Some teams sud­denly limp­ing into play­offs

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Night­en­gale

They were cel­e­brat­ing just a few days ago.

Well, as much as you can revel in a pan­demic.

There were no cham­pagne baths or dog-piles on the mound, rather hand­shakes and quiet toasts to suc­cess in

Ma­jor League Base­ball’s post­sea­son start­ing next week.

But even with­out the ex­cuse of a hang­over, there are sud­denly a num­ber of play­off teams per­form­ing as if they could have an early Oc­to­ber exit.

The Chicago White Sox clinched their first play­off berth in 12 years a week ago – with sights on hav­ing the best record in the Amer­i­can League – but lost five of six games en­ter­ing Thurs­day and and are dan­ger of fall­ing all the way to the AL’s sev­enth seed.

The Mi­ami Mar­lins were rid­ing high only to be clob­bered the last four days 40-9, hang­ing on for dear life with a .500 record and sec­ond place in the NL East.

The Chicago Cubs still are on the verge of win­ning the NL Cen­tral but have scored only 10 runs with one homer the last seven games, fin­ish­ing with a fran­chise-worst .218 bat­ting av­er­age at Wrigley Field.

The San Diego Padres, lauded as the most ex­cit­ing team in base­ball, sud­denly are in a free-fall, and even more alarm­ing, face the prospect of a post­sea­son with­out in­jured starter Mike

Clevinger.

The St. Louis Car­di­nals, up against a daunt­ing sched­ule af­ter be­ing side­lined 16 days for a COVID-19 outbreak, fi­nally can see the fin­ish line but may not have the en­ergy to cross it, los­ing two of the last three games against the lowly Kansas City Roy­als.

The pow­er­ful New York Yan­kees, who were rolling with a 10-game win­ning streak, just coughed up 36 runs in the last four days.

And the Hous­ton Astros, hav­ing lost 13 of 20 en­ter­ing Thurs­day, will have to wait un­til the sea­son’s fi­nal week­end to clinch a post­sea­son spot, fend­ing off the Los Angeles An­gels and Seat­tle Mariners for sec­ond place in the NL West.

“Ob­vi­ously, we need to win games,’’ said Mar­lins man­ager Don Mat­tingly, af­ter watch­ing rookie starter Sixto Sanchez last just three in­nings Wed­nes­day night. “You have to be con­cerned to the point that we have to win some games. You just can’t limp your way in.

“But I’m not con­cerned at all about that group fall­ing apart. They’ve bounced back all year long.’’

The Cubs are say­ing the same thing, but they look out of sorts – par­tic­u­larly on of­fense. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and

Kyle Sch­war­ber were all hit­ting be­low .200 en­ter­ing Thurs­day and first base­man An­thony Rizzo’s .752 OPS is his worst since 2013.

“That’s where we’re at right now,’’ Cubs man­ager David Ross says. “There’s not much I can say. It is frus­trat­ing. Hope­fully, this thing starts to turn the other way, soon.’’

The White Sox – af­ter beat­ing the Min­nesota Twins in three of four games last week and clinch­ing a play­off berth – had folks in Chicago dream­ing of a crosstown World Se­ries, only played in Ar­ling­ton, Texas.

Now, they’ve dropped the first three games of a four-game se­ries against Cleve­land, in­clud­ing two walk-off homers, and are in dan­ger of not even host­ing the wild card se­ries.

They en­tered Thurs­day’s game one­half game be­hind the Twins for first place, and only two games ahead of Cleve­land. If they fin­ish in third place, they will plum­met to a No. 7 seed in the post­sea­son

“I don’t want any­body pan­ick­ing,’’ White Sox man­ager Rick Ren­te­ria said. “I don’t want any­body feel­ing like they’ve got to prove some­thing.’’

If noth­ing else, it sure is a wake-up call, re­mind­ing the White Sox they bet­ter get go­ing in a hurry if they plan to stick around in Oc­to­ber.

“We re­laxed a lit­tle bit, and that’s why we got caught in this mo­ment,’’ AL MVP fron­trun­ner Jose Abreu said. “But for good things to hap­pen, you need bad things to push you. This is prob­a­bly not the way we wanted to do it, but this is the time we’re liv­ing in and it’s pre­par­ing us to be stronger and a way bet­ter team.

“I truly be­lieve this mo­ment is mak­ing us stronger, it’s mak­ing us bet­ter as a team. And it’s pre­par­ing us bet­ter for the post­sea­son.’’

The Padres, who clinched a play­off spot for the first time since 2006, can only hope their bout of ad­ver­sity makes them stronger, too.

Short­stop Fer­nando Tatis Jr. was a lead­ing con­tender for NL MVP just weeks ago but has an ugly .200/.312/ .338 slash line in Septem­ber. The rest of the team has fol­lowed suit, hit­ting .194 over the past week.

“Frus­trat­ing not be­ing able to score the runs,’’ Padres man­ager Jayce Tin­gler said. “At the same time, th­ese things hap­pen. If you’re go­ing to do it col­lec­tively as a team, prob­a­bly now is the time to do it. We cer­tainly don’t want that to be the case next week.’’

The Padres are con­fi­dent they can over­come this mini-slump, but sure wish they felt the same about the re­turn of their ace. Clevinger, the big­gest ac­qui­si­tion at the trade dead­line, is un­der­go­ing an MRI on his bi­cep.

“We’re go­ing to wait for the re­sults and see what the doc­tors say,” Tin­gler said. “We’re not go­ing to flip out and freak out.’’

As for the Yan­kees, a few blowout losses have raised con­cerns about the team’s pitch­ing.

“It’s al­most,’’ DH Luke Voit said, “like we were the Bad News Bears.”

Re­mem­ber a week ago when the Yan­kees hit 19 homers in three days? They have now gone a sea­son-high three games with­out one, and could end up not host­ing the wild card se­ries at Yan­kee Sta­dium, where they are 21-7 this year com­pared with 11-17 on the road.

“I know we’re ca­pa­ble of re­ally spe­cial base­ball,” Yan­kees man­ager Aaron Boone said, “and we’ve got to find that.

“We get to play for a cham­pi­onship here start­ing in the next sev­eral days, and that’s an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity.’’

This two-month reg­u­lar-sea­son comes to an end Sun­day and has been a roller-coaster of emo­tions, par­tic­u­larly for th­ese con­tenders.

“I def­i­nitely think that this is the hard­est base­ball sea­son,’’ Ross said, “any­body’s re­ally ever had to go through, from what I’m hear­ing from other peo­ple. Who­ever wins the World Se­ries this year should be ex­tremely proud.

“To­gether, we’re fix­ing to go into an at­mos­phere that I don’t know many peo­ple would sign up for. The team that over­comes ad­ver­sity, and to do all of that, will do good.”

DAVID RICHARD/USA TODAY SPORTS

The White Sox will ap­pear in the post­sea­son for the first time since 2008.

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