Not all is perfect atop AL East

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It was supposed to be an epic series: Yankees vs. Rays. The two best teams in baseball locking horns in a four-game series with the AL East lead at stake.

And after four games, we’re back where we started, with Tampa Bay’s blowout victory on Thursday preserving a split of the series and keeping the Rays a 1/2-game behind the Yankees in the AL East race.

Both teams are going to the playoffs (sorry Red Sox, but you’re not going to catch ’em), and the only thing left to be decided is which team gets to have home-field advantage against the Texas Rangers in the first round, and which team has to face the Minnesota Twins as the AL wild card team.

If we learned anything from this series, it’s that both the Rays and Yankees are flawed, and it’s time to rethink the idea that the AL East powers are indeed the two best teams in the AL. They still might be, but the argument to include the Twins in the discussion is getting stronger, as Minnesota (16-4 in September) suddenly possesses the best record in the league.

You want reasons for concern? Let’s take a look:

On the Yankees side, pitching appears to be an issue. CC Sabathia, so brilliant last week in a duel with David Price, labored terribly on Thursday, walking three and allowing 10 hits and seven runs in 5 1/3 innings. Price wasn’t much better, as both aces seemed intent on bolstering the unusual Cy Young case of Felix Hernandez, but at least Price was able to wiggle out of danger, allowing just three runs in six innings despite putting 12 runners on base.

While I wouldn’t worry too horribly about Sabathia – or Andy Pettitte for that matter – it is legitimate to be concerned about the rest of the staff, a mix that includes the inexperienced Ivan Nova, recently struggling Phillip Hughes and the enigma that is A.J. Burnett.

And despite having Mariano Rivera anchoring the bullpen, what about the rest of the crew? Aside from Kerry Wood, none of them got through this series unscathed, and Javier Vazquez – who tied a record by hitting three straight batters on Thursday – is hardly reliable. Luckily for the Yankees they have a dangerous collection of bats, because they are probably going to need them.

On the Rays side of things, the concerns are more varied. There is certainly some problems with the starting pitching. James Shields and Wade Davis have compiled mediocre seasons, and the occasionally brilliant Matt Garza, who no-hit Detroit on July 27, has also been frequently horrible. In his last four starts, he has managed to go no further than 5 2/3 innings, and has allowed at least six runs in each of his last three outings.

On the offensive side of things, the Rays face another dilemma, as their feast-or-famine offense has to be driving their small but loyal fan base nuts.

The Rays rank 12th in the AL in batting average and eighth in slugging percentage, lead the league in strikeouts and have been no-hit twice this season. Yet they also lead the AL in walks and are second only to the Yankees in runs per game.

Rays blogger Jason Collette breaks down the situation nicely here. The whole post is worth a read, but the bottom line is that the Rays make up for a lot of deficiencies with their speed, not only stealing bases but also taking the extra base at a higher rate than other AL teams. They also have hit into fewer double plays than anyone, and it’s not even close.

That being said, little slumps are magnified in a short playoff series, and if the hot-and-cold Rays hit a chilly stretch, a playoff stay could be brief.

Both the Yankees and Rays are dangerous without a doubt, but as this week’s series showed, both teams are also flawed. And when you consider that the Twins are 50-18 since the All-Star break (.735), and the Rangers will feature not only a powerful lineup, but Cliff Lee at the top of their rotation, assuming an all-AL East ALCS is a risky proposition.

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Bruce Maxwell on anthem protest: “If it ends up driving me out of baseball, then so be it”

Associated Press
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For the second straight day, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the national anthem before the A’s game against the Texas Rangers. Afterward, he said he did not care what the repercussions might be:

“If it ends up driving me out of baseball, then so be it. This is bigger than a monetary standpoint, this is bigger than the uniform I put on every day. This is about the people in this country and we all deserve to be treated equally. That’s the whole purpose of us taking a knee during the national anthem.”

And make no mistake, there will be repercussions of one kind or another. The immediate ones are pretty predictable: Maxwell says he has received threats since his first protest on Saturday night, including racial epithets and warnings “to watch [his] back.” These came via the Internet and Maxwell has brushed it off as the act of “keyboard warriors.”

The more interesting question will be whether there will be career repercussions. He has received support from the A’s, but even the supportive comments come with at least a hint of foreboding. Here’s his manager, Bob Melvin:

“It does take a lot of courage because you know that now the potential of the crosshairs are on you and for a guy who’s not as established, I’m sure, and I’m not speaking for him, but I’m sure there were some feelings for him that there was some risk. I do know that he felt better about it afterwards because there’s a lot of uncertainty when you take that type of step.”

I don’t feel like Melvin is referring to the threats exclusively, there, given the reference to Maxwell not being “as established.” That’s a phrase used exclusively to refer to a player’s standing within the game. As long as Melvin is the A’s manager and Maxwell plays for him, sure, it may very well be the case that only Maxwell’s ability as a player will impact his future. But Melvin seems to be acknowledging here — correctly — that this act of non-conformity on Maxwell’s part could be career limiting. Heck, his teammate, Mark Canha, voices concern over the fact that he merely put his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder in support. He’s worried that that might be seen as bad for him.

And if you don’t read that into Melvin or Canha’s words, fine. Because it’s very clear based on the words of others around the league that Maxwell’s sort of protest might be considered . . . problematic. From the story that Ashley linked yesterday, let’s focus again on the words of Pirates GM Neal Huntington:

“We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Does that sound like a man who is going to judge a player based solely on his baseball contributions? Heck no it doesn’t. How about if Maxwell lands on the Dodgers?

Make no mistake: Matthews is taking a risk with his protest. There are a number of teams — likely more than will admit it publicly — who will hold this against him as they evaluate him as a player.

You can react to this in a couple of ways, I figure. You could nod your head like a sage, adopt the tone of some inside-baseball guy and say “Well, of course! There are consequences for one’s behavior and only those who are naive don’t believe that.” If you do, of course, you’re ignoring the fact that Maxwell has already acknowledged that himself in the quote that appears in the very headline of this story.

Another option: acknowledge his bravery. Acknowledge that he knows damn well that, especially in baseball, that this kind of thing is far more likely to harm his career than help it. If you acknowledge that, you have no choice but to then ask why Maxwell nonetheless continues to protest. Why this is so important to him despite the risks.

That’s when your reacting and your second-guessing should stop and your listening should begin.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

Associated Press
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Here are the scores. Oh, and here is the reason why, Bruce Maxwell notwithstanding, you’re not likely to see all that much protesting in Major League Baseball like we saw in football yesterday. Here are the highlights:

Diamondbacks 3, Marlins 2J.D. Martinez hit a two-out, bases-loaded RBI single in the bottom of the ninth to secure the walkoff win and, more importantly, to clinch the top Wild Card position for the Diamondbacks. They had learned they had clinched a postseason spot when it was announced in the fourth inning that the Cardinals and Brewers had each lost, but the hit and home field clincher gave them a nice boost for their postgame celebration.

Rockies 8, Padres 4: The Rockies have been faltering of late, but so has everyone else on their tail for the second Wild Card, so a split with the Padres is Ok for the moment. Gerardo Parra hit a tiebreaking single in a two-run third inning and Pat Valaika and Charlie Blackmon hit back-to-back home runs in the ninth for some insurance as Colorado extends their Wild Card lead to two games. They’ll be the last team playing meaningful games in the 2017 regular season.

Twins 10, Tigers 4: Eduardo Escobar continued his torrid second half, hitting a three run homer, as the Twins complete the four-game sweep. The other teams in the hunt for the second Wild Card should complain to the league office, though, because Minnesota getting to face a Tigers team which is mailing it in so badly that it almost insults the concept of mailing it in as many times as it does in the season’s last ten days is super unfair. They now lead the Angels by four and a half, so the entire AL playoff picture is all but over.

Blue Jays 9, Yankees 5: Jose Bautista probably played his last home game as a Blue Jay — maybe his last home game for anyone — and got a nice sendoff. He also got a couple of hits and  a walk. Aaron Judge hit a couple of homers in a losing cause and is now only one back of Mark McGwire for the rookie record. Fun thing: Jays starter Marcus Stroman warmed up in the bullpen before the game wearing a vintage black Jose Bautista jersey. He had asked a clubhouse attendant to find one for the purpose. The attendant found it in a stadium display case. Stroman: “It’s authenticated. They took it out and let me wear it. I guess they’ll probably wash it and put it back.” Someone should do that with, like, a Babe Ruth or a Willie Mays jersey.

Red Sox 5, Reds 4:  The Reds had a 4-1 lead heading into the eighth, but Mookie Betts doubled with the bases loaded to tie it and then scored from second base on a Rafael Devers infield single for the go-ahead, rally-completing run. The Red Sox’ magic number for the AL East crown is three.

Nationals 3, Mets 2: Max Scherzer struck out ten while allowing one run over six innings to pick up his 16th win of the year. Trea Turner hit a two-run bomb. The Nationals clinched home field advantage for the Division Series, which will probably be against the Cubs.

Orioles 9, Rays 4: J.J. Hardy homered and scored twice. In other news, J.J. Hardy is alive. Nice moment for him, though, as this was almost certainly his last home game as an Oriole.  Chance Sisco also homered, though you’re not going to convince me that his name wasn’t made up by a b-level Hollywood writer trying to create a franchise character. Not sure if “Chance Sisco” is a detective or a bounty hunter, though. I could see it going either way.  Between “Chance Sisco,” “Trey Mancini” and “Manny Machado,” the O’s have to have the best names, aesthetically speaking, in baseball. They should sign a utility infielder named “Cellar Door” to achieve perfection.

Phillies 2, Braves 0: Nick Pivetta and three relievers combine to shut out the Bravos. Maikel Franco homered and Aaron Altherr doubled in a run. The Braves end their inaugural season in Sun Trust Park. Not as terrible a season as some suspected.

Pirates 4, Cardinals 1Starling Marte hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth and Jameson Taillon and five relievers held the Cards to four hits. St. Louis falls two and a half games back of the Rockies for the second Wild Card and are six back of the Cubs with only seven games to play.

Cubs 5, Brewers 0: Jose Quintana pitched a three-hit complete game shutout to push the Cubs to the brink of the NL Central title. Last week’s sweep of the Cardinals and this weekend’s three-of-four from the Brewers was quite the statement from Chicago. They’ll almost certainly clinch the division in St. Louis this week.

White Sox 8, Royals 1Lucas Giolito allowed one hit and one run over seven innings and Avisail Garcia drove in three. The future looks better on the South Side than the past. That’s all that was supposed to be accomplished this season and it has been.

Athletics 8, Rangers 1Jharel Cotton pitched five shutout innings of one-hit ball and Khris Davis hit his 41st homer to give the A’s their seventh straight win. When the series started the Rangers had a legit shot at the second Wild Card. The A’s ended their season for all practical purposes.

Dodgers 3, Giants 1: Clayton Kershaw bounces back nicely from his last start to allow one run on eight hits over eight innings. He picks up his 18th win on the year and reduces his ERA to 2.21. Yasmani Grandal knocked in all of L.A.’s runs via a two-run homer and a sac fly.

Indians 4, Mariners 2: Corey Kluber joins Kershaw in the 18-win club after allowing only two unearned runs and striking out ten over seven innings. It’s his 15th start of the season in which he’s struck out at least ten dudes. I know Ks are cheaper these days, but that’s still pretty dang impressive. Jose Ramirez’s 29th homer of the year broke a 2-2 tie.

Angels 7, Astros 5Luis Valbuena hit a tiebreaking two-run double in the seventh to help the Angels snap a six-game skid that, unfortunately, ended their season for all practical purposes. Brandon Phillips hit his first homer since being traded Aug. 31. In other news, I had forgotten that Brandon Phillips had been traded to the Angels on August 31. It’s been a long season, folks.