A question-and-answer session for September:
Question: The Nationals are on the verge of clinching the National League East. It seems early for clinch talk, right?
Answer: Early clinches are defining the season when you consider the big leads of the Nationals, Dodgers and Astros. But there have been earlier clinch dates. The 1975 Reds clinched on Sept. 7. Cleveland clinched in 1995 and 1998 on Sept. 8 while the 1998 Yankees and 20 02 Braves each clinched Sept. 9. The Yankees that year clinched a playoff spot on Aug. 29.
Q: Justin Verlander pitched one-run ball for six innings in his debut for the Astros. He’ll help the Astros in the postseason, but will he affect the American League wild card race?
A: The Astros fortified their postseason rotation, but the Orioles and Twins could benefit from the trade as well. The Twins have two series left with Detroit and not having to face Verlander in either gives them a break. Also, the Angels play the Astros six games, so Verlander, 34, could beat the Angels, helping the Orioles and Twins. The Astros’ postseason rotation will have two Cy Young winners, Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, as well as Lance McCullers, so the Astros have a strong rotation to go with their explosive offense.
Q: What will Justin Upton and Brandon Phillips do for the Angels?
A: Hit and hit some more. The Angels had the worst OPS (.713) in the AL going into September, and with Albert Pujols not hitting, the Angels needed bats to support a so-so rotation. Sound familiar? Upton, who had an MVP-type season for the Tigers, plays left while Phillips, hitting .291, will play second, a problem spot for the Angels all season with former Nat Danny Espinosa, Kaleb Cowart and Cliff Pennington all getting chances. ... The Angels got starter Garrett Richards back from the disabled list, but he’s not stretched out. He threw 52 pitches in his return, but that’s a snapshot of how short the Angels are in the rotation that includes Parker Bridwell, Troy Scribner, Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney, who is coming back from Tommy John.
Q: It looks like the second AL wild card team is going to set a record for fewest wins by a team advancing to the postseason. Is that true?
A: The expanded two-team wild card format started in 2012, and since then, the wild card team with the fewest wins was the Astros in 2015 with 86. The Orioles had 93 wins in 2012 and 86 last season. The lowest National League total was 87 by the Giants and Mets last season.
Q: The Nationals aren’t sure when Bryce Harper will return from a knee injury. What are other key injuries and return possibilities?
A: The Twins have been without Miguel Sano, their biggest RBI threat, since Aug. 19 because of stressed left shin, and while he’s started to swing a bat, there’s no timetable. Recovery, though, is taking longer than expected. The Indians are rolling despite not having Michael Brantley (ankle sprain) and lefty reliever Andrew Miller (knee). Brantley should be back in plenty of time for the postseason, but Miller is a question. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager is dealing with elbow issues. The Cubs will get catcher Willson Contreras, out with a hamstring injury since Aug. 11, back in the next week. His power bat supports Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the middle of the Cubs order. The Astros are at full strength with the return of shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Lance McCullers. The Red Sox, leaders in the AL East, expect pitcher David Price back the final week of September, and Price pitching out of the bullpen in the postseason is likely. The Rangers’ Adrian Beltre, 38, likely out for the season with a hamstring injury. The best-case scenario is that he comes back during the final week. Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks has an oblique injury for the second time this season. The team hopes to have him back in a couple of weeks, saying this injury isn’t as bad at the one that cost him a month earlier in the season.
Q: Who has the easiest schedule among AL wild card contenders?
A: By far, it’s the Twins. They have seven games remaining with the Tigers and two against San Diego. And the Twins also have four each with inconsistent Kansas City and Toronto. The Angels are in good shape schedule-wise, with six against pitching-thin Seattle and four against the White Sox.
Q: Who has the best rotation among AL wild card contenders?
A: The Yankees are the deepest with Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery.
Q: Do players watch the day-to-day movement in the standings as much as the fans do?
A: A quick survey in the Orioles clubhouse Thursday says no. “I hear about it, but I don’t know how it is going to help us to know,’’ says pitcher Darren O’Day. “I’m more likely to look at the golf scores than the baseball scores.’’ “There’s no need to know and put extra pressure on yourself,’’ says pitcher Dylan Bundy. “We just keep trying to win our games.’’ Says Mark Trumbo: “We can’t help but know (where the Orioles stand), but we already know that every game at this point is important.’‘
Q: Is there a team that’s going to surprise in the postseason?
A: Arizona. They are on an incredible role, but what makes them good is their pitching depth. Zack Greinke can pitch the wild card game and the Diamondbacks will still have four solid starters left with Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker. They are a bunch of good power arms.
Q: Most players would do anything to play meaningful games in September. So what took Phillips so long to decide whether he wanted to leave the Braves for the Angels?
A: Apparently, Phillips doesn’t like change, even if it means he’s got a chance for the postseason. Two years ago, he blocked a trade to the Nationals so he could stay with the lowly Reds. The Nationals went after Daniel Murphy instead. This time, Phillips wasn’t sure he wanted to leave his hometown and the going-nowhere Braves. But his family told him he should go play for the Angels.