Where does Bartolo Colon fit in the New York Mets’ playoff rotation and what do the St. Louis Cardinals’ recent struggles mean for the Pittsburgh Pirates? 

By Albert Chen
September 11, 2015

Three thoughts after a rain-soaked Thursday night in baseball:

1. Bartolo Colon makes his case

As the Matt Harvey soap opera rages on in Gotham, it’s easy to overlook this: in a rotation with the Dark Knight, the deGrominator, and Thor, it’s been the class clown of the Mets staff who has been New York’s steadiest starter during its blazing second half. Two days after taking NL Player of the Week honors, Bartolo Colon silenced the Braves on Thursday night and made history. When he held the Braves scoreless through three innings, he set a major league record for most consecutive scoreless innings by a pitcher 42 or older, passing Warren Spahn (1963) and Cy Young (1909). The streak ended at 31 innings when the Braves scored in the bottom of the seventh, and Colon finished the night allowing two runs over 6 2/3 innings.

It’s no secret how Colon is doing this: as his velocity has ticked down — Colon’s fastball topped out at 92 mph on Thursday, his average for the season is 88.4, according to Fangraphs — his command has only gotten better. So too has his sweet, sweet hitting stroke:

The Mets, which extended their NL East lead to 7 1/2 games with their 7–2 win in Atlanta, have some big decisions to make as they start thinking about October baseball in Flushing. They have six starters — Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Jonathon Niese, and Colon — for four playoff rotation spots. Just a few weeks ago, there were questions about Colon even making the postseason roster. Manager Terry Collins has also indicated that Syndergaard (4.79 ERA in his last six starts), Matz (with three major league starts on his resume), and Niese (who’s allowed at least five runs in each of his last four starts) aren’t being considered for bullpen roles. But surely things have changed with this remarkable, improbable stretch of virtuoso pitching from one of the game’s true masters of the craft. It’s so easy to dismiss Colon as an innings-eater, a bit player carrying the load for now to keep the kids fresh, but if he keeps mowing down lineups through September, there’s no way Collins can deny the old warhorse a spot in the postseason rotation.

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And how on earth could he possibly deny us more moments like this:

2. The Cardinals are sputtering

St. Louis was rocked 11–0 in Cincinnati, losing for the sixth time in eight games after going 4–5 on their home stand (its first losing home stand of the season). The Cardinals, which had five hits Thursday, managed just three off rookie lefty starter John Lamb who was acquired from Kansas City in the Johnny Cueto trade and had a 6.11 ERA entering the game. Not a great start to their longest road trip of the year, a 10-game, 11-day swing that ends with a trip to Wrigley next weekend.

The Cardinals pitching staff has been historically good — their 2.81 ERA, which leads the majors, would be the second lowest by a Cardinals’ pitching staff over the last 70 years — while the offense has been uncharacteristically bad, ranking 23rd in the majors in runs scored, 26th in home runs, and 19th in OPS. The punchless offense is the clear weakness of this team, but maybe things will get better with the return of Matt Adams and Matt Holliday.

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There are now some real reasons to be concerned about the pitching staff, too. On Tuesday night, Michael Wacha was pummeled for six runs over four innings for his shortest start of the season. The following game, Carlos Martinez allowed 10 hits and three runs over five innings. Of course, these were just two starts in a season in which both young pitchers have been very good, but Wacha (who turned 24 in July) and Martinez (23) are well past their career highs in innings. Add Lance Lynn’s most recent start — he allowed six runs in 2 1/3 innings, in his first start since spraining his ankle, and overall he hasn’t been as good as he was in the first half (3.52 ERA vs 2.90) — and the Cardinals’ staff no longer seem like a fire-breathing rotation that can dominate in the postseason.

While the odds remain overwhelmingly in their favor in the NL Central (Fangraphs gives them a 90% chance to win), the Cardinals, which have been outscored 38–10 over their last five games, need to start playing better to put away the Pirates and make that deep run into October.

3. AJ Burnett returns, but the Pirates squander an opportunity

Down 4–3 in the bottom of the 12th against the Brewers, Gregory Polanco launched a monster home run to right field to tie the game, and, after Andrew McCutchen’s 22nd homer tied things in the eighth, it seemed like the Pirates were on their way to another comeback win at PNC Park. The Brewers, though, put away the Pirates in the 13th with two runs for a 6–4 win.

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A weird stat: Pittsburgh, the best team in baseball since early May, is 25–35 against NL Central teams this year. With their loss to the woebegone Brewers, the Pirates remained 4 1/2 games behind the Cardinals. It was a night in which AJ Burnett, who made his return to the rotation after a one month absence and gave up a three-run home run to Khris Davis in the first, settled down, allowing no runs and no hits the rest of the way in his five-inning start.

With Burnett back, the emergence of J.A. Happ, who against the Reds on Wednesday night struck out 10 in six innings and has been brilliant since arriving in Pittsburgh, and perhaps the best bullpen in the league, the Pirates are looking like a championship contender. Of course, their World Series chances would increase greatly if they could avoid that one game playoff against Jake Arrieta and the Cubs, but time is running out for them to catch the Cardinals. The Pirates just can’t afford to lose games like this.

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