Posted October 03, 2012

AL East and NL home field advantage come down to the wire

Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Washington Nationals

Chris Tillman’s development is a big reason the Orioles are headed to the postseason. (Landov)

The Hit and Run blog has already taken a look today at the pennant race standings, the Game 162 scenarios and the A’s-Rangers matinee that will decide the AL West title. Below is a look at the other relevant games that could, but won’t definitely, finally settle the playoff field.

Beasts of the East: Boston Red Sox (69-92) at New York Yankees (94-67), Baltimore Orioles (93-68) at Tampa Bay Rays (89-72), 7:10 p.m. EDT

Like the AL West, the AL East division race has gone down to its final day, and as many folks figured at the outset of the season, the Yankees and Red Sox are involved. Unfortunately for Boston, they’re merely palookas in this fight, having secured last place in the division for the first time since 1992, while the Yankees hold a one-game lead on the Orioles, with both teams having clinched playoff spots. Blown out early Monday night, the Red Sox held a 3-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning on Tuesday, but with the Yankees staring down the barrel of a dead tie going into Game 162 — the Orioles had eked out a 1-0 win against the Rays — Raul Ibanez’s two-run pinch-homer off Andrew Bailey tied the score, and his 12th inning single off Andrew Miller brought home Francisco Cervelli with the winning run.

The Yankees own a 12-5 advantage in the season series, including 5-3 in the Bronx. They can clinch the league’s best record with a win, facing the wild-card winner on the road starting on Saturday and securing home field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. To do so, they’ll send Hiroki Kuroda to the mound. While the 37-year-old righty leads the team in innings (212 2/3) and has the lowest ERA of any of their four full-season starters (3.34), he has scuffled somewhat lately, allowing at least four runs in four of his last six starts, and pitching into the seventh inning just once in his last five. He’s had trouble keeping the ball in the park, yielding seven homers over 37 2/3 innings in that six-start stretch en route to a 5.02 ERA. While he has ERAs below 3.00 against each of the Yankees’ four potential postseason opponents, he’s at 3.86 in four starts against the Red Sox, though only his first outing against them (six runs in 5 2/3 innings on July 6) was a non-quality start.

Meanwhile, the Sox cap their disappointing season in fitting fashion, with a start from the disappointing Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is almost certainly making the final start of his six-year Boston career, and for a manager who’s likely to be run out of town on a rail as well. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, the 31-year-old Matsuzaka has been scorched for a 7.68 ERA in 10 starts totaling just 43 1/3 innings, thanks to a combination of a high walk rate (3.9 per nine) and an astronomical home run rate (1.9 per nine). Over the last four years of his six-year, $52 million contract (not including the $51.11 million posting fee), he has made just 55 appearances, delivering a 5.42 ERA while battling shoulder, back, neck and elbow woes. He hasn’t faced the Yankees since October 2, 2010; during his stateside career, he has a 5.52 ERA and just two quality starts out of 10 against them.

In Tampa Bay, the Orioles need a win as well as a Yankees loss in order to force a Game 163 tiebreaker to determine division and wild-card status; that game would be played in Baltimore on Thursday thanks to the Orioles’ superior intradivision record. If both they and the Yankees win, they’ll host the loser of the A’s-Rangers game in the wild- card playoff on the basis of a better overall record, but if they lose today, they’ll be the road team on Friday on the basis of lesser head-to-head records against both Oakland (4-5) and Texas (2-5). But first things first – today Baltimore sends Chris Tillman to the mound in the hopes of forcing that AL East tiebreaker game. The 24-year-old righty has been a revelation since returning to the majors in July, finally living up to his blue chip prospect status with a 2.78 ERA and a 64 percent quality start rate in 14 starts, taking the baton from the injured Jason Hammel as the team’s top starter. In three partial seasons prior to that, Tillman had been raked over the coals for a 5.58 ERA in 36 starts due to the unsurprisingly fatal combination of soaring walk and homer rates (4.0 and 1.4 per nine, respectively). He’s trimmed those to more reasonable clips (2.7 and 1.0, respectively) via improved consistency — particularly with the release point of his fastball — surrendering multiple homers just twice, and walking more than two batters in an outing just twice as well. He surmounted four walks in six innings in his lone start against the Rays on July 26, yielding only two runs and getting the win.

The Rays, who were eliminated from playoff contention with Oakland’s win on Monday night, and who trail the season series with the O’s 10-7, counter Tillman with 25-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, who has delivered a strong but somewhat uneven season. His 3.20 ERA and 57 percent quality start rate are offset by his own soaring homer rate (1.3 per nine) thanks to a .268 BABIP, the league’s sixth-lowest mark among ERA qualifiers. Hellickson may be running out of gas, having lasted just 37 1/3 inning over his last seven turns, none of which have topped 100 pitches; only twice has he pitched at least six innings in that span, though his ERA for that span is a more-than-respectable 2.89. He’s already faced the Orioles a whopping five times this season, most recently with five shutout innings on September 13. He has a 2.83 ERA against them overall, with three quality starts.

Senior Circuit Concerns: Philadelphia Phillies (81-80) at Washington Nationals (97-64), 1 p.m. EDT, Cincinnati Reds (97-64) at St. Louis Cardinals (87-74), 8:15 p.m. EDT

Still at stake in the NL is the league’s top record, and thus home field advantage throughout the postseason. If the Nationals and Cardinals split their results, obviously the distinction will be clear. If they both win or both lose, the Nats take the No. 1 seed on the basis of a 5-2 head-to-head record with Cincinnati and will face the winner of the wild-card game between the Cardinals and Braves, with the Reds facing the Giants.

In Washington, the Nationals send Edwin Jackson to the mound against Cliff Lee. Jackson is coming off one of the worst starts of his career, having been battered for nine runs (eight earned) in 1 1/3 innings by the Cardinals on September 28; he yielded six hits and walked four in that start. Jackson has been lousy since the beginning of September, with a 7.92 ERA and just one quality start out of five, though to be fair, that’s more a matter of a .386 BABIP than the things over which he has more control. While the Nats have lost all three of his starts against the Phillies this season, he hasn’t given up more than three runs in any of them. Most recently, Jackson struck out eight Phillies hitters while yielding three runs in six innings on August 24. Meanwhile, Lee is pitching better than he has all season, putting up a 1.07 ERA and an unreal 49/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last seven starts, allowing no more than two runs in any of them. That stretch began with seven innings of one-run ball against Washington on August 26; prior to that, he tossed seven shutout innings at the Nats on July 31.

In St. Louis, Homer Bailey — who no-hit the Pirates in his last start — takes the hill against rookie Shelby Miller. A phenom who cracked Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list four years in a row (including two in the top 10), the now-26-year-old Bailey has put it all together this season, delivering 204 innings of 3.75 ERA ball with a 66 percent quality start rate, all runaway career bests. He made just one quality start out of three against the Cardinals, however, and most recently was touched for five runs in six innings against them on August 26. As for the 21-year-old Miller, he’s a three-time Top 100 prospect himself who came into this year ranked eighth. After an uneven season at Triple-A Memphis (4.74 ERA and 1.6 homers per nine, but also 10.5 strikeouts per nine), he has five big league relief appearances under his belt, with a 9/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 7 2/3 innings. This will be his first start; with the Cardinals having clinched on Tuesday night thanks to the Dodgers’ loss, manager Mike Matheny opted to hold back Adam Wainwright for a postseason start in favor of the rookie.

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