Phillies in limbo, Tigers in trouble and more Monday thoughts

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1. Hanging on for now

The Phillies are in a sort of baseball limbo: too close to a playoff spot to implement experimental changes, too far away to reasonably expect to continue playing into October. Such is their reality in this two-wild-card era, a precarious state that beats playing for nothing.

"It's definitely not where we want to be," starter Cliff Lee said, "but we've still got a chance."

Lee struck out 10 and walked none while allowing one run in eight innings, as Philadelphia beat R.A. Dickey and the Mets 3-1 and moved to 3½ games out of the second wild card. Lee has now won his last four decisions after not earning his first win of the season until July 4 and stopped a small skid, as the Phillies lost three of four to the last-place Astros over the weekend.

"We bounced back tonight," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "When you get that kind of pitching, it's not that hard."

Philadelphia has needed that kind of pitching, given the holes in the lineup after the club traded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. The team has won Lee's last five starts but only by a combined 18-6, as he's allowed just four earned runs in 35 1/3 innings.

Seeing the Mets may have brought back familiar memories. The Phillies entered the day four games back of a playoff spot through 147 games, which isn't quite as dire as the odds were in 2007 when the club was 5½ back through 147 (and even seven games back through 145 games) before rallying to overtake the Mets for the NL East crown.

That's improbable but not impossible. And for the time being it's delaying Philadelphia's novel idea for 2013. Second baseman Chase Utley was on the field long before first pitch taking groundballs at third base, which he has done before several recent games, in anticipation of a possible full-time move to third next year. The Phillies would have considered giving him a headstart in game action this year, but their recent surge to the cusp of contention has negated that plan for now.

"I think right now we're going to stay the course," Manuel said, "that we've got a chance and we're going to see if we can win."

2. Tigers boot another one

The White Sox may well have won the AL Central on Monday afternoon. Chicago rallied to beat the Tigers 5-4, with the tying and go-ahead runs scoring on a throwing error by Detroit second baseman Omar Infante, as he tried to turn what could have been an inning-ending double play.

The error was clearly the turning point, given the eerily similar pitching lines. Both starters, Doug Fister and Jose Quintana, completed four innings and left after allowing the first two batters in the fifth to reach base. Neither bullpen had a reliever charged with a run, but the difference was that the White Sox's Nate Jones allowed only one inherited runner to score while the Tigers' Al Alburquerque allowed two inherited runners to score because of the defensive gaffe.

Infante is Detroit's best defensive infielder, according to the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus system, but he has now made eight errors in 46 games. That erratic fielding was bound to catch up with the Tigers at some point; they rank No. 28 in the majors in team defense, according to Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted defensive efficiency. That can make a difference in close games and may help explain why the Tigers are 0-6 in one-run games played in September and 2-13 since Aug. 9.

3. R.I.P., not R.I.S.P.

When an obituary is written for the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays -- and news staffs would be wise to have most of it prepared for publication at a moment's notice -- the cause of death will be its offense.

On Monday the Rays managed only one run in six innings against the Red Sox' Aaron Cook, who entered at 3-10 with a 5.18 ERA, and the team has now scored just 21 runs in its last seven games, predictably going 1-6 and falling from its place two games out in the division and one game out in the wild card to its current standing 5½ out in the AL East and five games out of the second wild card.

Though every game this month has essentially been must-win for the Rays, their starting lineup featured seven hitters who, by game's end, had an average of .250 or less. Since Tampa Bay joined baseball's elite in 2008, this season has featured its worst team average (.238), on-base percentage (.314) and slugging (.385). The slugging is its first below .400 during its five-year-run, and the .698 OPS is its first below .720. The Rays' .690 OPS with runners in scoring position ranks 27th in the majors.

The shame is that Tampa Bay squandered yet another good pitching performance, this time from Alex Cobb, who had a no-hitter through 5 2/3 innings and ultimately was charged with three runs in 6-plus innings.

4. Choose Your Own Adventure

Much of the narrative describing the Orioles' season has focused on their success despite a negative run differential, but Monday's 10-4 victory over the Mariners -- which pulled Baltimore to a half-game behind the Yankees in the AL East -- nearly made up a third of the previously -20 deficit in much the same way it had been accrued: in blowouts.

Baltimore has lost seven games by nine runs or more -- with only one such game happening after Aug. 1 -- while winning only two games that way. In this one the O's had a 10-1 lead but allowed a few late runs and settled for a six-run margin that didn't chip as much off that differential as it seemed early in the game.

Catcher Matt Wieters, centerfielder Adam Jones and leftfielder Nate McLouth all had three hits, which was actually one player shy of Baltimore's season-high, as four players had three or more hits in a 12-0 win over the Blue Jays on Sept. 4. Five Orioles had at least two hits, which was also one less than that Sept. 4 game.

A couple more blowout wins of this magnitude, and Baltimore will only be defying one sabermetric norm, its staggering record in one-run games.

5. Double Trouble

Surely the Giants expected Hunter Pence -- and not Marco Scutaro -- to be their most important offensive-minded addition at the trade deadline, yet it's Scutaro who ranks second in the majors (behind only Derek Jeter) for most hits since July 28, which is the day he was traded to San Francisco.

In his 48 games playing second base for the Giants, Scutaro has 68 hits for a .349/.367/.451 batting line that includes a 2-for-4 in the club's 2-1 win over the Rockies on Monday night. Even with Scutaro's contributions, San Francisco still has the league's worst offensive production at the position.

His double-play partner, shortstop Brandon Crawford, has been almost as hot. Crawford doubled and tripled against the Rockies -- as the Giants extended their NL West lead to eight games -- and in 32 games since Aug. 7 has batted .318/.384/.466.