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What to watch for over the last two weeks of the regular season

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We have two weeks left in the regular season. Four of the division races are over (or virtually over), the Indians are clinging by their stirrups in the American League Central, and only the National League Central, with the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers separated by three games, looks to promise us those “What’s the score in the other game?” moments the rest of the way.

So let’s check on what to watch for over the final 14 days — starting with two key injury updates from Sunday.

Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo leaves because of sprained ankle

Rizzo was injured fielding a bunt in Sunday’s win over the Pirates, seriously enough that the team took X-rays to make sure there wasn’t a fracture. There wasn’t, but Rizzo will have an MRI on Monday and we’ll learn about the length of his absence.

Obviously, losing Rizzo would be a big blow to a Chicago offense that just erupted for 46 runs in a three-game sweep of the Pirates — the most runs the Cubs have scored in a three-game series since 1900. The Cubs have a lot of defensive flexibility throughout the roster, but they don’t really have a backup first baseman — Ian Happ replaced Rizzo in Sunday’s game, and Victor Caratini and Kris Bryant have started a few games there. Rizzo leads the Cubs with a .404 OBP and his absence combined with Javier Baez being out because of a hairline fracture in his left thumb leaves Chicago scrambling a bit in the infield.

The Cubs do have depth (although Addison Russell also is out right now because of a concussion) and rookie shortstop Nico Hoerner has provided a surprising lift since his call-up, hitting .379/.438/.655 in seven games. The Cubs can still go with Bryant at third, Hoerner at shortstop, Ben Zobrist at second and Happ at first, with David Bote in reserve, but with seven games still left against the Cardinals, they’ll miss Rizzo.

Mike Trout out for remainder of season: AL MVP up for grabs?

After Trout missed his eighth game in a row Sunday, the Angels announced he would have season-ending surgery for a nerve issue in his right foot, something called Morton’s neuroma (a thickening of the tissue around a nerve leading to the toes, creating pain in the ball of the foot). So Trout’s final numbers: 134 games, .291/.438/.645, 45 home runs, 110 runs, 104 RBIs. He leads the AL in home runs, OBP, slugging and WAR. His lead over Alex Bregman in WAR entering Sunday was 8.3 to 7.4 (Baseball-Reference) and 8.6 to 7.3 (FanGraphs). Bregman went 1-for-3 on Sunday and is hitting .295/.420/.579 with 36 home runs, 114 runs and 104 RBIs.

Does Bregman have a chance to pass Trout in the MVP race? Working in Bregman’s favor: Trout plays for a bad team and won’t play at all the final two weeks. MVP voters don’t give as much weight to playing on a playoff team as they used to, but they still give some weight. Also, Trout’s 136 total games would be low for an MVP winner, although not unprecedented. Mookie Betts played 136 last year and beat Trout in the voting. Bregman’s triple-slash line won’t match Trout’s, but with a strong final two weeks, Bregman will have impressive counting numbers, will be close to Trout in WAR — and will play for a division winner.

National League MVP race: Up for grabs?

With Christian Yelich out for the season because of a fractured right kneecap, we still have a two-man (or three-man race). Or, heck, even a four-man race, as we don’t want to completely dismiss Yelich:

Cody Bellinger: .304/.407/.625, 44 HRs, 112 R, 108 RBIs, 6.08 WPA

Anthony Rendon: .332/.416/.625, 33 HRs, 112 R, 118 RBIs, 5.51 WPA

Ketel Marte: .327/.387/.590, 32 HRs, 96 R, 91 RBIs, 3.81 WPA

Yelich: .329/.429/.671, 44 HRs, 100 R, 97 RBIs, 7.86 WPA

WPA is win probability added, sort of a proxy for “clutch.” Yelich, Bellinger and Rendon ranked first, second and fourth in the majors heading into Sunday (via FanGraphs). With Yelich done compiling counting stats, and Marte probably fourth on the list right now, it looks like a two-man race between Bellinger and Rendon (although Yelich does lead in FanGraphs WAR, WPA and triple-slash line). Rendon has the momentum as he’s finishing strong, while Bellinger has a sizable lead in Baseball-Reference WAR thanks to his defensive metrics. This looks like a close vote that could go in either direction.

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Ryan Braun smashes a grand slam in the top of the 9th inning to give the Brewers a 7-4 lead over the Cardinals.

OK, that NL Central — and wild-card — race

We’ve tried to bury the Cubs. We’ve tried to bury the Brewers. It’s not over yet, with Ryan Braun‘s go-ahead grand slam Sunday that lifted Milwaukee to a dramatic win over St. Louis tightening the race. The Cardinals are two up on the Cubs and three up on the Brewers, but consider:

• The Brewers have the easiest remaining schedule of any playoff contender in terms of opponents’ winning percentage (four against the Padres, three against the Pirates, three at Cincinnati and three at Colorado).

• The Cubs and Cardinals play those seven games against each other, so that might help the Brewers. The Cardinals have three against the Nationals, four at Wrigley, three at Arizona and then host the Cubs for three to end the season. The Cubs have seven at home against the Reds and Cardinals and then six on the road against the Pirates and Cardinals.

This is a good moment to remind everyone of the three-team tiebreaker rules. Teams are given A, B and C designation, with the team having the best winning percentage against the other two teams having first choice. Right now, the Cubs are 16-15, the Brewers are 19-19 and the Cardinals are 15-16. It’s possible all three teams end up 19-19 against each other. In which case the tiebreaker becomes overall division record.

Anyway, Club 1 (the Cubs, as of now), would pick their designation in the following scenario: Club A hosts Club B. The winner of that game then hosts Club C.

Of course, all of this is complicated by the possibility that we could end up in a three-way tie for the NL Central with another club also tied for a wild card. For example, imagine these final standings:

Nationals: 89-73 (7-7 rest of way)
Cardinals: 88-74 (5-8 rest of way)
Cubs: 88-74 (7-6 rest of way)
Brewers: 88-74 (8-5 rest of way)
Mets: 88-74 (11-2 rest of way)

The Nationals win the first wild card, but then we have a four-way tie with the Mets. The NL Central teams are sorted by A, B and C, and the Mets would be Club D. A hosts B and C hosts D. If D (the Mets) wins, they are the second wild-card team and the winner between A and B would be the NL Central winner. If Club C beats the Mets, then the winner of A and B would play C. The winner of that game would be the division winner and the loser would be the second wild card.

We also could end up with a five-way tie if the Nationals fall back. As of now, MLB has no tiebreaker scenarios in place for a five-way tie. The simplest would be the three Central teams playing out their scenario for the division title and one wild-card spot and then the Mets and Nationals playing a game for the other wild-card spot.

By the way, as of now, the NL wild-card game is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 1, with the AL game on Wednesday, Oct. 2, so that will have to change if we end up with two days of tiebreaker games.

AL wild-card race

The A’s have won six in a row to build a 1½-game lead over the Rays, with the Rays 1½ games up on the Indians. The remaining schedules:

• Oakland: vs. KC (3), off day, vs. TEX (3), off day, at LAA (2), at SEA (4)

• Tampa Bay: off day, at LAD (2), off day, vs. BOS (4), vs. NYY (2), off day, at TOR (3)

• Cleveland: off day, vs. DET (3), vs. PHI (3), off day, at CHW (3), at WAS (3)

Anything could happen here. The A’s are red hot and have an easy remaining schedule; FanGraphs gives them a 95.6% chance of making the playoffs. The Rays have the tougher schedule, but they’re already in L.A. after playing the Angels this weekend and will benefit from three off days. The Indians get the Tigers and White Sox and fading Phillies before finishing with the Nationals, who might have clinched a spot by that final weekend.

Chase for best record and home-field advantage

The Yankees and Astros are tied at 98-53 with the Dodgers one game back. The Yankees’ biggest worry right now is getting everyone healthy: Gary Sanchez is dealing with a sore groin, Edwin Encarnacion has an oblique issue and Giancarlo Stanton is supposed to return this week. (Dellin Betances threw eight pitches in his season debut Sunday.) The Astros are still waiting on Carlos Correa. The Astros finish with the Rangers, Angels, Mariners and Angels again. The Yankees get the Angels, Blue Jays, Rays and Rangers. The Astros won the season series over the Yankees, so Houston holds the tiebreaker edge.

Home run crown chase

With his otherworldly second half, Eugenio Suarez has tied Pete Alonso for the major league lead at 47 home runs. In 60 games since the All-Star break, Suarez has hit .304/.386/.724 with 27 home runs. Insane. At the break, he was 11 home runs behind then-leader Yelich. If Suarez does win the home run title, it would be the second-largest gap at the break overcome by a home run champ. Jimmie Foxx trailed the leader by 12 home runs in 1935 and ended up tied for the MLB lead with 36 home runs.

AL Cy Young race

Maybe the best awards race over the final two weeks is between Astros teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Verlander tossed a no-hitter on Sept. 1 and has double-digit strikeout games in nine of his past 11 starts. Cole has given up three runs in his three September starts and is on a run of six consecutive double-digit strikeout games. He also has won 13 straight decisions. Season stats:

Verlander: 18-6, 2.58 ERA, 206 IP, 123 H, 38 BB, 275 SO, 34 HR

Cole: 17-5, 2.62 ERA, 192.1 IP, 130 H, 45 BB, 292 SO, 27 HR

Wow. Who ya got?

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Stephen Strasburg keeps Nationals’ rotation on a serious roll

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WASHINGTON — Gerardo Parra wrapped both arms around Stephen Strasburg and wouldn’t let go. Their embrace has morphed into something of a tradition. It began late in the season and spilled into the playoffs, partly because this Washington Nationals team has grown so close and partly because Strasburg detests these hugs.

For this one, in the late stages of a victorious night in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Parra held on long enough that a nearby Anibal Sanchez could get in on the action. Max Scherzer then spotted them from the end of the dugout, walked over, spread his long limbs out wide and enveloped them all, suffocating Strasburg with affection.

“Why not,” Scherzer said. “He deserved it.”

Strasburg, pitching three nights after Sanchez and two nights after Scherzer, had just held the St. Louis Cardinals to one unearned run in seven innings on Monday night, leading the Nationals to an 8-1 victory that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

In Game 1, it was Sanchez, expertly mixing a variety of pitches, who came within four outs of a no-hitter.

In Game 2, it was Scherzer, playing his fastball off his changeup, who gave up zero hits and struck out 10 through the first six innings.

In Game 3, it was Strasburg, armed with untouchable off-speed pitches, who struck out 12, walked none and added to what is becoming an illustrious postseason resume.

In Game 4, it will be Patrick Corbin — every bit as capable, every bit as imposing — looking to pitch the Nationals into their first World Series.

“They’re the heart and soul of our team,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said of the team’s starting pitchers. “It’s fitting that they’re the reason we’re in this position.”

If not for Michael Taylor misreading a line drive on Saturday and Juan Soto slipping in the middle of a throw on Monday, the Cardinals would probably be shut out for 27 innings in this series. Sanchez, Scherzer and Strasburg have combined for one unearned run allowed, three walks and 28 strikeouts in 21⅔ innings. The Nationals’ starters boast a 1.59 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and a .164 opponents’ batting average in 56⅔ innings this month, numbers that don’t even include their contributions out of the bullpen.

Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only the 2012 Detroit Tigers, the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers and the 1995 Cleveland Indians have had a starters ERA better than that of the current Nationals through their first nine postseason games, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. The Brewers, however, relied on openers, skewing the numbers. This postseason has been marked by the rebirth of traditional starting-pitcher usage, and the Nationals — not the Houston Astros — stand as the prime example.

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Howie Kendrick continues to play unlikely hero for Nationals

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Howie Kendrick might not be the likeliest of heroes for the Washington Nationals, but neither is the 36-year-old vet the unlikeliest. After all, he has hit .325 over the past three seasons — the highest batting average in the majors.

Kendrick went 3-for-4 with three doubles and three RBIs in the Nationals’ 8-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night. The Nationals are now one win away from their first World Series appearance in franchise history.

Kendrick became just the fourth player to hit three doubles in an LCS game, matching Ben Zobrist, Albert Pujols and Fred McGriff. He also hit the grand slam to beat the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS and is hitting .314 in the postseason with nine RBIs in nine games.

“He’s the greatest ever,” teammate Anthony Rendon said after the game. “I mean, you see the man. He’s, what, 36 years old, and he’s still doing it. He’s built like a frickin’ cinderblock. He’s huge. Man, he stays short. He’s strong. So if he puts that barrel to it and stays behind the ball, you see it. He does damage. So he knows how to hit. That’s what he does.”

Kendrick is a lifetime .294 hitter, but hit a career-high .344 in 334 at-bats in 2019.

“I’m just trying to get smarter,” Kendrick said about his big season and being locked in at the moment. “Making adjustments, I would say, is the biggest thing. Trying to be more efficient with my body and my swing. Kevin Long is a big part of that. Kevin lives out in Phoenix, and I live in Phoenix. It’s funny because the first time we met, I said to him, ‘Hey, what can I do to get better?’ He had a list, like he had wrote down on a pad of paper. I wasn’t expecting it. This was the first time I had ever hit with him. He had this sheet of paper. He goes, ‘All right. This is what I know about you. This is what you hit with this, this, and this.'”

Long became the Nationals’ hitting coach in 2018. Kendrick hit .303 last season, but suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on May 19. His work with Long has paid big dividends this season.

His big hit on Monday came against Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty and capped the Nationals’ four-run inning — all four of which came with two outs. Kendrick lined a 2-1 fastball into the gap in right-center at 105.5 mph, capping the rally with a two-run double. It was the one hard-hit ball in the inning off Flaherty.

“I didn’t execute the one to Kendrick,” Flaherty said. “That’s the one pitch I want back.”

Kendrick first joined the Nationals in a trade with the Phillies in 2017 and then remained as a free agent.

“I love the team, and I re-signed for two years,” he said. “Last year was bittersweet because I got off to a good start and ruptured my Achilles. Having the ability to come back this year and be a part of this team and to be with the guys in the locker room, that was huge. Me and Kevin and Joe Dillon, we got to continue the process that we’d already started with my hitting, and I just trusted them and stuck with it. They just helped me get better at a time when I really needed to.”

Now, in his 14th season in the majors, Kendrick is one win away from his first trip to the World Series. Rendon was asked what he’ll be doing at 36.

“Hopefully not playing baseball,” he said. “Probably sitting on the couch hanging out with my kids. [Kendrick’s] probably going to play another 20 years.”

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St. Louis Cardinals’ season pretty much ended with one disastrous inning

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WASHINGTON — The St. Louis Cardinals threw 23,884 pitches in the regular season. They threw 756 more in eliminating the Braves in the division series. It took just 33 pitches in the third inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for their season to unravel, however, sending the Cardinals to the brink of elimination against the Washington Nationals.

Here’s how one frustrating inning, full of some bad luck and some ground balls with eyes, unfolded:

Pitch No. 4: Down two games in the series, but with ace Jack Flaherty on the mound, the Cardinals were feeling confident about their chances behind a pitcher who owned a 1.12 ERA since the All-Star break. Flaherty gets ahead of No. 8 hitter Victor Robles 1-2, but Robles fouls off a 96 mph fastball.

Pitch No. 5: Robles fouls off another 96 mph heater. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt goes over to the railing, but the pop-up falls harmlessly into the first row of seats. There is a ramp between the railing and seats, so he can’t reach into the stands to make the catch.

Pitch No. 6: Flaherty throws a slider. Right-handed batters had hit .111 against his slider in the second half. It’s become one of the best, most devastating sliders in the game, one that racks up both strikeouts and worm burners. Robles hits it up the middle — not hard, just 76.5 mph, a ball with an expected batting average, according to Statcast data, of .220. But the ball scoots past a diving Paul DeJong for a leadoff single.

“I didn’t really execute that slider to Robles,” Flaherty said. “He put a good at-bat together. He put the ball in play. Sometimes you find a hole, so he found a hole there.”

Pitch No. 8: Stephen Strasburg lays down a perfect bunt down the first-base line, right on the dirt between the grass and the chalk. The Cards have no chance to get the speedy Robles at second base as Strasburg execute the sacrifice.

Pitch No. 13: After getting ahead of Trea Turner 0-2 with two two-seamers just off the plate, Flaherty fires a 96 mph four-seamer past Turner for a foul tip and strike three for the second out. At this point, it looks good for Flaherty and the Cards. He’s at 44 pitches in the game, he’s recorded three strikeouts and he’s one out away from keeping the game tied at zero after three.

Pitch No. 14: Leadoff man Adam Eaton swings at the first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, and sends a two-hopper to the left of second base. The exit velocity registered at 105.5 mph, but because the first bounce came in front of home plate, it wasn’t exactly a rocket up the middle. The expected batting average was just .240. Eaton is a spray hitter, so there’s no shift in play here, and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was shaded toward the bag. The ball bounces into center field and Robles jogs home with the first run of the game.

Pitch No. 18: With Flaherty ahead in the count 1-2, Anthony Rendon grounds a 96 mph fastball foul past the third-base bag. In Rendon’s first at-bat, Flaherty got ahead with two quick strikes, then missed on four straight sliders low and away. After the hard foul ball, the next pitch will be …

Pitch No. 19: … a slider, low and away, bottom of the strike zone. Good pitch, good location. Rendon basically throws his bat at the ball and lofts a weak fly ball to medium-shallow left field, toward the line. Marcell Ozuna, a Gold Glove winner in 2017, hustles after it and slides feet first. He’s in position to make the catch, but the ball falls out of his glove. Eaton sprints home from first. It wasn’t a routine play, but Rendon’s fly ball had a hit probability of just .180. It is generously ruled a double and the Nationals lead 2-0.

“Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” Flaherty lamented, “but that’s what he does, that’s why he is what he is.”

Still, Ozuna had it … and then didn’t. “A tough play, tough play,” Wong said. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play, as soon as you hit the ground there’s going to be some kind of movement and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove. The breaks haven’t been going our way.”

The Cardinals’ defense has been rock solid all year — a key reason they made the playoffs after a three-season drought. Ozuna’s metrics in left are very good: plus-8 defensive runs saved. “It’s a play that he’s clearly capable of making, but it’s not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make,” manager Mike Shildt said.

The inning continues.

Pitch No. 23: Juan Soto takes a slider on the inside corner for a strike. The count is 2-2.

Pitch No. 24: Soto fights off a curveball at the knees to stay alive. When you post a 0.91 ERA in the second half of the season, you’re getting everybody out: righties, lefties, superstars, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. It doesn’t really matter much. Left-handed batters hit .147 against Flaherty in the second half, including just .118 against his curveball. It was a good pitch, credit Soto for the foul ball.

Pitch No. 25: Soto fouls off a slider.

Pitch No. 26: Fastball up in the zone. Ball three.

Pitch No. 27: Curveball below the knees. Good, patient at-bat here by Soto, although with Rendon on second base, a walk to Soto isn’t necessarily the worse thing for St. Louis, setting up the righty-righty matchup against Howie Kendrick. On the other hand, Soto’s eight-pitch plate appearance also runs up Flaherty’s pitch count for the inning.

Pitch No. 30: Flaherty chunks a 1-1 fastball to Kendrick in the dirt and the ball glances off Yadier Molina‘s glove for a wild pitch. It was in the dirt, so it was scored a wild pitch, but Molina didn’t do a good job of getting down to block the ball. The runners move up to second and third.

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