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September 13, 2013

What You Need to Know

Meltdown Madness

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Meltdowns aren’t much fun for anyone, but Thursday brought three of them—two in one game, plus an all-timer in another.

We’ll begin in Philadelphia, where the Padres handed Tyson Ross a 1-0 edge in the top of the first inning when Will Venable led off with a home run, his career-high 22nd of the season. Over the previous month and a half, Ross had made nine starts and compiled a 2.16 ERA, the product of a 63-to-17 K:BB ratio and just two homers allowed in 58 1/3 innings. The impending nightmare was difficult to foresee.

But things went awry almost immediately after the 26-year-old Ross finished his warm-up tosses. An infield single, another single, and a passed ball put two men in scoring position with nobody out. Another single followed by a double put the Phillies up 3-1. After yet another single, and then a walk, Ross seemed to settle in with a couple of swinging strikeouts. But then he walked Roy Halladay with the bases loaded, and Bud Black had seen enough.

Long reliever Anthony Bass didn’t help Ross. He promptly surrendered a double to Cesar Hernandez, who started the rally with the aforementioned infield single, and the inning ended only because Halladay was gunned down trying to score what would have been the Phillies’ seventh run.

Ryne Sandberg’s club got that seventh run in the bottom of the third inning on—how else?—a bases-loaded walk, this one drawn by Jimmy Rollins. Up by six runs and with Halladay on their side a couple of years ago, the Phillies might have been able to sleepwalk through the rest of the game. But sadly, Halladay is no longer what he once was.

The top of the fifth inning made that painfully clear. Halladay retired Reymond Fuentes to begin that frame, and continuing to throw strikes with a six-run cushion should have been second nature. But he walked Venable, and Alexi Amarista, and Jedd Gyorko, who had walked only once in his previous 28 games. With the bases loaded, he walked Chase Headley, forcing in a run. And then, with the bases still loaded, he turned an infield single by Tommy Medica into a two-run double with a throwing error. By that point, Sandberg, much like his counterpart in the Padres dugout four innings earlier, had seen enough.

Justin De Fratus, who relieved Halladay, allowed Headley to score on a sacrifice fly. But 7-5 was as close as the Padres would get in the 10-5 decision, a win rendered bittersweet by the reality that the Halladay who not all that long ago was carving up hitters with remarkable efficiency now requires help to hold a six-run lead in the middle innings.

The 4 1/3-inning no-decision marked the second consecutive start in which Halladay issued five walks, something he had done only 10 times in 385 starts before September 4, and only twice within the last decade. In one of those two outings, Halladay overcame his erratic control to eat nine innings on 124 pitches. On Thursday, he needed 101 just to record 13 outs.

***

Shortly thereafter, Charlie Leesman set out to make Ross and Halladay feel better about themselves. Or so you’d think, based on his effort in relief of John Danks, who was saddled with seven runs (six earned) in four-plus innings.

Leesman entered in the fifth with the Indians ahead of the White Sox 7-2. It was mop-up duty, for all practical purposes, considering that Robin Ventura’s team hadn’t scored seven runs in a game since August 17 and that a rain delay was in store. The rookie devoted 35 pitches to the mop-up effort. And they resulted in zero outs.

All seven of the batters Leesman faced reached base. Asdrubal Cabrera touched them all. Then, Yan Gomes, Mike Aviles, and Drew Stubbs received free passes, and Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher collected singles that plated all of them. Jason Kipnis walked to load the bases back up, and Ventura, like Black and Sandberg, had seen enough.

It took 18 more offerings for Dylan Axelrod, who worked the rest of the game for the White Sox, to record the first out of the inning, an eight-pitch punchout of Cabrera that brought the pitch count for the frame to 53. Before that, Carlos Santana and Ryan Raburn both singled, bringing around all of the runners that Axelrod had inherited from Leesman and putting Cleveland ahead, 14-2.

That left Leesman with the following line: 0 IP, 3 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 4 BB, 0 K

Since 1916, as far back as the Baseball-Reference Play Index goes, only six relievers had been charged with at least seven earned runs and failed to record an out. The most recent one was Hansel Izquierdo, who suffered that fate in a Marlins uniform during his lone big-league campaign on June 24, 2002. Only two of the six—Hank Borowy on August 18, 1951, and Bob Kammeyer, on September 18, 1979—preceded Leesman in adding a home run to their miseries, and only Bowery doled out four walks.

For the 26-year-old Leesman, who debuted on August 9 and was recalled at the beginning of the month, there’s only one consolation: After this disaster, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day

If this looks different, well, it is. The Quick Hits section is coming up right after this play that came courtesy of Alfonso Soriano, who tried his best to spare David Robertson a blown save before Robertson blew it anyway:

And now, more from that game at Camden Yards…

Quick Hits from Thursday

Soriano, who has slugged plenty of his own home runs since he joined the Yankees in July, failed to go yard last night. So he stole a would-be homer off the bat of Manny Machado instead. Trouble is, three batters later—and with two runners now on base—Danny Valencia got a meaty offering from Robertson and deposited it well beyond the reach of center fielder Curtis Granderson. Machado’s bid for a long ball would have brought the Orioles to within two runs, but Valencia’s knotted the score at 5-5.

It was the first hit in three at-bats for Valencia, who batted for original designated hitter Wilson Betemit in the fourth inning, and the 23rd hit in Valencia’s last 42 at-bats. Yes, Valencia is 23 for his last 42. And, what’s more, 11 of those 23 hits—seven doubles and four homers—have gone for extra bases.

But Robertson, who subsequently allowed a double to J.J. Hardy and then struck out Matt Wieters to end the eighth, wasn’t the goat for long. And Valencia didn’t stay up on the hero’s perch for long, either. That’s because Jim Johnson, shaky throughout the 2013 season, unraveled again.

Brendan Ryan led off the ninth with a single, his first hit in a Yankees uniform. Chris Stewart—who, earlier in the game, punched himself out on strike two—opted to give up another out, this time via sacrifice bunt. Stewart took care of the bunt, but Johnson eliminated the sacrifice by throwing the ball into center field, putting runners at first and second with nobody out. Granderson followed with another sacrifice bunt, this one executed cleanly by Johnson, advancing both runners into scoring position. And Johnson did the rest, bouncing his 1-1 pitch to Alex Rodriguez near the front corner of the left-handed batter’s box and watching it skip to the backstop as Ryan crossed the plate with the eventual winning run.

Mariano Rivera closed out the 6-5 victory with a scoreless ninth, but the official scorer decided to reward his effort with a win rather than a save. He deemed Robertson’s outing “brief and ineffective” and exercised his discretion to credit the win to the only other Yankee eligible to receive it.

The Indians and Rays also came out on top on Thursday, while the Rangers and Royals were idle, so apart from the Orioles tumbling a game, the American League wild card landscape remained unchanged.

***

In the first inning of his first career start with the Mets, Aaron Harang struck out the side. Unfortunately, he faced four batters in that frame, and the one who did not whiff or take strike three clobbered a ball out of the park to left field.

That one was Ryan Zimmerman, and though Harang could scarcely have teed up his opening offering, an 88-mph fastball, any better than he did, he shouldn’t feel too bad. The long ball was Zimmerman’s sixth in as many games and his eighth in his last 10.

The top of the first proved to be an accurate harbinger of things to come from Harang, now 35 years old and with his sixth organization. He worked six innings, allowed only three other hits, walked only one batter, and struck out seven other batters for a total of 10, the second time he had reached a double-digit punchout total in a game since 2007. Alas, two of the other three hits Harang permitted also cleared a fence, resulting in a home run apiece for Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos and saddling him with the loss.

Harang’s rollercoaster outing put him in rare company—in good ways and bad. He became the third pitcher this season to strike out at least 10 batters and serve up three big flies in the same start, joining the unspectacular ranks of Phil Hughes and Tommy Milone. On the other hand, the only other Mets ever to reach those two benchmarks in one outing were Sid Fernandez and Tom Seaver. And as ESPN’s Mark Simon pointed out, the list of Mets who fanned 10 in their debuts with the team features the likes of Pedro Martinez and Matt Harvey.

That coin has another side, though: Harang now carries the distinction of being the fourth Met ever to cough up three gopher balls the first time he put on the uniform. The first three, per ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, were Steve Trachsel, Brian Rose, and Mike Birkbeck.

Harang’s counterpart, Tanner Roark, has been on a roll since his promotion to the majors on August 7, and the Mets did little to slow it. Roark scattered six hits, five of them singles, over six innings, walked one, and struck out three. With 11 homer-less appearances of at least one inning at the outset of his career, Roark now owns a Nationals record. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, only two pitchers, Dale Murphy in 1974 and Zane Smith in 1989, posted a longer streak in an Expos uniform, and Smith’s 14 is the franchise high. The 26-year-old righty needs three to match and four to top that record, though if he stays in the rotation he is unlikely to break it this year.

The 7-2 victory was the Nationals’ sixth in a row, putting Davey Johnson’s squad 5 ½ games behind the Reds as Washington clings to hope in the race for the second wild card berth. Denard Span, who went 1-for-4 with a walk, extended his hitting streak to 23 games, the longest active run in the majors.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Best known for his defensive excellence at shortstop, Andrelton Simmons skated by with a .222/.307/.333 triple-slash line in August. In September, though, he has turned things up a notch—or three. The 24-year-old’s BABIP this month was a paltry .233 entering Thursday's game (in which he went 0-for-2 with a walk), but that’s okay, because three of his 10 hits had cleared a fence. He was hitting .303/.343/.758 in 35 plate appearances, and yes, that last number is his slugging percentage, not his OPS. Simmons has two doubles and two triples to go with his three big flies, and to top that off, he hasn’t struck out since the calendar flipped. He’ll try to stay hot in support of David Hale, a 25-year-old Princeton product who will make his big-league debut for the Braves this evening (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET).

  • Clayton Kershaw snapped a rare string of back-to-back non-quality starts his last time out, holding the Reds to two runs in seven innings, but his ERA is now perilously close to broaching 2.00. The 25-year-old southpaw has seen his ERA rise from 1.72 to 1.92 in the last two weeks, and if he’s going to become the first pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2005 to work exclusively as a starter, qualify for the ERA title, and post an ERA below 2.00, he’ll need to finish strong. Next up: a date with the Giants, a team he has handled with aplomb throughout his career. Kershaw owns a 1.32 ERA in 20 career starts (21 total appearances) versus the Giants, who will counter with Madison Bumgarner in the middle match in game two of four at Chavez Ravine (Friday, 10:10 p.m. ET).

  • Trotting out Daisuke Matsuzaka in a doubleheader is risky business, but that’s precisely the adventure on which the Mets will embark with the Marlins in town this weekend. Matsuzaka turned in 5 2/3 innings of one-run work versus the Indians, his previous employer, on September 8, but he hasn’t recorded a sixth-inning out since joining the Mets on August 23, and in two of his four outings he failed to finish the fifth. Terry Collins will pray that Matsuzaka, who is celebrating his 35th birthday today, can keep his pitch count manageable to eat innings before the expanded bullpen takes over. Henderson Alvarez gets the ball for the Fish in game one of the true twin bill (Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET, followed by game two).

  • The bad news for the Rangers is that they coughed up 2 ½ games in the American League West standings earlier this week, when the Pirates brought the brooms to Arlington and the A’s took three of four in Minnesota. The good news? Ron Washington’s club, now 3 ½ behind Bob Melvin’s, can get them right back this weekend, which marks the last head-to-head regular-season series between the division rivals, whose battle came down to the wire last year. Jarrod Parker, who has not been dealt a loss in 19 starts and has only once left with his team trailing during that span, will try to ensure that the Athletics survive the Texas trip with at least a 2 ½-game lead when he toes the rubber in the finale against Martin Perez (Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET).

  • Mariano Rivera has made many a visit to Fenway Park over the course of his career. The all-time leader has earned 36 of his 651 regular-season saves in Boston’s home yard, though he has also blown eight chances there while posting a 2.54 ERA in 55 trips to the bump. The Red Sox will honor Rivera with a pregame ceremony before the primetime finale on Sunday, when he’ll need the Yankees to earn a lead versus Clay Buchholz, who was sharp in his return to the mound earlier this week and remains unbeaten in 2013. Now just one game (two in the loss column) behind the Rays for the second wild card spot, the Yankees have plenty at stake this weekend. The Red Sox, who enjoy an 8 ½-game division cushion and are three ahead of the Athletics for the junior circuit’s top seed, are in much calmer waters with 15 games left on their docket (Sunday, 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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