The Angels and Brewers gained some ground in the Wild Card races this weekend, while the Orioles lost some and raised some red flags, but the biggest factor on the pennant races over the last four days was the relentless march of time.
1. A Battle of Attrition. This past weekend, which for our purposes here lasted from Thursday to Sunday, saw some key head-to-head battles among playoff rivals, with the Cardinals and Dodgers playing four games in Los Angeles, the Orioles and A's playing three in Anaheim, and the Rays and Yankees playing three in the Bronx. Yet, for all of the excitement that the weekend brought, the peak of which was likely the Dodgers wild card-tying, walk-off win after being one strike away from a loss on Saturday night, not much has changed in the overall standings since Thursday morning. Of what I'll call the five "active" races, for the second wild card in each league and all three American League divisions, only one saw the leader lose any ground over the last four days, and even there it was just a half a game (see below).
With the Cardinals' extra-inning win on Sunday, St. Louis regained the one-game lead it held on Los Angeles entering their head-to-head series. With the A's loss and the Rangers win on Sunday, Texas regained the game it lost to Oakland in the standings on Saturday, restoring the three-game lead they had entering Thursday's action. The Yankees broke their tie with the Orioles on Saturday and maintained that one-game advantage with a win on Sunday, and the White Sox added a game to their lead over the Tigers when Detroit blew a late lead to Cleveland on Sunday (more on that below). That lack of change is good news for the leaders, who are burning games off the schedule. No contender has more than 17 games left on its schedule and some are down to 15.
2. Reports of Angels' Demise Greatly Exaggerated: Among those teams with just 15 games left is the only challenger in the American League to gain ground this weekend, the Angels. Playing the Royals while the rest of the wild-card contenders were beating on each other, the Angels lost a brutal game on Saturday that had many writing their season's obituary. The Angels were leading the Royals 2-0 with Zack Greinke still on the mound with one out in the bottom of the ninth, when Alex Gordon singled on Greinke's 109th pitch. Angels manager Mike Scioscia then went to his closer, Ernesto Frieri, and Frieri promptly gave up a game-tying home run to Billy Butler on his first pitch, followed by a game-winning homer by Salvador Perez three pitches later.
Backbreaker? Not so much. The Angels won 4-3 on Sunday thanks in part to 3 1/3 scoreless innings from their bullpen, with Kevin Jepsen getting the save, taking two of three in the series. Having entered Thursday's action 3 1/2 back, they are now just 2 1/2 games behind Baltimore and a game and a half ahead of the Rays in the AL Wild Card race.
3. Milwaukee's Best: The Dodgers' tie for the second wild-card spot in the National League lasted less than 24 hours. The Phillies lost three of four to the Astros by allowing an average of six runs per game in Houston. The Pirates finally snapped their losing streak at seven games with a win Saturday, but still dropped two of their first three against the Cubs in Chicago, allowing 26 runs in those three games (8 2/3 per game). The Cardinals burned four more games off the schedule by splitting their series in Los Angeles, but also failed to break out of their scoring slump, scoring just 12 runs in regulation over those four games and needing twelve innings and the Dodgers to burn through nine relievers before adding three more runs to their tally for the win on Sunday.
Amidst all of that, the Brewers took two of three from the Mets to become the only one of the top five teams in that race for the second NL wild-card spot to win their weekend series. In the process, they slipped past the Pirates into third place in that race and are now just 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals. That's only a half-game gain from Thursday morning, but they're just two games back in the loss column, and given how poorly their competition is playing and the fact that there's now one less team between them and their goal, it's fair to say they've gone from the periphery of this race to the center of it.
4. Take These Broken Wings: The Orioles dropped two of three to the A's in Oakland this weekend, and while they actually broke even in scoring, both teams tallying 13 runs in the series, some red flags have emerged on the Orioles' roster. The biggest culprit is in an area that very recently was their biggest strength, the starting rotation. Joe Saunders turned in a quality start in a hard-luck 3-2 loss on Friday night, but Zack Britton was lit up on Saturday. Britton had been somewhere between good and dominant in four starts from August 18 to September 4 (4-0, 0.94 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings), but in his last two he has allowed ten runs in 7 1/3 innings while walking nine. On Sunday, the O's turned to veteran lefty Randy Wolf, whom they picked up off the scrap heap at the end of August and had been pitching in long relief since, posting a 5.68 ERA in three appearances. Wolf gave up two runs in four innings before yielding to the bullpen.
Wolf was taking Jason Hammel's turn in the rotation following Hammel's departure from his last start due to a stabbing pain in his surgically repaired right knee. Hammel's MRI revealed no structural damage in the knee, but the O's are going to skip his start anyway and have said they're going to take a "wait and see" approach to his health. Meanwhile, Chris Tillman is scheduled to start on Monday after missing two turns with stiffness in his pitching elbow. Given Britton's collapse and Hammel's mysterious status, that could prove to be a huge start for the team, as having Tillman or Hammel (and ideally both) healthy for the remainder of the season is a must for Baltimore.
On the other side of the ball, the Orioles, trailing 5-2, staged a ninth-inning rally on Saturday, bringing the tying run to the plate with two outs. Veteran defensive specialist Endy Chavez, a lefty-hitting September call-up who hit .190/.222/.281 this season before being outrighted off the roster in early August, was the batter due up. Buck Showalter let Chavez hit against the A's right-handed closer, Grant Balfour. That might have been a questionable call anyway (Chavez ground out weakly to third to end the game), but one reason Showalter didn't sent up a pinch-hitter in that situation is that, despite the expanded rosters, he didn't really have one. With Nick Markakis, whose spot in right field Chavez was filling, out for the season with a broken thumb and Wilson Betemit possibly done as well after re-aggravating the right wrist injury which sent him to the disabled list in August, the only lefty bats Showalter had on his bench were utility man Ryan Flaherty, reserve infielder Omar Quintanilla, and rookie speedster Xavier Avery, and the best hitter he had on his bench from either side was Lew Ford, who is 2-for-21 against right-handed pitchers this season, his first in the major leagues since 2007.
5. The Week Ahead: The coming week starts with a bang as the Tigers and White Sox make up the rained-out finale of their season series with a 1:10 p.m. Central time start in Chicago. It's not the game we could have had on Thursday, however. That game was to pit Justin Verlander against Chris Sale with the Tigers trailing the White Sox for the division lead by one game. Monday will see Doug Fister face rookie Jose Quintana with the White Sox up two games in the division.
From there, the Tigers will travel home to host the A's for three games starting on Tuesday. The Tigers are pretty much out of the wild-card hunt at this point being 4 1/2 games behind the Orioles and 6 1/2 behind the A's, but they're very much in the hunt for the Central. This is a big week for Detroit. If the Tigers can hang close to the White Sox this week, they'll be in a great position as they face only the Twins and Royals the rest of the way, while the White Sox have seven games against the Angels and Rays.
Elsewhere, the Brewers will look to further separate themselves from the rest of the NL wild-card challengers via a three-game set against the free-falling Pirates, while the closest wild-card challengers, the Dodgers and Angels, will try to avoid losing ground while facing the teams with the top records in their respective leagues, the Nationals and Rangers. Meanwhile, the other top contenders take on weaker teams and anticipate key starting pitcher returns. The Orioles and Yankees will face the Mariners and Blue Jays, with Tillman and Andy Pettitte scheduled to return on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, while the Cardinals hope to avoid the Phillies' fate against the Astros, particularly with Chris Carpenter now scheduled to return against the Cubs on Friday afternoon.