Five Cuts: Pettitte's return, agony for A's and more Medlen magic
Rain on the East Coast led to a pair of doubleheaders on Wednesday, accelerating the day's playoff implications. The Dodgers split one of them, with the Nationals, delaying the first clinching celebration in Washington since 1933 and keeping L.A., despite its disappointing offense and a pitching staff that is without Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly, within two games of the National League's second wild-card spot. The second double billing will be discussed below. Then there were the Orioles, doing what only the Orioles can.
Herewith, Five Cuts from the day at the races ...
You can, in part, credit the Blue Jays' Triple-A-caliber lineup for Andy Pettitte's successful comeback-within-a-comeback -- from, naturally, a comebacker, which broke his ankle 12 weeks ago. With Edwin Encarnacion nursing a sore toe in the dugout, Toronto started just one player, third baseman Brett Lawrie, who had a batting average better than .245 and an OPS better than .708. As it turned out, the Jays' most fearsome threat proved to be the 45-year-old Omar Vizquel, who went 2-for-4 to move past Babe Ruth into 41st place on the all-time hits list.
Even so, Pettitte's 75-pitch outing, in which he allowed four hits and two walks and struck out three in five scoreless innings, was important in ways less immediate than that it led to a 4-2 victory for the Yankees. Pettitte displayed little rustiness, as far as velocity or command. His fastball averaged around 88 miles-per-hour, and topped out at 90, which was virtually identical to his pattern in his first nine starts. Though he threw 46 of his 75 pitches for strikes, his control improved as the afternoon went on. He needed just seven pitches to get through his last inning, the fifth.
Best of all, of course, was that Pettitte made it through physically unscathed. There now seems little reason to believe that the 40-year-old won't again be what he used to be: the linchpin of a Yankees postseason rotation. The Yankees' chances of getting him to October improved even further in Wednesday's nightcap, thanks to one of their other long-toothers, the 38-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. He went 4-for-4 with four steals and an RBI, as the Yankees won again, 2-1.
A month ago, the Oakland A's appeared as if they might march into the playoffs with one of the best problems that any team can have: they had too many quality starting pitchers. Then, on Aug. 22, Bartolo Colon was suspended 50 games -- a ban that would extend 10 games into the postseason -- after a positive drug test. Then, on Sept. 5, Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive, leading to the loss of his season and, nearly, of his life.
On Wednesday night, the A's rotation might have sustained its most significant blow, at least as related to its immediate fortunes. Brett Anderson returned from Tommy John surgery on Aug. 21, and he showed no symptoms of the hangover that can accompany that procedure, particularly as far as command. Through five starts -- in which he had gone 4-1 with 1.93 ERA -- he had walked just four batters. Last night against the Tigers, though, something clearly went awry in Anderson's third inning. After issuing an intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera, Anderson threw four straight balls to Prince Fielder, then two more to Delmon Young. Three pitches after that 10-ball sequence, Anderson was done for the night -- and possibly much longer. The team announced that he had strained a right oblique muscle.
Oblique injuries, for pitchers especially, are simply crippling, and are rarely quickly overcome. On average, they cost pitchers more than a month on the disabled list, but they can linger longer than that. Toronto's Brandon Morrow suffered one in early June, and did not return until late August.
Unless Anderson's strain proves to be very minor, the A's lost a crucial cog: their rotation's leader, and the pitcher who likely would have started a wild-card game. Though Anderson is just 24, he is the rotation's only veteran. The four remaining starters -- A.J. Griffin, Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily -- are all rookies. No team in baseball history has ever started more than two rookies in a single postseason. Of course, of the 11 clubs that used two of them, seven won the World Series: the 1997 Marlins, 1982 Cardinals, 1980 Phillies, 1955 Dodgers, 1944 Cardinals, 1927 Yankees, and 1912 Red Sox.
If you were not yet a believer in the 5-foot-10, 190-pound phenomenon that is Kris Medlen, you were after Wednesday night. In eight stellar innings against the Marlins, the 26-year-old Braves righty allowed no runs on four hits and a walk. It was just the latest in a mind-bending string of lines that stretches back to the last day of July, when he made his first start of the season after beginning the year in the bullpen, where he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery. Here are Medlen's statistics in his 10 starts since then, which now must be considered a body of work too deep to be aberrant: 8-0, 0.76 ERA (that's six earned runs allowed in 70.2 innings), 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and a WHIP of 0.82.
Medlen's dominance as a starter goes back farther than the last day of July, and to even before his surgery. The Braves have won 21 of his starts in a row, making him, according to STATS Inc., the surest thing since Whitey Ford, whose Yankees won 22 consecutive starts of his between 1950 and 1953. ("Whitey Ford? Pfft. Let's go. Come on. Don't even say it," Medlen told reporters after the game, continuing his winning streak).
So Medlen, then, is just the pitcher to start a game that you truly must win -- the type of game in which the Braves now seem more certain than ever to participate, and in fact host, on Oct. 5. They have only an outside shot at catching the Nationals, whose NL East lead is now five games, and they maintained a 6½ game lead on the Cardinals, their likely wild-card game opponent. (The Cards now have a two game lead on the Dodgers for the second spot, and seven of their 13 remaining games come against the hapless Astros and Cubs). Even though Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Wednesday that he was still consider using veteran Tim Hudson, that Medlen will be making his first ever start against St. Louis in that game seems close to a fait accompli.
Among the Red Sox's many problems this season has been their consistently poor efforts against the other members of the AL East. Against most of them, anyway. The Sox have a losing record versus the Blue Jays, Orioles and Yankees, with a combined mark of 16-29 (which translates to a .356 winning percentage, which only the Astros would covet).
Boston has hammered the fifth team in the division, the Rays. Entering Wednesday night, the Sox were 9-5 against the Rays, had outscored them 72-46, and had won the first two games of a four-game set in St. Petersburg. Perhaps they aren't entirely hell bent on avenging the events of last Sept. 28, though, as they did Tampa Bay a favor: they sent Daisuke Matuszaka to the mound.
Matsuzaka, has rarely encountered success against the Rays, even back when he was good (he was 2-7 against them in his career, with an ERA of 5.83), and that trend continued on Wednesday night. In three innings of work, he allowed five earned runs, on nine hits and a walk, to a team that had in September averaged just four runs per game. Tampa Bay, in a balanced effort that saw the awakening of the bats of slumping veterans Luke Scott (2-for-3, 1 RBI) and Carlos Pena (1-for-2, 1 HR, 3 RBIs), continued its onslaught after Matsuzaka departed, and won 13-3.
The effort worsened Matsuzaka's record to 1-7, and his ERA to 7.68, and it put the skids on a four-game losing streak that threatened to snuff out whatever flickers of life remain in the Rays' season. Even so, with just 13 games remaining, they are 5½ games behind in the race for the second wild-card spot -- with the Tigers and Angels in front of them. They'll need another September miracle (or, this season anyway, an early October miracle) to again reach the playoffs. At least they're scheduled to face Matsuzaka once more, next Tuesday.
Joe Saunders matching Felix Hernandez pitch for pitch? Check.
Escaping a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the 10th, and then getting a two-run homer from Adam Jones in the 11th? Check.
Winning the game 3-1, ultimately, by thwarting an inexplicable two-out stolen base attempt, to improve their record in extra innings to an astounding 15-2? Check.
At some point, there won't be enough season left for the law of averages to catch up with this logic-defying club -- which now features baseball's top pitching prospect, Dylan Bundy, who was called up earlier Wednesday. At some point, we'll stop trying to explain it, and simply start to enjoy it.