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Playoff places still up in the air as regular season wraps up

Saturday, the penultimate day of the 2014 regular season, began with the two central divisions and the last American League wild-card spot still undecided. It ended with all three spots still undecided as all four central-division competitors and the AL wild-card leading A’s lost, while the Seattle Mariners, who entered the day with an elimination number of one, won.

It wasn’t pretty. The Pirates blew two leads in Cincinnati before losing to the Reds in the bottom of the 10th inning on a two-out grand slam by Ramon Santiago, a player who had homered four times since the start of the 2012 season. The Tigers were creamed by the Twins in Detroit, 12-3. The Cardinals lost 5-2 in Arizona after Mark Trumbo broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh inning with a three-run homer off Seth Maness. The Royals fell behind the White Sox early and were unable to come all the way back, losing 5-4 with the tying run on base in the ninth. The A’s lost similarly by the same score in Texas, surrendering an early 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first and trailing the rest of the way, putting the tying run on base twice in the ninth only to see the first runner get caught stealing and the second stranded.

Even the Mariners’ win was ugly as Seattle left nine men on base in regulation in a game that reached extra innings tied 1-1. In the bottom of the ninth, Seattle loaded the bases with no outs against Jason Grilli only to have Brad Miller and Chris Taylor strike out and Austin Jackson line out to strand all three men. Those three redeemed themselves in the bottom of the 11th, though even then the decisive play was less than inspiring. With one out in that inning, Miller doubled and went to third on a single by Taylor. Angels manager Mike Scioscia then brought Vinnie Pestano in out of his bullpen and Shawn O’Malley in from left field in as an extra infielder. On Pestano’s fourth pitch, Jackson hit a chopper to draw-in second baseman Grant Green, but rather than go home with the pitch, Green made an awkward backhanded feed to try to start a double play and Jackson, making huge stretch with his final step, beat the relay from Gordon Beckham to allow Miller to score the winning run.

And so we enter the final day of the regular season with tie scenarios still in play in both central divisions and the AL Wild Card, each of which could force a tie-breaking game on Monday if things fall the right way for the Pirates, Royals, or Mariners. Here, then, is a quick guide to Sunday’s six relevant games and their respective pitching matchups, which include the likes of Adam Wainwright, David Price, Johnny Cueto and Felix Hernandez, who will be pitching not only to keep his team’s playoff hopes alive, but who could determine his own fate with regard to the American League Cy Young award with his performance.

Twins at Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET

Kyle Gibson (13-11, 4.50 ERA) vs. David Price (14-12, 3.36)

All the Tigers have to do on Sunday to clinch the AL Central is beat the Twins, in Detroit, behind David Price. That sounds simple enough, but the Tigers are just 5-5 in Price’s starts since acquiring him at the trade deadline, and in his one turn against the Twins over that stretch, Price gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings in an 8-4 Tigers loss. That was two turns ago for Price, and the opposing pitcher in that game was also sophomore Kyle Gibson, who gave up four runs in six innings but was backed up by scoreless work from his bullpen. Both pitchers pitched better in their one turn since then, with Gibson holding the Diamondbacks to one run over seven innings and Price holding the White Sox to three runs over 8 2/3.

MLB standings: Playoff picture as of September 27

Pirates at Reds, 1:10 p.m. ET

Gerrit Cole (11-5, 3.78) vs. Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.29)

Of the six teams still playing for something on Sunday, none faces a larger challenge on Sunday than the Pirates do in facing Cueto, who has arguably been the second-best pitcher in the majors this year behind Clayton Kershaw. This will be Cueto’s sixth start against the Pirates this season, and he is 4-0 with a 1.89 ERA through the first five, all of them Reds wins. The Pirates counter with the sophomore Cole, who hasn’t faced the Reds since April 15 when he gave up five runs in six innings at Great American Ball Park. Cole spent 46 days on the disabled list in the middle of the season due to a shoulder strain, and his return in late August has been a key part of the Pirates surge to the postseason. Pittsburgh has gone 6-1 in his starts since his return, and in each of his last two turns, against the Braves and Red Sox, he has allowed just two runs in seven innings with at least a strikeout per inning.

Royals at White Sox, 2:10 p.m. ET

Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.07) vs. Chris Bassitt (1-1, 3.65)

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Chris Bassitt is a 25-year-old righty who was drafted in the 16th round in 2011, was promoted directly from Double-A in late August, and will be making his fifth major league start on Sunday. Curiously, of those five starts, four will have come against the Royals and Tigers. In his major league debut, Bassitt was touched up for five runs in 6 1/3 innings by Detroit, but he got his revenge on the Tigers his last time out with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. In the turn before that, he gave up three runs in 3 2/3 innings in Kansas City, walking four against just two strikeouts, but the White Sox rallied to win after his departure. Bassitt has fairly average stuff and has struggled to miss bats in the majors thus far. Fireballing Royals rookie Yordano Ventura, meanwhile, has gone 7-2 with a 2.08 ERA in his last 10 starts including seven scoreless innings in Cleveland in his last turn and just one run allowed in seven frames against the White Sox in the turn before that.

A’s at Rangers, 3:05 p.m. ET

Sonny Gray (13-10, 3.21) vs. Nick Martinez (5-11, 4.61)

The A’s have gone 15-30 (.333) since August 10, but they’d still have to lose on Sunday and (if the Mariners can win to force it) in Monday’s tiebreaker to miss the postseason entirely. Don’t think they can’t do it. They are 2-9 in Gray’s last 11 starts, during which the sophomore has posted a 4.31 ERA. Gray was outstanding against the Angels in his last turn (7 IP, 2 R, 1 ER, 12 K), but the A’s failed to score in that game and lost 2-0. In the turn before that, Gray gave up five runs (four earned) in five innings against the Rangers and Oakland lost 7-2. The Rangers, meanwhile, are 13-2 in their last 15 games with five wins in six games against the A’s over that stretch. Rookie righty Martinez hasn’t been pitching deep into his starts, but he has a 2.12 ERA in his last five turns and threw 6 2/3 scoreless frames against the Astros his last time out (his longest start since June) and beat Gray and the A’s in the turn before that by holding Oakland to two runs in 5 2/3 innings.

Angels at Mariners, 4:10 p.m. ET

Cory Rasmus (3-1, 2.38) vs. Felix Hernandez (14-6, 2.18)

Of the six teams still playing for something on Sunday, the Mariners are the only one that could be eliminated that day. If they lose, their season is over. Fortunately, they have their ace on the mound in their home ballpark. Hernandez has something to prove in this game as he gave up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in Toronto in his last start. That was not only a setback in the Mariners’ pursuit of the wild-card, it nearly cost Hernandez the American League Cy Young award, as it inflated his ERA by a quarter of a run.

It was announced on Saturday, however, that a bunt in the middle of Toronto’s seven-run fifth inning in that game had been changed from a hit to an error, changing four of the runs Hernandez allowed in that inning from earned to unearned and dropping his ERA 16 points from 2.34 to 2.18. That’s all just accounting, of course, and it was Hernandez himself who made the error, but it could tip the balance for some voters. Of course, Hernandez’s performance on Sunday should have an even larger influence. Of course, the Cy Young race is merely a subplot, but it adds intrigue to an already must-see game.

Opposing Hernandez will be Cory Rasmus, a rookie reliever who was forced into the Angels’ rotation by the injuries to Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards and who has yet to throw six innings in a game this year. Rasmus has made the most of his pitches thus far, however, posting a 1.69 ERA in his five starts, each of the last two of which were comprised of four scoreless innings, one of those coming against the Mariners. Rasmus hasn’t allowed a run in his last 10 1/3 innings. Still, his short starts are taxing on the Angels’ bullpen, which used five pitchers on Saturday, including Grilli for 30 pitches in the bottom of the ninth.

Speaking of which, Mariners closer Fernando Rodney has pitched each of the last three days, throwing 19 pitches both Friday and Saturday. Everyone is available when the season is on the line, but Rodney has only pitched on four straight days once before this season, that coming way back in June (though each of those four outings was scoreless).

Cardinals at Diamondbacks, 4:10 p.m. ET

Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38) vs. Josh Collmenter (11-8, 3.57)

The two teams on this list least likely to be playing a tie-breaking game 163 on Monday are the Cardinals and Pirates. Not only does Pittsburgh have the toughest task on Sunday, facing Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati, the Cardinals have the clearest path to their desired outcome, needing just a win to clinch the NL Central and having Adam Wainwright on the mound against the Diamondbacks to make it happen. Wainwright has been nearly untouchable in his last four starts, all of them Cardinals wins, allowing just two runs in 33 innings, completing two of those games, one of them a shutout, and going eight and seven frames in the other two. Wainwright hasn’t allowed a run in his last 21 innings pitched, and his only start against Arizona this year, which came back in May, was a one-hit shutout in which he struck out nine and walked no one. Collmenter hasn’t been too shabby, either. He has posted a 1.29 ERA over his last six starts, all of them quality starts, none of which saw him allow more than two runs. He also hasn’t faced the Cardinals since throwing four innings of scoreless relief against them in extra innings on June 4 of last year, and that lack of familiarity tends to benefit the pitcher, particularly one like Collementer, who relies on the movement and deception in his pitches and his unorthodox delivery. Still, with Wainwright and Cueto, the two best pitchers in the NL after Kershaw, pitching for their cause on Sunday and a one-game lead in the division, the Cardinals are heavy favorites to clinch the NL Central.