Orioles and Athletics
The O's not only swept a three-game series against Tampa Bay, capped by a 3-2, 14-inning win on Thursday but also earned their 81st win of the season, ending a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons. They did not, however, celebrate. Instead, Baltimore climbed on a flight to Oakland, taking its bid for a postseason berth to the West Coast for a week. The Orioles will also pay a three-game visit to Seattle early next week.
The A's are the one team hotter than the Orioles right now. Oakland is 60-31 since June 1 and has not only pulled to within three games of Texas in the American League West but has taken over the AL Wild Card lead. The A's are a game ahead of the Orioles and Yankees, who also share the AL East lead, and they're 4 1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
While the A's have become darlings because of their recent surge, the Orioles have been defying the odds since Day 1. They are 19 games above .500 but have been outscored by 20 runs (643-623). The only other Major League team with a winning record that has given up more runs than it has scored is Pittsburgh, and there's only a one-run differential for the Pirates (582-581).
As good as the past week was to the Orioles, they were dealt two more blows on the injury front. After a strong return against the Yankees on Sept. 6 following a six-week absence due to right knee surgery, righty Jason Hammel left his start on Tuesday in the fourth inning with recurring pain in his right knee. And then there was Nick Markakis, who has flourished in the leadoff role but sustained a broken left thumb when he was hit by a pitch from Yankees lefty CC Sabathia on Saturday. Markakis underwent his third surgery of 2012 on Tuesday. He had surgery to repair excessive tears in his abdomen in January, and he underwent an operation to repair a broken right hamate bone in June.
Philadelphia was among the teams that dumped salaries over the last six weeks, dealing Hunter Pence to San Francisco and Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the impact? Well, the Phillies, who were 50-61 and 13 games back of an National League Wild Card spot on Aug. 9, have won 22 of 33 games since and woke up on Friday four games back in the bid for the second NL Wild Card spot.
The next week, however, will be critical. This weekend, the Phils are in Houston, where they saw the Astros beat them in Thursday's opener of a four-game series. Philadelphia will then head to New York for three games against the Mets before closing the season with key games against the two teams ahead of it in the NL East -- Washington (six games) and Atlanta (three games).
The Phillies' NL-best 22-11 record since Aug. 10 has been built around a pitching staff that has an NL-best 3.08 ERA and is anchored by a rotation that is 16-6, including Roy Halladay and Kyle Kendrick, both of whom are 5-1 in that span.
Detroit, fresh off back-to-back wins over the White Sox in Chicago to pull within one game of the AL Central leaders, get a weekend to regroup with a three-game set against last-place Cleveland. Then comes what should be the most challenging part of the Tigers' schedule. They'll travel to Chicago on Monday to make up Thursday's rainout, having already won 12 of 17 games with the White Sox. They'll then fly home to host Oakland in a three-game series. After that? Their final 13 games are against Kansas City and Minnesota, who are a combined 37 games below .500. The Tigers are 14-9 against the Royals and Twins this season.
The Tigers are definitely focused on the White Sox. Detroit is 5 1/2 games back of the Yankees and Orioles in the battle for the second AL Wild Card berth and would have to climb over three teams to earn a spot. Detroit's key is its rotation, with a Big Three headed by Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, and followed by Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. Scherzer leads the Majors with 220 strikeouts and is 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA since June 12. Fister, 7-0 in September since joining the Tigers from Seattle on July 30 a year ago, is 8-2 in his last 12 starts, during which Detroit has gone 9-3.
A couple of weeks ago, the chatter in the Steel City was about the chances of the Pirates being a part of the postseason for the first time since 1992. Today? There's a sense that the Bucs are in a second-half fade similar to what they experienced a year ago, and that they're close to extending their professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons to 20. The Pirates' string of 19 consecutive losing seasons is three more than the 1933-48 Philadelphia As, who held the Major League record until giving way to Pittsburgh at the end of the 2010 season, and four more than the 1919-33 Boston Red Sox.
The Pirates are in Chicago for a four-game set with the Cubs to kick off a season-ending stretch of 20 games in as many days. The Bucs entered Friday having lost 26 of their last 39 games, falling to two games above .500. That stretch has left them with a 31-64 record in August and September over the past two seasons; the Pirates went from 54-52 on Aug. 1 last year to a 72-90 finish.
The rotation was considered a key to the Pirates' strong start, and it shoulders the blame for the recent slide. Since Aug. 1, the rotation is 12-18 with a 4.67 ERA, which ranks ahead of only Houston among the 16 NL teams in that span. What's more, Pittsburgh's bullpen has been given only seven save situations and converted four.
Tampa Bay was not only swept in its AL East showdown with Baltimore, but it suffered walk-off losses in the final two games; the Rays' 26 one-run losses are the most of any AL team. Suddenly, they find themselves four games back of the Orioles and Yankees in both the race for the AL East lead and the second AL Wild Card spot. And now Tampa Bay makes a weekend visit to Yankee Stadium to face the Bronx Bombers, who are coming off back-to-back victories for the first time since they won three in a row against Texas four weeks ago. The Yankees were 1-for-22 with runners in scoring position in their two wins at Boston. The one hit was memorable, though: Derek Jeter singled home the second run in Thursday's 2-0 victory for his 3,283rd hit, tying Willie Mays for 10th on baseball's all-time hits list.
The Rays will start David Price on Friday night against Sabathia, marking the eighth time the two have matched up in their careers, including three times this year. Price is 4-1 -- and Tampa Bay 6-1 -- in the previous seven meetings. Price, a 17-game winner, was skipped the last time his turn came up because of left shoulder soreness, which the ace says has subsided.
What the Rays need is some punch at the plate. The club scored two runs in each of its three losses at Camden Yards, one of the more hitter-friendly facilities in the big leagues. The Rays have lost 20 games this season in which they allowed three or fewer runs, and since July 18, they have taken only three losses by more than a two-run margin. All three were in Baltimore.
Having opened a two-city road trip by being swept in San Diego for the first time since 1995, the Cardinals found at least a moment of relief with a 2-1 victory at Los Angeles on Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series. This is a matchup of two struggling NL Wild Card hopefuls. The Cards and Dodgers both went into Thursday having lost six of seven. The Dodgers have now lost seven of eight, scoring a total of 14 runs in the process. That has allowed the Cardinals to take a two-game lead over the Dodgers in the battle for the second NL Wild Card spot.
Having been without shortstop Rafael Furcal (right elbow) since Aug. 31, St. Louis was dealt two more blows this week. First baseman Lance Berkman underwent right knee surgery on Tuesday, and starting pitcher Jake Westbrook was scratched from Thursday's start because of a right oblique strain. Lance Lynn, an All-Star this season who was moved to the bullpen for six appearances after an Aug. 24 start against Cincinnati, responded to another chance to start in place of Westbrook, providing six strong innings.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.