined for a solo homer and an RBI double, producing the only runs San Francisco would need to secure a 2-1 victory.

The Yankees seemed sure to tie things up, and even give Rivera a win, in the bottom of the eighth, in which they had men on second and third with none out. But then pinch runner Zoilo Almonte was tagged out at home on a fielder’s choice, Curtis Granderson struck out, and Robinson Cano was tagged out at home attempting to score from second on an Eduardo Nunez single.

Rivera Day, which began with a long and involved tribute to the great closer, ended on a sour note. The Yankees are now four games out of a wild-card spot and, like Pettitte and Rivera, just about done.

3. Mayday for Orioles

While several post trade deadline deals orchestrated by contenders have worked out well enough -- Justin Morneau is hitting .260 as a Pirate, Alex Rios .276 as a Ranger – the Orioles’ Aug. 30 trade of Xavier Avery for would-be power boost Mike Morse is not among them. Entering Sunday, Morse had three hits, all of them singles, in 27 at-bats for Baltimore. He got another start, in left field, and went 0-for-3, lowering his Orioles batting average to .100 in the process.  Rays rotation fill-in Enny Romero, making his major league debut (and just his second ever appearance above Double-A), shut down the O’s, allowing one hit in 4.2 innings and setting the tone for a 3-1 Rays victory.

After losing three out of four to the Rays, (the finale will be played Monday),  the Orioles are now in major trouble, as they’re 4.5 games back in the wild-card race. There will be a good amount of blame to go around for the Orioles’ failure to surge to a second straight postseason appearance, but some will go to Morse, whose late struggles will likely also cost him millions on the free agent market.

4. Locke Down

In a season filled with nice surprises for the Pirates, the 25-year-old lefthander Jeff Locke was one of the best of them -- for a while, anyway. Before the All-Star Game, to which he was selected, Locke was 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and a miniscule .202 batting average against.

The second half has been another story for Locke, and his struggles continued on Sunday in a crucial start against the Reds. Locke lasted just one inning, in which he permitted five earned runs on two walks and three hits – including a bases-loaded double by Jay Bruce and a two-run homer by Todd Frazier. After an 11-3 Pirates loss, his already ugly post-break numbers are now simply hideous:  2-5, with a 6.12 ERA and a .310 BAA.

The Pirates are now deadlocked with the Reds in the race to play the NL Wild Card game, scheduled for Oct. 1, at home, and facing the possibility that the club’s first playoff appearance in two decades won’t include a single game in Pittsburgh. The race to play the Wild Card game at home will likely come down to their season ending three game set in Cincinnati next weekend.

No matter how far the Pirates get in the playoffs, there’s a good chance that Locke, the erstwhile All-Star, will not be with them.

5. An Indian Autumn

As many playoff hopefuls have learned, just because a late season schedule appears easy doesn’t mean it will play that way. But the Indians have simply taken care of business during what looked to be an ideal season-concluding slate. After their 9-2 win over the ever-worsening Astros emphatically capped off a four-game sweep, they’re 12-5 since that easy run began against the Mets on Sept. 6. They’re 1.5 games ahead of the Rangers in the race for the second Wild Card spot, just .5 games behind the Rays in the race for the first, and are still mathematically alive in the hunt for the AL Central title, though they trail the Tigers by five games.

By the way, here are are the starters, and their 2013 records, that the Indians will face in their final week, which includes series against the execrable White Sox and Twins: Hector Santiago (4-9), John Danks (4-14), Andrew Albers (2-4), Pedro Hernandez (3-2) and Cole DeVries (0-0), before ending with Mike Pelfrey (5-13) or Scott Diamond (6-12).

In other words, it would at this point be shocking if the Indians failed to make their first postseason appearance since 2007.

Bonus Cut: Another Tigers’ Offensive Star

An extra cut on a busy day.

Back in 2011, Alex Avila seemed poised to become one of the league’s premier catchers, a solid defender and game caller who could hit, too. That year, at the age of 24, Avila batted .295 with an OPS of .895, along with 19 home runs and 82 RBI. He made the All-Star Game.

Since then, however, while Detroit’s pitching staff has continued to benefit from his steady presence, Avila has largely turned into one of the lesser Molina brothers while standing beside, and not squatting behind, the plate. Last year he hit .243, with nine homers and 48 RBI. His 2013 was going even worse. Through August 31 he was hitting .198, with nine homers, 39 RBI, and an OPS of .626. He even suffered a concussion that kept him off the field for two weeks.

Since September 1, however, Avila has been hitting even better he did two years ago. After going 3-for-3 against the White Sox on Sunday, Avila is batting .392 in 18 games this month, with an OPS well over 1.000.

A rejuvenated Avila, along with Jhonny Peralta's looming return from suspension, will only bolster the Tigers’ case as the favorite to represent the A.L. in the World Series, even though they currently own the league’s third best record, behind the Red Sox and A’s.
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