Wednesday September 28th, 2011

Five thoughts on the playoff picture after the Rays and Red Sox both won in the American League, and the Cardinals won while the Braves lost in the National League.

1. This will be the eighth consecutive year at least one playoff entrant is decided on the regular season's final day. In each of the last seven seasons, at least one playoff spot remained up for grabs on the final day of the season, and that streak is now eight, as neither wild card has been clinched. The Rays and Red Sox are tied in the AL; the Braves and Cardinals are tied in the NL.

The great appeal of both March Madness and the NFL playoffs is their one-game, winner-take-all approach, and baseball could have a taste of that this week. In 2007, '08 and '09 baseball saw a 163rd game added to the regular season, twice to decide the AL Central and once to determine the NL wild card.

Such a scenario is in play this season, with a twist -- if the AL teams both win or both lose and the NL teams also remain in sync, then baseball could have two one-game playoffs on Thursday. It could be a preview of what's to come every year if a second wild card is added to each league, as has been rumored to happen in the upcoming new collective bargaining agreement.

(Major League Baseball announced Tuesday afternoon that, if necessary, the AL one-game playoff would be 4 p.m. Eastern at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field and the NL game would be at 8 Eastern at St. Louis' Busch Stadium; both sites were determined by head-to-head record.)

2. Cardinals show more fight than Braves in NL wild-card race. Here's one difference between Atlanta and St. Louis right now. The Braves, who are 9-17 in September, fell behind the Phillies 6-0 after five innings and did little to retaliate before falling 7-1 (RECAP | BOX). They were retired in order for four straight innings before Martin Prado hit a meaningless solo homer in the ninth for their only run. Sure, they were facing a tough starter in Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt, but they only scratched out four hits and one walk for the entire game.

The Cardinals, who are 17-8 this month, fell behind the Astros 5-0 after three innings and did something about it, roaring back for five runs in the fourth inning and eight more runs later in the game for the eventual 13-6 win (RECAP | BOX). Granted, they were facing a middling starter in rookie Henry Sosa, but they are also in the midst of team's best offensive month since April.

In fact, St. Louis has scored the second-most runs in the NL this month (120) while the Braves have scored the 15th most (84). Neither, however, will face a first-rate starting pitcher on Wednesday. Atlanta's opponent, Joe Blanton, has a 5.03 ERA and has made just one start, which lasted two innings on Saturday, since May 14. Houston's Brett Myers has a 7-13 record and a 4.31 ERA, although he has allowed just one earned run in each of his last five starts spanning 36 1/3 innings.

3. The Rays and Red Sox will send their Opening Day southpaws to the hill with the season on the line. Home runs ruled Tuesday for the wild-card contenders: the Red Sox hit four, including the first two of rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway's career, in their 8-7 victory over the Orioles (RECAP | BOX); the Rays hit two in their 5-3 defeat of the Yankees (RECAP | BOX), with the decisive blow coming in the seventh inning when Matt Joyce hit a three-run blast off reliever Rafael Soriano.

Both the Sox and Rays have their top lefty starter taking the ball -- Jon Lester for Boston, David Price for Tampa Bay -- but the quality of their opponents could vary considerably. The Sox are facing an Orioles team that, though it has played well in September, is a distant last place in the division but will play everyone and relish the role of spoiler. Alfredo Simon, who has been the team's No. 4 starter since July, takes the ball. His only start against the Sox was his first, back on July 9 when he allowed three runs on eight hits over 4 2/3 innings and took the loss.

Also, Lester is starting on only three days' rest, though he did throw only 55 pitches in that outing, and has allowed 16 runs in his last 13 2/3 innings, spanning three starts. He's started only once against Baltimore, and it was back in April. He won that game, allowing two runs in eight innings.

The Rays' opponent, on the other hand, is the Yankees, who have long since clinched the best record in the AL. New York manager Joe Girardi has said that he'll start his normal lineup -- though he hasn't committed to playing them the whole game -- but hasn't named a starting pitcher and plans to piece together nine innings primarily from pitchers who won't be used extensively in the playoffs. That's his right and it's totally defensible, given that New York has only one off-day before hosting ALDS Game 1 on Friday.

Price is 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA in four starts against the Yankees this season; his win came in the most recent start on Aug. 12, when he allowed one run in eight innings.

4. Veteran starters did their teams no favors. Three of the four playoff-chasing teams started a 30-something veteran: Bedard for the Red Sox, Lowe for the Braves and Westbrook for the Cardinals. All three got clobbered and failed to complete the fifth inning.

In Baltimore, Bedard needed 84 pitches just to get through 3 1/3 innings while allowing three runs on five hits and three walks; in relief of him, however, Alfredo Aceves needed just 36 pitches to get through 3 2/3 innings while allowing one run on three hits and no walks.

Lowe allowed five runs on six hits in four-plus innings and took the loss, his 17th of the season.

Westbrook's stint on the mound was the shortest of them all: He lasted just 2 1/3 innings, which was still long enough to yield five runs on seven hits and a walk.

In contrast, the Rays started rookie Jeremy Hellickson, who took a no decision while spinning a rulebook quality start of three runs in six innings. Though he walked five and gave up six hits, he faced a Yankees lineup that essentially started eight of nine regulars. Hellickson finished the regular season with a 2.95 ERA in 189 innings while calling the AL East home, which ought to be sufficient credentials for the league's rookie of the year award.

5. Arizona keeps pace with Milwaukee. The Brewers won 6-4 on Tuesday night (RECAP | BOX) thanks to a three-homer outburst from Prince Fielder, and after the Diamondbacks fell behind the Dodgers 6-1 in the 10th inning, Miller Park seemed like a safe bet to be hosting Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS this weekend. Instead, Arizona staged in an improbable six-run rally with two outs and the bases empty, capped by a Ryan Roberts walkoff grand slam for a 7-6 win (RECAP | BOX). As Roberts rounded first, he gave a celebratory double pump with his arm, harkening images of his manager, Kirk Gibson, doing that after his epic 1988 World Series Game 1 walkoff homer.

The stakes weren't as high in this game as in Gibson's, but the race for the NL's No. 2 seed is of value for two reasons: 1) the winner avoids playing the Phillies in the first round, and 2) the winner gets homefield advantage, which is no small matter for these two teams.

Grabbing homefield advantage is more important for the Brewers than for any other team in the majors. They have 56 home wins this season, which is four more than anyone else in baseball, and their +17 difference between home wins and road wins is the NL's only double-digit discrepancy. At home Milwaukee has scored 4.8 runs per game with 99 homers and a .813 OPS; on the road it has scored 4.1 runs per game with 83 homers and a .698 OPS.

Arizona, meanwhile, has a +8 win differential, which is the third-largest in the NL, and an offensive home/road split that's only a little less pronounced than the Brewers'. In games at Chase Field, the D-backs score 4.9 runs per game and have hit 91 homers with a .783 OPS; on the road they score 4.1 runs per game and have hit 79 homers with a .691.

In the AL, the Rangers' magic number to clinch the AL's second-best record -- which comes with the dual perks of having homefield advantage in the ALDS and of avoiding the Yankees -- is one after they blew out the Angels 10-3 in a five-homer explosion Wednesday night (RECAP | BOX). Texas would wrap it up Wednesday with a win or a Detroit loss.

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