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July 11, 2013

What You Need to Know

Dodgers Back at Breakeven

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaways
With 30 teams in the major leagues, there are 435 possible matchups, and—since there are no ties in baseball—870 possible results. Entering play on Wednesday night, 869 of those outcomes had, at some point in history, been recorded. But the Pirates had never beaten the Athletics. They had played 11 times, including twice earlier this week, and the A’s had won each one.

Finally, in their 12th crack at the green and gold since 2002, the Buccos came out on top. Clint Hurdle’s club, which—now just 28 wins shy of the franchise’s first winning season in two decades—is well on its way to a more significant bit of history, rode the left shoulder of Francisco Liriano to a 5-0 shutout in the series finale.

Liriano limited the visitors to four hits (all singles) and a walk in seven innings of work before Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez sealed the deal with two frames of one-hit relief. The Pirates plated three runs in the third inning, which began with back-to-back doubles off the bats of Starling Marte and Jose Tabata, and added two insurance tallies in the fourth on their way to their 54th win of the season.

Thus, the 870th box on the list of possible major-league outcomes was finally checked off.

***

Hours later, in the desert, the Dodgers enjoyed a first of their own. With a 14-inning, 7-5 victory over the Diamondbacks, Don Mattingly’s club completed a critical sweep, moved to within 1 ½ games of first place, and climbed to .500 for the first time since the end of April.

Back then, the Dodgers were 13-13, Yasiel Puig was still in Double-A, and Hanley Ramirez was a day removed from a month-long stint on the disabled list, which he spent recovering from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. Now, after his game-winning solo shot off of Josh Collmenter, which preceded a follow-up blast from A.J. Ellis, Ramirez is batting .409, Puig is the toast of the town, and the Dodgers are 45-45.

At the beginning of that 64-game span, the Dodgers were trending downward as sharply as any team in the majors. They lost eight in a row to drop to 13-21, and eventually fell to a season-high 12 games under .500 at 30-42. That put the in the National League West cellar, 9 ½ games out of first place in a division that some expected them to win.

Eighteen games later, the Dodgers are knocking on the door, climbing the standings as quickly as any team in the league. Their newest member, Ricky Nolasco, turned in seven innings of one-run work in Tuesday’s middle match in Phoenix, his first start for Mattingly’s club after making 18 for the last-place Marlins. Apart from Matt Kemp, who is back on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and playing cheerleader on Twitter, the Dodgers are firing on all cylinders. With a strong weekend showing against the Rockies and some help from the Brewers, they could soon complete a circuitous transit to first place, a perch they have not occupied since April 2.

Wednesday’s Matchup in Review
Ivan Nova followed up his complete-game victory over the Orioles by tossing eight innings of one-run ball to pitch the Yankees past the Royals. The right-hander scattered five hits and two walks, and the only extra-base knock he allowed was a double by his counterpart in the matchup, Eric Hosmer.

Kansas City’s first baseman went 2-for-4 on the evening, batting in the three-hole of manager Ned Yost’s lineup. He picked up a first-inning single on a 1-1 curveball that dotted the outside corner, slapping it to the opposite field. In the fourth inning, he saw three consecutive fastballs—the first on the outside corner, the second well off the plate away, the third on the inside edge—and was jammed by the last one, grounding out to third. He rolled over a 2-2 curveball in the sixth inning, the fifth pitch of an at-bat in which two hooks bookended three fastballs, as Nova alternated sides of the plate but never missed down the middle. Hosmer’s eighth-inning two-bagger plated Alcides Escobar with the Royals’ only run of the night; it was another opposite-field liner, this time on a 1-2 fastball away.

Hosmer has now collected multiple hits in six of his last eight games and picked up an extra-base hit in each of his last three. He was 2-for-5 with a double and a homer versus Nova before Wednesday’s game, so he is now 4-for-9.

Matchup of the Day
Chris Sale has not dominated the Tigers the way that he has stymied other opponents, posting a 4.41 ERA over 13 career appearances (three starts), but most of the damage he suffered in those outings was done by players who are no longer on Jim Leyland’s roster, like Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have hardly troubled the young lefty, going 2-for-20 in 24 total plate appearances, and the latter earns the nod in today’s matchup.

As is the case with most sluggers, Fielder has a relatively wide career platoon split, with a .342 TAv versus righties and a .278 mark against fellow lefties. He is far from incompetent with same-side hurlers on the hill, though, and this season, he has actually teed off on them to the tune of a .305/.393/.505 triple-slash line. Fielder has scuffled through a prolonged power outage over the last five-plus weeks, hitting just three home runs since June 5, a lull that began immediately after he went deep in three consecutive games. But the 29-year-old’s bat could awaken at any time.

Sale’s approach to Fielder: lots and lots of sliders—a 47 percent usage rate according to the data on the matchup page—to go with plenty of mid-90s fastballs. That is similar to the 24-year-old’s overall approach to lefties, in which his changeup is a sparingly used show-me pitch, and it’s hard to blame Sale for sticking with those two offerings considering their effectiveness. Over the course of his big-league career, left-handed hitters have amassed only a .220 TAv against him.

All three of Sale’s head-to-head strikeouts versus Fielder have come on sliders—this one sweeping toward the outside corner, this rare front-door offering, and this one headed toward the dirt, the third consecutive slider in the sequence that led to the whiff. And here is why:

Fielder’s willingness to expand the zone against left-handed sliders is one of the reasons for the aforementioned platoon split, and when he chases below the zone and off the outside corner, he does not often hit the ball. That hole plays right into Sale’s hands, because the Florida Gulf Coast University product boasts one of the best sliders in the league and is generally able to avoid hanging the pitch in belt-high spots where Fielder is known to clobber it.

The first baseman’s only head-to-head knock was a first-pitch double on April 15, 2012. After fanning Fielder with his slider, Sale tried to jump ahead with the heater, and Fielder appeared to be sitting on it. Given Fielder’s inability to lay off of the slider, it seems likely that he will again sit dead-red in early counts, making it tougher for Sale to work into the two-strike situations in which the slider can put Fielder away.

You might not know it from his 5-8 record, but Sale has been outstanding throughout the 2013 season, compiling a 123-to-25 K:BB to go with a 2.78 ERA over 113 1/3 innings. He has notched double-digit strikeout totals in three of his last five assignments, and he fanned nine Rays in his most recent trip to the mound. Due to the quirks of Major League Baseball’s scheduling, this will be his first start of the year against the Tigers, wrapping up the first series of the season between the top and bottom teams in the Central (1:08 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • The sixth-ranked prospect in the Indians system coming into the year, Danny Salazar showcased his electric stuff in Double-A and Triple-A, recording 100 strikeouts over 76 combined innings during the first half. Now, the 23-year-old is ready for his first taste of the majors, which will come in a duel with Mark Buehrle and the Blue Jays this afternoon. Salazar boasts an excellent fastball-slider tandem, but questions about his durability and the lack of a third pitch in his arsenal have led some to wonder if his future lies in the bullpen (12:05 p.m. ET).
  • After a rough patch in early June, Matt Moore has allowed only one earned run over his last three starts and none in his past two. Of course, Moore’s opponents in the most recent pair of outings were the Astros and White Sox, so some skepticism about this turnaround is warranted, 26 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings notwithstanding. Moore gets another favorable matchup in today’s matinee, facing a Twins team that ranks 17th in baseball with a .258 TAv. This start will mark his first meeting with Ron Gardenhire’s club since April 20 of last year, when he tossed 6 1/3 innings of three-run ball at Tropicana Field, the site of today’s battle with Mike Pelfrey (12:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Yankees’ nightmarish first half at shortstop, where the likes of Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, and Reid Brignac have combined for a .553 OPS, may be coming to a close. Late on Wednesday night, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported that Derek Jeter, who went 1-for-9 with four walks on his rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, would make his first big-league appearance of the season in this afternoon’s series finale versus the Royals. Assuming that he is in Joe Girardi’s starting lineup, Jeter—who spent the first three-plus months of the year nursing the broken ankle that he suffered in the playoffs last year—will dig in against Ervin Santana (1:05 p.m. ET).
  • Adrian Beltre has been sizzling since the calendar flipped to July, going 18-for-34 with three doubles and six home runs. Tonight, Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez draws the unenviable task of cooling the Rangers’ third baseman’s red-hot bat. Gonzalez has enjoyed a nice run since the beginning of June, holding opponents to three or fewer runs in six consecutive starts, but he has struggled to keep the ball in the park at Camden Yards, serving up 10 gopher balls in 45 2/3 innings. He will need to avoid mistakes over the middle against Beltre and the power-packed Rangers lineup (7:05 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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