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May 9, 2014

What You Need to Know

Blue Jays Blasts

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
It’s no secret that the Rockies lead the league in hitting and home runs. But after lighting up the Rogers Centre last night, the Blue Jays—who’ve played two fewer games than the Rockies—are right on their tails.

Now a member of the Phillies, A.J. Burnett is more than five years removed from his final season in Toronto, when the Jays’ top home-run hitter was Vernon Wells, with 20. That squad finished the 2008 season with 126 long balls. This year’s iteration is already up to 49.

Edwin Encarnacion got the home nine going with a loud, 455-foot blast to left-center field, the 200th of his career. He added no. 201 in the seventh inning with another second-decker. After a slow start to the year, the 31-year-old is 14-for-45 in 11 games dating back to April 27. He’s homered five times during the surge, including four times in the last four games, while drawing six walks and striking out only thrice.

The first baseman set the tone for John Gibbons’ lineup, but plenty of his teammates got in on the fun, too.

Three batters after Encarnacion went yard, Colby Rasmus launched one to the moon:

In the sixth, Adam Lind—fresh off the disabled list—shook off any rust that collected on his swing during his three weeks away from the field with an opposite-field tater. That was all for Burnett, but the Jays didn’t spare reliever Luis Garcia in the seventh. Juan Francisco followed Encarnacion’s second big fly with this 431-footer to center.

Add ’em all up, and the Blue Jays hit nearly half a mile’s (2,013 feet) worth of home runs against the Phillies in the 12-6 romp. The visitors countered with a two-run shot by Ryan Howard in the ninth, but that was far too little, far too late.

For all of their pitching warts—including a bullpen that has no reliable closer and entered play on Thursday 27th in the majors with a 4.94 ERA—the Jays have won five in a row and are just 1 ½ games off the Orioles’ pace in the American League East. Toronto’s +20 run differential is the best in the division by 21 runs, even though its pitchers have allowed a division-worst 158.

All of which is to say that the Blue Jays, when healthy, can keep up with just about any junior circuit team at the plate. In a division with no obvious juggernaut, that might be enough to hang around.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Ian Kennedy pitched seven innings, limited the Marlins to one run, and matched a personal high with 12 strikeouts yesterday. He also hit his first career home run:

All the Padres had to do to get the right-hander a win was score a run. Somehow, some way, at some point, they needed to get Kennedy just one run of support to help him improve on a 2-4 record that scarcely reflected his 3.43 ERA through seven starts.

They couldn’t do it.

Days after designating their cleanup hitter and home-run leader, Xavier Nady, for assignment, the Padres watched the middle of their order go 1-for-14. In 11 innings, the only run the Friars managed to push across was the one Kennedy accounted for himself.

Their manager, Bud Black, told reporters the previous day, “When you’re not scoring runs, miscues in the field are magnified.”

With two away in the top of the 11th, Dale Thayer coaxed a ground ball from Derek Dietrich that should’ve ended the inning. But second baseman Jedd Gyorko booted the play. And the next batter, Giancarlo Stanton, did this:

The 3-4-5 hitters in Black’s order went down 1-2-3 in the home half of the frame, and the 3-1 defeat was in the books.

***

The series finale between the Astros and Tigers pitted a couple of former college roommates against each other:

Keuchel, a seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, got the best of Smyly, a second-round pick in 2010, to help the Astros avoid a sweep with a 6-2 victory at Comerica Park.

The elder ex-Razorback dug the visitors into a 2-0 hole by coughing up an RBI double to Nick Castellanos in the second inning and a solo dinger to Victor Martinez in the fourth. Meanwhile, Bo Porter’s lineup went 12 up, 12 down through four innings versus Smyly; L.J. Hoes, who reached on an infield single in the third, was erased by a double-play ball off the bat of Jose Altuve.

But the Astros’ bats came alive in a three-run fifth, led by George Springer, who finally got the monkey off his back with his first career home run:

Altuve capped off the rally with a two-run two-bagger, and that was all the support Keuchel, Anthony Bass, and Chad Qualls would need to snap Houston’s five-game skid.

Keuchel also started the Astros’ only win against the Tigers last year, a 7-5 contest on May 15 in which he wound up with a no-decision. They’re now 2-9 against the defending Central division champions since moving to the American League.

***

Eduardo Escobar was in the news earlier this week for something he’d never done:

On Thursday, he earned a little more time in the spotlight for something he did do.

In his first professional start in center field—he’d played right field once in the minors and left field four times in the majors—Escobar wasted no time making a fool of himself:

With runners at the corners and two away in the first inning, David Murphy hit a deep line drive to center, right over Escobar’s head. It would’ve been a tough play even if the infielder-turned-outfielder had taken a direct route to the ball, but Escobar cost himself any chance at making an inning-ending catch with his circuitous route.

He atoned for it by starting this relay, which gunned down Carlos Santana at the plate to steal an RBI away from Murphy:

Six innings later, Escobar made a fool of himself again…

…and, once again, he atoned for the misplay with an outfield assist by turning what should’ve been a line out into a fielder’s choice force play at second base.

The body of work wasn’t pretty, and the Twins lost 9-4, but not many players can claim to have recorded two outfield assists in their first-ever professional appearance in center field. It almost makes you believe in baseball karma:

***

In his second start after beginning the year on the disabled list, Hisashi Iwakuma had a chance to go for his first stateside complete-game shutout. He’d baffled the Royals with a combination of fastballs, sliders, and splitters and cruised through eight frames on just 93 pitches.

Manager Lloyd McClendon was ready to let Iwakuma give it a shot. But the right-hander told his skipper he didn’t think he could post another goose egg:

And lest you think about bashing the 33-year-old for a lack of fortitude, consider this:

The velocity chart above shows that Iwakuma, who’d averaged around 89 mph with his fastball and touched 91, was barely reaching the high 80s toward the end of the night. One location mistake with that diminished velocity might’ve erased eight innings of excellent work.

So, Iwakuma let Fernando Rodney handle the ninth, and despite issuing a couple of walks, the closer secured the 1-0 win.

The Tokyo native has now pitched 48 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings against American League Central teams. As Tacoma News Tribune beat writer Bob Dutton pointed out, the last pitcher to so thoroughly dominate a division was Orel Hershiser, who blanked the National League West for 55 frames in 1988.

The Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Springer couldn’t rob Miguel Cabrera’s home run on Wednesday, but he cost him a hit with this catch:

What to Watch for This Weekend

Friday

  • The Rockies’ red-hot offense ran into an ice bucket on Thursday, when Matt Harrison and the Rangers bullpen combined to shut them out. Now, Walt Weiss’ squad runs into perhaps the league’s hottest pitcher, as the Rockies visit the Reds tonight. Cincinnati manager Bryan Price is set to hand Johnny Cueto the ball in game one, which comes on the heels of four straight eight-plus-inning efforts by the right-hander, who fanned 10 or more in three of them. It’s up to the 28-year-old with a 1.31 ERA and a 100 percent strand rate to keep Troy Tulowitzki and the Rox from rolling again (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Nationals fans had to wait an extra month to see Doug Fister wearing their team’s uniform, because a lat strain forced the right-hander to the disabled list at the end of spring training. After two rehab starts, one each for High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, Fister has been deemed ready to make his Nats debut, which he’ll do against the Athletics tonight. The 30-year-old right-hander is scheduled to duel former Nationals prospect Tommy Milone, whom the A’s acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade on December 23, 2011 (10:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday

  • Trivia time: Can you name the four pitchers who struck out six or more batters in each of their first seven starts this year? (Answer below.)

    I’ll give you one of them—Jon Lester, who set a league-high for the season with 15 punchouts against the Athletics when he last took the mound. The left-hander will try to make it eight in a row in a matchup with fellow southpaw Martin Perez, who’s one of two starters with a pair of complete-game shutouts under his belt this season (the other is Henderson Alvarez). Of course, since those two gems, the 23-year-old has been torched for 13 runs in 9 2/3 innings including his first two gopher balls of the year. He tossed 6 1/3 innings of four-run ball to defeat the Red Sox on April 8, in a game in which Boston hit into five double plays for only the third time since 1990.

    Trivia answer: Jose Fernandez, David Price, Max Scherzer, and Lester, who could tie a personal-best streak within a single season if he fans a half-dozen Rangers in the middle match at Globe Life Park. Price failed in his bid to make it eight straight when he fanned only three Orioles in a loss on Thursday night (8:05 p.m. ET).

  • We’re likely to see a significant fastball velocity gap between starting pitchers almost every time Yordano Ventura toes the rubber, but after last weekend’s duel with the soft-tossing Eric Stults, the baseball gods have given us another mismatch of epic proportions. In fact, based on the PITCHf/x data gathered to date, it’s the biggest heater contrast we could possibly see this year.

    The 22-year-old rookie lights up the radar gun at league-best average of 97.5 mph. His opponent at Safeco Field on Saturday, Chris Young, barely registers on it at a league-low mean of 85.8 mph. They are no. 1 and dead last (no. 75), respectively, on the velocity leaderboard, among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 200 fastballs to this point in 2014.

    Ventura struck out 10 Padres in his most recent outing. Young has recorded 15 strikeouts in six games (five starts) all season. The last time the 34-year-old reached double digits in one game, the date was April 24, 2008 (9:10 p.m. ET).

Sunday

  • General managers Rick Hahn and Kevin Towers were a productive pair during the offseason, when the White Sox and Diamondbacks found common ground on two separate trades involving major-league talent. Unfortunately, two of the key players involved in those deals—Mark Trumbo, whom the D-Backs got from the Angels by exporting Tyler Skaggs, and Adam Eaton, who went from the desert to the Windy City in the same three-way transaction—are on the disabled list and won’t see the field when the clubs lock horns this weekend.

    The only active big leaguer at either Kirk Gibson’s or Robin Ventura’s disposal who was involved in a swap between the teams is Addison Reed, who joined the Snakes in a one-for-one barter that sent third-base prospect Matt Davidson to the ChiSox. Reed has managed to rack up 10 saves to date, even though the Snakes have won only 13 games. He’s also hiked his strikeout rate to 26.7 percent, a 2.3-percentage-point increase from 2013, while dropping his walk rate to 5.3 percent, a 2.5-percentage-point reduction. On the other hand, Reed has had trouble keeping the ball in the yard, with four big flies on his line in just 17 2/3 innings. He served up 11 in 82 innings at U.S. Cellular Field during his time with the White Sox (2:10 p.m. ET).

  • Free-agent pickup Tim Hudson has been a workhorse for the Giants, the likes of which the organization hasn’t seen in more than three decades. At age 38, the right-hander is throwing strikes (three walks in 54 1/3 innings) and inducing loads of weak contact, with a 58.9 percent ground-ball rate and a 15.8 percent line-drive clip, his best performance in those two categories since 2010. Hudson gets a tall order in the series finale: a date with Clayton Kershaw, who blanked the Nationals for seven innings in his return from the disabled list, in Chavez Ravine (4:10 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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