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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The first native Lithuanian in MLB history made his debut last night

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Why yes, it is a slow news day. But let’s not allow that to take away from some MLB history.

Last night a young man named Dovydas Neverauskas pitched in mopup duty for the Pirates, who were getting hammered by the Cubs. Mr. Neverauskas pitched two innings, allowing one run, making him, by default, the most effective pitcher the Pirates sent out there last night.

That’s good, but that’s not what makes it historic. What makes it historic is that Neverauskas is the first person born and raised in Lithuania to make the Majors. Here’s some back story on him from last year’s Futures Game.

Lithuania is known for producing basketball players. Now it has its first major leaguer. Whether he becomes baseball’s Arvydas Sabonis is an open question.

Bumgarner: dirt bike adventure was “definitely not the most responsible decision”

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Madison Bumgarner talked to the press yesterday about his dirt bike injury and its fallout.

While there is some speculation that the Giants may change their approach to Bumgarner’s contract situation at some point as a result of all of this, yesterday Bumgarner noted that the organization has been supportive as have his teammates. He said he apologized to them as well for an act he characterized as “definitely not the most responsible decision.”

As for the wreck itself, Bumgarner was a bit embarrassed to say that it wasn’t the result of doing anything cool or spectacular on the bike. Sounds like he probably just laid the thing down. Guess it makes no real difference given that he’s injured either way, but you’d hope to at least get a cool story out of it. Alas.

Here’s video of him talking to the press. The best and most accurate takeaway from it: when he says “it sucks.” Yep.