Saturday September 24th, 2011

Call it Formality Friday. Three clubs with sizeable division leads -- the Brewers in the NL Central, the Diamondbacks in the NL West and the Rangers in the AL West -- all formally clinched their crowns. All six divisions have now been wrapped up.

In the wild-card races, the Braves moved closer to snagging the NL playoff berth (more below), while the Red Sox, who were rained out Friday, gained a half-game on their closest competitors, as both the Rays and Angels lost.

And Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp belted his 37th home run, tying Albert Pujols for the NL lead, and moving Kemp closer to baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967 -- that year Boston's Carl Yastrzemski 44 homers tied for the league lead as well. Kemp's 119 RBIs already lead the league by five, and his .326 average is three points behind co-leaders Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun.

1. Brewers clinch NL Central in familiar fashion.

When the Brewers last reached the playoffs in 2008, Ryan Braun hit a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning to beat the Cubs, and the club clinched the wild-card berth after the Marlins beat the Brewers' closest competitor, the Mets.

On Friday night Milwaukee clinched a division title (its first in the National League) rather than the wild card, but again Braun delivered the go-ahead blast in the eighth. This time the Marlins were the opponent for Braun's homer and the Cubs were the ally, defeating the Cardinals 5-1 to finalize the playoff spot about 20 minutes later.

Fittingly, all four runs the Brewers scored came off the bats of Braun and Prince Fielder, who hit a solo home run. Fielder has now driven in 113 runs and Braun has knocked in 107; their 220 RBIs are 33.5 percent of Milwaukee's season total of 657. That's the largest share of any two teammates in the majors, leading the Yankees' Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, who have collectively driven in 28.1 percent of their club's runs.

The timing was good for the Brewers' bashers, too: Braun had one hit in his previous 16 at bats, and Fielder had one hit in his last 13 at bats. How they hit in October will go a long way toward determining how long the Brewers play.

2. Diamondbacks complete worst-to-first turnaround.

A year after being relegated to last place in the NL West, the Diamondbacks are division champs after outlasting the Giants 3-1 on Friday night. Arizona, which was 65-97 in 2010, improved to 91-66 and claimed its fifth division title in the franchise's 14-year history.

The great flaw of last year's club was its bullpen: its relievers collectively sported a 5.74 ERA, which was the worst mark in NL history. New general manager Kevin Towers remade the bullpen in the offseason and changed over half of it again during the year, shaving more than two runs off that figure to a 3.68 mark that's in the middle of the pack.

The reliever corps' two principals have been eighth-inning setup man David Hernandez and closer J.J. Putz, so it's fitting Hernandez earned the win and Putz the save in the clincher. Hernandez shook off a recent rough patch that bloated his season ERA -- he's allowed multiple runs in only five appearances but two were in the last two weeks -- while Putz converted his 23rd consecutive opportunity and 44th overall.

3. Rangers ready for repeat run.

Think this team is loose? After beating Seattle 5-3, Texas waited around for the end of the A's-Angels game, watching on the Jumbotron and needing an Angels loss to secure the AL West. When Oakland's David DeJesus hit a ninth-inning homer for an insurance run, Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus did his own trot around the bases in Texas, some 1,400 miles away, and was greeted at home plate by many of his similarly celebrating teammates.

The Rangers are roaring on offense at just the right time: their five runs Friday represented a small decline from their gaudy, major-league-leading average of September of 6.6 runs per game. Their 34 homers -- including three in the clincher by Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre and Craig Gentry, who had an inside-the-park home run -- are also the best in baseball.

4. Everyone in Atlanta can breathe a sigh of relief.

The Braves didn't clinch the NL wild card but took a huge step forward. Their wild-card lead had shrunk to 1½ games entering play Thursday, but the Cardinals blew a 6-2 ninth-inning lead to the Mets, then lost a 1-0 lead in the sixth to the Cubs on Friday on their way to a 5-1 defeat. The Braves, meanwhile, won a tough road game -- facing the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg -- to bolster their lead to three games and reduce their magic number to three with fives games to play.

There even was an injury scare that proved to be nothing. Starter Tim Hudson was seen stretching out his arm on the mound and received a visit from the trainer, but after the game the team announced that he had no injury and was merely cramping; he was taken to a local hospital for fluids.

Other than Hudson's untimely exit after 5 2/3 innings, a little of everything went right for the Braves: slumping Brian McCann hit a two-run double into the gap off a left-handed pitcher; right fielder Jason Heyward continued his mini-revival with a two-hit day and is now 8 for his last 18; and O'Ventbrel -- the three-headed relieving monster of Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel -- secured two holds and a save for the win, though Venters did allow a run, his fifth such appearance in 11 outings this month.

5. Pitching, pitching, pitching.

Like the old axiom about business success being predicated by location, location, location, so too can playoff success usually be correlated with strong pitching. Several playoff-bound clubs enjoyed great starts by non-ace starters: the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo, the Tigers' Rick Porcello, the Rangers' Matt Harrison and the Diamondbacks' Joe Saunders.

None of the teams has announced an exact rotation, but Gallardo is likely to start Game 2 for Milwaukee behind Zack Greinke. Saunders will presumably start game 3 for Arizona. Porcello will likely start Game 4 for Detroit. Harrison would probably start either Game 3 or 4 for Texas.

Gallardo dazzled the Marlins for 11 strikeouts and one run over 7 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and no walks. It was his third straight start with at least 11 punchouts and his fourth straight quality start. Two of his previous three came against the Cardinals and Reds -- the NL's top scoring offense -- and the other came against the playoff-bound Phillies.

Friday also marked Porcello's fourth straight quality start after he allowed three runs in seven innings to the Orioles. He allowed a lot of baserunners -- nine hits and one walk -- but has been getting a lot of groundball outs: 11 against the O's and 53 groundouts to 31 flyouts over the last four starts.

Harrison, meanwhile, won his fourth straight start while allowing three runs on three hits and two walks over six innings to the Mariners. He has a 2.92 ERA over those four outings, spanning 24 2/3 innings. That he's left-handed bodes well for possible postseason matchups against the Yankees or Red Sox (presuming they make it), both of whom have multiple dangerous left-handed bats.

Saunders hurled seven innings of one-run ball against the Giants, allowing nine hits but no walks. The outing followed three straight wings, including his last start in which he allowed only one unearned run in 8 2/3 innings against the Padres. In Saunders' last six outings, he's made five quality starts and lowered his ERA from 3.98 to 3.58.

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