1. NL playoff field set as Pirates and Reds clinch berths
The Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals all won Monday night, and with the Cardinals beating the Nationals, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati clinched playoff berths, finalizing the five-team playoff field in the National League. There's still the matter of homefield advantage and the Central Division champion to work out, but St. Louis' 4-3 victory over the Nats maintained its two-game lead over its two rivals. The Pirates and Reds remain tied in second place, and the Cards' magic number for the division title is down to four.
Carlos Beltran's first home run since Aug. 24, a two-run shot that broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth, was the big blow in St. Louis' 4-3 win. Unfortunately, when Trevor Rosenthal nailed down the save, the Pirates and Reds had already won, so the thrilling plays to end their games (particularly Pittsburgh's 2-1 victory over the Cubs) did not clinch playoff spots at the moment they occurred.
The Pirates' game ended first after Mark Melancon, back in his set-up role after blowing his last two saves opportunities, blew a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth. Starling Marte gave the Pirates the lead again with a solo homer off Kevin Gregg in the top of the ninth. Jason Grilli, who has resumed the closer's role, came on after lefty Tony Watson got the first out of the ninth and walked Dioner Navarro. Nate Schierholtz replaced Navarro's pinch-runner at first base via a fielder's choice that resulted in the second out of the inning. Ryan Sweeney then singled into the right-centerfield gap. Marlon Byrd cut off the ball, but booted it, sending Schierholtz racing for home. However, Andrew McCutchen was right there to back up Byrd and fired a one-hop throw to Justin Morneau, who cut the ball off in front of the mound and fired a dart to catcher Russell Martin just in time to beat Schierholtz to the plate for the final out of the game.
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Moments, later, the Reds broke a 2-2 tie with the Mets in the bottom of the ninth when Shin-Soo Choo hit a Greg Burke ball off the wall in left-center to drive home Devin Mesoraco with the winning run. It would not prove to be a playoff-clinching run until, just minutes later, Rosenthal eliminated the Nationals.
With the Indians idle, the Rangers, who remain in third-place in the AL wild card race, rounded their deficit down to one game by stomping the Astros 12-0. The top three men in Texas' order, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Alex Rios, went 9-for-12 with six RBIs and seven runs scored, and Rios hit for the cycle in his first four at-bats (a two-run double, infield single, solo homer and RBI triple) then got to take the last two innings off.
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Rios was the third player to hit for the cycle this season, following the Astros' own Brandon Barnes on July 19 and the Angels' Mike Trout on May 21. The last Ranger to hit for the cycle was Adrian Beltre, who was the last to do it before Trout, turning the trick on Aug. 24 of last year. Rios is the seventh Texas player to hit for the cycle, joining current teammates Beltre and Kinsler (who did it in 2009) as well as Oddibe McDowell (1985), Mark Teixeira (2004), Gary Matthews Jr. (2006), and Bengie Molina, who hit just six triples in his career but got one of them at the right time in 2010.
That said, the most impressive performance by a Ranger on the night might have come from Derek Holland, who shut out Houston on a walk and six singles, three of which didn't leave the infield, while striking out nine and throwing 73 percent of his pitches for strikes.
Earlier in the day, the Rays beat the Orioles 5-4 in a game that will be long remembered for Manny Machado's injury, but, though that was by far the most significant moment, it was just one of several unusual plays in the game. In the fourth inning, Orioles second baseman Ryan Flaherty struck out on a pitch that hit him in the back foot. The play was further confused by the fact that Flaherty appeared to check his swing, but it was a legitimate strikeout per Rule 6.05(f): "A batter is out when . . . He attempts to hit a third strike and the ball touches him."
Later, in the top of the eighth, Nate McLouth got a stand-up double on a bunt:
Far more serious, of course, was Machado's injury in the top of the seventh, as well as the one suffered in the bottom of the inning by his replacement, Alexi Casilla, who in an instant went from making a brilliant game-saving play to suffering a possible concussion on the play that may have been the final blow to Baltimore's season. Casilla replaced Machado in the field in the bottom of the seventh (with Flaherty moving to third) with the Orioles leading 4-2. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, Wil Myers looped a ball into shallow right and this happened:
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Casilla played the rest of the inning, but was replaced in the bottom of the eighth by Danny Valencia (Flaherty moved back to second base) and was taken to the hospital for concussion tests after the game.
Two innings later, James Loney pinch-hit for Sean Rodriguez to lead off the bottom of the ninth and hit the second pitch he saw from Tommy Hunter into the rightfield stands to give the Rays the win and put the Orioles' elimination number at two.
4. Unhappy endings
In addition to Machado, whose season is surely over, Tuesday saw Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and Joe Mauer's seasons come to an official end due to injury. Halladay lasted just 16 pitches in his start in Miami, none of which topped 83 mph. Halladay confirmed after the game that he wouldn't make his last start, due to "arm fatigue," and given the injury that cost him most of this season and his impending free agency, there's reason to wonder if he'll ever pitch in the majors again. Earlier in the day, the Yankees announced that a Grade 2 hamstring strain will shelve Sabathia for the remainder of the season, even if they make the playoffs.
Finally, the Twins announced that they have decided to shut Joe Mauer down for the season, though general manager Terry Ryan insisted that, though Mauer has been out for more than a month due to a concussion suffered on Aug. 19, "There are no setbacks. I don't want you to think there are any red flags -- there are not." The Twins informed Mauer of their decision over the weekend, though Ryan again notes, "He's making steady progress, and a lot of favorable things going on."
Sadly, it seems unlikely that we'll see all four of these stars back at full strength by Opening Day 2014, and given Sabathia and Halladay's struggles this season and the severity of Machado and Mauer's injuries, it's fair, if depressing, to wonder if any of them will be back to full strength by that point.
5. Sod situation
With the Cardinals on the road, Busch Stadium hosted a college football game between Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri on Saturday. Unfortunately, the weather leading up to the game was wet, and the game destroyed the outfield grass at the stadium, leaving the grounds crew headed by Billy Findley less than 48 hours to fix it before Monday night's contest between the Cardinals and Nationals. Findley and his crew got the turf looking good, but the damage caused by the game and the need for a quick fix resulted in a harder, slicker surface than previously existed. As a result, balls hit into the outfield in Monday's game skipped as though on artificial turf and footing for the outfielders was precarious. Findley and his crew will surely continue to work to upgrade the condition of the field, but the Cards play at home five of the next six days (they have Thursday off) and, if the standings hold, they will open the Division Series at home against the Dodgers a week from Thursday. The condition of the outfield, which the St. Louis outfielders very well may have adjusted to by then, could be a factor in that series, if not before.