1. Top three AL wild-card contenders win behind dominant starting pitching, putting bottom three contenders on the brink
Just a game separated the top three teams in the American League wild-card race heading into Saturday's action. That still remains true heading into Sunday, as each of those three teams -- the Rays, Indians and Rangers -- won behind dominant performances by their starting pitchers. It also helped that two of those starters handed a loss to a wild-card rival in the process.
In Florida, Alex Cobb struck out 12 Orioles over eight scoreless innings before giving up a single run with one out in the ninth on Chris Davis' first triple of the year and a subsequent RBI single by Adam Jones. Davis was the first Oriole to reach third base in the game and the first to reach second since the first inning. Cobb, who dominated the Rangers in his last start and is now 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA in eight starts since coming off the disabled list in mid-August, retired 12 men in a row from the end of the first through the fifth and allowed just five base runners (three singles and two walks) through his first eight innings. Fernando Rodney closed out the Rays' 5-1 win, which kept Tampa Bay atop the AL wild-card standings.
Later in the evening, Matt Garza, in what was arguably his best start as a Ranger, echoed Cobb's performance in Kansas City, albeit with fewer strikeouts. Garza allowed just five base runners (four hits, one walk) over eight scoreless innings before giving up a leadoff home run to Eric Hosmer in the bottom of the ninth and giving way to Joe Nathan, who nailed down the Rangers 3-1 win. Prior to Hosmer's home run, Garza allowed just two baserunners past first base, Jarrod Dyson on a two-out triple in the fifth and Alcides Escobar on a one-out double in the eighth. Both were stranded without advancing.
The Rangers' win proved crucial given the Rays and Indians had already won by the time Nathan recorded the final out. Cleveland also didn't allow a run until the ninth inning, though starter Scott Kazmir only threw seven of those scoreless innings. He, too, allowed just five base runners (four hits, one walk) and came close to rivaling Cobb with ten strikeouts, though he had the benefit of facing the Astros. After giving up a leadoff single, Kazmir didn't allow another base runner until the fifth, matching Cobb by recording twelve straight outs in between, and never did allow a runner to reach third base. The Astros' lone run in Cleveland's 5-1 win came on a Chris Carter home run off Joe Smith with two outs in the top of the ninth.
Those three wins combined to push the Orioles and Royals 3 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the second wild-card spot. Those two teams have matching 81-73 records and are now three games back in the loss column with just eight games left to play. It's probably safe to count both of them out at this point, particularly the Orioles, who will face the Red Sox on the season's final weekend.
The same is true of the Yankees despite Ivan Nova's valiant shutout of the Giants on Saturday. Nova struck out seven against just one walk and didn't allow a runner to reach third base all game. In fact, he didn't allow the Giants to advance any of the seven base runners he allowed, only two of whom doubled. The performance was Nova's second career shutout, the first of which came Aug. 31, and moved the Yankees a half-game ahead of the Orioles and Royals, whom they had trailed by that margin Saturday morning. However, the Yankees are also three games behind Cleveland in the loss column with just seven left to play and thus have also become an afterthought in this race.
Pitching was the story of the day on Saturday, and that proved true in the National League as well, as A.J. Burnett struck out 12 while holding the Reds to two early-inning runs over seven solid innings in Pittsburgh. The Pirates tied up the game on a two-run Russell Martin home run in the bottom of the second and broke that tie in the sixth after Homer Bailey issued a leadoff walk to Andrew McCutchen, fired a wild pickoff throw that tipped of Joey Votto's glove that sent McCutchen to third, and walked Justin Morneau. Marlon Byrd and Pedro Alvarez brought both runners home with a sacrifice fly and a single.
The Pirates took that 4-2 lead into the ninth, and when the bullpen door opened to reveal the man assigned to get the final three outs, it was not Mark Melancon, who blew saves in each of his last two appearances, who emerged, but All-Star closer Jason Grilli. Grilli had been relegated to set-up duty since returning at the start of the month from a flexor tendon strain that had forced him to the disabled list less than a week after the All-Star Game, but Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had announced before the game that Grilli would get the save opportunity, if there was one, on Saturday night. Hurdle also said he would take the decision as to whether or not to use Melancon or Grilli in that role "day by day." Grilli gave up a leadoff single to Ryan Ludwick, but it took him just five more pitches to get Jay Bruce to ground into a double play and Zack Cozart to groundout for his first save since July 21. Given that trim, ten-pitch performance, I'm guessing that Grilli will get the next save opportunity as well.
With that, the Pirates moved back ahead of the Reds in their see-saw battle for home-field advantage in the wild-card game, which will follow their rematch in Cincinnati next weekend. However, the Cardinals also won, beating the Brewers 7-2 after scoring five runs on rookie reliever Rob Wooten in the eighth.
3. No cinch to clinch
The Braves and A's both had the opportunity to clinch their divisions Saturday night, but both will head into Sunday still needing a win or a loss by their closest competitor to sew things up. The A's did win on Saturday, crushing the Twins 9-1, but their magic number heading into Saturday was two, and Matt Garza's strong outing in Kansas City kept the Rangers alive in the division for one more day. The Braves' magic number heading into Saturday was one, but they were stymied by the Cubs' Travis Wood and their bullpen coughed up two eighth-inning runs as they fell 3-1 at Wrigley Field. The Braves still could have clinched with a Nationals loss to the Marlins, but after a four-hour rain delay in Washington, that game was called and rescheduled as part of a Sunday double-header.
Meanwhile, the Indians' win eliminated the Angels for the postseason, leaving only the 15 contenders still mathematically alive. Of those 15, ten are in playoff spots, two of them, the Dodgers and Red Sox, have clinched their divisions. The other five are the Rangers, Yankees, Orioles, Royals, and Nationals, the last of which is the only surviving NL team not currently in a playoff spot as well as the team closest to elimination, with an elimination number of four. Per the above, of those five, the Rangers appear to be the only one that still has a meaningful chance of making the playoffs.
4. Rain delay theater
The rain delay in Washington actually fell a few minutes short of four hours, but three hours and 46 minutes is still a long time to wait for nothing, and the scoreboard at Nationals Park didn't announce the cancellation for another 22 minutes, according to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore. Davey Johnson told Kilgore that the delay was out of the Nationals' hands, that at this point in the season, those decisions are made by the umpires and Major League Baseball. MLB was waiting for a break in the weather that they saw on the radar (and did indeed arrive around 11:30), but when a second system appeared close behind the first, Johnson stepped in and objected to starting the game given the high chance of losing scheduled starter Stephen Strasburg, who was to make his first start in nearly two weeks, to a subsequent delay.
Meanwhile, the Nationals and Marlins shared the results of their cabin fever via twitter with this from Bryce Harper:
Got the night shift tonight! #Nats pic.twitter.com/x5RFXKWQsB
— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) September 22, 2013
5. Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
The Braves and A's, both of whom have a magic number of one, look to clinch their divisions with a win, or a loss by the Nationals or Rangers, respectively. The Braves send rookie Julio Teheran to the mound in Wrigley against Edwin Jackson. The A's will throw rookie Sonny Gray at home against the Twins' Cole De Vries. The Nationals, meanwhile, will play two at home against the Marlins with Strasburg pitching the late game, which will also be the Nationals' final home game of the season.
The Rangers are less concerned about the A's than the Indians, and will finish their series in Kansas City with Alexi Ogando taking on James Shields. The Indians, meanwhile, go for a sweep of the Astros at home with Corey Kluber taking on Erik Bedard.
The Tigers, whose magic number is two, could clinch the AL Central division if the Indians lose and they sweep the White Sox behind Anibal Sanchez, but the latter outcome is far more likely than the former. The Rays are also going for a sweep, hoping to bury the Orioles. However, with Jeremy Hellickson having pitched in their 18-inning marathon win on Friday night, they will call up 22-year-old lefty prospect Enny Romero to make the start and his major league debut against Scott Feldman.
In the Bronx, the Yankees will honor Mariano Rivera with a pre-game ceremony as well as jersey and cap patches seen here, which they will wear for their remaining four home games. Then Andy Pettitte will make the final home start of his career against the Giants and Yusmeiro Petit, who pronounces his last name the way I mistakenly thought Pettitte did in early 1995. Finally, the Pirates and Reds will continue to lock horns in Pittsburgh with Bronson Arroyo taking on Jeff Locke, while the Cardinals look to remain above the fray with a sweep of the Brewers in the 8pm game which will pit Joe Kelly against Wily Peralta. After that, there will be just one week left in the 2013 regular season.