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Best of MLB: AL East race getting interesting between Yankees, Red Sox

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Best of MLB: AL East race getting interesting between Yankees, Red Sox

NEW YORK -- Twelve minutes into Aaron Hicks' return from 3 weeks on the disabled list, Tampa Bay had loaded the bases in the first inning when Wilson Ramos drove a changeup toward the Yankees' bullpen in right-center field.

"Oh, gosh," New York rookie left-hander Jordan Montgomery thought to himself on the mound.

Hicks raced from center to the 385-foot sign and leaped to get his glove above the wall. He snagged the ball in the webbing, squeezed it tight and limited Ramos to a sacrifice fly with his Hollywood grab.

After nearly falling behind on a grand slam, the playoff-bound Yankees beat the Rays 6-1 Tuesday night to clinch home-field advantage if they end up in the AL wild-card game next week (see full recap).

Sale gives up 4 HRs, Red Sox lose to Jays
BOSTON -- Chris Sale has had a few setbacks as Boston has rolled down the stretch and back toward the postseason.

Tuesday was another one of those nights.

Sale matched a career worst by giving up four home runs in a playoff tuneup, including a pair to Josh Donaldson, and the Red Sox lost 9-4 to the Toronto Blue Jays.

"You can't have a good day at work every day," Sale said. "Unfortunately, what I do is amplified because we're here and we're in the thick of it. To survive, you've got to win games. I'm not doing that, and I'm as frustrated as anybody on the planet about that."

Boston's magic number over the Yankees in the AL East is three with five games remaining (see full recap).

Cardinals deny Cubs from clinching
ST. LOUIS -- Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk homered and drove in two runs each and the St. Louis Cardinals denied the Chicago Cubs a chance at clinching the NL Central with an 8-7 victory Tuesday night.

Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko also homered for St. Louis, which remains 2 1/2 games behind the second Wild Card spot. Zach Duke (1-1) got the win with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. Juan Nicasio earned his fifth save.

The Cubs were seeking to clinch the Central division with either a win or a Milwaukee loss against Cincinnati, but the Brewers beat the Reds 7-6.

Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez allowed three runs (two earned) and four hits in 4 1/3 innings. Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta (14-10) allowed five runs (three earned) and six hits in three innings, his second shortest outing this season (see full recap).

Twins rally past Indians, close in on WC
CLEVELAND -- When Brian Dozier's home run cleared the right-field wall, Minnesota's dugout burst into joyous celebration with players excitedly bouncing off each other.

The turn-around Twins are just one win from the playoffs.

Dozier's three-run homer in the eighth inning pushed Minnesota to the brink of the postseason as the Twins, with manager Paul Molitor using a club record 10 pitchers, rallied for an 8-6 victory over Cleveland on Tuesday night, handing the Indians just their third loss in 32 games.

Dozier connected for his 33rd homer against Bryan Shaw (4-6) as the Twins, a 103-loss team in 2016, lowered their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to one (see full recap).

Despite loss in finale, Phillies finish with successful road trip

Despite loss in finale, Phillies finish with successful road trip

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ATLANTA — The Phillies won four out of six games on their road trip through the South and manager Gabe Kapler was happy with that. He said so in word after Wednesday night’s trip-ending, 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park (see first take). He said so in action in the eighth inning.

“All in all, you go on the road and you go 4-2, you feel good coming home,” Kapler said. “That's the biggest positive from this. We're going to go home stronger than when we left on this road trip. It's not an easy thing to do in baseball. I'm proud of our guys for doing that.”

Kapler’s satisfaction with the trip was evident even before the game ended. Lefty specialist Hoby Milner entered the game with one out in the eighth inning and the Phils down by two runs. His job, ostensibly, was to retire lefty hitters Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. He retired neither. Up came right-handed hitting Kurt Suzuki. The situation screamed for a right-hander but Kapler stuck with Milner and he allowed an RBI single as the Braves pulled away with three runs in the inning to salt the game away.

Entering the game, Milner had allowed a .375 batting average (21 for 56) to right-handed hitters and a .158 (12 for 76) average to lefty hitters for his career. Despite this, Kapler did not even have a right-hander up in the bullpen. In fact, no one was up. Kapler indicated that he had faith that Milner could get the job done.

But there was more to it, as well.

“At that point it was time to look, in part, to save our bullpen,” Kapler said. “That was the right time to save our bullpen and put them in a good position to succeed going forward.”

Kapler’s thinking was not unheard of. Ask any manager and he’ll tell you, some nights you have to give the bullpen a break, take one step back for the chance to take two forward in subsequent days, and that’s just what Kapler did. After all, the ‘pen did pick up five innings the night before. But the flip side to this was the Phils were down only two runs with the middle of the order due up in the ninth. Keep the difference at two runs and maybe you can rally. Five runs — different story.

All this made one wonder if Kapler didn’t believe his offense could pull it out in the ninth.

“We always have full confidence that the guy on the mound can get outs,” Kapler said. “So this, at least, was as much about our belief in Hoby to be able to get outs in that situation, and, also, preserve arms in the bullpen. And, also, we believe in our offense to be able to come back and put a big number up. Always.”

The Phils ended up scoring a run in the ninth, but it wasn’t enough. Vince Velasquez gave up a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth when he allowed a walk, a single and a three-run homer to new Phillie killer Ryan Flaherty. The Braves were in control the rest of the way. They have beaten the Phillies in four of six meetings this season.

Phillies end road trip with loss to Braves

Phillies end road trip with loss to Braves

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ATLANTA — Ryan Flaherty spent spring training with the Phillies on a minor-league contract. He hit .351 with three doubles, a homer and eight RBIs. He played in the infield and the outfield. Flaherty did enough to win a spot on the Phillies’ opening day roster, but was a victim of a numbers crunch so the team granted him his release in the final week of camp. 

In need of some help at third base after Johan Camargo went down with an oblique injury, the Braves signed Flaherty to a big-league deal and installed him as their opening day third baseman.

All Flaherty has done since joining the Braves is hit. He entered Wednesday hitting .354, fifth best in the majors and .130 points better than his career average. He’s been especially tough on the Phillies. He swatted a three-run home run Wednesday night and the Phillies never recovered in a 7-3 loss at SunTrust Park. Flaherty also had an RBI single in the game.

In six games against the Phillies this season, Flaherty has 11 hits, including three doubles and a homer. Despite Flaherty’s strong start, the Braves appear to be making other plans at third base. Camargo came off the disabled list on Wednesday and the team also signed veteran Jose Bautista with the intention of looking at him at third base when he’s ready to go.

Flaherty’s three-run home run came against Vince Velasquez in the fifth inning.

Velasquez had helped himself with an RBI single in the top of the fifth to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead. But the right-hander let the lead get away quickly when he allowed a leadoff walk, a single and Flaherty’s three-run homer all with no outs in the bottom of the inning.

Flaherty hit a first-pitch fastball that registered 94 mph.

Those were the only runs that Velasquez allowed in six innings of work. He struck out seven and walked one. That walk became a run.

Braves starter Brandon McCarthy held the Phillies to one run over 5 1/3 innings.

The Phillies ended up losing two out of three in the series and are 2-4 against the Braves on the season. The Phils did not do a lot of scoring in this series. They lost the opener, 2-1. They won the second game, 5-1, but scored four of their runs in the 10th inning. They scored just three runs in the finale.

They probably would have had one more run if it weren’t for Ender Inciarte. The Braves’ defensive whiz centerfielder rose above the wall in left-center to steal a home run away from Scott Kingery in the first inning. Inciarte, like Flaherty, was once Phillies property, a former Rule 5 pick that the club chose not to keep around.