Rays, Yankees clinch; Reds win division; Padres fall in both races

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1. The Rays clinch a playoff berth in front of friends and family. When Carlos Peña's fifth-inning home run landed in the nether regions of Tropicana Field's right-field bleachers, it landed in a sea of blue seats, with no fans either three rows in front or in back of its landing spot. With no one there to catch it -- or even try to catch it -- the ball ricocheted high in the air.

To be fair, Peña's blast, his 28th of the season, reached the back of the section, but that half-empty section was not unique at the Trop on Tuesday night, as only 17,981 watched the Rays celebrate clinching their second playoff berth in franchise history with a 5-0 win against the Orioles.

That's roughly 5,000 more than the 12,446 who attended Monday's game, prompting third baseman Evan Longoria to voice his frustration in the press over the meager crowds, and starter David Price to tweet that the crowd was "embarrassing." In response, the club announced that they would give away 20,000 free tickets for Wednesday's home finale.

But for all the fuss, the Rays may, in fact, have a latent home-field advantage this year. In 2008, the Rays averaged 22,259 fans per regular-season home game, before seeing that figure jump to an average of 37,906 for their eight home playoff games.

In 2010, they have actually averaged slightly more fans per game at 22,913. Surely the Rays were simply frustrated that their September games didn't compare to the final month of 2008, but that year's September surge in attendance -- Tampa Bay averaged 28,816 in 10 home games that month -- was deceptive, as six of those games featured the Red Sox or Yankees, who draw well everywhere as visiting teams.

So it's not unreasonable to think that people will again fill the Trop this postseason, despite their poor track record -- and, perhaps, mixed affiliations.

"People will turn out," manager Joe Maddon said last Thursday, when asked about his expectations for playoff attendance. "There's still going to be a contingency that's rooting for the other team, but we're used to that. We just like it loud and filled up. It draws out our energy."

2. New Yankees will support Core Four in postseason. The Yankees also clinched a playoff berth on Tuesday by defeating the Blue Jays 6-1, their 15th appearance in the last 16 seasons. Two of the Yankees likely to be among their most important players this postseason are no strangers to October baseball but new to the team's postseason tradition: centerfielder Curtis Granderson and reliever Kerry Wood.

When he was acquired by the Yankees in the offseason, Granderson seemed poised to exceed his career-high total of 30 home runs from 2009 because he already had more of a flyball swing than Johnny Damon, who hit 24 home runs for the Yankees last year. Instead he struggled for the first two-thirds of the season and was out of the starting lineup on Aug. 9 and 10 so that hitting coach Kevin Long could help rework his swing. Granderson was batting .240 with a .307 OBP with just 10 homers in 86 games.

He's been a different player ever since, batting 42-for-156, a .269 average with a .358 OBP and 14 home runs in 45 games. Granderson has even hit lefties in that time span, going 16-for-53 (.302) with a .373 OBP and three home runs. He's a major weapon batting eighth in New York's stacked lineup.

Wood, meanwhile, has excelled in his set-up role since being traded from the Indians at the deadline, striking out 29 batters in 25 innings and allowing just one earned run for a 0.36 ERA. He has 10 holds in as many opportunities. In his short tenure in that role, he has been what David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain have not: consistent.

3. The Reds walk off with the NL Central. Batting in the ninth inning of a tie game, rightfielder Jay Bruce belted a home run over Great American Ballpark's centerfield fence. When Bruce touched home plate, the Reds didn't just beat the Astros 3-2 on a walk-off home run but secured their first postseason trip since 1995.

Despite the dramatic headline-grabbing playoff-clinching moment, it was the performance of Cincinnati starter Edinson Volquez that ought to have excited fans most. The Reds won the Central primarily by bludgeoning opponents with their offense's NL-leading 768 runs, but that style of play doesn't always succeed in October.

The Reds don't have a true ace, just a hodge-podge of pitchers who'd be Nos. 2-4 starters on any other team. While Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto are having fine seasons and will presumably start the first two games of the NLDS, manager Dusty Baker has question marks after that -- Travis Wood has likely earned a start, but he's a rookie with fewer than 100 career innings, making the recent re-emergence of Volquez confidence-inspiring.

Volquez has returned from Tommy John surgery, a 50-game drug suspension and even a minor-league demotion for ineffectiveness that lasted into September. But Since his return to the majors he's delivered four straight quality starts, including Tuesday's outing of six innings, two runs, eight strikeouts and one walk. Overall in his last four starts he's thrown 27 2/3 innings with 31 strikeouts and a 1.95 ERA.

Power pitching plays in the postseason, and Volquez has the most electric stuff on Cincinnati's staff, with a 9.6 K/9, nearly two strikeouts per nine better than the second-highest rate on the team, Homer Bailey's 7.8.

4. How good are they in a pinch? With the pitcher in the batting order, so much of the NL game is defined by use of the bench, and this year the identity of the NL playoff participants could be decided by pinch hitters. The Braves, Giants and Padres are fighting for two playoff spots, and on Wednesday, the Braves and Giants won thanks to go-ahead RBIs delivered by pinch-hitters while the Padres, lacking their best bench bat, went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

The combination of Atlanta's 3-2 win over the Marlins, the Giants' 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks and the Padres' 5-2 loss to the Cubs leaves the Padres two games behind San Francisco in the NL West and 1 1/2 games behind the Braves in the wild card.

The Braves have one of baseball's best situational hitting benches, leading the majors with 41 pinch-hit RBIs, thanks primarily to Eric Hinske and Brooks Conrad, who drove in all three runs against the Marlins. Conrad, who has three pinch-hit home runs and 12 RBIs in that role, actually started on Tuesday night in place of Martin Prado and drove in Atlanta's first run with an RBI triple. Two batters later Hinske contributed a pinch-hit, two-run home run -- he is now 14-for-44 in that role with three homers and 11 RBIs and 13 runs.

Giants pinch-hitters went 2-for-2, including a go-ahead RBI single by Nate Schierholtz, breaking a 2-2 tie with the Diamondbacks. San Francisco's other pinch hit was a single from Travis Ishikawa. Together, Ishikawa and Schierholtz are 24-for-74 (.324) with nine RBIs and 11 walks for a .412 OBP.

The Padres employ Matt Stairs, the rare hitter who over his career has been equally effective as a starter or pinch hitter and has been better coming off the bench in the past two years. Since the start of 2009 he has 102 plate appearances as a starter, batting .198 with just one home run, eight RBIs and a .324 OBP.

In that same time span he has pinch hit 136 times, batting .219 and slugging nine home runs with 24 RBIs and a .338 OBP. But Stairs wasn't available on manager Bud Black's bench as he started for the second day in a row, only the second time he has started consecutive games all season. He went 1-for-4 with a double, the only hit in 12 at-bats for the 3-4-5 hitters of San Diego's lineup.

5. The din for expanded instant replay ought to grow louder. It's a sad refrain sung over and over, but the last two nights featured a pair of blatant missed calls in the late innings of key games with playoff implications. On Monday the Padres benefited by a phantom hit-by-pitch of Chase Headley. Replay showed the pitch clearly bounced on the ground rather than hit Headley's foot, but he was awarded first base, to put two men on in the ninth inning of a one-run game against the Cubs. This, of course, came just two weeks after Derek Jeter mimed a hit-by-pitch on a bunt attempt in an AL East showdown between the Rays and Yankees.

On Tuesday night, Giants closer Brian Wilson was called upon to protect a two-run lead over Arizona for five outs. With two on, one out and a 2-2 count in the eighth inning, Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young clearly checked his swing on a down-and-away breaking ball, but on appeal to first-base umpire Mike Reilly, he was called out. Replay showed Young was nowhere close to breaking his wrists and offering at the pitch. Instead of a full count and more pitches from Wilson, he was awarded the strikeout.

These are just the latest high-profile examples of situations in which replay could help. A check swing is often a difficult-to-define judgment call that Major League Baseball may be loath to entrust to replay, but the case of Young didn't appear to even be borderline. Whether a pitch hit a batter or not ought to be pretty clear-cut in the vast majority of cases. In limited doses -- maybe two challenges per manager per game -- replay could help.