David Schoenfield, ESPN Senior Writer 61d

Real or not? Diamondbacks can upset Dodgers, Twins not hurt by history



The Arizona Diamondbacks clinched a playoff spot when the Milwaukee Brewers lost. Then they joined the postseason parade in style, clinching home-field advantage for the National League wild-card game on J.D. Martinez's walk-off hit, the first of his career:



Given Martinez's amazing run since coming over from the Tigers, it will be interesting to see how he fares in the MVP voting. In 57 games with Arizona, he has 27 home runs and 58 RBIs. Compare his numbers to a couple of others players who had monster partial seasons after a midseason trade:

I suspect he'll get some votes, but it might be difficult to crack the top 10 with a deep pool of strong individual seasons. As awesome as he has been, many voters will factor in the entire season and leave him off their ballot, which I think is fair.

The other interesting thing about the Diamondbacks clinching is it doesn't feel like much of a surprise since they've been so consistent all season. They got off to a 6-1 start -- remember that big Opening Day win? Fernando Rodney gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth to the Giants, but Arizona rallied with two runs off Mark Melancon in the bottom of the inning. The Diamondbacks took three of four from San Francisco and then swept Cleveland and finished 17-11 in April. Their only below-.500 month was July, when they went 10-14 -- although they still outscored their opponents by 19 runs.

But the Diamondbacks getting here is a surprise! Look at our preseason predictions on ESPN: Nobody picked the D-backs to make the playoffs. A big, fat 0-for-35. I checked the FanGraphs predictions: Only two of 53 staff members picked the Diamondbacks to make the playoffs. Of course, many expected the Diamondbacks to make the playoffs last season, which ended with the demise of the Tony La Russa/Dave Stewart era. So that's another reason it doesn't feel so surprising; we thought they'd be decent a year ago and it's not like they made wholesale fixes in the offseason. Still, kudos to the players, manager Torey Lovullo and first-year GM Mike Hazen. Pretty good first season.

Their biggest key: starting pitching. Last year, Arizona's rotation had a 5.19 ERA, 29th in the majors. This year it's 3.59, third in the majors behind the Dodgers and Indians.

A key there has been stability. They did lose Shelby Miller to Tommy John surgery after four starts, but the top five guys have been healthy and started 140 of the team's 156 games -- and remember that Zack Godley didn't join the rotation for good until May 10. Taijuan Walker missed about a month with a blister problem and Robbie Ray missed a few starts after getting hit in the head by a line drive, but nobody has had an arm issue.

Meanwhile, the odds now favor the Diamondbacks playing the Rockies in the wild-card game. The Rockies have been shut out three times in their past five games, but they beat the Padres on Sunday and the Brewers and Cardinals lost, so the Rockies' lead is two games over Milwaukee and 2½ over the Cardinals. The closing schedules for each team:

Colorado: Marlins (3), Dodgers (3)

Milwaukee: Reds (3), at Cardinals (3)

St. Louis: Cubs (4), Brewers (3)

FiveThirtyEight gives the Rockies a 75 percent chance, the Brewers 14 percent and the Cardinals 10 percent.

We'll get more opportunity to discuss this later, but it seems clear the Diamondbacks would have the best chance of the wild-card teams of upsetting the Dodgers and moving on to the National League Championship Series. Even starting Zack Greinke in the wild-card game means Ray would likely start the division series opener and he has owned the Dodgers this season. Stay tuned.

A Twins killing. You know who else wasn't expected to make the playoffs? The Twins! ESPN went 0-for-35. FanGraphs went 0-for-53. That's 0-for-88. You can't predict baseball.

The Twins, however, all but wrapped up the second wild card in the American League, crushing the Tigers in a four-game sweep at Comerica Park, including a 10-4 win on Sunday (the Twins outscored the Tigers 39-12 in the series). It has been a dramatic turnaround from July 31, when Twins management considered the standings and the team's performance and traded away left-hander Jaime Garcia and reliever Brandon Kintzler.

Through July 31: 50-53, minus-72 run differential

Since July 31: 32-21, plus-96 run differential

Offense

Before July 31: .251/.328/.406, 4.55 runs per game

After July 31: .275/.346/.487, 6.06 runs per game

Defense

Before July 31: .275/.342/.462, 5.25 runs per game

After July 31: .251/.309/.419, 4.25 runs per game

Not only have the Twins played well, particularly at the plate where they've scored more runs than any team in the majors since Aug. 1, but none of their wild-card competitors have played well. The records of the other contenders since the beginning of August:

Angels: 26-23

Rangers: 26-24

Orioles: 24-28

Rays: 22-27

Mariners: 21-28

Royals: 21-30

That's a lot of bad baseball, while they Twins have played great. This means they are likely headed to a wild-card game at Yankee Stadium, which means we'll be hearing how the Twins lost the American League Division Series to the Yankees in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 -- winning just two games and losing the last nine games in a row. Enough with that already; whatever happened in 2004 or 2009 has zero relevance to what will happen in 2017. And, yes, the Twins will have a chance to beat the Yankees. It's one game. Anything can happen. And, yes, I'm aware the Twins went to Yankee Stadium before the Detroit series and lost all three games, while scoring just six runs. One game. All the pressure is on the Yankees. The Twins are smashing baseballs. Flip a coin.

Cubs all but wrap up NL Central. It was a riveting four-game series in Milwaukee between the Cubs and Brewers, with the first three games all going 10 innings. But the Cubs ended up taking three of four with Jose Quintana dominating with a three-hit shutout on Sunday, the Cubs' first complete-game shutout since Kyle Hendricks in August and the first with at least 10 strikeouts since Jake Arrieta in 2015 (the most recent Cubs pitcher besides Arrieta with a shutout and 10-plus K's was Carlos Zambrano way back in 2008 when he no-hit the Astros).

Quintana's Game Score of 90 was just the eighth of 90 or higher this season -- Dylan Bundy (a one-hitter with 12 strikeouts) and Edinson Volquez (his no-hitter with 10 K's) share the highest score at 95. In fact, one of the effects of increased offense this season has been the decline in dominating starts. The last season with a high Game Score of just 95 was back in 2006. Here is a little table outlining the number of 90 and 95 games in recent years:



Things peaked in 2015, which was the year we had seven no-hitters, including two from Max Scherzer. His 104 Game Score that year is the second-highest ever for a nine-inning start (behind Kerry Wood's 105). Clayton Kershaw's 102 the year before is third-highest. Even though strikeouts are still going up, more home runs in 2017 means it's harder for pitchers to throw those high-strikeout, low-run games for nine innings that you need for a high Game Score.

Quintana, by the way, has been really good of late. In his past five starts, he has 40 strikeouts, four walks and two home runs allowed. Let's put it this way: He's throwing a lot better than Jon Lester. Cubs manager Joe Maddon will have some tough choices in lining up his playoff rotation.

Umm, about that AL MVP race ...: Here's Aaron Judge hitting his 47th home run:

He later added No. 48 and is just one behind Mark McGwire's rookie mark of 49. He has 11 home runs in his past 19 games with 23 RBIs -- more than he had in July and August combined (20). Your WAR update entering Sunday:

Baseball-Reference: Jose Altuve 8.2, Judge 7.1

FanGraphs: Altuve 7.2, Judge 7.0

Altuve has 105 runs and 80 RBIs. Judge has 122 runs and 105 RBIs. Altuve has the edge on defense and on the bases. Altuve still seems like the favorite, but it's a lot closer than it was three weeks ago.

Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw lock up Cy Young Awards. Maybe. Kluber allowed two runs in seven innings in a 4-2 win over the Mariners, serving up a two-run homer and even walking two for the first time since Aug. 13. The runs were unearned since the home run came after a two-out error, but he struck out 10 and improved to 18-4 with a 2.27 ERA.

Kershaw also improved to 18-4 with a one-run, six-strikeout effort against the Giants. He had a couple so-so games since his return from the DL, so the Dodgers have to be encouraged about him throwing 70 strikes in 93 pitches over eight innings.

One thing to consider about Kershaw. Look who he has faced in his five outings since coming off the DL: Padres, Rockies (in L.A.), Giants, Phillies, Giants again. Hmm, three of those teams stink and the other can't hit on the road. In those five games, Kershaw has a 26.7 percent strikeout rate and has allowed a .682 OPS. Before landing on the DL: 31.1 percent K rate, .572 OPS allowed. It's a small sample size and I didn't watch Sunday's game, but given the weak competition he has faced, my snap judgment is he hasn't pitched quite as well. That doesn't mean he won't turn it up when it matters, but if he ends up facing the Diamondbacks, well, Martinez and Paul Goldschmidt are a lot scarier than Kelby Tomlinson and Pablo Sandoval.

Goodbye, Joey Bats. Jose Bautista will go down as one of the best and most popular players in Blue Jays history. He's fifth in career WAR behind Dave Stieb, Roy Halladay, Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado. He's had a terrible season, hitting .203, and it seems he likely played his final home game on Sunday as everyone seems to believe the Jays won't be bringing him back. Manager John Gibbons pulled him in the top of the ninth as the crowd gave him a big ovation:

It's even possible nobody signs him next year, given that nobody except the Jays seemed to desire him last offseason. If that's the case, it has been a remarkable career for a guy the sport once essentially gave up on.

And then there was this:

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