Astros and Mariners are hot messes; what does Clayton Kershaw’s future hold?

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The Twins and Brewers are in, the Yankees are (officially) out, and the Astros and Mariners are wilting at exactly the wrong time. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to the Windup!

Weekend roundup

“I never thought so much could happen

It was an action-packed weekend as we careen face-first toward the playoffs. Let’s get you caught up on what you might have missed. Current standings are here, for reference.

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Kenta Maeda knows how to party. (Jordan Johnson / USA Today)

• The Twins clinched the AL Central (and Kenta Maeda celebrated hard enough to warrant an individual mention). Now they just have to hope Royce Lewis will be back in time for the playoffs. They also got Chris Paddack back from his second Tommy John surgery, and the velo, at least, appears to be intact (we’ll have to wait to see about the rest, thanks to a rain delay).

• Over in the NL Central, the Brewers also clinched a playoff spot, and their magic number to win the division is down to one.

• Ronald Acuña Jr. hit his 40th HR, making him the fifth member of the 40/40 club. As he was the first-ever member of the 30/60 club, it’s redundant to tell you that his 68 steals are far more than the next-highest steal total in a 40/40 season (Alex Rodriguez, 46). It also means that with a week left in the season, he’s likely to make it to 40/70.

• The Braves placed Max Fried (blister) and Charlie Morton (finger inflammation) on the IL, putting their rotation in a somewhat perilous spot as the playoffs loom.

• Mike Trout’s season is officially over, as he was placed on the 60-day IL on Sunday (hamate bone). As Sam Blum points out in the linked story, Trout missed half of this year due to injury, a month last year with a back injury and most of the 2021 season with a calf injury.

• Left-handed relief pitcher Sean Doolittle retired, having pitched 11 big-league seasons. He had not pitched in MLB this year.

• Two Dodgers hit milestones over the weekend: Mookie Betts set the record for RBI by a leadoff hitter (105 and counting), and Freddie Freeman got his 200th hit.

• For the first time since 2016, the Yankees have officially been eliminated from postseason contention.

And of course, there was a lot of action in the AL West. For more on the two swooning teams, let’s go to Ken …

Ken’s Notebook: Astros, Mariners battle for final wild-card spot 

When the Astros visit the Mariners for three games starting tonight, someone has to gain the upper hand, correct?

As the Battle of the Collapses continues, one cannot be certain. By stumbling in September, the Astros and Mariners have all but ceded the AL West to the Rangers and the second AL wild card to the Blue Jays. The remaining “competition” between them is for the third wild card, and in that race, the Astros lead the Mariners by a half-game. The Yankees and Red Sox, both already eliminated, ought to be embarrassed. They couldn’t catch these AL West pretenders?

Actually, I shouldn’t be too harsh. Just 10 days ago, I declared The Athletic’s Andy McCullough was right when he deemed the Blue Jays “paper tigers” early in the season. Maybe I should have held off. Next to the Astros and Mariners, the Blue Jays are the baddest men on the planet. At least until they teeter again.

The expanded playoffs are endlessly forgiving, which is why teams can fade, rally, fade again and still be in the postseason picture. The Astros deserve to be relegated after going 2-7 against the Royals and A’s, the two worst teams in baseball, over the past two weeks. Instead, even after getting swept at home by Kansas City over the weekend, they remain in playoff position.

On Sept. 6, the Astros completed a sweep of the Rangers on the road, seemingly regaining control of a division they have won in each of the last five full seasons. Since then, their playoff odds have dropped from 98 percent to 60 percent, their chances of winning the AL West from 67 percent to 11 percent. Incredible, considering their poor competition of late.

Not that the Mariners have been much better. Remember their 20-4 run in August, which increased their playoff odds to 86 percent? Since then, the Mariners have gone 9-15, including getting swept over the weekend in the first of two showdown series against the Rangers. Their playoff odds are down to 49 percent.

The Mariners, at least, control their fate, facing both teams they are trying to catch, the Astros and Rangers, during their final homestand. The Rangers, now leading the division by 2 1/2 games, visit the Angels before heading to Seattle. The Astros, after finishing with the Mariners, close on the road against the Diamondbacks.

Which team do I like to grab the final AL wild-card berth? Neither, really. But after Sunday, the final day of the regular season, one of these hot messes will be in the playoffs. The Battle of the Collapses is going to produce a survivor, like it or not.

Rangers continue hot streak

“All, or nothing at all”

When we left you on Friday, we said it seemed like the playoffs were, for all intents and purposes, starting now, with Texas and Seattle tied and playing seven of the last 10 games against one another. That wasn’t incorrect, but the intrigue has been fractured, if not completely shattered, with the three-game sweep by the Dr. Jekyll version of the Rangers.

Check out what they’ve done this month:

  • Sept. 1-8: One win, six losses.
  • Sept. 9-14: Six-game winning streak.
  • Sept. 15-18: Four-game losing streak.
  • Sept. 19-present: Five-game winning streak.

Getting two All-Stars back (Josh Jung, Adolis García) has helped, but one major spark has come from a player who wasn’t on the big-league roster when the month began: Evan Carter has now played 15 games in which he got a plate appearance. He has reached base in all 15, hitting .318/.426/.705 (1.130) with four home runs.

The bullpen is still a house of cards on any given night, but the Rangers’ lineup looks built for an October run.

Today, anyway. Check back next week.

In other playoff implications: The Cubs swept the Rockies to stop a late-season slide, the Blue Jays won a series against the Rays to help solidify their cause, and the Reds and Giants might be seeing the magic run out on their seasons.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have called up Orion Kerkering as they hope to answer some postseason roster questions.

Here’s the latest version of what the playoffs would look like if the season ended right now.

Clayton Kershaw focused on right now, for now

“It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever”

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Clayton Kershaw now has the second-most wins in Dodger history with 210. (Harry How / Getty Images)

It almost always pays to look at the big picture to understand what lies ahead, and to make a better decision in the present. It benefits us in countless ways to be able to plan for what comes next.

There are, of course, exceptions — and almost all of them have to do with time running out. You stop micromanaging your calendar after you put in your two-week notice. You don’t worry about your homework load when you’re taking your final exam. You can heave a half-court three-pointer, pull the goalie from the net, or launch a Hail Mary toward the end zone, but only when the game clock is nearing 0:00.

Clayton Kershaw’s arm is a clock of sorts. The numbers used to be higher — 95 mph on his fastball when he came into the league, and 200+ innings a year from 2010-2013. Three Cy Young awards (and seven top-five finishes in a row). In those days, it made more sense to look ahead.

But now? Every start could be his last. The fastball hasn’t been over 90 mph in a month. The contracts are year-to-year. That’s not to say Kershaw hasn’t been effective. Even with diminished stuff, he’s still been great. But as Fabian Ardaya writes, it makes more sense to focus on the next start than anything that comes after.

There is, of course, still some mitigation. The Dodgers have shifted him to a “college schedule” with an extra day of rest. Final exams The playoffs are coming up, and that’s enough to focus on for the time being.

As for what’s after that? You know … how about we just don’t think about that right now?

Handshakes and High Fives

Zack Meisel’s story today on the Reds’ Will Benson’s journey to the big leagues — and the brother he never knew — is one that you should read, but only when you have some quiet space and nobody will see you and be compelled to ask if everything is OK.

Speaking of the Reds, they are unlikely to exercise their option on Joey Votto for 2024. C. Trent Rosecrans takes a look at what might be next for Votto.

There are many parallels between the now-deposed Chaim Bloom in Boston and Farhan Zaidi in San Francisco, but the latter is getting a chance the former didn’t: another year. Speaking of Zaidi, he says the Giants should still be an attractive destination for free agents.

Oh, now the Padres are hot. Their elimination number in the wild-card race is just two — either they or the Giants could be eliminated as early as tonight (the two play each other in San Francisco), but they’re 15-6 in September. Dennis Lin offers some perspective on the late surge.

(Top photo of Jose Altuve stealing second as Josh Rojas applies the tag: Bob Levey / Getty Images)

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