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For all playoff contenders, pitching will be key down the stretch

NEW YORK -- The AL East remained tied with a pair of losses, but the race for the NL's second wild card cinched closer. Here are five thoughts on Friday night:

1. Split Aces

In the top of the fifth inning Yankees reliever Cody Eppley began throwing in the bullpen. This seemingly innocuous occurrence was anything but, as ace CC Sabathia was on the mound with no outs and two men on in a game his club was trailing only 2-1.

Such has been the Yankees' last month with Sabathia. Since returning from the DL on Aug. 24, the lefthander had been staked to an early lead in each of his five previous starts -- and lost the lead in each. In the last four, the Yankees later lost the game. Sabathia pitched 6 2/3 innings in this loss, allowing four runs on six hits and two walks while striking out only three. He said afterwards his arm feels good but he was "just not making pitches".

Admittedly, three of those four leads were only one run -- and the fourth was but a 2-0 advantage -- but that's the standard New York has come to expect from its ace, that Sabathia would at least hold onto some or even most of those leads.

His velocity had been down in recent starts, and Sabathia started a little slowly Friday night, sitting 91-93 through four innings, before reaching 94-95 in the fifth, which also proved to be his worst inning, as he gave up three runs. "I'll take location over velocity," manager Joe Girardi had said before the game, and afterwards Girardi noted that Sabathia lost his command in that fifth inning. The rally started with the eighth and ninth hitters, when Chris Gimenez doubled and Carlos Peña walked; both had been down 1-and-2 in the count. Sabathia now has only 12 strikeouts in his last 20 innings of work, showing an inability to put hitters away.

His Rays counterpart, David Price, on the other hand, showed little ill effect from the shoulder soreness that cost him his last start. Price needed 105 pitches to go seven innings, allowing just two runs while striking out six. "He was really good," manager Joe Maddon said. "He kept getting better." Price acknowledged that his fastball command was missing but noted that his secondary pitches were better than they had been in a while. Even more important for Tampa Bay's chances from here on out was this proclamation: "I felt good," he said.

It was a command performance when Tampa Bay, which entered four games out of the playoff picture, needed it badly. Maddon said their standing was "not optimal, by any means" but "not one we can't overcome." Before the game third baseman Evan Longoria said the Rays really needed to win two of three this weekend. One down, at least one to go.

2. No relief in red

Cardinals relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica allowed three runs to the Dodgers on a Luis Cruz homer in the sixth inning, coughing up a 4-3 lead before later falling 8-5, as Los Angeles cut St. Louis' wild-card lead to one game.

Overuse is becoming a problem for the Cardinals' bullpen because their starters haven't been going deep in games. The rotation has had just one start last longer than 6 1/3 innings since Aug. 22, averaging 5 1/3 in the interim.

For the first week, the reliever corps held up, but since Aug. 30 they have now allowed multiple runs in nine of the team's last 15 games, including a total of five in three innings on Friday. It's probably no coincidence that they've had to cover an average of 3 1/3 innings per game over these last two-plus weeks.

The homer Mujica allowed to Cruz came on the righthander's first pitch, so it's not like he was tired after having had an off-day, but such lapses were bound to happen with use; after 18 consecutive scoreless appearances, he has now allowed runs in two of his last three outings.

3. Quadruple-double

The Athletics entered Friday with the AL's lowest rate of inducing opponents to ground into possible double plays, turning 10.3 percent of all situations with a man on first and fewer than two outs. Their starting pitcher was Tommy Milone, whose 51.0 percent groundball rate is in the bottom quartile of qualifiers.

So what happened? The Orioles grounded into double plays in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings off Milone and in the seventh off reliever Pat Neshek (who pitched most of the year for Baltimore's Triple A team). Those four straight innings with double plays helped kill opportunity after opportunity, as Oakland reaped the benefits of a revamped defense that ranks first in the majors in defensive efficiency.

The A's, who received an uplifting pregame visit from injured starter Brandon McCarthy, went on to win 3-2, thereby moving to a two-game lead over Baltimore and New York in the second wild card spot and keeping a 4 1/2-game cushion for a playoff spot.

4. Takin' Care of Business

The Phillies, Tigers and White Sox each sent their best pitcher to the mound against a bottom-feeder, with predictable results.

The Tigers spotted Justin Verlander to a 2-0 lead in the first and a 4-0 lead by the second, which was more than the ace needed against the Indians, as he cruised for seven shutout innings en route to the 4-0 win.

The Phillies plated their first four batters and, with Cole Hamels on the mound, went on to thump the Astros for a 12-6 victory. Hamels allowed four runs (three earned) in his seven innings of work, with eight strikeouts.

The White Sox, meanwhile, led the Twins 2-0 by the fourth inning with Chris Sale on the hill, and sailed to a 6-0 win with the lefthander throwing six shutout frames while allowing just four base runners on three hits and a hit-by-pitch.

Chicago and Detroit are mired in a tight battle for the AL Central, with the Sox holding a one-game lead, while Philadelphia is three games back of the Cardinals for the second wild card. But, no matter one's standing, winning when your top starter faces a weaker opponent is essential down the stretch. Verlander and Sale had been scheduled to face each other in Chicago before the game was rained out, allowing both to hold serve against other opponents, rather than go head-to-head.

5. Infield infirmary

Both the Rays and Yankees have a left-side infield star -- Longoria and Derek Jeter, respectively -- who's battling a lingering leg injury, putting their respective daily lineups and defensive alignments in constant flux. Both players served as designated hitters on Friday. "We have a lot of 'Godspell' moments around here," Maddon said, referring to the musical's hit number, "Day by Day".

Longoria, who missed more than three months with a hamstring injury, has played in all but two Rays games since his Aug. 7 return including starts in each of the last 22 games. Longoria, who went 0-for-4 on Friday, hasn't been his usual self since his return, batting .250/.315/.438, but that .752 OPS still ranks fifth on the team in that span. Tampa Bay is 35-22 (.614) in games he's started this season and 43-44 (.494) in all other games.

Jeter, meanwhile, recently suffered a bone bruise in his left ankle yet, according to Girardi, won't describe his condition as anything other than "great," which hasn't escaped Longoria's attention, either.

"I think that's one of the reasons so many people admire him," Longoria said of Jeter, "his ability to put the team before himself and go out there and play every day. No complaints. His interview the other day pretty much summed his career up. He said, 'It's not a big deal. I'll be in there tomorrow.' It looked like he could barely walk."

Jeter had two singles on Friday, one a grounder that the second baseman couldn't quite get to, but the other was a rope down the right field line, with an unfortunate carom -- and, perhaps, his ailing ankle -- preventing him from getting to second.

There's no understating Jeter's importance to that Yankees lineup. He's the team leader in average (.323) and is second in OBP (.367), placing among the game's best leadoff hitters, and though Eduardo Nuñez has good range at shortstop, a ninth-inning error on Friday that led to a Rays insurance run underscored how erratic he can be.

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