Clayton Kershaw faces big challenge as Dodgers blow lead in ninth

I watched Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner duel at Dodger Stadium on Monday with Felix Hernandez on my mind. I'm finishing up my vacation in Seattle and Hernandez was just demoted to the bullpen with a 5.73 ERA, obviously big news in Seattle with the Mariners battling for a playoff spot. Hernandez is only 32, but it's pretty clear his days as a starter are permanently in jeopardy, barring some miracle turnaround or complete conversion to successful junkballer.

Kershaw is now 30, which seems impossible. Bumgarner is 29. They're still very good pitchers, among the best starters in the game when they've been able to take the mound this season. But Hernandez was still going strong at 29, as well; he went 18-9 and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting. So appreciate these two legends while you can and relish every time they go up against each other. You never know about the future.

Anyway, this was another classic duel between the two, as Bumgarner allowed two runs in six innings and Kershaw one run over eight. Dodgers fans I noticed on Twitter called it Kershaw's best performance of the season, and it came right when the team most needed it. The Dodgers had lost three straight one-run games to the Rockies, two in walk-off fashion, and with Kenley Jansen out for perhaps the next month after suffering from an irregular heartbeat, the march to a sixth straight National League West title is no sure thing.

This game didn't have a happy ending for Kershaw. The TV cameras showed him pacing around the dugout in the bottom of the eighth. He had thrown 110 pitches, but it certainly looked like he wanted the opportunity to finish it off. That wasn't going to happen. Kershaw had thrown 100 pitches in just five of his first 17 starts, with a season high of 112. Managers are slaves to pitch counts and times through the order, even with Clayton Kershaw; forget the eye test and the Dodgers' lack of a closer.

Scott Alexander got the call, but Chase d'Arnaud and Buster Posey singled with one out -- singles can be good things, kids! -- and then Alexander hit Austin Slater in the left shin to load the bases with two outs (which actually was a break for the Dodgers at the time, since a wild pitch would have tied the game). But Nick Hundley then laced a two-run single into right-center, then some other bad stuff happened and the Giants won 5-2.

Kershaw did his job and he'll have to continue to put up these kinds of games. It will be interesting to see how he responds. During this string of division titles, the Dodgers have rarely had to sweat much in September; in fact, they've been in first place every day in September for the past five seasons. The great Kershaw, chasing his first World Series ring, will now face the toughest stretch run of his career.

A's hold win, make Astros sweat more: The Athletics beat the Mariners 7-6 in the first game of a crucial wild-card showdown. The A's jumped to a 7-1 lead as Sean Manaea handcuffed the Seattle offense, but the Mariners rallied with five runs over the final two innings. With runners on first and second, Blake Treinen fanned Nelson Cruz to finish it off.

The A's were 11Β½ games behind the Astros on June 24, and they are now just two games back -- and all the pressure is on the defending champs not to blow what everyone viewed as a lock division title. The A's have gone 37-12 since June 16. One key reason: under-the-radar Matt Chapman, who doubled three times on Monday and made yet another web gem in the field (just give him the 2018 Gold Glove already):

The Mariners, seemingly about ready to drown in the playoff race before an unlikely four-game sweep of the Astros, fell to 4Β½ games behind idle Houston. This still feels like a make-or-break stretch for them, as after this series they host the Dodgers and Astros, then have a nine-game road trip to Arizona, San Diego and back to Oakland.

The Mariners do get Robinson Cano back on Tuesday and we'll see where he plays. He played third base one game for Tacoma, and he's likely to see some action at first base in place of Ryon Healy. He's also a clear upgrade at the plate over Dee Gordon, although Gordon has been the Energizer Bunny for the team throughout the season and is the better defender at second base. Best bet for Cano: some first base and some second, as Gordon sits against some of the better lefties.

Here come the Cardinals: Sometimes a game is about the winning team and how it won. Sometimes it's about the losing team and how it lost. The Nationals-Cardinals game definitely fell into both categories.

The Nationals lost in epic fashion on Sunday night, on David Bote's two-out, pinch-hit grand slam off Ryan Madson that gave the Cubs a 4-3 walk-off victory. The year's most disappointing team managed to lose in epic fashion again on Monday.

With the Nats up 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the Cardinals scored four runs, including a go-ahead, three-run home run by Matt Carpenter, which brought "M-V-P! M-V-P!" chants from the crowd -- and rightly so, given Carpenter is hitting .280/.391/.598 with an NL-leading 33 home runs.

This gave the Nationals the dubious honor of becoming the first team since the 1992 Mariners to surrender a lead of multiple runs in the eighth inning or later on a go-ahead home run in consecutive games. I know, that's a lot of descriptors, but the point here: The Nationals' bullpen stinks.

Except ... the game wasn't over. The Nationals tied the game in the top of the ninth. That brought up Paul DeJong to lead off the bottom of the inning against Koda Glover and this happened:

It was DeJong's first career walk-off home run, the Cardinals' seventh walk-off home run and 10th walk-off win of 2018 and, most importantly, the team's sixth straight win, which has them back in the wild-card race and just five games behind the Cubs in the NL Central. Carpenter, who began the day leading NL position players in FanGraphs WAR, will certainly see his MVP case enhanced if the Cardinals make the playoffs.

As for the Nationals, this was manager Davey Martinez's postgame comment:

Oh, boy. I mean ... Martinez's comment isn't inaccurate, but those are words you have to keep inside your head or say to your coaching staff over some beers after the game. You can't tell the media, "Hey, I'm doing everything I can, but the players aren't doing the job." It not only looks bad, but players might question how much the manager believes in them. Martinez is widely liked, but he also was viewed as a questionable choice to replace Dusty Baker as manager. So far, he has failed to get the best out of his roster.

Double your fun: The Braves swept a doubleheader from the Marlins to move into first place in the NL East and all Ronald Acuna Jr. did was become the first player since Brady Anderson in 1999 to lead off both games of a twin bill with home runs:

The 20-year-old phenom has homered in four straight games -- the only other player in the past 100 years under the age of 21 to do that was Miguel Cabrera in 2004 -- and finished the doubleheader with five hits, five runs and five RBIs. With six home runs in his past seven games, Acuna is hitting .282/.342/.552, with 17 home runs in 66 games. Because he started the season in the minors and missed some time with a knee injury, he's not having a historic season for 20-year-olds in terms of WAR or total home runs, but he is high on the list for slugging percentage (minimum 250 at-bats):

Mel Ott, 1929: .635
Alex Rodriguez, 1996: .631
Ted Williams, 1939: .609
Mike Trout, 2012: .564
Frank Robinson, 1956: .558
Ronald Acuna Jr., 2018: .552
Jimmie Foxx, 1928: .548
Al Kaline, 1955: .546
Bob Horner, 1978: .539
Mickey Mantle, 1952: .530

That's impressive company: Eight all-time greats (and Bob Horner!). Only five other 20-year-olds have topped .500, including Carlos Correa and Giancarlo Stanton, so this kind of power production puts Acuna in rarefied territory. The strikeout rate is a little high at 28.5 percent and the walk rate is below 10 percent, but that points to areas of potential improvement and a hitter with Cabrera-like potential at his peak. (Remember that Cabrera also had a relatively high strikeout rate during his first couple of seasons.)

Note: Juan Soto is slugging .547 at age 19. It's a good time to be a baseball fan.