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May 8, 2014

What You Need to Know

Mariners Making Moves

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway
Tuesday’s theme was many happy returns. Wednesday’s, at least in the doubleheader between the Mariners and Athletics, was overcoming adversity.

It began more than a month ago, on April 4, when rain in Oakland washed away a game. April showers often bring May twin bills—but generally not in Northern California, and even in that rare case, usually not hours after the rain has passed. But the grounds crew at the O.co Coliseum didn’t tarp the field the evening before the game, and an overnight downpour rendered it unplayable.

So, with the dirt dry and hardly a cloud in the sky, the M’s and A’s set out to play two on Wednesday afternoon.

The Mariners had Felix Hernandez, who’d held the Athletics to six runs in their last 36 innings against him, raring to go in game one. King Felix had fanned 19 A’s in 15 1/3 frames over two starts last month. Unfortunately, Wednesday, as Oakland manager Bob Melvin predicted in his pre-game comments to reporters, was not the righty’s day.

For the first time since August 19, 2008, Hernandez did not strike out a batter. He battled through 6 1/3 innings and limited the damage to three runs, but he didn’t have anything resembling his best stuff and might have flirted with disaster had the A’s been luckier on their hard-hit balls.

Nonetheless, Hernandez gave his team a chance to win. And win the Mariners did, for the fifth time in a row and the eighth in nine games.

I wrote before the series began about Seattle’s league-worst performance in the stolen-base department. The Mariners were 9-for-20 on steal tries for the season and 4-for-11 in their previous 15 games when they arrived in Oakland. On the other hand, A’s catchers John Jaso and Derek Norris had thrown out only three of 24 would-be thieves coming in. If McClendon kept giving his runners the steal sign, something would have to give.

Come the 30-minute intermission between games on Wednesday afternoon, it was clear that the A’s weakness in the throwing department trumped the Mariners’ poor jumps. The visitors went 3-for-3 on their SB bids on Monday and Tuesday and then swiped three more bags without getting caught in the first tilt of the doubleheader. The last of those three came in the 10th inning, when Michael Saunders led off with a single and stole second, so that Stefen Romero could bunt him over to third—a much more prudent use of the sacrifice than with a runner on first and nobody out. Saunders eventually scored on an infield single by Justin Smoak, but had Kyle Seager not followed with another knock, the steal might have been the pivotal moment in the fateful frame.

The 6-4 victory snapped an 11-game stretch straight out of the You Can’t Predict Baseball handbook. Lloyd McClendon’s squad was 9-2 in its previous 11 contests, and both losses had come in Hernandez starts.

In the other dugout, the defeat added insult to injury, because the A’s had lost Coco Crisp to a neck strain (suffered when he slammed into the wall on a Web Gem-worthy catch) and Ryan Cook to a forearm strain, which got worse when he tried to pitch through it in the 10th. Those ailments would’ve been costly enough if the A’s were done for the day, but they had another ballgame to play. And their starter had yet to start a game this year.

Not to worry: Drew Pomeranz—making his first major-league start since July 22, 2013, when he was a member of the Rockies—put his new team on his back. The left-hander cruised through five innings of shutout ball, fanning five on the strength of a sharp, low-80s slider. Pomeranz threw 47 of his 68 pitches for strikes, and he looked poised to keep carving up the Mariners well into the evening, had he been conditioned for a longer outing.

Dan Otero, who finished up the first game of the doubleheader, shouldered three innings of one-hit work in relief of Pomeranz, setting the stage for Jim Johnson’s second save of the season. Together, Pomeranz and Otero minimized the need for Melvin to double-up on relievers from a shorthanded ’pen.

In the end, despite getting little help from their ace, the Mariners notched three wins in four games to cap off an excellent, 7-2 road trip, and the A’s escaped what had all the makings of a rough day still alone in first place.

Quick Hits from Wednesday
The Red Sox joined in on the “overcoming adversity” theme later in the evening, when their leadoff man, Dustin Pedroia, took home the second golden sombrero of his career. Pedroia whiffed three times against fellow Arizona State alumnus Mike Leake, then once more versus J.J. Hoover in the eighth.

The 1-for-5 night marked just the fifth time in Pedroia’s major-league career that he’d struck out at least three times; the most recent was on April 17 of last year. His only other four-strikeout dud came in a 13-inning loss to the Angels on May 4, 2011.

Fortunately, the Red Sox hitters around Pedroia had their second baseman’s back. In the sixth, Pedroia was the only one of the first five batters who failed to notch a hit. That rally brought home two runs. In the eighth inning, a ground-rule double by A.J. Pierzynski tied the game at three runs apiece, and an RBI single by Will Middlebrooks gave the Red Sox a 4-3 lead. Pedroia fanned to end the eighth, but by then, the home team had all the runs it would need.

***

Adam Jones’ 2014 campaign got off to a solid, 10-for-33 start, but the outfielder subsequently slipped into a funk, which saw his True Average plummet to a season-low .225 at the end of Tuesday’s game. On Wednesday, a couple of mistakes by Rays starter Cesar Ramos awakened Jones’s dormant bat.

The 28-year-old Jones was essentially hurting pitchers in only two counts this year. He was 10-for-23 on first pitches entering play last night, and 7-for-16 in 1-1 counts. Subtract those two ball-strike splits, and his average for the year would have dropped to .178.

With that in mind, the one mistake Ramos might have wanted to avoid was grooving a first-pitch fastball to the cleanup hitter in the Orioles’ order. Alas…

A popular coaching adage says you should hit the ball where it’s pitched. Ramos split the middle of the plate with a fastball to begin the second inning, and Jones split the ballpark with a 436-foot bomb, right over the “404” sign in dead-center field.

Two innings later, Jones was due to lead off again. This time, Ramos and catcher Ryan Hanigan had a new plan in mind: They’d start him off with a changeup. It might’ve worked if the ball had found Hanigan’s target on the outer edge. Instead…

…it, too, found the heart of the dish, and Jones crushed it 439 feet off the left side of the batter’s eye in center. That put the Orioles up 2-0. A two-run homer by Jonathan Schoop was the difference in the eventual 4-2 win.

Jones and Schoop carried the O’s offense on a night when Nelson Cruz, their most reliable slugger for much of April, struck out twice and went 0-for-4. Now that he’s gone long for the first time in a month, Jones can focus on sorting out his approach against right-handed pitchers, who’ve held him to a 22-for-102 (.216 average) line with one walk and 28 strikeouts in 104 trips to the box.

***

Speaking of breaking out of slumps, a few dates with Astros pitching appear to be all Miguel Cabrera needed to get his own home-run swing back in order.

The first baseman followed up a 4-for-5 effort that included a dinger on Tuesday by taking Brad Peacock deep for an oppo taco in his first at-bat on Wednesday.

How close did rookie right fielder George Springer come to robbing Cabrera of his fourth tater?

That close. But it counts all the same, and it bumped Cabrera’s OPS up to .818, the highest it’s been since April 8.

Victor Martinez buttressed the 2-0 edge with a solo shot in the sixth, helping Rick Porcello and the bullpen secure the 3-2 win.

***

While Colby Lewis ran into the buzzsaw that is the Rockies offense, coughing up 12 hits in 3 2/3 innings—the most by a Rangers starter who recorded so few outs in nearly five years—Adrian Beltre salvaged a tough night at Globe Life Park by making a bit of history.

With one on and one away in the fourth inning, Beltre stepped to the plate against Jorge De La Rosa and slugged his 100th home run in a Rangers uniform:

In doing so, he joined Darrell Evans, Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, and Jim Thome as the only players who’ve reached the century mark for three different teams.


***

The Bronson Arroyo the Diamondbacks were hoping to get when they handed the right-hander a two-year deal during the offseason might finally have arrived. After beginning the year with four straight starts of fewer than six innings and two with five or more runs, Arroyo has now completed the seventh in each of his last two, including yesterday’s win over the Brewers.

Arroyo’s afternoon began ominously, when Carlos Gomez led off the bottom of the first with a bunt single and moved to third on an error by Martin Prado. But the former Red wriggled out of that jam with only one run on the board, and come the top of the third, the Diamondbacks handed him a 2-1 lead.

The Brewers wouldn't score again on the 37-year-old’s watch. So flummoxed were Ron Roenicke’s hitters that they didn't hit a line drive or fly ball to the outfield until there was one out in the fifth. All five of their hits versus the righty were singles, and Gomez—the only Brewer who notched more than one—collected both of his on bunts.

Arroyo walked a pair and struck out five while recording a dozen ground-ball outs in 7 1/3 innings, the deepest he’s worked into a game since a seven-hit shutout on July 22 of last year. He also induced 10 whiffs, four of them with his 87-mph sinker, something he hadn’t done since back-to-back starts on August 19-24, 2013, against his current employer and the Brew Crew, respectively.

Two earned-run-free outings against the Padres, who entered play on Wednesday dead last in the league (by 50 points!) with a .592 OPS, and the Brewers, whose lineup lacks punch sans Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, are hardly proof of a renaissance. But the Diamondbacks can’t afford to chase positive headlines with grains of salt amid a 13-24 start. They’ll take what they can get.

Arroyo should encounter a stiffer test when the Nationals come to the desert next week.

***

As much as the Brewers struggled to garner baserunners against Arroyo, Brad Ziegler, and Addison Reed—who coughed up a run but closed out the 3-2 win—they were remarkably proficient at giving them away:

  • Gomez’s first-inning run came on a double-play ball off the bat of Jonathan Lucroy, which erased Scooter Gennett.
  • Jean Segura singled with two away in the second inning, only to be caught stealing second.
  • The Brewers went down in order in the third.
  • Gennett singled leading off the fourth, only to return to the dugout when Lucroy bounced into his second twin killing of the day.
  • Caleb Gindl walked with one out in the fifth and was retired as the last out of the inning on a fielder’s choice force play at second base.
  • Gomez’s second bunt single came with one away in the sixth, but he didn't stay long, because Gennett hit into a double play to end the frame.
  • The Brewers went down in order again in the seventh.
  • Gindl singled, Schafer walked, and Rickie Weeks singled to load the bases with one out in the eighth, but Gomez hit into a 6-4-3 to end the inning.
  • Finally, in the ninth, the Brewers scored without squandering a runner, but Lyle Overbay’s sac fly was too little too late.

If you weren’t counting as you went down the list, that’s four double plays and a failed steal attempt in a game in which the club had 10 baserunners, counting Prado’s first-inning error. Since 1990, only eight other teams have managed to hit into at least that many twin killings and have at least one runner caught stealing while putting so few men on base.

On the bright side, the Brewers are the first club to meet all of those benchmarks without getting blanked since the Expos did it on June 25, 2002. But it’s tough to win under those circumstances. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, only two teams have pulled it off since at least 1939—both in 1-0 decisions—and the most recent were the Yankees, nearly four decades ago, on August 28, 1977.

***

Have a look at this box score. No, you didn’t misread that. The Low-A Clinton LumberKings actually scored 19 unanswered runs to erase a 17-1 deficit and beat the Burlington Bees, 20-17, in 12 innings.

The Defensive Play of the Day
With every great Nyjer Morgan catch…

...comes a great Nyjer Morgan celebration:

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • A rough April for Kevin Correia gave way to a solid May debut, as the Twins starter held the Orioles to a run on five hits and a walk over seven innings his last time out. The right-hander has fared about equally well versus glove- and arm-side batters over the course of his career, but fellow righties have done the bulk of the damage against Correia in the early going. They’re batting .329/.354/.506 through 82 plate appearances.

    It’s easy to blame those woes on a .364 BABIP, but there’s an underlying problem that Correia needs to address. Like most sinker-cutter pitchers who lack the power stuff to blow hitters away, the 33-year-old is vulnerable when he can’t get hitters to chase down and away. So far this year, he’s made too many belt-high location mistakes, and right-handed batters have taken advantage. The good news for Correia is that he’ll see a lefty-heavy Indians lineup in the matinee at Progressive Field, in which he’ll battle Justin Masterson. The bad news: He’s struck out only four lefties in 70 plate appearances, a 5.7 percent rate that ranks fourth-worst among qualifying starters (12:05 p.m. ET).

  • The Marlins rank sixth in the majors with a 3.13 rotation ERA, after consecutive dazzling efforts by Henderson Alvarez, who turned in a complete-game shutout versus the Mets on Tuesday, and Tom Koehler, who came up one inning short yesterday afternoon. Jacob Turner, whose ERA sits at 9.90 through two starts, has done his best to detract from his fellow starters’ strong work; without him, they’d be fourth, at 2.78. The right-hander’s next chance to right the ship comes in tonight’s series opener at Petco Park, Turner’s first-ever visit to that friendly yard. He’ll take on Ian Kennedy, who’s rocking a 44-to-9 K:BB ratio in 42 innings but yearning for more run support. The Friars have scored fewer than four runs in five of Kennedy’s seven starts to date, which explains why they’re 3-3 despite his 3.43 ERA (10:10 p.m. ET).

  • After six relief outings to begin the year, Danny Duffy moved into the Royals’ rotation last week. The left-hander’s first start of the season was cut short both by a 75-pitch limit and his wildness; Duffy used up that allotment in four innings while walking four and uncorking a wild pitch. He’ll look to rein in his control when the Royals travel to Seattle for a four-game set with the Mariners. Hisashi Iwakuma, Duffy’s counterpart this evening, has issued four bases on balls only once in 50 career starts, but he allowed four runs in 6 2/3 innings versus the Astros in his 2014 debut (10:10 p.m. ET).

Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for making the embedded GIFs.

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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