The Week Ahead: Three-way battle for AL supremacy

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The American League playoff field is set, with the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins clinching their divisions, and the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays soon to sort out who will be the AL East champion and who will be the wild card team.

But there is one big thing left to watch for in the AL during the final week of the season, and that is the three-way battle for best record – and thus home-field advantage – through the first two rounds of the playoffs. (See a breakdown of the playoff races here.)

Entering the week, the Tampa Bay Rays (93-62) are sitting atop the AL, with the New York Yankees (93-63) and Minnesota Twins (92-63) right behind. All three have a shot to secure home field in the ALDS and ALCS. Because the All-Star Game decides the home-field edge in the World Series, that honor will go to whichever team emerges from the National League.

The Rays seem to have the edge. Not only are they ahead in the standings and hold the tiebreaker over the other two teams, they also have the easiest remaining schedule with three games against Baltimore and four against Kansas City. The Yankees have six road games, three at Toronto and three at Boston, while the Twins are at Kansas City and at home against Toronto. Minnesota is already guaranteed home field in the ALDS, as the Twins will play the AL wild card team. The AL East winner will face the Texas Rangers.

But will home-field advantage even matter in the playoffs? The Yankees (52-29), Rays (48-29) and Twins (52-25) are all excellent at home, but the head-to-head records between these teams don’t reveal any significant trends.

The Rays actually have a winning record against the Yankees both in New York (5-4), and in St. Petersburg (5-4) this season, but only marginally so. And while the Rays are 3-1 against the Twins in Minnesota, they are only 2-2 against them in St. Petersburg. As far as the Yankees and Twins go, New York took two of three at Target Field, yet the teams split four games in the Bronx this season.

All in all, it’s a pretty insignificant sample size that doesn’t give us much to go on. The Yankees certainly recognize that, preferring to rest and prepare their rotation for the playoffs instead of gunning for the AL East title.

As the defending champs who didn’t go to a final deciding game in any series last season, I’m going to trust their judgement.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Mariners at Rangers, Sept. 27-29:
The Rangers are going to the playoffs, the Mariners are battling for a high draft pick. But one thing of note is that Felix Hernandez will get one last chance on Tuesday to convince voters he is a Cy Young candidate.

Astros at Reds, Sept. 28-30: The Reds can clinch their first playoff berth since 1995 with a win over the Astros. Of course if the Cardinals lose on Monday, it will be all over, and Cincy fans will spend this series recovering from the party.

Yankees at Red Sox, Oct. 1-3: The schedule-makers probably thought they had a doozy of a series set up here, but Boston’s inability to keep up with the Yankees and Rays in the brutal AL East has taken away some shine. Still, the Red Sox can take pleasure, small as it may be, if they keep the Yankees from grabbing the AL East title.

Phillies at Braves, Oct. 1-3: The Phillies will probably have clinched the NL East crown by the time this series rolls around, but Atlanta should still be in the thick of the wild card race, so this will carry plenty of meaning.

Padres at Giants, Oct. 1-3: They’ve been taking turns leading the NL West for a week now with neither team playing great, neither team folding tent. With the Braves struggling, there is a chance both of these teams will make the playoffs, but there has to be big incentive to win the division and hopefully avoid the Phillies in the NLDS.

ON THE TUBE
Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.: Marlins at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:10 p.m.: Red Sox at White Sox (ESPN)
Wednesday, 10:05 p.m.: Diamondbacks at Giants (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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Video: Nomar Mazara crushes a 491-foot home run

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 27:  Nomar Mazara #30 of the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 27, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Rangers rookie outfielder Nomar Mazara crushed the longest home run of the season to date, according to Statcast, with a 491-foot shot to the upper deck in right field against the Angels on Wednesday afternoon. With the bases empty and no outs in the second inning, Angels lefty Hector Santiago threw a 1-1 off-speed pitch, which did not fool Mazara in the slightest.

Statcast measured it at 491 feet. Giancarlo Stanton previously had the longest home run at 475 feet off of Hector Neris on May 6. Franklin Gutierrez hit a 491-foot shot on Saturday against Reds pitcher John Lamb.

Mazara entered the afternoon hitting a terrific .317/.364/.483 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in 162 plate appearances.

Blue Jays activate Devon Travis from the disabled list

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 22: Devon Travis #29 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates scoring a run in the third inning against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum on July 22, 2015 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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The Blue Jays announced on Wednesday afternoon that the club has activated second baseman Devon Travis from the disabled list. To create roster space, ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte has been optioned to Triple-A Buffalo.

Travis, 25, last played on July 28 last year. He battled a shoulder injury for which he would undergo season-ending surgery. He burst onto the scene as a productive rookie, batting .304/.361/.498 with eight home runs and 35 RBI in 239 plate appearances before being sidelined.

Thus far, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney have handled second base for the most part for the Jays. But the club has gotten a meager .585 OPS out of the position, the lowest mark in the league. The return of Travis should be quite a boon. He is batting eighth in Wednesday night’s lineup against the Yankees.

Adam Wainwright is not a fan of the proposed strike zone changes

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 09:  Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 6 to 1 in Game Five of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium on October 9, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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It’s probably not a big shocker that a pitcher is not a big fan of the strike zone being made smaller, but Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals and he tells the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he is not a fan of the proposed changes to the strike zone we wrote about recently, calling the proposal “a horrible, horrible idea.”

Horrible, he acknowledges, because he’s a pitcher with a vested interest so, yes, let’s give Wainwright credit for self-awareness and for disclosing his self-interest. But he thinks it’s a bad idea for another reason too: more hits will lead to more balls in the gap and thus longer games.

I get the intuitive nature of that — the longer it takes to retire a side the longer games go — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that offense and game times are related in the way Wainwright implies. There was a lot more scoring in the 1990s and early 2000s and games were actually shorter then than now. Partially because of other factors (i.e. there were not quite as many pitching changes and because guys played at a faster clip). Partially, I suspect, because there were fewer strikeouts and strikeouts take a longer time than guys grounding out or having some of those balls in the gap caught on the run by a fast outfielder.

As I said last week, I suspect that we’ll see fewer balls in the gap than Wainwright implies and, rather, a lot more walks as pitchers test umpires to see if they’re really taking away that low strike. In the short term that’ll actually make games longer, though not for the reason Wainwright thinks.

 

 

Report: Jonny Gomes has retired

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 28:  Jonny Gomes of the Kansas City Royals looks on before Game Two of the 2015 World Series between the Royals and the New York Mets at Kauffman Stadium on October 28, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
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SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo hears from a source that former major leaguer Jonny Gomes has decided to retire from baseball. The 35-year-old spent the 2016 season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League, but he struggled at the plate, batting .169/.280/.246 in 75 plate appearances. Gomes left the Eagles by mutual consent back on May 11.

Gomes won a championship with the Red Sox in 2013 and the Royals last year. He ends a 13-year major league career having hit .242/333/.436 with 162 home runs in 4,009 trips to the plate.

Gomes was known as a clubhouse leader during his playing career, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up coaching or managing in some capacity in the future.