Each of us has his own idea of what makes a baseball game great. You may prefer a slugfest, while I prefer a pitchers’ duel. You may prefer extra innings, while I prefer a crisp nine. We probably both agree that late-inning tension is a must, and that playoff implications only add to a game’s greatness. Individual rooting interests may turn one fan’s classic game into another’s nightmare. Whatever your preference, it’s hard to argue that much of the best baseball of 2012 has happened over the past few days.
We’ll start on Saturday night, when the Rays and Angels met in the third of a four-game series. Tampa came into the game in position to claim the first AL Wild Card, with the Angels all-of-a-sudden 2 1/2 games behind Baltimore and Detroit for the second Wild Card after the Rays had roughed up Dan Haren and Jered Weaver in the first two games of the series. Records aside, Tampa and LA of Anaheim brought the two best pitching staffs in the American League (on paper, at least) into this game, and looked to be the strongest contenders for the two Wild Card berths.
Saturday night’s pitching matchup heavily favored the Angels, who threw out yet another ace in CJ Wilson against the Rays’ Alex Cobb. Sure enough, the Angels pounded Cobb and took an 8-0 lead in the first three innings. Tampa Bay rarely goes down quietly, though, and once they found a flaw in Wilson’s repertoire, they pounced, scoring seven in the fifth, highlighted by a bases-clearing double from Ben Zobrist and a two-run homer from Evan Longoria. Tampa tied it in the sixth off Jason Isringhausen and took the lead in the eighth when Carlos Pena homered off Kevin Jepsen.
Meanwhile, the Rays’ bullpen made the comeback possible with 6 1/3 innings of three-hit, six-strikeout relief, punctuated by one-two-three innings from Jake McGee and Joel Peralta and a save by Fernando Rodney. The comeback changed the tenor of the AL Wild Card race, which had been a five-team scrum for two spots. After Tampa won this and Sunday night’s game against Angels ace number four (Zack Greinke), they stood a game and a half clear of the A’s in the Wild Card race, while the stumbling Angels were 4 1/2 behind Baltimore for the final spot. While there’s plenty of time for the contenders to shuffle around in the AL, Los Angeles of Anaheim is looking less like a lock by the day, due in large part to one of the great games of the season.
Not to be outdone, Pittsburgh and St. Louis came into Sunday afternoon’s tilt one game apart for the last NL playoff spot. The surprising Pirates held the spot, riding adequate pitching, Andrew McCutchen, and a healthy dose of good luck toward their first winning season since 1992. St. Louis, meanwhile, had been the best team in the National League by run differential and team WAR, but couldn’t put a run together due in large part to a porous bullpen and the flip side of Pittsburgh’s lucky coin.
On Sunday, Jaime Garcia did his best to keep the Cards from sinking any further, striking out ten and walking none in eight strong innings. Jeff Karstens was no slouch for the visitors, though, yielding just two runs and leaving in the eighth inning with the game tied at two. Tied it would remain, through closers and mop-up guys and LOOGYs and ROOGYs, until the Pirates finally broke through, loading the bases against Joe Kelley in the 17th and scoring on Garrett Jones’s infield single off Marc Rzepczynski. The scorer of that run? Pitcher James McDonald, who pinch hit for pitcher Jared Hughes with no hitters left on the bench, singled, moved up on a wild pitch, and took third by virtue of an intentional walk and a hit batsman. Things are working out for the Pirates this year.
The Cardinals wouldn’t go down without a fight. Yadier Molina and Skip Schumaker hit consecutive singles off Juan Cruz in the bottom of the 17th, and pinch runner Ryan Jackson scored on pinch hitter Tony Cruz’s sacrifice fly.
In the 18th, Fernando Salas and Monday’s scheduled starter, Wandy Rodriguez, combined for five strikeouts, pushing the game to the 19th. Clint Hurdle’s use of Rodriguez shows that he probably did have last year’s 19-inning loss to the Braves in mind. Pittsburgh lost that game on a blown call in the 19th and proceeded to fall apart, plummeting from first place to fourth by year-end.
In the top of the 19th, with Barret Browning, who may or may not have been a fan who bought a replica jersey at the game and snuck into the dugout, pitching for St. Louis, Pedro Alvarez homered to break the tie, McCutchen, probably the frontrunner for NL MVP, broke it open with a two-run single. Rodriguez got three outs to end it, and the Pirates extended their Wild Card lead to two games.
The teams used a combined 44 players in this one, both emptying their benches and bullpens and dipping into the starting pitcher pool (Adam Wainwright walked as a pinch hitter). The rotation shuffle has wrought some havoc on Pittsburgh since Sunday. The Pirates have lost three straight since then and may trail St. Louis and the Dodgers for the second Wild Card by the end of the night. Still, it’s hard to imagine a better game being played than this one in 2012, even it if was the last glimmer of hope in the Pirates’ season.
That brings us to Monday night, when the Giants and Dodgers kicked off a pivotal series, with LA leading by a half game and the West division unlikely to grab a Wild Card spot. Game one featured Clayton Kershaw, who’s quietly been perhaps the best pitcher in the National League again this season, and Madison Bumgarner, who’s essentially been the exact same pitcher as Kershaw with the exception of five extra home runs.
Kershaw and Bumgarner were clones again Monday night, each pitching eight innings, striking out ten batters, and walking none. The only difference was a few singles and a sacrifice fly by Pablo Sandoval, which combined to give the Giants a 2-0 lead going into the ninth. New Dodger Hanley Ramirez hit a solo homer off Sergio Romo in the ninth, threatening to render Bumgarner’s impressive line as worthless as Kershaw’s would turn out to be, but the Giants held on for a 2-1 win.
These two very flawed teams pushed around a very weak division for four months, and it almost seemed like no NL West team deserved a playoff spot, particularly in mid-July, when no team in the division had a run differential better than +5. Then the Dodgers added Hanley and Shane Victorino. The Giants added Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro to keep pace. Chris Capuano has been surprisingly effective for LA, joining Kershaw and the sometimes-great Chad Billingsley to form a formidable rotation, and Matt Kemp should break out of his slump anyday. Bumgarner and Matt Cain are among the game’s best pitchers, and Ryan Vogelsong recently led the league in ERA, despite relatively weak peripherals, and Buster Posey is emerging as an MVP candidate. Either of these teams could make some noise in the postseason, and Monday night was a preview of just how great NL West baseball can be.
Tonight, the White Sox and Yankees are locked in a great pitchers’ duel, with Chris Sale having struck out 13 and allowed just four baserunners in 7 2/3 innings as the White Sox try to reduce New York’s AL East lead to three games with a sweep, while maintaining their own lead in the Central.
Whatever your definition of a great baseball game, late August is a great time to be a fan. And with 16 teams in contention for ten playoff sports down the stretch, expect more contenders for game of the season.