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September 20, 2013

What You Need to Know

A Couple of Clinchers

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
It was a matter of when, not if. And yesterday, that matter—of the Dodgers and Red Sox becoming the first teams to secure their playoff berths—was resolved.

Los Angeles’ ticket to October is stamped with the National League West title, the product of a spending spree that was accelerated by the blockbuster trade with Boston in August 2012. Boston’s pass, currently general admission but soon to be marked with the American League East crown, was paid for with a more methodical offseason shopping trip enabled by that very same deal.

The Dodgers grabbed a 3-0 lead in the top of the third inning yesterday, only to have the Diamondbacks counter with a six-spot off of Ricky Nolasco in the home half of the frame. But Nolasco navigated his way through a scoreless fourth and fifth, and as soon as Wade Miley hit the showers, the floodgates opened. Will Harris coughed up two runs on three hits without recording an out, and Chaz Roe and Josh Collmenter were charged with one each. Meanwhile, Brandon League, J.P. Howell, Brian Wilson, and Kenley Jansen kept the Snakes off the board.

Jansen induced a fly out from Aaron Hill to finish off the Dodgers’ 88th win of the season and complete their worst-to-first climb, which began on July 1. As Bob Nightengale of USA Today pointed out, Don Mattingly’s club is just the third to enjoy such a dramatic second-half bounce since 1913. And the Dodgers, who were involved in a brawl with Kirk Gibson’s club on June 11, relished the chance to deliver the finishing touch at the Diamondbacks’ expense.

Pool party!


Whatever your thoughts on the unique celebration, the Dodgers’ march up the standings has been remarkable. Hanley Ramirez, one of the leaders in the climb, homered twice on Thursday to raise his season total to 20 and his triple-slash line to .351/.403/.656.

“He makes us so much better when he’s in the lineup,” Clayton Kershaw told reporters, about his shortstop, an indisputable statement considering that Ramirez has been worth nearly five wins in just 81 games. The key word in that quote, though, is “when.”

If Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp are in the lineup, and Hanley is doing Hanley-in-his-prime things, the Dodgers will be a force in October. But injuries set them back during the first half of the season, delaying their surge until the summer, and there’s little time to waste in October. A healthy Dodgers roster is the most talented in the senior circuit. With the division title in hand, Mattingly’s task over the next month will be doing his best to keep all the vital pieces in place.

Quick Hits from Thursday

The Red Sox did their clinching in front of the home crowd at Fenway Park, and they nearly did it in style, as John Lackey carried a no-hitter into the seventh. Adam Jones took care of that and the shutout with one swing of the bat, but his solo shot was all the O’s could muster in the 3-1 Boston win.

Stephen Drew, one of the items on the aforementioned winter shopping list, turned in a triple and a home run in support of Lackey, but the right-hander didn’t need much to secure the victory in his first complete game of the year.

Essentially a two-trick pony, Lackey stymied the Orioles with his heater and slider, each of which drew eight swings and misses. He threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 31 hitters who dug in. And the two-hitter, in which he walked a pair and struck out eight, earned a game score of 85, Lackey’s highest since June 29, 2008.

Two dreadful seasons and a Tommy John surgery into his Red Sox career, the right-hander is in the midst of a renaissance and finally living up to his five-year, $82.5 million contract. He has gone from goat to fan favorite in Boston.

***

There will soon come a time when it will no longer be easy for Gerrit Cole to keep setting new single-game highs in strikeouts. But the rookie, who started slow in that area before finding a bat-missing groove in recent weeks, is still doing it with ease.

When he went out to the mound to take on the Padres yesterday, Cole’s target was nine—a personal best that he’d set just two starts earlier while tossing seven scoreless innings in Arlington. He reached that target with the first out he recorded in the fifth. And he still had three more strikeouts in the tank.

The UCLA product’s curveball was a menace on Thursday, inducing five whiffs in 16 tries without ever being put in play. Combine that with a fastball touching triple digits, not to mention a changeup that notched eight strikes in nine offerings and a slider that can be as electric as any of those pitches, and it’s no surprise that the punchouts are coming in bunches for Cole.

Eighteen starts into his big-league career, Cole’s strikeout rate now stands at 21.1 percent, on par with the 2013 clips of Matt Cain and Hisashi Iwakuma. But in four September starts, it has shot all the way up to 35.6 percent, two percentage points better than Yu Darvish’s league-high rate.

Cole probably won’t keep whiffing opponents at that pace for long, but a few short weeks ago, we were still worried that he wouldn’t fan enough of them. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it’s just about time to put those concerns to bed.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Today, we have two extraordinary efforts on pop-ups in foul territory. Tony Sanchez earned an out:

Prince Fielder earned a snack:

I was going to leave it at that, but then Todd Helton executed a hidden-ball trick. So here’s his extraordinary effort, too:

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Trivia time: Name the only right-handed pitcher to win 19 games in a season for the Expos or Nationals. Jordan Zimmermann, who has 18 victories and, most likely, two more opportunities to tie the righty club record, rides a three-start winning streak into tonight’s meeting with the Marlins, the second of four games between the East division foes in the nation’s capital. The 27-year-old hooked the Fish in two of his first three starts this season, one of which was a complete game, but he hasn’t seen them since April 15, when Christian Yelich was still toiling in the upper minors and Giancarlo Stanton was on the disabled list. Zimmermann will need to contend with those two bats this time around, as he duels fellow righty Jacob Turner in a bid to match—drumroll, please—Steve Rogers’ win output from 1982 (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Some people give up coffee. Others give up meat. J.J. Hardy? He has virtually stopped striking out. The Orioles shortstop shaved his punchout percentage from 16.2 percent in 2011 to 14.9 percent in 2012, and he has sliced it all the way down to 11 percent this year, with most of that improvement happening this month. Hardy fanned once versus Lackey yesterday, but that was just his second strikeout since the calendar flipped to September, a span of 71 plate appearances. His 10-for-32 (.313 average) lifetime line against tonight’s Rays starter David Price is much better than what most hitters could claim, but Hardy has fanned 10 times in those 32 at-bats and will face a formidable challenge as he tries to continue to keep his whiffs in check (Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET).

  • All good things must eventually end, and Jarrod Parker—who had gone 19 consecutive starts without taking a loss—finally saw that streak snapped on Monday, when the Angels blasted him for eight runs (seven earned) on eight hits and two walks in just 4 1/3 innings. Parker made that start after a one-day delay due to stomach flu, so perhaps the right-hander’s rare hiccup can be forgiven. The A’s need him in top form with the division still in play and the postseason around the corner, though, so they’ll look for Parker to bring a sharper arsenal to the mound with the Twins in town this weekend. Parker gets the ball in game three of four, in which he’ll square off with Pedro Hernandez (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET).

  • Fresh off a one-hit shutout in Pittsburgh, Andrew Cashner—who has held opponents to no more than two earned runs in five consecutive seven-plus-inning outings—makes his third start of the season against the Dodgers. The 27-year-old right-hander scattered 10 hits to limit Don Mattingly’s club to one run on August 31, a worthy encore to his eight-inning, five-hit, one-run effort on June 23. Cashner’s ERA has moved in the right direction in each of his last six starts, and he has allowed only two home runs since July 27. He’ll need more of that to outgun Zack Greinke (Sunday, 4:10 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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