- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
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:
Milwaukee's remaining schedule:
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.
• 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.
• 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.
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.
1,044: career strikeouts for Jon Lester, passes Bruce Hurst for most all-time by a Red Sox left-handed pitcher.
Dings and dents
Moves, deals and decisions
NL East notes
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
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.
• The Astros generated a shutout, and they are moving toward 50 wins.
NL West notes
AL East notes
• 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.
AL Central notes
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).
AL West notes
• The Rangers took care of business.
• Michael Silverman writes that Red Sox fans should put this season in perspective.
• A Marlins prospect has had a great season, writes Joe Capozzi.
• 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.
4dJeff Banister, Special to ESPN.com
5dBrayan Pena, Special to ESPN.com
8dMatt Buschmann, Special to ESPN.com
9dA.J. Ellis, Special for ESPN.com
10dRob Manfred, Special to ESPN.com
10dSean Doolittle, Special to ESPN.com