Pulse: Bucs snap hex, and Reds follow suit
NL Central rivals join postseason field; Rays walk off with sweep of Orioles
Three one-run wins plus three dramatic finishes befitting of late September in Major League Baseball equals two more teams with official invitations to the playoff dance.
And one long wait being over.
After weeks and weeks of permutations and confusing what-if scenarios, the math got a lot less complex as the Pulse of the Postseason continued to tap away toward a late-week crescendo.
Once the St. Louis Cardinals had held on for a 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals on Monday night, it not only solidified that club's standing as the leader in the National League Central. It also punched the October tickets for the Cardinals' closest pursuers, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The Pirates, of course have not been to the playoffs since 1992, but they're going, and they're happy.
"This has been a great run," Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen said in a champagne-soaked clubhouse. "And it's great that we get to continue."
Since the Reds had already walked one off against the Mets by a score of 3-2 and the Pirates had already won their game, 2-1, over the Cubs with a ninth-inning home run, both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs and will at least be Wild Card game participants.
And if the season ended today, since they have the same records, they'd be playing each other in that game.
Just another boring night in The Show, right?
Oh, and we didn't even mention the fact that the Detroit Tigers also could have guaranteed themselves a playoff spot on Monday, but lost in 11 innings to Minnesota and will enter Tuesday with their magic number for the AL Central still at two.
And then there's the American League Wild Card, a situation that's still up in the air and was injected with a dose of drama on Monday as well.
The Tampa Bay Rays, who are leading the AL Wild Card standings, had their own walk-off party on Monday, beating the Orioles, 5-4, on a James Loney homer in the ninth.
The Rangers gained half a game on the idle Indians by pasting the Astros, 12-0, while the Royals did the same by grinding out a 6-5 victory in 12 innings in Seattle. The Orioles faded farther out of the picture and the idle Yankees could only watch it all unfold from the sidelines while suffering more disappointment at the fact that starter CC Sabathia is out for the year with a hamstring strain.
The Cardinals haven't locked up the NL Central. Even with Monday's win, they're still only two games up on the Reds and Pirates. But they did what they had to do Monday and knocked Washington out of contention for good in 2013 while ushering in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
"I'm happy that right now we have a spot in the playoffs, but we have a lot of games to play and we're not thinking about that," said St. Louis outfielder Carlos Beltran, who hit a tiebreaking homer on Monday.
"We want to win the division. That's going to be our main goal."
The Pirates might not have been in this position for at least another day if not for the ninth-inning home run by Starling Marte off Kevin Gregg that broke a 1-1 tie.
And the Reds didn't disappoint in the crowd-thrilling department either.
Shin-Soo Choo's 10th-inning single off the wall at Great American Ball Park handed Cincinnati a 3-2 victory over New York, which only got better moments later when St. Louis had knocked off Washington.
"I was pulling for the Nationals to win so we could get one step closer to the Cardinals," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We wanted the Pirates to lose, but we're tied with them. We wanted the Cardinals to lose. We've still got five big games to go."
Speaking of walk-offs, the Rays finished off their home slate with a big one against Baltimore when Loney delivered a leadoff solo shot off Tommy Hunter in the bottom of the ninth to keep the Rays in the driver's seat for October.
"You've got to keep believing, our guys do," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They come to play every night. What else could you possibly want as a manager?"
Maddon was quick to note after the game that the win might not have been possible if Ben Zobrist, who played left field for the second time this season, didn't throw out one runner at the plate and another at third.
Zobrist playing left field today won the game. His defense won the game period. Two great throws. You don't get better than that.- Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) September 23, 2013
On the flip side, the Orioles were hurting in the literal and figurative sense. The team lost more valuable ground and is now teetering on the edge of elimination. Also, star third baseman Manny Machado was lost for the rest of the season with an ugly knee injury that left the rest of baseball hoping for a quick recovery.
Jerry Hairston, Jr. (@Therealjhair) September 24, 2013
"It's just frustrating, because they played hard," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "But you know, there's another game tomorrow. Fortunately and unfortunately, this game can be real cold. [You've] got to turn the page."
That's what the Rangers did on Monday, getting exactly the type of momentum-builder they need with a thorough rout of Houston. With the Indians off, the Rangers are only a game behind Cleveland for the Wild Card heading into Tuesday.
It was a feast of individual performances adding up to the greater good, with Alex Rios hitting for the cycle and Derek Holland pitching a six-hit shutout.
Thank y'all for the congratulations and good wishes! Tonight's game was a very special one for me and to top it off, we Won. #FinishStrong- Alex Rios (@arios51) September 24, 2013
So the Pirates and Reds joined the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox, A's and Dodgers in the group of October qualifiers, and there's more drama to come.
"We're still fighting," Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "And we're not going to stop until they tell us to stop."
More drama could come as soon as Tuesday as the Pulse of the Postseason continues to quicken, seemingly by the inning.
The Tigers can clinch at least a Wild Card spot and a division tie simply by beating Minnesota, and Doug Fister will get the ball and that task for Detroit against Minnesota right-hander Scott Diamond.
The Indians can keep their footing in the Wild Card race and perhaps gain ground on Detroit if they keep getting the brilliance they've seen of late from rejuvanted righty Ubaldo Jimenez.
Perhaps we'll see some changes in the NL Central standings with the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates all playing the same opponents for the second day in a row.
Maybe the Rangers will build off of Monday's success against last-place Houston with Yu Darvish on the rubber at home.
As for the Royals, Yankees and Orioles, it's not difficult to figure out what they need to do.
"Crazier things have happened in six games," Showalter said.
Crazy starts up again Tuesday.
Tuesday's key games to watch (all times ET)
White Sox (Santiago, 4-9) at Indians (Jimenez, 12-9), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
Rays (Moore, 15-4) at Yankees (Kuroda, 11-12), 7:05 p.m. Preview >
Mets (Niese, 7-8) at Reds (Leake, 14-6), 7:10 p.m. Preview >
Astros (Peacock, 5-5) at Rangers (Darvish, 13-9), 8:05 p.m. Preview >
Pirates (Cole, 9-7) at Cubs (Rusin, 2-5), 8:05 p.m. Preview >
Tigers (Fister, 13-9) at Twins (Diamond, 6-11), 8:10 p.m. Preview >
Nationals (Gonzalez, 11-7) at Cardinals (Wacha, 3-1), 8:15 p.m. Preview >
Red Sox (Lackey, 10-12) at Rockies (Chatwood, 7-5), 8:15 p.m. Preview >
Athletics (Straily, 10-7) at Angels (Vargas, 8-7), 10:05 p.m. Preview >
Royals (Chen, 8-3) at Mariners (Paxton, 2-0), 10:10 p.m. Preview >
Dodgers (Ryu, 13-7) at Giants (Cain, 8-9), 10:15 p.m. Preview >
If the postseason started today ...
Wild Card: Indians at Rays
Division Series: Wild Card at Red Sox^ | Tigers at A's^
Wild Card: Reds* at Pirates*
Division Series: Wild Card at Braves^ | Dodgers^ at Cardinals*
* - clinched postseason spot
^ - clinched division
To calculate a team's magic number, take the number of games it has remaining and add one. Then subtract the difference in the number of losses between that team and its closest pursuer.
A tiebreaker game will be played to determine a division winner, even if the tied clubs are assured of participating in the postseason. If a division championship tiebreaker is necessary, the head-to-head record between the clubs will determine home-field advantage. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.
If two clubs are tied for the two Wild Card berths, home-field advantage will be determined by the head-to-head record between the clubs. If the head-to-head record is tied, then division record will be the next tiebreaker.
2013 postseason schedule
NL Wild Card Game: Oct. 1
AL Wild Card Game: Oct. 2
NL Division Series begin: Oct. 3
AL Division Series begin: Oct. 4
NL Championship Series begins: Oct. 11
AL Championship Series begins: Oct. 12
World Series begins: Oct. 23