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September 11, 2013

What You Need to Know

Boston Gets Buchholz Back

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
More good news for the Red Sox.”

That was the assessment of a scout who attended last night’s game at Tropicana Field, in which Clay Buchholz came off the disabled list and appeared in a big-league game for the first time since June 8. The 29-year-old Buchholz picked up right where he left off three months ago, blanking the Rays for five innings to trim his ERA down from 1.71 to 1.61.

Thanks to the emergence of Felix Doubront, the resurgence of Jon Lester, and the acquisition of Jake Peavy, John Farrell’s club scarcely missed Buchholz during his stint on the shelf. Boston went 49-33 (.598 winning percentage) over the half-season’s worth of games that the right-hander spent recovering from bursitis in his throwing shoulder. But a contender can always use another arm, particularly one with the upside Buchholz brings, and with Doubront suddenly looking shaky, the return of the unbeaten Texan might prove critical to the Red Sox as they attempt to lock up the American League East and peek ahead into October.

As the aforementioned evaluator told the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, Buchholz, who needed 74 pitches to record 15 outs, was sharp. So sharp, in fact, that even Farrell was pleasantly surprised.

Although Buchholz’s curveball command was spotty—only three of the nine benders he threw went for strikes—his fastball and cutter were spot on. He induced two whiffs apiece with the hardest offerings in his arsenal, with the four-seamer sitting around 91 mph and touching 93. Nineteen of the 26 cutters that Buchholz employed went for strikes, and 17 of those 19 strikes were called, fouled off, or swung at and missed. He struggled at times to keep the ball down, but had little trouble hitting the rightmost (from the catcher’s perspective) quarter of the zone, a location that has generally served him well against arm- and glove-side hitters alike.

Buchholz’s opposite number, David Price, stifled the Red Sox during the first four innings, but Farrell’s lineup finally pushed through in the top of the fifth, which Mike Napoli kicked off with a double. Jonny Gomes followed with an RBI single, the lone hit with a runner in scoring position for either club, and after Daniel Nava moved him over with a sacrifice bunt, Gomes touched the plate on a sacrifice fly by Jarrod Saltalamacchia.


Those were the only tallies mustered by either team in the opener. Price struck out nine and did not issue a free pass, completing eight innings and firing 127 pitches, the highest total ever amassed by a starter under manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey. Price became the first pitcher to kick and deal that many times in a losing effort since the 2011 season, when six different hurlers reached that count, the most recent of whom was Ryan Dempster, then a member of the Cubs, on September 13.

Koji Uehara finished off the 2-0 victory for the Red Sox, recording the final four outs with just 13 pitches, 12 of them strikes. The 38-year-old closer has now retired 31 consecutive batters, the longest such string by a Red Sox pitcher since fellow Japanese import Hideo Nomo set down precisely that many in 2001.

Quick Hits from Tuesday
The Rays’ defeat was good news for the Orioles and Yankees, who were squaring off in Baltimore. Joe Girardi’s squad drew first blood, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the third on an RBI double by Alex Rodriguez, who later left the game with a quad injury. But Buck Showalter’s gang countered with a four-spot in the home half of the fifth against Ivan Nova, who joined Rodriguez in the trainer’s room with a sore triceps.

Fortunately for the Yankees, Alfonso Soriano took matters into his own powerful hands an inning later. Soriano and Mark Reynolds, still relative newcomers to a Yankees team that has used 53 different players to this point in the season, delivered two home runs in a span of three batters in the top of the sixth, bringing the team to within a run.

The score stayed 4-3 until the top of the eighth inning, when Soriano dug in against rookie Kevin Gausman and turned in part two of his seventh multi-homer game of the season, a three-run blast that put the Yankees on top 7-4. Shawn Kelley stumbled in the last of the eighth, but Mariano Rivera picked him up with a four-out save, his 42nd of the season.

At the cost of bullpen prospect Corey Black and some salary relief, Soriano has now produced 15 homers in 183 plate appearances with the Yankees. Through 43 games with the club that first brought him up to the majors in 1999, Soriano has been worth a win and a half. And since the Rays, Rangers, Indians, and Orioles all suffered setbacks on Tuesday, the Yankees gained a game on everybody, moving to within two of Tampa Bay, which holds the second wild card spot. Baltimore and Cleveland remain a half-game ahead of New York, which is a game in front of Kansas City, the only other contender that came out on top on Tuesday.

***

We’ve already run through four of the five teams in the AL East, so we might as well touch on the fifth—the Blue Jays, who were grounded and pounded in a 12-6 loss to the Angels. Mark Trumbo did the bulk of the work for the visiting Halos, collecting five hits—including a homer and three doubles—and crossing the plate five times. No Angel, not even Mike Trout, had ever collected five hits and scored five runs in the same contest. Trumbo, a .244 hitter whose on-base percentage sits south of .300 even after yesterday’s outburst, beat his more highly acclaimed teammate to the punch.

In the home dugout, long after Mark Buehrle hit the showers with eight runs and 12 hits on his four-inning line, there were pats on the back for Ricky Romero, who survived a long bout with control issues, mental and mechanical, to make his way back to the majors. Romero pitched the seventh and eighth innings for the Blue Jays, permitting a run on two hits and a walk, but just stepping on a big-league mound was progress for the left-hander, whose mid-2012 meltdown carried over into 2013 and left him with early-season numbers best left unmentioned.

Romero, whose previous major-league appearance came on May 8, is still light-years removed from his peak form, and he labored in many of his outings with Triple-A Buffalo before the Blue Jays called him back up on September 3. Still only 28 years old, he’ll hope to finish this year on a high note and try to work his way back toward a stable big-league role next spring.

***

Athletics setup man Ryan Cook is typically poisonous to right-handed hitters. He had faced 317 of them in his brief big-league career prior to yesterday’s outing at Target Field and limited them to a collective .181/.247/.236 triple-slash line. Only one—I’ll let you ruminate on that one for a bit—had ever taken him deep.

Well, now two have—and the second, Josh Willingham, did so with one aboard and the Twins down by one in the bottom of the eighth inning last night. The former Athletic, who also went yard off of Jarrod Parker in the last of the second, found a 2-0 fastball to his liking and deposited it over the left-field fence, sending the home team to a 4-3 upset in the first game of the series.

So, which other righty swinger did Willingham join in the highly exclusive club? One Jeffrey Stephen Mathis. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s proof.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki suffered the first three-strikeout game of his big-league career on Tuesday, but he made amends with this catch, which robbed David Freese of a two-bagger and, at the time, kept Wily Peralta’s no-hitter intact.

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Half of the six starting pitchers tabbed to take the hill in the first three games on today’s docket once donned a Rays uniform, and two of them, James Shields and Scott Kazmir, will go toe to toe in the matinee at Progressive Field. Shields’ most recent outing was a miserable one: the Tigers treated him to a 10-run, 14-hit beating, matching a career worst in hits allowed for the right-hander, set—you guessed it—by the Tigers on June 28 of last year. Kazmir, on the other hand, breezed right through the Mets’ lineup on September 6, recording a dozen strikeouts in a half-dozen scoreless innings. He’ll attempt to produce back-to-back quality starts for the first time since July 19-24 (12:05 p.m. ET).

  • There is no shortage of contact hitters who can go long stretches without striking out, but power hitters with a knack for putting the bat on the ball are the cream of the crop. In 129 plate appearances versus left-handed pitchers this season, Edwin Encarnacion has collected 13 extra-base hits, drawn 17 walks, and been punched out only a half-dozen times. It gets better: Since June 28, Encarnacion has made 55 trips to the box with a southpaw on the bump and fanned only once (can you name the lefty who did it?). Since July 26, he’s strikeout-less in 30 plate appearances versus pitchers of the opposite handedness.

    The answer to the question from the previous paragraph is Erik Bedard, who blew an up-and-away fastball by Encarnacion on July 25. C.J. Wilson, who gets the ball for the Angels this evening, has not whiffed the Blue Jays’ slugger in 16 career meetings. He’ll try to snap both his drought and Encarnacion’s streak in the middle match at the Rogers Centre, assuming that Encarnacion’s sore wrist, which sidelined him on Tuesday, is good to go (7:07 p.m. ET).

  • Hyun-jin Ryu hasn’t started a game in nearly two weeks, as stiffness in the middle of his back forced the Dodgers to push him back twice. Fortunately, Don Mattingly’s club, which has enjoyed a double-digit-game lead over the Diamondbacks since Ryu last toed the rubber on August 30, could afford the luxury of caution with its first-year import, who has come as advertised, posting a 3.02 ERA and a 3.23 FIP over his first 26 stateside starts. The 26-year-old Ryu is back to full strength now and ready to move the Dodgers one step closer to burying the D-backs in the West. He’ll need to top Patrick Corbin to cut Los Angeles’ magic number down to four (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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