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Real or not? As Chris Sale stumbles, AL East race isn't over yet

Hard to argue with this:

The Blue Jays blasted four home runs off Chris Sale in a 9-4 victory over the Red Sox, which pretty much clinches the Cy Young Award for Corey Kluber. His lead over Sale in ERA is now 2.27 to 2.90, he holds a sizable edge in Baseball-Reference WAR (7.9 to 6.2), and he has one more start, on Saturday, to go for his 19th victory. Kluber has the momentum with his dynamic final two months, while Sale has alternated good starts with bad ones down the stretch.

Anyway, let's talk about the American League East race, which is suddenly interesting again as the Yankees won to cut their deficit to three games with five remaining. This sets up a potentially fascinating scenario for Sale and the Red Sox: When does he make his next start?

Given a normal four days of rest, Sale would start Sunday, but the American League Division Series begins next Thursday, so if he starts Sunday, that would mean pitching the Division Series opener on three days' rest. Obviously, the best-case scenario for the Red Sox is clinching before that final game on Sunday, in which case Sale probably doesn't start and takes an extended break before the playoffs.

If the Red Sox don't clinch before Sunday, it sets up a couple possibilities:

(1) They're up a game or tied and start Sale, hoping to clinch the division and avoid a tiebreaker game with the Yankees on Monday.

(2) They don't use Sale at all, saving him in case there is a tiebreaker game on Monday, the reasoning being that you want your ace going in that game in order to provide the best chance of avoiding the wild-card game.

I'd say the first scenario is the most likely. If you win the division, having Sale start Game 2 of the Division Series isn't a worst-case scenario, since he could pitch Game 5 on regular rest, given the two off days in the playoff schedule. You run the risk of not having him available for either a tiebreaker game or wild-card game, but you should be going all out to avoid either scenario.

That's probably the plan and why the Red Sox aligned the rotation to give Sale the possibility of pitching if needed on Sunday. They're noncommittal right now because there is no reason to commit.

Scoreboard watching in the NL wild-card race. So the Rockies won, the Brewers won, and the Cardinals won. The Rockies remain 1.5 up on the Brewers and 2.5 up on the Cardinals. Wednesday's starters are Jon Gray for the Rockies, Brandon Woodruff for the Brewers and Michael Wacha for the Cardinals (facing John Lackey on ESPN). Highlights from the three games:

  • The Brewers had an early 6-2 lead over the Reds, holding on for a 7-6 win. Craig Counsell pulled Zach Davies after four innings, which was the right call: He'd given up six hits and had no K's. It's basically must-win for the Brewers, so he rode his top three relievers the rest of the way. Josh Hader was dominant for 2⅔ scoreless innings -- registering six K's -- before tiring and giving up a home run and two more baserunners. He threw 49 pitches. Counsell hasn't been using him on back-to-back days, but with that many pitches he may not be ready again until Friday.

  • Tyler Anderson threw a gem for the Rockies in a 6-0 win over the Marlins: seven scoreless innings, five strikeouts and 10 ground ball outs. Remember this about the Rockies: Gray, Anderson and Chad Bettis were supposed to be their top three starters coming out of spring training, but they've made only 43 combined starts. The rookies were great early on, but now manager Bud Black is counting on these three to get them to October. Since coming off the DL, Anderson has delivered three scoreless outings in four starts. Oh, and Nolan Arenado added a two-run homer, aiding his MVP case.

  • The Cardinals prevented the Cubs from clinching a playoff berth with an 8-7 win, although the Cubs made it interesting picking up four runs in the eighth inning and getting the go-ahead runs on base in the ninth before Juan Nicasio finally fanned Javier Baez to end it.

Bryce Harper returns. Jerry Crasnick has the report from Philly as Harper played his first game since Aug. 12. He went 0-for-2 with a walk, but had to run in the outfield and looked fine.

What I found intriguing, however, is that Dusty Baker hit Harper second. If you've been reading this column all season, you know I've picked on Dusty for his lineup, particularly for not moving Anthony Rendon up to the two-hole. Here's what I mean. The Nationals' wOBA rankings by lineup position:

1st: .326 (19th)

2nd: .339 (21st)

3rd: .411 (3rd)

4th: .394 (3rd)

5th: .386 (1st)

6th: .360 (5th)

7th: .295 (25th)

8th: .323 (9th)

As it turns out, Baker isn't trying a new lineup. He merely hit Harper second to get him an extra at-bat if needed. In other words, it seems like the playoff lineup will probably be the one he used most of the season -- Harper third, Ryan Zimmerman cleanup, Daniel Murphy fifth and Rendon sixth. Hitting Harper second would actually be inspired -- Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, for example, are all batting second. In the Nationals' case, hitting Howie Kendrick or Jayson Werth second means a weaker hitter gets an extra plate appearance instead of the guys coming after him. That's not inspired thinking.

A few words about BABIP. I tweeted a joke out on Monday that Aaron Judge is the first member of the 50-120-100-120-200 club -- home runs, runs, RBIs, walks and strikeouts. As one reader responded, we now know Adam Dunn was merely the poor man's Judge. Reader Craig Kaufman suggested that Judge, with all those strikeouts, will be a career .250 hitter and has relied on an unsustainable BABIP.

I think I'd disagree with that assessment. Judge has a .358 average on balls in play, which ranks seventh among qualified hitters as I write this midway through Tuesday's action. As hard as Judge hits the ball, I don't find that number unsustainable. Joey Votto owns a career .354 BABIP. Mike Trout is at .356. Paul Goldschmidt is at .355. Corey Seager is at .357. Some other guys with more limited playing time are over .350, and guys with longer careers such as Miguel Cabrera and Joe Mauer are over .340. So in that context, Judge's .358 BABIP doesn't feel lucky.

Now, BABIP ignores home runs. As Joe Sheehan tweeted back to me, "There is no basis for excluding home runs in analyzing hitters' skill on contact." Judge, of course, has 50 home runs. Here are the leaders in batting average on contact:

Judge: .462

Avisail Garcia: .420

Tommy Pham: .420

Domingo Santana: .416

Charlie Blackmon: .415

Goldschmidt: .413

Marcell Ozuna: .408

Jose Altuve: .407

Tim Beckham: .407

Justin Upton: .405

Judge has a decisive lead there. Is .462 extreme? Here are the yearly leaders since 2010:

2016: Freddie Freeman, .426

2015: Harper, .441

2014: Stanton, .420

2013: Chris Davis, .434

2012: Trout, .433

2011: Matt Kemp, .440

2010: Josh Hamilton, .440

This is also known as the Strong Dudes Who Hit The Ball Really Hard Club. Judge still leads, and he's arguably the biggest and strongest of them all, although I guess we need to see him and Stanton in a cage match to know for sure. Anyway, the point is: We've never seen a guy like Judge. I don't necessarily see signs of "luck" in his results. We know he can hit .280 even while striking out 200 times, which seems crazy, except it's happening.

The scary thing is what would happen if Judge can find a way to eliminate 30 strikeouts. Give him 12 extra hits and he's hitting .306. Look, maybe next season six of his home runs land on the warning track and six bleeders are caught. Maybe the baseball is suddenly less lively. Turn a dozen hits into outs and he's still a .260 hitter. To turn him into a .250 hitter, you'd need to take away 17 hits. I don't see that happening, unless pitchers find some new way to exploit his approach that they didn't discover this year. Not everybody can be compared to normal predictive results, so let's appreciate and enjoy what Judge has accomplished.

Catch of the day. Just off the DL, Aaron Hicks made one of the better catches of the season, robbing Wilson Ramos of a first-inning grand slam:

Impressive. But was it even the best catch of the day? Byron Buxton did this:

Buxton is second to Mookie Betts among outfielders in defensive runs saved at plus-24 runs (entering Tuesday). But Hicks has been just as good on a per-inning basis, with plus-14 runs in just over half the number of innings.

The Twins beat the Indians on Brian Dozier's three-run homer in the eighth inning off Bryan Shaw. Their magic number is down to one. Good job, Twins!