10. Holy Shit, the Mariners (SEA-CWS)
Pardon the cussing, gang. But, I mean, come on; when the Mariners win eight baseball games in a row, you're doing well if you can avoid shedding all your clothes and climbing the nearest phone tower while the cops wait below. Seriously, eight f---ing games in a row! And they've done it at home, where they haven't been able to score runs all season. Back when they traded Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners had one of the strangest home/away run production splits ever. Actually, it was the strangest possible split — they were the highest-scoring team on the road, and the lowest-scoring team at home. Things have leveled off slightly — they're still last at home, but are now just seventh-best on the road — but it's still wild that they pulled off eight wins in a row at Safeco, even against teams like Cleveland and Minnesota.
Here's where I hope this is all heading: The Mariners continue to ride the Ewing Theory Post-Ichiro wave, somehow earn one of the wild-card spots, and then GET BEAT BY ICHIRO AND THE YANKEES IN THE PLAYOFFS. Tell me that wouldn't be compelling. Look me in the eye and tell me that, baseball fans. First, though, they have to play the White Sox, a team that just swept the Yanks, and the great Felix Hernandez will not be pitching in this series. Which is too bad, because he's making a hard charge for the AL Cy Young, and every start is now must-see television. But watch out for Michael Saunders and Eric Thames, who are both hitting the hell out of the ball for the M's.
9. Hot Bat of the Week: Aaron Hill, Diamondbacks (ARI-SDP)
Somehow, it has become tradition for me to put the hot bat of the week in the 9-slot, which is neither logical nor accurate, since I would rather watch 300 Mariners–White Sox games consecutively than tune in for five seconds of D-backs–Padres. But I'm afraid I'll have a riot on my hands if I change it up now, so let's go through the motions. Over the past eight games, Aaron Hill is hitting .448 with four home runs and a slugging percentage of .966. He's the huge clubhouse leader for the NL Silver Slugger Award at second base, too, which would be the second of his career.
8. The Weight of Expectations (LAA-DET)
I know they've underachieved all year, but it's completely beyond my fathoming that the Angels could lose the second wild-card spot to Oakland or Detroit or Baltimore. And yet, here they are, ensconced at least three games behind each of them, still struggling to stay above that .500 mark. Weird things keep happening; Albert Pujols starts to hit, then Zack Greinke comes over and stinks. Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout keep slugging, but the rest of the order lags behind. Jered Weaver contends for a Cy Young, but the rest of the rotation turns out to be pretty mediocre, including C.J. Wilson. I still contend that if the pieces come into place, the Angels will be a terrifying playoff club. The best possible scenario is that Greinke and Wilson find their juice, unite with Weaver to form a deadly three-man rotation, and shut things down while Pujols/Trumbo/Trout slug them to a World Series. But time's running out, and this series is sneaky-awesome precisely because it could be where their potential goes to die. Has there been any series this year where the result would produce such drastically different playoff outlooks for a team? I think not.
7. The Dying Yankees (NYY-CLE)
Time for some doom and gloom straight from a Yankees fan: Robinson Cano's slump is killing me. Maybe literally. I'll let you know soon. But as he goes, so the Yankees have gone, slowly releasing their previous death grip on the AL East. The pesky Rays are now just three games back, and that minor little team annoyance — the complete inability to get actual hits with men on base — is now teaming up with frail starting pitching to send the Yanks spiraling into the realms of unwanted drama.
CC Sabathia is expected back Friday, and Derek Jeter is on an unbelievable tear, but everything else is gloomy. The numbers are finally catching up to Ivan Nova, whose recent shoulder pain might be a psychosomatic wound prompted by good luck's nasty reversion to the mean. Freddy Garcia has begun to look like Freddy Garcia. Phil Hughes is intermittently effective, but even at the best of times he's prone to giving up deadly home runs — did you know he has the second-highest home run rate among qualified starters? Only Hiroki Kuroda is on hand to save the day. He and Sabathia will take the first two games, and if the Yanks can't start to recover their swagger against the Indians, Joe Girardi's stress-induced anger might erupt and maim the next wiseguy to impugn the pinstripes.
OK, I have to say one more thing. Sorry. Indulge me. Just let me show you the Yankees' team batting line in several situations.
Runners on: .263/.345/.457
RISP + 2 outs: .235/.336/.399
Is that not categorical evidence of choking? Only the OBP stays at similar levels as the stakes mount, which means the walks increase as the hits decrease, and even that annoys me. Sure, it's great to put another runner on base, but where are the damn hits? But I probably should shut up, because the Yankees have proved effective at getting pitchers out of the game early, and that matters. But the absence of the big, game-breaking hits, which cost them the first two games against Chicago, is maddening. And I'm done now, I swear. Until next time.
6. The Lonely Pirates (PIT-MIL)
I want the Pirates to not drop out of the playoff race. I want there to be magic in the world. I want 10 million dollars and a Sour Patch Kid the size of my body. But the Braves-Reds-Cardinals triumvirate is finally asserting its cruel will, and the Pirates are being squeezed out of a playoff spot. I have a bad feeling it's only going to get worse. Check out Ryan Braun in this series. He's hit five homers and slugged 1.148 in his past seven games. He's also neck and neck with Andrew McCutchen in the race for an NL MVP award he will surely never get.
5. Pitching Matchup of the Week: Gio Gonzalez vs. Roy Halladay (Saturday, WAS-PHI)
Rough weekend for pitching matchups, if I'm being honest. Here's a list of men you won't see: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jered Weaver. That's six of the game's top 10 pitchers, including all five legitimate AL Cy Young contenders, not throwing. Seems weird. But Gio vs. Roy is a good one, with the former trying to get his strikeout mojo back after two uninspiring (if effective) starts and the latter trying to prove against recent evidence that he's still an elite pitcher.
4. The Ongoing Oriole Death Watch (BAL-TOR)
Pirates winning = magical universe. Orioles winning = an annoying precocious 4-year-old who won't stop telling jokes at a party for adults even after you're like, "OK, we get it, you're funny, now go to bed." If the doomsday scenario plays out and the Orioles somehow beat out the Yankees for the last wild-card spot, I'll stop watching baseball. At least until the next Yankees World Series win, when I'll release a truck full of live orioles into a Baltimore bus station and yell, "You are being attacked by your own kind!" Don't ask me why I'd do that. I don't know. I'm so confused right now, and it's the Orioles' fault.
3. Redlegs vs. Redbirds (CIN-STL)
Seems appropriate that former Little League World Series hero Todd Frazier is the best hitter in baseball over the last 14 days, a time that almost perfectly coincides with the start of the event that made him a legend. I still remember the '98 Series, when he and the Toms River, New Jersey, gang took down Japan 12-9 in the championship (Frazier went 4-4 and was the winning pitcher). Frazier was so damn cool that my friends and I all wore our hats tilted up and to the side on our heads in that insouciant Frazier style. It's important to note that he was 12 years old at the time, while we were 15. Anyway, I love this Reds-Cards series, and not only because of the playoff implications and the Cardinals' chance to finally break through after suffering with a record that didn't match their good run differential all season. I also dig it because of the Lynn-Latos matchup Friday, which qualifies as the second-best pitching duel of the weekend.
2. The Wildest Card Before the Wildest Card (SFG-ATL)
The Giants just swept the Dodgers, and it couldn't have come at a better time. But the great part about the NL West is that you get the feeling it's a temporary fix, an ephemeral joy at best. Neither the Dodgers nor the Giants are great, but they're locked in a sort of grappling double-helix ascension that smart money says won't be resolved until they meet on the last weekend of the year. They're meant for each other. The Braves, meanwhile, just lost two of three to Washington, and probably also forfeited any chance of winning the NL East. It's the wild-card hunt for them, and the odds of victory are good when you consider the extremely favorable schedule awaiting them. In other words, this series means more to the Giants, and they have nice pitching matchups Friday and Saturday, and they're playing at home. But after establishing a 2½-game lead on their soul-rivals, don't be surprised when they tumble right back down to engage in the predestined trenches.
1. A's-Rays, for Two More Days (OAK-TBR)
The best team in July (Oakland) versus the best team in August (Tampa). If the season ended today, these teams would nab the wild cards and play each other in a rip-roarin' one-game donnybrook. Don't you love rip-roarin' one-game donnybrooks? Isn't that why we're here, on Planet Earth? The Rays and A's are playing a rare Thu-Fri-Sat three-game set and will have Sunday off, because the Republican National Convention is coming to the Trop. If that seems bizarre, the players agree. But before Republicans and natural disasters descend on Tampa, two excellent pitching matchups (Parker-Moore, McCarthy-Hellickson) will give us an early taste of playoff-caliber baseball.