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April 8, 2013

What You Need to Know

Blazing Aces

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
When the Mets decided during the offseason to trade R.A. Dickey, and eventually shipped him to the Blue Jays, the 38-year-old knuckleballer became the first defending Cy Young Award winner to be traded since Roger Clemens went from the Jays to the Yankees following the 1998 season. And, because Dickey not only switched leagues in the deal, but also went specifically to Toronto—which was scheduled to play Cleveland in the first series of the regular season, before the Indians’ set with the Rays—the rare trade set the stage for something unique.

As soon as first-year Indians manager Terry Francona named Justin Masterson his Opening Day starter, the former Red Sox prospect was dealt a rather intimidating early-season schedule: His first start, on Opening Day, would be a duel with Dickey; his second, five days later, would pit him against the American League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, David Price.

Naturally, Dickey and Price combined to allow 12 runs (11 earned) over 11 innings in their outings versus the Tribe, issuing seven walks while recording only seven strikeouts. Masterson, meanwhile, worked 13 frames and permitted only one run between the two starts, the latter of which paved the way for a 13-0 rout yesterday afternoon. In doing so, the Indians’ number-one starter became the first pitcher in major-league history to defeat each of the defending Cy Young Award winners in his first two starts of the subsequent season.

By the end of the day on Sunday, Masterson’s ERA stood at a cool 0.69. Price, who led all qualifying American League starters with a 2.56 ERA in 2012, saw his 2013 mark rise to 8.18. And Dickey, also the victim of a 13-0 shellacking—this one at the hands of the Red Sox—and the runner-up in the National League ERA race (2.73) last year, was left to ponder the exchange rate on his newly minted 8.44.

But Dickey and Price weren’t the only aces sent off early on Sunday, following uncharacteristically poor efforts. Cole Hamels, who had not been charged with more than seven earned runs in an outing since July 16, 2011, coughed up eight in 5 2/3 innings to the Royals. Matt Cain, who cruised through the first three innings of his date with the Cardinals on 30 pitches, threw 36 pitches before exiting in the bottom of the fourth inning, and was ultimately saddled with a career-high nine earned runs. Earlier in the day, Stephen Strasburg needed 114 pitches to record 16 outs against the Reds and hit the showers with six earned runs on his line for the third time in his career.

And then, in a fitting conclusion to a topsy-turvy slate, the widely anticipated Sunday Night Baseball duel between Yu Darvish and Jered Weaver quickly devolved into a game of “who can have more trouble finding the strike zone.” The right-handers both lasted only five innings, and each doled out four walks, in what eventually became a 7-3 Rangers win. For Weaver, who suffered a strained left elbow on a fielding play, the dud marked his first April defeat since 2009. Darvish, who seldom missed his intended target in a near-perfect game against the Astros on Opening Day, was dealing with a blister on his right ring finger last night. His outing marked the first time that he had issued four or more walks in a start since August 12, 2012. Darvish had met or exceeded that total in half of his first 22 major-league outings, but had avoided doing so in each of his last eight.

Matchup of the Day
The Reds went 4-2 on a tough opening homestand against the Angels and Nationals, but they needed a walk-off rally in the ninth inning to win Mat Latos’ duel with C.J. Wilson. Latos, who tossed 6 2/3 innings of three-run ball but was twice bitten by the long ball (Alberto Callaspo, Howie Kendrick), should have better luck keeping the ball in the yard at Busch Stadium, where he’ll square off with Jaime Garcia in tonight’s game.

The 25-year-old righty’s biggest challenge may well be posed by Carlos Beltran, who has had no trouble finding the seats in their past encounters. Beltran is 4-for-11 lifetime versus Latos, with three homers, three walks, and only one strikeout. That’s good for a 1.682 OPS, the highest mark owned by any hitter that has faced Latos at least 10 times.

After serving up a gopher ball in his first meeting with Beltran, back on September 14, 2011, Latos has tried a host of different approaches. He threw consecutive, full-count curveballs the next time Beltran dug in but issued a walk, and then began Beltran’s ensuing plate appearance with a pair of benders, only to cough up another homer on a sinker.

More recently, though, the battle has turned in Latos’ favor. Since Beltran drew one more walk and slugged one more home run last April 18, Latos has limited him to only a single and a walk over eight plate appearances, typically choosing to establish his fastball (or sinker) to begin their showdowns. The single came on the second pitch of a curveball-only at-bat, while the walk came after three consecutive sliders, so establishing the hard stuff to set up the breaking arsenal may be Latos’ best bet this afternoon (4:15 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Roy Halladay struck out nine batters in 3 1/3 innings in his first regular-season start, but the good news ended there, because he permitted five runs, issued three walks, and threw 95 pitches along the way. A scout told ESPN’s Jayson Stark that Halladay “has got to reinvent himself” in order to avoid more early exits throughout the season, and that the nine strikeouts were more a product of the Braves’ whiff-heavy lineup than of Halladay’s occasional dominance. The 35-year-old righty gets an easier assignment in tonight’s series opener against the Mets, but he’ll need to outduel Matt Harvey, who surrendered only one hit and fanned 10 Padres on April 3 (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Rangers moved Alexi Ogando back into their rotation to begin the regular season, and the right-hander dazzled in his debut, striking out 10 batters while allowing only four hits and a walk over 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Of course, Ogando did that work against the hapless Astros. Tonight, he should face a stiffer test from the Rays, who will be eager to forget their Sunday afternoon calamity, in which Masterson and the Indians bullpen delivered a four-hit blanking as part of the aforementioned 13-0 romp. Jeremy Hellickson gets the ball for Tampa Bay, as Joe Maddon’s team embarks on a 10-game road trip (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • Last season, Dexter Fowler hit four home runs in April, four more in May, and then only five more the rest of the year. The Rockies center fielder has already sent four balls into the seats in 2013—two in Milwaukee and two in the three-game set versus the Padres at Coors Field—and he has collected at least one hit in each of Colorado’s first six games. All four of Fowler’s home runs to date have come from the left side of the plate, and the switch-hitter will look for his first right-handed big fly in tonight’s matchup with Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner. First-year Rockies manager Walt Weiss will send Jorge De La Rosa to the bump in game one (10:15 p.m. ET).

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

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