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April 23, 2014

What You Need to Know

Historic Tuesday

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
Of the 25 players in the 500-home-run club entering play on Tuesday, none had joined by hitting nos. 499 and 500 on the same night. Albert Pujols, who became its 26th member in the Angels’ 7-2 victory, is the first to do it in two-tater fashion.

Batting third in Mike Scioscia’s order, the first baseman stepped into the box with two on and nobody out. He took a slider for ball one and a fastball for a strike. The next pitch was an elevated changeup, and Pujols did not miss it:

The three-run blast keyed the Halos’ four-run first inning at the expense of Taylor Jordan, whose 2014 campaign is off to a rocky start. Pujols’ long ball was just the second that Jordan had served up in 16 2/3 innings, but the right-hander had been touched up for 23 hits coming into the game.

Jordan struck out Pujols in the second inning. But three frames later, the 34-year-old won the rubber match:

Catcher Sandy Leon wanted the 1-2 fastball well off the plate, down and away. Instead, Jordan missed upstairs and over the dish, and Pujols unloaded on it to deep center for no. 500.

The 430-foot long ball—which came at the same venue, Nationals Park, where Pujols slugged no. 400 on August 27, 2010—not only clinched a major career milestone, but also pushed Pujols past Mark Trumbo for the major-league lead at eight. His slugging percentage at game’s end stood at .619, its highest perch at the 20-game mark of a season since 2010, which also happens to be the last year in which Pujols cleared 40 home runs.

At 34 years and 96 days of age, Pujols is the third-youngest player to reach the 500-homer plateau. Alex Rodriguez, the youngest, has hit 154 big flies since his special day. Jimmie Foxx, the second-youngest, hit only 34.

A torn plantar fascia in Pujols’ left foot limited him to 99 games last year and seemed to accelerate his decline. It left some wondering how many booms were left in his stick. The last three weeks are reason to believe that there are plenty.

Quick Hits from Tuesday
On just about any other night, the pitchers’ duel at Turner Field would have earned the Takeaway. Pujols is one of the few who could relegate Jose Fernandez and Alex Wood to Quick Hits status.

Chris Sale’s strained flexor muscle denied us a battle between Sale and Justin Verlander, which was on tap until the White Sox ace hit the disabled list. The Marlins righty and the Braves lefty picked up the slack—and made history in the process.

Both worked eight innings, and neither walked a batter. Fernandez struck out 14, and Wood fanned 11. With a bit of help from Braves reliever David Carpenter and Marlins closer Steve Cishek, the duo delivered the first-ever game in which the hurlers combined for 28 strikeouts without issuing a free pass.

The Marlins pushed across the game’s only run in the fourth inning on a double by Giancarlo Stanton and a single by Casey McGehee. The Braves came closest in the bottom of the seventh, but with runners at first at second and two away, pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit hit a comebacker to extinguish the threat.

Armed with a 97-mph fastball that touched 101 and his usual world-class curveball, Fernandez matched his career high in strikeouts. He spun 54 hooks to 53 fastballs and sinkers, and the tandem coaxed 26 whiffs in 109 offerings.

Wood leaned much more heavily on his heater, using it nearly 70 percent of the time, but he commanded three of his pitches and prevented the Marlins from getting comfortable in the box. His 92-mph gas was good enough to draw 10 swings-and-misses in 69 tries, paving the way for his personal-best 11 punchouts.

It was a duel neither pitcher deserved to lose. But Wood ran into what Marlins manager Mike Redmond called Fernandez’s “best-pitched game as far as his stuff and his command.” When the league’s most talented pitcher brings his A-game to the mound, even the most valiant efforts to beat him can come up short.

***

Miguel Cabrera woke up on Tuesday morning with more strikeouts than hits on his 2014 line. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted about it:

It seems Cabrera didn’t like that. Last night, he took it out on White Sox spot-starter Charlie Leesman.

The Tigers’ first baseman wasted no time, turning in an RBI double in the first inning and a two-run blast in the third. Cabrera struck out in the fourth inning but added a single in the eighth, thereby drawing his hit and strikeout totals even at 16 apiece. He also raised his OPS an even 100 points, from .609 to .709. All in a day’s work.

***


Whatever slump-buster Cabrera used on Tuesday, Curtis Granderson would like it overnighted to Queens.

The first-year Met is now hitless in his last 22 at-bats after an 0-for-3 outing in Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the Cardinals. Manager Terry Collins is sticking with the right fielder in the no. 2 hole of his lineup, but veteran beat writer Marc Carig can’t help but wonder if it’s time to tinker with his swing.

As is the case with most slumps, Granderson’s skid might be partly attributable to bad luck, but he hasn’t done himself any favors, either. The 33-year-old has struck out eight times during the rut, and his last line drive came on April 14. Which also happens to be the day he collected his most recent knock.

***

Last Wednesday, Johnny Cueto baffled the Pirates to the tune of 12 strikeouts in a three-hit gem. On Monday, he had a chance to deliver an encore—this time in Pittsburgh. And while Cueto came two outs short in his bid to notch a second straight shutout, he did earn another complete-game win.

The 28-year-old also now has this claim to fame to go with his 1.38 ERA: He has kept the Pirates off the scoreboard for 24 1/3 consecutive innings, the best such streak by a Reds pitcher since at least 1914.

***

What do Dillon Gee, Greg Maddux, Jonathan Sanchez, and Curt Schilling have in common? Until Tuesday, they were the only pitchers ever to strike out 12 or more batters while throwing at least 6 2/3 innings and using fewer than 90 pitches.

As if that crew weren’t motley enough, its newest member is Collin McHugh. The same Collin McHugh who was winless in nine career starts. Who had allowed 72 hits in 47 1/3 major-league innings while striking out only 28 batters. And who was claimed off waivers from the Rockies this offseason, then failed to crack the Astros’ Opening Day rotation.

Fresh up from Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he punched out eight in 14 frames to begin the year, the 25-year-old McHugh got the ball at Safeco Field and promptly struck out the side in the bottom of the first. Then, he did it again in the bottom of the third. McHugh would go on to fan four of five between the last out of the fifth and the first out of the seventh. He departed one hitter later.

The top three batters in Lloyd McClendon’s order—Abraham Almonte, Dustin Ackley, and Cano—all took home hat tricks. McHugh touched 94 mph with his fastball, but it was his curveball and slider, which combined to induce 11 whiffs in 45 chances, that perplexed the Mariners most.

Those breaking balls drew swings-and-misses at less than half that pace before Tuesday night. The extra giddyup on McHugh’s fastball, which averaged 91 mph last year, is also intriguing.

Both are reasons to believe that the Astros might have found something in their offseason waiver claim. But even if his 5-2 victory over the Mariners was just one magical night, now that it’s in the books, the names Maddux, Schilling, and Randy Johnson—the last Astro to rack up 12 strikeouts without allowing a walk or run—will always be found alongside that of Collin McHugh.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Yangervis Solarte is coming back down to earth at the plate, but—with a little help from Mark Teixeira—he’s still in the spotlight:

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • National League ERA leader Aaron Harang (yes, really) puts his 0.70 mark on the line with the Marlins in town this afternoon. The big right-hander, signed by the Braves along with Ervin Santana for emergency duty in the wake of injuries to Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, has more than done the job, though his .143 BABIP suggests that Atlanta would do well not to count on him for long. Harang leads the senior circuit with a 54.2 percent fly-ball rate on balls put in play against him, and of the 22 that fit into that category, not a single one has fallen in for a hit. Mike Redmond’s squad will look to cash in on Harang’s impending regression in support of Nate Eovaldi (12:10 p.m. ET).

  • Martin Perez’s last two starts could scarcely have gone better: He’s thrown a three-hit shutout over the Astros and blanked the White Sox by scattering five hits over eight innings. Now, the 23-year-old left-hander gets his fourth road outing in five games, this time at the O.co Coliseum, where he’s scheduled to duel Sonny Gray. Neither the Rangers southpaw (29 innings) nor the A’s righty (25) has served up a home run this year. It’s a divisional battle of unbeaten U25 pitchers—is there a better way to spend the afternoon? (3:35 p.m. ET)

  • When Michael Wacha raced to the majors last year, as a 22-year-old less than two years removed from college, the Texas A&M product threw his fastball nearly two-thirds of the time and was largely a two-offering pitcher. So far this year, though, the right-hander has balanced his pitch selection, trimming his heater rate by 10 percentage points and spreading those primarily to his curveball and cutter. Given Wacha’s 1.73 ERA and 25-to-3 K:BB in 26 innings, it’s hard to argue with the decision. He’s scheduled to toe the rubber at Citi Field in a matchup with Jon Niese this evening (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Welcome back, Cole Hamels. Your first assignment: a duel with Zack Greinke and the star-laden Dodgers lineup in Chavez Ravine. The 30-year-old lefty, who has been on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis since the start of the regular season, seemed no worse for wear in his three rehab outings with High-A Clearwater, where he posted a 2.12 ERA and 12-to-1 K:BB over 17 innings. Greinke, meanwhile, could break an all-time record for consecutive starts with two or fewer runs allowed. He’s at 16 in a row heading into tonight’s battle with Ryan Howard & Co., a streak that dates back to last July 30 (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

Related Content:  Jose Fernandez,  Albert Pujols,  Alex Wood

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