Sunday's top 10 thoughts ...
1. With the Cardinals shutting out the Pirates 2-0 behind another dominant effort from Jack Flaherty and the Brewers beating the Cubs 8-5, the Cards' lead over the Cubs in the National League Central is now 4½ games -- and that's the closest of the six division races. The only other race that has a chance of being interesting down to the final week is the American League Central, where the Twins hold a 5½-game lead over the Indians.
Here are the current odds to win each division, via FanGraphs:
OK, the Astros and Dodgers haven't technically clinched yet, but they will soon enough. The point is that the primary excitement over the final two weeks will be (A) the two wild-card races; and (B) the battle for home-field advantage between the Yankees and Astros in the AL and the Dodgers overall (and maybe the Braves, as they have won 17 of 20 to get to 3½ games behind the Dodgers).
The Nationals entered their four-game series in Atlanta basically needing a sweep to get in back in the NL East race. Instead, the Braves won the first three games before Max Scherzer finally rescued the Nationals on Sunday. The Cubs won their first game in Milwaukee on Thursday but dropped the final three. At least the Indians managed to take two of three from the Twins to pick up a game.
Anyway, it makes for a bit of an anticlimactic September. The whole point of six divisions is supposedly to create more excitement and have September baseball feel more like October baseball for more fans across the league, but that's not going to happen this year.
Last year, we had four blowout division races, but at least the NL Central and NL West gave us two tiebreaker games. Two years ago was almost as bad as this year. The Red Sox beat the Yankees by two games in the AL East, but no other race was closer than six games. In 2016, the two closest races were four games each. Here are the average division margins each season:
Yes, the wild-card races are certainly interesting. But let's be honest: A wild-card race is not the same as a division race. That's not to discount those teams or their chances in October. In the era of two wild cards (since 2012), we've had one wild-card World Series champion (the 2014 Giants) and another one reach the World Series (the 2014 Royals). The 14 winners of the wild-card game have gone 6-8 in the division series, so whichever teams finally emerge in those races won't be automatic outs in the playoffs.
Still, the lack of drama in the divisions means a lot of us are simply counting down the days until the playoffs begin.
2. So, Flaherty. He allowed five hits and fanned 10 in eight scoreless innings against the Pirates, throwing 112 pitches. In his previous start, he allowed one hit in eight innings in a 1-0 win over the Giants, throwing 113 pitches in that one. I love that in these close games Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has left Flaherty in for that extra inning, even though a lot of managers would have pulled him after seven and sitting around 100 pitches. Flaherty has allowed no runs in seven of his past 10 starts and has an 0.80 ERA in 12 starts since July 12.
He is the hottest pitcher in baseball, and if the Cardinals can maintain their lead over the Cubs, Shildt will have the advantage of setting up the rotation to ensure that Flaherty will be on full rest for the first game of the division series. The only tricky thing there is that the Cardinals finish against the Cubs (and also have four games against them Sept. 19-22). Flaherty could still pitch the final Friday against the Cubs if the division title is up for grabs -- except that the wild-card game is Tuesday, Oct. 1, so if Flaherty pitched on that Friday, he wouldn't be ready for the wild-card game if the Cardinals somehow slip back into that.
If Flaherty pitches every fifth game, he would start on Sept. 14 against Milwaukee (on five days of rest), on Sept. 19 (versus the Cubs on four days of rest) and on Sept. 24 (against the Diamondbacks on four days of rest ); and he could then pitch the final game of the regular season on four days of rest if the division title is up for grabs. If he instead goes every fifth day, then it is Sept. 13 (Brewers), Sept. 18 (Nationals), Sept. 23 (Diamondbacks) and Sept. 28 (Cubs). That schedule gives him four days of rest before Game 1 of the division series.
3. I was watching the Cardinals-Pirates to check in on the debut of James Marvel for the Pirates. James' dad, John, is a former boss of mine, and when James was 9 or 10, I can remember John talking about some tournament they had gone to out of state and saying James struck out 15 batters or whatever and that nobody could touch him. I guess Dad wasn't exaggerating after all.
Anyway, James is a compelling story. He went to Duke and injured his leg as a freshman, then had Tommy John surgery as a sophomore. He didn't pitch as a junior as he recovered from surgery and had pitched just 67 innings at Duke; but the Pirates took a chance on him in the 36th round, and James signed with the Pirates rather than go back to school for his senior year. He has made steady progress since then, and he had a breakout season between Double-A and Triple-A this season with a 2.94 ERA in 28 starts. The right-hander doesn't light up the radar gun -- he topped out at 92 mph against the Cardinals -- and has a funky delivery from the windup, as he pumps his glove up and down like a nervous tick before he throws; but he showed a lot of poise and mixed in a nice curveball with his fastball, sinker and changeup.
Anyway, congrats to James and John for the big moment -- headline writers everywhere are certainly rooting for Marvel's success.
4. Another debut of note: Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick by the Mariners in 2011, pitched a scoreless inning for the Cubs, striking out the side after giving up an HBP and base hit to the first two batters he faced. Since going down in 2013 with a shoulder injury, Hultzen had missed all of 2014, pitched 10 innings total in 2015 and 2016, then missed all of 2017, before signing with the Cubs late last season. He threw 14⅓ innings for Triple-A Iowa this year around some more injury issues but fanned 23. He topped out at 95 mph. Nice story of perseverance.
5. The Astros beat the Mariners 21-1, and maybe this a good time to remind everyone that four teams in the AL have a worse record than Seattle. It's an ugly league. Anyway, Gerrit Cole needed just 96 pitches in eight innings to strike out 15. He gave up one hit (a home run), and he is now 16-5 with a 2.73 ERA and continues to increase his all-time single-season strikeout rate, currently a tad higher than Pedro Martinez's mark with the Red Sox in 1999.
Cole's strikeout totals over his past three starts: 15, 14 and 14. The only other pitcher with three straight games of 14-plus strikeouts: Pedro in 1999. Pedro's totals were 15, 17 and 14, and they came as part of an incredible eight-game run in which he went 11, 15, 11, 15, 17, 14, 12 and 12.
P.S.: The Astros also became just the third team with two 20-run victories in the same season. The 1939 Yankees had three such games, and the 1923 Indians also had two.
P.S. No. 2: The Astros are now 16-1 against the Mariners. No team in the division era has gone 18-1 against an opponent. Good times, Mariners fans!
6. If Mike Clevinger hadn't missed two months with an upper back strain, he might be right up there with Cole and Justin Verlander in Cy Young consideration. Clevinger beat the Twins on Sunday, allowing two runs in 6⅓ innings. Compare:
Clevinger: 11-2, 2.72 ERA, .199 BA, .260 wOBA, 35.5% SO rate
Cole: 16-5, 2.73 ERA, .189 BA, .252 wOBA, 39.4% SO rate
Verlander: 18-5, 2.52 ERA, .166 BA, .239 wOBA, 34.9% SO rate
7. Speaking of low batting averages allowed, Kenta Maeda allowed one hit over four scoreless relief innings for the Dodgers, as it looks like he is transitioning into a bullpen role for the postseason. Batters are hitting just .204 off Maeda. He hasn't been as dominant as the three guys above, with an ERA of 4.07, but he could be a nice weapon for the Dodgers in the playoffs. Sunday's game against the Giants also was a potential preview of what the Dodgers could do in October for their fourth rotation slot behind Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw: Start lefty Julio Urias (or Rich Hill, if he can come back), then turn to Maeda from the right side as the long man.
8. We mentioned earlier not to overlook the wild-card teams in October. Well, consider this for the A's: Sean Manaea has made two major league starts since his return from last year's shoulder surgery, and he allowed no runs in five innings (one hit allowed) on Sept. 1, and he yielded one run in seven innings on two hits (with 10 strikeouts) on Sunday. OK, Sunday's game came against the Tigers, but that first outing came against the Yankees. Obviously, the A's have to first get to the wild-card game and then survive that, but Manaea could be a good weapon for them if they get to the division series. Reports also indicate that the A's will call up lefty Jesus Luzardo, the team's top prospect, for their series against the Astros that begins Monday.
9. The Diamondbacks had won 11 of 12 before losing 4-3 to the Reds on Sunday. Cincinnati's Michael Lorenzen -- who earlier in the week became the first player since Babe Ruth in 1921 to win a game, hit a home run and play in the field in the same game -- delivered a pinch-hit, walk-off double. Lorenzen also started a game in center field this week. Lorenzen is hitting .333/.417/.571, but David Bell has managed to get him just 24 plate appearances all season. Considering Lorenzen hit .290 with four home runs in 31 at-bats last season, Bell should have been more creative in his use of Lorenzen this season, as he has done this week (something Bell himself admitted). The Diamondbacks remain 1½ games behind the Cubs for the second wild card.
10. The Phillies, meanwhile, are a half-game behind the Diamondbacks after a 10-7 win over the Mets -- a slog of a game that lasted 4 hours, 29 minutes, just one minute shy of the longest nine-inning game in NL history. Wilson Ramos and Robinson Cano staked Noah Syndergaard to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, but Syndergaard couldn't hold it, lasting just five innings and 78 pitches and departing for a pinch hitter with the game tied 4-4. Todd Frazier hit for him with two outs and the bases loaded. Given that Syndergaard probably had just one more inning in him, it's hard to blame Mickey Callaway for wanting to cash in on the runners. Then again, that meant four innings from the Mets' bullpen and ... well, it didn't go well. The Mets' playoff odds are down to 7.4%.