Fireworks and champagne in Cincinnati. A September classic in the Bronx. For the Orioles another --- what else? --- extra-inning win. A dramatic comeback by the world champs at Wrigley Field. Yes, it was another wild September day in baseball.
Before Raul Ibanez's jaw-dropping 13th-inning home run, before the strange, ridiculous, and thrilling 14-inning, 5-hour, 43-minute epic in the Bronx, there was Jim Thome, that old warrior, lumbering to the plate at Fenway Park with the Orioles-Red Sox game tied in the 12th inning. Thome, 0-for-5 with two strikeouts on the day at that moment, faced a 2-1 count from Alfredo Aceves, and drilled an 89 mph fastball to right field, a shot that one-hopped into the stands for a ground rule double and scored Adam Jones to give Baltimore the lead for good. The Orioles' 9-6 win over the Red Sox was the team's 16th-straight extra-inning win --- that win streak is the longest in the majors since the Cleveland Indians won 17 straight in 1949. As the Orioles added to their lead in the 12th and the Red Sox faithful filed out of the ballpark, you could hear chants of "Let's Go O's!" in the stands at Fenway. That strange Orioles magic continues, thanks to Baltimore's unlikely 42-year-old hero.
For a moment on Saturday, it looked as if the Orioles would begin Sunday atop the AL East with the Yankees: when Raul Ibanez, the team's 40-year-old outfielder, stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the 13th as a misty rain fell at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees were down 9-7 after a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly cut into the A's four-run lead to begin the inning. Facing a 3-1 count against Pat Neshek, Ibanez, who had homered in the fifth as a pinch-hitter, got a sinker that didn't sink, and he ripped the ball into the right-field stands. The Yankees would go on to win in ridiculous fashion in the 14th, with Oakland first baseman Brandon Moss booting an Eduardo Nunez ground ball with the bases loaded --- but Ibanez's homer was the biggest hit of the day.
Two old warriors, two big hits. Everywhere on Saturday, the old guys seemed to be getting the job done. Before there was Ibanez with his improbable home run, there was Ichiro, with a first-inning home run --- the 38-year-old leftfielder, who's rediscovered his mojo in Gotham, now has now five HRs in 56 games with Yankees after hitting just four in 95 games with Mariners this year. The 38-year-old, who now has 14 hits in his last 20 at-bats, is so hot that the A's intentionally walked him with a runner on second and one out in the 14th to get to Alex Rodriguez.
After all the madness on Saturday, after 27 innings of epic baseball, we were back where we started when the day began: the Yankees leading the Orioles by a game in the AL East.
It was 6:01 pm in Cincinnati, and the Cuban Missile, Aroldis Chapman, unleashed a 99 mph sizzler to Hanley Ramirez, who hit weakly into a double play, and it was official: the Reds are the 2012 NL Central champs. Later on the West Coast, the San Francisco Giants also punched their playoff ticket by beating the Padres to claim the NL West title.
It was a good day in Cinncinati: Jay Bruce hit his 34th home run of the year, Brandon Phillips hit his 18th, and Mat Latos pitched eight brilliant shutout innings. Latos looks poised to become a breakout star this October: he's now 8-2 with a 2.52 ERA over his last 17 starts. In the next few days and weeks there will be much talk about how these Reds are better built than the 2010 playoff team for a run deep into October. For now, let's give props to GM Walt Jocketty, who in his fifth year in Cincinnati has won his second NL Central title and has done a brilliant job of turning the Reds into a perennial contender. It was Jocketty who make the bold trade for Latos this offseason; his other notable acquisitions on the current roster include Ryan Ludwick, Dioner Navarro, Xavier Paul, Jose Arredondo, Jonathan Broxton, Aroldis Chapman, J.J. Hoover, Sean Marshall, and Alfredo Simon.
Things were looking bleak for the Cardinals when Carlos Beltran stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning at Wrigley Field on Saturday. A day after a gut-wrenching loss to the Cubs on Friday, the Cardinals were down 5-4 with one out and no one on, when Beltran hit his 30th homer of the season and tied the game. In the 10th, John Jay hit a two-out RBI double to put the Cardinals on top. How quickly things change in a day: with the Brewers' loss to the Nationals, the Cardinals are back in control in the wild card race, 2 ½ games up on Milwaukee, and breathing a little easier.
We interrupt this playoff race for a quick word on the NL Cy Young race: on Saturday afternoon, a pair of Cy Young candidates, Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey, made their latest case for the award. Gonzalez became the league's first 20-game winner (and the first Nats pitcher ever to reach 20 wins) as he cooled off the scorching Brewers with seven three-hit innings. The lefty allowed no earned runs and struck out five to up his strike out total to 202; he's the first Washington pitcher to surpass 200 Ks since Walter Johnson. Thanks to Gonzalez's outing, the Nationals' magic number to clinch the NL East stands at six. Meanwhile, in New York, the great knuckleballer's magical season continued. Dickey tossed eight-plus dazzling innings before he left with a 4-0 lead in the ninth with runners on second and third. Dickey won his 19th game of the year and lowered his ERA to 2.66.
Detroit crushed the Twins 8-0, behind a terrific start from Doug Fister, who hurled a complete game shutout of the Twins. Miguel Cabrera hit his 42nd home run of the season and raised his RBI total to 131. He ended the day tied for first with Josh Hamilton in home runs (42), first in average (.332), and first in RBI. More importantly, in the AL Central, the Tigers moved to just a 1/2 of the White Sox, who lost to the Angels 4-2 in Anaheim.