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September 10, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Pirates Make it Official

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
Last Tuesday, Gerrit Cole helped the Pirates take the first step in their resurgence, contributing six innings of two-run ball toward a 4-3 victory that sealed at least a .500 team record. Then the Pirates lost four in a row, three of them to the first-place Cardinals. Six days after they earned that symbolic win, they were still stuck on 81.

Cole would have none of that on Monday night in Arlington, when he was asked to outduel Yu Darvish. His seven brilliant frames, authored in one of the league’s toughest venues, were one small step for the rookie pitcher, one giant leap for his franchise.

The 23-year-old Cole traded zeroes with his 27-year-old counterpart for six innings, permitting only three singles and two walks. Alex Rios and Elvis Andrus combined for three stolen bases, and Cole also uncorked a wild pitch, but on the few occasions that Rangers got into scoring position, the UCLA product stranded them there. Cole struck out nine—his best total through 16 big-league starts—including four in a row between the bottom of the fifth, when he fanned the side, and the top of the sixth, when he whiffed leadoff man Leonys Martin.

Ben Lindbergh covered the recent uptick in Cole’s strikeout rate in an Unfiltered post last week. That increase was of particular interest in Cole’s case, because the Pirates’ top prospect had developed a peculiar track record of punching out fewer batters than his electric arsenal suggested he could. To his credit, Cole was inducing plenty of ground balls and limiting his walks. But without more strikeouts, he would merely be a good starting pitcher, falling short of his ace-level promise.

Cole leaned on his high-90s gas and complemented it primarily with a sharp curveball and slider, continuing a trend of decreasing sinker usage that Ben pointed out in the afore-linked piece.

The Rangers had enough trouble catching up with Cole’s fastballs, but his breaking stuff utterly carved them up. The curve drew seven swings and misses in 16 tries, an incredible 43.75 percent whiff rate. And his slider, which coaxed whiffs on one-fifth of its 15 uses, wasn’t too shabby, either.

At the end of six, all Cole needed from the Pirates offense was a run. Andrew McCutchen struck out and Justin Morneau grounded out to begin the top of the seventh, as Darvish looked set to keep on cruising. But then Marlon Byrd, 13-for-40 (.325/.372/.525) in his first 11 games with the Bucs, roped a double, and Pedro Alvarez followed with another two-bagger to bring Byrd home. That was all the support Cole and two relievers would need to deliver win no. 82.

Asked to chip in a shutdown bottom of the seventh, Cole retired A.J. Pierzynski, Mitch Moreland, and Geovany Soto in order. Manager Clint Hurdle opted to end Cole’s outing on that high note, with 92 pitches, 64 of them strikes, on his line. Cole threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 25 Rangers he faced and notched 15 total swings and misses. He became just the seventh visiting pitcher in the 19-year history of Rangers Ballpark to work seven or more scoreless innings while fanning at least nine and not allowing an extra-base hit.

Tony Watson and Mark Melancon slammed the door on the Rangers in the eighth and ninth, and the 1-0 win pushed the Pirates to 82-61. Pittsburgh is now alone in second place in the Central and a full game (two in the loss column) ahead of the Reds, who were blanked by the Cubs on Monday.

All of that will matter in a few weeks. In the meantime, the albatross that has hung around the Pirates’ necks for two decades has officially been lifted. And if Cole keeps pitching like he did last night, a few other organizational droughts might end before the year is out.

Quick Hits from Monday
One double-digit strikeout outing piqued a little interest in Ubaldo Jimenez’s long-awaited resurgence. The second, six days later, turned some more heads and led a scout to declare that this is “the best I’ve seen him in nearly three years.” Now that the 29-year-old righty has produced a third, in yesterday’s 4-3 Indians victory over the Royals, it’s high time to start paying attention.

Jimenez had zero 10-strikeout, zero-walk games to his name when he came to the Indians from the Rockies. It took more than two years for him to log the first of his career, on August 29. On September 3, he blanked the Orioles for six innings. And on Monday, he once again fanned 10 without issuing a base on balls.

Few pitchers boast a menu as diverse as the one Jimenez serves, but as his teammate, Trevor Bauer, could tell you, a deep arsenal is easily undone by spotty command. Over his last four starts, Jimenez has not only sorted out the location issues that have plagued him since 2011, but also added a few ticks to his heater.

A harder-throwing, sharper Jimenez could be the ace the Indians thought they were acquiring when they shipped a prospect bounty to the Rockies a little over two years ago. His $8 million club option for the 2014 season, a Plan B in the eyes of ESPN SweetSpot network writer Joseph Werner a few weeks ago, is rapidly becoming a no-brainer. For more on Jimenez's apparent revival, see this article by Ben Lindbergh, also posted today.

***

If you went to bed early last night and pulled up the Diamondbacks-Dodgers box score this morning, you were in for a shocker. Juan Uribe hit three home runs? That’s correct—and he made a curtain call at Dodger Stadium, too.

A disaster in the first two seasons of his three-year, $21 million deal with the Dodgers, Uribe spent most of the 2011 campaign recovering from surgery to repair a sports hernia and missed a month of the 2012 season with a wrist injury. He appeared in 143 combined games over those two years and was 1.2 wins worse than a replacement-level player. He hit only two long balls in 179 plate appearances last season.

But as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the Dodgers’ surge has boosted Uribe to heights unseen since he helped the Giants win the World Series in 2010. Monday’s outburst was the sixth four-hit game of Uribe’s big-league career, and the first in which two of the hits were home runs. It bumped his triple-slash line for the season to .279/.334/.426. Pair that with a plus glove at the hot corner, worth 4.2 FRAA to this point in the season, and you’ve got a valuable player. A player worth every bit of his $7 million salary, plus a little extra to repay the Dodgers for their sunk costs in 2011 and 2012.

Uribe has now contributed three wins to the Dodgers’ cause in 2013. Their 8-1 win over the Diamondbacks on Monday snapped a four-game skid and ticked their magic number in the National League West down to eight. Clinching the division is a matter of when, not if. Don Mattingly’s club now has its sights set on bigger things—like overtaking the Braves, who are 2 ½ games ahead at 86-57, to secure home-field advantage for the duration of its pennant chase.

***

On Friday, Giants righty Yusmeiro Petit came within a foot of a perfect game. Three days later, Gio Gonzalez was about that close to earning a no-hitter.

The Nationals scored early and often in Monday’s series opener. They began the top of the first with back-to-back home runs, by Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman, which put Carlos Torres and the Mets in an early hole. Torres and Greg Burke coughed up seven more runs in the first five innings. And meanwhile, Gonzalez had the Mets behind the eight ball.

The left-hander issued a one-out walk to Daniel Murphy in the home half of the first, but with six frames in the books, Murphy—who did not advance—was still the only baserunner the Mets could claim. Unsatisfied with his starters, Terry Collins told Zach Lutz to grab a bat and see if he could snap the team out of its funk. He lined the first pitch he saw from Gonzalez down the first-base line, missing the outstretched glove of Tyler Moore by mere inches.

That brought the no-hit bid to an end, but Lutz, too, was stranded on first. And he was stuck there again following a two-out walk in the ninth. Gonzalez retired the other nine hitters he faced between the bottom of the seventh and the end of the game, completing the Nationals’ second one-hit shutout of the season (Jordan Zimmermann authored the other on April 26).

No-hitters and perfect games lost in the ninth inning, particularly with two outs and two strikes on the potential 27th out, are more memorable. But, from a batted-ball standpoint, Gonzalez was no further from notching a no-hitter on Monday than Petit was from turning in a perfect game on Friday. And the 27-year-old gave Nats fans another bright spot to make their disappointing season a bit easier to swallow.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Andrelton Simmons delivers a play worthy of mention here just about every night. So, it’s about time one of them actually made it:

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Remember Clay Buchholz? The right-hander has been on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis since June 8, but he’s ready to bolster the first-place Red Sox’ rotation over the final three weeks of the regular season. Buchholz hit the shelf with a 1.71 ERA, compiled mainly by permitting only two home runs in 84 1/3 innings of work while fanning 81 and walking 29. He made three starts during his minor-league rehab assignment, two of them for Triple-A Pawtucket, and should be reasonably stretched out for this evening’s duel with David Price. The Red Sox brought a 7 ½-game American League East lead with them to Tampa Bay, and though a sweep by the Rays could make things a bit more interesting, Boston’s odds of winning the division stand at over 99 percent (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • The Reds, 6-3 to this point in September after sweeping the Dodgers over the weekend, are in hot pursuit of the Cardinals in the National League Central, and Dusty Baker’s club got a boost toward that end from Tony Cingrani. Following a two-week stint on the disabled list, Cingrani returned on September 5 and held the Redbirds to two runs in 5 1/3 innings, over which he struck out seven to earn his second victory against St. Louis since the beginning on August. The 24-year-old left-hander will try to keep on rolling in game two of three versus the Cubs. He is scheduled to duel Edwin Jackson, who has led Dale Sveum’s club to defeat in each of his last six starts (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Francisco Liriano has been an absolute nightmare for left-handed hitters this season, holding them to a collective .142/.188/.160 triple-slash line—the product of two extra-base hits (both doubles), six walks, and 32 strikeouts in 113 plate appearances. He has induced more double-play balls (three) from fellow lefties than he has allowed extra-base hits. For the Rangers, Liriano’s opponent tonight, that puts the weight on the shoulders of right-handed hitters like Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler. Unfortunately for Ron Washington’s club, Beltre is in a 6-for-38 funk and Kinsler is right there with him at 8-for-44. Both will try to snap out of it in support of Martin Perez, who has been excellent since the end of July, amassing a 2.54 ERA to pave the way to victory in seven consecutive outings (8:05 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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