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July 31, 2013

What You Need to Know

The First-Place Pirates

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
The Cardinals came to Pittsburgh on Monday for a five-game series up by half a game in the National League Central, despite having lost three in a row. They fell behind, 4-0, in the bottom of the first inning and never recovered in a 9-2 defeat.

It was the Cardinals’ first four-game skid of the season, and it could not have come at a worse time. Still, Matt Holliday was not concerned. “We’re just going to try to come back and win the game tomorrow,” he told reporters, and his manager, Mike Matheny, contributed his own cliché, saying, “we focus it down to playing the games one at a time.”

On Tuesday, the Cardinals had two games to play one at a time. Two games to snap out of a rut during which the offense had scored two or fewer runs in four straight contests. Two games to rediscover the widely acclaimed clutch hitting that helped them to assemble a .339 team average with runners in scoring position, the best in the majors by a whopping 49 points.

Apart from not playing both games at once, they didn’t do any of those things. And the bad news didn’t end there.

Game one of the twin bill went 11 innings. Lance Lynn held the Pirates to one run over six innings of work, giving the scuffling offense plenty of time to battle back from a 1-0 deficit, which it did in the top of the third. From that point through the top of the ninth, neither team even advanced a runner to third base, as A.J. Burnett matched Lynn and the bullpens did their jobs.

Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, after the Cardinals failed to score with runners at the corners and one out in the top of the 10th, Kevin Siegrist buckled. The rookie, a 41st-round pick in 2008, had allowed only one run on four hits and six walks in his first 14 1/3 major-league innings. But after Pedro Alvarez flied out, Russell Martin and Gaby Sanchez both drew walks. And then, on a full-count fastball, Alex Presley brought Martin home with a ground ball up the middle that deflected off of Siegrist and went into center field, giving the Pirates a 2-1 victory.

For the first time since the All-Star break, the Pirates were in first place. But they would need another victory in the nightcap to go to bed atop the division.

With the game one loss ostensibly behind them, the Cardinals went to work hoping to plate more runs in game two. Instead, they scored fewer—none, to be exact—digging a hole in the bottom of the second and failing to climb out of it.

A fielding error by David Freese put the speedy Jose Tabata aboard with one out. Josh Harrison singled to put runners at the corners. And after pitcher Brandon Cumpton struck out attempting to bunt, the ailing Yadier Molina (more on that later) committed a rare passed ball, allowing Tabata to score. Jordy Mercer fanned to end the inning, but the damage was done.

The Pirates tacked on three runs in the fifth—on a triple by Starling Marte, a single by Mercer, and a two-run blast by Andrew McCutchen—but those were superfluous. So were the two they scored in the seventh. The Cardinals notched only three hits against Cumpton in the rookie’s seven innings on the bump, and none in the two pitched by Jeanmar Gomez. They went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, bringing their tally for the twin bill, in which they scored only one run, to 1-for-15.

All of that amounted to a 6-0 Pirates win, a shutout that put Clint Hurdle’s squad ahead by more than one game for the first time since July 5.

And for the Cardinals, the bad news kept on coming.

Molina, a candidate for National League Most Valuable Player honors, left the game in the bottom of the fourth inning with a knee injury later revealed to be a sprain. He traveled back to St. Louis last night for further evaluation and will miss the rest of the series. According to MLB.com beat writer Jenifer Langosch, a stint on the disabled list “seems certain.”

That’s tough to hear for a Cardinals club that has lost a season-high six consecutive games. Things aren’t much better for the Reds, who have dropped a season-high five straight. Meanwhile, the Pirates have won three in a row, putting their four-game drought earlier this month and their series loss in Miami over the past weekend behind them.

It’s official: the trade deadline is upon us. And the Pirates—yes, the Pirates—have the best record in baseball.

Tuesday’s Matchup in Review
Back in the lineup amid buzz that he might be exported in a salary-dump trade, Jason Kubel brought excellent career numbers against Roberto Hernandez into yesterday’s game between the Diamondbacks and Rays. But the right-hander needed just 102 pitches to complete a two-run game, and Kubel—who has scuffled for most of the year—was unable to sustain his past success.

Up with the bases empty and one out in the top of the second, Kubel saw four pitches, all of them either over the outer third or off the corner. The first one, a sinker, painted the black for strike one. The second, a backdoor slider, stayed low. The next two were changeups; Kubel fouled off the first, which was outside, and whiffed on the second, which crossed below his knees, falling victim to a location that has given him trouble throughout his career.

Kubel’s next at-bat came as the leadoff man in the fifth inning, after the Rays tacked on a run in the bottom of the fourth to go up 3-0. This time, he saw six pitches, the first two of which he watched low for balls. Hernandez earned strike one with a sinker, but fell behind 3-1 with a changeup that also missed low. He came back with two challenge sinkers, and Kubel, after fighting off the first one, went the other way with the second, flying out to left. The 91-mph pitch tailed right down the middle, but Kubel—who has punished such location mistakes for must of his career—was unable to capitalize.

The left fielder’s last trip to the box was his shortest of the day, and it ended no more productively than the first two. Up with two down and nobody on in the top of the seventh, he took a slider low, swung through another changeup, and then pulled an outside-corner sinker to Evan Longoria, who was shifted to the right side of the infield, to end the inning.

Kubel was 14-for-38 versus Hernandez coming into the game, but the sinkerballer hit his down-and-away targets last night to keep him at bay. And on the one occasion when he didn’t, Kubel failed to take advantage. The 14-for-41 head-to-head line remains impressive for Kubel—but at least for now, Hernandez can claim the last laugh.

Matchup of the Day
As I wrote in last Friday’s WYNTK, Justin Verlander’s curveball and slider have betrayed him in recent outings, and his inability to generate swings-and-misses with those breaking pitches is among the reasons for his sudden mortality. Verlander was charged with seven runs on 11 hits in six innings on July 25, a dud that came on the heels of a 5 2/3-inning, six-run (five earned) clunker five days earlier. He has not struck out more than five batters in any start since June 12.

Tonight, he will face a Nationals lineup that has begun to shake off a prolonged, team-wide rut, one that saw Davey Johnson’s hitters sink into a collective, 6-for-80 hole with runners in scoring position. The Nats went 9-for-12 on Sunday in at-bats that came with teammates on second or third, and there are plenty of power threats in the lineup that are capable of hurting a vulnerable Verlander.

One of those hitters is Ian Desmond, whose only meeting with Verlander came on June 16, 2010, long before his breakout campaign in 2012. Desmond went 0-for-2 that day; he struck out, grounded into a double play, and then was given a reprieve when Verlander plunked him with an errant 0-1 curveball.

The trouble here for Verlander is that since busting out his power stroke last year, Desmond has not missed many fastballs, and he has done particularly well against the hard stuff in 2013.

There aren’t many holes in Desmond’s fastball swing, and he has improved his discipline from 2012 to 2013, chasing pitches up and inside less frequently than he previously did. Assuming that Verlander’s velocity—which seemed back to normal even as the White Sox teed off—has indeed returned, he has the giddy-up to miss even the best fastball hitters’ bats. But if Desmond and his teammates are able to sit dead red and adjust to a curve and slider that have lost their bite, it could be another long day for the Tigers’ ace (1:08 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Trade Deadline Wednesday (4:00 p.m. ET)

  • Amid his emergence as a rotation stalwart for the Pirates, Jeff Locke has produced some weird strikeout and walk numbers.

o On April 13, Locke walked four Reds and failed to earn a single strikeout, but he lasted five innings and permitted only one run. In doing so, he became the first pitcher this year—and the only one so far—to walk at least four, finish an outing with zero strikeouts, and be charged with fewer than two runs.

o On June 9, Locke issued seven walks to the Cubs in 5 2/3 innings but escaped with only one run on his line, notching six strikeouts along the way. In doing so, he became the first pitcher this season to walk at least seven and strike out at least six in the same outing, and the first to meet both of those benchmarks while allowing only one run since Tommy Hanson did it on July 25, 2012.

o In his most recent start, on July 26, Locke walked six Marlins and struck out nine while working 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball. In doing so, he became just the second pitcher since 2010 to walk at least six and fan at least nine in the same outing, joining Matt Moore, who walked six Blue Jays and struck out 11 of them on June 25. The last pitcher to reach those benchmarks in a losing effort, as Locke did, was Rich Harden on August 31, 2009.

Somehow, despite all of those adventures, Locke enters tonight’s assignment third among qualifying starters with a 2.15 ERA. The 25-year-old left-hander’s 3.82 FIP suggests that regression is in store, and his .233 BABIP points in that direction, too. He’ll attempt to dock both of those worrisome indicators in a duel with Adam Wainwright as the Pirates and Cardinals continue to duke it out for first place in the National League Central (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • One player who won’t be pleased to see the calendar flip to August is Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who scuffled in April and May, hit well in June, and then found his power stroke earlier this month. Lucroy has as many home runs (seven) as strikeouts in July, and he is 28-for-86 overall—good for a .326 average—with six additional extra-base hits, all of them doubles. Now up to .283/.333/.492 on the year, the 27-year-old Lucroy (1.9 WARP) is well on his way to matching or exceeding his 2.2 WARP output in 2012. He’ll try to provide his usual strong receiving support for batterymate Wily Peralta while taking his hacks against Edwin Jackson tonight (8:05 p.m. ET).

  • Hiroki Kuroda beat his former team, the Dodgers, at Yankee Stadium on June 19. Tonight, the 38-year-old right-hander will lead the Yankees into his former home, Chavez Ravine, in the second of three games between the teams in Los Angeles. This will mark Kuroda’s first start at Dodger Stadium since the end of the 2011 season, when he left as a free agent to join the Yankees on a one-year, $12 million hitch. Kuroda owns a 3.43 career ERA in 57 starts in L.A., all of them for the Dodgers, and he will take on Don Mattingly’s ace, Clayton Kershaw, in his return (10:10 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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