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How Phils, Brewers got back in the race

9/12/2012
If Roy Halladay and the Phillies' starters pitch like they can, the playoffs are still within reach. AP Photos

The Crazy Stuff bar was set very high last year, when the Boston lineup of stars collapsed and the Braves' bullpen crumbled. As Evan Longoria prepared for his season-ending at-bat last year, he looked at a photographer near the Rays' on-deck circle and said, "Watch this." What we saw was something we had never seen before.

But now that the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers are both back to within four games of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL wild-card race, with 23 days left in the regular season, their climb no longer qualifies as Crazy Stuff; their climb is very plausible.

During the next eight days, the Phillies play the Miami Marlins -- a team that some evaluators believe has stopped playing -- and then the Houston Astros and New York Mets. A lot of teams are starved for starting pitching this time of year, plugging and filling their rotation, and the Phillies are running out Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and a red-hot Kyle Kendrick. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has allowed two earned runs since July 21. Heck, the Phillies might be a wild-card leader, along with the Atlanta Braves, by the start of next week.

Rather than asking whether the Brewers have enough to get to the top, maybe the more appropriate question is: Have they been a good team all along, weighed down only by an absurdly poor bullpen? And now that John Axford has rediscovered his command, that problem is solved, and the Brewers are finding their level. In his past nine appearances, Axford has surrendered one hit and no earned runs, in support of what continues to be an absurdly good offense.

Before the trade deadline, Brewers manager Doug Melvin spoke about how well he feels the Brewers are set up with their position players, with Corey Hart settled in nicely at first base, with Aramis Ramirez having a very strong season and, of course, with Ryan Braun. Rickie Weeks has shown the toughness that others in the organization really admire, with the way he has battled out of a brutal slump. His OPS, month by month:

April: .680

May: .497

June: .654

July: .913

August: .772

September: .992

The only teams that have plated more runs this season than Milwaukee are the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees.

Milwaukee's remaining schedule:

Wednesday: Braves

Sept. 14-16: home vs. New York Mets

Sept. 18-20: at Pittsburgh Pirates

Sept. 21-24: at Washington Nationals

Sept. 25-27: at Cincinnati Reds

Sept. 28-30: home vs. Houston Astros

Oct. 1-3: home vs. San Diego Padres

A major question about the Brewers-Reds series -- which could be crucial -- is what kind of mode Cincinnati is in by then. The Reds' magic number for wrapping up the NL Central stands at 10, and they likely will clinch just before that series is played. Dusty Baker could use the last days of the regular season to prepare his team for the postseason by resting some of his everyday guys and his relievers; they just shut down reliever Aroldis Chapman. There won't be any need for the Reds to push.

Can the Brewers follow through with this surge? Can the Phillies? Of course they can, as we know from 1914 and 1951 and 1978 and 2007 and 2011.

Watch this.

Roy Halladay and the Phillies are back to .500, writes Ryan Lawrence. Marco Estrada had a really nice outing. Corey Hart is dealing with some pain that he'll probably have to play through.

Elsewhere

• The Oakland Athletics have stopped losing: That victory Tuesday was their 11th consecutive on the road.

From ESPN Stats & Info, how Dan Straily won with his slider:

A) Straily's slider was dominant. The Angels missed on 16 of their 22 swings (73 percent) and struck out seven times against the pitch, six of which were swinging.

B) Straily's 16 swings-and-misses on sliders are tied for the second most by any starter this season and the most by anyone against the Angels in the past four seasons.

C) Straily mixed up his pitch selection. He threw a career-high 44 sliders, 20 more than the last time he faced the Angels, last month.

D) He threw 14 sliders to lefties, three more than he had thrown to lefties in his first three starts combined.

E) Straily used his slider in the zone and as a chase pitch. He got three outs on sliders in the zone and six outs out of the zone.

F) Angels hitters chased 15 sliders out of the zone, missing on 14 of them. Predictably, Mike Trout was the only Angels hitter with a hit against Straily's slider.

Most swings-and-misses on sliders in single game this season

Francisco Liriano: 17 vs. Athletics

Dan Straily: 16 vs. Angels

Mat Latos: 16 vs. Rockies

Mat Latos: 16 vs. Brewers

The Oakland bullpen saved the day, writes Susan Slusser.

Brandon McCarthy got to go home.

David Price is ready to go.

• If the Toronto Blue Jays work out some sort of arrangement with the Boston Red Sox that paves the way for John Farrell to become Boston's next manager, there is a perception within some corners that Torey Lovullo would be the front-runner to replace Farrell in Toronto.

• Bobby Valentine is the best man for the Red Sox job, he says.

John Lannan will take Stephen Strasburg's spot in the rotation on Wednesday.

By the numbers

From ESPN Stats & Info

11: straight road wins for the Athletics, tied for their second longest streak since the franchise moved to Oakland in 1968.

16: losses for Ubaldo Jimenez, most in MLB this season.

30: straight saves for Joe Nathan, longest streak in MLB this season.

81: RBIs for Kyle Seager, who is the third second-year player in Mariners history with 80-plus RBIs in a season (1990 Ken Griffey Jr., 1985 Jim Presley).

1,044: career strikeouts for Jon Lester, passes Bruce Hurst for most all-time by a Red Sox left-handed pitcher.

Dings and dents

1. Michael Morse is having some tests on his wrist.

2. Joe Mauer was out with back spasms.

3. Anthony Rizzo hurt his shoulder.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Adam LaRoche wants to stay with the Nationals.

2. Kevin Gregg was cut and was disappointed.

3. Jed Lowrie could be back in the Houston lineup on Wednesday.

NL East notes

Jordan Zimmermann got it done.

From ESPN Stats & Info: Giancarlo Stanton hit his 34th home run of the season. That is tied for the second most homers in a season in Marlins history. Gary Sheffield hit 42 home runs for the Marlins in 1996.

Most homers in single season in Marlins history

42: Gary Sheffield, 1996

34: Giancarlo Stanton, 2012

34: Giancarlo Stanton, 2011

34: Miguel Cabrera, 2007

R.A. Dickey didn't get a lot of run support.

NL Central notes

• The Pirates played poorly and lost again.

From ESPN Stats & Info: The Pirates have yet to recover from their 19-inning game, going 5-15 and scoring 3.7 runs per game in their past 20 games. After its 19-inning game last season, Pittsburgh also went 5-15 in its next 20 games and finished the year under .500.

Mike Leake was The Man for the Cincinnati Reds.

• The Astros generated a shutout, and they are moving toward 50 wins.

NL West notes

• The Giants' magic number is down to 15. Their bullpen has been contributing solid stuff, Henry Schulman writes.

• The Arizona Diamondbacks won, and Kirk Gibson says they're in the playoff race.

• The Los Angeles Dodgers couldn't generate any offense.

• You can't stop the Padres, you can only hope to contain them and Chase Headley.

AL East notes

• The Baltimore Orioles won, but it appears they lost ace Jason Hammel to a knee injury. Hammel will see an orthopedist on Wednesday, writes Dan Connolly.

• The Yankees lost in Boston and fell back into a tie for first place. The Yankees may be under pressure to execute a big-money signing, and New York's spending guarantees nothing, writes Joel Sherman.

• The Tampa Bay Rays lost ground in the wild-card race, Marc Topkin writes.

AL Central notes

• The Detroit Tigers got a badly needed victory, with Doug Fister stepping up.

From ESPN Stats & Info, how Fister beat the White Sox:

A) Put hitters away: White Sox hitters were 0-for-12 with six strikeouts in at-bats ending with two strikes.

B) Three of Fister's strikeouts came on his fastball and three on his curveball; it's only the second time in 91 career starts that he had at least three strikeouts on both his fastball and curveball.

C) Fister threw 26 curveballs Tuesday, his most in six career starts against the White Sox and his fourth most this season. Hitters missed on seven of their 14 swings against the pitch Tuesday.

D) Fister threw 20 of his 26 curveballs (77 percent) Tuesday down in the zone, his highest percentage in his career (min. 20 curveballs thrown).

The Tigers loosened up, writes Drew Sharp. Avisail Garcia has been really impressive, writes Lynn Henning.

• Chicago's lead was trimmed, but there is some good news: Adam Dunn is close to coming back.

• The Kansas City Royals frolicked around the bases.

• The Minnesota Twins lost a lopsided game.

• Defensive mistakes wrecked the Cleveland Indians.

AL West notes

• The Rangers took care of business.

• The Angels' rally fell short, writes Mike DiGiovanna. Mike Scioscia has a tough decision with Mark Trumbo.

• Kyle Seager mashed his 18th homer, and the Seattle Mariners edged a little closer to .500.

Other stuff

• Sam Mellinger writes that Luke Hochevar is a hard-headed loser.

• Indians GM Chris Antonneti talked about Manny Acta's status and Chris Perez's comments.

• Defense is an important part of Adam Eaton's preparation.

Dexter Fowler is flying high.

• Michael Silverman writes that Red Sox fans should put this season in perspective.

Brandon Morrow got the Stephen Strasburg treatment two months ago, writes Richard Griffin.

• A Marlins prospect has had a great season, writes Joe Capozzi.

• Evan Grant wonders how much desire Roy Oswalt has to still pitch.

• A Pirate and a Red cleared the air, Bill Brink writes.

• Ticket prices for Yankees-Red Sox games have plunged.

• Joe Nathan had to wear a Cowboys jersey, against his will.

And today will be better than yesterday.