Thursday September 16th, 2010

1. The Rays continue to find ways to win with baseball's most unorthodox offense, as evidenced by their 4-3 victory over the Yankees on Wednesday night to reclaim the American League East lead by a half-game.

Tampa Bay has scored the third-most runs in the majors -- 736, just one behind the Red Sox for second -- with only a moderate amount of power (147 homers, fifth in the AL) and not very many base hits (1,215, only 12th out of 14 AL teams). What the Rays do well is draw walks (607) and steal bases (160) -- both numbers lead the majors -- but they didn't do either of those while beating the Yankees for the second time in the three-game series.

Instead, the Rays relied on a pair of two-run homers from Dan Johnson, a man who entered the game with only three homers in 65 major league at-bats this season. They won Monday night on a Reid Brignac solo home run in extra innings, just his seventh of the year.

But somehow the Rays managed to get runners home. They score a major league-leading 34 percent of all baserunners and only left two men on base on Wednesday. Usually that's because of their aggressiveness on the basepaths, such as Tuesday night when Carl Crawford was thrown out at third base to end the game while tagging and trying to advance on a flyball to right field in a one-run game. Every youth baseball player learns that it's a cardinal sin to make the final out of an inning at third base because you're already in scoring position at second, but Tampa Bay is so unorthodox that manager Joe Maddon defended Crawford's running.

It's a fickle offense that so far has worked, as the Rays have the best record in the majors and survived the three-game set with the Yankees in which each game was decided by one run. Tampa Bay keeps finding ways to make each runner count.

2. Following a Padres loss in the afternoon, the Giants had a chance to move to within a half-game of the National League West lead -- and a half-game of the Braves in the NL wild-card standings -- if they beat the Dodgers later that night, and they had their best pitcher on the mound: Matt Cain.

Cain delivered again, shutting out Los Angeles over seven innings, allowing three hits and no walks while striking out five en route to a 2-1 San Francisco win. Cain exited when he did, despite having thrown only 91 pitches, for pinch-hitter Travis Ishikawa, who doubled. He was then replaced by pinch-runner Emmanuel Burriss, who scored on Mike Fontenot's broken-bat single for the game's first run.

Cain was just whom the Giants wanted on the mound. He has outpitched his more celebratead rotation-mate, Tim Lincecum, this season, though his record has suffered because of poor run support. Cain improved his season stats to a 3.08 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and .223 average against but is only 12-10 because he receives just 4.2 runs of support per nine innings. Lincecum has a 3.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and .247 average against but is 14-9 thanks to 5.1 runs of support per nine.

Only since mid-July have the Giants started taking advantage of Cain's good pitching, as they've won 10 of his last 12 starts, though Cain himself is just 6-2 despite a 2.71 ERA. Amidst that stretch was, remarkably, his first career victory in 16 starts against the Dodgers back on Aug. 1, a feat he duplicated on Wednesday.

Barring any radical rotation reshuffling, Cain ought to have three more starts this season, the third of which will come in one of the season's final two games -- at home against the division-leading Padres, another foe in which run support has failed Cain. He is 5-8 in his career against San Diego and 1-2 this season despite a 3.13 career ERA in those 22 starts. But just like he finally conquered the Dodgers, so too has Cain had recent success against the Padres, throwing a eight innings of three-run ball for a win in his last start on Sept. 9.

3. Troy Tulowitzki is baseball's hottest hitter, and it's not even close. The Rockies shortstop went 3-for-5 with two home runs and seven RBIs on Wednesday afternoon to power Colorado past San Diego 9-6 to move back to within 2½ games of the NL West lead.

In the first 15 days of September, Tulowitzki is batting .361 (22-for-61) with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs. No other player has more than six homers or 16 RBIs. Of the eight games in which he's homered -- three times he's had two in the same game -- Colorado is 7-1.

Tulowitzki missed 33 games in June and July with a broken wrist and has returned with even more power. In 62 games before the fracture, he had nine homers and slugged .502; in 45 games since his rejoining the lineup he has 12 homers and has slugged .672.

How important has his return been? The Rockies were 17-16 in his absence and 30-18 since.

4. The NL MVP race may well come down to a question of Gonzalez vs. Gonzalez -- the Padres' Adrian and the Rockies' Carlos, both of whom hit very well in their three-game series this week. Albert Pujols' candidacy has taken a hit with the Cardinals fading and voter fatigue mounting since he has already won three of the awards. The Reds' Joey Votto also has a strong case, but he has benefited from more support in the lineup around him.

The question then comes down to whether voters will side with the player who has the more spectacular stats (Carlos Gonzalez) or the player who has been more valuable to his team (Adrian Gonzalez). Purely by the numbers, Carlos Gonzalez has had the better year: He is hitting .341 with a .378 OBP, 32 home runs, 106 RBIs and even 23 stolen bases. Adrian Gonzalez is having a great season but trails in most categories, batting .308 with a .396 OBP, 29 home runs and 95 RBIs. But only one other Padre with at least 300 plate appearances has an OPS of even of .710; catcher Yorvit Torrealba has an OPS of .743. The Rockies, meanwhile, have eight players who meet that standard.

But one other area in which CarGo gets the edge is in his performance against better competition. They both played well in this week's key series -- Adrian Gonzalez was 5-for-11 with two home runs, five RBIs and two walks while Carlos Gonzalez was 7-for-13 with six RBIs, four runs and one walk -- but the Rockies' outfielder has the edge against baseball's best. He is hitting .330 with 16 home runs, 57 RBIs and a .938 OPS against opponents with a winning percentage of .500 or better in 70 games; Adrian Gonzalez is batting .276 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs and a .823 OPS in 66 such games.

5. The Braves are in some trouble. Owners of the best home record in the majors, they somehow managed to lose a series to the lowly Nationals at Turner Field -- their first series loss in Atlanta since April -- falling to three games behind the Phillies in the NL East. Their wild-card lead has shrunk to just one game over the Giants, who play later tonight, and 2½ games over the Rockies.

The opportunities were there: The Braves had 13 runners reach base but batted 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position and managed only two runs. Twice they grounded into a double play. And they only gave up one run-scoring play to Washington, but it was a grand slam from No. 8 hitter Justin Maxwell.

Atlanta is just 31-41 as the visiting team and now begins a nine-game road trip to New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The Mets and Phillies hold the third- and fifth-best home records in the NL. The Braves need their starters to pick up the slack. While losing nine of their last 14, the rotation has a 5.54 ERA and .298 average against.

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