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: Tigers win, and White Sox lose. Detroit takes a one-game lead in American League Central.
The little news: Yankees and Orioles both win easily to keep the status quo. Oakland beats the Rangers again to make the West more interesting. Angels and Tampa Bay keep winning as they try to get into the wild-card race.
Who is in: Oh, who knows? The Tigers took sole possession of first place in the Central for the first time since a couple of glorious days in July. The Yankees maintain their 1½-game lead over Baltimore, and those two teams don’t play each other again, so New York is in pretty good position. Texas’ three-game lead in the West is now within the margin of error -- Oakland plays the Rangers four times, meaning the A’s control their own destiny. The Angels won their fifth in a row, Tampa Bay won its seventh in a row, but they are still two and three games back, respectively, for the wild card.
Quirky statistic: From 2004-06, Travis Hafner might have been the best hitter in the American League. Few probably talked about this, but every fantasy baseball league owner knew it. Pronk (as they call him) hit .308/.419/.611 over those three years, led the league in OPS+ in 2004, led the league in slugging and raw OPS in 2006, he was a machine. He also had trouble staying healthy, even though he was a full-time DH -- the Indians only played him 16 games at first base those three years and, from what I could tell, regretted every one of them.
Midway through the 2007 season, the Indians gave Hafner a four-year, $57 million deal that would not even start until 2009, thus locking him up from 2009 through 2012 (the Indians have an option for 2013, which they will obviously decline). This has led to one of the saddest stories in baseball. Hafner has only once since 2008 played in even 100 games. He looks to me to be in great pain every time he comes to the plate. His biggest injury problem seems to be his back … just last month there was talk of his season and career being over. But he has tried to come back. He has played in three games in September. He’s 0 for 11
Pronk was in there Wednesday night. He went 0 for 5 with a strikeout and a double play ground ball. He’s hitting .226 for the season, and while even a broken Pronk can give you a little offensive value -- he walks a lot and will occasionally hit one out -- it’s heartbreaking to see a guy who was once as good as anybody in the game flail around in that much pain.
The Triple Crown: Miggy Cabrera went 0 for 4 with no RBIs Wednesday night in the Tigers’ win. Is the TC slipping away? Maybe not … Joe Mauer also went 0 for 4 (with three Ks!), Mike Trout went 0 for 3, and of the home-run challengers only Edwin Encarnacion hit one out.
Josh Hamilton: 43
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I’m in Chicago for the Ryder Cup, and Wednesday night I watched the White Sox-Indians game on television -- part of it in a restaurant, part of it in the hotel. I don’t want make judgments based on one game and one broadcast, but I’ll just say it: I cannot remember watching a more dead baseball game that actually mattered.
It was stupefying. One thing you can usually say about White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson it is that he’s into the game. We didn’t need this bit of awesomeness to tell us that he’s the biggest homer in baseball -- it’s practically on his business card -- but within that “Good guys, bad guys” act, within that “He gone,” taunting, inside that “We really need a long one here” pleading, you can expect to feel the crackling energy of the game.
So, either Hawk and Steve Stone* were out of it … or there was NO crackling energy Wednesday night. I suspect the latter. The restaurant people were barely paying attention. The crowd of 20,166 hardly seemed there. The White Sox players appeared to be sleep-walking; the pitchers were real-walking -- they walked 12 guys. Twelve! (Leading Hawk to one good line, when he was telling people they could use their SAP button to listen to the broadcast in Spanish; he said something like: “12 walks isn’t any better in Spanish.”)
*We both grew up in South Euclid, Ohio!
And the broadcasters barely talked the last three innings. I mean, they hardly said a word. Every so often, sure, they would try to catch up on the action, but for the most part the television was silence, the game was terrible, the fans who showed up were on their hands, and the White Sox looked absolutely done for the 2012 season.
Of course, this might not mean anything at all. Baseball, no matter how hard we try to make it so, does not conform to easy patterns. The White Sox might win 14-0 tonight against the Rays and win the rest of their games. They trail the Tigers by one, and they have seven games left, and nothing is decided. But this is now a team that has lost seven of eight, and there was no denying the sheer despair that was radiating from this dismal game.
The Indians took the lead in the seventh. That inning, Chicago sent three batters to the plate (well, four, but Alexei Ramirez didn’t get to hit because Alex Rios was caught stealing).
The Indians added to the lead in the eighth. That inning, Chicago went 1-2-3 and did not hit the ball out of the infield.
The Indians maintained the lead in the ninth. The White Sox got a leadoff walk … Kevin Youkilis promptly hit into a double play. The White Sox got a break -- Brent Lillibridge threw the ball away on a ground ball hit by Adam Dunn -- and Paul Konerko popped up on the first pitch to end the game. It was perfunctory and it was dispirited, and even though I know that momentum in baseball is at best a vague concept, the White Sox looked absolutely and thoroughly beaten. You could hear it in Hawk Harrelson’s voice. At the end, he pleaded for the game-tying home run, of course. But his heart just didn’t seem in it.
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The big news: Brewers and Dodgers win, Cardinals lose -- it’s not really BIG news, but with everything else wrapped up it’s the closest we will get.
The little news: Washington won, which offered two small bits of news. First, the Nationals’ magic number to win the division is now four. Second, the Nationals now have one-game lead over Cincinnati in the race for the league’s best record.
Pirates, um, yeah: Pittsburgh loses 6-0 to the Mets. The Pirates are now 76-79 with seven games left. They need to win five of the seven to finish at .500. They need to win six of the seven to finish with a winning record. It seemed so certain barely a month ago that Pittsburgh would break that streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons.
Who is in: Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta. The Cardinals have a 3½-game lead in the wild-card race which, it should be said, is a bigger lead than any team has in the American League division races.
Quirky statistic: Matt Kemp had been hitting .167 in September -- his batting average dropped below .300 for the first time all year -- before going 4-for-5 with a homer and a double Wednesday night in San Diego. That pushed his average back over .300. Kemp, when healthy, is an absolute phenomenon. Tony Gwynn pegged him as one of the players in today’s game who could make a run at .400. He hasn’t been healthy much in 2012.
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Ryan Braun now leads the league in home runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS. He’s also hitting .318, which doesn’t quite make him a Triple Crown candidate (Andrew McCutchen is hitting .334), but it does make him a pretty good choice for MVP. In many past years I suspect that combination -- high average, lead league in homers and RBIs -- would more or less guarantee the MVP.
Braun, of course, has three big things working against him. First is that the Brewers will need a huge bit of luck to make the postseason. I once did an MVP chart -- I’ll have to find it now -- which showed that the MVP usually went to the player with the most RBIs who also played on a contending team. The Brewers ARE a contending team, as far as that goes, but with five teams now going to the playoffs in the National League, I don’t’ think “contending” will be quite good enough for the voters. You better get in.
Second is the fact that Braun won the MVP last year … in a controversial vote, no less. Matt Kemp seemed to have the better year, but Braun won it. The voters generally do not like giving MVPs to players two years in a row unless they have little choice. I call this the “Tom Hanks” exemption. Oscar voters DESPISE giving Oscars to the same actor two years in a row. But they got stuck with Hanks. They gave Hanks the Oscar for “Philadelphia,” and I think were happy to award him for that kind of role -- a man trying to die with dignity is Academy Award gold.
But then, the next year, he was Forrest Gump, which won like 485 Oscars. And they really had no choice but to give one to him too -- it would have looked ridiculous to give awards to everybody EXCEPT Forrest Gump himself. Hanks is a terrific actor who has been nominated twice since then and should have been nominated, I think, for Apollo 13. But unless I’m missing something, he ain’t ever winning another one.
The MVP is not exactly like that -- several players have won it two years in a row -- but it’s close. The voters would prefer to spread around the silverware. They couldn’t deny Albert Pujols in 2008 and 2009. They couldn’t deny Barry Bonds in the early part of the 2000s. But, given the option, the voters would prefer to give someone else the award. This is especially true after they took so much abuse for choosing Braun over Kemp the first time.
The third issue is probably the biggest -- Braun’s positive test for elevated levels of testosterone at the end of last year. The test results were supposed to be secret, but it was reported and the story became big news. As we now know, Braun appealed the test and won -- his 50-game suspension was overturned -- which should mean that he was cleared of wrongdoing, especially since the first test never should have become public record anyway. The slate should be clear.
But it doesn’t work that way, does it? The test DID become public record, and overturning the suspension was controversial (arbitrator Shyam Das was fired shortly afterward). Anyway, people tend to believe what they want to believe. PED use is still a hot issue in baseball, and Braun’s name was tainted in the episode.
So, it will be tough for Braun to win the MVP award. I’m on record saying that I think Buster Posey will win. But I’ll tell you what: If the Brewers DO come back and win the second wild card, and Braun hits a few well-timed homers … I wouldn’t be surprised if Braun won despite it all. The power of a baseball hero hitting clutch homers in the biggest games is usually enough to trump every other narrative.