Commentary

Twins, Braves give this week a big boost

From playoff races to individual races, attractive finish to the regular season awaits

Originally Published: September 28, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Just when you thought it was safe to spend the final week of the baseball season getting your regularly scheduled life back in order, along came those Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves.

Boy, have they screwed up those plans.

Thanks to the Twins and Braves -- two teams whose combined record since Labor Day is an unconscious 28-9 -- the last week of the season is going to be gyrating with real, live pennant-race drama after all.

But this just in: That's not the only reason to click off "Survivor" and hang on every pitch, every inning and every box score this week. Here's just some of the important stuff that could be determined in the final week of the 2009 season:

The AL Central

Don't ask us what the Twins are still doing, lurking only two games back of the Tigers entering their four-game series in Detroit on Monday. Half the planet thought this team was deader than the brontosaurus weeks ago.

Detroit TigersMinnesota Twins

Well, it should have been, anyway. The Twins have spent 86 days under .500 this season -- and only 51 days over .500. They were six games under .500 as recently as five weeks ago. They were seven games out of first as late as Sept. 6. And they were still four games behind with 16 to play.

So if they somehow come back to steal the Central now, the Elias Sports Bureau says they'll be just the second team in the 40-year division-play era to finish first after being at least four back with that few games left. (The only other team to do that was -- and all Mets fans should leave the room now -- the 2007 Phillies, who charged from 4½ back with 14 to go.)

To keep this race alive, the Twins have had to go 11-2 since losing Justin Morneau for the season, and 5-1 to kick off the 10-game road trip that concludes with their visit to Detroit. But they've done what they had to do -- as always. So now they're actually in a better position than they were in a year ago this time, when they found themselves 2½ games out with a week to go and wound up forcing a one-game playoff with the White Sox to decide the Central.

The Tigers have let this division get dicey by losing 11 of their past 19 games -- including two of three to Minnesota last weekend in the Metrodome. But the good news is: At least they'll get to play the final seven games of the year in Detroit, where they have the third-best home record (48-26) in baseball.

Prospective matchups for this series:

Monday: Rick Porcello (14-9) versus Nick Blackburn (11-11).

Tuesday: Justin Verlander (17-9) versus Brian Duensing (5-1 overall, 5-0 as a starter).

Wednesday: Eddie Bonine (0-1) versus Carl Pavano (13-11 overall, 4-3 as a Twin).

Thursday: Nate Robertson (2-2) versus Scott Baker (14-9).

Home Of The Brave

If the Twins make it into the postseason, it will be amazing. But if the Braves make it, it will be downright historic.

This team was 8½ games out in the wild-card race with 21 games left in the season. And now, with seven games to go, these same Braves are only two out in the loss column.

Atlanta Braves

So if they can stampede back this week to overtake Colorado, the Braves will go down in history.

The Elias Sports Bureau reports that before this outfit came along, only one club in history -- the 1964 Cardinals -- had ever been 8½ games back in September and lived to make up that entire deficit and play a postseason game. So the Braves would tie that record if they win the wild card.

But the last date on which those '64 Cardinals were 8½ back was Sept. 5, when they still had 27 games to play. So the Braves would be the first team to trail by that many games as late as Sept. 11 on the calendar, and with just 21 to play on the schedule. Oh, and one more thing: If they somehow blow by the Phillies and win the NL East, they'll own all these records unto themselves, since they were a whopping nine games behind the Phillies after games of Sept. 9.

The Braves have made up this ground by going 14-2 over the past 2½ weeks, with both losses coming against Philadelphia last weekend. The Braves finish the season with three home games against Florida (the Marlins are 4-2 at Turner Field this season) and four at home against Washington, a team they're 5-0 against in Atlanta and 9-4 against altogether.

The NL Cy Young Race

What we have here is a three-man scramble for the National League Cy Young Award -- and one start remaining for each of the three aces in this duel. Can't beat that for intrigue.

Adam Wainwright
Wainwright

Chris Carpenter
Carpenter

Tim Lincecum
Lincecum

Tim Lincecum -- first in strikeouts (254), first in quality starts (25), second in ERA (2.47) but only 14-7 in the old win-loss column -- pitches Thursday at home against Arizona (and Dan Haren).

Chris Carpenter -- first in ERA (2.30), first in winning percentage (16-4, .800), first in quality-start percentage (22 of 27, 81 percent) -- also pitches Thursday, in Cincinnati (versus Reds rookie Matt Maloney).

And Carpenter's onrushing teammate, Adam Wainwright -- first in wins (19), first in innings pitched (227) and third in ERA (2.58) but first in second-half ERA (1.96) -- has one shot left to become the NL's only 20-game winner, Friday at home against the Brewers.

For what it's worth, Carpenter endorsed Wainwright over the weekend, after Wainwright's 11-strikeout, 130-pitch masterpiece in Saturday's division-clincher. For what it's also worth, the Baseball Writers Association of America is going to allow only actual writers -- as opposed to actual starting pitchers -- to vote once again this year.

The AL Cy Young Race

It's always risky to predict how America's finest baseball writers are going to vote for any award. So somewhere out there, there undoubtedly are voters ready to cast a first-place AL Cy Young vote for CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Felix Hernandez
Hernandez

Zack Greinke
Greinke

But for those who can resist the temptation to be seduced by the win column, the save column or the old radar-gun board, what we really ought to be down to for this award is a two-man battle between Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez.

After his latest spectacular performance Sunday against the Twins, Greinke's ERA has plummeted to only 2.06. And as my pal Tim Kurkjian pointed out in this piece, that would be the lowest ERA by an AL pitcher who didn't win the Cy Young since 1990, when Bob Welch's 27 wins trumped Roger Clemens' 1.93 ERA. Greinke (16-8) has one start left -- Saturday in the Metrodome.

Greinke now leads Hernandez (17-5, 2.49) -- the only other AL pitcher within eight-tenths of a run of him -- by nearly half a run in the ERA race. But this thing isn't over, because King Felix has two starts left: Tuesday against Oakland and Sunday against Texas, both at home in Seattle. And Hernandez has one more win than Greinke, one more quality start, one more inning pitched and an identical opponent batting average (.229 for Hernandez, .229 for Greinke). Greinke has a lower opponent OPS than Hernandez (.606 for Greinke, .609 for Hernandez). So there's still an astoundingly good opportunity for the King to make his case this week.

Other Awards

Andrew Bailey
Bailey

J.A. Happ
Happ

The two MVP races have been all but locked down by Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer. But the NL rookie-of-the-year fracas is still about an eight-man free-for-all (J.A. Happ, Tommy Hanson, Chris Coghlan, Colby Rasmus, Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Casey McGehee and Seth Smith). And the AL rookie donnybrook isn't exactly over, either (with Andrew Bailey, Rick Porcello, Jeff Niemann, Elvis Andrus and Gordon Beckham still theoretically alive).

Potential head-to-head rookie duels this week: Porcello pitches against Beckham and the White Sox on Friday. And Happ could face Coghlan on Sunday, although the Phillies haven't set their rotation that far in advance.

Meanwhile, the National League's manager-of-the-year award could also be in play this week. Colorado's eye-popping U-turn under Jim Tracy has positioned Tracy as the favorite. But if the Rockies don't hang onto an 8½-game September lead in the wild-card race, you can bet we'll be hearing from the Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa fan clubs.

The NL RBI Race

Over the past 47 seasons, 140 RBIs would have been enough to lead the National League in 36 of them. But it might not be enough this year. Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard head into the last week with 137 apiece, and Albert Pujols has 132. Just so you know, there have been only four seasons since 1931 in which the NL runner-up knocked in at least 140 runs -- 1962 (Willie Mays 141), 1996 (Dante Bichette 141), 1998 (Mark McGwire 147) and 2001 (Todd Helton 146). But this is looming as No. 5.

The "Other" Triple Crown

Joe Mauer
Mauer

Bet you thought we had run out of historic accomplishments for Joe Mauer to chase. Heck, no. He has one more week to finish off a feat no American Leaguer has managed in almost 30 years: the Sabermetric Triple Crown. Mauer would be the first AL hitter to lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the same season since George Brett in 1980. At the moment, he holds a 20-point lead in the batting race, a 34-point lead in slugging and a 32-point lead in OBP. Here are the only seven men in the past half-century who have hit this trifecta: Frank Robinson (1966), Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Fred Lynn (1979), Brett (1980), Larry Walker (1999), Todd Helton (2000) and Barry Bonds (2002, 2004). Cool group.

The Compensation-Pick Derby

Last year, on the way to 101 losses, the Mariners abruptly heard the alarm clock go off in the final weekend, shockingly swept their last three games of the year from Oakland and handed Washington the right to draft Stephen Strasburg. Well, this season, with a week to go, the Mariners are locked in a different kind of draft-pick drama. The teams with the worst 15 records this year don't have to worry about losing a first-round pick as compensation if they sign a Type A free agent this winter. And at the moment, the race for that 15th-worst record is a tight battle between Seattle (80-76) and Tampa Bay (79-76). So if that's the way it winds up, the Rays are off the compensation hook. They have the Orioles and Yankees left, both at home. Seattle is also home all week, facing Oakland and Texas. We know you draftniks will be all over those games.

Human Trivia On The Line

And, finally, it isn't just playoff berths, award hardware and history on the line this week. Just as important, we have future trivia answers at stake, too. ESPN Stats & Information geniuses Jeremy Lundblad and Ryan McCrystal came up with all these gems:

• Ichiro Suzuki has 216 hits this year (which is great) -- but only 84 runs scored (which is not so great). So unless he has a huge week of run-scoring, he should wipe out the record for fewest runs scored by a player with 220 hits. The record is 92, by Jim Bottomley in 1925 and Richie Ashburn in 1951.

• Hanley Ramirez has 24 homers and a .348 batting average. One more homer and a two-point bump in average would put him in a club with Nomar Garciaparra ('99 Red Sox) and Alex Rodriguez ('96 Mariners) as the only shortstops in history with 25 home runs and a .350 average in a season at age 25 or younger.

Michael Bourn
Bourn

• Astros leadoff man Michael Bourn has piled up 59 steals and 133 strikeouts. One more burglary, and he would become just the third proud member of the 60-130 Club (60 steals, 130 whiffs). The others: Juan Samuel (168 K, 72 SB in 1984) and Lou Brock (134 K, 74 SB in 1966).

• That trusty Nationals bullpen just racked up its 38th loss of the year Sunday. Two more L's in the next week, and this would be the first bullpen in the past 50 years to lose 40 games in one season. The 2004 Rockies' pen took 39 losses.

• And B.J. Upton has a more challenging week ahead than he probably realizes. With 10 homers and 151 strikeouts, he is currently tied for the record for most whiffs by a player who hit 10 homers or fewer (Delino DeShields in 1991). So either Upton has to avoid striking out again, or he'd better make another home run trot. If not, he'll be coming to a trivia quiz near you by next week.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com