Covering the Bases: Game 152
FIRST: The Indians head home a half-game back of the American League’s second Wild Card spot with 10 games left against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. Cleveland clearly has the edge among the Wild Card contenders when it comes to the remaining schedule.
Right? Well, no, it’s not that simple.
On the surface, yes, the Indians do have the easiest slate left in terms of their opponents’ overall winning percentage this season. Take a look:
Remaining Opponents’ 2013 Combined Winning Percentage
Here’s the thing, though. Each of the contending teams are playing at varying levels this month compared to their overall showing, and the same can be said for each team’s upcoming opponents. So the better question is: which team is playing the best right now, and which team’s remaining opponents have gone the coldest?
To try to answer that question, I added up the overall winning percentage and the September winning percentage for each opponents of the six American League Wild Card candidates. I did the same for each of the clubs in the Wild Card chase.
For instance, the Indians’ opponents have a .387 winning percentage overall, but a .346 winning percentage in September. The Tribe’s upcoming foes are actually even colder right now than their overall showing. Add it up, and you get .733. Doing the same for the Indians, you get 1.186 (.539 overall and .647 in September). The Indians are hotter right now compared to their showing all season long. The difference then between the opponents and the Indians would be -.453.
If you do that for each team, it should give a pretty good indication not only of the strength or weakness of the coming schedule, but how each Wild Card team’s recent performance compares to that of its upcoming opponents. Follow me? A negative number is good — since I’m comparing the opponents to the contending team — and a positive number is bad (I’m looking at you Texas).
Let’s call it the True Strength of Schedule as of Sept. 18:
1. Royals (-.479)
2. Indians (-.453)
3. Rays (-.074)
4. Yankees (-.062)
5. Orioles (-.046)
6. Rangers (+.294)
Opponents’ September showing compared to overall showing:
What that means is that Kansas City’s opponents have gone the coldest this month, and Texas’ upcoming opponents have heated up the most. Needless to say, Texas should consider itself fortunate to hold a half-game lead for the second Wild Card spot, because the Rangers have gone ice cold this month and their remaining slate includes a group of teams playing better than they have for most of the year.
Kansas City just took two out of three against Cleveland, improving to 11-6 in September and pulling within 2.5 games of a Wild Card berth. The Royals’ remaining opponents’ .235 winning percentage this month is brutal, putting KC in a great position to continue a push up the standings. The Indians at least have the advantage of a two-game lead on the Royals.
Could this series at Kauffman Stadium have actually been a preview of the 2013 Wild Card game?
SECOND: The momentum of Wednesday’s game shifted in Kansas City’s favor in the fifth inning, when the Royals wound up with an extremely unconventional double steal that led to their fourth run of the night.
With one out, Alex Gordon on first base and Alcides Escobar on third, Indians righty Danny Salazar fired a pitch to Emilio Bonifacio. Gordon sprinted for second on the play.
“We put a hit-and-run on with Boni and Boni missed the sign,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “So we had some scampering around.”
Tribe catcher Yan Gomes came out of his crouch and pump faked, looked toward third for a split second, and then decided to throw through to second base after all. What followed was a 2-6-3-4-3-5-2 exchange that ended with Escobar sliding across home plate safely.
Where did the breakdown occur?
Cleveland first put Gordon in a run-down between first and second base, while Escobar crept down the third-base line. First baseman Nick Swisher eventually decided Escobar had advanced enough, so he fired the ball to third baseman Mike Aviles, who in turn snapped it to Gomes at the plate.
“I thought we handled it perfect,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “To that point, I thought they did a good job.”
After receiving the ball from Aviles, though, Gomes took a look toward Gordon.
“I kind of peeked to see if Gordon was going to third,” Gomes said.
That’s when Escobar made an athletic, game-changing maneuver. Kansas City’s shortstop dropped to the dirt, avoiding a tag attempt from Gomes, who fell after the swing and miss. Escobar then scrambled to his feet before diving head-first across the plate.
“Esky, wow. What a move,” Gordon said. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Gomes felt awful that it did.
“It was a pretty disappointing play on my part,” Gomes said. “It kind of turned out to be a pretty [big] momentum play for them, so it was kind of tough to swallow.”
THIRD: Salazar had averaged fewer than five innings per outing over his past six turns while working with his 70-80 pitch limit. The rookie right-hander said Wednesday that he was told the restriction was lifted for this start against the Royals and he responded by giving his team six admirable innings.
Salazar also finished with just 82 pitches, working more efficiently than in previous starts.
Unfortunately, Salazar was a little fastball-happy in the first inning, helping Kansas City push three early runs across. The right-hander settled down, but the damage was done.
“I thought early on he was obviously pretty amped up,” Francona said. “A couple of the at-bats, he got where he was over-throwing a little bit. As he settled into the game, and started using all his pitches, he was really good. But they got three in the first.
“Some of those guys, you can’t throw the ball past. You have to locate a little bit.”
HOME: Once again, Bruce Chen proved to be a nemesis for the Indians. The Royals lefty logged five-plus innings, allowing two runs and ending with just one strikeout. It was hardly overpowering — it never is with Chen — but he now has a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 innings against the Tribe this season.
“He does what he does, man,” Francona said. “He goes up, down, in, out. Nothing’s the same speed. Different arm angles. He kind of gives you fits. He just really knows how to pitch. He kind of takes the sting out of your bat.”
AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE
1. Tampa Bay 83-68 (+1)
2. Texas 82-69 (–-)
3. Cleveland 82-70 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 81-70 (1.0)
t-5. New York 80-72 (2.5)
t-5. Kansas City 80-72 (2.5)
Astros (51-101) at Indians (82-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday at Progressive Field