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September 17, 2013

What You Need to Know

Almost Perfect

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
Pennsylvania played host to two Herculean efforts from pitchers last night, but only one of them benefited a Keystone State team. Andrew Cashner earns the Takeaway slot for coming as close to a perfect game as any Padre ever has. Cliff Lee, who dominated the Marlins on both sides of the ball, gets his due in Quick Hits.

Cashner spent 2010, 2011, and most of 2012 as a reliever, and his start on Monday at PNC Park was the 31st of his big-league career. Not once in the preceding 30 did he record a ninth-inning out, much less blank his foe while doing so.

All of that changed in the series opener between the Padres and Pirates, in which Cashner needed only 97 pitches, 67 of them strikes, to stifle Clint Hurdle’s lineup. The Bucs earned one baserunner, but Cashner promptly erased him with a double-play ball. He faced the minimum in the 2-0 win.

Blessed with a high-90s fastball and a slider and changeup that have come along over the years, Cashner has the raw stuff to excel in any role. Command and a history of shoulder trouble have held him back. But Monday’s outing treated Padres fans to a hint of what the full package could look like if he puts it all together in the coming years.

The right-hander was aggressive in early counts, throwing first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 27 Bucs who dug in and utilized his secondary offerings well. Sixteen of his 20 changeups (80 percent) and 15 of his 25 sliders (60 percent) went for strikes, the latter around his norm for the season, the former a considerable improvement from his 65.4 percent clip entering yesterday’s game. Home-plate umpire Bruce Dreckman was a bit flexible with the lower boundary of the zone, but largely enforced the textbook edges. Virtually all of the strikes that Cashner (and A.J. Burnett) logged were earned.

Burnett matched Cashner for six innings, but unraveled in the top of the seventh, which Ronny Cedeno and Rene Rivera started with singles. Cashner’s sacrifice-bunt bid failed, as Rivera was forced at second, but Will Venable plated Cedeno with a sacrifice fly and Cashner crossed the dish on an RBI knock by Jedd Gyorko. Those two tallies were more than enough for Cashner to boost the Padres to victory. His bid for perfection, however, came to an end moments later.

Cashner got a rare gift from Dreckman when Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh’s leadoff man, stepped into the box for the third time: his first-pitch slider was below the knees, but Dreckman deemed it good enough. The righty squandered that advantage, though, with two offerings that missed badly low and away. Forced to try another heater, Cashner aimed for the outside corner—a sound strategy in most cases, but not necessarily against Tabata. And while Cashner hit Rivera’s target, the Pirates left fielder slapped it down the right-field line for a single.

Tabata wasn’t on first base for long, because Neil Walker flied out and Andrew McCutchen bounced into a 6-4-3 twin killing, but his single was the difference between the first perfect game in franchise history and the 19th one-hitter. Steve Arlin, who lost his no-hitter with two away in the bottom of the ninth on June 23, 1972, came eight outs closer than Cashner did, but he issued three walks and was charged with a run. Only three Padres had ever logged a one-hit complete game without dishing out a free pass; Cashner is the fourth, and his effort on Monday bumped Mat Latos (May 13, 2010) one row down the list.

At the end of the night, the Padres, winners in 17 of their last 20 contests in Pittsburgh, remained the only major-league organization unable to boast of a no-hitter. But if Cashner’s gem in the opener is a sign of things to come, the Texas Christian University product might flirt with history again before long.

Quick Hits from Monday
A pitcher striking out 14 batters in one game is impressive. A pitcher getting three hits and driving in four runs in a game is impressive, too. A pitcher doing both in the same game? That’s… well, unique.

According to Jayson Stark and ESPN, until Cliff Lee mowed down the Marlins’ hitters and knocked around their pitchers on Monday night, no big-league hurler had ever collected three hits and four RBI in a game while fanning more than eight. Lee nearly doubled that strikeout total in the Phillies’ 12-2 rout.

The 35-year-old’s sinker velocity has gone up and down this season, but it was up in game one of three between the Phillies and Marlins. He averaged about 91.5 mph with the hard stuff and could dial it up over 93 mph, and the Fish simply couldn’t touch it. The changeup and cutter, as usual, were Lee’s most trusted secondary offerings, but he made the most of his sparingly used curveballs and sliders. The two breaking pitches combined to draw five swings and misses in 10 uses, and the Marlins whiffed on both of the sliders they saw.

Mike Redmond’s club got on the board in the top of the fifth inning on an RBI single by Adeiny Hechavarria, but Lee countered that tally in the home half of the frame with his first career triple. Justin Ruggiano doubled home Ed Lucas in the top of the sixth, but Darin Ruf’s two-run blast in the bottom of the inning more than mitigated that damage.

Meanwhile, Lee produced his third consecutive eight-inning outing, each of which has earned him and the Phillies a win. He has held opponents to no more than two runs and no more than one walk while fanning at least nine in each assignment during that streak. The last pitcher to meet each of those benchmarks in three straight starts was Pedro Martinez, from May 27 through June 7, 2005.

Lee, who entered the day with 187 strikeouts in 199 2/3 innings, has also now eclipsed the 200-punchout plateau in back-to-back-to-back campaigns. Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are the only others who can claim to have accomplished that in 2011-2013.

***

Speaking of strikeouts, the Royals used a whole lot of them to capture a big game-one victory over the Indians. James Shields and company matched a team record for a single contest with 17, the most Kansas City had ever recorded in nine innings.

Shields accounted for 10 of them in six innings on the hill, over which he limited the Tribe to a run on six hits and two walks. A fifth-inning solo shot by Lonnie Chisenhall was the only blemish on the right-hander’s line, but since he needed 107 pitches to record 18 outs, it was up to the bullpen to pick up the last nine.

Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, and Tim Collins handled those duties with aplomb. They combined to allow just a single and a walk, neither of which turned into a run, while tacking on seven more punchouts to the team’s record-setting total.

The Royals took the field with an American League-best 3.50 team ERA, seven ticks ahead of the Athletics, who welcomed the Angels with their mark at 3.57. That lead grew on Monday, when the A’s were blown up by the Halos and the Royals shaved their aggregate ERA down to 3.49. In doing so, the Royals also trimmed something more significant—the gap between them and the Rangers in the race for the second wild card berth.

With the two favorites squaring off in Tampa Bay, where Texas dropped its seventh straight game on Monday, the underdogs have an excellent opportunity to gain ground. Ned Yost’s squad was the first to seize that chance, inching to within 2 ½ games of Ron Washington’s bunch, which is a half-game ahead of Terry Francona’s. The Orioles (two back of Texas) and Yankees (2 ½) will return to action tomorrow, visiting the Red Sox and Blue Jays, respectively.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Cliff Lee did most of the work last night, but he couldn’t do it all himself. Fortunately, he had Jimmy Rollins playing behind him:

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Earlier this season, the Mets saw Scott Kazmir for the first time since they traded him to the Rays. Tonight, they’ll get their first look since 2006 at Yusmeiro Petit, another onetime hotshot prospect who was traded to the Marlins in the deal that brought Carlos Delgado to Queens back in November 2005. Kazmir mowed down 12 Mets in six shutout innings, so Terry Collins’ club should be able to do a bit more damage to Petit, who worked 5 2/3 innings and allowed three runs to the Rockies in the follow-up to his near-perfect game. Like Kazmir, Petit will have the honor of dueling Zack Wheeler—and in Petit’s case, it’ll be a rematch of a Triple-A contest from April (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Nick Tepesch started the year in the Rangers rotation and stayed in that role through July 5, when he hit the shelf with elbow inflammation. The right-hander returned earlier this month, worked 3 1/3 innings in relief of Derek Holland and 3 1/3 more in a spot start, then returned to the bullpen and spelled Holland again on Friday. After that rocky outing, in which Tepesch was charged with two runs on three hits and three walks in just an inning of work, the 24-year-old is back to starting, and Ron Washington will entrust him with a critical assignment in game two of four at Tropicana Field. Tepesch baffled the Rays in his big-league debut, permitting just one run over 7 1/3 frames in Arlington, and the Rangers will hope for an encore in the rematch on the road (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Because of the small samples that constitute their seasons, relievers are subject to more variance in performance than players in just about any other role. Aroldis Chapman’s slumps are usually mild and brief. His surges, though, are a sight to behold.

    The Reds closer has faced 27 batters over his last seven appearances, four of which came in save situations. He has allowed only one hit and walked three. But here’s the eye-popper: He has fanned 18 of those 27 opponents. That’s not a misprint—since August 24, Chapman’s strikeout rate is 66.7 percent. He has punched out at least one hitter in each of those seven outings and at least two in six of them. He has struck out the side three times, and, the only time he was asked to record more than three outs, he logged all four them on strike three. Asking Chapman to keep this pace up might be a bit much, but if the Astros hope to upset the Reds in one of the two remaining games in this series, they’d be wise to carry a lead into the ninth (8:10 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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