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July 12, 2012

Antidote to an Off-Day

Picking the Best Games of the First Half

by Paul Sporer

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Today is the stupidest day of the year (and you’re not far behind, tomorrow, so stop looking so smug). The Wednesday after the All-Star Game is the one day on the calendar without any major sports, which makes it extremely stupid. I’m more concerned with the utter lack of baseball games (save your Triple-A All-Star Game, people), and this year is even worse as the break has been extended through Thursday.

I am torn on this change. Usually there are six or seven games on Thursday, which is entirely unfair to the teams who have to play while others get another day of rest. Selfishly, I was always glad to see baseball return, but how was that not an all-or-nothing day? They landed on the side of nothing, so we’re stuck with two baseball-free days. This is like giving Jesse Pinkman a wheelbarrow full of meth for nearly three months and then none for two days. This isn’t going down from wheelbarrow to radio flyer red wagon to a bucket full to a handful; it’s going from wheelbarrow to zero.

So to help get you through this mess, I have 26 games from the first half that contain some of the best, most exciting baseball we have seen thus far. Obviously the viewing of these games will require an MLB.tv subscription, which you should already have secured back in February (yes, February), but just in case you haven’t, it is on sale for $80 bucks. That’s a steal in my opinion, and no, I’m not being paid by MLB to say that. It’s seriously the best purchase I make yearly, except for the food that keeps my beagle alive.

Motown Mash
April 7 – Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hit two home runs apiece in a 10-0 rout of Boston – box, video

Sure, this first one is a bit homerish (pun intended), but two of the biggest stars in the game were paired together this offseason when Fielder signed in Detroit, and everyone was excited to see them as a three-four combo in the Tigers lineup. They didn’t wait long to display fireworks (second game of the year), and they did so against one of the better pitchers in baseball in Josh Beckett. Lost in the mix is the Tigers bullpen cobbling together 5 1/3 scoreless innings. It’s easier with a huge lead, but it was only 2-0 when Doug Fister left with an injury.

Wild One in Comerica
April 8 – Tigers win a thriller in 11 to secure sweep of Boston – box, video

No, this isn’t going to be 27 Tigers games. It is merely coincidental that the first two involve my favorite team. But I stand by the selections. Who doesn’t like watching Boston get smashed 10-0, and who doesn’t like watching Boston’s hearts get ripped out in extra innings? Textbook win-win. Lost in the shuffle of allowing 13 runs is that Vicente Padilla (4 IP, 4 K) and Franklin Morales (2 IP, 3 K) threw six shutout innings. Thankfully, Mark Melancon is a thing.

So Aroldis
April 11 – Aroldis Chapman fans five of the seven batters he faces in a Reds walkoff win – box, video

The feature of this game doesn’t start until the eighth inning, but it is a nice 3-3 battle between the Reds and Cardinals before that, including a four-hit day from Joey Votto. The only thing lacking is the trademark 100-plus mph heat of Chapman, but he does sit 96 with his fastball and threw strikes with 63 percent of his pitches.

Cain and Lee Go 19 Scoreless
April 18 – Cliff Lee goes 10 and Matt Cain goes nine in an 11-inning gem – box, video

If you don’t love a 1-0 duel between aces, then you probably don’t love baseball. Neither ace figures into the decision of a game that goes 11, but what a great game between a pair of the game’s finest on the mound. Perhaps some foreshadowing was seen in this game, as Melky Cabrera turns in a three-hit day in a game that saw just 13 hits in all. Cabrera capped off his first half with an excellent All-Star Game that included the best shoes of the night.

Humber Humbles Mariners                       
April 21 – Philip Humber is perfect in the Emerald City – box, video

The key component of the Johan Santana trade finally pays dividends… for a different team. The degree of difficulty certainly isn’t highest when cutting through the Mariners current lineup, but Humber isn’t exactly Roy Halladay either, so there’s no need to discount his achievement. Furthermore, if perfect games were easy against crappy lineups, we would see seven-to-ten per year. While no-hitters and perfectos have been a bit more frequent in this new pitching age, they are still far from common. I love the symmetry of Humber’s perfect line: 9-0-0-0-0-9. He’s been far from perfect since (7.47 ERA), but on this day he shone brightly.

Yu Takes New York
April 24 – Yu Darvish fans 10 Yankees in eight-plus scoreless – box, video

Darvish had an inauspicious start to his MLB career with an ugly debut against the Mariners followed by better, but still far from special, starts against the Twins and Tigers. He walked four or more in each of those three starts, so a visit from the Yankees looked like it could be troublesome. Of course, whenever you really think something will happen in baseball, the opposite often comes through instead. Darvish was masterful, scattering seven hits and two walks in 8 1/3 scoreless innings.

The Kid Cometh
April 28 – Bryce Harper makes his surprise debut in LA – box, video

Not only is it Harper’s debut, but Stephen Strasburg is on the mound for the first place Nationals, who are facing the first place Dodgers with Vin Scully calling the game. It really doesn’t get more basebally than that. Chad Billingsley was hitting on all cylinders too, and this was actually one of his best outings of the year. If all of those individual components aren’t enough (stop being greedy, jerk), there is the fact that it was a thrilling extra-inning game that was capped off with a Matt Kemp walk-off home run.

The Hittingest Game of the Year
May 2 – Roy Halladay and Tommy Hanson fall apart in an 11-inning, 15-13 battle royale – box, video

Remember what I said about things sometimes not living up to the hype? Pitting stud arms like Halladay and Hanson together in a battle of division rivals has all the makings of a 2-1 gem. This game was actually scoreless through two innings, which makes the 15-13 score even more impressive. It was Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz’s coming out party, as he went 3-for-5 with two doubles, a homer, and seven RBIs. Every starting position player had at least a hit, six had three hits, and five others had a pair of hits. Oh, and it ends on a walk-off home run by Chipper Jones. May 2 was an incredible day of baseball.

Weaver Solves the Twins
May 2 – Jered Weaver joins the no-hitter party and comes a walk shy of perfection – box, video

Like whoa, Scoob, the Twins couldn’t earn a single Scooby Snack against Weaver on this night. The rarity of this game wasn’t so much the no-hitter as it was the Angels winning without the aid of Mike Trout. Trout had been up for a few days at that point and was inexplicably given a day off. Fortunately, the offense got loose on Liam Hendriks en route to a 9-0 smash job.

Boston Marathon
May 6 – The O’s and Sox go 17 as two position players pitch – box, video

Neither starter made it through five, but then runs were in short order for quite some time. There were eight scoreless innings from the ninth thru 16th innings, and except for a run for each team in the eighth, there would have been 11 scoreless. Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Davis both went 0-for-8, but Davis was given the opportunity to make up for his failures and did so with two scoreless innings, winding up with the win. In fact, Davis exacerbated Gonzalez’s horrible day by striking him out in the 17th. If you have a free six hours and seven minutes, enjoy this epic.

Hamilton’s Career Day
May 8 – Josh Hamilton mashes four homers in Baltimore – box, video

This was the eighth game of an incredible 16-game hitting streak by Hamilton during which he hit .424/.493/.966 with 10 home runs, 26 RBIs, 15 runs scored, and 64 bat-tosses. This looked like the jump off toward an all-time season, but he cooled off bit in June. Alas, he is still pacing toward shattering the tossed bat record and putting it out of reach forever. Most players know how to hang onto their bats or understand the value of using aids (like pine tar) to do so, since chucking your bat into the stands three or four times a night isn’t ideal from a safety standpoint.

Almost Nothing
May 18 – Justin Verlander comes within two outs of no-hitting Pirates – box, video

See, I went nine games without a Detroit contest. There is a no-hitter watch every fifth day when Verlander toes the slab, and he showed why again on this Friday evening in Detroit. He walked the second batter of the game, taking perfection out of the equation, and the Pirates would go another five innings without a base runner (Andrew McCutchen walked in the seventh). They seemed poised to go hitless until Josh Harrison’s dumb face stepped up to the plate in the ninth. He stuck his bat out (probably a stupid bat, if I had to guess) and made some fluky, lame-o contact with the ball for a cheapie single up the middle. I’m not mad, I swear. SHUT UP!

Maximum Strikeouts
May 20 – Max Scherzer registers 15 Ks (all swinging) in a comeback win against the Pirates – box, video

After going nine games in between Tigers mentions you know I had to go back-to-back with ‘em. Scherzer set the bar for strikeouts on the season (which would be matched, but not topped, thus far) with a dazzling performance against the Pirates. Even seven innings of two-run ball only took his ERA down to 5.73 after an awful April, but including this game, he has posted a 3.56 ERA in nine starts since then with 73 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings (11.8 K/9).

The Most Mike Trout Game Ever
May 20 – The rookie phenom flashes all five tools in San Diego – box, video

Yeah, the Angels lost (3-2), and I actually can’t remember if Trout makes any special defensive plays (two of the five tools are throwing ability and defense) , but if you want a single dose of what he brings to the table, at least offensively speaking, then this game is for you. In this 13-inning affair, Trout goes 3-for-4 with two singles, a home run, an RBI, two runs scored, two walks (one intentional because teams are scurrred), and two stolen bases. He also plays centerfield, left field, and then centerfield again. Versatility is his middle name (don’t check that).

MeMooreialDay Sale
May 28 – Two promising lefties fan a combined 25 in only 14 innings of work – box, video

Yeah, I realize I’m trying too hard with that headline but just… shut up, please (I said please!). On the opposite end of the spectrum from that Coors Field Home Run Derby is this Memorial Day throw-down between Chris Sale and Matt Moore, who both sliced up the opposition in a breezy 2-1 game that took just over two and a half hours. Sale drew the attention for his 15 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings en route to a win, but Moore was impressive with 10 strikeouts in seven innings in what was easily his best start to date, topped only by his seven shutout innings against Miami a few weeks later.

More Like No-han
June 1 – Johan Santana blanks Cards for first no-hitter in Mets history – box, video

Santana gave everyone the easiest headline of the year by having a first name that starts with something that rhymes with “no” and then throwing a no-hitter. As his pitch count mounted (thanks in large part to five walks), everyone wondered if Terry Collins was going to leave him in for the chance at history, but I’m pretty sure he’d have had to fistfight him to bring him out of that game. It was a special game, and while there is a blown call on what would’ve been a Carlos Beltran hit, I don’t think it takes away from greatness of this one. Definitely watch the Mets broadcast on this one. Not just because the special event is happening to them but because they have the best team this side of Scully.

Free Baseball in DC
June 5 – Mets/Nats play a see-saw extra-inning battle that features seven ties/lead changes – box, video

I love games that have multiple ties/lead changes during the extra innings portion, and this game features just that with scoring in the tenth and twelfth innings. Five of the 13 runs scored occur after regulation. There are several would-be heroes throughout the game before, yep, you guessed it, Bryce Harper comes through with the walk-off hit. It helps that he ends up the hero, but any game with seven Harper at-bats can’t be bad.

Strasburg Dominant for Six
June 8 – Stephen Strasburg fans 13 Red Sox in just six innings of work – box, video

It wasn’t best start of the year, but it was impressive to watch Strasburg slice his way through the Sox lineup for six strong innings. He caps the outing by striking out the side twice en route to his seventh win of the season. Additionally, Harper shines again with a 3-for-5 effort that includes a double and home run with three RBI and two runs scored. All that with Fenway Park as the backdrop.

A Team Effort in Seattle
June 8 – Kevin Millwood leaves early, passing a no-hitter to the bullpen – box, video

The peak of Millwood’s season is undoubtedly his filthy four-start run that saw him go into the Bronx, Coors Field, and Arlington, as well as host the Texas Rangers, yet come out on the other side with a 0.67 ERA. He was brilliant for 27 innings with a 0.74 WHIP and 20 strikeouts. After a stumble against the White Sox, he was back at it on this night against the Dodgers, throwing six no-hit innings with six punch-outs and a walk before succumbing to injury and turning the game over. Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League, and Tom Wilhelmsen combined for three no-hit innings of their own (Pryor’s two walks being the only blemishes on their collective record) to complete the team no-no. Adding to the drama is the fact that it was a scoreless game through six and a half innings before Kyle Seager’s RBI single plated Ichiro for the game’s only run.

Cutch Clutch
June 10 – Andrew McCutchen drives in all three for Pirates as they move into tie for first – box, video

This game is the Pirates’ season in a nutshell: a big effort from A.J. Burnett on the mound while McCutchen leads the offense. They haven’t been the only two to lead the team, but it’s an apt microcosm. Cutch went 2-for-3 with a double and homer, a walk, all three RBIs, and a run scored in the 3-2 win. This was their first day in first place for the season, and only tied at that, but they entered the break with the spot all to themselves. They fell back to second the day after this game and stayed there until early July when, again, a McCutchen performance led them during a Burnett start. I didn’t include that game because Burnett was actually knocked around a bit.

Astros Get Cained
June 13 – Matt Cain pitches the game of the year (so far), going perfect with 14 Ks – box, video

The Giants scored in the first five innings of this one, so the result was never really in question, but it didn’t take away from Cain’s special night. There are incredible defensive plays to save the perfection, too, including the last play of the game. Of course Melky Cabrera has a multi-hit game, pushing his season batting average to 2.498 (yes, he gets nearly two-and-a-half hits per AB).

Dickey Doubly Dominant
June 13 – R.A. Dickey gets lost in shuffle of Cain, but one-hits TB with 12 Ks – box, video
June 18 – Dickey repeats his one-hit feat five days later for the home crowd – box, video

Before Cain’s perfecto, Dickey limited the Rays to a single hit (and a dubious one at that) while fanning 12 and extending his scoreless* streak to 33 1/3 innings. Five days later, he went four no-hit innings before yielding a single to Wilson Betemit. He upped the ante strikeout-wise, this time punching out 13 while extending his scoreless innings streak to 42 1/3. It would only last two innings into his next start, however, as the CC Sabathia-Dickey showdown on Sunday Night Baseball failed to live up to its billing. Back-to-back one-hitters are impressive for any pitcher, but there is an added amount of excellence to Dickey’s as a knuckleballer.

*earned runs only, he allowed an unearned run in the TB outing

Anything You Can Do…
June 22 – Chris Sale and Zack Greinke go toe-to-toe in a good ol’ fashioned pitcher’s duel – box, video

Sale wound up on the wrong end of this duel, but it was an excellent game as a current ace and a future ace matched each other pitch-for-pitch in a 1-0 game that went 10 innings. There were more innings (10) than hits (nine). Sale leaned on the strikeout, posting seven in eight innings, while Greinke was less-reliant on them, netting just four in nine; still, he looked plenty dominant, inducing tons of weak contact.

That Was Quick
June 29 – Aaron Cook mows down the Mariners with an 81-pitch shutout – box, video

Cook is one of the premier groundball artists in the game, and this actually wasn’t even his best shutout in terms of fewest pitches. He has a 79-pitch shutout under his belt from his time back in Colorado, and a 74-pitch complete game (during which he allowed two runs). If you want to watch a team just get decimated in a brisk two hours and 18 minutes, this is your game.

Coors Field Trolls All of Us
July 1 – Kip Wells and Drew Pomeranz somehow headline a 2-0 game in Coors Field – box, video

What? Really? I am sure bettors lost tons on the over with this one, even if it was an over/under of 15. Wells hadn’t pitched in the majors in two years and had been awful when he did from 2004 through 2009, yet he throws up seven scoreless in Coors Field. Pomermanz is a promising rookie, but Coors has been chewing up established veterans, let alone promising rookies, this year, so this had trouble written all over it. So, of course, he throws six strong innings while allowing just an unearned run on two hits and three walks. It is easily the best trolling by a stadium since Veterans Stadium was seriously used for actual sporting events for 30-plus years.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

Related Content:  First Half,  All-star Break,  Off-day,  Best Games

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