Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wild Card Contenders Pulling their Hair Out

With an average of 15 games left to play per team in the 2012 Major League season, the wild-card races in both the National and American leagues are not only far from being settled, they’ve become more congested! The model of adding another spot on both sides could not have worked out any better for the powers that be, as the extra position has allowed a few late charges from teams to engulf their fans in the excitement and hope of the post-season play. One aspect to the wild-card chase that continues to play true, no team in the running, in either league with the exception of the Atlanta Braves, holds an overwhelming advantage besides the position they now sit, over teams trailing them in the races. All these squads appear to have obvious strengths and some glaring weaknesses which will cause both races to most likely come down to the final days of the regular season. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals hold the number two spot on September 19th by a game and a half starting the day. The Red Birds have an obvious advantage in the schedule over the trailing Dodgers, Brewers, Pirates and Phillies. St. Louis plays eight more games against both the struggling Astros and Cubs. Their goal has to be opening up their slim lead before they reach the final two series of the season, hosting Washington and Cincinnati the National League east and central division leaders. But the Cards haven’t exactly been on fire as of late, dropping eight of their last 12 games. During that stretch the pitching has given up an average of almost five runs a game with top pitchers Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn all taking at least one loss. However, St. Louis does get back the services of former ace Chris Carpenter for the stretch run making his first start of the season on Friday against the Cubs. Now, what he’ll be able to actually contribute after missing the entire season to this point is still a wild-card in itself. The right-hander of course underwent surgery in July, to relieve nerve compression that resulted in numbness on much of the right side of his body. The offensive line-up is still stout despite missing Lance Berkman who is done for the season due to injury and the Cards of course have post-season pedigree as the defending champs. How can you not like their chances to not only win that second spot but also take down the front-running Atlanta Braves in the one-game playoff? Behind St. Louis a game and a half back are the Los Angeles Dodgers. When the Dodgers made the big trade back on August 24th with the Boston Red Sox to acquire Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and the injured Carl Crawford most thought the Blue Crew would not only take a wild-card spot but win the N.L. West outright. But plenty has gone wrong since then. Matt Kemp ran into the centerfield wall at Coors Field, missing a couple of games and hasn’t been the same. Clayton Kershaw has developed a hip problem and Chad Billingsly went on the shelf completely with elbow inflammation, ending his season. Besides those injuries, the offense has absolutely struggled to score runs, as Los Angeles has managed just two multi-run victories since the deal. The Dodgers received some hope when doctors on Tuesday declared Kershaw’s hip problem would not get worse if he continues to pitch and his season now might continue. Los Angeles however is at a real disadvantage according to the schedule with road series at Washington, Cincinnati and San Diego along with home sets versus Colorado and San Francisco to close the season. Overall, even with the pitching injuries the Dodgers staff overall has hung in there with a team ERA of just 3.44. The bottom line for L.A. appears to come down to offense. If they can’t score more than just three runs per game, which is the team average since the big trade, they have no shot to catch and pass St. Louis. However, with a line-up that includes Kemp, Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier all in a row, they could get hot and turn it around at any time but time is running out. The biggest charge for the second National League wild-card spot is coming from the Milwaukee Brewers. Last season’s Central Division Champs, are suddenly just two and a half games back of St. Louis after putting together a string of 22 wins in their last 31 games. In their last 27 contest, they’ve posted a 21-6 mark, while outscoring their opponents by six runs per game! A big part of the run has also been the pitching of Milwaukee ace Yovani Gallardo. The right-hander, who beat Pittsburgh on Tuesday, is 7-0 in his last nine starts with an earned run average of 2.98. Offensively Ryan Braun continues to make what will eventually be a futile run for a second consecutive N.L. MVP award. After winning the honor last year, then testing positive for testosterone, and eventually having the test thrown out due to improper handling of the sample, no way the voters take a chance on him again. But you can’t ignore the tear he’s on. The outfielder is now hitting .314 with 40 home runs and 104 rbis. You can’t forget also, there is no Prince Fielder now in the Brewers line-up to hit in front of Braun nor behind him for protection. After Milwaukee’s final two games with the falling Pittsburgh Pirates, things get much tougher on the schedule. They travel to Washington for four and then Cincinnati for three. Even their final series of the season at home against the Padres is no free-bee with the emergence of San Diego’s play in the second half of the season. The Brewers have been real good, but they’ll need to be great on the road to have a shot. Speaking of the Pirates, you have to feel for Bucs faithful, the way this is turning out…..again! Last season, a young and inexperienced Pittsburgh team fell apart over the final two months of the season after holding the lead in the central and it’s happening again. The Pirates are 15-29 since August1st. In the month of September the Bucs are a struggling 4-12. Adding it all together the woeful numbers don’t lie, 33-66 in August and September over the last two seasons. Their stumbles have pushed them to 3.5 games back in the wild-card hunt and there doesn’t appear to be any signs of things turning around. In their series opener against Milwaukee on Tuesday, A.J. Burnett, the Pirates best starter suffered a 6-0 defeat. He has now lost five of his last six decisions. Number two starter James McDonald has struggled so much recently he has been removed from the rotation in place of rookie Kyle McPherson. Offensively part of the problem has been the cooling off of NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. After a July where he smoked opposing pitchers with a batting average of .446, he’s fallen off to just .252 with two home runs and 13 rbis in August. Neil Walker, another of the Bucs power hitters is just returning to the line-up after missing almost a month with an injured right hand. Adding to the offensive troubles, Pedro Alvarez who’s hit 27 home runs with 73 rbis this season, has hit just .143 in 43 plate appearances in September. Pittsburgh had a small margin of error coming down the stretch run and they have clearly surpassed it. The Bucs are still two or three players away from having enough to get over the hump. After trading away both Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton to the Dodgers it appeared the Philadelphia Phillies were calling it a season at the trade deadline. But with the return of both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to the line-up from injuries and the Phils starting pitching stepping up, the Fightin’s have put themselves in the race, trailing St. Louis by four games starting the day on September 19th. For Philadelphia the formula is simple. The starting rotation core consisting of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels is no longer fighting injuries and rounding into pennant race form. Philadelphia has won each of Lee’s last five starts. Halladay has won four of his last five and the earned run average of the entire starting rotation is only 3.80, fifth in the National League. Since the end of August the Phillies have won 17 of their last 24 games. But with six remaining against the Nationals and three against the Braves, their pitching super-trio can’t afford to lose an outing in order to catch the Cards. American League Things in the American League are just as complicated but with fewer teams involved. There is virtually a two-team tie between Oakland and Baltimore for the two spots with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim just three games out as of this writing. However, the New York Yankees only hold a half game lead over the Orioles in the American League East chase. The loser of that divisional battle will also be in the hunt for the wild-card or could very easily end up out of the post-season all together! But the team everyone is trying to run down, the surprising Oakland A’s. While their wild-card lead is now just a half a game heading into Wednesday’s game in Detroit the rest of the schedule is not any kinder. The A’s face contenders in 20 of their final 23 games, dating back to September 10th, and you have to wonder if those young arms will start to tire or wilt during the final pennant push. A.J. Griffin (24), Dan Straily (23), Jarrod Parker (23) and Tommy Milone (25) are all throwing more innings now, then they ever have in either the big leagues or the minors. Manager Bob Melvin however has done a nice job of working his rotation into safe pitch counts for each rookie along with an extra day of rest when possible. Behind this young and phenomenal pitching, Oakland has won eight of nine series, including four sweeps to cut the largest lead in any division down to just three games in the west behind the Texas Rangers. Besides the young arms the A’s position players possess enough experience to continue solid run support. While the Oakland line-up is just 29th overall in team batting average, Josh Reddick is having a career year with 29 homers and 79 rbis. Cuban newcomer Yoenis Cespedes has also proved to be worth his hefty 42-million dollar contract with 19 long balls and 72 runs driven home. The A’s have a lot of guys that all do a few things well and with their youth on the mound that has pitched beyond its years up this point, there is no reason to think the pressure will get to this team anytime soon. Baltimore continued its improbable run with an 18-inning, 4-2 win at Seattle on Tuesday Night. The win was par for the course for the O’s who have made a season on finding a way in tight games especially in extra innings. With last night’s marathon victory, Baltimore captured its 14th consecutive extra-inning game! That’s the longest extra-inning win streak since the Cleveland Indians won 19 straight in extra frames in 1949. If you think the 14 straight in extras is something, how about the Orioles record in one-run games? Baltimore is an amazing 27-7 when the final scoreboard has a one-run margin! How obscure is that percentage? The O’s will be just the ninth team since 1900 to finish 20 or more games above .500 in one-run affairs and the first since the 1985 Reds. Right now they have the highest winning percentage in one-run games in baseball history at .794. Behind all that good fortune and luck comes a solid bullpen to go with marginal starting pitching but great offense. Buck Showalter’s club is 12th in slugging percentage and 14th overall in runs scored. Adam Jones’ 29 homers lead the way, while Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis have all thumped over 20 long balls. It’s a good thing they produce offensively because only starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen has double digits in the win column at 12-9. The formula of great relief pitching and timely hits as of right now has Baltimore on course for the post-season for the first time since 1997. At three games back, it’s now or never for an Angel’s team, many picked to win the west after the pick-up of C.J. Wilson in the off-season. The Halos rank second in runs scored, second in batting average, fifth in on base percentage and fifth in slugging. So how are the Angels not only six games back in the west but also on the outside looking in on the wild-card spots? They made up big ground in the second half of the season but dropping three of four at Oakland a week and a half ago threw a serious wrench into the playoff hopes. Los Angeles still has five games left with the Rangers but no more head to head match-ups against the A’s or O’s, so they’ll most likely need some help. The Halos have won 15 out of their last 20 but a terrible stretch of August were they dropped 13 of 18 put them in the hole. While Jered Weaver is a CY Young worthy 18-4, only Wilson at 12-9 has been another reliable starter. Mike Scioscia’s team is built around its ability to score runs in bunches. Unless that offense can take its game to another level in the last two weeks the Angels are going to run out of time and be the disappointment of the entire baseball season.

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