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June 25, 2013

What You Need to Know

Rays Outshine Jays

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
Dropped into last place in the American League East by the Blue Jays’ recent surge, still waiting for David Price to return from the disabled list, and now without Alex Cobb, the Rays needed a jolt. On Monday night, with those streaking Blue Jays in town, they got three.

With one away in the bottom of the second inning, James Loney cranked a hanging slider from Esmil Rogers over the right-center field wall. Then, in his first plate appearance at Tropicana Field, nearly a week after his promotion from Triple-A Durham, Wil Myers obliterated a fastball 428 feet to straightaway center. And, to cap off the trifecta, Sam Fuld, who had just one homer to his name this season, yanked a 2-0, challenge heater from Rogers deep to right, giving the home team a 3-0 lead.

The sustained production from Loney, the second blast in three days from Myers, and the rare offensive contribution from Fuld were all nice to see. For a Rays club that has typically depended on its ability to prevent runs rather than scoring them in bunches, it’s the improvement in the latter department that has helped Tampa Bay to overcome a slide in the former and still enter play on Monday at 39-37.

But winning a 4-1 ballgame requires a strong run-prevention effort, too. And there were encouraging signs on that front to go with the power display.

Jeremy Hellickson, felled over the first two-and-a-half-months of the season by a diminished strand rate and a relatively bloated BABIP, showed renewed skill in both of those areas in the series opener. The 26-year-old took the mound with a 5.50 ERA and left it with a 5.11 mark after seven innings of shutout ball. He issued four walks—the first four walks that he had given out since the calendar flipped to June—but permitted only one hit, a second-inning single by J.P. Arencibia that he promptly erased by coaxing a twin killing from Maicer Izturis.

Hellickson, who came into his 16th start of the year with a five percent walk rate, the 10th-lowest clip among qualifying American League starters, struggled at times on Monday to hit the targets set by catcher Jose Lobaton. But even without his usually excellent command and control, Hellickson succeeded in keeping the Blue Jays’ red-hot hitters off balance.

The righty struck out two batters in the first inning, half of his game total of four, and quickly set the tone for an outing in which the early lead enabled him to cruise. He froze Melky Cabrera with a 1-2 fastball, induced a ground ball from Jose Bautista, and fanned Edwin Encarnacion with a changeup. That off-speed offering was the fifth pitch in an at-bat that began the same way it ended: with a changeup, a swing and a miss from Encarnacion, and a bat flung into the stands on the follow-through, highlighting the extent to which the powerful right-handed hitter was fooled.

As has been the case since his major-league debut in 2010, the changeup was Hellickson’s best friend last night. In addition to making Encarnacion look silly, it elicited the aforementioned double-play grounder from Izturis, nabbed two quick outs in the top of the seventh, and put the cherry on top of the outing with a swinging strikeout of Arencibia to end that frame.

All together, Hellickson threw 59 of his 96 pitches for strikes, and he either found the zone or drew a swing with 19 of his 24 opening offerings. By working efficiently as well as effectively, he was able to complete the seventh inning for the first time since May 22 and to do so without surrendering a run for the first time since April 20.

That was crucial for a bullpen that manager Joe Maddon recently admitted has been taxed by the starters’ inability to work deep into games. The Blue Jays picked up a run off of Alex Torres before conceding their first defeat in 12 games, but they went quietly in the ninth against Fernando Rodney, who has righted his ship after a brutal first two months.

One win won’t cure all of the Rays’ warts, but Hellickson’s continued resurgence is pivotal to the team’s hopes of staying afloat until the rest of the rotation is restored. Fortunately, the schedule should aid that effort once the Tigers leave Tampa Bay this weekend.

After this six-game homestand versus Toronto and Detroit, all that will separate Maddon’s squad from the All-Star break are seven dates with the Astros, three with the White Sox, and four with the Twins. And 10 of those 13 contests will be played at the Trop, where the Rays are 22-16.

Matchup of the Day
If Alfonso Soriano is going to become a viable trade candidate in the last season and a half of his eight-year, $136 million mega-deal, the Cubs will need him to do better than a .242 TAv. Soriano was productive in 2012 after a three-year skid, contributing 2.8 WARP to the Cubs’ cause while slugging 32 home runs, his highest total since 2007. This year, though, he has cleared a fence only seven times, and his .248/.278/.398 triple-slash line won’t entice many suitors.

Soriano went 2-for-5 with a double and a triple in the Cubs’ 14-6 rout of the Astros on Sunday, a showing that marked his first multi-hit effort since June 13. He went 4-for-37 in the intervening nine games, slipping into a .108/.108/.162 schneid that caused his OPS to plummet from 723 to 662. And, amid all of that, Soriano has homered only once—a ninth-inning, two-run shot off of A.J. Burnett on June 8—and walked only once—courtesy of Jeff Locke the next day—this month.

Fortunately, a visit to Miller Park is on tap for the Cubs, and the first game that they will play there will bring to the mound a longtime National League Central hurler that Soriano loves to face. Originally picked by the Cubs in the 29th round of the 1996 draft, Kyle Lohse spent parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons with the Reds, all of 2008 through 2012 with the Cardinals, and then inked a three-year, $33 million pact with the Brewers to stay in a division in which only the Pirates have yet to cut him checks. Lohse’s strikeout rate has come down 1.2 percentage points from last season, but other than that, he has been what the Brewers thought he was: a strike-throwing veteran with the ability to stabilize the middle of an erratic rotation.

Soriano, however, seems to bring out the worst in Lohse. The left fielder is 20-for-56 in his career against the 34-year-old right-hander with four doubles, four homers, two walks, and seven strikeouts. All of that is good for a 1022 OPS, the second-best clip amassed among the 21 big-league hitters who have dug in against Lohse at least 40 times. Only Carlos Beltran, Lohse’s teammate with the Cardinals, can boast better lifetime numbers (24-for-48, 1458 OPS).

A dozen years into his major-league career, the trick to retiring Soriano isn’t much of a secret:

The San Pedro de Macoris native loves him some down-and-away sliders, which is good news for the pitcher and bad news for Soriano, because, as the plot above shows, he can’t hit them.

As all of the red dots on the above plot indicate, Lohse got that memo a long time ago. He has thrown Soriano nearly as many sliders as fastballs and sinkers combined, and apart from a handful of location mistakes, all of them have been aimed at that low-and-out soft spot that is so glaringly evident on the previous chart.

Unfortunately for Lohse, the slider is really the only weapon in his arsenal for which Soriano does not have a counter. He started their most recent encounter, the third head-to-head plate appearance on September 23, 2012, with three consecutive sliders on or just beyond the outside black, jumping ahead in the count, 0-2, but failing to immediately put Soriano away. Lohse might have been wise to stick to that plan, because Soriano was ready for the sinker that deviated from it, smacking the 90-mph offering out of the yard to left-center field.

The exact same, backward approach failed four-plus years earlier, when Soriano drilled a 1-2 fastball for a double. On the other hand, when Soriano has put the slider into play, he has never come away with more than a single, and often has given Lohse precisely what the pitcher was looking for. This first-pitch slider elicited a double-play ball. This one brought forth a pop out (though I’m not entirely certain how Soriano managed to get so far underneath a pitch so close to the dirt). And Lohse has the slider to thank for many of his strikeouts versus Soriano, such as this one and this one.

If Lohse, who has logged a quality start in each of his four trips to the mound this month, can avoid location mistakes with Soriano in the box, he should be able to keep on cruising while Soriano keeps on slumping. For all of the ownage that Soriano can boast, he has shown no robust answer to the slider. When the count is in Lohse’s favor, there is little doubt as to which pitch he should throw and where (8:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • The night’s best duel might take place in the Bronx, where Japanese imports Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda are set to square off in the opener of a three-game series between the Rangers and Yankees. Darvish allowed a season-high five runs in a loss to the Athletics on June 18, when John Jaso and Brandon Moss accounted for the first two homers that Darvish had served up this month. Kuroda, meanwhile, held his former team, the Dodgers, to two runs over 6 2/3 innings, en route to the Yankees’ first win with him on the mound since May 17. The Rangers are just 1-5 behind Darvish since May 16, so both lineups will attempt to provide more run support for their starter than either has scraped together over the last five weeks (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Zack Wheeler was dominant at times and wild at others in his major-league debut, but the good outweighed the bad in six innings of shutout ball at Turner Field. The 23-year-old top prospect gets the ball in the first game of a quick two-gamer against the White Sox, who will send Chris Sale to the bump to welcome Terry Collins’ club to the South Side of Chicago. Sale has been saddled with a loss in each of his last four assignments, though he permitted no more than one earned run in two of them. The 24-year-old lefty carries a 2.69 ERA, good for fourth among qualifying American League starters, into his first career meeting with the Mets (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • A hot Pedro Alvarez is a very dangerous Pedro Alvarez, as the Angels discovered the hard way over the weekend, when the third baseman slugged a homer in each game of a Pirates sweep. The 26-year-old Alvarez now has 19 home runs on the season to go with a .237 average, up from .199 on June 5, after a 21-for-60 (.350/.418/.783) stretch with five doubles and seven long balls. Alvarez also went deep in the Bucs’ series finale in Cincinnati, and he is now riding the first four-game home-run streak of his career. Tonight, when the Pirates visit the Mariners and the Vanderbilt product digs in against Joe Saunders, Alvarez will try to join Chris Davis, Paul Konerko, Mike Napoli, and A.J. Pierzynski as the only players to go yard in five consecutive contests since Opening Day, 2011 (10:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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