Sunday was a bad day for the Tigers and a good one for the Dodgers, while every day seems to be a good one for the Brewers and Ichiro Suzuki lately. Here are five cuts on the weekend's pennant-race action.
Twin Killing: With the White Sox losing to Jered Weaver and the Angels, their fifth loss in as many days, all the Tigers had to do to move into a tie atop the American League Central was split a double-header with the Twins, a team tied for the fewest wins in the American League. They couldn't do it. They held early leads in both games, but blew both and remain a game behind Chicago.
You can blame the bullpen for the first game. The Tigers took a 2-0 lead into the top of the sixth, but starter Max Scherzer and relievers Phil Coke and Brayan Villarreal combined to cough up five runs in that inning, after which Villarreal and company coughed up five more runs over the next two innings as the Tigers ultimately fell 10-4. In the second game, the offense was the problem. The Tigers scored first, taking a 1-0 lead on an Austin Jackson single and Miguel Cabrera double in the bottom of the first, but were unable to score again against P.J. Walters or three relievers in any of the nine successive innings. Meanwhile, the Twins scored one in the fifth, an inning in which they made three outs at home plate, two on the final play of the inning, which also saw the lone run score, then pushed the winning run across against Jose Valverde in the tenth to win 2-1.
The Tigers have had a multitude of chances to catch or pass Chicago this month, but since sweeping the Sox in Detroit to move into a first-place tie on September 2, they've blown every one. Immediately after that sweep, Detroit welcomed the Indians, who currently own the worst record in the league, by dropping two games at home against Cleveland to fall back into second place. Soon after, they were swept by the Angels and lost the opener of their re-match in Chicago to fall three games back. The Tigers rallied from there, winning the next two games in Chicago to pull back within one with Justin Verlander set to start the series finale, but rain washed that game out and the Tigers lost a game in the standings with another loss to Cleveland last Sunday then lost the make-up game last Monday to again fall three back.
Chicago's recent skid was the Tigers' latest opportunity, but they couldn't take advantage of that either, and one now wonders if their failure on Sunday might have been the backbreaker. On the surface, the Tigers still seem to have a good shot. They're just one game back and play only the Royals and Twins the rest of the way while the slumping White Sox have a four-game set against the Rays starting on Thursday. Still, if the Tigers couldn't even split a doubleheader at home against the Twins with a share of first place there for the taking, how likely is it that they'll be able to play two games better than the White Sox over the next ten games?
Beta Max: A source of further concern for the Tigers is the performance of Max Scherzer in the opener on Sunday. On the surface, Scherzer's start wasn't anything particularly problematic. He only walked one man against four strikeouts, allowed just three runs on six hits, and didn't allow a home run. However, Scherzer was starting on regular rest after leaving his previous start after two innings due to shoulder fatigue and his outing on Sunday raised numerous red flags.
To begin with, he failed to get an out in the sixth inning and seemed to lose effectiveness just shy of his 80th pitch, or, alternately, when the lineup turned over for the third time. Of even greater concern, however, was the continued erosion of his velocity.
In his six starts prior to the one shortened by the shoulder issue, Scherzer averaged 95 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball (94.9 to be exact, per TexasLeaguers.com). In the two innings before his shoulder forced him out of his last start, Scherzer averaged 92.3 miles per hour on his fastball, per TexasLeaguers, and didn't hit 95 once. On Sunday, Scherzer averaged just 91.4 miles per hour on his fastball (per the pitch speeds on MLB.com's Gameday), only one of his 41 four-seam fastballs hit 94, and in the fifth inning he threw consecutive four-seamers that clocked in at 89 mph.
He might have been able to get by with location, changeups and sliders for five innings, but that was not a healthy Max Scherzer that took the mound for the Tigers on Sunday. Scherzer is set up to make two more starts for the Tigers this season, including taking the ball on the final day of the season, if necessary. Scherzer might still make those starts, but anyone expecting the pitcher who went 11-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings from mid-June to mid-September to show up for those games is likely to be very disappointed.
'Shaw 'Nuff: A far more successful return to the mound was made on Sunday by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Pitching on 11-day's rest after being diagnosed with an impingement in his right hip but cleared to keep pitching, Kershaw had his usual velocity and put-away curve, looked loose and limber on fielding plays, and showed no sign of pain in his hip, only a bit of rust that saw him walk five men and throw just 57 percent of his 92 pitches for strikes. Kershaw also struck out five while allowing just one run on five hits in five innings and got a huge out in the fourth when, with two outs and the bases loaded and the game tied at 1-1, he struck out Joey Votto swinging with a slider away. The Dodgers opened the game up in the top of the seventh and ultimately won 5-3, a crucial win on a day that the Cardinals and Brewers also won.
Like Scherzer, Kershaw could pitch twice more during the regular season if he works on regular rest, but the Dodgers won't commit to starting him in five days until they see how his hip recovers from Sunday's outing. Though just three games behind the Cardinals, the Dodgers are extreme long shots to claim the second wild card spot with just nine games left and two teams to pass. Sunday morning, Clay Davenport's system gave them a 2.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. Given that, it might be foolish to push their 24-year-old ace too hard, but then there's no way they're going to cash in those odds without him. It will be very interesting to see how the team proceeds from here, but I'm guessing we'll only see Kershaw once more this season, in part because the Dodgers will likely have been eliminated before he could start a second time.
The Hottest Team in Baseball: Since August 20, the Milwaukee Brewers have gone 25-7 (.781), winning every one of their series over that span including a sweep of the Braves at home and taking two of three from the Cardinals in St. Louis. Over the weekend, they played the first three of a four-game set against the Nationals and took two of three. It goes without saying that this is a crucial time for Milwaukee, which was a dozen games under .500 when its current hot streak began and is still 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for the second National League wild-card spot with just ten games left to play, but that goes double for this current set against the Nationals and the three-game set against the Reds that follows immediately on Tuesday.
While the Brewers play the teams with the two best records in baseball, the Cardinals play the one with the worst, the Astros. However, things switch on Friday, as the Brewers finish the season at home with three games each against the Astros and Padres while the Cardinals finish with three each against the Nats and Reds (also at home). Given that, the Brewers, who are just two games behind the Cardinals in the loss column, may only need to avoid losing further ground this week to retain a realistic shot at upsetting the Cardinals in the season's final six days.
Suped-up Suzuki: Derek Jeter isn't the only 38-year-old future Hall of Famer to discover the Fountain of Youth in the Bronx this season. When the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners in late July, it seemed more significant because of Suzuki's past importance to the Mariners than his potential impact on the Yankees. At the time of the trade, Suzuki was hitting just .261/.288/.353 and since the start of the 2010 season, his aggregate line was a mere .286/.324/.362. Suzuki's first six weeks as a Yankee were more of the same as he hit just .271/.297/.398 in 140 plate appearances in a part-time role. When the team traveled to Baltimore in early September, however, things began to change.
Starting on September 6, Suzuki went 8-for-14 in the Yankees' four games in Baltimore. He made just two more starts over the next six games, then started both halves of the team's double header at home against the Blue Jays this past Wednesday and went 7-for-8 on the day with two doubles, a home run, and four stolen bases in the nightcap of that two-fer. Suzuki has started all four of the Yankees' games since, getting hits in all four, multiple hits in the first three of them, and has now hit .500/.520/.708 in 53 plate appearances dating back to September 6 with seven stolen bases in as many attempts.
Over the weekend, Suzuki took over the second spot in the Yankee batting order, right behind Jeter, and if you look at his aggregate line as a Yankee now, it compares favorably to his career line:
Career: .323/.366/.419as NYY: .331/.356/.481
You likely noted the extra power. Suzuki averaged seven home runs per season from 2007 to 2011 and hit just four in 423 plate appearances this year before being traded, but he has five in 193 plate appearances with the Yankees, all of them coming at home. This is all small sample size stuff, but the prospect of a fully-operational Ichiro making his first playoff appearance since his rookie season of 2001 and adding sneaky, park-effect home run power to his usual bag of tricks should be an exciting one for more than just Yankee fans.