Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels swept the Minnesota Twins in a doubleheader on Saturday to headline a busy day in the MLB playoff races.

By Cliff Corcoran
September 20, 2015

The Astros snapped their five-game losing streak Saturday night with a 10–6 comeback victory over the A’s that turned on a three-run, opposite-field Evan Gattis home run in the seventh inning off former Houston pitcher Fernando Rodriguez. In doing so, they avoided falling into a tie in the loss column with the third place team in the American League wild-card race.

Saturday morning, that third-place team was the Twins. Saturday evening, that was no longer the case. The visiting Angels swept a doubleheader at Target Field on Saturday and have now taken three straight from the Twins over the last two days to leapfrog Minnesota in the AL wild-card race. The Angels, who had slipped below .500 at the end of August, now lead the Twins by one game for the final AL playoff spot and trail the Astros by 1 1/2 games and just a game in the loss column.

That marks a surprising comeback for the Angels, who had actually slipped ahead of the Astros for first place in the AL West just before the All-Star break, but collapsed soon thereafter. From July 23 through the end of August, the Angels went 11–26, falling from first place to 7 1/2 games out of first place, a game under .500 and tied with the Rays for fourth place in the AL wild-card race. Since the calendar flipped to September, however, the Angels have gone 11–6, taking two of three from Texas and Houston, and now winning the first three games of their four-game set this weekend against the Twins.

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The biggest change in the Angels from August to September has been their ability to score runs. During that dismal 37–game run after the All-Star break, the Angels scored a pathetic 2.4 runs per game, but over their last 17 they have improved that to 4.4 runs per game. David Freese’s return from the disabled list on Sept. 1 has been instrumental in that improvement. Starting every game since his return, Freese has hit .356/.387/.475. The Angels have also benefited from a hot month by rookie Carlos Perez, who has taken over the bulk of the catching duties and hit .378/.452/.486 in his 12 September starts.

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It likely won’t surprise you to learn, however, that the engine driving the Angels rejuvenated offense is Mike Trout. After slumping through most of August, Trout has hit .259/.392/.638 in September with six home runs in 17 games including three through the first three games against Minnesota. Indeed, Trout’s grand slam in the top of the second inning on Friday night turned the tide of the entire series. While the Twins had jumped out to a 5–0 lead in the bottom of the first inning and chased Hector Santiago after he had retired just two of the first eight men he faced, Trout’s slam capped a six-run rally in the top of the second. The Twins haven’t held a lead in any of the three games since.

The Angels won 11–8 Friday night. In the opening game on Saturday, they held leads of 2–0 and 3–1 before a monstrous, 448-foot Miguel Sano home run off reliever Trevor Gott tied things up in the bottom of the seventh. The Halos’ bullpen held things there, however, and the Twins kicked the game away in the top of the 12th inning as the Angels scored what proved to be the winning run on a Brian Dozier error, a Blaine Boyer wild pitch, a sacrifice bunt, and an RBI groundout. In the nightcap, Garrett Richards held the Twins in check until Albert Pujols finally started the scoring with a two-RBI double in the top of the sixth in a game the Angels ultimately won 5–2.

The Twins have now lost five in a row, a streak they’ll look to snap in the finale against the Angels on Sunday. Matt Shoemaker, who has missed most of September with forearm tightness, will start for the Angels. The Twins will counter with rookie Tyler Duffey, who has posted a 2.45 ERA in six starts since his disastrous major league debut in Toronto on August 5. If the Twins can salvage a win in that game, they’ll pull back even with the Angels in the wild-card race.

Cardinals clinch playoff spot despite loss

Elsewhere on Saturday, the Cardinals became the first team to clinch a playoff berth, backing into the postseason via the Giants6–0 loss to the Diamondbacks. For their own part, the Cardinals lost their second consecutive game to the Cubs, when their ninth-inning rally was cut short with the tying run on base by this outstanding diving play by Chicago’s rookie shortstop Addison Russell:

Given the Cubs’ win, the Pirates needed to beat Clayton Kershaw to maintain their lead for homefield advantage in the NL wild-card game. Remarkably, they pulled it off, thanks in large part to a strong start from Francisco Liriano. The Pirates beat the Dodgers 3–2 to pull within four games of the Cardinals, a team they will play three times in Pittsburgh in the season’s final week.

AL playoff race heats up

Back in the American League, the Rangers blew out the Mariners 10–1 to keep the Astros 2 1/2 games back in the West, while the Yankees gained a game on the Blue Jays in the East. The latter was the result of the Bronx Bombers shutting out the crosstown Mets 5–0, with all five runs scoring on home runs off Noah SyndergaardCarlos Beltran hit a three-run shot before Syndergaard recorded an out in the top of the first while Brian McCann added a two-run shot in the sixth.

The Yankees then sat back back and watched Toronto blow a 4–2 lead over the Red Sox in the ninth inning to lose 7–6 at home. The game-tying blow was a two-run home run off Blue Jays rookie closer Roberto Osuna by Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. The 20-year-old Osuna, who had Tommy John surgery in July 2013 and had never thrown more than 43 2/3 innings in a season before surpassing 60 this season, has allowed three home runs in six appearances in September after allowing just three home runs through the first five months of the season. Aaron Sanchez followed Osuna to the mound and allowed three more runs to score. Sanchez has surrendered a run in three of his last four outings.

HIGHLIGHTS: Rangers–Mariners | Yankees–Mets | Red Sox–Blue Jays

Despite the Blue Jays’ bullpen struggles, the Yankees remain 3 1/2 games behind Toronto in the AL East. The final head-to-head games between those teams will take place in a three-game set in Toronto starting Monday.

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