Friday, September 30, 2011

Rays Rout Rangers, 9-0; Hamilton Spoils No-Hit Bid

Players of the Day for Friday, September 30, 2011

AL Playoffs, game one: Rays 9, Rangers 0

Kelly Shoppach
Tampa Bay's Matt Moore caught an early taste of October magic, shutting out the Texas Rangers over seven innings on two hits in the opening game of the AL five-game series. The only hits by Texas were collected by Josh Hamilton, who singled in the first inning and doubled in the fourth.

It was only the third time all season that the Rangers had been shut out at home.

Johnny Damon got the Rays going with a two-run homer in the second. Kelly Shoppach singled and scored in the inning, then delivered a three-run blast in the third, followed by a two-run homer in the fifth inning that put the Rays up, 8-0. Shoppach's two-homer, five RBI, three run game matched Moore's brilliance on the mound.

Moore walked two and struck out six, getting the Game One win in just his second major league start. Brandon Gomes and Wade Davis worked perfect eighth and ninth innings to secure the victory.

Game Two is Saturday in Arlington.

NL Playoff Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers

Arizona and Milwaukee: Outside Chances

Even though they were easy division winners, neither the Brewers nor Diamondbacks are being given much chance of advancing to the World Series, though both teams have elements of championship style.

Fielder: Awesome
Power to all fields.
Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun of the Brewers combined for 71 homers and 231 RBI. Braun has been mentioned as an MVP candidate, and deservedly so, with a .332 batting average, 33 bombs, 111 RBI and 33 steals. Fielder, possessive of tremendous power, is a threat to go long whenever he's at the plate.

For the Diamondbacks, outfielder Justin Upton, brother of Tampa Bay's B.J., is the only player with superstar appeal, hitting .289, with 32 homers and 88 RBI in a breakout year.

Kennedy: 21 wins
Both teams have solid starting pitching and good bullpens, so this series could be the most exciting from a fan's standpoint.

Milwaukee will go with Yovani Gallardo in game one, while the D'Backs start 21-game winner Ian Kennedy. Gallardo was 17-10 with a 3.52 ERA and 207 strikeouts, while Kennedy matched triple crown winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers to lead the league in wins, and was one of the league's best starters with a 2.88 ERA and 198 Ks.

Milwaukee has home field advantage in the 2-2-1 format for the short series in which anything could, and probably will, happen.

Baseball fanatics would be well advised to pay close attention to this series, which opens on Saturday, as the Brewers and Diamondbacks may have the most complete teams in what is essentially a team sport.

NL Playoff Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Phillies: Pitching and Power

The Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games, capturing the NL East by 13 games over the Braves, assisting in Atlanta's late-season collapse by sweeping them in the final three-game series of the season, allowing the Cardinals to clinch the wild card spot on the last day of the season.

Cliff Lee
Philly's pitching staff is the stuff of dreams, with multiple Cy Young award winners, starting with Roy Halladay, who went 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA and 220 strikeouts. Halladay will start game one, followed by Cliff Lee (17-8, 2.40, 238Ks, 6 complete game shutouts), Cole Hamels (14-9, 2.79, 194 Ks) and Roy Oswalt, should game four be necessary.

Ryan Howard
With a staff like that, the Phillies hardly need any hitting, though they have plenty, starting with first baseman Ryan Howard, who stuck 33 homers and drove in 116 runs, among the league leaders in both categories. At the top of the order is veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who hit .268. scored 86 runs and stole 30 bases in 142 games. Center field is patrolled by Shane Victorino, the spunky Hawaiian who led the team in runs, with 95, triples (16) and socked 17 home runs along the way. Right field belongs to Hunter Pence, acquired from the Astros mid-season, and left fielder Raul Ibanez resurrected his career with 20 home runs and 84 RBI.

The third spot in the order usually is assigned to second baseman Chase Utley, who had an off year due to injury, but is still a dangerous hitter every time he enters the batter's box.

Middle and late relief is not strong for the Phillies, though it's not a concern as their starters are usually good for at least seven innings. The closing role will likely be the province of Ryan Madsen, who held down 32 of 34 leads.

The Phillies allowed the Cardinals into the playoffs and now must eliminate them.

Cardinals: Hitters and Youth

Albert Pujols
Chris Carpenter
St. Louis is the National League's wild card entrant, finally getting past Atlanta on the final day of the season on the strength of Chris Carpenter's 2-hit shutout in Houston. Because Carpenter pitched on Wednesday, he will not be available until game two on Sunday. Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.39) will start game one aftr a solid year.

Game three starter will be Jaime Garcia (13-7, 3.56). Edwin Jackson will start game four, if necessary. The Cardinal pitching staff was hampered by the season-long loss of Adam Wainwright, but persevered to finish six games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central.

The middle of the Cardinal lineup is packed with power, beginning with perennial all star Albert Pujols, who had an average season - for him - socking 37 home runs and driving in 99 runs while batting .299. Surrounding Pujols are a couple of veteran sluggers, right fielder Matt Holliday(.296, 22, 75) and Lance Berkman (.301, 31, 94).

The Cards also have a number of young hitters with power, including outfielder Allen Craig, who hit .315 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI in 75 games, and third baseman David Freese (.297, 10, 55). Yadier Molina is probably the best defensive catcher in the game and he had an excellent season at the plate, batting .305 with 14 HR and 65 RBI. John Jay hit .295 and is the regular center fielder.

The Cardinals generally hit for a high average and have plenty of power to challenge the Phillies' pitching. If Pujols, Berkman and Holliday hold their own against the Philly starters, the Cardinals stand a fighting chance, though late relief has been an issue all season. Fernando Salas led the team with 24 saves and Jason Motte is the regular middle-to-late reliever, though both have had their share of rough outings. Salas blew six saves, Motte, four, with nine saves.

AL Playoff Preview: NY Yankees vs. Detroit Tigers

Yankees: Booming Bats

The Yankees lived up to their nickname as the Bombers by leading the majors in home runs, with 222, while finishing second in the AL in RBI (836). Their .444 slugging percentage was third in the majors, behind Boston and Texas. The Yanks were the second team to clinch a division in the league, after Detroit, winning the AL East by a comfortable six games over wild card entrant, Tampa Bay.

The Yanks are led on offense by the top of their often-changing order. Center fielder Curtis Granderson, who normally bats second behind either SS Derek Jeter (.297, 6 HR, 61 RBI) or left fielder Brett Gardner (.259, 7, 87 runs) - who tied Oakland's Coco Crisp for the AL stolen base lead with 39 - had an extraordinary season worthy of MVP status, leading the league with 119 RBI and finishing second in homers with 41. Granderson only generated a .262 batting average, but got the key hits in the clutch, also stealing 25 bases and leading the league with 136 runs.

Right behind him in the order, Robinson Cano quietly put together an awesome season, batting .302, with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. Going down the order, third baseman Alex Rodriguez was hampered by injuries through much of the season, but still managed to hit .276, with 16 HR and 60 RBI. First baseman Mark Teixeira (.248, 39, 111) is probably the most dangerous power hitter in the Yankee arsenal, with power from both sides of the plate.

Curtis Granderson
Nick Swisher had a fine season in right field, batting .260 with 23 home runs, driving in 85 runs. The catching duites will be handled either by Russell Martin or Fancisco Cervelli. Jorge Posada and Andruw Jones will alternate at DH, along with Eric Chavez, who put in yeoman's work at third base, filling in for the oft-injured Rodriguez. Manager Joe Girardi tinkered with the lineup all season and will likely fine-tune it for the playoffs depending on opposing pitching.

C.C. Sabathia
The Yankees' weakness is in their starting pitching. After C.C. Sabathia and rookie Ivan Nova, there isn't much there. Sabathia led the team in wins (19-8), strikeouts (230) and had the best ERA of all starters at an even 3.00. Nova had a record run of 11 straight wins, finishing 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.

Girardi has chosen to go with a three-man rotation, giving Sabathia the nod in game 1 against Detroit's Justin Verlander. Nova goes in game two and veteran Freddie Garcia (12-8, 3.62) will start game three. Middle relief was a Yankee strength, especially David Robertson, who appeared in 70 games, compiling a 4-0 record and a 1.08 ERA, striking out 100 batters in 66.2 innings. Set-up man Rafael Soriano normally works the ninth, leading to save opportunities for the best in the business, Mariano Rivera, who finished second in the league in saves, converting 44 of 49 chances with a 1.91 ERA.

The Yankees will try to bludgeon the opposition to death with their big bats and shorten games to seven innings, with their excellent back end relief.

Tigers: Verlander, and then What?

The Detroit Tigers won their first division title since 1987, prior to expansion, when they won the AL East. Their 15-game margin over Cleveland was their first Central division title in franchise history. Having clinched the division so early, the Tigers were more concerned with keeping players fresh rather than rested. and they enter the first round of the playoffs in good health and with their starting rotation intact.

Miguel Cabrera
Offensively, the Tigers are led by first baseman Miguel Carbrera, who led the league with a .344 batting average. Cabrera was the team leader in home runs, swatting 30, to go with 105 RBI. The big surprise at the plate for the Tigers was catcher Alex Avila, who hit .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI. Third baseman/shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.299, 21, 86) also adds pop. The middle infield positions of shortstop and second base are handled by Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn, respectively, who field well but don't offer much at the plate.

Center fielder Austin Jackson leads off, but struck out 181 times, second most in the league and far too many for a batter at the top of the order. Jackson hit just .249, stole 22 bases and scored 90 runs, though his defense kept him in the lineup. Magglio Ordonez is the regular right fielder, while left is still up for grabs. Brennan Boesch gets most of the starts, but shares time with Rayburn and Delmon Young. Victor Martinez is the regular DH. He quietly put together another fine year, hitting .330, with 12 homers and 103 RBI. Brandon Inge can play third base as can Wilson Betemit, who will probably be the regular in the series, with Peralta moving to short and Santiago to second, putting Rayburn either on the bench or in left field.

The Tigers' lineup and positioning is a real carousel with talent at multiple positions.

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander will get the start in game one and is the likely choice for the Cy Young award, if not MVP. Verlander completed the pitching triple crown, going 24-5, with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, all tops in the league. Doug Fister (8-1, 1.79) will start game two, followed by Max Scherzer (15-9, 4,43) and Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.75), if there's a game four.

Jose Valverde led the league with 49 saves, converting every opportunity.

Conclusion: Both teams have great game one starters in Verlander and Sabathia, and the Tigers could use Verlander in game four if the're facing elimination in the five-game series. The Tigers are a bit deeper in their rotation, but not by much. New York has the bats, which, if somebody gets hot, could make this a three, or four game set and because of that, deserve a slight edge. Games one and two are in New York, followed by one or two in Detroit. If a fifth game is needed, it will be at Yankee Stadium.

AL Playoff Preview: Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Rangers: Power-Packed

Ian Kinsler
Texas clinched a few days before the end of the season, so they are rested and have their starting rotation in order. Pitching is not a priority for Texas, as they possess one of the most talented lineups in the game, starting with leadoff hitter and second baseman Ian Kinsler, who caught fire late in the season, ending up with the team lead - tied with Adrian Beltre - in home runs at 32. Kinsler socked 11 long balls in September, providing even more punch to a murderer's row type of lineup. Always a threat to steal, Kinsler swiped 30 bases in 2011. He also led the Rangers with 121 runs

Adrian Beltre
Michael Young, the most versatile of all the Rangers, had a banner year, leading the team with a .338 batting average - third highest in the AL - and 106 RBI. Young can play just about any position in the field, and has been used at first base, third base and in the outfield.

Third baseman Adrian Beltre had a very productive season with a .296 batting average, 32 homers and 105 RBI. Shortstop Elvis Andrus normally bats second, hit .279 with 37 steals and 96 runs. Catching duties are handled either by Mike Napoli, who batted .320 over the course of the season, or Yorvit Torrealba, a less-potent batter.

The outfield is manned by Josh Hamilton in center, Nelson Cruz in right and David Murphy in left. All three have solid hitting credentials and can hit for power. Mitch Moreland will share first base and DH duties with Young and also has power to spare. The Rangers had 210 home runs as a team, second in the majors to the Yankees (222).

Josh Hamilton
Despite the lack of emphasis on pitching, the Rangers had the fifth-best ERA in the league, at 3.79. The Rangers have enough live arms in their starting rotation for the short, five-game series to announce four starters. C.J. Wilson (16-7, 2.94 ERA) will go in game one, Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95) in game 2, Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40) in game 3, and, if a game four is needed, Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39) gets the nod.

The Ranger's bullpen was strengthened with the addition of Mike Adams, acquired from San Diego at the trading deadline. Adams is one of the best middle men in the game. He worked 27 games for the Rangers with a 2.10 ERA and 25 Ks in 25.2 innings. Closer Neftali Feliz saved 32 games in 38 chances.

Texas lost in the 2010 World Series to the Giants, 4 games to 1, and looks to repeat their initial trip to the fall classic with a better result.

Rays: Pitching and Defense

The Rays won the right to proceed into the playoffs on Evan Longoria's dramatic 12th inning home run, knocking off the Yankees, 8-7, just moments after the Red Sox lost to the Orioles, 4-3.

James Shields
Due to Tampa needing to use the best of its pitching staff in the wild card race, the Rays' starting rotation will not be as effective as it might have been in this opening-round series, but the Rays have battled adversity all season long, so they deserve a small vote of confidence for their grit and determination.

Tampa's starting pitching is their strength, but due to the schedule, Matt Moore, who started only one game for the Rays, will open in game 1. Moore was effective in his start, giving five innings of shutout ball on four hits and 11 Ks in a September 22, 15-8 win over the Yankees.

Evan Longoria
The Ray's best starter, "Big Game" James Shields, goes in Game 2. Shields had an amazing 11 complete games in 2011, and was 16-10 with a 2.82 ERA and 225 Ks in 249.1 innings. David Price (12-13, 3.49), who was a complete flop in the Rays' final regular season game, will go in game 3, and Jeff Niemann (11-7, 4.06) will start game 4, if needed.

Kyle Farnsworth is the Rays' closer, saving 25 of 31 opportunities. Middle relief falls to Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz and Alex Cobb. Long relief has been a bright spot for the Rays, effective in close, low-scoring games, of which there were plenty during the season.

Tampa Bay had the second best team ERA in the league - 3.58 - right behind the Angels' 3.57.

Around the horn, Tampa is led by Casey Kotchman at first who had significant late-season contributions, but whose numbers overall are not impressive. Kotchman batted .306 with 10 homers and 48 RBI. Versatile Sean Rodriguez should also see time at first, DH and second base.

Matt Joyce
Second base is manned by Ben Zobrist, a streaky hitter who batted .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBI. Zobrist also swiped 19 bases and is solid in the field. Shortstop Reid Brignac is one of the smoothest of all major league shortstops, though he leaves much to be desired at the plate, Brignac finished up with a .193 batting average, but is key to the Rays' strategy as a sure-handed infielder.

The top slugger on the team is third baseman Evan Longoria, who put up outstanding numbers - .244, 31 HR, 99 RBI - despite missing nearly 30 games at the start of the season. A healthy Longoria gives the Rays a fighting chance if the Rangers don't pitch around him.

Kelly Shoppach will do most of the catching and bat either 8th or 9th. Like Brignac, he's in for defense, because his .176 batting average just doesn't cut it. Shoppach has power, however. He hit 11 home runs in 221 at-bats and provided some key hits during the stretch run.

Johnny Damon will either play right field or DH. Damon, the team elder statesman, had a decent year with a .261 batting average, 16 homers and 73 RBI. Center fielder B.J. Upton catches anything hit his way, led the team in steals with 36, hit .243 with 23 home runs and 81 RBI. Left field is a sore spot. Desmond Jennings has been in a horrible slump, Sam Fuld tailed off after a hot start, but Matt Joyce (.277, 19, 75) has been solid and will likely get most of the playing time in left.

Conclusion: If Tampa's pitching isn't already worn out, the Rays can hang in with the Rangers, but the overall power of Texas with pitching that's good enough to compete might make this short series even shorter. The first two games are in Arlington, a big edge for the Rangers. Tampa is tthe site for game three, and four, if needed. Should the series go five, it's back to Texas. Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist need to produce for the Rays to be successful.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Agony in Atlanta, Bummer in Beantown as Cardinals, Rays Win Wild Cards

Players of the Day for Wednesday, September 28, 2011

American League

It was only fitting that Boston's September swoon get all the way to two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth inning before finally slipping away. The Red Sox bullpen had been in a sorry state of affairs month-long, and the season ended with closer Jonathan Papelbon hunched on the mound, watching helplessly as Nolan Reimold slid into home plate with the winning run for Baltimore, sending the Red Sox to their ninth loss in its last 11 games.

Moments later, Evan Longoria snuck a line drive over the short wall just inside the left field foul pole to complete a miraculous comeback from a 7-0 deficit to defeat the New York Yankees and capture the AL Wild Card. Boston would head home to witness the playoffs as spectators after going 7-20 in September, blowing a nine-game lead in the wild card card race.

The Rays and Red Sox entered the final day of the regular season tied for the final playoff spot, and, for a while, it appeared as though the Red Sox would hang on t a 3-2 lead in Baltimore as the Yankees were putting a hurting on Tampa, leading the Rays, 7-0 through eight innings.

It was not to be. While the Rays were scoring six runs in the eighth and one in the ninth to tie the Yankees at 7-7, the Red Sox and Orioles sat through a long rain delay in Baltimore, stopping their game in the middle of the seventh inning.

Longoria: 2 HRs send
Rays into playoffs
Boston's relievers clung to the 3-2 lead until the ninth when Papelbon came on for the save. After getting two outs in order, Papelbon surrendered a two-strike double to Chris Davis, followed by a ground rule double to center by Reimold that tied the game. When Robert Andino stroked a single to left that eluded a sliding Carl Craford, Reimold circled third and headed for the plate.

It wasn't close. The collapse was complete, the drama ended, as the Orioles won, 4-3.

The crowd at Tropicana Field erupted into a loud cheer when they saw the final score go up on the scoreboard. Evan Longoria stepped to the plate with the bases empty and one out in the bottom of the 12th inning. Earlier, Longoria socked an 8th inning three-run homer to get the Rays to within a run of the Yankees, as they scored six times in the frame. Dan Johnson hooked a drive just inside the right field foul pole with two outs in the bottom of the 9th to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

Longoria connected off the 11th Yankee pitcher of the night, Scott Proctor. His screaming line drive cleared the short wall in left field and his teammates greetd him at home plate as he rounded the bases with the walk-off, 8-7 winner, and a trip to Texas for the Rays, to face the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay will travel to Texas to face the Rangers in the first of their five game series beginning Friday afternoon at 5:07 pm EDT. The Yankees will host Detroit on Friday to begin their five game series with the Tigers. Game time is 8:37 pm EDT.

National League

Carpenter's 2-hit
shutout wins wild card
The National League offered just a little less drama. The Cardinals and Braves entered the day tied for the wild card spot, but St. Louis jumped all over Houston early, scoring five runs in the first inning to back the two-hit shutout thrown by Chris Carpenter in their 8-0 victory, securing at least a one-game playoff with the Braves.

Carpenter (11-9) was brilliant, throwing 76 of 105 pitches for strikes, walking one and striking out 11.

For most of their game, it looked as though the Braves would survive against the Phillies and face the Cards on Thursday, but the Phillies chipped into their 3-1 lead with a run in the 7th and tied it on Chase Utley's sac fly in the 9th.

The game wore on into the 13th inning, the Phillies having used nine pitchers. The Braves' eighth pitcher, Scott Linebrink, took the mound to start the 13th, but, after getting one out, walked B. Schneider and then got Jimmy Rollins to fly out to center for the second out. Chase Utley singled, sending Schneider to third and Hunter Pence delivered a single to right, plating Schneider with the go-ahead run.

Atlanta went meekly in the bottom of the inning. Chipper Jones struck out swinging for the first out, but Dan Uggla walked to give the Braves hope. The next batter, Freddie Freeman, grounded into a game-ending 3-6-3 double play, ending the Braves' season with a 4-3 loss, sending the Cardinals into the playoffs.

Atlanta's September was nearly as ugly as that of the Red Sox. The Braves won nine games but lost 18 during the month, surrendering a September 6th, 8 1/2 game lead to the Cardinals, who closed out the season with a 16-5 run.

St. Louis will play at Philadelphia on Saturday to open their five game series. Milwaukee hosts West division champion Arizona in the other five game series, also beginning on Saturday. Game times have yet to be announced.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

AL, NL Wild Card Races Tied with One Game Left

Players of the Day for Tuesday, September 27, 2011

American League

Undeniably, the wild card has been good for baseball, but for the Red Sox this season, it's been less fun than most pennant races.

Boston, which led the AL wild card standings by as many as nine games at the start of September, remained in a tie with Tampa Bay after both teams won Tuesday night. The Red Sox barely hung on in the late innings to shave Baltimore, 8-7, while the Rays made a triple play that turned their team around and may have saved the season.

Lavarnway: 4 RBI
Third string catcher, Ryan Lavarnway, who spent most of his season in AAA at Pawtucket, delivered a pair of home runs for the desperate Red Sox, the first a three-run shot in the 4th inning that put the Sox up 5-1, and a solo jack in the 8th that turned out to provided the margin of victory. The Orioles dinged the beleaguered Boston relief corps for two runs in the 8th and another in the bottom of the ninth, leaving the tying run on second base as Jonathan Papelbon retired Adam Jones on a ground out to third to end the game.

Boston got all of its runs via the long ball as Jacoby Ellsbury and Marco Scutaro also homered. The Red Sox staved off defeat on the strength of 3 1/3 solid innings of relief work by Alfredo Aceves, who's been their most reliable reliever. Aceves came on in the 4th in relief of Eric Bedard, who had thrown 84 pitches and given up three runs to the O's. Aceves limited the Orioles to just one run on three hits, the run coming on Jones' 6th inning homer.

With the regular season ending Wednesday, Boston sends Jon Lester (15-9) to the mound on three days rest, knowing that Aceves will be unavailable should he falter. Baltimore will start Alfredo Simon, a hard-throwing right hander who's gone 4-9 in fifteen starts this season. Simon spent part of last season as the Orioles' closer, picking up 17 saves in 21 chances.

In Tampa, the Rays survived a bases-loaded threat in the 6th inning that might have ended their post-season hopes if not for the quick hands of Tampa's infielders. Russell Martin smashed a hot grounder at third baseman Evan Longoria, who touched third and whipped a throw to Ben Zobrist for the force at second. Zobrist gunned the ball to Sean Rodriguez at first, nipping the diving Martin for a triple play. The Yankees had already taken a 3-2 lead in the inning on Nick Swisher's RBI double and loaded the bases when starter Jeremy Hellickson intentionally walked Jorge Posada.

Joyce: 3-run HR
The triple play ignited the crown and the Rays. In the bottom of the 7th, Matt Joyce turned on a Rafael Soriano fastball and deposited it in the right field stands for a three-run homer that completed the scoring in Tampa's 5-3 win, keeping the wild card knotted with one game left to play.

The Rays host the Yankees on Wednesday night, sending David Price to the mound, who will also be working on three day's rest. The Yankees have not named a starter, though manager Joe Girardi has said that he will not use any pitchers on the post-season roster, as the Yankees have already clinched the division with the best record in the league and will face either Detroit or Texas in the opening round.

Should Boston and Tampa Bay remain tied at the end of Wednesday's activities, the Rays would host a one-game playoff Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field.

National League

Oswalt: 6 scoreless
St Louis has been gunning for the Atlanta Braves the entire month of September, and on Tuesday, they finally caught them. Cardinal bats caught fire in the late innings and routed the Houston Astros, 13-6, after the Phillies dusted off the Braves, 7-1. Roy Oswalt pitched six innings of shutout ball for the Phillies, allowing just three hits and a walk, striking out four.

In Houston, the Cardinals battled back from a five run deficit, scoring five times in the 4th inning, then putting the game away with four runs in the 7th, three in the 8th and one more in the top of the 9th. Nick Punto went 4-for-5 with a solo homer and two RBI and rookie Allen Craig blasted a three-run bomb in the eighth inning to seal the win. Craig was 2-for-3, scored three times and drove in four runs.

Craig: 3-run HR
The Braves have struggled all through the month of September. Atlanta has gone 8-17 in the season's final month, while the Cardinals are 17-8 over the same span.

Punto: 4-for-5
For the final regular season game, the Cardinals will start their ace, Chris Carpenter (10-9) against the Astros' Brett Myers (7-13), Myers has won his last four starts and is 6-5 lifetime against St. Louis with a 4.54 ERA. Career-wise, Carpenter is 7-5, with a 2.79 ERA, but he's 0-3 with a 4.62 ERA in his last five starts at Minute Maid Field and hasn't won there since 2005.

Atlanta will throw Tim Hudson (16-10) in their season finale at home against the Phillies. Hudson has a 7-8 mark lifetime against Philadelphia with a 3.75 ERA. Joe Blanton goes up the bump for the Phillies. Blanton is 1-4 with a 5.47 ERA against the Braves lifetime and is 1-2 in ten starts this season.

The Braves' game begins at 7:10 pm EDT, while the Cardinals and Astros get underway at 8:05. If the Braves and Cardinals are tied after Wednesday, St. Louis would host a one-game playoff Thursday night.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rays, Red Sox Tied in Wild Card; Braves Holding One Game Lead over Cardinals

Players of the Day for Monday, September 26, 2011

American League

The AL Wild Card race is all tied up after the Orioles chunked the Red Sox, 6-3, and the Rays stung the Yankees, 5-2.

Robert Andino
In Baltimore, Robert Andino's inside-the-park home run keyed a four-run sixth inning, leading to the Oriole win. Chris Davis, a substitute corner infielder who was traded from Texas to Baltimore earlier in the year, got things started in the decisive inning with a double that drove home Vlad Guerrero, breaking a 2-2 tie before Andino laced a drive to center field that Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury could not handle and raced around the bases, with Mark Reynolds and Davis scoring ahead of him.

Andino had only the one hit in two official at-bats, but drove in three runs and sent Boston starter, Josh Beckett, to an early shower. The loss for Boston was the 8th in their last 10 games, making "collapse" sound like too mild a term for what they are going through in September, a month in which they've won only six games while losing 19. In the annals of blowing it, that's epic.

Boston has two games remaining at Baltimore, who've beaten them four of the last five. Tampa Bay faces the Yankees twice more at Tropicana Field.

National League

Shane Victorino
Shane Victorino tripled in the sixth inning and doubled in the eighth and Raul Ibanez singled him home each time, as the Phillies took a 4-2 win at Atlanta Monday night.

Raul Ibanez
Victorino's triple and the RBI single by Ibanez in the 6th broke a tie after Jimmy Rollins' solo homer in the fifth made it 2-2. The eighth inning triple by the Phillies' center fielder and subsequent single by Ibanez added insurance for Philadelphia's relievers, who came on after Cliff Lee went through six innings, allowing two runs on five hits while fanning six for his 17th win against eight losses.

The Braves have been doing their best impression of Boston in the NL, losing their third straight and sixth of their last eight, but managed to maintain their one game lead over the Cardinals in the wild card race. St. Louis dropped a 5-4 decision at Houston in 10 innings as they opened their final regular season series with the Astros.

Atlanta could clinch the wild card with a win and a St. Louis loss on Tuesday, or be tied with the Cardinals if those results are the reverse.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ellsbury Saves Boston for Now; Cardinals Fly to Within One Game of Braves

Players of the Day for Sunday, September 25, 2011

American League

For most teams, playing a double-header is a little extra work. Staying focused, trying to give 100% through a long day of baseball requires discipline, perseverance and determination. Having to play a twin bill on the road against a potential playoff opponent which just happens to have the best record in the league, with only five days left in the season, requires something more.

Jacoby Ellsbury
And when you've dropped the first game and the second game goes into extra innings with maybe your whole season on the line, it requires a conclusion, and that's exactly what Jacoby Ellsbury provided with a three-run, 14th-inning home run that secured a 7-4 victory over the Yankees to kept Tampa Bay from tying the Red Sox in the wild card standings.

Ellsbury came to the plate just 1-for-6 in the nightcap, with two men aboard and two outs, but ended up 2-for-7 with three RBI, and maybe the biggest hit of Boston's entire season.

In the first game, Ellsbury provided all of Boston's offense, going 3-for-4 with a pair of homers and two RBI, but it wasn't nearly enough, as the Yankees won, 6-2. Combined with Tampa Bay's 5-2 win over Toronto, Boston's wild card lead had shrunk to a tiny 1/2 game. A loss in the nightcap would have had the Rays and Red Sox in a flat-footed tie with just three games left. Ellsbury's late-night homer at least gave the Red Sox a one game cushion - a little breathing room - as they head to Baltimore for a three game series to close out the regular season.

Tampa Bay will have to contend with the Yankees for the final three games of the season at Tropicana Field in Tampa. The Red Sox dropped three straight to the Orioles, a team that is loose and has nothing to lose, last week in Boston. The Rays dropped three of four to the Yankees last week in New York. Whichever team emerges with the wild card will have earned it.

Edwin Jackson
There is one more team in the race, though the best the LA Angels can do now, after dropping a 6-5 decision to the A's on Sunday, is force a tie. They trail the Red Sox by three games; Tampa by two.

National League

Rafael Furcal
The Cardinals moved to within one game of Atlanta in the NL wild card race, but they're hanging on by a thread and giving their fans heart attacks. After winning Saturday's game with the Cubs with a dramatic two-run rally in the bottom of the 9th, the Cardinals only waited until the 8th to take a 3-2 win from Chicago.

Randy Wells and the Cardinals' Edwin Jackson, locked into a pretty heated pitcher's duel. The Cubs only got to Jackson for five hits while the Cardinals got six off Wells, the last one a Rafael Furcal solo home run to right in the bottom of the 8th that snapped a 2-2 tie and led to victory.
Yadier Molina

The Cardinals played from behind most of the game. Jackson, in addition to his seven innings of mound duty (five hits, two walks, two runs, six Ks) drove in the first Cardinal run with a bases loaded sac fly in the 5th that tied the game at one. Starlin Castro singled in Marlon Byrd in the 7th to put the Cubs up, 2-1, but Yadier Molina got the Cardinals back to a tie with a bases empty blast in the bottom of the frame, setting the stage for Furcal's game winner.

With Atlanta losing 3-0 at Washington, the Cardinals are just one game behind the Braves in the wild card chase with three games to play. St. Louis will finish up with three at Houston. The Braves host the Phillies, who've already clinched the NL East, for their last three games. The regular season ends on Wednesday, September 28.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Damon Homer Helps Rays in Wild Card Chase; Cardinals Win With Dramatic Ninth

Players of the Day for Saturday, September 24, 2011

American League

With divisional races all decided, the focus for the remainder of the regular season will be on the wild card races, which are down to just a few teams in both leagues. In the AL, Tampa Bay improved their chances for post-season play with a 6-2 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, while the imploding Red Sox got the Bronx treatment, pounded by the Yankees, 9-1.

The Rays fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first inning as Jose Bautista socked his major league-leading 43rd home run. Rays' starter Jeff Niemann was lifted after just one inning, having given up two run on two hits and two walks. Niemann had had his start pushed back due to a sore back and clearly was not at his best.

Johnny Damon
Tampa Bay battled right back with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first and took the lead on a Ben Zobrist solo homer in the fourth. The Rays' bullpen set a team record, holding the Blue Jays scoreless for eight innings, and Johnny Damon sealed the win with an eighth-inning, three run home run. Gamon had doubled home Zobrist in the first inning and went 3-for-3, with four RBI.

Combined with the Red Sox loss to New York, the Rays trailed Boston by 1 1/2 at the end of the day. Tampa could tie the Red Sox for the wild card spot on Sunday if they beat Toronto and Boston drops both of their games to the Yankees. Boston plays a day-night double-dip due to a rain out of Friday's game.

The LA Angels remained relevant with a 4-2 win over the A's, 2 1/2 games behind the Red Sox. The Angels complete their series with the A's on Sunday.

National League

Blanked for eight innings, the St. Louis Cardinals kept their wild card hopes alive when they scored a pair of run in the bottom of the ninth for a 2-1 win over the Cubs.

Starter Kyle Lohse kept St. Louis in the game, allowing six hits, but only one run over seven innings, striking out eight. Lohse didn't walk anyone, nor did he receive a decision, though the end result was a positive one, as the Cardinals inched to within two games of the Braves in the NL wild card race. Atlanta was defeated 4-1 at Washington.

Kyle Lohse
Carlos Marmol was on the mound in the ninth, looking to close things out for the Cubs, though it did not go well for him. Matt Holliday got things started for the Cardinals in the ninth with a one-out single and was replaced by pinch runner Tyler Greene. Greene stole second and moved up to third as Geovany Soto's throw sailed into center field. After a David Freese strikeout, Yadier Molina walked and was pinch run for by Adron Chambers, Skip Schumaker also walked, loading the bases for Ryan Theriot, who was also issued a free pass, forcing in Greene to tie the game.

When Marmol uncorked a wild pitch to Rafael Furcal, Chambers streaked home from third with the game winner and new life in St. Louis. Marmol (2-6) took the loss. It was his 10th blown save of the season, tops in the majors.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Brewers Clinch NL Central; Diamondbacks, Rangers Take the West; Rays Lose Again

Players of the Day for Friday, September 23, 2011

American League

If not for the Red Sox playing terrible baseball all through the month of September, nobody would be talking about the Tampa Bay Rays, who lost for the fourth time in their last five games, dropping to 2 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the AL wild card race.

Kelly Johnson
Toronto's Kelly Johnson drove in a run in the third inning and socked a solo home run in the 6th, leading to a 5-1 win for the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field in Tampa.

The Red Sox were rained out in New York and will play a double-header with the Yankees on Sunday. The Angels dropped a 3-1 decision to Oakland, paving the way for the Rangers to take the division.

Texas defeated Seattle, 5-3, to capture their second straight AL west division championship, completing the divisional races in both leagues.

The Angels trail Boston by 3 1/2 in the wild card.

National League

Pennant races aren't what they used to be, but it would be hard to convince the players of the Milwaukee Brewers of that.

The Brewers clinched their first division title of any kind since 1982, when they were still in the American League and captured the East division.

Ryan Braun
Ryan Braun socked a three-run home run in the bottom of the 8th inning, leading to a 4-1 win over the Florida Marlins. The Brewers clubhouse erupted in celebration as players watched the conclusion of the Cardinals-Cubs game, which ended in a 5-1 win by Chicago, eliminating second place St. Louis in the division, giving the crown to Milwaukee.

Braun went 1-for-4 in the game, the clutch homer being his only hit. The Brewers's outfielder is being mentioned prominently in MVP discussions alongside Dodger star Matt Kemp. Braun has 32 home runs, 107 RBI and a .329 batting average, tied for the lead in batting with the Mets' Jose Reyes. Kemp is on the cusp of a triple crown, having hit his 37th home run in LA's 2-0 win over San Diego, tying him with St. Louis' Albert Pujols. He also leads the league with 119 RBI and is batting .326.

Atlanta stopped the Nationals, 7-4, increasing their wild card lead to three games ahead of St. Louis. San Francisco lost the first game of their three game visit to Arizona, 3-1, giving the Diamondbacks the NL West title.

Friday, September 23, 2011

BJ Upton, Rays Pound Yankees, 15-8, Trial Boston by 2; Matt Kemp Close to Triple Crown Season

Players of the Day for Thursday, September 22, 2011

American League

After their near-death experience, losing the first three games of their series in New York, the Tampa Bay Rays finally put one in the win column, smashing Yankee starter Bartolo Colon for seven hits and seven runs (5 earned) in a 15-8 blowout in the Bronx.

Colon, who had a decent first half, going 8-6 through the end of July, has had no luck since, losing four of nine starts and getting no decision in the other five. In his last two, including Thursday's disaster, Colon had gone just seven innings, giving up 14 hits and 13 runs, putting the 38-year-old right-hander on the post-season roster bubble. The Yankees, who clinched the AL East on Wednesday, will go into the playoffs with an uncertain pitching staff. After C.C. Sabathia and rookie Ivan Nova, there simply isn't any quality there.

B.J. Upton
In Thursday's onslaught, the Rays followed the bat of B.J. Upton, who singled, tripled and homered in four at-bats, scoring four times and driving in three. While Upton wasn't exactly the proximate cause for Colon's pain, he was certainly a contributor to it, scoring in the first inning after being hit by a Colon pitch, then tripling in a run and scoring another in the second inning. By the time Upton reached the plate again in the 4th, Colon had departed, but Upton, for good measure, delivered a two-run homer off reliever Scott Proctor. By the end of the inning it was 12-0 Rays and the game essentially over.

The Yankees added their runs in the later innings, making the score a bit better, though the result was the Rays trailing the idle Red Sox by two games in the wild card race.

The pinstriped Yankees will be front and center for the remainder of the wild card doings. They host Boston for three games over the weekend and then travle to Tampa Bay on Monday to complete the regular season with a three game set.

In the West, both Texas and the LA Angels lost, leaving the Rangers' lead in the division unchanged at five games. LA trails Boston in the wild card by three games and is one behind Tampa Bay. While the Rays will spend the weekend at home against the Blue Jays, the Angels host Oakland and finish with a three game series against visiting Texas. That season-ending series may be immaterial to the AL West title - the Texas magic number is just two - the Angles may still be alive in the wild card.

National League

Matt Kemp and the LA Dodgers may have just ended San Francisco's hopes for a return to the post-season. The Dodgers knocked off their arch-rivals, 8-2, on Thursday, as Kemp, a leading MVP candidate went 4-for-5 with two singles, a double and his 36th home run, a two-run job off Barry Zito that completed the Dodger scoring.

Kemp: Triple Crown?
Kemp scored three times and had two RBI, upping his total for the season to 118, which leads the NL. His 36 homers are one fewer than NL leader Albert Pujols and his .326 batting average is third, behind Milwaukee's Ryan Braun (.330) and the Mets' Jose Reyes (.329). With six games left - three at San diego and then three at Arizona, games which will likely be of no consequence - Kemp is staring right at a Triple Crown, a feat which hasn't been accomplished in either league since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967. Joe Medwick was the last NL triple crown winner in 1937. A few more hits and homers down the stretch for Kemp could be epic.

As for the reigning champion Giants, their plans to return to the World Series seem to have fallen short. They trail the Diamondbacks by 5 1/2 games in the division and are four games behind Atlanta in the wild card, with just six games remaining. Arizona, idle on Thursday, has its magic number down to one.

The wild card chase will likely come down to the Braves and Cardinals, though St. Louis lost an opportunity to get to within one of Altanta, when their bullpen blew a 6-1 lead, giving up a run in the 8th and six in the ninth to the NY Mets for a heart-wrenching, 8-6 loss.

The Braves begin a three game series in Washington on Friday and return home for three with the Phillies in the final series of the season. St. Louis has three home games with the Cubs beginning on Friday and finishes the season with three at Houston, the worst team in the majors, at 54-102.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yankees Take Two from Rays, Clinch AL East; Cardinals Creep Closer in NL Wild Card

Players of the Day for Wednesday, September 21, 2011

American League

Robinson Cano
Once again, the New York Yankees are heading into the playoffs as champions of the AL East.

After taking two games in a day-night double-header, coupled with a 6-4 loss by Boston to Baltimore the Yankees openly celebrated on-field, capturing their 11th divisional championship since 1996 and coming out of the double win day with the best record in the league, at 95-60, which would give them home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Texas and Detroit are tied for second-best, at 90-65.

The Yanks got key contributions in the 8th innings of both games. In the opener, after Eduardo Nunez tied the game in the 8th with a solo homer, Robinson Cano followed a single by Brett Gardner and a walk to Derek Jeter with a double to center, plating both base runners and setting up Mariano Rivera with his 44th save of the season and 603rd career save. Rivera was flawless in the 9th, setting down the Rays in order for the first of two 4-2 wins on the day.

Robertson threw
one pitch for pennant
Jorge Posada
The nightcap took on a similar feel as the C.C. Sabathia and Jeremy Hellickson dueled to a 2-2 tie through seven innings. Sabathia was the first to find relief, being lifted in the top of the 8th inning with one out after loading the bases. David Robertson, the Yankees' best middle reliever in a pinch, induced a double play with one pitch, and when the Yankees scored two in the bottom of the inning on Jorge Posada's pinch-hit single, became the winning pitcher.

Robertson can someday regale folks with the tale of how he once captured the AL East pennant with one pitch while the veteran Posada should be assured of a spot on the post-season roster after his clinching single in the Yankees' second 4-3 win of the day.

With the Rays losing twice, the Red Sox dropping their 16th of 21 games thus far in September, the beneficiary was the LA Angels, who continued their recent winning ways with a 7-2 win at Toronto. The Angels are unlikely to catch the Rangers, who lead the West by five games, but they are now tied with Tampa Bay, 2 1/2 games behind Boston in the wild card. The Red Sox head to New York next for a three-game series beginning Friday.

National League

David Freese
The Cardinals just keep winning and getting closer in both the divisional and wild card races.

Their 6-5 win over the Mets was their 12th in their last 14 games, cutting the Braves lead in the wild card race to a mere 1 1/2 games after Atlanta was shut out by the Marlins, 4-0. The Cardinals also cut Milwaukee's lead in the NL Central to 4 1/2 games, with the Brewers stumbling against the Cubs. 7-1.

Cardinal third baseman David Freese got the key hits for St. Louis, doubling home Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman in the first inning with a two-out triple, and bringing around Pujols and Berkman again with a three-run homer in the seventh, bringing the Cardinals from a 4-3 deficit to a 6-4 lead.

Freese finished 2-for-4 with five RBI.

Atlanta, which has lost three of their last four, get a day off Thursday before heading to Washington for a three-game series. They finish the regular season at home with three games against the Phillies.

In the West, the Giants remained 5 1/2 behind the Diamondbacks, with an 8-5 win over the Dodgers. Arizona topped Pittsburgh by the same score. The Giants trail Atlanta by 3 1/2 games in the wild card.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Robert Andino Ruins Red Sox in 7-5 Oriole Win; Kershaw Wins 20th; Pujols, Berkman, Theriot Keep Cards Close

Players of the Day for Tuesday, September 20, 2011

American League

Some things just aren't meant to be. Others are. For the Boston Red Sox, reaching the playoffs by winning the AL wild card seems to be a quest doomed to failure as they lost for the sixth time in eight games, this one another late inning bullpen meltdown against the bottom-feeding Baltimore Orioles, who defeated the Red Sox, 7-5, even as Boston's closest pursuer, Tampa Bay, was losing to the Yankees, 5-0.

Robert Andino
For Baltimore's Robert Andino, until this year a part-time utility infielder since 2004, his moment to shine was Tuesday night in Boston. After singling and scoring Baltimore's first run in the third inning, Andino singled and was stranded in the 4th inning and flied out to end the 6th. But, in the 8th inning, the scrappy second baseman approached the plate with the bases full of his teammates and Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon on the mound. Andino delivered a game-changing, two-out double to right field, plating all three runs and putting the O's up by two runs. Andino promptly stole third, but was stranded there when J.J. Hardy popped out to end the inning.

Nova: 16-4
Orioles' relievers put down the Red Sox calmly in the 8th and 9th, securing the win, keeping Boston just two games ahead of Tampa Bay in the wild card race. The Orioles and Red Sox square off again on Wednesday to complete the series, then, after a day off Thursday, the Sox head down to the Bronx for a three game series with the Yankees before returning to Baltimore for the final three game series of the regular season.

Granderson: 119 RBI
The Yankee win over Tampa Bay was doubly good, as they increased their lead in the AL East to six games over Boston and eight over the Rays. Their magic number dropped to three as rookie sensation Ivan Nova improved to 16-4 with 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball, giving up six hits, walking three and striking out three. Curtis Granderson increased his major league best RBI total to 119 with four RBI, three of them coming on a bases-loaded double in the second inning. The Yankees host the Rays in a double-header Wednesday.

In the West, Texas won its third straight, 7-2, at Oakland, while the second place Angels kept pace, outslugging Toronto, 10-6. The Rangers lead the Angles by five games with eight games left for both teams, who meet in the final three game series for both teams, at Anaheim, September 26-28. The Rangers' magic number is four.

National League

Kershaw: 20 Wins
LA's Clayton Kershaw joined Arizona's Ian Kennedy as the NL's second 20 game winner with a 2-1 win over the Giants, halting San Fran's winning streak at eight and keeping the Giants 5 1/2 games behind the Diamondbacks in the desperate NL West race.

Lance Berkman
Kershaw scattered six hits over 7 1/3 innings, the only run coming with one out in the 7th on a home run by the Giants' Chris Stewart. Kershaw battled Tim Lincecum, who took the loss, falling to 13-13 on the year. After allowing Stewart's home run, reliever Kenley Jansen came on and struck out the next two batters to end the 8th inning and Javy Guerra closed out the game with a perfect ninth inning.

Kershaw now is tied for the NL lead with 20 wins and also leads the league in strikeouts (242) and ERA (2.27), the same as Detroit hurler, Justin Verlander, in the AL who leads all three categories with 24 wins, 244 Ks and a 2.29 ERA. The dual pitching triple crowns would be a first if they hold up for the remainder of the season. There have been 19 pitching triple crowns in the majors and seventeen of those pitchers have reached the Hall of Fame. Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnston and Sandy Koufax each accomplished the feat three times, but never have two pitchers done it in the same season in opposing leagues.

Ryan Theriot
Albert Pujols
The loss by the Giants kept them in the chase for the NL West title, though time and games are dwindling fast. The Diamondbacks lost to Pittsburgh, 5-3, keeping the magic number at three. San Francisco plays three games at Arizona this weekend, beginning Friday.

In the wild card race, the Atlanta Braves held onto their slim 2 1/2 game lead with a 4-0 shutout over the Marlins, but the St. Louis Cardinals are not going away, as they opened a three-game home series with the Mets with an 11-6 victory. Alberrt Pujols went 4-for-5 with two runs and an RBI (97) and scored the tying run in the 7th inning on Ryan Theriot's pinch-hit, bases-loaded ground rule double. Lance Berkman - 2-for-5, 1 run, 2 RBI - came home right behind Pujols, putting the Cardinals up 7-6. The Cards eventually scored six times in the frame, sealing the win.

Milwaukee kept cruising toward the NL Central crown with a 5-1 win over the Cubs. The Brewers lead St. Louis by 5 1/2 games, their magic number just three.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mariano Rivera Sets Saves Record; Ian Kennedy Allows One Hit in 20th Win; Cardinals Within 2 1/2 of Braves in NL Wild Card

Players of the Day for Monday, September 19, 2011

American League

Rivera: 602 Saves
It wasn't a very pretty game, but the Yankees left Toronto with a 6-4 win and save number 602 for Mariano Rivera, making the Yankee closer the all-time leader, passing Trevor Hoffman, who retired last season with 601.

Rivera came on in the ninth as the sixth Yankee pitcher of the day, but his work was, as usual, nearly flawless. Striking out Chris Parmelee to end the game, Rivera didn't allow a hit or a walk in recording his 43rd save of the season, second best in the AL behind Detroit's Jose Valverde.

Better yet for Rivera, who has been on a roll lately with 10 saves in the past three weeks, the Yankee win coincided with a Red Sox split of a double-header against Baltimore, padding the Yankees' lead to five games over Boston and seven over Tampa Bay.

The Rays did not play on Monday, but are headed to New York for a three game series starting Tuesday.

With the Central division already decided in favor of the Tigers, the LA Angels are letting their season slip away with their third loss in four games, a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Blue Jays in ten innings. The Rangers' lead in the West is now five games, and though the Angles finish the regular season with three home games against Texas, they'll have to do better in their next three games at Toronto followed by three at home with the A's.

National League

Arizona strengthened its case for winning the West with a 1-0 victory at Pittsburgh Monday, increasing their lead in the division to 5 1/2 games over the idled Giants.

Ian Kennedy: 20-5
Diamondback bats weren't exactly booming, getting just five hits off Pittsburg starter Jeff Karstens and their only run coming on a Justin Upton broken bat solo homer in the 6th, but they didn't need much, as ace Ian Kennedy racked up his 20th win, stifling Pittsburgh on one hit over eight innings, walking one and matching his career high with 12 Ks.

Kennedy, 20-4, dominated the middle of the Pirate order, striking out their 3, 4 and 5 hitters a total of seven times. He became the first 20-game winner in the National League. Justin Verlander (24-5) is the sole AL 20-game winner.

The wild card race tightened up a little more, as the Cardinals downed the Phillies, 4-3, and the Marlins topped the Braves, 6-5, when Omar Infante launched a two-run homer off Braves' closer, Craig Kimbrel.

The Braves have seen their big wild card lead dwindle to just 2 1/2 games. Atlanta has gone just 6-12 in September. Meanwhile the Cardinals have won eight of their last 10 and have nine games left - all at home - against some of the weaklings of the National League, with consecutive three game series against the Mets, Cubs and Astros.

Atlanta has two more games in Florida, three in Washington, but then return home for a season-ending, three game series with the Phillies.