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Pressure's on in baseball's final week
Buck Showalter sees the anguish in the other dugout. It’s the best kind of agony — but agony nonetheless.
“One of the toughest things to do is finish off a good season,” the Baltimore manager said, his team having played a succession of contenders recently. “Those games don’t go by fast, the last two weeks. It’s like an eternity, trying to get the math right where you can go on.”
For them, completing a 6-4-3 double play feels harder than combinatorial theory.
The wild-card races are so close now that there’s a negligible difference in stress between upstart and front-runner. There are six days left in the regular season. SIX. If you haven’t clinched a playoff spot by now, you are feeling it.
Come to think of it, we’re still waiting on division clinchers for the Rangers, Brewers and Diamondbacks.
(To be fair, though, Boston is still enduring the greatest pressure of all. In New England, watching a nine-game lead on Sept. 1 melt to a two-game lead on Sept. 23 feels something like flying from Reykjavík to Beijing . . . through Heathrow . . . with the sinus infection from hell . . . sitting beside someone droning on about their gout . . . on both segments.)
Fans in Boston and Atlanta don’t want to hear this, but those of us who crave down-to-the-wire races owe their teams a great debt of gratitude. During the final weekend of regular-season baseball this year, we have eight series that matter in determining the postseason field: Red Sox at Yankees; Braves at Nationals; Blue Jays at Rays; Mariners at Rangers; Cubs at Cardinals; Marlins at Brewers; Athletics at Angels; and Giants at Diamondbacks.
Another series — Orioles at Tigers — will help determine whether Detroit gets home-field advantage in the first round of the American League playoffs.
All told, nine of the 15 series matter. That’s a remarkable ratio, given the Labor Day grumblings that September would be devoid of drama. And given the taut, two-game margins in both wild-card races — Boston over Tampa Bay, Atlanta over St. Louis — there’s an excellent chance that the postseason field won’t be determined until the final series (and maybe the final day) of the year.
The Rays were Thursday’s big winner — and not just because they shellacked the newly crowned AL East champion Yankees by a 15-8 count. More important, they sprang off the canvas after being swept in the Bronx in Wednesday’s doubleheader, turning the vise on Boston once more in advance of the Sox-Yankees grudge match this weekend in New York.
For what it’s worth, Friday’s pitching probables portend victories for both Boston and Tampa Bay. The Red Sox have the advantage over the Yankees (Jon Lester vs. Freddy Garcia), and the Rays have ace David Price to oppose Toronto’s talented-yet-erratic Brandon Morrow.
At this point, a three-game lead would have felt much more comfortable for the Red Sox. But the Rays, once again, refused to go away — even after the first-game collapse Wednesday that would have demoralized a lesser team.
The Cardinals and Angels will be similarly tested on Friday, after each endured a crushing, last-at-bat loss Thursday.
St. Louis was three outs away from drawing to within one game of Atlanta. The Cardinals had a 6-2 lead — at home — with closer-for-now Jason Motte on the mound. But Motte walked Willie Harris to lead off the inning, shortstop Rafael Furcal muffed a potential double-play ball, and the unraveling began.
The Mets scored six runs in the inning and won, 8-6. Motte, Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas were among the culpable relievers — making many in the heartland wonder if Heath Bell, still a Padres player, might have been able to retire the side in order. Now the Cardinals must put their faith in ace Chris Carpenter in the series opener against the archrival Cubs.
The Angels’ loss wasn’t quite as shocking — their greatest, latest lead in Toronto was 3-1 entering the seventh — but it had the same effect in the standings. Mike Scioscia used six relievers, and the last of them — rookie right-hander Garrett Richards — surrendered a 12th-inning walk-off home run to Edwin Encarnacion.
It was the sort of thing that makes for an unpleasant 2,500-mile flight to Orange County.
Win that game, and the Angels could have arrived at Angel Stadium on Friday with a three-game winning streak and ace Jered Weaver on the mound. Instead, they face a three-game deficit — and are chasing both the Red Sox and Rays.
This is the type of torment that moved the genial Moises Alou to declare, upon completion of the Mets’ epic collapse in 2007, “I hate baseball right now.” We haven’t heard a similar quote yet this year. But stay tuned. Even at this late hour, it’s still a little early for that.
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