Real or not? Red Sox clinch but still seeking big answers for October

When you win your 99th game and have 17 games left on the schedule, many good things have gone your way, and some things go your way even when you don't anticipate they'll go your way. Take the Boston Red Sox in their 7-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. It was 2-1, Blue Jays on top, in the bottom of the seventh when Alex Cora sent Mitch Moreland to the on-deck circle to hit for light-hitting catcher Sandy Leon.

Then Cora pulled Moreland back and sent up Brock Holt, who did this:

The Red Sox added three more runs in the eighth and clinched a playoff spot with the win, celebrating in the clubhouse with a champagne toast. I suspect their division-clinching celebration will include more than sipping from plastic cups.

Anyway, Cora explained his reversal this way: He thought the Blue Jays might bring in a lefty, in which case he would have brought in Brandon Phillips. Not wanting to waste Moreland, he instead sent in Holt. The Blue Jays left Ryan Tepera in, and Holt delivered the big hit.

Via research from Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN Stats & Information, we looked at the 25 teams earliest to clinch a playoff spot in the wild-card era (since 1995):

• 12 of the 25 lost in the first round
• Seven made it to the World Series
• Five won it all: the 2016 Cubs, 2013 Red Sox, 2009 Yankees, 2007 Red Sox and 1998 Yankees

In other words, an early clinching isn't a guarantee of a deep playoff run. As always, the postseason is a crapshoot.

The other big news from this game was the return of Chris Sale for his first start since Aug. 12. He pitched just one inning, however, and threw 26 pitches, then trotted out to the bullpen for a little more work. He threw 97 mph, gave up a double, hit a batter and chucked in a few nasty sliders.

"A little erratic, obviously," Sale said of his performance. "Threw up my pitch count a little bit, which is why I didn't get to go out for my second or third inning, but got some good work in, and I'll move on from there. I knew today was going to be an abbreviated start. Three [innings] was the best-case scenario. ... Going for just the one inning kind of stunk. I kind of had higher hopes than that."

Is it time to sweat? I don't think so. Sale has just three starts remaining to build his pitch total back up, as he has pitched just six innings since July 27, but the Red Sox were being overly cautious. Still, you'd like to see him get up to 95 or 100 pitches before the end of the regular season.

Diamondbacks avoid the bullpen blues: There were a couple of hairy moments for the Arizona Diamondbacks in their much-needed 6-3 win over the Rockies. Arizona had lost eight of 10, with several bullpen meltdowns along the way. Brad Boxberger has been kicked out to Yuma, Archie Bradley is suddenly unreliable, and don't even bring up Matt Andriese's name.

Whom would Torey Lovullo call on? Leading 4-3 in the seventh, he pulled Zack Greinke after Matt Holliday hit a two-out double off the wall in the right-center. Greinke had thrown just 93 pitches, and given the poor results of late from the bullpen, it was a little surprising that he was pulled. I get it: It's at Coors Field, the Rockies were sending up a lefty pinch hitter, Greinke was maybe starting to lose it a little bit ... this is where managers earn their keep. But I would have left Greinke in.

Anyway, Andrew Chafin didn't do the job. He walked the two batters he faced. It looked like another meltdown in the making. But Brad Ziegler came on and got DJ LeMahieu to ground out. Crisis averted.

In the ninth, Lovullo called on Jake Diekman initially, but after a leadoff double and a bunt single, Diekman was out. Confronted with another potential meltdown, Lovullo turned to Yoshihisa Hirano for the save. The Japanese veteran promptly struck out Ian Desmond and Chris Iannetta (fooling Iannetta looking with a fastball) and then got Charlie Blackmon on a liner to center field.

Meanwhile, the Reds beat the Dodgers 3-1 and are now 6-0 against the Dodgers. The NL West remains a three-team race ... and if the Dodgers don't win it or miss the playoffs entirely, the Reds will have been a big reason for that.

All these numbers are true: The Marlins beat the Mets 5-3, but the story of the game was Jacob deGrom, who once again pitched well, allowing two runs in seven innings. He left with a 2-1 deficit, however, and picked up the "loss" to drop to 8-9 on the season.

1. As a result, deGrom has now started 26 games in a row in which he has allowed three or fewer runs, an MLB record. Note: Reliever Ryne Stanek of the Rays has an active streak of 25 in a row, but that's obviously not the same thing because he usually pitches just one inning.

2. DeGrom leads the majors with a 1.71 ERA. There have actually been seven pitchers who led their league in ERA but finished with a losing record, courtesy of Elias: Kevin Millwood (9-11 in 2005), Joe Magrane (5-9 in 1988), Nolan Ryan (8-16 in 1987), Stu Miller (6-9 in 1958), Dave Koslo (11-14 in in 1949), Dolf Luque (16-18 in 1925) and Stan Coveleski (13-14 in 1923). Magrane had the lowest ERA at 2.18, but he also allowed 17 unearned runs; deGrom has allowed seven.

3. The Mets are 12-17 when deGrom starts. Given that he likely has three starts remaining, they're going to finish under .500 when he starts. The worst team winning percentage in a Cy Young winner's starts was achieved by the 2010 Mariners, who finished 17-17 with Felix Hernandez starting (Hernandez finished 13-12).

4. DeGrom has a 2.02 ERA in games he started and the Mets lost.

5. Baseball is a game played by nine men at a time.

(Thanks to Sarah Langs for research help.)

That said ... deGrom feels like the Cy Young favorite in the NL, despite that 8-9 record. He isn't a clear favorite, as Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer still have a slight lead in Baseball-Reference WAR and are 16-4 and 17-6, respectively. Plus, Scherzer has a sizable edge in strikeouts. We also know deGrom's win-loss record isn't his fault, and his remarkable run of quality starts is a huge plus on his ledger, but it's possible that if some voters consider things to be relatively even despite deGrom's ERA edge, that win-loss record could be a tiebreaker. It should be a fascinating vote.

Yes, we'll give you some Juan Soto highlights: The Nationals swept the Phillies in a doubleheader, and rumor is they're starting to build the Phillies' coffin. In the second game, Soto's 10th-inning home run -- his second of the game -- put the Nats ahead (that came after the Phillies blew a 6-3 lead in the ninth):

Most home runs by a teenager:

Tony Conigliario, 1964: 24
Bryce Harper, 2012: 22
Juan Soto, 2018: 18
Mel Ott, 1928: 18
Ken Griffey Jr., 1989: 16

Donaldson plays for Indians: Josh Donaldson played third base with Jose Ramirez moving to second base for the first time this season (he started 65 games there last season). Donaldson went 0-for-4 with a strikeout in the 2-0 win over the Rays (Shane Bieber fanned 11 in 6⅔ innings), though he hit a couple of balls hard.

"He looked to me like Donaldson," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He took some ferocious swings, and he was on so many pitches. He squared up a couple and had nothing to show for it. He's got time, and it gets exciting."

Yes, kids, that's called a complete game: Mike Foltynewicz dominated the Giants, taking a shutout into the ninth and settling for a 4-1, complete-game win for the Atlanta Braves while throwing 108 pitches. That's the third complete game of September -- Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard threw the other two -- and the first by a pitcher on a playoff contender since Cole Hamels on Aug. 23 for the Cubs.

Not only are complete games rare, but so are eight-inning outings. There have been just seven others this month of that length, with just two (from Masahiro Tanaka and Carlos Carrasco) coming on contending teams. Managers are simply apprehensive about letting their pitchers go deep into games, mindful of trying to keep them as strong as possible for October and, well, that's just what you do now. Even going back to August, there are few eight-inning outings. Clayton Kershaw had two, Aaron Nola had one (in that great duel against Scherzer), David Price had one, and Clay Buchholz threw a complete game.

You wonder, with all these bullpens on contending teams struggling the past few weeks, how much is that tied to starters going five, six innings max? Are the relievers tiring down the stretch? That's something to watch these final weeks. Congrats to Foltynewicz on going the distance. You're my player of the day.

Never forget: There have been more important home runs to win playoff games or World Series games, but I don't know if there has ever been a home run as emotional as the one Mike Piazza hit in the first baseball game played in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

Here's a longer look at that night at Shea Stadium, when Piazza and the Mets brought some joy back to New York: