— MLB (@MLB) July 28, 2017
It was everything up to that point that made the game so interesting and ultimately heartbreaking for the Tampa Bay Rays. In the bottom of the ninth with the Rays up a run, Gardner led off with a triple to left-center against Alex Colome, who then retired Clint Frazier on a grounder to third and Aaron Judge on a fly ball to right too shallow to score Gardner. Gary Sanchez then hit a routine grounder to shortstop, and for a brief moment it appeared Colome was going to escape with the save. But the Rays were in a shift, so Adeiny Hechavarria was positioned toward third and second baseman Tim Beckham was playing up the middle, and Hechavarria looked at Beckham and Beckham looked at Hechavarria, and neither actually went to field the ball and the game was tied. Remember that play when the New York Yankees beat out the Rays for a playoff spot by one win.
Before that, Chris Archer escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the sixth with strikeouts of Todd Frazier and Tyler Wade. Then there was manager Joe Girardi removing CC Sabathia in the top of the fifth when the Yankees were ahead 3-2. Sabathia was not happy. But Girardi's job is not to make Sabathia happy. His job is to help the Yankees win, and he now has the deepest bullpen in the game and he absolutely should use it like he did in this game when you're facing a team you're battling for the playoffs.
After a strikeout to start the inning, Sabathia had allowed two doubles and a walk. He'd thrown 86 pitches. Check out Sabathia's OPS allowed at this stage in games:
Pitches 1-25: .809
Pitches 26-50: .608
Pitches: 51-75: .510
Pitches 76-100: .793
So knowing Sabathia usually starts tiring at this point, Girardi went to Chad Green. Maybe you don't much about him, but Green has been one of the season's most dominant relievers, ranking seventh among relievers with at least 25 innings in lowest wOBA allowed. Brad Miller hit a two-run, pinch-hit double, so the move didn't work -- but it was the right decision. Green also served up a home run to Corey Dickerson in the sixth inning. The rest of the pen shut the Rays' offense down from there, with Aroldis Chapman going the final two innings.
That bullpen is why the Yankees can win the American League East. Look at where Yankees reliever ranks on that wOBA allowed list:
5. Adam Warren, .196
7. Chad Green, .206
12. Tommy Kahnle, .232
20. David Robertson, .245
66. Dellin Betances, .279
72. Aroldis Chapman, .282
The two "bad" relievers are Betances and Chapman, and they've combined to allow one home run in 54⅔ innings. This kind of depth is incredible, and while Sabathia didn't like being pulled two outs from a victory, Girardi is going to ride this crew hard down the stretch.
The Rays acquired Lucas Duda on Thursday and we'll see if the Red Sox add a bat as well, but in what should be a close three-team race, I like the bullpen to carry the Yankees to a division title ... with maybe some help from a new starting pitcher, because reports suggested the Rangers have decided to trade Yu Darvish:
As mentioned this morning, teams are convinced the Rangers will deal Yu Darvish.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 28, 2017
Source: Rangers very high on Dodgers OF prospect Alex Verdugo. "If the Dodgers will trade Verdugo, then Darvish is probably going to L.A."
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) July 28, 2017
With the barrage of home runs in 2017, a game like this was going to happen sooner or later. Milwaukee's Michael Blazek just happened to be the poor sap on the mound when the Washington Nationals hit a record-tying five home runs in one inning, including back-to-back-to-back-to-back shots from Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman:
— MLB (@MLB) July 27, 2017
Unfortunately for Blazek, a game he'd like to forget is a game he'll remember: After 108 career relief appearances in the majors, this was his first start. He became the ninth pitcher to allow six home runs in a game, the first in the National League since the immortal Bill Kirksieck in 1939 ... who did it in his first major league start (he'd make just one more). The Nationals would add two more home runs to tie the franchise record. Blazek, who was making a spot start for the injured Matt Garza, had the understatement of the year when he said, "That's not how I pictured it going."
Here's the complete list of teams who hit four consecutive home runs:
2017 Nationals: Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman (third inning)
1964 Twins: Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew (11th inning)
1963 Indians: Woodie Held, Pedro Ramos, Tito Francona, Larry Brown (sixth inning)
1961 Braves: Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Frank Thomas (seventh inning)
The bigger picture here for the Brewers is it feels like the season is on the brink. They've gone 2-9 over their past 11 games as they head home this weekend for a crucial series against the surging Cubs, who beat the White Sox again for their 11th win in 13 games since the All-Star break. The Brewers will start Brent Suter, Junior Guerra and Zach Davies against Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. One hopes they won't be using Hernan Perez to pitch in the series.
Bryce Harper MVP watch
Harper hit two home runs in Thursday's game, both off Blazek, and is now hitting .338/.439/.648 with 27 home runs and 79 RBIs, leading the National League in slugging percentage and OPS. Over his past 25 games, he's hitting .418/.509/.816. The MVP race is far from settled, but Harper has surged to the top of the leaderboard. He's putting to rest the question of whether the outlier season was his 2015 MVP year or his pedestrian 2016 campaign. It seems clear now that injuries affected him in 2016, and that -- if healthy -- Harper is going to contend for many MVP awards in his career.