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September 26, 2013

What You Need to Know

Helton Leaves Home

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Todd Helton’s final appearance at Coors Field began ominously. The visiting Red Sox posted a three-spot in the top of the first, threatening to blow the Rockies away. Eventually, they would—but not before the 40-year-old first baseman had his say.

Batting fifth in the order, Helton came up with the bases empty and one down in the bottom of the second. He dug in against Jake Peavy, a longtime rival during the right-hander’s days with the Padres, and one of Helton’s favorite pitchers to face. Helton was 16-for-46 (.348/.392/.674) versus Peavy with six doubles, three home runs, and only five strikeouts. The 1.066 head-to-head OPS was Helton’s best among all pitchers that he’d seen at least 50 times. And, as Helton prepared to say good-bye, he improved it.

On the third pitch of his first at-bat, Helton clubbed a big fly into the right-field stands, drawing the Rockies to within two. His next trip to the box came an inning later, this time with the bases loaded and one out. Helton drove in his second run of the night with a sacrifice fly, which preceded a ground-rule double by Nolan Arenado that knotted the score at 4-4.

By the time Helton stepped to the plate again, the Red Sox had surged ahead with three runs each in the fourth and fifth. But the man of the hour was undeterred. He drove a double to the opposite field, sending Michael Cuddyer, who started the home half of the fifth with a walk, all the way around for his third RBI of the night.

Unfortunately, that was all the scoring the Rockies would do. The Red Sox tacked on five more runs in the top of the eighth, four of them on a Will Middlebrooks grand slam, to take a 15-5 lead. Moments earlier, Helton entered the Coors Field batter’s box for the last time.

The last pitcher Helton faced in Denver was a former teammate, Franklin Morales, with whom the first baseman embarked on the run to the pennant in 2007. Then a 21-year-old rookie, Morales helped the Rockies to victory in six of his eight regular-season starts. Helton chipped in at least one extra-base hit all five times Morales took the hill that September. But last night, when they reunited as foes, Morales blew him away.

Thus, Helton’s Coors Field career ended with a strikeout, followed by a standing ovation as his daughters took away first base before the top of the ninth. He’ll leave behind a .345 average and 227 career home runs in Coors Field. And he’ll take with him a horse on which to ride into the sunset.

Quick Hits from Wednesday
Here’s a trivia question for you to chew on: Who was the first player to nab Rickey Henderson on a steal attempt? To head off any confusion, the answer is a catcher, not pitcher Paul Splittorff, who was the first player to catch Henderson stealing. Splittorff fooled Henderson with a pickoff throw that was relayed to second base in time to record the out.

If you don’t know the answer to that question (which you’ll find at the end of this section), it’s a little extra incentive to file this one away, in case Billy Hamilton follows in the Hall of Famer’s footsteps.

Hamilton began his big-league career 13-for-13 on steal tries, which surprised virtually no one considering the prowess he displayed on the basepaths during his trek through the Reds farm system. The center fielder made his third start in The Show on Wednesday afternoon with the Mets in town and Daisuke Matsuzaka toeing the rubber.

With a methodical approach and a relatively slow delivery from the stretch, Matsuzaka has struggled to control the running game throughout his time in the States. Coming into this outing, 85 of the 104 players who had attempted to steal with Matsuzaka on the mound made it. Earlier in this game, Jay Bruce, who singled in the second and walked in the fourth, swiped second both times he reached first.

Bruce began the day with five steals in eight attempts on the year and 34-for-60 in his career. He’s no speedster, but he took off one pitch after he saw Matsuzaka’s mechanics from the stretch for the first time. On that one, Matsuzaka gave his catcher no chance by missing two feet outside with a curveball. The second time Bruce ran, he missed well inside with a fastball. Slow mechanics are one thing; for Matsuzaka, hitting the target is half the battle.

At any rate, Hamilton reached on an infield single with two away in the bottom of the fifth. (The ball actually beat him to the bag on the play, but first-base umpire Brian Gorman decided to make things interesting.) The rookie didn’t wait long, bolting for second on the first pitch to Shin-Soo Choo. Fellow first-year big leaguer Juan Centeno wasn’t having it, which brought us this bit of analysis from Reds manager Dusty Baker:

“That’s why it’s called ‘stealing,’ sometimes you get caught stealing.”

The 23-year-old Centeno, a defensive wizard with a .661 minor-league OPS, gunned down 56 percent (34 of 61) of would-be base stealers in Double-A and Triple-A before earning his promotion. He never crossed paths with Hamilton in the minors, because the Reds’ and Mets’ upper-minors affiliates don’t share leagues. But now, they’ll forever be bound: Hamilton’s first big-league CS on the basepaths is also Centeno’s first from the squat.

If Hamilton sticks around long enough to one day surmount Henderson’s total of 1,406, Centeno will usurp the historical footnote presently owned by six-time Gold Glover Jim Sundberg, who nailed Henderson on July 1, 1979.

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than Hamilton being caught with Matsuzaka on the bump is that the right-hander worked around both of the steals he permitted to log 7 2/3 scoreless innings in a perilous ballpark. With that effort, Matsuzaka outdueled Reds ace Mat Latos in a 1-0 decision that could prove pivotal to the Reds’ bid for home-field advantage in the wild card playoff game. The Pirates also lost, 4-2 to the Cubs, but the Reds squandered an opportunity to gain ground and remain a game back with only three—all head-to-head showdowns with the Bucs—left to be played.

***

Speaking of relishing the spoiler role—Kyle Lohse did on Wednesday, too. The first-year Brewers notched his first shutout in a Milwaukee uniform by two-hitting the Braves. Best of all, Lohse needed only 89 pitches to do it.

Carlos Gomez’s first-inning long ball was all the help Lohse would need, and the swift, two-hour-and-31-minute contest might’ve been over even more quick were it not for the scuffle that ensued. Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann took umbrage with Gomez for hot-dogging the blast, and McCann blocked the outfielder’s path to the plate. That cleared the benches and resulted in Gomez and Freeman getting the boot from home-plate umpire Paul Nauert.

With one of the Braves’ best bats done for the day, Lohse sliced through the rest of the lineup with only a couple of harmless hiccups. Andrelton Simmons’ bunt single leading off the first and Evan Gattis’ knock in the home half of the seventh were the only baserunners he allowed. Lohse struck out five along the way.

Not only was this Lohse’s first gem of the year, it was also only his second complete game since April 21, 2011, when he two-hit the Nationals. The 34-year-old has now gone the whole nine innings in two of his last three starts, giving the Brewers some late-season return on their three-year, $33 million pre-season investment.

***

BREAKING: The A’s have lost two straight games.

Seriously, though, that’s big news these days. When Oakland last dropped back-to-back contests, Bob Melvin’s team was 3 ½ games behind the Rangers, Coco Crisp had only 12 home runs, and Kurt Suzuki’s return from the nation’s capital was a day away.

More precisely, it was August 23, and the Orioles had just downed the Athletics 9-7 at Camden Yards. Since then, Suzuki has rescued his first big-league organization from a precarious lack of depth behind the dish, Crisp has swatted 10 more long balls, and the A’s have turned the Rangers, division favorites just five weeks ago, into wild-card hopefuls on the outside looking in.

Jered Weaver, always a tough customer at Angel Stadium, ground Melvin’s offense to a halt yesterday afternoon, permitting just five hits, all singles, in seven innings of one-run work. Weaver, who skipped his previous start with forearm tightness, fanned only two, but he also issued just one walk, threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 hitters he faced, and kept the visitors off the board until the top of the sixth. Fourteen of the 21 outs he recorded came on fly balls tracked down by a Mike Trout-less outfield that featured J.B. Shuck, Collin Cowgill, and Kole Calhoun from left to right.

The Angels got on the board first in the last of the fourth on an RBI fielder’s choice by designated hitter Josh Hamilton. But the winning tallies came two innings later, the fruits of a small-ball attack helped along by a fielding miscue from the league’s most efficient defensive team. Dan Straily issued a leadoff walk to Chris Iannetta, after which Andrew Romine put down a sacrifice bunt. The A’s failed to grab the out the Angels were offering them, as first baseman Daric Barton mishandled the throw. Then, with two runners available to be moved up, Scioscia gladly offered the A’s another out. This time, Oakland successfully took it, but after Iannetta was erased at the plate on a fielder’s choice, Erick Aybar singled home Romine and an infield hit by Hamilton plated Shuck.

That was all the support Weaver, Dane De La Rosa, and Ernesto Frieri needed to clinch the series for the home team, which won Tuesday’s middle match behind a four-hit shutout from Jason Vargas. The wins were meaningless for the Angels, who were long ago eliminated from post-season contention, but their efforts could make the Athletics’ task more challenging next month.

Among American League squads, only the Red Sox, 53-28 at Fenway Park this season, boast more home victories than the 52-29 A’s, whose skipper emphasized the benefit of playing in friendly confines to CBS Sports’ Scott Miller. Oakland is now two games behind Boston in its quest to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Defensive Non-Play of the Day
You’re not supposed to be able to record an out by tagging a player with an empty hand. But hey, if they let you do it, you might as well do it:

Thanks to Bill Baer (@crashburnalley) for the GIF.

And, while we’re on the subject of non-plays, here’s a rarity: a three-base error by an infielder. The only saving grace for Starlin Castro is that the beneficiary, Pedro Alvarez, would not score.

What to Watch for on Thursday

It’s the last non-15-game slate of the regular season...

  • Now that the Yankees have officially been eliminated from wild card contention, there is no doubt that this evening’s contest will mark the last home game of Mariano Rivera’s career. If he takes the mound, a virtual certainty for sentimental reasons, Rivera will bring with him a 2.47 ERA in 575 career regular-season appearances in the Bronx, where he has worked 656 innings, struck out 597, and walked only 142. To give their closer a save situation, the Yankees will need to help Ivan Nova outduel Alex Cobb. That’s no easy task, because Cobb has fanned 22 batters in 16 1/3 innings over his last two trips to the bump. The 25-year-old boasts a 1.61 ERA and a 20-to-4 K:BB ratio through three starts versus the Yankees this year, but all of those came at Tropicana Field (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • David Hale’s big-league debut on September 13 was a resounding success: He struck out nine Padres over five scoreless innings, in which he permitted only four hits and a walk. The Princeton product will get one more chance to impress the Braves braintrust when he toes the rubber against Tyler Cloyd and the Phillies tonight. Hale, who turns 26 tomorrow, won’t figure into Atlanta’s postseason plans, but could use a head start on his bid for a big-league roster spot in 2014. He did not rank among Atlanta’s top 10 prospects coming into this year (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Five quality starts in 12 tries wasn’t quite what the Rangers envisioned when they shipped a prospect bounty led by right-hander C.J. Edwards and third baseman Mike Olt to the Cubs for Matt Garza, but that’s what they’ve gotten from the right-hander so far. Garza bounced back from a rough patch to slice through the Royals his last time out, when he completed eight innings for the first time in a month and held Kansas City to one run on five hits and a walk. Now, with Texas jockeying for wild card position with Cleveland, Garza will welcome the Angels to Rangers Ballpark and take the mound with his most important assignment of the season. Mike Scioscia’s club has been a frequent source of trouble for Garza, who is winless in seven career starts versus the Halos with a 5.61 ERA in 43 1/3 innings. He’ll have to be extra careful with Howie Kendrick, who has gone 6-for-9 with a double and a home run in their past encounters and is 13-for-41 (.317 average) with six extra-base hits this month (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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