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May 30, 2014

What You Need to Know

Reversals of Fortune

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
Josh Collmenter became only the second Diamondbacks starting pitcher to face the minimum in a complete game last night, but he didn’t do it Randy Johnson-style. The lefty notched a perfect game for the Snakes in 2004. Collmenter’s gem was a three-hitter.

Johnson cut down 13 Braves on that magical night at Turner Field. Collmenter struck out five Reds, including the first two batters he faced, but inducing harmless contact was the name of his game.

The tomahawk-throwing righty retired the side in order in the top of the first, and before he knew it, he had all the run support he’d need. A.J. Pollock—red hot throughout the series—got the D-Backs going with a double. He completed the one-man rally by stealing third and crossing the plate on a throwing error by catcher Devin Mesoraco.

Collmenter went 1-2-3 again in the second inning, but trouble was afoot at the outset of the third. Brayan Pena led off the frame with a double, ending Collmenter’s bid for a perfect game long before the thought would’ve entered anyone’s mind. He also gave the Reds their first baserunner—and runner in scoring position—of the evening.

But A.J. Pollock had his pitcher’s back on the defensive side of the ball, too. The next batter, Zack Cozart, popped a can of corn just to the right of dead-center field. Pena, typically a catcher but playing first base in the absence of Joey Votto, decided to test Pollock’s arm. That proved unwise.

One runner on, one runner gone.

The Reds threatened again in the fourth, when Billy Hamilton kicked things off with a single. Before he could put the wheels in motion, however, Todd Frazier erased him with a double-play ball.

Two runners on, two runners gone.

The fifth was uneventful, but the sixth piqued Reds fans’ interest when Pena got aboard again, this time with a leadoff single of his own. But Cozart dashed his dreams of getting to third base—or second, for that matter—with a 5-4-3 twin killing.

Three runners on, three runners gone.

And those were all the runners the visitors would get. Collmenter cruised the rest of the way, needing only 94 pitches to finish off the 4-0 win by coaxing three grounders in the top of the ninth.

Now, the burning question: When is the last time a major-league pitcher faced the minimum in a nine-inning shutout despite permitting at least three runners to reach base?

Firing up the Baseball-Reference Play Index tells us the answer: less than six years ago, on September 11, 2008, when Roy Oswalt did it against the Pirates. Collmenter is the 17th pitcher to accomplish the feat since 1914.

In doing so, Collmenter earned the first shutout by a Diamondbacks starter this season and only the second complete game. He led Kirk Gibson’s club to its fifth win in seven contests. Arizona is now only one win behind the Padres in its bid to climb out of the National League West cellar.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels invested heavily into two left-handed hitters during the offseason. The returns from one of those investments—the acquisition of Prince Fielder from the Tigers—are on hold at least until 2015. But the other, Shin-Soo Choo, has paid dividends right off the bat.

The 31-year-old supplied the biggest blow in his club’s victory over the Twins—a three-run double to the opposite field in the top of the second inning:

That gave Rangers starter Nick Martinez an early cushion, and while the rookie right-hander couldn’t hold it, Choo’s early work kept the visitors in range when the Twins surged ahead on a mammoth two-run blast by Josh Willingham in the last of the fifth:

An RBI single by Robinson Chirinos in the sixth and a sacrifice fly by Rougned Odor in the eighth put the Rangers back on top, and the bullpen did the rest in the 5-4 decision.

Choo wound up 2-for-4, tacking a single and his eighth hit-by-pitch of the season onto the early double. By reaching three times in five plate appearances, he upped his on-base percentage to .423, good for fifth in the majors and second in the American League.

To make good on the Rangers’ seven-year, $130 million investment, Choo must provide surplus value in the early part of the deal to compensate for inevitable decline as he reaches his mid and late 30s. A 1.5 WARP effort over his first 49 games is a fine start toward that end.

Choo’s first two months in north Texas haven’t come without warning signs. His ankle has been barking since late April, when he sat out a few games with a sprain, and it forced manager Ron Washington to deploy the Korean as his designated hitter on Thursday. Choo is also just 3-for-6 on steal attempts to date.

On the other hand, the lefty swinger is squaring up the ball as well as ever, and his .361 BABIP is more than a fluke. He carried a 22.4 percent line-drive rate into Thursday’s contest and, after popping up just once during all of 2013, has yet to hit an infield fly this year. Choo might not sustain that lofty pace on balls in play, but he’s a good bet to reach base at a .400 clip—a healthy improvement over the .336 OBP the Rangers posted out of that spot in 2013.

***

The Blue Jays saw their winning streak halted at nine games last night, when the Royals exposed their Achilles heel—the bullpen—in an 8-6 defeat that required 10 innings. But the home nine didn’t go down without a fight in the series finale at the Rogers Centre.

Edwin Encarnacion, the owner of 14 homers in May when he stepped into the box to face James Shields, went yard in the fourth inning:

Then he went yard again in the sixth, punishing Shields for a big-time location mistake on a 1-0 fastball to tie the game at 5-5. Encarnacion’s second homer of the night was his 16th of the month, which broke the franchise record for home runs in one month and tied an American League record for homers in May, previously held by Mickey Mantle alone.

Nearly as notable as the power display was Encarnacion’s ability to swing for the fences while rarely whiffing. He entered play on Thursday with eight homers and four strikeouts over his previous 10 games. Those totals are now 10 and five, as the 31-year-old took a called third strike in his first at-bat versus Shields. Still, Encarnacion has gone down swinging or looking only 14 times this month, a remarkable way to break into the history books.

Unfortunately, the first baseman’s work at the plate was rendered moot when R.A. Dickey lasted only five innings. The bullpen, a sore spot on an otherwise impressive club, almost protected the Jays’ 6-5 lead after six innings, but a throwing error by Jose Reyes with a runner on second and two out in the ninth sent the game to extras. Todd Redmond unraveled in the 10th, and the two tallies he coughed up were plenty for Greg Holland to slam the door on Toronto’s nine-game run.

***

Encarnacion isn’t the only slugger stating his case for a “Did _____ hit a home run?” Twitter account. He’s got some company—from a rookie, no less.

The Orioles and Astros were knotted at one apiece with one on and one away in the bottom of the seventh. Enter George Springer:

With the count full, Springer roped the payoff pitch into the Crawford Boxes for his seventh dinger in as many games. He’s the first rookie to pull that off since Rudy York did it way back in the summer of 1937.

Thanks to Springer’s yardwork, the Astros—yes, the Astros—have won six in a row, the longest active streak in the majors. They’re 11-3 in the last 14 games the University of Connecticut product has started and 11-5 in their last 16 overall.

***

Remember when the Red Sox lost 10 games in a row? That skid ended only four days ago. But if it seems like an eternity, it’s because they bounced back to sweep the Braves into a first-place tie.

Fredi Gonzalez’s club was 28-21 coming into the four-game set. It’s now 28-25 and even with the Marlins after feeling Boston’s broom bristles on Thursday night. Things looked good for the Braves in the early innings, when Jason Heyward put them up 1-0 with a solo shot with two away in the third:

The yanked blast to right field on an elevated Jake Peavy changeup was Heyward’s second tater in the series, a positive sign for Atlanta, which hasn't gotten much production from its right fielder to date. Thursday’s bomb was Heyward’s first away from Turner Field since April 1, and it pushed his slugging percentage past .350 for the first time since April 9.

Insurance runs in the fourth and eighth had the Braves sitting pretty when “Sweet Caroline” played at Fenway Park, even though Jake Peavy had turned in one of his finest efforts of the season. But good times started seeming good for the Red Sox shortly thereafter, as the visitors came unglued.

Brock Holt started the home half of the eighth with a single that turned into a two-base play when Justin Upton booted it. That enabled Holt to score on a single by Xander Bogaerts, bringing the Red Sox to within a run at 3-2. Dustin Pedroia kept the rally going with an infield single, and A.J. Pierzynski did his part with a base hit to center. B.J. Upton denied fans the drama of a possible play at the plate by taking his eye off the bounding ball, which nicked off his glove and allowed Bogaerts to score easily. Pedroia advanced to third on the play, and only nifty pitching by David Carpenter, Luis Avilan, and Craig Kimbrel prevented the Red Sox from taking the lead.

Not for long, though, because the Braves had another error in them.

Kimbrel’s control escaped him in the last of the ninth, which began with walks by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Holt. Bogaerts followed with an infield single, and while the bases would’ve been loaded with nobody out, Kimbrel is perhaps better equipped to wriggle out of that mess than any reliever in baseball. Except rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella didn't give him a chance:

Bradley sprinted across the plate, putting the 4-3 contest and the four-game sweep in the books.

***

Zack Wheeler boasts top-shelf stuff, but command woes have prevented him from dominating big-league lineups. When he ascended the bump at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday, he had only one outing of five-plus strikeouts and zero walks under his belt.

The 23-year-old wasted no time in his bid to make it two: He struck out the side in each of the first two innings and then added one each in the third and fourth. Wheeler’s control wasn’t spotless—he gave the Phillies plenty of easy takes, which drove his pitch count above 20 in innings one and two—but he saved his best pitches for the deepest counts and never caved.

Wheeler held the Phillies scoreless into the seventh inning and dealt Ryan Howard a hat trick before serving up a solo shot to Marlon Byrd on pitch no. 108. That brought a sour end to a sweet night, as Terry Collins came out to fetch Wheeler in favor of Scott Rice. But in doing so, the skipper cemented his starter’s output at zero walks and nine strikeouts.

The Georgia native sat in the mid-90s with his fastball and scraped 98 mph, blowing his two- and four-seamers past the Phillies a total of eight times in 68 tries. He also threw 15 of 24 curveballs for strikes, five of those of the swing-and-miss variety, a significant improvement over his earlier work with the bender, which was yielding balls 46 percent of the time he spun it coming into the game.

Rice’s relief appearance lasted only one pitch, after which Vic Black and Jenrry Mejia fanned another half-dozen Phillies to secure the 4-1 Mets win.

The Defensive Play of the Day
The nickname Country Breakfast is all fun and games until you get thrown out at first on a line drive to right field:

What to Watch for This Weekend

Friday

  • Got plans for tonight? Break ’em and stay home for the best on-paper duel on the docket: Madison Bumgarner versus Adam Wainwright at Busch Stadium. The visiting lefty matched a season high by striking out 10 Twins on May 25 and became just the fourth starting pitcher ever to deal Joe Mauer a hat trick The host right-hander enters as the hottest pitcher in baseball, with a one-hit shutout and a 12-strikeout, eight-inning blanking in his past two starts. To sustain that surge, Wainwright will need to revise his approach to Giants leadoff man Angel Pagan, whose 1.246 OPS in 21 trips to the box is the highest amassed by any hitter with 20-plus plate appearances against the Cardinals ace (8:15 p.m. ET).

  • Justin Verlander’s fastball velocity is trending downward, and that’s been bad news for the right-hander in recent weeks, as a series of drubbings have ballooned his ERA from 2.67 to 4.04. Verlander has surrendered five or more runs in each of his past three starts, something he hadn’t done since the summer of 2008, and he’s also coughed up 11 hits his last two times out, which he’d never done back-to-back since reaching the majors in 2005. The 31-year-old will battle the Mariners this evening and try to right the ship in a ballpark that’s proven surprisingly unfriendly to him, even during his prime. Verlander has allowed 17 doubles in 61 2/3 career innings at Safeco Field, where he’ll square off with Hisashi Iwakuma in the opener (10:10 p.m. ET).

Saturday

  • Just as the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported that one possible hang-up in negotiations between the Blue Jays and Cubs about Jeff Samardzija is the Jays’ reluctance to part with Drew Hutchison, the young righty turned in arguably his worst effort of the season. After holding the Red Sox and Rangers to one combined run in 14 2/3 innings, Hutchison got battered by the Rays to the tune of three homers in five innings, four walks, and zero strikeouts, becoming the first pitcher to reach each of those dubious benchmarks in an outing since Mike Maroth did it on May 5, 2007.

Given his success immediately preceding the clunker, the 23-year-old gets a pass for now, but Jays fans might want to keep an eye on the radar gun when Hutchison takes the mound in game three of four against the Royals. The velocity on each of his pitches has dropped about a mile-per-hour over the last three starts, and Hutchison already has a Tommy John surgery on his medical chart; he sat out the 2013 season while rehabbing from it (1:07 p.m ET).

Sunday

  • In case you were wondering, Phil Hughes’ walk-less streak is still alive at six-plus starts and counting. The change of scenery, from New York to Minnesota, appears to have done the right-hander plenty of good, but now, Hughes must confront his demons in the Bronx as the Twins pay a visit to Yankee Stadium. Hughes owns a 4.82 ERA in 85 career appearances (60 starts) at the new yard, where he served up 71 home runs in 356 1/3 innings to allow opponents to compile an .803 OPS. We’ll see if sporting a different uniform helps him keep the ball inside the fences (1:05 p.m. ET).

  • Hitting left-handers hasn’t been the Reds’ cup of tea so far this year. Due in part to injuries to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, Bryan Price’s offense had compiled just a .226/.277/.362 triple-slash line versus southpaws when play began on Thursday. After facing three straight righties to begin their set at Chase Field, the visitors will run into Wade Miley—who fanned 11 Padres in his most recent outing—in the finale on Sunday afternoon. Miley needed 114 deliveries to complete seven innings on May 27, his most grueling effort from a pitch-count standpoint since July 31, 2013. He’ll match up with Alfredo Simon in the afternoon tilt (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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