Wednesday September 21st, 2011

1. That was ugly. The Red Sox, set up to gain a game on the Rays for just the second time in two weeks, instead watched a 5-4 lead go up in flames in the eighth inning against the Orioles. Boston remains two games ahead of Tampa Bay. Daniel Bard, asked to start the seventh for just the second time all season -- and the first since April -- got through his first inning unscathed but allowed singles to Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds around a strikeout in the eighth. Terry Francona chose to pull Bard at 18 pitches, with Bard showing good velocity and command (18 pitches, 13 strikes), for closer Jonathan Papelbon. It was the first time all year Papelbon had been asked to get five outs for a save, and it didn't work. After putting away Chris Davis on three pitches, Papelbon allowed a single by Nolan Reimold on an 0-2 fastball, loading the bases, then fell behind Robert Andino and eventually gave up a double down the right-field line to Robert Andino, clearing the bases for what would be the final 7-5 score.

The pertinent question isn't about the relievers so much as it is about Francona. In using his two best relievers earlier than he had in almost any game all year, did he show signs of panicking? Did he get away from a mostly effective Bard too quickly, fearing another meltdown by a reliever who has drawn three losses already this month? The Sox' lack of a third effective relief pitcher has been a less-noticed problem in the shadow of the disaster in the rotation, but last night, Francona showed that he thinks he has exactly two viable options in a close game -- especially on a night when Alfredo Aceves, arguably a third option but often used in long-man spots, is unavailable. In light of everything else that has gone wrong, the last thing the Red Sox need is for their manager to get away from what has worked all season long due to short-term concerns.

2. The Sox dodged a bullet. The Rays were shut out in the Bronx, 5-0, with Ivan Nova doing the bulk of the work (7 2/3 IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 3 K). The great pitching of the Rays has masked what can be a shaky offense. Their lineup has suffered as Desmond Jennings -- once a stealth candidate for Rookie of the Year -- has faded in September, batting .200 with a .282 OBP, while starting all but one game in the leadoff spot. The Rays are averaging 4.5 runs a game this month, but a lot of that is beating up on Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield: they've scored three runs or fewer seven times in 18 games. That's the team that showed up last night. The Rays have to get more runners on base (.322 OBP in September) if they're going to keep pushing the Red Sox for the wild card.

3. Rising in the West. In the absence of wins by the AL East, the Angels took advantage by beating up Brett Cecil and the Blue Jays 10-6 to move within 3½ games of the Red Sox (1½ behind the Rays) for the wild card. With the Rangers winning again in Oakland, the Angels now seem to have a better chance to take the wild card, even chasing two teams, than they do the Rangers, whose magic number was lowered to four. The Rangers could clinch the division before visiting Anaheim next week, denying the Angels one last chance to control their own destiny. In the Angels' favor? At least six of their final eight games will be started by their big three of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.

4. The NL picture got a little bit clearer. The Giants' loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers just about ended their late-season rush in the NL West and wild-card races. Even with a Diamondbacks' loss to the Pirates, their magic number is three, and the Giants are now 4½ behind the Braves and two behind the Cardinals, both of whom won in very different ways. The Braves got a combined shutout from three rookies (Randall Delgado, Cristhian Martinez and Anthony Varvaro), while the Cardinals beat up the Mets bullpen in a six-run seventh inning to win 11-6.

5. Another NL race worth watching. Kershaw pressed his case for the NL Cy Young Award by throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Giants. Traditional-minded voters will be impressed by Kershaw notching his 20th win, tying Ian Kennedy for the NL lead, but his case for the honors is more about his league-leading 2.27 ERA and 242 strikeouts than the Ws. Kershaw may have moved past Cliff Lee, who was a bit less effective (7 IP, 3 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K) in a 3-0 loss to the Nationals, but he remains slightly behind Roy Halladay in advanced metrics, due in part to his pitching his home games in Dodger Stadium versus Citizens Bank Park, and in part due to Halladay's superior strikeout-to-walk ratio. It's a very close race, but Halladay stays in front with everyone having one start left.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.