Pulse: Tigers sew up Central; AL Wild Card still wild
The American League Central finally fell, the AL Wild Card had six teams in the running and is down to three, and the jockeying for playoff positioning all over the rest of baseball has been fast and furious.
Welcome to Wednesday in the last week of the Major League slate in 2013, and once again welcome to the Pulse of the Postseason, which still beats strongly with four more regular-season days to go.
On Wednesday night, the Detroit Tigers made the expected an official formality, riding Max Scherzer's seven superb innings to a 1-0 victory over the Twins that locked up the AL Central for Detroit.
The AL Wild Card got a lot less confusing with the elimination of the Yankees and Royals. Now it's just the Rays and the Indians in the two qualifying slots, with the Rangers a mere one game out.
In the National League Central, the only division that hasn't been decided, St. Louis won again to cut its magic number for a division title to one because Pittsburgh and Cincinnati both lost.
Now the Reds and Pirates seem destined to meet one more time in the NL Wild Card Game set for Tuesday.
Elsewhere, the A's and Braves lost, hurting their chances at the best records in the AL and NL and the home-field advantage throughout the first two rounds that goes with it.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox got better when outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury came back from a fracture in his foot, but the Dodgers faced some more adversity when outfielder Andre Ethier had to leave the team in San Francisco and head back to Los Angeles to have his ailing ankle looked at.
The big-time drama of the day, however, came in Minnesota, where the Tigers locked up the division for the third consecutive year, becoming the first team to pull off that feat since the Twins did it from 2002-04.
It was fitting that Scherzer was the man for the job, and he did not disappoint, striking out 10 in his seven frames for his 21st win of the year.
"When we started in Spring Training, it was almost like … the only thing we could do, really, was fail, because people had such high expectations," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
"I talked about that in Spring Training. I said, 'Don't get caught up in the expectations. Get caught up in how you're going to live up to the expectations.' That's the most important thing. And I think we did that."
On the Wild Card side of things in the AL, the Rays and Indians are holding steady in the top two spots, and they're doing it by taking care of business.
On Wednesday, Tampa Bay got two big homers from Evan Longoria, hustle from Wil Myers and a gem from David Price to beat the Yankees, 8-3, in the Bronx and knock New York out of the playoff chase. The Rays have won six in a row and lowered their magic number to three.
When the guy in the middle does what Longo did everybody feeds off it. But the 3-run homer doesn't happen without Wil's running hard to 1st.- Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) September 26, 2013
And how about those Indians?
They're playing their best baseball of the year right now and didn't let up Wednesday, closing out their home schedule with a 7-2 win over the White Sox that featured good pitching from rookie starter Danny Salazar and big hits by Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley.
Thanks to every single fan that came to the game tonight, and to those who watched it at home, this means a lot to us bc we need you with us- Danny Salazar (@DannySalazar67) September 26, 2013
The Tribe is now one game behind the Rays, 88-70 overall, and, perhaps most important, 17-6 in September as it heads to Minnesota for a season-ending four-game series.
"You've got to be excited," Indians veteran slugger Jason Giambi said. "Anytime that you have control of your own destiny, that's what it's all about. We've just got to go out there and play baseball. We don't have to scoreboard watch. We don't have to do anything but go play baseball."
But the Indians are going to keep doing that very well if they're going to hold off the Rangers.
Texas continued to get its groove back against the struggling Astros, winning on Wednesday by a score of 7-3, and it did it in comeback fashion. The Rangers were trailing by two runs early but scored five times in the fourth inning to put it away.
The Rangers now must play four games against the Angels, but they'll play those games at home. They know what they have to do.
"This is a situation that every ballplayer should look forward to, playing games with the intensity that we're playing," outfielder Alex Rios said. "When you play meaningful games, it's so exciting. It's just fun to play like this."
In the wacky NL Central, which still hasn't been decided, St. Louis got closer to finally nailing the division title shut for the first time since 2009.
The Cardinals got a great effort from rookie starter Shelby Miller en route to a 4-1 win over the Nationals that swept the series, and they knocked the Reds out of contention for the division title in the process.
If St. Louis wins one more game or Pittsburgh loses one more, the Cards will have the Central crown, and they also moved a half-game up on the Braves, who lost to Milwaukee, for home-field advantage.
"I think there's definitely some excitement," Cardinals reliever Trevor Rosenthal said. "We're playing well right now, and that always gives us good energy."
The Reds and Pirates need to tap back into that type of energy after a Wednesday that did not go well for either club.
Cincinnati lost to the Mets and starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, 1-0, and Pittsburgh lost to the Cubs, 4-2.
For the Reds, the division hopes are gone, but they know they'll be in the do-or-die Wild Card Game. So the focus now is on making sure they're doing what they need to do to win that game.
"We've just got to figure out a way to get that big hit, especially with two outs," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "That's so very important. Most of the time, whoever gets the most two-out hits wins. Going to the playoffs, there will be a number of these situations. We just have to remain confident and remain calm, and just believe you can do it."
The same could be said for the Pirates, who still have a chance to tie the division but must win all three of their remaining games while the Cards lose all three of theirs to get into a tiebreaker. That's not very likely to happen, and Pittsburgh knows it. So instead the Bucs will try for home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card Game.
"We'll try to win a couple, and go from there," Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. "I'm happy just to have the opportunity; it's awesome. I remember at the beginning of the season, no one gave us a chance, and now look where we are. I'm just happy we can be there."
The A's and Braves have both won their divisions, and they'll be a lot happier if they can nail down home-field advantage for the Division Series, but neither club could do that on Wednesday.
A's 2 back of Red Sox with 3 to play, so I'm going to go out on a limb and predict an A's-Tigers ALDS rematch.- Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) September 26, 2013
The A's lost to the Angels, 3-1, and Atlanta dropped one to Milwaukee, 4-0, and got into a benches-clearing incident in the process.
"We have to try to focus on getting some guys on base and then when we do, move them around a little bit as a good offense, instead of going up there hacking," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "I've been guilty of it a little bit, too, lately. We've just got to settle in. We've got to settle in these next four games and kind of get this thing going."
So it's on to Thursday, since the Pulse of the Postseason seems to get stronger as October gets closer. There might only be five games scheduled that include postseason contenders, but they're big games nonetheless.
St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are idle, so the NL Central will not be decided Thursday.
So the headline games for Thursday are in the still-riveting battle for the AL Wild Card, where all three teams will be in action.
Tampa Bay can make its bid for the Wild Card that much stronger if it can beat New York again in Mariano Rivera's last game in Yankee Stadium, and the Rays will be starting Alex Cobb, who has been their best pitcher of late.
"I love having the ball in these games," Cobb said. "You have to learn and anticipate the nerves you're going to have, and you have to channel them in a way to not let them affect you, but to have them help you when you go out there."
Also on Thursday, Texas will face the Angels in Arlington while the Indians go to Minnesota. The Rangers' midseason pickup, Matt Garza, was lights-out for them in his last start, and they need him to be again. The Indians will lean on Zach McAllister, who faces the most important road start of his young career.
Meanwhile, the Braves could use a win to strengthen their bid for home-field advantage, and they'll get a chance to do that at home as they start a season-ending series against the Phillies.
The Dodgers have been on cruise control in the NL West for a while and will face the Giants in what could be Tim Lincecum's final start in a San Francisco uniform. They will be trying to get back into gear for when October begins.
Thursday's key games to watch (all times ET)
Rays (Cobb, 10-3) at Yankees (Nova, 9-5), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
Phillies (Cloyd, 2-6) at Braves (Hale, 0-0), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
Angels (Williams, 9-10) at Rangers (Garza, 10-6), 8:05 p.m. Preview >
Indians (McAllister, 9-9) at Twins (Albers, 2-4), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
Dodgers (Volquez, 9-12) at Giants (Lincecum, 10-14), 10:15 p.m. Preview >
If the postseason started today ...
Wild Card: Indians at Rays
Division Series: Wild Card at Red Sox^ | Tigers^ at A's^
Wild Card: Reds* at Pirates*
Division Series: Wild Card at Cardinals* | Dodgers^ at Braves^
* -- clinched postseason spot
^ -- clinched division
To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining and add one. Then subtract the difference in the number of losses between that team and its closest pursuer.
A tiebreaker game will be played to determine a division winner, even if the tied clubs are assured of participating in the postseason. If a division championship tiebreaker is necessary, the head-to-head record between the clubs will determine home-field advantage. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker. If the division record is tied, then intraleague record will be the next tiebreaker.
If two clubs are tied for the two Wild Card berths, home-field advantage will be determined by the head-to-head record between the clubs. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker. If the division record is tied, then intraleague record will be the next tiebreaker.
2013 postseason schedule
NL Wild Card Game: Tuesday
AL Wild Card Game: Wednesday
NL Division Series begin: Oct. 3
AL Division Series begin: Oct. 4
NL Championship Series begins: Oct. 11
AL Championship Series begins: Oct. 12
World Series begins: Oct. 23