Tuesday September 28th, 2010

Five cuts from Monday's action:

1. A Philadelphia Story. Four teams could have clinched either a playoff berth or their division on Monday night, but only the Phillies did so, winning the National League East for the fourth straight year. They are only the fifth team in baseball history to win its division that many times in a row and have already secured the best record in the NL, thus claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Ace Roy Halladay threw a two-hit, complete-game shutout for his 21st win of the season, running his season total of innings up to 250 2/3. Rather than labor through a 34th start, Halladay can now rest easy, maybe throwing just a few innings on Saturday as a tune-up for his first career playoff start in the NL Division Series.

The Rays and Yankees both have a magic number of one but lost to the Orioles and Blue Jays, respectively, while the Red Sox, the longshot competition, beat the White Sox to keep alive their season mathematically alive. The Reds were idle but could have wrapped up the NL Central had the Cardinals lost, but St. Louis rallied from a 4-2 deficit to defeat the Pirates.

2. Braves win but lose Prado. The Braves beat the Marlins in the 11th inning on Monday night, thanks to a walkoff single from Omar Infante -- moving a half-game ahead of the Padres for the wild card -- and they may need even more from their infielder over the season's final week.

Martin Prado suffered a hip pointer much earlier in the game while diving to catch a line drive. He aggravated it after hitting a groundout in the bottom of the fifth, clutching his left hip as he collapsed to the ground and had to be helped off the field. Brooks Conrad replaced him in the field. Losing one All-Star third baseman (Chipper Jones) was bad enough, but Atlanta may not be able to withstand the loss of a second one in Prado, whom manager Bobby Cox said is "definitely going to be out a while."

While Prado received All-Star recognition for the first time this season, his triple-slash line this season (.307/.350/.459) is striking similar to his line last year (.307/.358/.464), only this year Cox has trusted him not only as an everyday, top-of-the-lineup hitter for the first time and has arguably been the team's most important player.

That production can't be replaced by Cox's third- and fourth-string third basemen, Conrad and perhaps Troy Glaus, but Cox could do better than his in-game substitution. Though Conrad hasn't had the chance to be anything more than a platoon player, 17 of his 32 hits have gone for extra bases, and Glaus isn't really an option as he has just a .176/.295/.273 line with three homers since June 15. And while he was an everyday third baseman through 2008, he has played only two innings at third this year and only 41 innings last year.

But what Cox should do is play Infante at third and Conrad at second. Over his career Infante has proven to be a more adept fielder at third than second. His Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games at third is 3.0, meaning he saves three runs more than the average player, while his UZR/150 at second is negative-2.4. Conrad's play at second and third is too small of a sample size for UZR, but he played 936 games in his professional career (i.e. minor and major leagues) at second base and only 113 pro games at third.

3. Padres offense puts up a Big Z(ero). The Cubs' Carlos Zambrano has pitched 13 straight shutout innings -- six against the Giants last Tuesday and seven against the Padres on Monday, both of which ended as 1-0 decisions. But what could be the difference in the NL West is that San Francisco scored off Chicago's bullpen to win its game, while San Diego couldn't score off the relievers that followed Big Z and lost 1-0, to fall one game behind the Giants in the division and a half-game behind the Braves in the wild card.

San Diego has now gone 16 consecutive innings without scoring a run, a span that includes Monday's shutout and the last seven innings of Sunday's loss to the Reds. In the first 15 of those 16 innings, the Padres' offense did not have an extra-base hit, with only three runners reaching second base and none making it to third.

The injury to Will Venable and manager Bud Black's over-reliance on lefty-righty matchups hurt the Padres in their best bet to score in the seventh inning. With runners on first and second and one out, Black allowed Tony Gwynn Jr. to bat for himself, even though he didn't have a hit since Aug. 16, a span of 12 at bats. Gwynn flied out and then Oscar Salazar, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, fouled out.

Venable has batted .477 (21-for-44) since Sept. 12, and his absence meant that Black started top pinch hitter Matt Stairs. With neither of those players available, Black still didn't see fit to use Aaron Cunningham, who is a superior hitter to the lefty Gwynn even though he'd have been a righty facing another righty. (Gwynn's line against righties is .187/.295/.256 while Cunningham's is .259/.278/.341.) In the ninth Black used rookie Mike Baxter as a pinch hitter, even though Cunningham was still available and Baxter has only one career hit, just because Baxter swung lefthanded. Chicago closer Carlos Marmol has more success getting lefties out (.134/.280/.210) than righties (.164/.324/.200).

4. Yankees are getting burned by Burnett. Yankees starter A.J. Burnett's continued struggles on the mound -- he gave up seven runs in 2 1/3 innings in a 7-5 loss to the Blue Jays on Monday -- could cost him a spot in the playoff rotation. The team is 2-9 in his last 11 starts, during which time Burnett has just four quality starts and a 6.98 ERA.

En route to their World Series championship in 2009, New York used only three starters (CC Sabathia, Burnett, Andy Pettitte) while playing 15 postseason games in 29 days, but this year the Yankees likely won't have the same luxury of a three-man rotation.

The schedule is the same, but Pettitte is returning from a groin injury and the most likely replacement for Burnett, Phil Hughes, has already reached 175 innings, the number widely believed to be his preseason limit for the season. The team's fifth starter, Javy Vazquez, was long ago banished to the bullpen with his 5.07 ERA.

Burnett will need to rebound and serve as at least the fourth starter for the Yankees. His problem is that he's not fooling hitters like he used to. On Monday the Blue Jays swung and missed at only three of his 48 pitches. Entering the start opponents were missing on only 19.8 percent of swings this season, the second-lowest percentage of his career. That rate has dropped for Burnett each year since he was ninth in the majors with 25.0 percent in 2007.

5. San Francisco plays its ace early. The Giants had the luxury of Monday's off-day to re-evaluate and re-configure their rotation, and they got it right. One idea gaining steam among Giants fans and media was to push Tim Lincecum back from Thursday to Friday and move Barry Zito up from Friday to Thursday. That way the shakier Zito would face the Diamondbacks, while Lincecum, the two-time NL Cy Young winner, would face the Padres in the opener of the crucial season-ending series.

Instead, as general manager Bruce Sabean said on team flagship KNBR, the Giants are more likely to move Lincecum up a day to Wednesday and keep him on normal rest. That would mean starting rookie Madison Bumgarner against Arizona on Thursday and Zito against San Diego on Friday, but it would allow Lincecum to pitch in Sunday's season finale on three days' rest or in a possible one-game playoff on Monday on normal rest. And getting a second outing from Lincecum is far more important than playing the matchups.

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