Previewing a Wild Final Day in Baseball

Even though all 10 playoff spots have already been claimed this year, the last day of the season still has the potential for fireworks, particularly in the American League. There are plenty of important story lines floating around out there including: the American League West having a winner-take-all game out in Oakland, the AL East dogfight finally reaching a conclusion , and a Triple Crown coming into fruition, among other things. Let’s take a sneak peek at some of the more intriguing bits of news still left in the regular season.

AL West Brawl

By virtue of taking the first two games of a three game set, the Oakland A’s have pulled into a first place tie with the Texas Rangers heading into the final day of the season. The last time the A’s held a lead in the division was waaaaay back on April 5th, when their 1-1 record had them tied in first with the Mariners after an opening two-game set in Japan. They fell as far as 13 games back on June 30th, but since that date, the A’s have played inspiring baseball, going 56-29 (.659 win %), good for the best record in the league since July began. Hell, as recently as a week ago, the A’s were 5 games back of Texas, but one excellent 7-1 stretch of baseball later and the Ranger lead has disappeared.

In the other corner we have the 2-time AL champion Texas Rangers, who have spent every single day since April 9th in first place. In fact, for most of the season the Rangers have looked like the strongest team in the American League, yet they stand just two consecutive defeats away from being eliminated this season. A 2nd half swoon by the offense and some injuries to key pieces in the rotation has prevented Texas from running away with the division, and set the stage for tomorrow’s de facto AL West championship game at Oakland Colliseum.

The pitching match-up appears to be a dandy as well, with AJ Griffin (7-1, 2.71 ERA, 146 ERA+, 3.76 K/BB ratio, 79.2 inn.) toeing the rubber against Ryan Dempster (7-3, 4.64, 99 ERA+, 2.79 K/BB, 66 inn. in Texas). Griffin has made one successful start this season against Texas, throwing 6 strong innings without allowing a run on June 29th, while Dempster has yet to face the A’s. One would think the advantage has to be on Dempster’s side, as most of the Oakland lineup has never faced the righty in his career, but the A’s have home field advantage on their side and are playing better at this point. My pick is still Texas due to their superior offense, but no matter what, expect this game to be close ’til the end.

Triple Threat

As we enter the final day of the regular season, Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera is on the verge of completing the Triple Crown for the first time since 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox led the league in batting average, homers, and RBIs. Cabrera has an insurmountable lead in the RBI department, knocking in a league best 139 thus far, 11 more than Josh Hamilton, the next closest player.

He also has the homerun edge on the Texas slugger, knocking in 44 this year, 1 better than Hamilton and 2 ahead of Edwin Encarnacion. So barring a multi-homer game from Hamilton (which is very possible, after all this is a man with a 4 homer game to his name) the big fly crown will go to Miguel Cabrera as well. Cabrera also has the added advantage of playing later in the day, with a 8 pm ET game start compared to a 3:30 pm ET start for Hamilton, which means Miggy will enter the game in Kansas City knowing whether or not his long ball lead is secure.

Batting average is where things get a little more interesting. Cabrera went 2 for 3 against Kansas City on Tuesday before exiting the game to nurse a sore ankle, leaving his batting average at .331 for the season. Mike Trout is next on the list at .324, and is the only AL player with a legitimate shot at catching the Tigers’ 3rd baseman. If Trout’s going to make up the 7 point difference he’s going to need a monumental day as well. Trout will need to go 5-5 against Seattle with Cabrera going 0-3 or worse to have any shot at catching the Tiger by his tail.The Angels rookie has never had better than a 4-hit game in his career, so catching Cabrera just isn’t happening.

All of which adds up to the first Triple Crown season in 35 years, which is a tremendous, tremendous accomplishment and one that will lock up the MVP, despite the fact that Trout has had a better overall season, one that will likely see him land the first .320+ batting average/30+ homer/45+ steal year in baseball history.

Ben Sheets’ Last Stand

The oft-injured former Milwaukee ace will make what is supposed to be the final start of his illustrious career tonight for the Atlanta Braves against the Washington Nationals. Sheets has provided the Braves 48.1 very solid innings of word this season, putting up a 4-4 record with a 3.54 ERA (114 ERA+). His career record currently stands at 94-96, which doesn’t do him justice relative to how well he actually pitched. Over the course of his now 10-year career, Sheets has a 115 ERA+, which means he has been about 15% better than the average Major League pitcher in over 1500 career innings. He never turned into the 2 or 3 time Cy Young winner that many scouts projected him to be when Sheets was still a minor leaguer, but his legacy as a hard-working ace with a dazzling curveball will not be easily forgotten.

AL East Madness

Both the Yankees and Orioles will kick-off their final regular season games at 7:10 pm ET, and both still have something to play for. New York holds a precarious one game advantage over the upstart O’s, and they will be sending Hiroki Kuroda to the bump to face pitching arsonist Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K has had a rough go of it this season, posting a 7.68 ERA in 10 starts while lasting 6 or more innings just twice. The Japanese righty has also struggled with the Yankees over the course of his career, going 3-3 with a 5.52 ERA and a 1.517 WHIP in 10 starts against the Bombers.

Kuroda, on the other hand, has been the Yankees most consistent pitcher this season and will be bringing a 15-11 record with a 3.34 ERA (125 ERA+) to the mound. New York’s offense is also getting healthy at the right time, with Robinson Cano (20 for his last 35 with 8 RBI and 8 extra-base hits), Derek Jeter, Ichiro, Mark Teixeira and others all getting hot or getting back into the lineup, so the odds have to be heavily favoring the Yankees. If they needed any added incentive, a win in their finale would give New York home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs, which could come in handy.

Baltimore has a tougher path to trek if they want to tie for the division, needing a Yankee loss plus a win over Jeremy Hellickson (9-11, 3.20 ERA, 119 ERA+) and the feisty Rays. In that circumstance, a one-game playoff would be held on Thursday in Baltimore to determine the AL East champ, with the loser playing a Wild Card game the next day. Chris Tillman gets the call for Baltimore, and he’s coming off his best outing of the year, an 8 inning, 1-hit performance against the Red Sox.

Other News, Notes, and Observations

-Bud Selig’s 2nd Wild Card may have done more harm than good this season, at least as far as the pennant races go. Over in the National League it’s effects have been mostly positive, because under the old system all 4 playoff spots would have been claimed 2 weeks ago. The addition of the 2nd Wild Card was able to keep hope alive in plenty of NL cities (Milwaukee, Los Angeles, St. Louis, etc.), which can be considered a positive, but in the AL it’s a different story. Under the old system there was the potential for plenty of chaos today and the potential for a game 163 was rampant. New York, Baltimore, and either Texas or Oakland could easily all wind up in a tie, which would have required two separate tie-breaking games under the old system. Either way, one of those 4 teams would have been left at home, which would have been a more exciting scenario.

-Derek Jeter is about to become the oldest player in baseball history to league the entire league in hits. He’s racked up 215 this season, 10 more than 2nd place Miguel Cabrera. Quite an accomplishment at age 38.

-Fernando Rodney of the Rays is about to put up the lowest ERA for a pitcher (min 50 innings) in baseball history, besting the previous record held by Dennis Eckersley from his ridiculous 1990 season. Both pitchers gave up just 5 earned runs on their seasons but Rodney has a 1 inning advantage on his side, meaning his ERA is about half a run lower than the Hall of Famers. Eck finished 5th in the Cy Young voting, which is probably where Rodney will end up.

-Speaking of dominant closers, Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves will more than likely finish with the highest strikeout rate in baseball history due to his historic efforts. Kimbrel is currently whiffing 16.5 batters per 9 innings, which would top Kenley Jensen’s 16.1 batters per 9 innings from 2011.

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