Staying up to date on the battles for all the various MLB playoff spots is a full-time job that requires daily attention -- and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this space, for the rest of the season.
The big news: New York and Baltimore both won on Sunday, so the Yankees still lead the East by a game. The White Sox took a two-game lead in the Central division with a win and a Tigers loss.
The small news: The Angels held on for a 4-3 win over Kansas City to stay 2½ back in the second wild-card race. Tampa Bay lost to the Yankees and fell four back for that second wild card … it will be tough for the Rays. The Rangers beat Seattle 2-1 to build a three-game lead in the West.
Who is in: Texas is all but in, but the Rangers are still holding off pesky Oakland (three back) for the division title. But unlike the National League, where most of the playoff cast is set, here the other four slots are very much in doubt. The Yankees seem in solid shape for a playoff spot of some kind, but they’re only one game up in the division. The White Sox and Tigers are locked in a good old-fashioned pennant race -- with only one team likely to reach the postseason. The A’s look good for the top wild-card spot (at least), but the Angels are playing well.
Statistical quirk: Baltimore’s Jim Johnson came into the Baltimore-Oakland game with runners on first and second, the Orioles winning by four runs and two outs in the ninth. And after a little battle, he coaxed Chris Carter into grounding out to shortstop. For this one out Johnson got a save. Why? Because there were two men on, and even though Carter did not represent the tying or go-ahead run, the save rule states that if the tying run is ON DECK it’s a save opportunity.
That seems to me just about the cheapest save you can get by the rules.
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It is becoming less and less likely that Matt Wieters will become the next “Mickey Mantle meets Josh Gibson meets Yogi Berra meets Chuck Norris.” I mean, the player Wieters HAS become is plenty good … a Gold Glove catcher and a switch-hitter with power. But he has not lived up to the insane hype that led people to start the “Matt Wieters Facts” concept* before he even reached the big leagues.
*My two favorite Matt Wieters facts: Keith Law’s “Sliced bread is actually the best thing since Matt Wieters,” and a guy named Bob’s “Matt Wieters is the reason I comes before E except after C.”
That said, there are games like Sunday’s when you just watch Wieters and find yourself in awe. Obviously he had a particularly good game -- he hit two homers, walked twice (once intentionally), handled the game pretty flawlessly and so on. But it’s the way he does it that leaves you shaking your head. His swing, especially from the left side, is absolutely beautiful. I mean it’s BEAUTIFUL -- it’s Griffey beautiful, Strawberry beautiful, Billy Williams beautiful, Will Clark beautiful. Even when he strikes out, which he did in his fifth plate appearance, it’s like art.
But it’s more than just the look of his swing. Wieters has the sort of easy power that makes his fly balls carry longer than you would expect. Both of his home runs looked gone off the bat, but both just soared.
He has such a good arm, it’s fun to just watch him throw down to second between innings. He has been in the league for four seasons now, and he’s hitting .259/.328/.416 for his career, and he has made a couple of All-Star teams, and his throwing has been a bit off this year (he leads the league with 10 errors) and it all adds up to a good player. But I can see why the scouts and everyone else drooled when thinking about the possibilities. You watch him, even now, and can’t help but consider the possibility that tomorrow, all of a sudden, he will be the best thing since sliced bread, or vice versa.
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The big news: In an epic game, St. Louis’ Jon Jay – 1 for 17 in the series up to that point -- hit an RBI double in the 12th inning, and then the Dodgers’ 483rd pitcher of the game (at least) gave up two more runs with walks, a hit-by-pitch and an infield single, and the Cardinals beat the Dodgers 5-2. That gave St. Louis a one-game lead over L.A. for the second wild-card spot.
The small news: Ryan Braun’s 200th homer pushed Milwaukee to a victory and kept the Brewers 2½ back for that second wild card. Pittsburgh blew a 6-1 lead against the Cubs and continued its free fall. Philadelphia lost to lowly Houston to fall four games back of the playoffs.
Who is in: Washington (East), Cincinnati (Central) and San Francisco (West) seem to have their divisions about wrapped up. Atlanta looks solidly in the first wild-card spot.
Statistical quirk: St. Louis’ Yadier Molina was thrown out trying to steal in the 11th inning on a busted hit-and-run. This struck me as amusing because I have long said that the slowest measurement of speed known to science is a “Molina” (based on former catcher Bengie Molina, who was so slow he was sometimes beaten to first base by his instant replay). But then I looked: Bengie’s younger brother Yadier has 11 stolen bases this year and has been caught only three times. Yadi has previously stolen eight and nine bases in seasons. In fact, do you know which catcher has stolen the most bases over the last four seasons? Yep. Yadi Molina.
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In many ways, the St. Louis Cardinals are Carlos Beltran. I don’t mean they’re LIKE Carlos Beltran. I mean they ARE Carlos Beltran. For the last few weeks, they have looked old, beat-up and generally helpless. They are second in the league in runs scored, a respectable seventh in runs allowed; they should be so much better than they are, but for a terrible one-run record (18-25) which gets even worse in extra innings (5-10). They are injured, and they are in pain, and the season just won’t end. They long to recapture not a distant past, but merely the good feelings of a few weeks ago, when they felt surprisingly spry.
Beltran has long been one of my favorite players; he’s probably the first great player I followed closely from his debut. The Royals were a terrible team in 1999 -- which doesn’t make that year stand out, no -- and they decided to start the 21-year-old Beltran in center field and in the leadoff spot on Opening Day. It really was one of those “What’s the difference?” situations. Royals manager Tony Muser told Beltran: I don’t care if you hit .200. As long as you catch the ball and play hard every day, you will be my center fielder.
It wasn’t quite so easy with Beltran. He didn’t hit .200. He hit .293, drove in 108 runs, scored 112 and won Rookie of the Year. He also played a dazzling center field; few players in the history of baseball ran more fluidly than the young Beltran. So it seemed like a glorious year. But there was something weird about it.
Though Beltran had become an overnight star, the people who watched him play every day were concerned that he did not really do the two basic things that Tony Muser had asked. His attention drifted. He did not seem to play hard all the time. He committed 12 errors. The knocks that would follow Beltran around for the rest of his career -- that he was too lackadaisical, that he did not push his amazing talent, that he looked at strike three, that he could be so much more -- were planted that rookie season.
I have always thought the knocks were largely unfair, that often Beltran’s gracefulness was mistaken for disinterest, that his injuries were underestimated because he didn’t make a big deal about them, that his failures were magnified while his incredible performances -- seven seasons with 100-plus runs and RBIs, three Gold Gloves that should have been more, the greatest stolen base percentage in the history of baseball, perhaps the best season in New York Mets history, playoff performances for the ages -- were too easily disregarded.
That’s why this Beltran season was so fulfilling for me. He turned 35 as the season began, and he’s an old 35 -- his body has taken a pounding through the years. The Cardinals had signed him in the aftermath of the Pujols abdication, and they knew they were getting an old guy who can’t play center field anymore, can’t steal 30 bases anymore, can’t be the dynamic player he was. But for three months, he was absolutely great … and everyone could see it. There was no more talk of underachieving. As June ended, he was hitting .310, slugging .576, he had 20 homers and 61 RBIs and 48 runs in 75 games. He was in the MVP conversation. For the first time in his career, he was widely viewed as an OVERACHIEVER.
Then July began. Since then, he has been hitting .211/.267/.396. He has looked utterly helpless at the plate. He has been in some pain -- knees, back, hands -- but, as is his style, he has not talked about it. The Cardinals actually played some of their best baseball of the season while Beltran played some of his worst, but they have lost 13 of their last 18, they look old and tired and a shell of themselves, and it seems that their best hope to make it into the playoffs is for the Dodgers, Phillies, Brewers and Pirates to keep getting in their own way.
Still, in the last few days something seems to be happening to Beltran. He’s hitting a bit again. People are noticing. Twice on Sunday he came up with runners on base. Twice Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had him intentionally walked, preferring to face Matt Holliday instead (though Holliday is having a much better season). The Cardinals may be running on fumes, and they simply may not have enough left to hold off the Dodgers or one of the other teams. But, like with Beltran, you just don’t really know what they have left.