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It’s practically a running gag among baseball executives:
Question: How long will the wild-card playoff remain a one-game knockout?
Answer: Until the Yankees get eliminated in such fashion.
The Yankees would scream. The networks would seethe. And Commissioner Bud Selig might think, “Uh, why did I just allow the sport’s No. 1 attraction to go down in the blink of an eye?”
Well, don’t look now, but Selig might be asking that question by the end of the week.
With four games remaining, the Yankees and Orioles are tied for first place in the AL East. The loser almost certainly will earn a wild card and most likely play the Athletics — assuming, of course, there are no tiebreakers.
If the Yankees maintained their lead over the A’s, currently one game, they would host the wild-card knockout. If the Athletics finished ahead or the teams ended up with the same record, the Yankees would need to fly cross-country to play the game in Oakland because the two clubs tied in the season series, but the A’s currently boast a superior record within their own division.
Some fun, eh?
All of it will be possible if the Yankees fail to win the division.
THE AL CENTRAL: MEDIOCRITY REWARDED
As the example with the Yankees shows, the new postseason format greatly increases the motivation for winning a division title.
One problem: Neither AL Central contender is particularly deserving of the benefit — a bye into the best-of-five Division Series.
The division-leading Tigers hold only the seventh-best record in the 14-team AL, the second-place White Sox only the eighth best.
The wild-card game will feature two teams with better records than either of those clubs — better records, despite playing schedules tougher than the Tigers and White Sox face in the AL Central.
Put the qualifiers with the two worst records in the wild-card game. Yes, winning a weak division would be less meaningful, but such a team hardly would be in position to argue — it would be lucky to reach the postseason in the first place.
THE ORIOLES’ SECRET WEAPONS
Much has been made of the fact that only one Orioles pitcher, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, will finish with more than 20 starts. But two Baltimore starters who became relievers, right-handers Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta, are proving to be major forces in their bullpen.
One rival official marveled that Hunter reached 100 mph in a recent outing against the Red Sox, according to brooksbaseball.net. Hunter, entering Saturday night, was averaging 95.3 mph as a reliever after averaging 90.8 mph as a starter — a jump of 4.5 mph. Not surprisingly, his swing-and-miss percentage had increased while his opponents’ slugging percentage had fallen.
Arrieta, meanwhile, is showing even more dramatic improvement in those two departments — but unlike Hunter, he actually is throwing fewer fastballs as a reliever and using his curveball and slider far more often — nearly 50 percent of the time, in fact.
How is that working out for Arrieta?
The only AL reliever with a higher miss rate on breaking balls (minimum 80 thrown) is the Tigers’ Al Alburquerque, according to pitch f/x data.
The Orioles, then, will not necessarily need their starters to pitch deep into games if they reach the postseason. They can go to Hunter or Arrieta early and use either as a bridge to their lights-out late-inning corps.
WHEN THE DUSTY SETTLES
For all you conspiracy theorists, here’s a juicy one. Only problem is, it’s not going to happen.
The theory goes like this: The Reds balk at awarding Dusty Baker a new contract. Baker becomes a managerial free agent. And his old friend from the early 1980s in LA, Magic Johnson, woos him to manage the Dodgers.
Point: Baker played for the Dodgers from 1976 to ’83 and worked with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti in San Francisco.
Point: The Dodgers’ new ownership has proved to be rather unpredictable and star-driven.
Counterpoint: Colletti already is on record as saying that Don Mattingly will return as manager.
Mattingly recently accepted responsibility for the Dodgers’ late-season swoon in an interview with T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times. The Dodgers, though, are committed to the manager through 2013.
Perhaps the better question is whether Baker, given his recent health problems, will even want a long-term contract at age 63.
The answer is yes.
Baker, according to a friend, definitely wants to continue managing, but recognizes that he will need to take better care of himself.
Barring a major change, his best deal probably will be with the Reds.
COMPETITION FOR TORII?
Angels owner Arte Moreno all but promised to re-sign potential free-agent right fielder Torii Hunter last week, telling Roger Lodge of KLAA, “I’ll tell you what, if we don’t figure out a way to re-sign him, we’re going to get hung, aren’t we?”
Well, maybe not hung. But if Moreno is serious about keeping Hunter, he might want to act quickly.
Hunter, 37, lives in Prosper, Texas, a suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The Rangers long have had interest in acquiring him. And considering that both outfielder Josh Hamilton and catcher Mike Napoli could leave the Rangers as free agents — and right fielder Nelson Cruz is free the offseason after that — the team almost certainly will look for offensive help.
A trade for a younger slugger such as the Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton is more likely than a short-term signing of Hunter. But at the very least, the Rangers could pursue Hunter to drive up the price for the Angels, their chief division rival.
It’s the AL West version of the old Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, which currently is in a dormant state.
The Angels took free-agent left-hander C.J. Wilson from the Rangers last offseason without much resistance.
The Rangers, if the Angels dawdle, could become a threat for Hunter.
THE DUNNER VOWS IMPROVEMENT
It sounds counterintuitive, but the White Sox’s Adam Dunn expects to hit better next season in part due to the oblique problem that sidelined him earlier this month.
The injury forced Dunn to change his approach; he didn’t want to swing and miss and hurt himself further, so he took a less violent approach, went up the middle, went to left-center.
He didn’t necessarily hit home runs, but he hit the ball hard, so Dunn plans to study before-and-after videotape this offseason and “fine-tune” his approach.
“There’s something there. I’m going to find it,” he said. “And when I do, we’ve got action.”
Only Dunn could hit 41 home runs and produce an .811 OPS while batting .205 and striking out 215 times.
WHITE SOX PERSPECTIVE
The White Sox have lost nine of 11 since enjoying a three-game lead over the Tigers on Sept. 18. They would be immensely disappointed to lose the division. Still, the team’s season must be considered a success.
Consider all the good that happened.
Robin Ventura established himself as a manager. Dunn, right fielder Alex Rios and right-hander Jake Peavy enjoyed bounce-back seasons. Lefty Chris Sale developed into an ace, and a number of rookie pitchers emerged as valuable parts.
All of this occurred despite the loss of left-hander John Danks, who did not pitch after May 19 due to a shoulder injury.
The Tigers created an opening for the White Sox by underachieving for much of the season. The White Sox likely will fail to take advantage of that opening. But in the end, they did far better than most expected.
The Rays are likely to fall short in their quest to reach the postseason for the fourth time in five years. But after fading earlier this month, it’s amazing they even got back into contention.
On Sept. 20, entering the ninth inning against the Red Sox, the Rays faced a 6-1/2-game deficit with 12 to play in the race for the second wild card.
The Rays scored six runs in the ninth, securing the second of eight straight victories, a run that they since have extended to 9-1.
Their resurgence coincided with manager Joe Maddon’s decision to make batting practice optional and allow players to arrive at the park later. The players relaxed, and returned to their usual September form.
A three-game deficit with four to play likely will be too much for even the Rays to overcome in the wild-card race. But how about this? They are tied with the Yankees for the best run differential in the AL, and second best in the majors behind the Nationals.
No team has allowed fewer runs than the Rays. But third baseman Evan Longoria missed more than three months, hitters such as first baseman Carlos Pena, designated hitter Luke Scott and right fielder Matt Joyce had disappointing seasons, and the offense just wasn’t good enough.
LONGORIA’S LONG RECOVERY
The partially torn left hamstring that sidelined Longoria is unusual for a baseball player, and he and the Rays are intent on making sure that he is right by next Opening Day.
Longoria says that Rays trainer Ron Porterfield has spoken with the Rangers’ trainers about Nelson Cruz, who had a similar issue, and even the Chicago Bears’ trainers about running back Matt Forte, who also had the problem. Porterfield says he has talked with other NFL trainers as well.
While Longoria says his hamstring is much better than it was a month ago, he still feels a knot in the muscle when he makes certain movements. The pain is acute for 3-4 minutes, then goes away.
AND FINALLY …
I’m not in love with relievers as Cy Young candidates, but if the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel deserves mention in the NL, then what about the Rays’ Fernando Rodney in the AL?
Rodney is second in the league with a career-high 46 saves and first among relievers with a 0.62 ERA. With 1-1/3 more scoreless innings, he will fall under Dennis Eckersley’s record ERA for a reliever — 0.61 in 1990.
Heck, even if Rodney fails to break that mark, he is likely to join Eck as the only pitchers to finish a season with more than 40 saves and a sub-1.00 ERA.
The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, as great as he is, never has had a sub-1.00 ERA.