By Raymond Schwabacher
Major League Baseball is in it’s second year of having two Wild Cards per league, and it seems safe to say the new playoff format has been a hit. With the institution of the Wild Card round, division winners are rewarded with what can be seen as a first round bye, while the top teams that couldn’t win their own divisions are forced to duke it out in a win-or-go-home play-in game. There were concerns that the new system might punish good teams, like the 2012 Cardinals, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least relative to the 2012 Reds. Maybe it was the strange excitement of Joe Saunders beating the Rangers to earn Baltimore an ALDS berth, or maybe baseball fans just collectively decided that yeah, being the best team in your division is really important. Either way, in year two the new playoff format seems to be more or less fully accepted.
Except that this year a new wrinkle emerged – by the middle of summer, the ten playoff teams had apparently become crystal-clear. The Dodgers, Braves, Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds were going to be the NL playoff teams, and nobody else had a chance unless they went crazy while one of those five went all chicken and beer. Things were looking pretty straight-forward in the American League, too, as some combination of the Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, and Athletics figured to play October games. There was a bigger mess of teams hanging around the periphery, but those teams had obvious flaws. Again, someone would have to collapse in order for things to get interesting.
On August 24th the Rays and Red Sox were locked in a first place tie, two talented teams tangled up at the top of the toughest division in the game. August 24th, you’ll notice, was just over two weeks ago. Fast forward to today, and that zero-game gap is now a seven-and-a-half-game gap, as the Rays have gone into a tailspin right as the Red Sox started cementing their status as one of the best teams in the game. Tampa Bay’s playoff odds are now just 49.5%, while Boston sits at 99.9%. Most notably, Tampa’s collapse has created something of a race for the final playoff spot. While the Rays still have a small lead for the second wild card, Cleveland and Baltimore are now each two games back. The Yankees are a half game behind those two, and Kansas City is a game behind New York. The Rays are in serious jeopardy of coughing up the right to play the AL West runner-up for a shot at the championship tournament.
Tampa Bay is in this position because they’ve played awful baseball lately, including this most recent three-game Mariners series. In case you’ve forgotten about the Mariners – and yeah, Seahawks, so you probably have – they’re still playing baseball games against other major league teams and they still aren’t very good. The Mariners just took two of three from the Rays, who are a playoff probable, but barely anymore. The Mariners had a great opportunity to play spoiler, and responded by taking two of three from a good team that has recently been playing like a bad team. What the Mariners just did was not un-encouraging, if I may. Wins are wins, and we should still assume the Rays aren’t really toxic crap like they’ve recently looked. So we should be proud, proud of our favorite little baseball team that can occasionally capitalize on the opportunity to beat better teams when the games matter most, for better teams. Maybe one day the Mariners will be relevant in September. Until that day, this will have to do.
Friday, September 6 – Mariners 6, Rays 4
Hisashi Iwakuma led the way despite allowing a home run, which is kind of his whole shtick. The Golden Bear continues to dazzle in his first full year in an MLB rotation, and Friday he added to his impressive totals by throwing five and two thirds innings with five strikeouts and two walks. He did allow eight hits, but hits happen. The token dinger came in the top of the second, as noted anti-Semite and busted former number one overall pick Delmon Young led off with a shot to left-center. Iwakuma loaded the bases in the third before bringing home Ben Zobrist from third with a wild pitch. Young doubled in the sixth and Jose Molina singled him in, but those were the only knocks against Kuma. He’s third in the league in innings pitched and tied for fifth in ERA, by the way. That contract is a total steal.
Alex Cobb, who has been something like an ace for Tampa this year, had a very similar game to Iwakuma. He made it one out further while achieving the same strikeout total with one less walk. The M’s scored four runs off him, including a solo shot by Raul Ibanez. Kyle Seager opened things up with an RBI sac fly in the first and helped add on in the third. With Nick Franklin on third, Franklin Gutierrez hit an RBI single and then stole second. Seager then drove him in with a liner that fell out of Desmond Jennings’ reach. The Rays tied things up off Carter Capps, but the tie was short-lived thanks to Justin Smoak. Against the oft-excellent Joel Peralta, Seager reached on an error and Kendrys Morales singled. Smoak drove them both in with a screaming double that decided the game. Awful August aside, the still-young Smoak has probably earned a spot in the team’s 2013 plans. Probably.
Saturday, September 7 – Mariners 6, Rays 2
There are essentially two players in the American League who could – or should – warrant Rookie Of the Year consideration, and both play for the Rays. One is Wil Myers, famously traded away by a desperate team that didn’t mind creating a hole to fill a hole. The other is starting pitcher Chris Archer, a top prospect acquired in the Matt Garza deal. Archer has been brilliant so far in the bigs, and figures to be an extremely important player in Tampa Bay for the next half-decade or so. Archer is a budding under-the-radar star, but his presence in Seattle on Saturday was understandably overshadowed by the other starting pitcher, the one for the home team, the one who had a better outing this weekend. I’m talking, of course, about James Paxton, who made his major league debut at home in front of a crowd of about 17,000 fans.
Paxton is the member of the Big Three who most frequently gets mentioned alongside the word “bullpen.” There have always been concerns about his secondary offerings, and about his concerning platoon splits, but here was Paxton, making his debut in 2013 as a starting pitcher. While his star has dimmed a bit due to an underwhelming season and increased speculation about his long-term future role, he’s still a top-hundred prospect according to most. He’s still an exciting young Mariner with undeniable upside. And in his first-ever start at the highest level he put on a hell of a show, going six innings and striking out three with only one walk and four hits. The only two runs came on a sixth-inning dinger by Evan Longoria, who is one of the best players in the world. James Paxton walked away from his debut looking more like a future ace than a future LOOGY, which, in isolation, is the best thing he could’ve done. Welcome to Seattle, James. Start some more games, how about.
The Mariners only had to deal with Archer for four innings, as the rookie departed after throwing only seventy-five pitches. In his short time out the M’s lit him up for three runs on four hits, including solo homers from Smoak and Morales. Those two were the worst players in the sport over August, remember, and the moral of the story is month-to-month splits aren’t particularly predictive. The offense tacked on two more runs over the next two innings against relievers Alex Torres and Jamie Wright, and Morales ended the game with three base hits. Nick Franklin had two doubles and took Smoak’s knee to the back of his head. He stayed in the game after looking dead for a minute. Athletes are tough.
Sunday, September 8 – Rays 4, Mariners 1
Looking for a sweep behind Erasmo Ramirez, the Mariners offense instead was muted by Matt Moore and the bullpen couldn’t hold onto the tiny lead they were tasked with maintaining. This was no fault or Erasmo’s, as the youngster had one of his best starts of the year despite struggling with his command at times. His line: six innings, no runs, five strikeouts, four walks, four hits. That’s no runs, as in no homers, but Ramirez did make most of his outs in the air. Seven fly ball outs, to be precise, with a few coming at or near the track. The hard contact and four walks are an obvious problem, but Ramirez has had lots of obvious problems this season and regardless of imperfection, this was a fine outing. Shutout ball is good ball.
Matt Moore didn’t shut the M’s out, but he did enough to keep it close. Morales hit a nice long homer in the second inning, and Moore did issue three walks to three strikeouts, but the Mariners were held to five hits over the course of the game. Drawing walks is important, but there’s more to scoring runs than drawing walks. Yoervis Medina coughed up three runs without recording an out, allowing the Rays to string together those elusive base hits. The Mariners then allowed Hector Noesi to pitch, and if you allow Hector Noesi to pitch then you allow runs to score, which is exactly what happened. The bullpen lost this one, which isn’t too crazy because have you seen this bullpen? This is not a good bullpen. This is Danny Farquhar and a bunch of marginal lefties and some hard-throwers who get hit hard. Blegch.
UP NEXT: Astros @ Mariners
Is this going to be the series where the Astros lose their hundredth game? Unfortunately no, it isn’t, as this is only a three game set and the Astros have “only” ninety-six losses. This is going to be the series where the Astros lose their ninety-ninth game, at “best.” The Astros run differential is double the Mariners run differential, and the Mariners have the second-worst run differential in the league. This series won’t be exciting because of the Astros, but it might be a little fun. That fun is almost entirely due to pitching matchups, so let’s talk about those.
Monday’s game features Taijuan Walker and Jarred Cosart, making it the most compelling M’s/’Stros matchup humanly possible. Cosart is a top prospect cruising through his rookie season and Taijuan Walker is Taijuan Walker, making his last start of 2013. These are top-notch young talents, the future of the AL West, and the crappy teams they play for shouldn’t stop this game from being a big event. These guys are part of the next wave of potential aces, and Cosart for what it’s worth might already be there in a Jose Fernandez kind of way. Tuesday features Jordan Lyles and Joe Saunders because baseball likes stark contrast. But Wednesday! Wednesday we’ll be treated to the first King Felix start in over a week, as Hernandez looks to return strong after an injury scare and a handful of bad outings. He’ll be pitching against Brad Peacock, who’s been a big help in the Astros quest to be the worst they possibly can be. All three games start at 7:10. Watch Tai Walker! Watch Felix!