Baseball’s Wild Night and Playoff Predictions

If there has been a more exciting night in baseball history, I would love to have witnessed it.  Last night had it all: comebacks, rain delays, blown saves, clutch hits, celebrations, devastation.  The night started with 4 teams vying for 2 wild card spots and the possibility of everyone having to come back to play game 163 today.  It ended with the playoff schedule set and the culmination of the two biggest September collapses in baseball history.

Before a pitch was thrown on Wednesday, the Cardinals and the Braves were tied in the race for the National League Wild Card, the Red Sox and the Rays also had matching records and were competing for the last playoff spot in the American League.  St. Louis took care of business against the Houston Astros and were 5 runs up in the first inning, their victory meaning their worst case scenario was a one game playoff against Atlanta if the Braves also won.  However, the other three games involving the contenders had much more drama than that one in Texas.  This is how things changed throughout the evening:

Through 7 innings:

The Braves were 3-2 up against the Phillies – 6 outs from getting to the playoff game with St. Louis

Boston and Atlanta playoff-bound...oh

The Rays were trailing the Yankees 7-0 and needing some help from Baltimore

The Orioles and the Red Sox were in a rain delay – one that did not look like it would subside – prior to the bottom of the 7th inning with Boston up 3-2.  If they were unable to retake the field – the game would be awarded to the Red Sox

As it stood: Braves/Cardinals to play game 163; Red Sox in playoffs, Rays out

Through 8 innings:

The Tampa Bay Rays rallied against the Yankees and brought the score back to 7-6, the highlight being Evan Longoria’s 3 run home-run.

The Red Sox and the Orioles managed to get back on the field when the rain finally stopped.  Boston pitcher Alfredo Aceves got out of trouble in the 7th after hitting two Baltimore players with pitches, before Daniel Bard worked a perfect 8th.

The Phillies loaded the bases against Atlanta but failed to tie the game when Raul Ibanez struck out.

As it stood: Braves/Cardinals to play game 163; Red Sox in playoffs, Rays out

Two outs in the 9th inning:

The Phillies tied the game with the Braves with a sacrifice fly by Chase Utley which recorded the second out and scored the runner from 3rd, sending the game to extra innings.

The Rays were down to their last out, trailing the Yankees 7-6, with nobody on base

The Red Sox were one out away from guaranteeing at least a playoff game – the Orioles had nobody on base.

As it stood: Braves had to win in extra innings to force game 163; Red Sox in playoffs Rays out

Despite their precarious position, the Rays were not done.  Pinch-hitter Dan Johnson hit a two-out solo home run over the right field wall to tie the game in the bottom of the 9th and sent the game to extra innings.  In the bottom of the 12th, the crowd (if you can call it that – attendance for a do-or-die game was shockingly low at Tropicana Field) started to get boisterous. Word had filtered through from Baltimore  (the game there was still in the bottom of the 9th due to the rain delay) that the Orioles were rallying.  One out away from closing out the game, Boston’s Jonathan Papelborn gave up back-to-back doubles that tied the game; followed by a single that landed just in front of Carl Crawford and scored Reimold from second to end the game and leave the Red Sox fans for once praying for a Yankees victory.  When the final score was flashed on the board in Tampa, the cheers grew and Evan Longoria had to step out as he waited to bat.  Two pitches later, he hit a line drive shot that cleared the left field wall to give the Rays a walk off win and remove all need for a playoff.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Philadelphia took the lead in the top of the 13th, leaving the Braves on the brink of elimination – a fact that was confirmed when a double play in the bottom of the inning ended the game.  An incredible night of baseball, ending a dramatic September which resulted in:

  • Boston and Atlanta being eliminated, Tampa and St. Louis making the playoffs
  • The Red Sox giving up a 9 game lead over the Rays in September to be eliminated on the final day, the biggest ever collapse in baseball history. (Can we stop talking about the ALCS in 2004 now? Please?)
  • The Braves giving up an 8.5 game lead over the Cardinals in September, the join second biggest ever collapse in baseball history (with the 1964 Phillies)
  • This article getting even funnier than it had been already.  New England Sports Network wondered before the season if this year’s Red Sox team would overtake the 1927 Yankees as the greatest in history, instead they have more in common with the 2007 New York Mets – who lost 12 of their last 17 games to throw away a 7 game lead over the Phillies and miss the playoffs.
Playoff Predictions
For a change, it will be hard for October to match the drama of September as the playoffs started early for a lot of clubs.  Here’s a breakdown of how I see the divisional matchups
Phillies vs Cardinals:  Look out for the team that is on a roll going into October – the 2007 Rockies got hot in September and it carried over to the playoffs and saw them make the World Series – so the Cardinals will not be an easy out for the Phillies. However, with ace pitchers Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels set to start for Philadelphia in the first three games, I think St. Louis will be lucky to win even one game.  Prediction: Phillies in 3
Brewers vs Diamondbacks: This should be a very even matchup – Arizona won the regular season series between them by 4 games to 3 and probably have the best starting pitcher in Iain Kennedy.  However, the Brewers have a strong line-up and great 3/4 hitters in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.  I can see this one going the distance. Prediction: Diamondbacks in 5
Yankees vs Tigers: While New York was throwing away a 7 run lead against Tampa, everyone was focusing on Boston – but the Yankees lost their last 4 regular season games and now face this year’s probable AL Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander for game 1.  If pitching wins in October, then the Yankees are in trouble as they start rookie Ivan Nova in game 2, their ace CC has had a poor month of September, and beyond that nobody knows who will start game 3 – none of the candidates, Garcia, Colon or Burnett, instill much confidence in their own fans.  I hate to say it, but I think the Yankees will come unstuck and will make an early October exit.  However, I still cannot pick against them so I will predict against my head and with my heart.  Prediction: Yankees in 4
Rangers vs Rays: Unlike the Phillies, I do not see Texas having the rotation to stop a team that is on a fantastic run and I think Tampa will make it to the ALCS.  The Rays have stronger pitching, at least as good a lineup, and not having home-field advantage will not mean too much to a team that does not attract many fans anyway.  Prediction: Rays in 5
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This week in: Baseball – Wild Card Mania

As was covered here, September had looked like it was going to be a quiet baseball month, with almost all of the playoff places already decided – only the AL West seemed like it was still a race between the Angels and the Rangers.  The Atlanta Braves have gone 9-16 in September and seen the Cardinals pull within 1 game of them for the Wild Card, having started the month 8 back.  The Boston Red Sox have been even more generous, returning all of the 9 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays they enjoyed as recently as September 3rd.

All four teams have two games left to play against divisional rivals – the Braves face the juggernaut Phillies, who won their

Swing and a miss

100th game of the season on Monday night; while the Cardinals face the Houston Astros, who are just playing to spoil now. In the American League East, the Orioles look to continue to frustrate the Red Sox, having beaten them in 4 of the 5 games they have played in the last week.  There is bad blood between the two teams this season also, with one of their games in July descending into a brawl, after Boston’s David Ortiz felt that the Orioles’ Kevin Gregg had been throwing at him on two straight pitches.  Meanwhile, the Rays host the Yankees, who have already guaranteed themselves home-field advantage for the ALDS and ALCS (should they make it that far).  With New York now likely to face Detroit in the divisional series, which starts on Friday, their focus will be on getting their line up and pitching rotation set.  The Tigers will be able to start ace pitcher Justin Verlander in 2 of the 5 games and so the Yankees will be holding CC Sabbathia back to face him, rather than him going for his 20th win of the year in either of the remaining regular season games against the Tampa Bay Rays.

There is also a question about whether or not the Yankees would want to go all out to win and thus help their rivals, Boston, in the process.  The last time the two teams faced off in a playoff series was the 2004 ALCS when New York collapsed – having being up 3-0, only to lose the last four games.  Though the Red Sox have been struggling throughout September, once the playoffs start then anything is possible and they will still be a dangerous team to face.  In 2000, the Yankees themselves ended the season by winning only 3 of their final 18 games, but that did not stop them once October came around and they went on to win the World Series.  At the same time, the Rays are on a roll and if they complete their comeback and make the playoffs, then they will be a have a lot of belief and will be a tough team to knockout.  New York will not worry about who joins them in the playoffs and, while they will be resting their veterans and holding back their best pitchers, the players who do go out their will just be playing to win.

With the playoffs starting this weekend and four teams already playing “win-or-go-home” type games, it should be an exciting week in baseball.  With any luck, at least one of the two races will be tied after Wednesday’s games and there will be a Game 163 – a one-off, winner takes all matchup for the Wild Card.

This week in: Baseball

At the beginning of September, there seemed to be only one playoff spot up for grabs, the race for October being a mere saunter in every division except for the AL West.  The standings before play on 9/1 were thus:

AL                                                                                               

East – Red Sox 1.5 games up on Yankees

Central – Tigers 5.5 games up on Indians

West – Rangers 3.5 games up on Angels

Wild Card – Yankees 7.5 games up on Rays

NL

East – Phillies 7.5 games up on Braves

Central – Brewers 8.5 games up on Cardinals

West- Diamondbacks 6 games up on Giants

Wild Card – Braves 8.5 games up on Cardinals

Fast-forward less than 2 weeks and, though most of the races continue to look decided, the AL Wild Card is suddenly up for grabs. In the AL East, the Yankees have made up 5 games on the Red Sox in the month of September and are now 3.5 up

Lackey just found out his ERA is higher than AJ Burnett's

with 17 left to play.  This has not been because New York has been playing unbelievable baseball – they themselves just snapped a four game losing streak – rather it’s a result of a faltering Boston team who, having posted a 2-9 record so far this month, are now only 3 games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays for the Wild Card.  This is a team who were being written in as the Phillies opponents for the World Series prior to the season began, and whom the jingoistic New England press were lauding as being able to surpass the 1927 Yankees as the greatest in history, merely making 100 wins was a foregone conclusion.  (Spoiler alert – unless Boston ends the season by winning 15 games out of 16, they’re not going to make it to 100 wins)

A look at the statistics makes it clear were the Red Sox problems lie:

Team Rankings (All of MLB)

Batting

Runs – 1st; Batting Average – 1st; On Base – 1st; Slugging Percentage – 1st

Pitching

ERA – 19th; Quality Starts – 26th; WHIP – 11th; BAA – 6th

While there have been problems all season long with the Red Sox pitching, September has seen the issues get deeper.  The rap sheet is as follows: 73 runs given up in 11 games; an injury to Josh Beckett; and projected closer of the future, Daniel Bard, taking the loss in 4 of the 9 defeats this month.  Meanwhile, 45 year old Knuckleball pitcher, Tim Wakefield, has been stuck on 199 career wins, unable to get 200 in any of his last 5 starts.

With a four game series coming up at Fenway Park against the Rays next weekend, Boston needs to get back to their winning ways, and fast.  If they manage a split with Tampa Bay, then they still need to look out for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, currently only 5 games back of the Red Sox, and with winnable series against the A’s and Orioles this week.

Elsewhere this week, with most of the playoff spots decided, an emphasis will be put on individual milestones being reached for both this season, and overall in players’ careers:
  • Yankees legendary closer Mariano Rivera has 599 career saves after picking up his 40th for the year on Sunday in a 6-5 NY win over the Angels.  As well as 1 more taking him to 600, 2 more saves sees Mo tie Trevor Hoffman for first on the all time career saves list.  Rivera’s teammate, Curtis Granderson, goes into the week looking for his 40th Home Run of the season.  The center fielder’s previous season high was 30 back in 2009 with Detroit.  (This week: NYY @ Seattle x3, @ Toronto x3)
  • Also in pinstripes, pitcher CC Sabbathia looks to become the first Yankees pitcher to record back-to-back 20 win seasons since Tommy John (he of the famous surgery) did it back in 1979/80.  (CC Scheduled start: 9/17 @ Toronto)
  • For the Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander continues his quest to become the first pitcher to win both the Cy Young and MVP since Roger Clemens did it for Boston in 1986.  With a league leading 22 wins, the joint lowest ERA in the AL and the most strikeouts, Verlander looks a certainty for the Cy Young, and with Detroit playing .500 baseball when anyone else pitches, strong starts for the rest of the regular season might persuade the voters to make a pitcher MVP once again.  (Verlander scheduled starts: 9/13 @ White Sox; 9/18 @ Oakland)
  • Adrian Beltre hit his 300th career home run on Sunday (along with his 301st for good measure), next up for that milestone is Carlos Beltran who sits on 297 all time.  However, personal glory will only be worth so much – since Beltran joined the Giants from the Mets, they have dropped out of 1st and look likely to miss the opportunity to defend last year’s World Series win this October. (SF: San Diego x3, @ Colorado x4)
  • The AL Batting Title is turning into a two horse race between Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez (.339) and the 2005 Batting Champion from Texas, Michael Young (.334).  With both of their teams in playoff races, they will be looking for the hits to keep on coming in the next few weeks. (Boston: Toronto x2, Tampa Bay x4) (Texas: Cleveland x3, @ Seattle x3)
  • And finally, old man Wakefield gets his 6th chance at number 200, in Boston’s next game against the Blue Jays on Tuesday September 13th.  A win for him might just be the catalyst to see the Red Sox into October – as a Yankees fan, I sincerely hope not.