1. A's tie Rangers atop AL West. The A's beat the Rangers 3-1 Tuesday night to pull into a tie atop the American League West with one game left in the regular season. Here's how crazy that is. Last Tuesday, the A's woke up five games out of first place with nine games left. Since then, they have gone 7-1 with four of those wins (and the lone loss) coming against the Rangers, who have gone 2-6 over the same stretch.
Just as crazy, the last time the A's were in first place, 28 teams had yet to play their first game of the season. The A's split two regular games against the Mariners in Tokyo in late March (losing the first, winning the second), and traveled back to the States tied with Seattle for first place. They then lost their next two games after the regular season started a week later. Yet, with a win at home on Wednesday, they could win their division, a division they trailed by 13 games when the calendar flipped to July and by five games with nine games remaining.
An Oakland win on Wednesday would also set up the possibility of the Rangers failing to make the Division Series. Yes, the Rangers are now just two loses from going home. If they lose to the A's on Wednesday then lose the wild-card game on Friday, they're done. This is the team that looked like the default favorite to win its third-straight pennant as recently as, well, Tuesday morning.
To salvage the division, the Rangers will turn to Ryan Dempster in what will be a 12:35 p.m. Pacific Time start in Oakland (3:35 p.m. EST). Dempster has gone 7-3 with a 4.64 ERA in 11 starts since being acquired from the Cubs at the trading deadline, though that ERA drops to 3.33 if you look only at his last eight starts. Alternately, if you simply leave out his three starts against the Angels, Dempster has gone 7-1 with a 2.92 ERA for the Rangers. Of course, only two of those remaining eight starts have come against winning teams. He dominated the Orioles on August 20, but was lit up by the Yankees two starts before that. Dempster has not faced the A's all season.
The A's will counter with A.J. Griffin, who is 7-1 with a 2.71 ERA in 14 starts in this, his first major league season. Griffin, a 24-year-old right-handed control artist, came up in late June and held the Rangers scoreless over six innings in Arlington in his second career start, his only appearance against them this year. His first seven career starts were quality, but a shoulder strain cut his eighth short and sent him to the disabled list for most of August. He won his first three starts after returning to run his record to 6-0, but has come back to earth a bit since. Just one of his last five starts has been quality and he has posted a 6.14 ERA over his last three. Still, he has yet to have a bad outing at home, going 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA in seven starts at the Coliseum.
Wednesday's loser will play the loser of the AL East race in the wild-card game on Friday.
2. Dodgers help Cardinals back in. It didn't happen quite the way they wanted, but the Cardinals finally completed the National League playoff field by clinching the second wild card spot when the Dodgers lost to the Giants 4-3 in Los Angeles. The Cardinals, who entered Tuesday's action with a magic number of one, lost to the Reds 3-1 and had to wait around through yet another white-knuckle contest in L.A. as the Dodgers put the tying run on in the ninth inning and, thanks to a Dave Roberts-like stolen base by Dee Gordon, had that run in scoring position with two outs.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Mark Ellis, who otherwise had a solid season at second base for the Dodgers, contributing two and a half wins above replacement despite missing roughly two months due to injury, came up as the goat twice in the late innings, first by getting thrown out trying to stretch a one-out double into a triple while representing the tying run in the seventh, then by making the final out of the game with Gordon on second base in the ninth on a sinking liner to center. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn't distinguish himself either. He issued an intentional walk to Angel Pagan in the fifth only to have the next batter, Marco Scutaro, follow with a two-run double that plated Pagan with what proved to be the winning run. Mattingly then had A.J. Ellis attempt to bunt the tying run to second in the ninth despite the fact that Ellis had hit a two-run homer in his previous at-bat (Ellis failed to get the bunt down and struck out on three pitches, wasting one of the last three outs in the Dodgers' season). The Dodgers and their fans will have all winter to replay those sequences in their heads. The Cardinals, meanwhile, will travel to Atlanta for the wild-card game on Friday.
3. Yankees hold lead in AL East as both New York and Baltimore pull off improbable wins. In his final start of the 2012 season on Tuesday night, the Rays' James Shields tossed a complete game against the Orioles, striking out 15 and limiting Baltimore to just two baserunners, one of them coming on an infield single. The Orioles won anyway. The other Baltimore baserunner came on a Chris Davis home run with two outs in the fourth inning after Shields had retired the first 11 men he faced. Amazingly, Miguel Gonzalez and three Baltimore relievers made that lone run hold up. Gonzalez held the Rays to a pair of singles and a pair of walks while striking out seven in 6 1/3 innings, Brian Matusz and Darren O'Day retired all five batters they faced, and Jim Johnson pitched around a one-out walk in the ninth to nail down the win.
Meanwhile, the Yankees just couldn't get their offense going Tuesday night against Jon Lester and a trio of relievers and found themselves down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth after James Loney added an insurance run via a solo homer off Yankee closer Rafael Soriano in the top of the inning. Facing a crushing loss that would have allowed the Orioles, whose game had already ended, to tie the Yankees atop the division, Curtis Granderson singled off Andrew Bailey to open the bottom of the ninth, and Raul Ibañez followed with a game-tying, pinch-hit home run. The Yankee offense again sputtered after that, but against Andrew Miller with two outs in the 12th, the Yankees' third-string catcher, Francisco Cervelli, drew a walk in his first major league plate appearance of the year, Granderson followed with another walk, and Ibañez came through again, poking a single through the shortstop hole to bring Cervelli home with the winning run. That was the first game the Yankees had won all year in which they had trailed after eight innings.
The Yankees now need just one more win against the Red Sox or an Orioles loss against the Rays on Wednesday to clinch the division lead they very nearly blew several times over the last month. A win would also give the Yankees home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (as would loses by both New York and Baltimore and a Rangers win, as the Yankees won their season series against Texas, giving them the home-field tiebreaker in that pairing). Given Wednesday's pitching matchup of Hiroki Kuroda (15-11, 3.34 ERA) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-6, 7.68), a Yankee win seems like the most likely result, but as the Orioles have proven time and again, they'll take advantage of any opportunity they get. If New York somehow loses to Boston, there's still a chance they could be facing elimination in the wild-card game come Friday. In fact, the possibility exists that the wild-card game could pit the Yankees against the Rangers while the A's and Orioles sail on through to the Division Series. It's not very likely, but it's out there.
4. Triple Crown update. Completing the playoff picture will obviously be the big story on Wednesday, but there's one other that deserves mentioning. Miguel Cabrera is now one day away from claiming the first Triple Crown in 45 years. Here's a look at his leads in each of the three categories:
Batting Average: Cabrera leads Mike Trout .331 to .324. The most unfavorable nine-inning results for Cabrera would likely be an 0-for-5 for him and a 5-for-5 by Trout, though it's worth noting that Trout has never had five hits in a game thus far in his young career. Still, that combination would put Trout at .330 and Cabrera at .328. So it is possible for Trout to slip past him, but it's very unlikely. If Cabrera goes 1-for-5 he'd be at .3296 to the 5-for-5 Trout's .32977, losing the batting crown by the slightest of margins. Similarly, and 0-for-5 by Cabrera and a 4-for-4 by Trout (something Trout has done twice this season) would give Trout the title. Most other combinations, however, would give the title to Cabrera. A 1-for-4 for Cabrera would put him at .3301, beating even a 5-for-5 performance by Trout, similarly, a pair of hits by Cabrera on Wednesday would put the batting title out of reach for Trout barring six or more at-bats for either man.
Home Runs: Cabrera leads Josh Hamilton by just one home runs, 44 to 43. Ties count toward Triple Crowns, so Cabrera would still win the Triple Crown if Hamilton hits one homer and he hits none. That puts Cabrera in a pretty good spot. Hamilton is certainly capable of a multi-homer game, but his last was way back on August 15 and he hasn't homered at all his last seven games.
Runs Batted In: Cabrera has an 11-RBI lead over Hamilton. The major league record for most RBIs in a game is 12 and the AL record is 11. It seems safe to say he has this one locked up.
5. Playoff Rotations. The Cardinals may have lost Tuesday night, but they got the results they wanted: a Dodgers loss that clinched the wild card and another solid start from Chris Carpenter. It wasn't that long ago that the Cardinals thought that they'd have to go without Carpenter this season following his mid-July surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. However, Carpenter battled back to make three regular-season starts and performed well enough that the Cardinals should now have enough faith in his health to put him in their postseason rotation. Tuesday night was the big test, as Carpenter's first two starts came against the lowly Astros and Cubs and saw him strike out just five men in 11 innings. On Tuesday night, however, Carpenter turned in a quality start against the 96-win (now 97-win) Reds and struck out seven men in his six innings of work. Carpenter has also walked just three men in 17 innings since returning from the disabled list. The only significant disappointment to come from Carpenter's start Tuesday night was the fact that he only got in 90 pitches in his six innings after throwing 92 in his previous start, but the Cardinals were trying to win the game and the Reds did most of their damage against Carpenter in that inning, making it inadvisable for Mike Matheny to try to extend him further.
In contrast to the Cardinals' good news on Carpenter, the Tigers continue to get bad news about Max Scherzer. Scherzer was scheduled to test out his sore right deltoid muscle by starting the final game of the regular season on Wednesday, but someone stepped on Scherzer's right ankle during the team's celebration of winning their division on Monday night. Tigers manager Jim Leyland said the injury wasn't serious, but the ankle did swell up and will be enough to scratch Scherzer from his start, sending the Tigers into the postseason without knowing if their second-best starter is going to be able to be effective if they do decide to put him in the Division Series rotation.
Dusty Baker, who is back in the dugout with the Reds, announced on Tuesday that his team would open the Division Series with Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, and Mat Latos in that order, but did not commit to a fourth starter. Homer Bailey is believed to be the leader for that spot, particularly after throwing a no-hitter in his last start. That decision is clearly being reserved until after Bailey makes his final start of the regular season on Wednesday. The Nationals, meanwhile, will start Gio Gonzalez in Game 1 of their Division Series and Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2, neither a big surprise, but won't decide the rest of their rotation until they know who they're facing.