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The Strike Zone

Five Cuts: Yankees eliminated, Tigers clinch AL Central, Todd Helton exits Coors Field

Evan Longoria hit two home runs and helped end the Yankees' postseason hopes. (Kathy Willens/AP)Evan Longoria hit two home runs on Wednesday, helping end the Yankees' postseason hopes. (Kathy Willens/AP)

1. The Yankees were eliminated, and an era ended

Seemingly in the works all year long amid their myriad injuries, the Yankees were mathematically eliminated with Wednesday's loss to the Rays, meaning that for the first time since 2008 and just the second time since the 1994 players' strike, they won't go to the postseason. Perhaps fittingly, Phil Hughes started for the Yankees in place of injured CC Sabathia and allowed three runs on seven hits while lasting just two innings before being pulled by manager Joe Girardi. It was the 14th time this year that Hughes has been pulled before completing five innings, tying three other pitchers — the last of whom was the Tigers' Sean Bergman in 1995 — for the most such outings in one season since division play began in 1969. It was probably the last start in pinstripes for the 27-year-old pending free agent.

Though the Yankees kept the game close, trailing 3-2 through five innings, the Rays broke it open via back-to-back homers off David Huff from Evan Longoria (a two-run shot) and David DeJesus. David Price kept Yankee hitters at bay with seven innings of six-hit, two-run ball with eight strikeouts.

The Yankees still have one more home game to play on Thursday against the Rays. Remarkably, it will be the first time since October 3, 1993 — about a week shy of 20 years — that they've played a game in the Bronx with no chance of moving on to the postseason, the entire span of the retiring Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte's careers and then some. It's the end of an era indeed.

2. The Tigers clinched their third straight AL Central title

(h/t @guyism)

Max Scherzer threw seven innings of two-hit shutout ball and struck out 10 en route to his 21st win, but by the time he took the hill in the bottom of the first inning, he had received all the offensive support he would need. Austin Jackson greeted Twins starter Kevin Correia with a leadoff triple in the top of the first, and Torii Hunter followed with an RBI single, the only run in the 1-0 game. Scherzer did issue six walks, but the Twins' junior varsity lineup (no Joe Mauer due to a concussion, no Oswaldo Arcia due to a knee injury, and no Josh Willingham except as a pinch-hitter for the final out) left eight men on base.

This marks the fourth time in manager Jim Leyland's eight-year tenure that the Tigers have gone to the playoffs, one more time than Hughie Jennings, who managed the team to three straight pennants from 1907-1909. It's the eighth time Leyland has taken a team to the postseason, including three times with the Pirates (1990-1992) and once with the Marlins (1997). With a 93-66 record, the Tigers have a shot of matching or surpassing their 95 wins under Leyland in 2006 and 2011; they'll close the regular season with a three-game set in Miami against the Marlins.

3. The Rays, Indians and Rangers all kept pace in the wild-card race with wins

By beating the Yankees, the Rays kept sole possession of the top wild-card spot at 89-69. Meanwhile, the Indians (88-70) backed up Tuesday night's dramatic walkoff win over the White Sox with a 7-2 victory. Starter Danny Salazar struck out eight in 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball, survived a spiking as he covered first base, and received more offensive support than he had across his last three starts combined (six runs). The big blow was Nick Swisher's two-run homer to center field off Sox starter Dylan Axelrod.

The most important moment for the Indians may have been the scoreless ninth inning thrown by Justin Masterson, who hadn't pitched since September 2 due to an oblique strain. Over the course of 17 pitches that topped out at 94.0 mph, in line with his average velocity this year, Masterson struck out two of the four hitters he faced (Dayan Viciedo and Marcus Semien), and yielded only a single to Jordan Danks. The 28-year-old righty may not start again for the Indians this season unless they advance beyond the Division Series, but at the very least he could be on the postseason roster barring any complications.

As for the Rangers (87-71), they pounded the lowly Astros, 7-3, to take the season series 17-2 and send Houston to its 12th loss in a row and its club record 108th defeat. After scoring the game's first run in the third inning, the Rangers fell behind 3-1 in the top of the fourth via Chris Carter's RBI single and Brandon Laird's two-run homer off starter Martin Perez. They answered with a five-run inning of their own, with Leonys Martin's bases-loaded double putting them ahead to stay. Ian Kinsler later added a solo homer, his 13th of the year, and Perez wound up working seven innings, striking out eight while allowing just the three runs.

Thus the Rangers go into their final four-game series at home against the Angels needing to pick up at least one game on the Indians, who play four games against the Twins in Minnesota.

4. Billy Hamilton got caught stealing, and there will be no three-way tie in the NL Central

No sooner had I noted that Hamilton was 13-for-13 in his stolen base attempts than he was finally gunned down. Starting in center field for the Reds against the Mets on Wednesday afternoon, he reached on an infield single off Daisuke Matsuzaka in the fifth inning. One pitch later, he was thrown out by Juan Centeno, a 23-year-old rookie catcher playing in just his second major league game:

[mlbvideo id="30927483" width="600" height="336" /]

Got him! The Reds were somehow unable to score against Matsuzaka (7 2/3 shutout innings) and the Mets bullpen and fell 1-0, dropping their record to 90-69 and thus taking off the table the chaotic possibility of a three-way tie atop the division with the Cardinals and the Pirates. With three games remaining, there's no way they can catch St. Louis (94-65), which beat Washington on Wednesday afternoon, 4-1.

The Pirates lost to the Cubs on Wednesday afternoon as well to fall to 91-67, meaning that the only way they can win the division is to sweep a three-game series against the Reds in Cincinnati and hope the Cardinals lose three to the Cubs at home. That would necessitate a one-game tiebreaker with St. Louis, which would be played at PNC Park, since Pittsburgh took the season series, 10-9; the winner would be division champions while the loser would host the wild card game.

5. Todd Helton gave Rockies fans a parting shot.

Wednesday night marked the final home game of Helton's 17-year career. The Rockies paid tribute prior to the game, painting his number 17 on the field, having him catch the ceremonial first pitch from his daughter, and then giving him "a majestic three-time championship Tobiano Gelding Paint Horse," according to MLB.com's Thomas Harding. You can see the ceremony here:

[mlbvideo id="30938569" width="600" height="336" /]

In turn, Helton gave the Coors Field crowd a gift of his own. Coming to bat in the second inning against the Red Sox' Jake Peavy with the Rockies down 3-1, he turned an 87 mph cutter into his 15th homer of the season and the 369th of his career:

[mlbvideo id="30939833" width="600" height="336" /]

Helton received a huge ovation, and took a curtain call by popping back out of the dugout. If only he could have ridden his new horse into the sunset then and there, the night would have been perfect, but instead, the Rockies were roughed up 15-5 by the Red Sox.

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