Friday September 23rd, 2011

It's hard to fault a team for losing for just the third time in 15 games, but that just underscores how remarkable the Cardinals' surge has been and how little room for error they have heading into the season's final weekend. Having blown a 6-2 lead in the ninth inning on Thursday, the Cardinals trail the Braves for the National League Wild Card by two games with just six to play, the same deficit that the Rays, who beat the Yankees 15-8 Thursday night, face in the American League. That's a tall order for either team, no matter how poorly the leaders in those two races have played this month.

Meanwhile, the division races could all be over once the dust clears on Friday thanks to losses by the second-place Cardinals, Giants, and Angels on Thursday, the last of those coming on a 12th inning walk-off home run by the Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion. The Giants' loss guaranteed the Diamondbacks a tie in the NL West, while the Cardinals and Angels both fell five games back with six to play, thus setting the Brewers' and Rangers' magic numbers to tie at one and clinch at two.

1. Mets' six-run ninth inning a painful blow to the Cardinals' postseason hopes.

If the Cardinals' remarkable attempt to unseat the Braves for the National League Wild Card falls short, Thursday's loss to the Mets just might be the game St. Louis fans point to as the breaking point. After waking up on the morning of August 25 10 1/2 games behind the Braves, the Cardinals went 19-6, including a three-game sweep of the Braves at home earlier this month and wins in 12 of their last 14 games prior to Thursday's afternoon tilt, to pull within a game and a half of Atlanta. With the Braves idle on Thursday, the Cardinals had a chance to round off that half game and enter the final six games of the season just a game off the wild card lead by completing a three-game sweep of the Mets at home.

An Allen Craig home run gave St. Louis a two-run lead two batters into the game. Jake Westbrook preserved that lead for six innings, and the Cardinal offense built upon it, sending a 6-2 advantage into the top of the ninth. On to get those outs was Jason Motte, who had walked just one batter in his previous 17 2/3 innings, but walked Willie Harris to start the ninth. After a Rafael Furcal error and a fly out, Motte walked Jason Pridie to load the bases and Justin Turner to force in a run. Lefty Marc Rzepczynski followed, threw two pitches, and gave up an RBI single to Jose Reyes that made it 6-4, then Fernando Salas came on to surrender a game-tying double beyond the reach of a diving Shane Robinson in deep left field to Ruben Tejada. After setting up the force at every base by intentionally walking Angel Pagan, Salas rallied to strike out David Wright only to give up a well-struck two-run single to right field by Harris that put the Mets ahead 8-6. Having subbed out Lance Berkman and David Freese for defense, Tony La Russa was then left with Nick Punto, Daniel Descalso, and Yadier Molina in the bottom of the ninth. Bobby Parnell retired them in order.

The Cardinals still have the easier schedule (facing the Cubs at home and Astros in Houston while the Braves visit Washington and host the Phillies), and the Braves have been nearly as cold (7-13 since September 2) as the Cards have been hot, but the Braves could go 2-4 the rest of the way and the Cardinals would have to go 5-1 to win the wild card outright. If the Braves split their remaining schedule, 5-1 would only force a playoff game. This race isn't over, but the Cardinals' chances just got a lot slimmer.

2. Rays in same spot as Cards.

The Rays beat the Yankees on Thursday in a wild, messy, 15-8 contest on a muggy night at the new Yankee Stadium to shave a half-win off their deficit to the idle AL Wild Card leading Red Sox. The Rays are now in the same boat as the Cardinals -- two games back with six to play, and the Rays do not have the clear schedule advantage enjoyed by St. Louis. While both Boston and Tampa Bay have three games left against the Yankees, the Rays will play the Blue Jays where the Red Sox face the Orioles. One could still find advantages for Tampa Bay in those matchups -- the Rays play their final six games at home while Boston plays them on the road; the Orioles just took three of four from the Red Sox at Fenway earlier this week -- but that's nothing like facing the Astros while the team you're chasing faces the Phillies. Then again, the Red Sox's tailspin has been worse than the Braves', with Boston going 6-17 dating back to a series loss to New York as August turned into September. No matter how you slice it, the Cards and Rays are both a third as many games behind as they have left.

3. Berkman signing a potential consolation prize for St. Louis.

One thing the Cardinals did manage to complete on Thursday was a one-year extension for right fielder Lance Berkman, re-signing the switch-hitter for his age-36 season for $12 million and giving him a full no-trade clause. When the Cardinals signed Berkman in December coming off his worst full major league season and announced that they planned to have him start in the outfield full time for the first time since 2004, I pegged the move as a potential disaster, but while Berkman's play in the field lived down to expectations, he experienced a complete rejuvenation at the plate, hitting .300/.412/.555 through Wednesday, leading the NL with a career-best 169 OPS+, and reaching 30 home runs for the first time since 2007. In a season that saw Albert Pujols suffer his first prolonged slump and a broken wrist, and Matt Holliday limited by a litany of maladies, most recently a wrist injury of his own that has kept him out of action since last Tuesday, Berkman, who hit .345/.455/.476 during the 19-6 streak mentioned above, has been the Cardinals' best hitter. Whether 2010 or 2011 was the fluke remains to be seen, but it's well worth the one-year gamble to bring back a career .296/.409/.546 hitter who, as an experienced first baseman, could also serve as insurance against the team's ability to re-sign Pujols.

4. Yankees' rotation questions get louder.

The Yankees had a big day on Wednesday, sweeping a doubleheader from the Rays and clinching the AL East with the decisive hit coming in a pinch-hit at-bat from 40-year-old Jorge Posada, who is likely in his final days with the team. Thursday night washed away the champagne with cold water as Bartolo Colon gave up seven runs in just three innings, reminding the Yankees that the early-season concerns about their rotation have resurfaced at exactly the wrong time. Colon, who had emerged as the team's No. 2 starter prior to a mid-June hamstring injury, is now 0-4 with a 6.18 ERA in his last six starts. Freddy Garcia has posted a 10.95 ERA in his three September starts, averaging just over four innings per start on the month. Since returning from the disabled list at the end of August, Garcia has allowed 3.4 home runs per nine innings over four starts. Phil Hughes was scratched from Wednesday's opener due to a sudden reoccurrence of inflammation related to a seven-year-old back injury. Then there's A.J. Burnett, who teased the team by appearing to improve after pitching coach Larry Rothschild altered his delivery -- only to give up four runs in four innings to the Twins' spring training lineup on Monday, increasing his second-half ERA to 7.43.

The Yankees hope Hughes will be able to start a game in their final series in Tampa Bay next week, but he wasn't particularly close to nailing down a spot in the postseason rotation even before his back became an issue. Still, if Hughes can appear healthy and effective in Florida, that may be enough to earn him a division series start. The Yankees could get through the first round with three starters, with CC Sabathia, who won't start again during the regular season, working on three-day's rest, something he's accustomed to doing in big spots, in Game 4, and rookie No. 2 starter Ivan Nova starting on regular rest in a potential double-elimination Game 5, thus needing just one start from the quartet above, but it seems unlikely that they'd ask Nova to start on short rest in the Championship Series, should they be fortunate enough to get that far. They could still get through the ALCS with Sabathia starting every three days, Nova starting twice (in Games 2 and 6), and needing just two games from the quartet above, but they'd have to have two different pitchers start those games, and right now I'm not sure they trust any of them, nor should they.

5. Diamondbacks idle, but clinch a tie.

With Madison Bumgarner (5-0, 1.04 ERA in his previous five starts) on the mound, and Carlos Beltran (.433/.486/.776 in September prior to Thursday's action) giving the Giants an early 1-0 lead with a first-inning home run off the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda, the Giants looked like they were going to keep this weekend's three-game series in Arizona interesting, but Kuroda locked things down from there, Bumgarner spit the bit, Matt Kemp became the sixth player to collect four extra-base hits in a game this season (just the second in the NL), and the Giants lost 8-2, guaranteeing the Diamondbacks a tie atop the NL West. As it was, the Diamondbacks could have clinched with a win against the Giants this weekend no matter what San Francisco did on Thursday, and Baseball Prospectus's postseason odds report gave the Giants just a 0.3 percent chance of taking the West before Thursday's loss, but this weekend's series between the two teams still felt like must-see baseball until the Giants loss on Thursday.

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