Red Sox, Braves are staggering

Even Dustin Pedroia hasn't been his pepperpot self during the Red Sox's September slide that sees...

Even Dustin Pedroia hasn't been his pepperpot self during the Red Sox's September slide that sees them in danger of falling out of the AL wild-card slot (Getty Images)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:05 PM ET

TORONTO - Against all odds, the slumping Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves have found a way to put the wild back into the wild-card hunt.

On Sept. 1, the Red Sox were locked into the American League’s extra playoff spot, nine full games ahead of Tampa Bay. On Aug. 30, the Braves were similarly nine games ahead of St. Louis in the National League wild-card standings.

Three weeks later, both teams are in danger of being overtaken. The Red Sox have both the Rays and the Angels to worry about. The Braves are looking over their collective shoulders at the Cardinals and, a bit further back, the defending World Series champion Giants.

The Red Sox have won five and lost 16 games in September. There are multiple reasons for the collapse, most of them centring upon pitching. In their first 21 games this month, they allowed just under seven runs per game, with an ERA of 5.98. That run total also reflects 11 unearned runs this month, a total on the high side of normal.

Still, you might think that an offence like Boston’s should be able to overcome some of those pitching deficits. To a certain degree, the offence has responded, but the Bosox are playing without Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford has been little more than a passenger. Even pepperpot Dustin Pedroia has lacked his usual energy.

Meanwhile, both the Rays and Angels are full up with pitching, though neither club has been very good offensively. It’s still Boston’s playoff spot to lose and the two pursuers may just run out of time.

The other question in this situation revolves around Boston’s ability to do any damage if it actually hangs on to get into the playoffs. This is hardly what manager Terry Francona envisioned on Sept. 1.

“I think I can answer that better next Wednesday after the regular-season finale,” Francona said after Wednesday’s loss. “I’m not in a very good mood right now. We just lost a game, you know. We’ve lost a lot of games. We’re going to have to fight for everything we get the rest of the way.”

And even then, it might not be enough.

In Atlanta’s case, the Braves’ superb pitching that carried them all season, has hit a wall and they have lost 13 of 21 this month. Jair Jurrjens hasn’t pitched in September and is unlikely to be back until early in October. Tommy Hanson has pitched one game since July. The club’s brilliant young bullpen, anchored by Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty, has pitched a combined 230 innings with an ERA of 1.60. Now, in September, they may be feeling the effects of overuse.

Meanwhile, the Cards offence has been second-best in the NL in September. Their starters are on a roll and the trade they made for pitcher Edwin Jackson has turned into a good one. He is 7-4 with a 3.73 ERA in 11 starts with St. Louis. The Cards are 14-6 in September and eating up ground by the day on the Braves. Thursday’s late-inning loss to the Mets may slow that momentum down.

“We’ve played ourselves back into this,” manager Tony La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Rick Hummel. “You can feel it, hear it. The dugout’s on fire. The real fun is playing meaningful games at this time of year.”

THE BOO CREW

In the American League, the Blue Jays and Orioles can both mount powerful arguments against the current unbalanced schedule that forces them each to play 54 games against Boston, New York and Tampa Bay, while playing 108 games against everybody else. The inequity is obvious.

Its unlikely you’ll hear the same argument being offered in Milwaukee, where the Brewers have dined out on the dregs of the NL Central to earn their playoff spot.

As of Thursday, the Brewers were 26 games over .500. Their collective record against Pittsburgh, Houston and the Cubs was 32-11, accounting for 21 of those games over .500.

Indeed, against teams with winning record, the Brewers are a combined 23-32 this season, hardly the stuff of October dreams. The Brewers have played 28 games this season against teams that are currently in the playoff picture. Their combined record in those games? 10-18.

SHORT HOPS

New England Sports Network (NESN.com), 80% owned by the Red Sox, conducted a poll this week asking readers which team would win the American League wild card. Shockingly, 60% of those impartial responders, after careful thought, replied: Red Sox ... One reason the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t going away any time soon: Matt Moore. The rookie flame-thrower punched out 11 Yankees over five innings in his first start Thursday ... Think the Indians would like to have a mulligan on the Ubaldo Jimenez acquisition? The Indians gave up grade A prospect Drew Pomeranz for Jimenez at the deadline, at a time when their hopes were already sinking.

MO’S STORYBOOK RIDE

The most amazing thing about Mariano Rivera, who became baseball’s career saves leader this week, isn’t that he has saved 602 games, and counting.

It’s the fact that he has saved even one.

The son of a Panamanian fisherman who played ball for fun on weekends, Rivera didn’t even get a look from a scout until he was almost out of his teens. Even then, when scout Herb Raybourn saw him pitch, it was a fluke. Rivera, then a shortstop, had been pressed into service as a pitcher because the starter didn’t show up for a town league game.

It took years before the Yankees knew what they had. He had elbow surgery in 1992 and the Yankees left him unprotected in the expansion draft that would populate the Marlins and the Rockies. Nobody even noticed.

It wasn’t until he got to triple-A in 1995, that something clicked and he started throwing in the high 90’s.

“When we signed Mariano in 1990,” Yankees senior VP of baseball operations Mark Newman told ESPN.com, “I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘This guy is going to be a major leaguer.’ He was a very good athlete and he could throw it over the plate, but nobody wrote out the Mariano development plan that said he would someday throw 98 miles per hour, have the finest control on the face of the planet, would learn a cutter and, oh, by the way, that’s all he’s going to throw.”

We salute the guy they call Mo, the greatest closer ever, and the storybook path that got him there.

KEMP HOPES MOM KEY TO CORONATION

Six games from the finish line, Matt Kemp is in position to become baseball’s first triple crown winner in 44 years.

In its history, baseball has had 15 triple crown winners, but none since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Through Thursday’s games, the Dodgers’ offensive kingpin, and the leading candidate for National League MVP honours, led the league in RBIs with 118, was second in home runs, just one behind Albert Pujols’ total of 37 and sits third in batting average at .326, just four points behind Ryan Braun’s .330.

In Thursday’s home finale, Kemp went 4-for-5 with a two-run homer.

His mother was visiting from Oklahoma City for the three-game series against San Francisco and Kemp is taking her to San Diego for the weekend series there.

“I might take her to Arizona, too,” Kemp said, looking forward to the season-ending series early next week. “Every time my mom comes, I play good.”

NO LETTING UP BY THE YANKS

With the American League East title wrapped up, the Yankees aren’t in must-win mode this weekend against the Red Sox but, well ... you know.

There are never any meaningless Yankees-Red Sox games and, even if the Yanks are trying to set themselves up for the playoffs, it will still be intense.

“Anything to get the Red Sox out would be awesome for me,” said catcher Russell Martin, in his first year as a Yankee, “because I hate the Red Sox.

“They’ve given us a hard time all year. I don’t think we’re scared of them or anything. We’ll see what happens. If we play them (in the playoffs), we play them. We just have to beat them.

“It’s good baseball. These teams are going to be fighting for it. It’s going to be fun to be the spoiler.”

New York manager Joe Girardi promises his lineup will respect the integrity of the wild-card chase

“What I don’t want to do is give all the guys the same day off,” Girardi said. “I think that’s important that we don’t do that. Some of it will be determined by if we’re facing a left-hander. Our guys are going to play.”


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