We're down to one primary fragment of unsettled drama, and the American League wild-card race -- and Jose Ramirez in particular -- delivered on Tuesday evening.
Ramírez, in his first game back since fracturing his hamate bone on Aug. 24 and undergoing surgery, stepped in from the left side of the plate in the top of the first inning and hit a two-out grand slam off Carson Fulmer to stake the Cleveland Indians to a 4-0 lead over the Chicago White Sox. In the third inning he switched to the right side against left-hander Hector Santiago and hit a three-run home run as the Indians rolled to the 11-0 shutout behind starting pitcher Mike Clevinger. I know it's not October, but given these are essentially playoff games already for Cleveland, it served as an excellent Kirk Gibson impersonation. Definitely one of those "I don't believe it" moments.
It was also clear Ramírez isn't 100 percent as he appeared to favor his right hand on his swing -- which would affect him more from the left side, because the bottom hand is more of the power hand. His left-handed swing seems to be powered by his top hand, so the home run was a remarkable piece of hitting. When he received high-fives in the dugout after his home runs, his teammates were also careful to gently tap the right hand. (According to The Athletic's Zack Meisel, Ramirez told reporters before the game: "I don't feel 100 percent.")
So what an emotional lift for the Indians as they battle the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics for the two wild-card spots. One game isn't proof Ramírez will rake in these next five games, but keep in mind that after a dreadful first two-plus months he had looked like the Ramírez of old, batting .325/.370/.675 since June 21.
Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, the Yankees used 11 pitchers (including CC Sabathia's first career regular-season relief appearance), the Rays used nine, the teams combined for 30 strikeouts and all the runs scored on three solo home runs. Ji-Man Choi gave the Rays the 2-1 victory with his walk-off home run in the 12th inning off Cory Gearrin -- apparently Ramiro Mendoza, Scott Proctor and Jeff Nelson weren't available.
The Rays have trailed in 14 of their past 15 games but are nevertheless 10-5 in that span. Kevin Cash continues to piece together games with his pitching staff -- no team has benefited from the expanded rosters in September more than the Rays, as they fully utilize all those extra pitchers sitting out in the bullpen. Of course, those extra guys have to do the job, and Rays relievers have a 2.58 ERA in September while throwing the second-most innings in the majors. That's how the Rays have gone 15-6 this month.
Their lead over Cleveland for the second wild-card berth remains a half-game -- they have one win in hand with four games remaining (one more against the Yankees and three on the road in Toronto), while the Indians have two more against the White Sox and three against the Nationals. That one win may seem small, but it's significant as FanGraphs gives the Rays a 70% chance of making the playoffs and the Indians a 37% (with the A's at 93%) chance.
Those odds, however, aren't factoring in that the Washington Nationals are hardly going to burn through their best pitchers that final series now that they've clinched. As is, the Indians will already miss Stephen Strasburg, and while Max Scherzer is scheduled to pitch Sunday, you have to think the Nationals will keep him out of that game as a backup option to Strasburg in the wild-card game.
By the way, we're now assured of a 93-win team not making the playoffs. As ESPN Stats & Information points out, since the advent of the wild card in 1995, only five teams with at least 93 wins have missed the playoffs:
• 2005 Indians (93-69)
• 2003 Mariners (93-69)
• 2002 Mariners (93-69)
• 2002 Red Sox (93-69)
• 1999 Reds (96-67, lost tiebreaker game to Mets)
What we learned Tuesday: OK, let's go through this with bullet points.
• The Nationals clinched a wild-card spot.
• The Phillies were officially eliminated.
• The Brewers won and remain one game behind the Nationals for the two National League wild cards. If the Brewers and Nats end up with the same record, the wild-card game will be in Milwaukee.
• The Mets rallied late to beat the Marlins, while the Cubs continued their late-season fold with an awful five-error game against the Pirates. Both teams now have a tragic number of one, so they need to win out and have the Brewers lose their final five. So much for NL wild-card drama. Very disappointing finish to that race. Very disappointing.
• The Dodgers clinched home-field advantage through the NL playoffs.
• As mentioned above, the Rays remain a half-game up on the Indians for the second wild card (the Rays own the home-field tiebreaker if a play-in game is needed).
• The Yankees' loss means the Astros still have the edge for overall home-field advantage. The Astros hold the tiebreaker there, so the Yankees have to finish with the better record.
• I would not want to face Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals in the postseason. That means you, Atlanta. He lost his no-hit bid in the seventh inning on a bad-hop single. His numbers since July 7: 1.00 ERA, 99.1 IP, 48 H, 23 BB, 124 SO, 6 HR. Wow.
• What, you expected the Mariners to beat Gerrit Cole? He recorded his eighth straight double-digit strikeout game and broke J.R. Richard's team record for a season as he fanned 14 in seven scoreless innings to run his season total to 316. That's the most in a season since Randy Johnson fanned 334 in 2002.
• The Angels beat the A's 3-2, so Oakland's lead over Tampa Bay is down to a mere half-game and just one game over Cleveland. We'll worry about three-way tiebreakers later in the week.
Nationals clinch wild card: Eddie Matz has the full report from D.C., where the Nationals punched their playoff ticket when the Pirates beat the Cubs. In fact, the games ended almost simultaneously, with the Nationals beating the Phillies, shaking hands and then watching the final out of the Cubs and Pirates on the big video screen while still on the field.
It's no surprise that the Nationals are here -- they were the preseason favorite to win what was projected to be a tight NL East. But when they started 19-31 after 50 games, all bets were off. They became just the ninth team in MLB history to reach the postseason after being 12 games under .500 (listed below with the latest point they were 12 games under):
2019 Nationals: 19-31 (88-69, ???)
2013 Dodgers: 30-42 (92-70, lost NLCS)
2009 Rockies: 20-32 (92-70, lost NLDS)
2005 Astros: 26-38 (89-73, lost WS)
1989 Blue Jays: 12-24 (89-73, lost ALCS)
1981 Royals*: 27-39 (50-53, lost ALDS)
1974 Pirates: 37-49 (88-74, lost NLCS)
1973 Mets: 55-67 (82-79, lost WS)
1914 Braves: 28-40 (94-59, won WS)
* The Royals won the second half in the split-season format, going 30-23, so their 12 games under doesn't really apply.
Of course, the bigger miracle is the Nationals made the playoffs despite an MLB-worst 5.77 bullpen ERA (although the pen allowed just one run in eight innings in Tuesday's doubleheader). Only four other teams had made the playoffs with a pen ERA over 5.00:
2005 Red Sox: 5.17
1997 Mariners: 5.47
1987 Twins: 5.11
1921 Yankees: 5.42
It will be interesting to see how manager Dave Martinez sets up his pitching staff. Stephen Strasburg, and not Max Scherzer, has been the Nationals' best pitcher down the stretch, so you have to expect Strasburg in the wild-card game -- but that could also mean using Scherzer in a relief role if needed and still having Patrick Corbin ready to start Game 1 of the division series if the Nationals advance. It's that rotation depth -- along with a couple guys in the lineup named Rendon and Soto -- that makes the Nationals a scary opponent in the postseason as their record since those terrible first 50 games attests.
And about the Phillies being eliminated: Given all the big additions for the Phillies in the offseason, 2019 will certainly go down as a disappointment. With a 79-78 record after the Nationals swept them in that doubleheader in Washington, the Phillies will have to win two of their final four games to beat last year's 80 victories and three of four to finish above .500 for the first time since they won 102 games in 2011.
What went wrong? Not as much as it appears. FanGraphs' preseason projections had the Phillies winning 85 games. On paper, they weren't expected to be a powerhouse, even with the big-name acquisitions. The Phillies needed a dominant offense and didn't get one, ranking eighth in the NL in runs per game and 11th in home runs. The pitching staff suffered a slew of injuries in the bullpen, but starters Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin failed to make strides while Aaron Nola predictably regressed from his outstanding 2018 and Jake Arrieta predictably got a year older.
The story of the 2019 Phillies is simple: They were mediocre across the board -- offense, rotation, bullpen, defense and managing. They had some bad luck with the injuries to Andrew McCutchen and the bullpen, but other than McCutchen the position players were healthy, with their five main regulars all playing 140-plus games.
That all means the Phillies will face an interesting offseason. They're built to win with a core group of players in their prime years. Sure, they'll want to add somebody to the rotation and hope for better health in the pen, but the main question: Is that core a championship-caliber core?