American League Pennant Race Update

by Dan M | Posted on Monday, August 25th, 2014

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By Dic Humphrey
dic.humphrey@yahoo.com 

The 162 game baseball season that seems like such a marathon is down to fewer than 35 games.  With Labor Day just a week away, it’s a sprint, not a marathon at this point for the teams in the race.
In the American League, there are still nine of the 15 teams that have a realistic chance to nab one of the five playoff spots.  Here’s a run down by division:

WEST DIVISION  

In the mid-season pennant race update, the West looked like a two team race between Los Angeles and Oakland for the division championship, with Seattle having an outside chance to overtake them and a darn good chance at the second Wild Card.
That’s how it’s played out so far.
The Angels actually overtook the Athletics by percentage points last weekend and by 1.5 games by mid-week.  It was the first time the A’s had not held first place alone since April.
The A’s made perhaps the boldest trade of the plethora of trade deadline deals in July when they swapped their cleanup hitter, Yeonis Cespedes, for Boston’s ace Jon Lester.  It was a move to position the team for a better run in the playoffs, which are routinely dominated by strong starting pitchers.
Oakland had a good rotation led by Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jeff Samardzija but the addition of Lester made their rotation the tops in the league.
There’s one problem with the logic.  Even with great pitching, a team needs to score a modicum of runs.  With Cespedes in the lineup, the A’s record was 65-35 this year.  Without Cespedes, Oakland is scoring about 1.5 runs per game less, and their record this month is 8-11, despite going 3-1 in Lester’s four starts.  It was a daring move that may pay off, but with the Angels charging, the trade could back fire on Oakland.
The Angels just keep getting better.  Their emerging pitching star Garrett Richards is 13-4 after beating the Rangers last weekend, but he was carted off on a stretcher in his next start and may be lost for the season.  His loss would be a serious blow to the Angels pennant chances as he has become one of their big three starting pitchers along with Jered Weaver and C. J. Wilson.  Hector Santiago and Matt Shoemaker complete the starting five.  It’s a rotation that gives the Angels a good chance to win every day.
Offensively, they’re clicking.  Mike Trout continues to stake his claim to being the best player in baseball, while Albert Pujols is having his best season as an Angel.  Josh Hamilton continues to fizzle, and last Sunday he asked out of the lineup.  Ranger fans certainly remember such shenanigans.  However, Kole Calhoun has joined Trout and Pujols to be the big three in the batting order.  He’s got 13 home runs and 42 RBIs in just 90 games.  They added David Freese from the Cardinals in July.  It’s a very potent offense.
The bullpen has been an Achilles heel, but no more.  They traded for Huston Street, who converted 10 of his first 11 save opportunities since the acquisition.  Joe Smith had actually done a good job in the closer’s role, so the Street acquisition bumped him back to the eighth inning set-up role.  Now, the Angels’ bullpen can complete games with a sixth inning lead now.
These two teams have been jockeying for the best and second best record in baseball.  Their records may be inflated with Houston and Texas in the division, but make no mistake about it, they are very good teams.  They still play each other 10 more times beginning this weekend, so both teams have their fate in their hands to win the division.
Both are likely to make the playoffs, but it’s a shame that one of them will go as a Wild Card team that could see a fine summer of baseball come to an end if they lose the play-in game.  The likelihood is that even if the second place team in this division wins the play-in game, they’ll face each other in the first round of the playoffs.  In other words, one of the teams with either the best or second best record in baseball will not be playing in the League Championship Series.
Seattle trailed by 7.5 games earlier this week.  For sure teams have come from farther back with fewer remaining games, but their problem is catching two teams.  However, they are in the thick of the Wild Card race, just a game behind the second wild card team in the standings after Wednesday’s games.  Highland Park grad Chris Young has revived his career with 12 wins for the Mariners.  They have perhaps the best pitcher in the A. L. in Felix Hernandez (13 wins), and they also have Hisashi Iwakuma, who has recorded 12 wins.  They have a scramble to get into the playoffs, but with pitchers such as these, they could be a very dangerous team in the playoffs.

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CENTRAL DIVISION
Detroit looked to be the team to beat at mid-season, and they have added former Cy Young Award winner David Price.  The bullpen continues to be a problem.
Joe Nathan was signed as a free agent, and he struggles with six blown saves, matching his total with the Rangers the past two seasons, and an obscene 5.28 ERA.  They sent two very good prospects to the Rangers for Joakim Soria, but he’s on the disabled list.
Their starting pitching is holding them in the race, and that’s happening with a poor season from ace Justin Verlander (10-11, 4.76), who is currently on the disabled list.  Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello each have 14 wins.  The bullpen continues to be their problem.
Also, the offense has slowed down since the All-Star break.  It’s still formidable with three regulars batting .300 and seven players with double digit home run totals.  So far though, they are 15-18 since the All-Star break to open the door for the Royals.
Kansas City has gotten hot and has overtaken Detroit with a 22-6 record after losing Wednesday night.  Their offense has led the way in the surge.  Their pitching is very good.  The rotation is led by “Big Game” James Shields with 12 wins and Jason Vargas with 10.  Greg Holland has quietly become one of the top closers in baseball.  He’s got 39 saves in 41 opportunities with a stingy 1.82 ERA.
They seem well positioned to end 29 years out of the playoffs with a favorable schedule.  They play 20 of their final 36 games at home, and 20 of those 36 are against teams with losing records including six with Texas.
Cleveland has an outside chance at getting in.  They are 5.5 games out of first place, but their problem is much like Seattle’s – two teams to pass.  They are 4.5 games out for the second Wild Card.
The Tribe essentially threw in the towel at the trade deadline trading their starting shortstop and a starting pitcher for prospects but has surprisingly gone 11-6 to start the month of August.
Their chances of making the playoffs are slim, but they still have a chance.

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EAST DIVISION

At mid-season, this looked like a delightful race between at least three teams for the title.  Surprisingly, Baltimore has stepped up to take charge.  They led Toronto by nine games and their magic number for clinching the division was already down to 28 after Wednesday’s games.
The Orioles have a powerful offense, despite a tremendous drop off from last year’s MVP, Chris Davis.  Davis is hitting less than .200, though he has still banged out 21 home runs.  Nelson Cruz leads the team and the league with 33.  Center fielder Adam Jones has 24 and four other players have double digit home run totals.
Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Chris Tillman head up the unspectacular, but reliable starting rotation.  They have 13, 11 and 10 wins respectively.  Zack Britton has converted 27 of 40 save opportunities.  It’s a no-name pitching staff that is getting the job done.
Injuries to the starting pitching have done in the Yankees.  Masahiro Tanaka is expected back soon, and Michael Pineda returned this week, but it’s probably too little, too late.
Toronto has been a .500 team since the All-Star break, while Baltimore has pulled away with a 21-10 record.  The East is now Baltimore’s to lose.

WILD CARD

At mid-season, Oakland and Detroit were generally regarded as the two best teams in the American League.  It’s surprising then to see neither of these two teams in first place this week and holding down the top two spots in the Wild Card race.  They may still win their divisions, but instead of meeting in the LCS, they may be meeting in the one game play-in game with the winner joining the division winners in the playoffs proper.
Seattle is closest, just a game behind the Tigers.  Cleveland, Toronto, and New York are within five games.  With about 35 games left in the season, there isn’t much margin for error for the six teams in the Wild Card race.

 

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