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Pennant, award races heat up this weekend

September 14, 2018

This is baseball's version of two weeks' notice. You want to make that final postseason push? You want to figure out what the shape of your roster will be come October? You want to pad those final stats to give the award voters or the arbitration examiners or the free-agent

This is baseball's version of two weeks' notice. You want to make that final postseason push? You want to figure out what the shape of your roster will be come October? You want to pad those final stats to give the award voters or the arbitration examiners or the free-agent shoppers something to think about?
No time like the present.
There are things far bigger than baseball happening this weekend in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states, where Hurricane Florence bears down. And our thoughts are with all the people in its path.
But the baseball show must go on, and thankfully, there's a ton of compelling competition on tap. Here are five topics to track:
1. No Run Zone: If the surest measure of success in pitching is run prevention, then Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale have been baseball's most successful pitchers this season. They'll both bring a sub-2.00 ERA to their Sunday showdown at Fenway Park (1:05 p.m. ET).
How rare is a September matchup of two pitchers with at least 100 innings and an ERA below 2.00?
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it hasn't happened since Sept. 11, 1985. And that game was a classic: The Cardinals' John Tudor (1.95 ERA) went 10(!) scoreless innings to beat Dwight Gooden (1.74) and the Mets, 1-0.
We won't see similar from deGrom and Sale, because the Red Sox ace will be limited to about three innings of work. Sale, who has a 1.96 ERA, has only pitched six innings since the start of August because of a shoulder issue that the Red Sox have nursed, which means he's only at 147 innings for the season, which means he ceased to qualify for the ERA title as of Friday. (Pitchers must throw one inning per team game played, so Sale will have to reach 162 innings by year's end to finish as an ERA title qualifier.)

And deGrom? Like Gooden on that day in 1985, when he pitched nine scoreless but left with a no-decision, the poor guy just can't any help. The Mets score 3.51 runs per game for deGrom (the sixth-worst run support average in MLB), and they have the Majors' third-worst defensive runs saved tally. His resulting 8-9 record is no reflection of his individual awesomeness (26 straight starts allowing three runs or fewer and a Major League-best 1.71 ERA).

deGrom has simply been the best pitcher in baseball this season, with or without the help from his friends. And Sale was the clear American League Cy Young Award front-runner before he hit the DL twice in August. So while these two won't repeat the dramatic duel staged by Tudor and Gooden all those years ago, this is still a good one.
2. By hook or by rook: The NL Rookie of the Year race this season revolves around two position players: Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto. But don't totally ignore what a couple of precocious pitchers have been up to.
Were there a "Rookie Cy Young," the Dodgers' Walker Buehler and the Cardinals' Jack Flaherty would be prominent among the candidates for it. So it's pretty cool to see these two former first-rounders matched up tonight (8:15 p.m., Busch Stadium) in the continuation of a four-game set between the Dodgers and Cardinals that actually feels like a must-win series for both ballclubs.

Buehler has a 3.09 ERA in 20 appearances (19 starts), with a 127 ERA+, 1.03 WHIP and 4.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Flaherty has a 2.92 ERA in 24 starts with a 133 ERA+, 1.07 WHIP and 3.2 K/BB.

These first-year talents have been instrumental in their club's campaigns, and now, they're properly paired opposite each other in a pretty big ballgame.
3. No money, but so money: The A's and Rays are not the best teams in baseball, but they are the most fascinating.
Their low-payroll prowess, their inventive accumulation of victories and their creative clubhouse cultures have allowed them to drastically exceed any and all reasonable expectations placed upon them at the start of the year. And they meet this weekend at Tropicana Field at a time when they're both playing brilliant baseball.
Unfortunately, while the A's are marching their way to October (potentially surpassing the Yankees in the AL Wild Card standings and/or taking down the Astros in the AL West), the Rays have one fatal flaw: geography. Their residence in the AL East means their current .552 winning percentage, which includes wins in 13 of their past 14 home games, will likely go to waste.

But that doesn't make this weekend any less captivating. The Rays might have to win out to have even the faintest hope of an October berth, but they play with the energy of a club that actually believes it could win out, however mathematically unlikely that might be. The A's, meanwhile, keep making their magic despite an injury ravaged rotation.
The weekend set begins at 7:10 tonight, with Rays "opener" Diego Castillo opposing Edwin Jackson.
4. An October-like September: Strength of schedule doesn't matter in baseball. Until it does. And in the case of the Arizona Diamondbacks, losers of 14 out of 20, it just might.
In the past eight days, the D-backs dropped three of four to both the Braves and the Rockies. Their run of 20 straight games continues this weekend against the Astros, followed by the Cubs, Rockies again and Dodgers. They finally get what, on paper at least, looks like a respite the final weekend of the season in San Diego.

If, by that point, the D-backs are still in contention in the NL West, they'll undoubtedly have earned it. But for now, they're bleeding losses (including eight one-run losses in their past 20 games) and have fallen 4 1/2 back in the NL West.
So it's a tough time for the Snakes to face the defending champion Astros, who are finally healthy and on a real roll, winning 10 of their past 11. The three-game set begins with Robbie Ray opposite Dallas Keuchel tonight (8:10 p.m.) and wraps Sunday with an awesome alignment of Zack Greinke vs. Justin Verlander (2:10 p.m.).
5. Break out the bubbly: We had our first official clinch of the 2018 calendar earlier this week when the Red Sox guaranteed themselves an October spot, but their bigger celebration awaits when they get around to finishing off the Yankees in the AL East race.
In the meantime, we'll probably have our first division clinch this weekend. The Indians' magic number in the AL Central is down to two, so they'll be wrapping this thing up any minute now. It's hard to know what to make of a Cleveland club that laid waste to the weak AL Central yet is just 21-30 against clubs with a winning record. But this is a fascinating time to watch the Tribe, with Josh Donaldson scheduled to play his second game with the club in tonight's 7:10 series opener with the Tigers and Jose Ramirez shifted to second and Jason Kipnis to center field to account for the arrival of the "Bringer of Rain." The Indians also just recently returned Andrew Miller to the bullpen, and they have Trevor Bauer trying to make it back from a stress fracture in his leg.

What this amounts to is a lot of roster uncertainty on a club with a gargantuan division lead -- an eye-catching September dynamic.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.