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August 2, 2012

What You Need to Know

Thursday, August 2

by Daniel Rathman

The Wednesday Takeaway
Remember when the National League West was looking like a two-team race between the Dodgers and Giants? Well, if the past three days are any indication, the California rivals may want to check their rearview mirror.

In relative terms, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers had a quiet deadline. While Ned Colletti added Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino, and Brian Sabean reeled in Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro, Towers settled for Chris Johnson, Matt Albers, and Scott Podsednik

The 27-year-old Johnson is a mediocre defender, but his 775 career OPS represented a significant upgrade for Arizona, whose own third basemen were struggling to crack the 650 mark before his arrival. Days before acquiring Johnson from the Astros, Towers shipped incumbent Ryan Roberts to Tampa Bay, paving the way for his future acquisition to battle for playing time with prospect Ryan Wheeler.

Johnson has only donned his new uniform thrice, but already, that move looks like a stroke of genius. He homered in his Arizona debut, added a 3-for-4 night on Tuesday, and kept on rolling with another big fly yesterday afternoon. Best of all, Johnson’s 8-for-11 performance set the stage for the Diamondbacks to sweep the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine.

Wednesday’s 4-0 victory—which, when totaled with the first two games, resulted in a lopsided series score of 19-4—was promising for Kirk Gibson’s team in other ways, too. Making his first start since May 21, Patrick Corbin combined with Brad Ziegler, David Hernandez, and J.J. Putz to hold the Dodgers’ new-look lineup to a dismal 2-for-29 with eight strikeouts on the afternoon. And Corbin’s catcher, Miguel Montero, stayed hot with a 2-for-4 effort that improved him to 7-for-15 with three homers and eight walks over the past seven days.

After the Giants’ 2-1 loss to the Mets, the Diamondbacks are now just 2 ½ games out of first place and only 1 ½ behind the second-place Dodgers. Arizona’s once long-shot playoff odds are up to 1-in-4, and if the race comes down to September, they could control their own destiny, with five remaining meetings with Los Angeles and nine with San Francisco.

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • Last week, R.J. Anderson took a closer look at why Johnny Cueto has a chance to become only the fourth pitcher in major-league history to lower his ERA in four consecutive seasons (min. 100 innings per season). The next day, Cueto allowed five runs (four earned) to the Rockies but came away with his fourth consecutive win. He now has a 7.59 ERA in two starts against the Rockies this season and a 1.96 ERA in 19 starts against everyone else. Cueto will try to bounce back in this afternoon’s matinee versus the Padres at Great American Ball Park (12:35 p.m. ET).
  • Ryan Dempster was just sailing along, calmly working on a 2.25 ERA for the fifth-place Cubs. Then, a deadline deal threw him into the thick of the rapidly-tightening American League West battle, and he will make his Rangers debut in the finale of the four-game series against the Angels as Texas tries to earn an unlikely split. The right-hander began his professional career with the Rangers as the team’s third-round pick in the 1995 first-year player draft, but he was traded to the Marlins in the John Burkett deal a year later. Now, after eight-plus seasons with the Cubs, Dempster has come full circle, and he will be tasked with outdueling fellow former Ranger C.J. Wilson tonight. Albert Pujols, who has gone yard twice in each of the past two games, is 18-for-55 (.327 average) with seven homers in his career against Dempster (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • Strikeouts have been hard to come by for Blue Jays starter Henderson Alvarez, who throws his sinking fastball in the mid-90s but lacks a swing-and-miss off-speed offering. The 22-year-old righty’s 3.43 K/9 is the second-lowest rate in the league, though he has shown signs of improvement in that department of late, striking out four or more batters in three of his past four starts after doing so only once in his first 16. Unfortunately, that uptick in strikeouts has come up with an increase in walks, which has caused Alvarez’s ERA to rise from 4.15 to 4.43 during that span. He will look to maintain the newfound swings-and-misses while cutting down on the free passes in tonight’s series opener in Oakland (10:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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