Saturday night's early action featured five games with playoff implications, though four of them involved a playoff team battling a spoiler. Mets fans may feel slighted, but at first pitch, they were 6 1/2 games back of the second NL wild-card spot and would need to climb over Atlanta and Milwaukee. And the Nationals' playoff position is too secure, given their nine-game lead in the division, to include them in the scoreboard-watching.
1. Cleveland is probably not going to make the postseason.
The Cleveland Indians' position is tenuous, opening the night 4 1/2 games out of both first place and the wild card. They had a favorable pitching matchup, getting to face easily the Detroit Tigers' worst starter, Kyle Lobstein, and they jumped out quickly on Michael Brantley's two-run homer in the first. Danny Salazar, who has not lived up to the promise of 2013, or the potential of his potent fastball, gave the runs back in the third, though he picked off Ian Kinsler to end Detroit's rally (after coming very close to picking him off earlier in the at-bat).
Victor Martinez victimized Salazar with a homer an inning later, giving Detroit a one-run lead. Cleveland fans could be forgiven if they never want to see Martinez again -- he'd hit .349/.455/.698 against the Indians coming into the game, and this was his seventh homer against his division rivals this season. Still, the Indians worked their way back with two in the next half-inning, taking the lead, which they held all the way to the eighth, when Bryan Shaw, who leads the league in games pitched but who hadn't allowed an earned run in his last 9 1/3 innings (eight appearances), hung a slider that Alex Avila belted to right for his 11th homer of the year. Tigers closer Joe Nathan allowed the potential tying run to get into scoring position in the top of the ninth but made the lead stand up.
Given the Indians' playoff odds, games against pitchers of Lobstein's ilk are the ones they have to win. Of their 14 remaining games, just four (Sunday's bout against the Tigers and a three-game set hosting Kansas City) are against contenders. Still, if they lose their final contest against Detroit, you might well start the 10 count. Fortunately for their chances, they'll face the weirdly-not-good-anymore Justin Verlander on Sunday rather than Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello. The Indians have beaten Verlander twice already this year, and bloodied him a bit even when they've lost. They should have no fear.
2. The Cubs can beat the Pirates after all.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drew a Chicago Cubs team this weekend that is tough to read because the Cubs have turned over much of their roster by making trades and calling up youngsters. It's not clear, though, whether it's a better Cubs team even with Javier Baez (.174/.229/.387 despite nine homers in limited action), Arismendy Alcantara (.214/.265/.370), Jorge Soler (who actually is hitting -- .356/.367/.733 -- but had the night off), and the rest. The Pirates face Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Cincinnati the rest of the way, so even their non-contending opponents are no slouches, which means they need to beat the Cubs. They'd done fine at that so far, winning six straight back to June 21. But the Pirates couldn't hold it together against Cubs starter Felix Doubront, who has pitched exceedingly well since coming to Chicago in a trade with Boston, and the mighty boomstick of Baez, who smashed an early two-run homer to left that seemingly got out of the yard in about 0.4 seconds.
Pittsburgh retained its hold on the second wild card spot for now, but the Pirates would be advised to take it right to Jacob Turner in the series finale on Sunday. The last thing they want is to be in a weak position when they host a Milwaukee team that may finally be waking from its slumber come next weekend.
3. The Royals are making their duct tape team work.
The Kansas City Royals' starting lineup against the Boston Red Sox finished the game with just three players slugging over .400, and two of those are at .411 (Lorenzo Cain) and .408 (Salvador Perez). With Billy Butler having fallen into a well, Alex Gordon is the only flat-out threat in the lineup when Josh Willingham does not start, as he did not on Saturday. Somehow, the lineup, which featured Alcides Escobar's .307 OBP in the leadoff spot, was good enough to rack up seven runs against Rubby De La Rosa and Matt Barnes. (Steven Wright's knuckleball did hush the Royals' bats for three innings.)
The Royals have the worst run differential of any of the 80-plus-win American League teams at just +24, a number more befitting a team with around 75 wins, like the Indians or the Yankees. Still, half of the team's remaining games is against the mediocre (putting it charitably) White Sox. Smart money this late in the season is usually on the team with the division lead, but when that lead is just a half-game, and when the Royals are also positioned to take a wild-card spot even if they come up short in the AL Central, it would be understandable if Royals fans started making plans to be at the ballpark in October.
4. Milwaukee can't get two-hit by the Reds.
If Johnny Cueto were on the mound for the Cincinnati Reds and he threw a two-hitter, you'd tip your cap and move on. If Homer Bailey or Mat Latos did it, same story. This year, you might even give that same deference to Alfredo Simon. But the Milwaukee Brewers can't allow David Holmberg, a big lefty with underwhelming stuff and no record of missing bats in the majors or minors, to go six innings with just two hits allowed while they are making a playoff push.
This isn't deep stuff, but Milwaukee really picked the wrong time of year to stop scoring runs. The Brewers have put five or more runs on the board just once in their past 13 games, twice in their past 18. This isn't a team that relies on run prevention. If they're not scoring, they're not winning.
5. The Cardinals took care of business all the way up to the ninth inning.
Shelby Miller, not so unlike Danny Salazar, has disappointed relative to his massive expectations and excellent 2013 pitching line. His 3.83 ERA coming into Saturday's game is fine, but he hasn't missed bats (5.9 K/9) and has generally pitched more like a No. 4 starter than the front-line stud the St. Louis Cardinals hoped they could slot in alongside Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha to form the top of the rotation.
Miller may be waking up, though. Arbitrary endpoint alert! Since July 31, he's posted a 3.00 ERA, though he still struck out just six men per nine over that period. Saturday was more of the same: six innings, five hits allowed, just one run, and five strikeouts. Not dominating, but winning. That period coincides with a change to his pitch mix: Over the first four months of the year, Miller was throwing about 70 percent four-seam fastballs, but he's dropped that to 60 percent in August and September. If going away from his high-velocity fastball to pitches with more bend is what he needs to be a reliable postseason starter for the Cardinals, they'll surely take the explosiveness-for-effectiveness trade-off.
Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beaneball, the Oakland Athletics' blog on the SweetSpot network.