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: Tons of big news. Yankees sweep Toronto in doubleheader! Orioles win in extra innings again! Detroit wins behind six shutout innings from Justin Verlander and ANOTHER Miggy Cabrera homer! White Sox somehow get shut out by Bruce Chen and Royals! An exclamation point kind of night in the American League!
The little news: Tampa Bay finally won in a probably doomed effort to stay in the second wild-card race … the Tigers have actually passed the Rays. The Angels lost, though, to fall 3 ½ back in the Wild Card.
Who is in: The Yankees are a half game up on those Amazing Orioles in the East. Chicago’s lead over Detroit in the Central is down to two. The only team that seems to be separating is the Rangers in the West, who now have a four game lead over Oakland.
Quirky statistic: Kansas City’s Bruce Chen has three wins against the White Sox this year … this even though he has a 5.22 ERA and is a home run allowing machine (the White Sox are second in all of baseball in home runs). Weird.
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We won’t focus again on just how good a hitter Miggy Cabrera is, but he did smack another homer Wednesday night, he did walk twice, and he did hit one ball that would have been a double but landed just inches foul.
I mentioned yesterday that I think Mike Trout is still the MVP because Trout’s overall season -- with his incredible ability to get on base, his power, his base running, his base stealing, his great defense -- might be the best we have seen in a long, long time. He is 10.3 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference (best in the American League since Cal Ripken’s MVP season of 1991), and he’s 10.2 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs (best in the American League since Ken Griffey’s amazing 1996 season). Cabrera, because just about all his value comes from his hitting, cannot compete with Trout in WAR.
But, I should say that if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he will undoubtedly win the MVP award. He might win it even if he doesn’t win the Triple Crown. But the Triple Crown -- though more and more people have come to realize that batting average and RBIs do not mean what we thought they meant -- still is magical. Any reasonably enlightened baseball fan can tell you that no player has won the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, not even the pumped-up Barry Bonds*, not even the brilliant Albert Pujols, not even one of those great Colorado sluggers like Todd Helton or Larry Walker who played in a ballpark made for Triple Crowns.
*The closest Bonds came to winning the Triple Crown was actually in 1993, years before he turned into Mr. America. That year he led the league with 46 homers and 123 RBIs, and his .336 batting average was fourth.
Cabrera not only has a shot at the Triple Crown, at this point I think the percentages point toward him doing it. He’s hitting .333, six points better than a somewhat fading Mike Trout. He’s got 130 RBIs, seven ahead of Josh Hamilton (who is battling various health woes, including “sinus issues”). Cabrera is just one home run behind Hamilton, and he’s on a crazy home run tear, having hit five in his last five games.
I certainly believe there are much better ways of telling how well an offensive player is doing than looking at those Triple Crown numbers. Measuring a player by batting average and RBIs feels to me as old fashioned as measuring the coolness factor of a pair of pants based on how many pockets it has. That said, yes, it’s exciting to see a hitter this close to the Triple Crown for the first time since the year I was born.
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The Orioles have now moved past ridiculous and unbelievable into some new territory that needs its own word. Unbecrazyish? Incrediludicrous? One thing we have such trouble doing with sports is cataloguing and indexing the power of confidence. We TALK about it all the time -- we talk about things like leadership and chemistry and guts and, doggone it, these guys just know to win. But none of us know just how much these things affect the games at the highest level. And a lot of the talk seems like in the dark darts.
The Orioles were in position to lose the division Wednesday. Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but I don’t think by much. They knew that the Yankees had won two against Toronto -- two close games that the Blue Jays kind of seemed to sleepwalk through -- and they knew that with a loss to Seattle they would suddenly drop from a tie for first to being 1.5 games back. That’s a huge difference. And there seemed in all likelihood that the Orioles would lose to Seattle because Felix Hernandez was pitching. The Orioles were countering with Joe Saunders who, it can be said without argument, is not Felix Hernandez.
Only on this night, he was as good. Well, only in the most important way. Hernandez dominated the Orioles for eight innings. The only run he allowed was when Chris Davis scored from first on Mark Reynolds single. I’ll repeat that … he scored from first on a single. He was running on the pitch, the ball was hit to left center at that certain speed that made it demanding for center fielder Franklin Gutierrez to chase it down, Davis never stopped, and he scored. It was a bold and impressive bit of base running. It was also the only thing Baltimore did against King Felix all day. Gutierrez homered off Saunders in the bottom of the inning to tie the game.
And while Hernandez dominated -- eight strikeouts, one walk, all six hits he allowed were singles -- Saunders economized. He didn’t walk anybody. He struck out just two. But the Mariners obediently kept hitting into outs (they managed just five hits off Saunders), and so at the end of the day Hernandez allowed one run in eight innings, and so did Saunders.
You have to wonder, now, if when the game went into extra innings every single person on the Orioles thought, “Whew! We need to be more careful. We could have lost this game.” Adam Jones’ two-run homer in the 11th seemed so predictable -- I mean, this was the Orioles FIFTEENTH extra-inning victory in a row -- that you couldn’t help but wonder if both teams didn’t just know it was coming.
So what is the role of confidence in all this Orioles magic? This team has still been outscored for the year. This team is a half game behind the Yankees and does not have a single viable MVP candidate or Cy Young candidate. And they’re in the stratosphere with the Yankees. I heard the excellent Tim Kurkjian say Wednesday night that he has changed his mind and now thinks that Oakland’s Bob Melvin deserves manager of the year over Baltimore’s Buck Showalter. I don’t really know what makes a manager of the year, and Melvin has obviously done a great job, but I can’t agree with that. Nothing against Melvin. The Athletics are overachieving. But they have a lot of pitching. They are second in the league in ERA. They are in a great pitcher’s ballpark.
The Orioles have nothing. They are eighth in ERA, ninth in runs scored, they have 14 straight losing seasons coming in and Nick Markakis -- who will finish this season with the rare feat of being the player the Orioles used most often as their leadoff hitter AND most often as their No. 3 hitter -- is out for the season just when they need him most.
Like I said, I have no idea how to measure a manager’s contributions … the manager actually doing the best job in the AL this year, as far as I know, could be just about anyone except Bobby Valentine. But if you don’t at least give Showalter manager of the year, how in the heck do you reward this prepostounding season?
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The National League
The big news: The Cardinals shut out Houston, and the Dodgers split with Washington, so the Cards remain two games up in the chase for the second wild card.
The little news: The Reds and Nationals moved one step closer to clinching their playoff spots -- their magic numbers are down to one. The Giants won again, and so did Atlanta. There isn’t nearly as much pennant race excitement in the National League.
Who is in: Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta are in, basically. It would take a miracle to kick any of them out. The Cardinals have a two-game lead over the Dodgers in the second wild card, and suddenly hot Milwaukee -- four wins in a row -- is trying to squeeze its way into the conversation, too.
Quirky statistic: Poor Pittsburgh. The Pirates lost again and dropped to .500 for the season. On August 19, these guys were THIRTEEN GAMES above .500, and while even the most optimistic Pirates fan might have felt uncertain about their playoff chances, the streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons seemed to be over. Right? Hello? Bueller? The Pirates are 7-20 since then, and they are at .500 now. That winning season is not out of the realm of possibility … the Pirates have three games left with pitiful Houston, and four with the free-falling Mets, and while they end the season against Cincinnati and Atlanta, those teams will probably have nothing to play for …
… Oh, who are we kidding? Come on Pittsburgh.
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Cincinnati’s Joey Votto hit his 40th double on Wednesday in the Reds’ extra-inning win over the Cubs. We all know just how extraordinary a hitter Joey Votto has become, and he had another great offensive game -- two for four, two walks, three RBIs -- but let’s focus on the doubles for a minute.
He hit his 40th double of the year. That is second in the National League. It was just Votto’s 98th game. It’s always fun to project numbers over a full season -- fun and kind of silly -- but at this pace, if Votto played 161 games like he did in 2011, he would hit 66 doubles. That would be just one off Earl Webb’s seemingly unbreakable record of 67 set in 1931.
The Reds, quietly, have amassed the most victories in baseball (90, tied with Washington). They have done it with a great pitching staff -- four above-average starters led by Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto and a dominant bullpen closed by Aroldis Chapman -- and by scraping together enough runs, mostly with home runs and doubles (most of the homers in their little bandbox at home; most of the doubles on the road). They have also done it with their best player -- perhaps the National League’s best player -- hurt for a good part of the year. Votto is back, he looks healthy, and the Reds might be the favorites going into the playoffs.
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I mentioned Jim Johnson’s incredibly weak save the other day, so it’s only fair that I mention Jason Motte’s save in the Cardinals victory. Johnson came in with the Orioles up four, two outs in the ninth, and runners on first and second. He got a groundout and he got the save. Please. If that’s a “save” situation, then I’m a fire fighter for remembering to turn off the iron before I leave the hotel room.
But, of course by rule, it IS a save situation -- if the tying run is on deck, it’s a save situation -- which brings us to Jason Motte’s deal. In his case, the Cardinals were up FIVE runs, and he came in with the bases loaded and one out. At least Motte struck out the two batters he faced to add a little credibility to the performance. But getting two outs with a five-run lead, come on, not a save.