As much fun as it would be to see the Brewers and Tigers create havoc in October, this is shaping up as a postseason that will be low on surprises. The three best teams entering the playoffs are likely to be the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox, in that order.
The forecast here is we're looking at a Yankees-Phillies World Series, after the Yankees have a relatively easy time against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees' edge against the Red Sox is that they have better pitching, and their bullpen figures to be the best in the playoffs -- a strong statement considering the Tigers' Jose Valverde's perfect season and the Braves' All-Star combination of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters.
The Yankees' 2.99 bullpen ERA entering the weekend was the best among the nine teams in playoff contention, a tick ahead of the Braves. Its four blown saves since the All-Star break is the second lowest total among those nine teams, behind the Diamondbacks (one).
Mariano Rivera isn't quite as good as he was at his peak, but he has converted 10 straight save chances since being scored on in back-to-back outings in early August and seems headed to his eighth season of 40-plus saves. David Robertson (1.23 ERA, 89 strikeouts and one homer allowed in 581/3 innings) is doing what Rafael Soriano was supposed to and Luis Ayala and Cory Wade also could enter the playoffs with sub-2.00 ERAs.
The Yankees lack a shutdown lefty (Boone Logan is their only established lefty reliever), but Robertson and Wade are equally effective against left-handed and right-handed hitters. There's some talk that they could add Manny Banuelos for the playoffs, but the 20-year-old lefty walked 71 in 129 2/3 innings this season in the high minors, which argues against exposing him to October pressure.
Difference-maker: MVP candidate Justin Verlander isn't the only one getting credit for the 25-11 run that allowed the Tigers to cruise to an over-sized lead in the AL Central. Victor Martinez, a career .303 hitter headed to his fourth 100-RBI season, has been almost as important.
Martinez hits behind Miguel Cabrera, who no longer is walked routinely in big situations, and some consider him the clubhouse leader the Tigers have needed.
"Obviously everybody knows he's a great player and a key addition to this lineup, but he's always pumping everybody up," Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson told the Detroit Free Press. "That gets you going a little bit. On those days you're kind of dragging, he's trying to motivate you and keep you in good spirits.
"He's a verbal leader. That's something guys need sometimes, especially around this time of year when guys can be a little tired."
Martinez was huge in the Tigers' stretch of six straight victories against the White Sox and Indians, hitting a three-run homer and a grand slam in two-run victories against Cleveland.
"Victor is Mr. Clutch, it seems," Indians outfielder Shelley Duncan said. "He's the one carrying that team now. Miguel might be the MVP, but without Victor hitting behind him, that's a completely different lineup."
Not so fast: One night after getting his first big league hit, the Athletics' Michael Taylor was humbled. The Royals' Jeff Francoeur threw him out at first after he hit a line drive to right field.
Francoeur's strong throw beat Taylor to the bag by a step even though the rookie was hustling down the line.
"It's not embarrassing at all," Taylor said. "For me, it was disappointing. I hit the ball as hard as I could. I hit a one-hopper to a guy with a cannon."
Francoeur has a majors-best 96 outfield assists since joining the Braves in 2005. This was only the fifth 9-3 putout in the AL since 1974, and the first against the A's since the Brewers' Bernie Carbo threw out Phil Garner in 1976.
Hanging zeros: C.J. Wilson's five-hitter against the Rays on Tuesday was the Rangers' 18th shutout of the season. That's a club record and the fourth most in the AL since the DH was added. The 1989 A's and Angels had 20 apiece, and the A's had 19 in 2002.
Despite those shutouts, the Rangers rank only fourth in the AL with a 3.75 ERA from their starters.
"With all due respect, they're playing against Oakland and Seattle a lot," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose rotation leads the AL with a 3.52 ERA.
Eleven of the Rangers' shutouts have involved relievers. Boom-or-bust lefty Derek Holland has four of his own (tied for second in the majors behind Cliff Lee's six) and Wilson, Colby Lewis and Alexi Ogando have one apiece.
The last word: "It looked like he didn't skip a beat." -- Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond on Stephen Strasburg throwing five shutout innings in his return from elbow surgery.
THE WHISPERS: Angels, Rangers could go down to wire
Can the Angels catch the Rangers? They went 19-4 in the first 23 games outfielder Mike Trout started, including a 10-1 record in starts since he rejoined the roster in August. Trout was just named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. ... The Rangers went 12-11 in a stretch playing 23 games against teams with winning records. They believe that's when they would have collapsed if they were going to but aren't taking a playoff spot for granted, not with a season-ending series in Anaheim. ... Nyjer Morgan is having a blast in Milwaukee with his "Tony Plush" persona, but he's not likely to have staying power if he continues to call out guys like Albert Pujols. "He's not going to be there next year if he's not careful," said SiriusXM's Morgan Ensberg. "There's always somebody available to take your job." Morgan's act already would have gotten old if the Brewers weren't on such a fun ride. ... One reason the Tigers are so tough -- Miguel Cabrera is hitting an AL-best .402 with men in scoring position. ... The Indians continue to disintegrate. They won't have Carlos Carrasco in 2012 because he is going to need elbow surgery. He has been inconsistent but was their best starter in some stretches this season. ... The Twins are excited about Joliet Catholic product Joe Benson, who was promoted in September after delivering 48 extra-base hits, including 16 homers, in Double-A. The trade of Delmon Young created an outfield opening for Benson in 2012. ... Manager Clint Hurdle is pushing the Pirates' front office to re-sign Derrek Lee, who has been driving the ball despite suffering a broken wrist when a pitch from the Cubs' Carlos Marmol hit him. Hurdle loves Lee's quiet leadership. ... Chuck LaMar's departure from the Phillies' front office had nothing to do with the Cubs' GM search, as some speculated. ... Orioles outfielder Kyle Hudson caught passes for the University of Illinois for three years. He wasn't considered a top prospect but has hit wherever he has been and really can fly. ... When B.J. Up ton hits his next home run, he and Justin will become the first pair of brothers to have 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in the same season. Six other sets of brothers have had 20 homers in the same year -- the Boones (Aaron, Bret), Gileses (Brian, Marcus), Giambis (Jason, Jeremy), Mays (Carlos, Lee), Meusels (Bob, Irish) and DiMaggios (Joe, Vince).