Three up, three down: Bruce powering Reds
Lefty slugger conquers Kershaw to keep club in hot playoff pursuit
Up: Jay Bruce
Bruce provided the catalyst for the Reds to complete a weekend sweep of the Dodgers, unloading a home run in each of his first two at-bats against lefty Clayton Kershaw in the Reds' 3-2 win on Sunday. Big deal? Yep. Kershaw had not allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter in 348 2/3 consecutive innings, dating back to Adam Dunn of the White Sox on June 15, 2012.
Bruce is just the third player to hit two home runs in a game off Kershaw, joining Jayson Werth of Washington, who did it on July 21 this season, and Carlos Gonzalez of Colorado, another left-handed hitter, who did it on May 2, 2012. For Bruce, it was the 14th time he has hit two home runs in a game, including a three-homer game on Aug. 27, 2010, when he took Cubs lefty Tom Gorzelanny deep twice and Scott Maine once. That's the only other time he homered twice in a game off the same southpaw.
And Kershaw is no easy target for any hitter, much less a left-handed one. Left-handers have hit just 20 of the 73 home runs Kershaw has given up in his career. They are hitting .188 against him all-time (.171 this year) and have struck out in 348 of 826 career at-bats against Kershaw (66 of 152 this year).
By handing the Dodgers their first sweep since Atlanta took three from them on May 17-19, the Reds reaffirmed their presence in the NL postseason plans. Cincinnati is 1 1/2 games back of National League Central-leading St. Louis, and it is in a virtual tie with Pittsburgh for second place -- and in the Wild Card race. Currently on pace to secure the two NL Wild Card spots, the Reds and Pirates are eight games ahead of Washington.
Down: Francisco Liriano /A.J. Burnett
The two veterans who stabilized the Pirates' rotation for most of the season have stumbled the past four weeks. The Pirates are in good shape in the playoff picture, so there's no reason to panic, but there has to be concern about the postseason durability of Liriano and Burnett, both of whom are dealing with a history of ailments.
The Pirates are 11-17 since they arrived at Coors Field on August 9 and were swept in a three-game series by the Rockies. Liriano and Burnett both suffered losses in that series, and they have been scrambling since. Liriano has been unable to pitch past the fourth inning in three of his six starts, his ERA climbing from 2.02 to 2.98. He allowed seven runs in three innings at Milwaukee last Wednesday, the prelude to the Pirates being swept in a three-game series by St. Louis in which Burnett lost the opener, allowing five runs in just three innings.
The Pirates are 3-3 in Liriano's starts dating back to that August 9 game at Colorado, when he gave up more runs (10) than he retired hitters (seven). Over that span, they are 2-4 in games started by Burnett. Lirano has has allowed 22 earned runs in 33 1/3 innings, while Burnett has given up 21 earned runs in 34 1/3 innings, his ERA going from 2.73 to 3.31.
UP: Dan Straily
The right-hander drafted by Oakland in the 24th round out of Marshall University in 2009 is a late bloomer making an impact. The A's have won 11 of their past 14 games, going from 2 1/2 games back in the AL West to 1 1/2 games in front of Texas. Straily was a key figure in a stretch that included winning eight of 10 from Detroit, Tampa Bay and Houston. Over that span, Straily was 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA, winning at Detroit and against Texas before pitching seven shutout innings in Saturday's 2-1 victory against Houston.
Not bad for that pudgy high school sophomore whose Babe Ruth coach convinced him to go out for the wrestling team, which led to what was then a 5-foot-9 Straily losing 40 pounds. Now 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Straily began throwing his weight around a year ago when he was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento. He was 9-4 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts over the past two years with the River Cats, leading the A's to give him a shot.
And while Straily has strong-armed the opposition, the A's offense has averaged better than 7.5 runs per game in the 14-game surge, during which every lineup regular hit .273 or better, led by Brandon Moss at .351 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.
Just three of the A's final 19 games are against a team with a winning record -- a three-game showdown in Texas this weekend. The other 16 are against Minnesota (seven), the Angels (six) and Seattle (three).
Down: Evan Longoria
Longoria, the anchor of the Tampa Bay lineup, and the Rays have been sinking in their quest to reach the postseason. The Rays have lost 11 of their past 15 games while scoring just 41 runs, the fewest in the Major Leagues over that time. And they are now clinging to the second AL Wild Card spot, just two games ahead of Cleveland and Baltimore, 2 1/2 ahead of the Yankees and 3 1/2 in front of the Royals.
The skid started with an 11-inning, 3-2 loss to the Yankees on Aug. 25. The next day, the Rays found themselves in Kansas City, where they lost an 11-1 makeup game, before flying back to Florida to resume their homestand. The next thing the Rays knew, they were 7 1/2 games back in the AL East, with Boston having won 11 of 14 during the time they were stumbling.
The Rays' pitching staff has had its problems, but there has been little help from the offense. Longoria has hit .196 during the slide, one of four Rays with 25 or more plate appearances hitting below .200. The Rays have five home runs as a team. There are eight players with five or more over that span, including Boston's Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino and Kansas City's Salvador Perez with six each.
Up: Danny Duffy
After undergoing Tommy John surgery on June 13, 2012, Duffy is being handled with care this season, but he is still able to provide the Royals with a lift in their late-season bid to make the playoffs for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series.
Duffy was called up twice for spot starts in early August, and the Royals won both games. The Royals have won all three of his starts during an 11-4 run that has seen them fall from eight games back in the AL Wild Card race to a 3 1/2-game deficit.
The Royals have also won all three of Bruce Chen's starts during the stretch, easing concerns from when he allowed a combined 13 runs in back-to-back mid-August starts. He made a strong statement on Sunday, allowing two runs in seven innings of a win against Detroit that allowed the Royals to claim two out of three from the AL Central-leading Tigers.
Are the Royals for real? The next two weeks will tell. They hit the road this week for three games at Cleveland and Detroit, and then return home to host the Indians and the Rangers.
DOWN: NL West
The Dodgers have been the story of baseball's second half, but the rest of the NL West has been in a major funk. Arizona is the only other NL West team with a winning record (72-70), but it is 11 games back of Los Angeles and nine games out in the Wild Card race.
The Dodgers have climbed from worst to first in the NL West by going 53-17 since June 22. No other NL West team has a winning record in that stretch.
The 2012 World Series champion Giants are eliminated from postseason contention with another loss or a Dodgers win. The only defending champion with a worse winning percentage than the Giants' current .448 was the 1998 Florida Marlins, who went 54-108 for a .333 winning percentage.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.