Wednesday, September 28, 2011

First Pitch: Tied wild-card races raise prospect of one-game playoffs

By Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY
Ready for two playoffs before the playoffs?

That scenario would unfold if the wild-card races remain the way they are for just one more day.T

The St. Louis Cardinals finally caught up to fast-fading Atlanta by overcoming an early 5-0 deficit to crush the Houston Astros 13-6 on Tuesday, after the Philadelphia Phillies had delivered another damaging blow to the Braves by beating them 7-1.

Should the NL wild-card contenders remain tied after today's action, they would face each other in a one-game playoff Thursday in St. Louis at 8:07 p.m. EDT.

The AL wild-card tiebreaker would be played four hours earlier at Tampa Bay, provided the Rays and Boston Red Sox can't settle matters by tonight.

Both clubs won Tuesday, but while the Rays rode Matt Joyce's three-run homer in the seventh to a 5-3 victory over the New York Yankees, the Red Sox had to sweat till the last swing before dispatching the stubborn Baltimore Orioles 8-7.

Fittingly for a Boston club that has gone 7-19 in September, it took closer Jonathan Papelbon 28 pitches and all of his resources to get out of the ninth inning, after allowing one Oriole to score and having the tying run at second base.

"I don't know if you could see out there, but there was a couple of times I had kind of a little grin on my face," Papelbon said afterward. "I enjoy that. That's baseball, man. It doesn't get any better than that. I was having fun. I enjoy that. That's what it's all about."

Manager Terry Francona, who saw his club take an 8-4 lead in the eighth and nearly blow it, had an appreciating for the moment but wouldn't exactly describe the experience as fun.

"I think it's really good for baseball. Not so good for my stomach,'' said Francona, who will have Jon Lester on the mound tonight, opposing Alfredo Simon. "It's exciting. If you don't want to show up tomorrow and play, you've got no pulse. My goodness. I can't remember being that nervous in a long time.''

Boston got a major boost from rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who had two homers and four RBI. The Rays, meantime, were lifted by two highly unlikely developments – a sixth-inning triple play and Joyce's second homer in his last 30 games.

The blast turned a 3-2 Yankees lead into a 5-3 Rays margin that held up.

"It was probably one of the most exciting times you can possibly have on a baseball field -- in our town, two games left in the season, everything riding on the line, you're down a run. You know it was just a big hit," Joyce said.

He homered off former Rays closer Rafael Soriano, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi stuck with his plan to give some work to his top relievers, including David Robertson and Mariano Rivera. Today, however, Girardi intends to rest them for the playoffs, and he has yet to announce a starter. The Rays will go with ace left-hander David Price.

The Braves will also have their ace on the mound in Tim Hudson, but he may need a bit more support than his fellow starters have received in the last two games, when the Phillies held Atlanta hitters to a total of three runs. He'll be opposed by Joe Blanton.

The Braves, who had an 8 ½-game lead for the wild card on Sept. 6, have lost 12 of 17.

"You never expect this to happen to you," said Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones. "It's like living out a bad dream."

The Cardinals must have felt the same way after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers left them at 67-63 on Aug. 24, the wild card but a faint hope with the Braves 10½ games ahead of them.

Now they're on equal footing, except St. Louis is facing the team with the majors' worst record and the Braves play the one with the best.

The Cardinals have won 21 of 29 since the Dodgers sweep.

"It's kind of fed us here the last few days, 120 years of baseball and this is one of those historic runs to tie," said manager Tony La Russa, who will send out ace Chris Carpenter against the Astros' Brett Myers. "But there's a different story between tying and finishing it off. So tomorrow we'll see if we can go take another step."


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