Prepare for bonus baseball! While the dream scenario of a three-way tie for the AL wild card did not come to pass Sunday thanks to the Indians' win over the Twins, both the Rays and Rangers eked out victories on the season's final day, tying for the second wild-card spot at 91-71 and thus setting up a one-game tiebreaker to be played in Arlington, Texas, on Monday. Call it a win for Team Entropy, if not the hoped-for rout that would have had schedule-makers tearing their hair out.
The wildest of the three games was the first to start, that of the Rays versus the Blue Jays in Toronto. Tampa Bay quickly appeared to have put itself in position to keep playing by rolling to six first-inning runs, chasing Toronto starter Todd Redmond after he retired just two of the seven hitters he faced. At that point, the score was still just 3-0 via RBI singles by James Loney and Delmon Young and an RBI double by Evan Longoria. But Jose Lobaton broke the game open by greeting reliever Neil Wagner with a two-run double. Yunel Escobar followed with a single but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.
The Rays extended that lead to 7-0 via a Wil Myers RBI double in the fourth, and Matt Moore shut the Blue Jays down on two hits through five innings. Moore faltered in the sixth, however, yielding four straight one-out hits including a two-run double by Mark DeRosa. He departed in favor of Jake McGee, who surrendered a sacrifice fly that cut the score to 7-3. The Jays added another run in the seventh via a Brett Lawrie double. They loaded the bases with one out when Moises Sierra drew a walk off new reliever Joel Peralta, after which Rays manager Joe Maddon was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. On the very next pitch, Escobar extricated them from the jam via a 6-3 double play:
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The Blue Jays kept clawing back, putting two on with two outs in the eighth and forcing the Rays to call upon Fernando Rodney. Via singles by Jose Reyes and Anthony Gose and a walk by Lowrie, the crooked-capped closer let in three runs before striking out Sierra and shutting the door in the ninth. It was his second save of more than three outs in three tries this year — all of them against the Blue Jays.
The Rays' victory was their 13th in their last 18 games following a 3-10 skid in late August and early September. It didn't guarantee them a playoff spot, because Cleveland quickly put themselves in command against the Twins in Minnesota. After Michael Bourn opened the game with a single off Scott Diamond, Nick Swisher cranked a two-run homer, his 22nd of the year:
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Ubaldo Jimenez allowed a leadoff single to Alex Presley in the bottom of the first, then set down the next 18 Twins in order — 10 via strikeout — before walking Presley with two outs in the sixth. By that point, the Indians had doubled their lead by capitalizing on three errors in the sixth, one by shortstop Pedro Florimon and two by Diamond on the same play en route to a pair of runs. The Indians added one more run against reliever Michael Tonkin, while Minnesota scraped out a run against Jimenez before he departed after 6 2/3 stellar innings. Mark Rzepczynski and Justin Masterson got the final seven outs, the last of which came on a Clete Thomas grounder:
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The victory gave the Indians their 92nd win — one short of the Tigers' AL Central-winning total — and their 10th win in a row, thanks in large part to the weak competition they faced down the stretch in the form of the Astros, White Sox and Twins. Indeed, they went 56-18 (.757) against teams below .500 this year, compared to 36-52 (.409) against teams .500 or better. Still, any way you slice it, it's their first playoff berth since 2007, and the sixth time first-year Indians manager Terry Francona has taken a team to the postseason. The first five came with the Red Sox, two of which ended with world championships. The Indians, however, have not won a championship since 1948. Jimenez, who struggled in 2011 and 2012 and had a 5.57 ERA through May, has put up a 2.40 ERA in 22 starts since then to finish at 3.30 for the year. His 13 strikeouts tied his career high, set May 3, 2010 for the Rockies against the Padres, and enabled him to finish the year with a career-best 9.6 per nine innings.
With the Indians and Rays both winning ahead of them, the pressure was on the Rangers to win just to keep their playoff hopes alive, and they got off on the wrong foot. Mike Trout touched Yu Darvish for a long first-inning solo homer, his 27th of the year. And Jason Vargas held the Rangers scoreless on one hit through the fourth, though he had help, as Leonys Martin bunted into a double play in the third after Craig Gentry's leadoff walk. But the Rangers took the lead in the fifth when a Vargas throwing error set up a two-run single by Gentry.
The Angels answered back, chasing Darvish after just 84 pitches once he allowed three of the first four hitters to reach in the sixth, though a double play wiped out two of them. It was the third straight start manager Ron Washington pulled his nominal ace before he completed six innings, though he had more than 100 pitches the other two times. It's not as though he's been bombed in those games, allowing a total of six runs in 16 innings while striking out 21 — including eight Sunday — but issuing 12 walks.
With Josh Hamilton due up next, the bigger issue was one with which Washington was well familiar: the ex-Ranger's woes against lefties (.197/.229/.360 in 192 PA this year). Thus lefty Neal Cotts came on in relief of Darvish, but he and surrendered a game-tying single to Hamilton, though he struck out Howie Kendrick to end the threat. The Rangers answered back when Adrian Beltre and A.J. Pierzynski singles were followed by Govany Soto's two-run double, and plated one more at Vargas' expense in the seventh, as Gentry singled, stole second, took third on a sacrifice and scored on Ian Kinsler's single. Finally, they broke the game open in the eighth via solo homers by Beltre (his 30th) and Soto (his ninth) off Angels closer Ernesto Frieri. Six of the 11 homers Frieri allowed this year came in his 6 2/3 innings against the Rangers, five of them in Arlington. Though the resulting 6-2 lead wasn't a save situation, Washington called upon closer Joe Nathan to close the door. He did in short order, getting three straight flyouts, the first from Hamilton, the last off the bat of Kole Calhoun:
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The victory was the Rangers' seventh in a row after losing 15 of 20 to start September, a skid that handed the AL West flag to the A's for the second season in a row. To their credit, they picked themselves up off the mat and gained back two games on the Rays during that stretch. Thus the stage is set for the Rays and Rangers to face off in a rare Game 163 in pursuit of the second wild-card spot in Arlington at 8:07 ET Monday. David Price will start for Tampa Bay, while Martin Perez will go for Texas, which will also have the benefit of the return of Nelson Cruz, whose 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal has been served. The winner will face the Indians in Cleveland on Wednesday, and the winner of that will travel to Boston to face the Red Sox in the Division Series opener on Friday. Quite the wild ride for the wild card.