1. Homer's odyssey
The maturation of Homer Bailey took eight years and 217 professional starts but neatly culminated in one night, on the mound where he's had some of his greatest success.
Bailey, the Reds' 6-foot-3 right-hander drafted No. 7 overall in 2004 out of La Grange (Texas) High, threw the majors' seventh no-hitter of the season as Cincinnati beat the Pirates 1-0 in a game with milestones aplenty.
• Bailey threw the Reds' first no-hitter since Tom Browning's perfect game in 1988.
• He became the first pitcher to no-hit the Pirates since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson did so in 1971.
• He became the fourth pitcher among the first 12 picks in the '04 draft to throw a no-no, joining Justin Verlander (twice, Philip Humber and the Jered Weaver.
• Bailey topped 200 innings for the first time in his career; his previous best was his 132 last year.
• He tied his career-high with 10 strikeouts, which he has now done three times.
• He threw his third career complete game, all three of which have come at Pittsburgh's PNC Park; the others were a shutout on May 12, 2010, and a one-run complete game on May 29 of this year.
• The Pirates' loss clinched their 20th consecutive season without a winning record. At 76-81, they would need to win their five remaining games to finish at .500.
Bailey finished the game with a barrage of fastballs, rearing back to throw 15 of his final 16 pitches with his best velocity of the night. His fastball, which topped out at 91 mph through the first four innings, was primarily 92-93 in the ninth.
This season -- by far the most successful of his career -- Bailey has thrown various fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and cutters) for 76 percent of his pitches, according to the pitch classifications of Pitch Info LLC on BrooksBaseball.net. That has seemingly helped him get quicker outs and go deeper into games. He entered the season averaging 17.3 pitches per inning and 5.59 innings per start, figures he has improved this year to 16.0 pitches per inning and 6.38 innings per start.
• Most recent no-hitters, team by-team | No-hitters in 2012
Bailey threw between 10 and 17 pitches in his nine no-hit frames for a total of 115, sparing acting manager Chris Speier any difficult decisions with the playoffs looming. Bailey has seen a steady progression with his walk rate, beginning with an unsightly 5.6 BB/9 as a rookie in 2007, which has dropped in succession to 4.2, 4.1, 3.3 and now 2.3 last year and again this year.
Bailey, who allowed only two baserunners (one walk and one who reached on an error), has had a streaky season. He made five straight dominant starts in July (1.43 ERA) and followed them up with six starts in which he gave up four or more runs in five of them (7.03 ERA).
He has settled down in September, however, allowing zero or one run in four of six starts, while yielding two runs once and one aberrational outing last weekend when he gave up five. In all, he has a 2.01 ERA and a .149 average against this month.
Such a stellar output has seemingly primed him for the postseason, when the Reds now have a decision to make. Based on season production, Bailey would seem to slot in as Cincinnati's No. 4 starter, but his home/road splits are so exaggerated -- 4-8, 5.16 ERA in 17 home starts; 9-2, 2.41 ERA in 15 road starts -- that the club might wonder if he'd be better suited for a Game 2 assignment given this year's 2-3 playoff format that'll have Cincinnati opening on the road. It's a good problem to have, with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo also all pitching well.
For the Pirates, however, it was an emphatic way to clinch another season without a winning record, worsening their late-season collapse and continuing to cloud the progress they've made.
2. Half alive
Each club now has only five games remaining, yet the following statements remain true:
• No American League team has clinched a playoff spot.
• Fully half the major leagues -- 15 out of 30 teams -- remain alive for the postseason.
Friday's action formally eliminated the Diamondbacks Phillies from contention and brought the Brewers to the brink, as they are just one loss or one Cardinals win away making alternate plans for October. The Dodgers aren't in much better shape -- any combination of three losses or Cardinals wins removes them for the wild-card standings -- so the National League picture is nearly complete.
The AL, however, is much murkier. The Yankees and Orioles both won, keeping New York ahead by a game in the AL East; the AL Central divide narrowed by a game (see below); and the AL West also cinched closer by a game, with the Rangers losing and the A's winning, bringing Oakland to within three games. In the wild-card race the O's are a game up on the A's, who in turn are two up on the Angels and three ahead of the Rays.
It's possible that the final three-game series of the season (beginning Monday) will be meaningful, as the Rays host the Orioles and the A's host the Rangers, potentially putting a wild-card spot and the AL West up for grabs between teams in direct competition.
3. No relief in Detroit
The lone division race in which the runner-up has no reasonable chance at enjoying the safety net of a wild card appeared to be moving toward resolution. Entering play on Friday, the Tigers had won four in a row, and the White Sox had lost eight of their last nine, building momentum that Detroit, which had a two-game lead and faced a weaker opponent over the weekend, would ride that momentum into the playoffs.
Instead, the White Sox beat the Rays 3-1, while the Tigers fell 4-2 to the Twins, as Detroit's lead in the AL Central slimmed to one game.
Bullpens made a difference on Friday night. Chicago's unit deployed five relievers who combined for four scoreless innings, led by Jesse Crain's 2 2/3 innings with four strikeouts and only one hit. Detroit, on the other hand, used three pitchers in relief of Drew Smyly, who threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings; the Tigers' bullpen allowed four runs (three earned) over 2 2/3 innings with Phil Coke and Brayan Villarreal surrendering the damage.
Ever since the Tigers beat the White Sox 8-6 on Sept. 12 -- a game in which each team's bullpen gave up five runs -- their relievers' collective work has diverged. Chicago's bullpen has had a 1.55 ERA and .150 average against in its last 46 1/3 innings of work while allowing only 27.6 percent of inherited runners to score; Detroit, meanwhile, has an ERA of 4.80, which is three times Chicago's, to go with a .244 average against and a 50 percent inherited runner scoring rate.
4. Birds of prey
On the one-year anniversary of last year's Game 162 -- when the Orioles aided in the Red Sox's elimination with a 4-3 victory -- the Orioles were again hosting Red Sox, but the roles were reversed.
This time Baltimore is seeking a playoff berth against a long-since eliminated Boston team, and rather than rely on a pair of ninth-inning runs for the win, the O's pounced early. Chris Davis smacked a two-run homer and Ryan Flaherty hit his first career grand slam as they scored six first-inning runs en route to a 9-1 romp. Combined with its 12-2 victory on Wednesday, when Baltimore hit seven homers in the eight innings they batted, the O's had a stretch in which they clubbed nine homers in nine consecutive innings.
But the Orioles have mashed homers all year; more important may have been the outing of starter Chris Tillman -- he threw eight innings of one-run ball, allowing just one hit (a bunt single) and two walks -- whose performance may have earned him the right to pitch Baltimore's first postseason game, which now seems all but a certainty with a magic number of just three.
Tillman only made his season debut on July 4 but since then he's been the club's best and most consistent starter, with a 9-2 record and 2.78 ERA in 81 innings. In 10 of his 14 starts, he's allowed no more than two runs and only twice has he allowed four or more; that propensity to avoid a bad outing may be critical if the Orioles end up in the one-game wild-card playoff.
5. Starting again in the NL West
Two division rivals who had struggled either through injury (the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw) or through ineffectiveness (the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong) pitched gems in winning efforts on Friday night, putting to rest any persisting individual concerns.
The stakes of their games, however, were different. The Giants have already clinched the NL West, so his outing merely bolstered his credentials for a spot in the playoff rotation. In seven starts from Aug. 13 to Sept. 16 he had gone 2-4 while allowing 34 earned runs in 29 2/3 innings, an unseemly 10.31 ERA. Vogelsong spun a one-run, six-inning win in his previous start against the Padres, and Friday's win showed it wasn't a fluke, when he repeated that outcome of one run in six innings in another win over San Diego (and this time the run was unearned).
Kershaw, on the other hand, has only been sporadically available of late because of a hip condition, needing six days' rest before his first two starts this month and then 11 days' rest before his third start last Sunday. But he made Friday's start on normal rest and dazzled, throwing eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts. He has now allowed just two earned runs in 27 innings this month as he helps Los Angeles cling to its outside shot at the second wild card; the Dodgers trail the Cardinals by three games.