10 key matchups in the wild-card games 

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
Jon Lester and James ShieldsGetty ImagesJon Lester and the Athletics take on James Shields and the Royals tonight at 8:07 p.m. ET.
Ten crucial matchups to watch in the AL and NL wild-card games:

1. The Royals versus the Jon Lester mystique

The left-hander's performance in the postseason last year established him as one of the best October pitchers of his generation. In 13 games over eight series in his career, Lester has a 2.11 ERA, including his work last fall, when he allowed just six earned runs in five starts. This is part of the reason Oakland traded for him; he can thrive on the big stage. He embraces the challenge of the postseason, writes Susan Slusser.

But a different narrative has developed recently among some evaluators: that Lester is not comfortable throwing to first base. He allowed five stolen bases over his final three starts of the season, including four to the Mariners on Sept. 14. The Royals do not hit homers and they don't draw walks, but they led the majors in stolen bases -- by a wide margin -- and figure to be aggressive on the basepaths tonight. Manager Ned Yost will look for chances to put pressure on the A's defense, from the first inning onward, and in a game that might have very little scoring, this could be difference-making.

More on Lester's unwillingness to make pickoff moves: Among the 498 pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched this season, Lester was the only one who didn't attempt a single pickoff throw. There were 619 pitchers who attempted at least one pickoff throw this season. Lester threw almost 220 innings without throwing to a base.

Lester allowed 16 stolen bases this season, the fourth-most of any lefty in baseball.

Geovany Soto could start at catcher … even though he has not worked with Lester in the past.

2. The Athletics versus their collective psyche

The A's got into the playoffs as the second wild-card team, saved by a safety net that wasn't in place as recently as three years ago.

Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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10 breakthroughs to watch for 2015 

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
Jose Abreu, Garrett Richards and Christian YelichGetty ImagesEach of these guys is more a star on his team than a major national name. But that will change.
For these 10 players, 2014 represented a big step forward, and because of that 2015 will be a season of tremendous promise; it’ll be fascinating to see how they grow.

In no particular order:

1. Jose Abreu, White Sox

From the first day he arrived at the White Sox camp, stories followed about his devotion to his craft, about his great and pliable personality -- from the language lessons he got from Adam Dunn to his desire to sing the national anthem to the sore foot he developed from taking so much batting practice.

Abreu should be a unanimous selection for the AL Rookie of the Year, given where his final numbers will land, with an average over .300, 35-plus homers, 100-plus RBIs. By season’s end, some rivals thought he was a clone of Miguel Cabrera, when Cabrera is healthy: You cannot throw him the same pitch in the same spot twice in a row, because he will adjust, and will stalk pitchers throughout an at-bat.

Abreu is already a star hitter, but he has a chance to become one of the sport’s leaders.


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Jeter's legacy: consistency, reliability 

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
Derek JeterAl Bello/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter hit a game-winning RBI single Thursday night in his final game at Yankee Stadium.
Two camps have warred throughout Derek Jeter’s career -- those who claim he has raised his level of play in crucial moments, versus the crowd of skeptics, who countered that Jeter merely cashed in on a fragment of his extraordinary number of opportunities on the big stage.

I always thought both sides missed the point. I don’t believe Jeter suddenly got better when we were all watching, but he has never been diminished by the pressure, either. We’ve seen accomplished veterans playing in a critical spot, and they disintegrate, putting too much pressure on themselves -- trying too hard to get a big hit or struggling to command a fastball.

Jeter’s greatest attribute has always been that he reduced the playing of games to the lowest common denominator: He just had fun. After the contracts were signed and the media questions were answered and the fans were acknowledged, he just had fun, treating a World Series game the same way he treated a season opener at Kalamazoo Central High School.

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Bochy staying positive amid Giants slump 

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
San Francisco GiantsAP Photo/David TulisManager Bruce Bochy and the Giants have posted losing records in June, July and now September.
LOS ANGELES -- Hours before the Giants stepped in front of the pitching bulldozer otherwise known as Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday evening, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy had a quandary: What should be done if his team were to lose yet still have a chance to celebrate?

At that moment, it was possible that for only the second time in baseball history, the winning and losing team in the same game would clinch. If the Brewers lost Wednesday and the Dodgers beat the Giants for the NL West title, San Francisco would still have wrapped up a playoff spot. Given Kershaw's lifetime 1.44 ERA against the Giants, this scenario obviously was very possible.

Bochy had watched a lot of this same group of players win the World Series in 2010 and 2012, and on one hand, the notion of donning goggles and spraying champagne right after a loss to the Dodgers might've seemed odd, and maybe a little beneath them.

But Bochy had also seen this group of players journey through a long and difficult season, recovering after the All-Star break after squandering a huge lead in June, playing through injuries to Angel Pagan and Mike Morse. When the season ends, 20 teams will go home, and if the Giants had earned the right to go to the playoffs, Bochy decided, this was something worth celebrating. No matter whether the Giants won or lost Wednesday, they had earned the right to feel good about themselves given the work they had put in over the long spring training and the six-month season.

So win or lose Wednesday, Bochy had given the go-ahead for the champagne to be sprayed in the modest visitors' clubhouse, and why not, given the circumstances? The Giants are limping toward the playoffs, after a lost weekend in San Diego, after learning that Pagan will miss the rest of the season. A celebration might've reminded this group of players just how far they've come, and what's possible moving forward.

In the end, Bochy's deliberations didn't matter. The Brewers won, staying alive in the race, so the only way the Giants would have doused each other Wednesday night would happen if they beat Kershaw, which, even in May, might've earned them a parade, given his dominance. But it was not to be: Kershaw held the Giants to a run over eight innings, lowering his ERA to 1.77, increasing his strikeouts to a staggering 239, improving his final record to 21-3, and he mashed the first triple of his career.

After Tim Hudson departed, the Giants utterly collapsed into a morass of walks and defensive mistakes, and the bottom of the eighth inning lasted more than a half-hour, with a sold-out Dodger Stadium crowd preparing to celebrate.

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Pace of play committee lacks right voices 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
videoLOS ANGELES -- Another in the season-long burst of complaints erupted recently over one of the on-the-fly rule changes that were implemented in 2014. An official with Major League Baseball privately conceded that the criticism, in this particular case, was fully warranted.

“We didn’t think about that possibility,” he acknowledged privately. “We probably should have.”

The sport’s worst nightmare still has a chance to play out, that a crucial October moment will hinge on one of the still murky corners of instant replay or Rule 7.13, which addresses home plate collisions. Overall, however, it has been a year of significant progress, a long step in the right direction. More calls are correct, through replay, and we haven't seen a single injured catcher or baserunner carried off the field because of a home plate pileup, which really was the driving force behind 7.13.

But the official’s statement -- “We didn’t think about that possibility. We probably should have.” -- should echo in Major League Baseball’s Park Avenue hallways.

When immediate changes are needed, it’s important that baseball reacts swiftly, as officials did with the ill-fated transfer interpretation earlier this year, and with the recent clarification of Rule 7.13. When possible, however, it would be good for more percolation, more consideration, more thought. It’s why the new committee to address pace of play comes with some surprises.

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Reds already focused on '15 bounce back 

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
Joey Votto and Jay BruceUSA Today Sports, Getty Images It has been a frustrating season for Joey Votto (62 games played) and Jay Bruce (.217 average).
ST. LOUIS -- The 2014 season began evaporating for the Cincinnati Reds the first week after the All-Star break. Three straight losses against the Yankees, three more against the Brewers, another to Washington … a flurry of failure from which they have never recovered.

So here they are playing out the twilight of the summer game, and for some, there are already thoughts about what will be different next year. Bryan Price, the manager of the Reds, sat in the cinder-block office assigned to the visiting manager Sunday in St. Louis and recited his team's record: 71 wins, 84 losses. "That team," he said, "is not a 71-84 team."

Not with Aroldis Chapman at closer, finishing out a season in which he has 97 strikeouts in 50 innings, with one homer allowed.

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The Jeter Tour has hurt the Yankees 

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
Derek JeterJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDespite poor statistics, Derek Jeter has remained at shortstop and in the No. 2 lineup slot.
ST. LOUIS -- Some folks employed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1995 have spoken with reverence for what took place on Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, when Cal Ripken played in his 2,130th and 2,131st consecutive games. The response of the fans to Ripken, and the celebration of baseball on those two days, could not have been more touching, and Ripken’s handling of those 48 hours was exceptional, from the home runs that he hit to his willingness to come out of his shell of routine and share the moment.

A lot of the same folks who worked for the Orioles would also have told you that they would never want to again play a role in a player building a consecutive-games streak like Ripken’s.

Because they believed that for the team -- the group of players whose purpose is theoretically to win games -- Ripken’s streak was not a good thing and that he should have had days off, for his benefit and for the sake of the team. They would tell you Ripken’s streak became onerous for the baseball operations people for whom he worked because it clouded all decision-making and became bigger than the manager.

Years from now, there will be folks who worked for the New York Yankees this year who will say the same thing about Derek Jeter's final season -- that the organization’s long-established devotion to winning games has been superseded by its effort to cast Jeter in the best possible light, pretending, with his placement in the field and the lineup, that he gives the team the best possible chance to win.

The Yankees have earned a championship grade for ceremony this season, creating memories for fans and fueling an important narrative, at a time when that probably feels right. The enduring image of the NFL’s 2014 season thus far is a piece of Atlantic City security camera videotape, while Major League Baseball has been able to pause and honor Jeter for his glories and how he has served the sport so well.

But somewhere along the way, the Yankees drifted off course and winning became secondary to the 2014 Derek Jeter fairy tale.

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10 days, 10 burning questions 

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
Jon Lester, Matt Shoemaker, and Norichika AokiAP ImagesA trio of key cast members for the production of the season's 10 final days.
KANSAS CITY -- Ten days left in the regular season. Ten burning questions.

1. Will Oakland pull out of its flat spin?

The Athletics have surrendered 15.5 games in the standings to the Angels in 39 days, which might otherwise seem impossible if you weren’t watching the Athletics play. Oakland faced a possible sweep Thursday, with Nick Martinez on the mound for the Rangers -- this is a pitcher who allowed 52 walks in 122 1/3 innings going in. After Texas scored four runs in the top of the first against Sonny Gray, the Athletics saw a total of 19 pitches in the first two innings against Martinez.

When stuff like this is happening

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Trading Cueto makes sense for the Reds 

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
Johnny CuetoFrank Victores/USA TODAY SportsReds starter Johnny Cueto ranks in the top five in the majors in wins, ERA, strikeouts and WAR.
The Cincinnati Reds will finish this season with a losing record, but their 2014 struggles may well take them beyond that bit of ignominy. It's possible they will finish last in the National League Central, and they have a chance to finish with one of the 10 worst records in baseball (which would mean their first-round pick in the 2015 MLB draft would be protected from the compensation drain).

They have developed significant needs and are facing a major overhaul that will be problematic in the face of rising payroll concerns, which they began to address when they allowed the Brewers to take reliever Jonathan Broxton last month. Broxton will make $9 million next season, and the Reds need as much financial flexibility as possible.
Their situation is so acute that the Reds should at least think about a bold, aggressive move to improve the team's overall talent and gain better payroll footing: They should trade Cy Young Award candidate Johnny Cueto.

Some rival officials just don't see the Reds making this move, because generally speaking, owner Bob Castellini has never been a big believer in deferred gratification.

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Previewing the qualifying-offer market 

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
James Shields and Nelson CruzGetty ImagesJames Shields and Nelson Cruz are both candidates to get qualifying offers this offseason.
As the saying goes, those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Not one of the 22 players who were extended qualifying offers the past two winters accepted them, and in a lot of cases, that made sense. But it's a strategy that failed for some players.

Stephen Drew turned down a qualifying offer of $14.1 million last fall, and then, after failing to sign with a team in the winter, waited until May to sign with the Red Sox under the premise -- loyally regurgitated in many corners -- that he would benefit from not being attached to a qualifying offer this fall.

This has turned into a disaster. After taking $4 million less in salary than he would've gotten in a qualifying offer, Drew was behind in his timing when he returned to major league action and has never recovered. He is batting .156 overall, with an OPS of .527 (250 points lower than last season), and with the Yankees he's hitting .132. He probably will get just a fraction of what he would've gotten this fall with a qualifying offer, which is expected to be between $15 and $15.5 million.

Similarly, Kendrys Morales rejected a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Mariners before eventually signing with the Twins -- who then traded him back to Seattle. As of Wednesday morning, he is hitting .205 with the Mariners, .223 overall, with seven homers in 350 plate appearances. At 31, he will be a free agent again, in a market already saturated with DH candidates, and he won't get anything close to what a qualifying offer might've netted him.

With that in mind, here are the candidates for qualifying offers in the upcoming market, and whether the player in question can expect to get an offer.

James Shields, SP, Royals: YES. Shields has had another solid season and the Royals intend to give him a qualifying offer so they can get a draft pick when he signs elsewhere.

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To-do lists for Orioles, Angels, Nationals 

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
Buck Showalter, Mike Scioscia & Matt WilliamsUSA TODAY SportsManagers Buck Showalter, Mike Scioscia and Matt Williams have the luxury of coasting to the playoffs.
BALTIMORE -- There will not much rest at all for Miguel Cabrera, it appears, no chance for him to stay off his right ankle and let the pain from his bone spur subside. If Wade Davis becomes weary in the next 14 days, he probably won't have much choice but to push through it; the same could be true for Tony Watson, Justin Wilson and Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates, and for the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez. If Sean Doolittle isn't quite 100 percent, his 98 percent or 90 percent or 85 percent will just have to do.

David Robertson threw 35 pitches Friday, 11 more on Saturday, then made another appearance Sunday … and had absolutely nothing, giving up three consecutive extra-base hits in a walk-off loss to the Orioles. The Yankees' playoff hopes are dying, and Robertson's effort was like CPR; he had to do what was required in the moment. This is the stretch drive, the last mile in the Major League Baseball marathon, and the players for the Tigers, Royals, Pirates and other teams will have to push through.

But there are a handful of contenders who likely will secure playoff bids in the next few days, leaving them time to be much more specific in their preparation for the postseason.

For instance, you have the Orioles. After their comeback win against what appeared to be a completely exhausted Robertson on Sunday, Baltimore's magic number for clinching the AL East is down to three, and while manager Buck Showalter has spent recent days running away from any hypothetical suggestion that the Orioles might make the playoffs, you'd have to imagine a to-do list like the one below might be forming in his head:

1. Keep shortstop J.J. Hardy properly rested.

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Davis' mistake may cost him eight figures 

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
Chris DavisAP Photo/Gail BurtonChris Davis' OPS is down 300 points this season, and he now has a PED suspension on his record.
BALTIMORE -- This cannot be overstated: Chris Davis is a really nice person. Routinely gregarious, cheerful, helpful, self-deprecating. He is eminently likeable in the way that a wagging St. Bernard is, and that great demeanor is probably what will prevent at least some of his Baltimore Orioles teammates from absolutely blasting Davis publicly, and saying out loud what some of them really feel.

If you gave some of his teammates truth serum, some of them would tell you that his act of taking Adderall after having already tested positive once -- and getting a mulligan -- was at the very least absolutely inexplicable, and at worst, incredibly selfish. There is anger in the Orioles’ clubhouse about Davis’ 25-game suspension because he violated union rules that the players built and agreed to follow, but mostly because the Orioles have a chance to win the World Series, and now one of their few power hitters won’t be available for at least one round (and maybe two) of the postseason.

Sure, if the Orioles play deep into October and Davis becomes eligible to play and demonstrates he can help, they’d take the big lug back, because they need him and they like him. Plus, it’s not going to help anybody for his teammates to crush him with words, because the 28-year-old Davis already has done enormous damage to his career.

The timing of this suspension, occurring at the end of what has been an incredibly disappointing season, could not be worse and will cost him a lot of money beyond the $1.5 million or so lost while he is serving his penalty.

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Oakland's collapse could be worst ever 

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
Geovany SotoAP Photo/Paul BeatyThere have been many collapses over the years, but baseball now offers the parachute of expanded wild-card play.
On the morning of Aug. 10, the Oakland Athletics not only had a 4-game lead over the Angels in the American League West, they also had the majors’ best record: 72-44, on a pace to win 96 games. They were regarded as the best team in baseball, with the most prolific offense (to that moment), a dominant bullpen and a rotation that had been bolstered by the addition of World Series hero Jon Lester.

Sure, the Angels had made up some ground in the standings, but Oakland was positioned to win the division for the third straight year. Making the playoffs? A foregone conclusion, given how well Oakland had played and the enormous gap in the standings between the Athletics and the teams that might be involved in the wild-card race -- Detroit, Kansas City and Seattle, for example. At the time

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Stanton's injury could cause MLB change 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
Giancarlo StantonAP Photo/Morry GashMarlins star Giancarlo Stanton is likely out for the season after being hit in the face by a pitch Thursday.
On this date in 1952, the Pittsburgh Pirates did something no other team had done before. From NationalPastime.com:

At Forbes Field, the Pirates become the first team to use protective head gear, a precursor to the batting helmet that protects the players' temples. Branch Rickey's innovation, worn both at the plate and in the field in the Bucs' twin bill split with Boston, is a plastic hat with a foam layer attached to the hat band.

On Sept. 9, 1979, Bob Montgomery -- the backup catcher for Boston’s Carlton Fisk -- took the final at-bat of his career, a moment notable because it was the last helmet-less at-bat by any hitter in a major league game.

When the rule requiring batters to use helmets was put in place eight years before, all the players who hit without them to that point were grandfathered into the regulation and allowed to continue to hit without the additional protection for the sake of their comfort.

The composition and shape of helmets has changed many times through the years, from something that was little more than a lined hat to the high-tech stuff we see now, when the composition of the helmets has been through military-style testing. All with regard for player safety.

There was no protection in place for Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, when he was hit directly in the face by a pitch thrown by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers; Stanton suffered dental damage and fractures.

Chase Headley
AP Photo/Kathy WillensChase Headley of the Yankees will miss a few games after being hit by a pitch Thursday.
A few minutes after Stanton was hit, Chase Headley was drilled in the chin; Headley is likely to miss a few days.

Stanton is expected to miss the rest of the season, and just as the Buster Posey injury of 2011 spurred a lot of conversation about home plate collisions and player safety, the injury to Stanton -- one of the game’s greatest stars -- will inevitably spur this question: In the name of player safety, can more be done to protect hitters?

The answer, without question, is yes.

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