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 National League
The big news: A Homer throws a no-hitter, and the Reds and Nationals now are tied for the best record in the National League.
The little news: The Cardinals win again and their magic number is now three for the second wild card.
Who is in: We can pretty much stop repeating this. Four are in: Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta. The Nationals have not quite clinched the division; their magic number is two over Atlanta. The Cardinals are all but in -- they have a three-game lead over Los Angeles for the second wild card. The one bit of hope for the Dodgers is that the Cardinals do play their last five games against the two best teams in the league, Washington and Cincinnati. The bad news for the Dodgers is that neither of those teams is really playing for anything.
The Pirates: Sadness. Misery. Despondency. Not only did the Pirates lose again on Friday to guarantee their 20th consecutive non-winning season, but they got no-hit doing it. The Pirates could win their last five games to finish at exactly .500.
Quirky stat: Gotta go with Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee again. He went seven innings, gave up three hits, struck out five and walked zero. It’s the last part -- that strikeout-to-walk thing -- that will blow your mind. Since the beginning of August, Lee has made 11 starts, and his ERA over that time 2.15. But here’s the thing: His strikeout-to-walk is 81-to-4.
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It’s hard to come up with a more American named than “Homer Bailey.” I always said that Wally Post was the most American name in the history of baseball, but Homer Bailey is pretty close. When your first name is right out of Babe Ruth, and your last is right out of “It’s A Wonderful Life” … that’s pretty American.
His name is actually David Bailey, but they’ve been calling him Homer since he was a kid (after his great grandfather, no less) and he grew up in small Texas town called La Grange where, like so many other Texas kids (such as his childhood hero, Roger Clemens) he taught himself how to throw insane fastballs. He struck out 536 batters in 298 high school innings. The Reds took him with their first pick, five slots after Detroit took a hard-throwing righty named Justin Verlander, and five picks before the Angels took a hard-throwing righty named Jered Weaver.
There was a time, you might remember, when every team in baseball seemed to want Homer Bailey. He was being included in every imaginable trade rumor. At 20, in high A ball and Double-A, he struck out 156 in 138 2/3 innings, and was widely viewed as one of the great pitching prospects in the game. The Reds certainly thought so. They held on to Bailey. They gave him nine starts when he was 21. They brought him up for 20 starts when he was 23.
And -- this happens more often than not with the can’t-miss prospects -- Bailey slowly, but surely, lost his specialness. He couldn’t strike people out at that same pace in the big leagues. Hitters knocked him around a bit. He wasn’t a bad pitcher, certainly, but he wasn’t a good one, either. He was just kind of holding his own. Through last season he was 25-23 with a 4.89 ERA.
This year, he has been a bit better. He started off sluggishly, then he had a good stretch of starts in the middle of the season. The Reds staff -- led by Johnny Cueto -- has been awfully good all year, and Bailey was a part of that. But he still had not broken through, still had this vague air of disappointment about him. Maybe it was the hype. Maybe it was that all-American name. Whatever, Homer Bailey was 12-10 with a 3.92 ERA going into Friday night’s game with Pittsburgh. Good. Not great.
And on Friday night? He was great. Amazing. Of course, you know he threw a no-hitter. And of course, you know it was against the free-falling Pirates. It doesn’t matter. He was masterful. He struck out 10 and walked one, a four-pitch walk to Andrew McCutchen, who seemed the only player on the Pirates with even a shot to get a hit off him (McCutchen did Bailey a favor by getting thrown out stealing at third after already stealing second -- McCutchen also seemed to know that nobody else was getting a hit off Bailey).
Here is how the fourth, fifth and sixth innings looked for the Pirates:
Fourth: Weak ground ball to short, strikeout, strikeout.
Fifth: Weak nubber* back to mound, strikeout, strikeout.
Sixth: Weak grounder to first, weak grounder to first, weak grounder to second.
*Great baseball word: Nubber.
This was pure and simple domination, Homer Bailey utterly imposing his will on the helpless. The Pirates, best I could tell, had one hard-hit ball all night, that by Travis Snider. And that was it. It was as perfunctory and mechanical a no-hitter as a pitcher could throw, and I mean that in the most positive sense. Everybody in both dugouts seemed to understand that, on this night, Homer Bailey would throw a no-hitter.
One thing the Pirates could have said before Friday night is that while, yes, they have not had a winning season since 1992, they had not been no-hit during that stretch. In fact, you had to go back to 1971 to find the last time the Pirates had been no-hit (and that was by no-less a pitcher than Bob Gibson). Well, that’s over with now. There have been seven no-hitters in 2012, which ties a record, and three of those were perfect games. Bailey’s perfect game was wrecked in the third inning when Clint Barmes’ ground ball was booted by Scott Rolen. If Rolen had made that play, I think this was the kind of night when Bailey could have thrown a perfecto. But you never know.
In any case, the question I always have about no-hitters and perfect games is this: What do they do for the pitchers? We all know that Phillip Humber threw a perfect game in April and, unfortunately, those were pretty much the last outs he got all season. Can a no-hitter inspire a pitcher? Bailey is 26, great stuff, and he was already having his best season. You wonder if a no-hitter like this could push him another step closer to becoming a big-time pitcher for the Reds. One thing you can say as the playoffs are about to begin: It can’t hurt.
* * *
The big news: Minnesota continues to haunt the Tigers; the White Sox break Tampa Bay’s winning streak, and one game separate the two teams atop the AL Central. The Yankees and Orioles both win, and one game separates those teams as well.
The little news: The Angels -- with a triple and a home run from Mike Trout -- beat Texas to stay two games back in the wild-card race, and keep the Rangers from dropping their magic number of four.
Who is in: Still no idea. Friday did not bring any clarity. Texas is still in the best shape with a three-game lead in the West. Detroit leads Chicago by one in the Central. The Yankees lead the Orioles by one in the East. Oakland leads the Angels by two in the wild card. Tampa Bay’s loss seemed to once more push the Rays out of the race -- they are three games behind in the wild card and would have to leapfrog the Angels -- but we’ve thought they were done before.
The Triple Crown: Miguel Cabrera went 2-for-4 with no RBIs in Detroit’s loss to Minnesota. He did increase his lead in the batting race, and everything else stayed status quo:
Joe Mauer .322
Mike Trout .321
Josh Hamilton 43
Edwin Encarnacion 42
Adam Dunn 41
Curtis Granderson 40
Quirky stat: Baltimore’s Chris Tillman continued his rather extraordinary September and has become yet another almost-unbelievable story on the unbelievable Orioles. Tillman is just 24, and he had a terrific spring training, and the Orioles somewhat regretfully optioned him back to Triple-A, where he pitched OK. They called him up for a July 4 game (in large part because the Orioles have called up EVERYBODY at one point or another; Baltimore has had 12 different pitchers start games this year). He pitched well in that game and was sent down to Double-A to keep his arm active.
He returned after the All-Star Game and was absolutely crushed in Minnesota -- 2/3 of an inning, five hits, two walks, seven runs (though only one of them earned) -- but the Orioles stuck with him. He pitched well the next time out and pitched pretty well until late August.
But since late August, he has been Maddux. His last five starts, he’s 3-0 (the Orioles are 4-1) with a 1.20 ERA. The league is hitting .130 against him. On Friday night, he gave up just one hit in eight innings to Boston. Amazing.
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The Rangers, I believe, should be the best team in the American League. I think -- based on what should be five good starting pitchers, an impossibly talented bullpen and the highest-scoring offense in baseball -- that they should be the best team in baseball, and not by a small margin. I don’t see how anybody matches up to their talent. I think they have to be considered the favorite to go the World Series, which would make three in a row.
And yet, the Rangers are making this awfully hard on themselves. They have been playing largely uninspired baseball -- 10-10 in their last 20 games -- and their last five games of the season are against the two chasing (and hot) teams, Oakland and Los Angeles. The Rangers’ lead over the A’s is three games now, and they play their last three games against Oakland. If the Rangers come out of this weekend series against the Angels with a three-game lead or less, well, they really could play themselves right out of the division title. I guess that’s the fun of this new format. I doubt that anyone in Texas, though, is finding this cough and wheeze to the finish line “fun.”