Posted on: September 29, 2011 12:18 am
Edited on: September 29, 2011 2:17 am

Playoff race: Epic finish sends Rays to playoffs

Evan Longoria

By C. Trent Rosecrans

Evan Longoria's solo homer off of the Yankees' Scott Proctor capped what was perhaps the most exciting final day of the regular season in baseball history, and solidified two epic collapses by the Red Sox and the Braves.

Longoria's homer gave Tampa Bay an 8-7 victory just minutes after the Orioles' Robert Andino's liner scored the winning run in Baltimore to seal a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Red Sox. Longoria was in the on-deck circle in St. Petersburg, Fla., when the Red Sox score was announced. Just three minutes later, Longoria hit his second homer of the game.

It was just another comeback for the Rays, who were behind in the wild card race by as many as nine games and then were down 7-0 in the eighth inning of Wednesday's game against the Yankees. Tampa Bay scored six in the eighth inning, including three on Longoria's first homer of the night. Dan Johnson hit a two-out, pinch-hit homer in the ninth to tie the game.

While the Rays were within a strike of losing, the Red Sox were within a strike of winning.

Jonathan Papelbon, who had never surrendered an earned run at Camden Yards until Tuesday, struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning trying to protect a 3-2 lead. But Chris Davis doubled and then Nolan Reimold hit a ground-rule double to tie the game and then Andino hit a sinking liner to left that Carl Crawford -- the former Ray -- couldn't catch, scoring Reimold.

Three minutes later, Longoria ended Boston's season, and completed the Red Sox collapse.

The Rays will now head to Texas to face the Rangers in the first round of ALDS on Friday, while the Yankees will host the Tigers.

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Posted on: September 28, 2011 12:57 pm

On Deck: Wild cards hinge on final day

By Evan Brunell

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AL wild card: It's the final game of the season, and we've got two races currently tied. The first of them is the American League wild card, where the Red Sox and Rays are knotted at one apiece. Boston will send ace Jon Lester to the mound in the hopes of downing the Orioles. Lester has never lost against Baltimore, running up a 14-0 record. On the year, he has a solid 3.49 ERA but that mark is 6.97 over his last four starts, so there's concern there. He'll be opposed by Alfredo Simon. Meanwhile, down south, the Rays offer up their own ace in David Price to take down the Yankees. New York is already in the playoffs, so they could choose to rest some players and give the Rays a weaker opponent to play against. To that end, even the Yankees don't know who will be starting Wednesday night. Red Sox vs. Orioles, 7:00 p.m. ET | Yankees vs. Rays, 7:00 p.m. ET

NL wild card: Over in the NL, the Braves are new to this. The Red Sox have had an extra day to get used to the idea of falling into a tie, but Atlanta woke up Wednesday knowing the final game of the season was crucial to the playoff hunt. After all, if they lose and the Cardinals win, they're out. Fortunately, they have a pretty good pitcher heading to the hill in Tim Hudson, who will oppose Joe Blanton in what figures to be a bullpen game for Philly. On paper it's a mismatch, but the way the Braves has been playing lately is the complete opposite of St. Louis. Meanwhile, the scorching Redbirds offer up Chris Carpenter against the hapless Astros, who will send Brett Myers to the mound. Phillies vs. Braves, 7:00 p.m. ET | Cardinals vs. Astros, 8:00 p.m. ET

StrasburgNo walks: Stephen Strasburg has a very good chance to accomplish an incredible feat in his fifth and final start of the year. So far, he's walked absolutely zero batters in his 18 innings, striking out 14. That's a K/BB ratio of infinity. Thanks to the magic that is Baseball Reference's Play Index, I ran a query of all starting pitchers who had at least five consecutive starts with no walks in the millennium. There's been plenty of streaks of no walks allowed, most namely the amazing Greg Maddux who racked up two separate nine-game streaks of no walks allowed. If Strasburg gets through the game, he'll be tied with 15 others for five consecutive starts. Interestingly, Kevin Slowey accomplished the feat earlier this season, but before that you have to go back to Cliff Lee in 009, then Curt Schilling in 2006. Strasburg himself went six straight starts without a walk last season. He's opposing Chris Volstad in Jack McKeon's final game as Marlins manager. Nationals vs. Marlins, 4:10 p.m. ET

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Posted on: September 28, 2011 11:25 am

Who would have pitched in a Wild Card playoff?

By Evan Brunell

Major League Baseball will be changing its postseason structure either for the 2012 or 2013 season, adding one wild card per league. As a result, there will be a new playoff series of just one game, which we'll call the Wild Card Game, with both wild cards per league duking it out for a winner-take-all game for the right to advance to the division series.

If this change was in effect for 2011, both the Red Sox and Rays would have won the AL wild card, although the Angels would still have made things interesting. Over in the NL, the Cardinals and Braves would both have won the honors, with the Giants making a late run for it in September. So two collapses -- one each by Boston and Atlanta -- would effectively have been negated by this rule change. (That doesn't make the rule change bad; an extra one-game playoff is always fun and you don't know what teams would have done at the trade deadline with an extra potential postseason spot.)

The Red Sox would love to avoid a playoff game with Tampa and win the wild card outright. If there is a playoff game, then the Red Sox will be forced to start John Lackey in a winner-take-all game, which would not have been the case under the new rules. You see, Jon Lester is likely to pitch on three days rest this Wednesday to give Boston the best chance at winning the wild card. Under the new rules, though, Lester's start would not have been needed as Boston would have clinched a wild-card spot after Monday night's game. That means Bedard would have pitched Tuesday as he did and a warm body would have completed Boston's season on Wednesday, probably Tim Wakefield. That would have set Lester up for the Wild Card Game, working quite nicely in Boston's favor.

The Rays, for their part, would also have clinched a spot after Monday night, knocking the Angels out. The Rays could have opted to push Jeremy Hellickson, who started Tuesday against the Yankees, back to the Wild Card Game. It's far more likely, though, that David Price would have been pushed back to Thursday instead of drawing the ball on Wednesday. So the playoff game would have seen a Lester/Price battle. Instead, if there is a playoff game, we're looking at John Lackey and Jeff Niemann. Exciting!

In the National League, the Giants were eliminated on Sunday. That would have allowed the Cardinals and Braves, respectively, to reconsider their assignments of Jaime Garcia and Randall Delgado to the mound on Monday, respectively. Delgado certainly would have started, as he likely wouldn't have drawn the ball in the playoff game or the first couple games of the division series anyways. Garcia is a possibility, but with Chris Carpenter slated to go on Wednesday, he certainly would have been pushed back to the playoff game with Garcia starting on Monday in order to line up for the division series. Tuesday's starter in Jake Westbrook wouldn't have been considered for the start.

So who would the Braves have sent up against Carpenter if not Delgado? Derek Lowe? Nope -- he's in the midst of one his worst seasons, so would have started on Tuesday to ready for a Game 3 start in the division series. As we've seen, every team's Wednesday starter has so far fit the bill for a playoff game, and that holds true for Atlanta, as Tim Hudson would have drawn the start. So we're looking at a Carpenter/Hudson matchup. Not shabby at all.

Instead of both teams having to throw their best pitchers against other teams in a battle for the wild card, these pitchers would have gone up against each other in what would have promised to be an exciting day of Wild Card Games.

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Posted on: September 28, 2011 1:35 am

3 Up, 3 Down: Red Sox, Rays, Cards get it done

By Matt Snyder

Red Sox offense. They really, really needed this one. And you have to give the Red Sox credit, they came through when it mattered. They fell behind 1-0 in the first inning, but then Jacoby Ellsbury hit a two-run homer. Marco Scutaro would also hit a 2-run homer later in the game. Still, the Red Sox pitching staff allowed seven runs against the Orioles and a huge effort was needed from someone offensively. It was provided by an unlikely source, as emergency catcher Ryan Lavarnway hit two home runs and drove home four in the Red Sox's 8-4 victory. The two blasts were the first two of his career and he became the youngest Red Sox player to homer twice in the same game since Nomar Garciaparra did it in 1997 -- and they were the exact same ago to the day (Ian Browne via Twitter).

Cardinals' offense. Starting pitcher Jake Westbrook was awful, and the Cardinals trailed 5-0 after three innings. It was of no matter in the end, though, because they'd piece together 13 runs in the final six frames to win the game. On the whole, the Cardinals pounded out 17 hits, including four doubles, a triple and two home runs. The biggest hits were Skip Schumaker's three-run double in the fourth, Ryan Theriot's go-ahead, two-run triple in the seventh and Allen Craig's three-run homer in the eighth to put the game out of reach.

Matt Joyce, Rays. Ben Zobrist hit a two-run homer earlier in the game and the Rays bailed themselves out with a huge triple play, but neither would have mattered if Joyce didn't come through with a pivotal three-run bomb in the bottom of the seventh to put the Rays on top 5-3. That was the eventual final score.

Bonus Up No. 1, Prince Fielder: Three home runs is a pretty decent night, don't you think? He hits home runs a lot (230 in his career now and he's only 27), but this was the first three-homer game of his big-league career.

Bonus Up No. 2, Jose Reyes: He went deep twice and maintained his percentage-point lead for the batting title.

Bonus Up No. 3, Jarrod Parker: The 22-year-old Diamondbacks' prospect made his major-league debut against the Dodgers. He went 5 2/3 shutout innings and allowed just four hits. If you don't take the D-Backs seriously yet, imagine them with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Parker, Trevor Bauer (third overall pick this past June) and Archie Bradley (seventh overall pick this past June) in the rotation a few years from now. Oh, and Justin Upton's only 24. That's a strong foundation. And while we're here ... a walk-off grand slam after trailing 6-1 in the 10th? C'mon. Big ups to Ryan Roberts for imitating Kirk Gibson as he rounded the bases, too.

Derek Lowe, Braves. Four innings, six hits, five earned runs, a loss and the Braves are now tied in the NL wild-card race. Oh, and Lowe makes over $15 million a year.

Bronson Arroyo, Reds. How about this one? According to Elias Sports Bureau -- via a Reds' press release -- Arroyo is now the second pitcher in major-league history to have allowed at least 40 home runs and less than 50 walks in the same season. We've all heard the phrase "trust your stuff" when pitchers walk too many hitters. Maybe Arroyo should trust his stuff a bit less. Trade some of the bombs for free passes.

Russell Martin, Yankees. He hit into a huge triple play, but that's just a ground ball with bad timing. My issue came when he tried to beat the throw by diving into first base. See last night's 3 Up 3 Down -- the Nick Punto entry -- for the rant relating to that. (What, is it spreading?)

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Posted on: September 27, 2011 10:44 pm
Edited on: September 27, 2011 10:54 pm

Playoff Race: AL wild card still knotted

By Matt Snyder

It all comes down to the last day of the regular season. After 161 games, the Rays and Red Sox have the exact same record. Tampa Bay took care of business Tuesday night, and Boston followed suit. The two ballclubs couldn't have possibly had different Septembers, as the Red Sox are now 7-19 and the Rays are now 16-10 this month, but the whole season counts, and they're both 90-71 overall now.

Let's take a look at the pitching matchups for Wednesday. Remember, if the the Rays and Red Sox are still tied after Wednesday's action, a one-game playoff will be played Thursday at Tampa Bay (yes, it's in St. Petersburg, but I said Tampa Bay, not Tampa).

Red Sox at Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET
Jon Lester (15-9, 3.49) is going on three days' rest, which he hasn't done all season. Of course, he was knocked from the game last time out after just 55 pitches, so fatigue shouldn't be a big issue. The real problem is he's been bad the last three times out. He's sporting a 10.54 ERA while allowing opposing hitters to have a .362/.433/.569 line against him since his last win (September 6, when he was brilliant). Lester's only faced the Orioles once this season and that was all the way back in April -- he allowed just two runs in eight innings and picked up a win. He does have a great history in Camden Yards, as he's 7-0 with a 2.47 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in nine career starts there.

Alfredo Simon (4-9, 4.85) will take the hill for the O's. The Red Sox battered him for eight hits and three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings earlier this season. It was his only career start against Boston. He has pitched better at home in his career than on the road, but this matchup still obviously favors the Red Sox. Of course, the Orioles are playing much better baseball this month (14-13) than the previous several months and anything can happen in any given game.

Yankees at Rays, 7:10 p.m. ET
David Price (12-13, 3.35) gets the ball for the Rays. He's pitched much better than the won-loss record indicates. In fact, his WHIP, K/9 and BB/9 are all improved since last season, when he finished second in Cy Young voting. He hasn't been good against the Yankees this year (4.26 ERA in four starts), but last time he saw them he went eight innings and allowed just one run in a Rays' win. And there's no telling how many regular starters the Yankees rest in a meaningless game.

The Yankees don't have an announced starter yet, and it's expected to be a group outing. "Johnny Wholestaff" is the listed pitcher name in situations like this to baseball people. The Yankees have to worry about setting up for the postseason, which begins Friday, and won't be using top relievers like Mariano Rivera or David Robertson, either. Basically, you never know what's going to happen in a given baseball game, but the Red Sox had better win if they want a chance at the postseason. This one should be very winnable for the Rays.

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Posted on: September 27, 2011 8:46 pm
Edited on: September 28, 2011 1:44 am

Rays, Cardinals could host tiebreakers Thursday

By Matt Snyder

Major League Baseball has revealed a possible Thursday doubleheader of tiebreakers. Should the Rays and Red Sox end the regular season with an identical record, as they have now, they'll play a one-game playoff Thursday to determine the AL wild card. Should the Braves and Cardinals end the regular season with an identical record, as they also have now, they'll play a one-game playoff Thursday to determine the NL wild card.

Both games would air on TBS. Here is the schedule that was announced in a press release:

Thursday, 4:07 p.m. ET: Red Sox at Rays
Thursday, 8:07 p.m. ET: Braves at Cardinals

Again, these games will only take place if either or both groups finish in a tie. The Red Sox and Rays entered Tuesday night tied, while the Braves held a one-game lead over the Cardinals.

Also, the ALDS series will both begin Friday and air on TBS. Here's the schedule for those:

Friday, 5:37 p.m. ET: Rays or Red Sox at Rangers or Tigers
Friday, 8:37 p.m. ET: Tigers or Rangers at Yankees

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Posted on: September 27, 2011 4:13 pm
Edited on: September 27, 2011 4:14 pm

On Deck: Wild card chases dominate action

By Evan Brunell

Follow all games live with CBSSports.com's GameTracker.

AL wild card: It's all tied up in the Ameican League, as the Red Sox and Rays are both battling for the right to play in October. Everyone knows how the Sox have collapsed and the Rays have ascended, so we won't recap that here. Jeremy Hellickson, who seems certain to lock up the AL Rookie of the Year award, will take on the Yankees and Bartolo Colon. The Red Sox will counter with Erik Bedard -- who hasn't been the pitcher the team hoped it was getting at the trade deadline -- going up against Zach Britton. Given the pitching matchups, one would expect this tie to extend another day with both teams winning, but games are played on the field. Red Sox vs. Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET | Yankees vs. Rays 7:10 p.m. ET

NL wild card: If the Braves can win tonight with the Cardinals losing, Atlanta will have somehow staved off collapse to win the wild card. Hopes rest on Derek Lowe, no stranger to postseason heroics, in matching up against Roy Oswalt. The good news is that the Phillies have stumbled lately, which works in Atlanta's favor. The bad news? Oswalt is a better pitcher than Lowe, whose 4.92 ERA is third-worst, behind 2004 and his rookie season of 1997 when he was a reliever. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are in must-win mode with Jake Westbrook heading up against Henry Sosa of the Astros in what is a lopsided matchup... on paper. Remember, Houston defeated St. Louis Monday night. It's going to be an entertaining night. Braves vs. Phillies, 7:10 p.m. ET | Cardinals vs. Astros, 8:05 p.m. ET

VelezDubious history: As SB Nation's Rob Neyer points out, the Dodgers' Eugenio Velez is hitless in 36 at-bats in the majors this season. Given he also finished 2010 with nine straight hitless, he's tied for the longest hitless streak. However, it doesn't count because it was split between two seasons. However, Velez has set a record for the most hitless at-bats in a season, not counting pitchers. Velez already outdistanced Hal Finney, who was 0 for 35 in 1935. With two games left, Velez should get a couple more at-bats to further extend his ignominious record -- or to end it with a hit.  Dodgers vs. Diamondbacks, 9:40 p.m. ET

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Posted on: September 27, 2011 1:50 am

3 Up, 3 Down: Big Game James

By Matt Snyder

James Shields, Rays. One of the biggest surprises in all of baseball this season went out and got the job done when his team needed him most. Yes, the Rays got some big offensive and defensive (hello, Desmond Jennings) plays, but Shields nearly completed another game and gave his boys the chance to win it. They trailed 2-0 early, but then Shields put the brakes on the Yankees' offense the rest of the way while his teammates did their jobs as well. Shields' final line: 8 2/3 innings, six hits, two earned runs and the win. The Rays are now tied for the AL wild card with two games to go.

Melky Cabrera, Royals. Raise your hand if you thought he'd collect 200 hits this season. Now quit lying and put that hand down. In a 7-3 Kansas City win, the Melk Man picked up his 200th and 201st hits of the season. His previous career high was 149. This was a guy picked up off the scrap heap.

Vladimir Guerrero, Orioles. The O's won (we'll get to that below), but Guerrero's single to lead off the bottom of the sixth was special from an individual standpoint. It was his 2,587th career hit, which moved him past Julio Franco as the all-time leader in hits by a Dominican-born player (Biz of Baseball via Twitter). Congrats to Vlad.

Red Sox. Even forgetting the dramatic collapse this month, the Red Sox played a pretty brutal game Monday night. All-Star starting pitcher Josh Beckett was given a 2-1 lead early, but ended up allowing seven hits, four walks and six earned runs in six innings. Jacoby Ellsbury lost control of what would've been a tough -- but makeable -- catch in center, allowing Robert Andino a three-run, inside-the-park homer. The Boston offense left 12 runners on base. And for some reason, manager Terry Francona used the incredibly valuable Alfredo Aceves for an inning when trailing 6-2. With Erik Bedard going Tuesday night, it's entirely possible Francona needs Aceves for multiple innings, so it's a questionable move to be sure. They lost 6-3 and are now tied in the AL wild-card race. All in all, it was an awful night for the Red Sox.

Nick Punto, Cardinals. My high school and college coaches hammered the point home for years to me, and I'll never forget it -- and probably because it keeps happening in the majors: A baserunner should only slide into first base to avoid a collision. That's it. There is no other reason. And then I think about all the times I've heard people -- Cubs color commentator Bob Brenly immediately comes to mind -- make the very salient point that if it was faster to slide, Olympic sprinters would slide through the finish line. It just boggles my mind how many guys are paid to play this game and still make the mistake. Punto made it Monday night in the eighth inning and it may have cost his team the playoffs. He hit a grounder that Astros first baseman Carlos Lee booted. Lee recovered in time to feed the pitcher the baseball in a bang-bang play. Punto dove head-first and was out by about a split-second to end the eighth. Had he run through the bag, he would have been safe and the Cardinals -- who had a runner on third -- would have scored. They ended up losing 5-4 in extra innings and still trail by one game in the NL wild-card race. With two games to play.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians. Is this what the Indians dealt two premium pitching prospects for? Jimenez was shelled again Monday night, allowing nine hits and six runs in five innings in a 14-0 loss. He now has a 5.10 ERA since coming over in that July trade. Oh, and the Tigers acquired the less-heralded Doug Fister before the July 31st deadline. He's 7-0 with a 0.61 ERA in his last eight starts after stifling the Indians for eight innings Monday. 

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