The Rays' 3-2 win over the White Sox on Thursday night continued the recent trend for both teams and could be symbolic of what the final six days of the season have in store with the White Sox collapsing, and the Rays streaking. More on those two as well as the other teams on the fringe of the American League playoff picture below.
Do The Collapse: Last Monday, the White Sox beat the Tigers in the rescheduled finale of their season series to take a three-game lead in the American League Central with 16 games left to play. They won the next day to maintain that lead, but since then they have gone 1-8 with four of those loses coming against the Royals and Indians. With their loss at home against the Rays on Thursday night, they fell two games behind the Tigers in the Central with six games left to play. The Tigers play those final six games against the Twins and Royals. The White Sox have three more against the Rays, who haven't lost in more than a week, before they go to Cleveland for their final three. It ain't over 'til it's over, but it's looking awfully over for the White Sox.
This isn't a collapse on the level of those of the 2011 Braves and Red Sox, but the White Sox spent all but seven days from May 29 to September 25 in first place and now have to play three games better than the Tigers over the next six games against stronger competition to save their season. The wild card is not an option. With their loss on Thursday, the Sox's elimination number in that race is down to one. One more Chicago loss or Oakland win and they'll be eliminated from the wild-card hunt. Meanwhile, the Tigers' magic number in the Central is now five. If the White Sox pull out of their funk and win two-thirds of their remaining games while the Tigers merely split theirs against weaker competition, the Tigers will still win the division, and if the White Sox manage to pull even forcing a one-game playoff next Thursday, the Tigers will have Justin Verlander lined up to start it. This is looking awfully over.
Ray of Hope: It's funny how different the same deficit can look to two different teams. With their victory over the White Sox on Thursday, their eighth straight win, the Rays pulled within two games of the A's for the second wild-card spot, the closest they've been to a playoff spot since September 11, when they were within two games of first place in the AL East. They were six games out in the wild-card race last Tuesday and 5 1/2 games out a week ago. With three games left against the collapsing White Sox followed by three against one of the teams they're chasing, the Orioles, whom they now trail by exactly three games, the Rays may yet get that "baseball miracle" I said they would need last week when declaring them "effectively out of the hunt." It's not likely, but they're not dead yet, and the ninth-inning Evan Longoria home run that handed them their 3-2 victory on Thursday night served as a reminder that this team was in the exact same position last year, two games behind the wild-card leader with six to play, and made the playoffs..
Cat Scratch Fever: The Tigers may be headed to the postseason after all, but exactly how much of their starting rotation joins them there remains to be seen. Tigers manager Jim Leyland announced on Thursday that Max Scherzer has been scratched from his next start due to shoulder soreness and expressed concern about the drop in velocity Rick Porcello experienced in his start on Wednesday. In that start, Porcello, whose fastball usually averages around 92 miles per hour, struggled to get the pitch out of the 80s in the fourth inning and was pulled after 61 pitches.
A velocity drop was a major tell for Scherzer, who was removed after just two innings two starts ago due to shoulder fatigue and who's average fastball was a good four miles per hour slower than normal when he returned to the mound on Sunday. Scherzer's injury is now being reported as a deltoid strain. That it's muscular rather than structural is good news for the Tigers, but the team currently has no timetable for Scherzer's return, meaning he could be done for the regular season and may be out of the picture for the Division Series as well.
Rookie Drew Smyly will take Scherzer's turn on Friday and likely his next on the final day of the season as well, unless the Tigers are playing for their season on Wednesday and decide to pitch Justin Verlander on short rest rather than save him for a playoff game that may never come. Leyland believes Porcello will make his next start, his last of the regular season, but if he's also injured it could mean Smyly would have to assume the fourth spot in the postseason rotation. The twist there is that, if Scherzer is out, having Porcello out as well may actually work to the Tigers' benefit in the postseason as, on the season, Smyly has out-pitched Porcello, who has an 89 ERA+, 1.54 WHIP, and hasn't had a quality start in any of his last five turns.
In stark contrast to Scherzer and Porcello, the other three Tigers starters have been heating up. Justin Verlander, who has pitched well enough this season to win his second consecutive Cy Young award and is currently on schedule to pitch Game 1 of the ALDS against the AL East Champion, has gone 3-0 with an 0.86 ERA over his last three starts. Doug Fister, who was the Tigers' number-two starter heading into last October, shut out the Twins on Saturday, then set an American League record by striking out nine consecutive batters on Thursday afternoon in a strong 7 2/3 innings against the Royals. He didn't walk a man in either start. Anibal Sanchez, meanwhile, threw 6 2/3 hitless innings against the Indians on September 15, facing the minimum over that stretch, then after a rough outing against the A's, shutout the Royals while allowing just three singles and a walk and striking out ten on Tuesday. Most of that (all but Verlander's middle start against the A's) has come against weak lineups, but the Tigers are still 11-5 over their last 16 games with four of those wins coming against the A's and White Sox. With a healthy Scherzer, who went 11-2 with a 2.45 ERA and an 11.2 K/9 from mid-June to mid-September, they might start to look dangerous in a short series, but that looks like a mere fantasy now.
Missed Opportunities Out West: The Rangers may have iced the AL West with their win over the A's on Thursday afternoon. Had the A's won that game, they would have been just two games back with three games against the Rangers in Oakland scheduled for next week, but with the loss, Oakland fell four games back with six to play and put the Rangers' magic number at three. That's a huge swing, but the Rangers can't rest on their laurels just yet. The Angels come to town on Friday tied with the Rays two games back in the wild-card hunt and hungry. However, they also arrive fresh off a brutal loss to the Mariners.
The Angels had won their last five games coming into Thursday afternoon's tilt against the Mariners and, with the Rangers beating Oakland, could have climbed to within just one game of the second wild-card spot by completing a sweep of Seattle. They got out to an early 1-0 lead, but after the M's moved ahead 2-1 in the top of the fourth, the Angels never led again as their bullpen just couldn't hold the Mariners, the Mariners, and their bats just couldn't catch up. Final score, a demoralizing 9-4 loss in what could be their last home game of the year. The Angels now hit the road for three in Texas and three in Seattle while the A's take those two teams in opposite order at home. That gives the A's the advantage in the standings and the schedule.
Other News: The Giants announced Thursday that they will not have Melky Cabrera prepare to rejoin the team in the playoffs despite the fact that he would be eligible to return from his performance-enhancing drug suspension should the Giants reach the National League Championship Series. That was likely an easier decision that it might seem given Cabrera's MVP-quality play prior to his suspension. The Giants have gone 25-12 (.676) since Cabrera was suspended on August 15, their best stretch of the season, and would have to win the Division Series without him to be able to bring him back. Should they get that far, what about their performance during his absence would suggest they would need to insert a player who hadn't seen a major league pitch (or fly ball) in two months into their lineup? The price of taking the moral high-ground here is much lower than it might seem . . . R.A. Dickey won his 20th game on Thursday afternoon, tying his career high by striking out 13 Pirates in 7 2/3 strong innings of work, giving him more double-digit strikeout games (six) than any other National League pitcher this season. Clayton Kershaw will get his chance to return serve on Friday, but Dickey has one more start left this season and likely sewed up the Cy Young award with that performance . . . Adam Greenberg, who was hit in the head by the only major league pitch he ever saw while with the Cubs in 2005, has signed a one-day contract with the Marlins and will appear in their game against the Mets on Tuesday, October 2. Some have denounced this as a publicity stunt. For the Marlins, who made a show of offering Greenberg the contract on the Today show Thursday morning despite contacting Greenberg privately about it last weekend, it clearly is. Yet, I find it difficult to be so cynical.
Greenberg, who is 31, isn't a civilian, or Billy Crystal. He has remained active in the independent leagues and hit .259/.393/.422 in 106 games for the Bridgeport Bluefish in the Atlantic League last year. The contract was inspired by a petition started by a Cubs fan who wanted to see Greenberg get a proper major league at-bat. Greenberg's salary, pro-rated from the major league minimum, will be donated to an organization that studies brain trauma in athletes. Part of me wishes he got the opportunity with a more likeable organization, the Astros spring to mind, or even the Cubs, both teams with nothing left to lose this season, but don't let Jeffrey Loria, Ozzie Guillen, Logan Morrison, those ugly uniforms, or that garish ballpark color your impression of what should be an inspiring moment. Sure it would have been better if Greenberg had been able to play his way back to the bigs without playing the sympathy card, but Moonlight Graham didn't get into the game in Field of Dreams on merit, either. Sometimes just getting the second chance you never thought would come is enough. I wouldn't begrudge anyone that opportunity.