Friday September 23rd, 2011

In the previous four days, the Red Sox, Rays, Angels, Braves and Cardinals all lost games in the eighth inning or later. The wild card races have become such wars of attrition that rumor has it the Mariners are back in it. Throw in the longshot Giants, and the six wild card contenders have gone 8-13 this week. It's absurd enough to root for the ultimate in chaos: the first-ever three-way tie in major league history.

More than a hundred years of history tells you it won't happen, but at least the math doesn't sound so impossible. Three teams in the AL will wind up 91-71 if Boston goes 3-3, Tampa Bay goes 5-1 and Los Angeles goes 6-0. The NL also has a three-way tie in place at 90-72 with cooperation from Atlanta (2-4), St. Louis (4-2) and San Francisco (6-0).

What's the hardest part of those scenarios? The Red Sox and Braves actually manage to win some games the way they are playing.

The three-way tiebreaker is as awkward as you might imagine. Teams are seeded 1-2-3 based on their record against each other with the No. 1 seed given the choice to win two games at home or one on the road. Tampa Bay, the top AL seed, presumably would play at the winner of Los Angeles-at-Boston (3-seed vs. 2-seed), with the winner moving on to the ALDS.

In the NL, the Braves and Cardinals both went 7-6 against the teams involved in the tie, but because St. Louis has a better intradivisional record (the second tiebreaker) than Atlanta, the Cards would get the No. 1 seed and the Braves the No. 2. The Giants (6-8) would be the three seed.

Confused? Here is all you need to know about what the wild card contenders need to do in the next six days:

Boston: The staff is so bad, the Sox better win the three games in which Josh Beckett and Jon Lester start -- even though they are only 2-4 this month when Beckett and Lester take the ball. Here is the stat that best captures the absurdist nature of the Red Sox' September: they are 1-16 when they don't score at least 12 runs.

Tampa Bay: The Rays finish with six home games against Toronto and New York. One more loss is risky; a second and this game of Jenga is over.

Los Angeles: Run the table at home against Oakland and Texas. Sure. The Rangers have been swept in a three-game series once all year (by the Yankees in New York in mid-June).

Atlanta: The Braves somehow have to win three games against these pitchers from Washington and Philadelphia: Stephen Strasburg, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Cliff Lee, Vance Worley and Roy Oswalt. Atlanta has scored only 17 runs in its past six games, going 2-4.

St. Louis: The Cardinals have the easiest road. They don't face a winning starting pitcher over their final six games against the Cubs and Astros (combined record: 39-56). They can afford one more loss -- maybe.

San Francisco: The Dodgers fairly sunk the Giants' hopes last night. The Giants need to sweep at Arizona and at home against Colorado -- and even that might not be enough. Good luck. The Diamondbacks haven't been swept at home all year and are 17-2 in their last 19 games in Phoenix.

In honor of the premiere of Moneyball, I will remind you that over a five-year period (2000-04) Oakland starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito averaged 93 starts per year and ranked 1-6-8 among all AL pitchers in starts.

Winning baseball begins with starting pitchers who regularly make their turns. It really is that simple. The Diamondbacks and Brewers are two more examples this season of how healthy starting pitching often is behind the success of turnaround teams.

And now let's consider the Boston Red Sox and their troubles. Tonight, when Jon Lester takes the ball, they will become the last team in baseball to have a pitcher make his 30th start. Josh Beckett will get there in his final start. Having only two stable starters does not bode well for Boston. The past seven world champions had at least three starters make 30 starts, including the past three champions boasting four each.

The point is that if you can keep your starting pitchers on the mound, chances are you will be a very good team. Look at two subsets of major league teams this year: those teams with three or more starters with 30 starts entering the last week of the season -- let's call them Stable Rotations -- and those teams with no more than one starter with 30 starts -- let's call them Unstable Rotations.

Assuming Milwaukee and Texas as division champions, you'll find that five of the six division champions had stable rotations. (The exception was the Yankees.) Every team that managed to get 30 starts out of three starters posted a winning record with one exception (Florida).

The Red Sox and the Braves aren't the only ones who have injected drama into the last days of the season. Eugenio Velez, the 29-year-old utility player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is threatening a 75-year-old record: the worst hitless season in history. He is the anti-Ichiro.

When Velez was hit by a pitch Wednesday, it was his 36th plate appearance of the year, none of which have resulted in a hit. He is 0-for-33 with two walks and the one HBP. If you exclude all pitchers, nobody ever has come to the plate 36 times in a season without getting a hit.

The record holder is Hal Finney, a backup catcher for the 1936 Pirates who was hitless in 35 tries -- all of them official at-bats (i.e., no walks or hit by pitches.) Finney, though, had something of a decent excuse. He was a .240 career hitter when he was driving a tractor one day after the 1934 season on his father's farm in Alabama. Suddenly a tree limb broke and cracked Finney across his forehead. His eyesight was so impaired that he was placed on the voluntary retired list in 1935.

Finney was a guy without much luck even before the tree limb fell on his head. In 1931 he once caught a 13-inning game with no putouts. In 1932 he suffered a broken arm when he was hit by pitch. And in 1934 he was beaned in a minor league game.

After sitting out the 1935 season with impaired vision, Finney, then 30, decided to try a comeback. He went 0-for-35 and retired.

The Dodgers have seven games left and the drama is intense every time Velez might get to the plate. With two hitless at-bats, he can tie Finney's record for most at-bats in a hitless season. With each hitless plate appearance, he can extend his record for most plate appearances in a hitless season. (Number four on that list: David Ortiz, who had 25 hitless appearances for the 1999 Twins.)

Or he could completely forfeit his place in history by actually getting a hit.

But wait. There's more. Velez is 1-for-60 (.017) since April 20, 2010. His last major league hit was May 18, 2010. Since then he is 0-for-42 -- just three at-bats away from tying the record for the longest hitless streak in history, set in 1909 by Bill Bergen, tied in 1973 by Dave Campbell and matched again this year by the Brewers' Craig Counsell.

That's right: after 101 years with one 0-for-42 slump, we are just three at-bats away from having a second one this year alone.

Now, Velez at-bats are rare events themselves these days. He has come to plate only four times this month. But with so much history riding on each appearance, I have a message for my MLB Network colleagues: Each Velez plate appearance is worth a live look-in. The tension of the Velez Watch is almost unbearable.

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