O's' magic continues; Rays fading fast; Tigers could be hurting
The Orioles and Mariners held the standings hostage well into Wednesday morning with one of the longest games of the season, and when the Orioles ultimately emerged victorious (of course) they pointed a boney finger at the Rays. The Tigers and Dodgers hope no such finger is pointed at the seasons of Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw (and thus themselves). Out East, it rained.
It took 5 hours and 44 minutes and 18 innings, 15 of which were scoreless, but the Orioles finally emerged victorious just before 4 a.m. ET, beating the Mariners 4-2 to win their 14th straight extra inning game and pull into a technical first-place tie with the rained-out Yankees atop the American League East. The game was just the third this season to last 18 or more innings (the Pirates 19-inning victory over the Cardinals remains the longest of the year, coincidentally played on Aug. 19 while this one was played on Sept. 18) but marked the sixth time the Orioles have played past the 12th inning, each time emerging with the victory.
The Orioles, who still trail the Yankees by one game in the loss column, are now 14-2 in extra-inning games, and their only two losses beyond regulation came on consecutive days in April at home against the Yankees. Their 16 extra-inning games are by far the most in the American League, and their .875 winning percentage in those games is by far the best in the majors (the A's, who are 9-3, .750, rank second). Perhaps most impressively, the Orioles are undefeated on the road in extra innings, with nine of their 14 extra-inning wins, including Tuesday night's coming when the other team had last licks.
There's certainly a significant amount of good fortune involved in that, but it is also a testament to the Orioles' bullpen, which has been their chief strength throughout the season. Winning close games in which their bullpen held tiny leads was the primary way they managed to be five games above .500 despite being outscored by 36 runs in the first half of the season. On the season, their bullpen ERA of 3.13 is sixth in the majors despite the fact that they are also fourth in total relief innings. Only three teams have recorded more saves, and only the Rockies' relievers have recorded more wins. On Tuesday night, seven Orioles relievers combined for 12 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 16 against three walks and six hits with repurposed starters Jake Arrieta (3 1/3 innings), Steve Johnson (3 IP), and winning pitcher Tommy Hunter (2 IP) doing the heavy lifting. The Orioles have now played 55 extra innings this season and their bullpen has allowed just five runs in those frames, good for a 0.82 ERA.
Expanded rosters aided the Orioles on Tuesday night, as both teams easily made it through 18 frames using eight pitchers each without a position player so much as getting loose in the bullpen. Still, the construction of the Baltimore bullpen is a credit to the organization's flexibility regarding pitchers' roles, a throwback to Earl Weaver's Eighth Law, that "the best place for a rookie [or in this case, unproven starting] pitcher is in long relief." Lefty starters Brian Matusz and Randy Wolf have also worked out of the Baltimore 'pen this month, with Matusz getting two outs on Tuesday night, and the success of such repurposed arms should be in some measure shared with manager Buck Showalter's use of his relievers.
Tuesday night, the Mariners fell prey to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, to which the O's have added a corollary this season, "never get involved in an extra-inning game with the 2012 Baltimore Orioles."
The Orioles 18-inning win in Seattle may have been the final nail in the coffin of the 2012 Rays' season. Or rather, the Ray's 7-5 loss to the dysfunctional and disemboweled Red Sox earlier (far, far earlier) in the evening may have been the final nail. With that loss and the Orioles' win, the Rays are now six games behind in both the AL East and wild card races (that's six games behind the second-place O's in the wild card race and 6 1/2 behind the first-place A's). With just 14 games left on the Rays' schedule, the last seven of which are against the division-leading White Sox and Orioles, it would take a baseball miracle for Tampa Bay to make the postseason.
With the Rays effectively out of the hunt, slipping a half game behind the Tigers in the wild card race, where Detroit hadn't been a factor in a while, that reduces the wild card race in the American League to a battle between the second-place team in the AL East (be it the Yankees or Orioles) and the Angels, who beat the Rangers 11-3 on Tuesday night to stay three games behind the O's and climb within 3 1/2 of the A's.
Looking at their remaining schedules, the Angels, already at a disadvantage because they're trailing in the standings, have a tough schedule remaining, with five more against the Rangers and three against the White Sox as well as their final six games on the road (three in Texas, three in Seattle). By contrast, the Orioles' only remaining games against a team with a winning record are their final three in Tampa Bay, though the Rays will very likely have been eliminated by the time those games come around. The Yankees, meanwhile, host the A's for three games this weekend, a potentially crucial series, but otherwise play teams with losing records and finish at home against the Red Sox.
Having lost to the division-leading White Sox in the finale of their season series on Monday, the Tigers were already in a tough spot entering their final 15 games. However, things might have gotten worse on Tuesday night despite the fact that Detroit pounded the wild card-leading A's 12-2, slipping past the Rays in that race. As important as that win was, and with the White Sox also winning it was absolutely crucial, the key event in the game occurred when starter Max Scherzer was unable to return after two innings and 44 pitches due to shoulder fatigue.
Scherzer had an MRI after the game which showed no structural damage, but he won't be allowed to throw for a couple of days, after which he will be re-evaluated. That sets up the possibility of him missing his next start, with rookie Drew Smyly likely taking his place, while the possible presence of a significant injury remains. Scherzer didn't betray any visible discomfort in his two innings of work on Tuesday night. However, none of his 44 pitches on Tuesday night broke 94 miles per hour, his fastball sat around 93, and his last two four-seamers were clocked at 90 mph. Per TexasLeaguers.com, Scherzer's average four-seam fastball in his first three starts this month came in at 95.4 miles per hour. That's average, meaning as many were above 95.4 as below.
In his last 16 starts prior to Tuesday night, dating back to mid-June, Scherzer had gone 11-2 with a 2.45 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 5.07 K/9, and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Whatever slim hope the Tigers still have of making the postseason may just evaporate completely if Scherzer is unable to continue contributing at that level over the season's final two weeks.
Hip specialist Dr. Bryan Kelly told the Dodgers that Clayton Kershaw won't do any more damage to his right hip by pitching through what Kelly and team doctor Neal ElAttrache each independently diagnosed as an impingement, meaning the joint is pinched during rotation. However, the Dodgers remain cautious if not out-right pessimistic about both Kershaw's ability to pitch through the injury and the wisdom of having him do so. Kelly's opinion allowed Kershaw to resume throwing on Tuesday, but the Dodgers are going to take a wait-and-see approach to putting Kershaw back in the rotation and say they will not allow him to pitch if his hip remains painful.
Kershaw did make one start after initially reporting the pain in his hip earlier this month, allowing just one unearned run on three hits in seven innings against the Diamondbacks in Arizona, a start made on two extra days rest prompted by the injury. Kershaw's five strikeouts in that game were fewer than he had racked up in any of his previous eight starts, but that might be nitpicking. The biggest issue is that Kershaw and the Dodgers are running out of time. The Cardinals won Tuesday night while L.A. was idle, and by Thursday morning there will be just 13 games left on the Dodgers' schedule. The best case scenario might be two more starts from Kershaw at something less than full health.
A big storm on the east coast washed out three games with potential pennant implications on Tuesday, leaving idle the Dodgers, who were to open a series in Washington, DC, the Phillies, who were set to play the second of three games against the Mets in Queens, and the Yankees, who were going to start Andy Pettitte for the first time since a comebacker broke his ankle in late June. With the season almost over and those teams in the playoff hunt, all three games will be made up this week.
The Phillies and Mets will simply play on Thursday, a scheduled off-day for both teams and only the smallest of inconveniences for Philadelphia, who head home on Friday to face the Braves and have an off-day on Monday. That game will start at 7:10 p.m. ET. Meanwhile, the Yankees, who were to open a series against the Blue Jays Tuesday night, and Dodgers will both play double-headers on Wednesday.