The final day of the 2011 regular season has arrived and still neither league's wild card has been determined. In the American League, the Rays and Red Sox both won on Tuesday night to remain tied with identical 90-71 records. In the National League, the Cardinals pulled even with the Braves by digging out of an early 5-0 hole to beat the Astros 13-6, while Atlanta was solidly defeated by the Phillies 7-1.
Any of those four teams could clinch their league's final playoff spot tonight with a win and a loss by their co-tenant atop the wild card standings. Should either pair of rivals remain tied after tonight's action, the tie would be broken by a single-game playoff on Thursday, with Tampa Bay and St. Louis the prospective hosts based on their advantage in head-to-head competition against the Braves and Red Sox, respectively. Here, then, is a look at tonight's four games that could finally determine the leagues' wild cards tonight.
• For only the second time in 154 career starts, Jon Lester will be taking the ball on three days' rest. The first time came in 2008, when he gave up nine runs, four runs (all earned) and two home runs in five innings of a loss to the Angels. Lester's most recent start, Saturday against the Yankees, he threw just 55 pitches because he failed to make it out of the third inning, giving up eight runs in 2 2/3 frames. Over his past three starts he is 0-3 with a 10.54 ERA, although he did have strong outing in his only start against Baltimore this season (8 IP, 2 R), but that was back in April.
• It is critical that the Red Sox get a strong outing and some length from Lester tonight because their bullpen is suddenly as big a question mark as their starting pitching has been this month. Set-up man Daniel Bard has given up a run in six of his 10 September appearances, posting an 11.70 ERA on the month, and allowed two of five inherited runners to score, while blowing three saves and taking a loss in a fourth game. Closer Jonathan Papelbon didn't look sharp in a 28-pitch outing last night, and has now thrown two of his three longest outings, based on pitch count, of the season in the past three days. And long-man Alfredo Aceves pitched 3 2/3 innings last night and has now worked three straight days, which should limit his availability tonight.
• Jacoby Ellsbury continues to make a strong push for the AL MVP and is now hitting .365/.408/.687 with eight homers in September. He has a hit in 25 of his 26 games on the month, brings a 12-game hitting streak into this game, and has homered four times in four games over the last three days, including a two-run shot that got the Red Sox on the board Tuesday night.
• Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who came out of Monday's game after being hit in the right collarbone with a foul tip, will be available to start this game for the Red Sox, but he was 3-for-33 prior to the injury and his replacement behind the plate on Tuesday night, rookie Ryan Lavarnway, drove in half of Boston's eight runs via the first two home runs of his major league career. Don't be surprised to see Lavarnway back there again tonight.
• For Baltimore, Alfredo Simon is 3-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 15 starts since joining the Baltimore rotation in early July, and 1-5 with a 5.73 ERA in his last 10 starts. His only appearance against Boston this season was his first start of the year on July 9. He gave up three runs on eight hits and was pulled with one out in the fifth inning.
• Matt Wieters is hitting .286/.371/.635 since August 15 with 12 homers. He takes a nine-game hitting streak into this game, has homered in each of the first two games of this series, and is 8-for-23 (.348) career against Lester.
• The Phillies plan to piece this game together pitching-wise. Joe Blanton's only start since hitting the disabled list with elbow trouble in May came this past Saturday and saw him throw just 24 pitches over two effective innings (his total line since coming off the DL a couple of weeks ago: 5 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 7 K). Expect something similar in this game, with Cole Hamels among the pitchers to follow, each contributing just an inning or two.
• Tim Hudson is 3-3 with a 4.26 ERA over his last six starts, just two of which were quality. His September 6 outing in Philadelphia saw him walk four men and allow four runs in six innings while taking the loss. Hudson fared better against the Phillies in a pair of starts early in the season (combined 14 2/3 IP, 4 ER), both Braves wins.
• Ryan Howard owns Hudson to the tune of a .306/.417/.694 line with six home runs in 60 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Placido Polanco has managed just a single and a walk in 17 career plate appearances against Hudson.
• Jimmy Rollins has been red-hot, going 11-for-19 with multiple hits in each of the Phillies last four games and has homered in each of the first two games of this series.
• Alex Gonzalez left Tuesday's game after aggravating the right calf strain that cost him five games last week. That injury is likely to keep him out of this game, leaving Jack Wilson, his replacement Tuesday night, to start at shortstop. As for Chipper Jones, an MRI taken Tuesday morning showed a bone bruise in his right knee, but he'll continue to play through the pain.
That may not be such a good thing for Atlanta, which doesn't want to bench its legendary third baseman but has to hope his limited mobility in the field doesn't cost them. Jones should be watched carefully and if he looks severely limited defensively, they may have to take him out early.
• David Price has a 1.93 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings over his last nine starts, and the only one of those nine that wasn't quality saw him leave after four innings after taking a comebacker off the right shoulder. The first of those nine saw him hold the Yankees to one run over eight innings, though he had allowed nine runs in 13 1/3 innings over his previous two starts against New York this season.
• With Price on the mound and the homefield advantage, the deck is already stacked in Tampa Bay's favor. Add in the fact that the Yankees' only pitchers tonight will be those who won't make the postseason roster and the Rays have no excuse for not winning. With Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon having pitched in the past three days, CC Sabathia being held for Friday's playoff opener and Phil Hughes' bad back making him unavailable, none of the Yankees top six starters were available tonight anyway. But even top relievers like Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera will be given the night off after pitching in Tuesday's game. Expect a parade of September call-ups on the mound for the Yankees.
• As for their position players, Joe Girardi said he intends to start all of his regulars tonight. That's why Alex Rodriguez was pulled in the eighth inning Tuesday night. Russell Martin's ejection in the fifth inning on Monday also works in the Yankees favor in that regard, as it gave him a half-game off. However, Girardi might put in his subs early if the score becomes lopsided.
• Swisher has the best numbers against Price on the Yankees, hitting .429/.556/.619 in 27 plate appearances against the tall lefty. Derek Jeter (.306/.359/.528) is the only other Yankee with good numbers against Price in all three split stats. Curtis Granderson, as part of his surprising success against lefties this season, as homered twice in 14 plate appearances against Price this year.
• Casey Kotchman was sent to the hospital on Tuesday after experiencing tightness in his chest, but all tests were negative and he is expected to be back in the Rays' lineup tonight.
• Desmond Jennings is 0-for-his-last-18 and has hit .159/.260/.243 in 123 plate appearances dating back to August 30. The fact that Rays manager Joe Maddon hasn't moved him down the lineup yet suggests it won't happen tonight either but the Rays might benefit from just such a move. His defense is still worth keeping him on the field, however, as evidenced by his diving catch on Derek Jeter on Monday.
• Brett Myers is 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 4.67 K/BB over his last five starts and enters Wednesday's game having not allowed a home run in three consecutive starts for the first time all season. He has made two starts against the Cardinals this season, one good (8 IP, 3 R in St. Louis), one bad (6 IP, 5 R at home), but both Astros losses.
• Chris Carpenter has a 1.45 ERA over his last four starts, but allowed 12 runs in 11 innings in his two starts prior to that. In his only start against the Astros this season, which came in St. Louis in late July, he held Houston to two runs over seven innings while striking out eight against one walk.
• Matt Holliday was removed from Tuesday night's game after aggravating his right middle finger injury in the second inning. He's unlikely to be available in this game and will be replaced by Allen Craig, who has gone 10-for-27 with four homers in his last nine games.
• Lance Berkman is hitting .398 dating back to September 2 and has gone without a hit just three times in 23 games over that span. However, just seven of his 33 hits over that span have gone for extra bases and only one was a home run.
• The only Astros with more than nine career plate appearances against Carpenter are Carlos Lee and Clint Barmes, and they have hit a combined .159/.194/.317 off the St. Louis ace in 68 plate appearances.
• In his last 10 appearances, Cardinals lefty Marc Rzepczynski has compiled a 1.86 WHIP, been charged with seven runs in seven innings of work, and allowed half of his six inherited runners to score.