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June 16, 2014

What You Need to Know

Weekend Wrap-Up, 6/16

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
The second-place Royals have a message for the first-place Tigers: Look out below.

Kansas City is riding the longest active winning streak in the majors at seven games, after taking two against the Yankees, two against the Indians, and three against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Ned Yost’s squad hovered around .500 for the first two months of the regular season, then slipped to four below (26-30) on June 1. Since then, the Royals are 11-2, and they’ve held opponents to two or fewer runs in four of their last six games.

As the Royals got hot, the Tigers got cold. Detroit enjoyed a season-high seven-game lead on May 18, then dropped seven of eight to allow its American League Central challengers—the Royals included—to tread water or catch up. The Tigers awoke to take three of four at the turn of the month, but they proceeded to lose eight of 10 and nine of 12 right after that, just as the Royals turned the corner. Brad Ausmus’ bunch took the last two games of its weekend series versus the Twins to fend off Yost’s club for now, but the Royals kept pace by sweeping the White Sox.

One of the keys to the Royals’ rise has been the apparent return of Eric Hosmer’s long-lost thump. Hosmer slugged 17 homers in 159 games last year, a far cry from the lofty totals compiled by other first basemen, but also far superior to his output during the first two-plus months of the 2014 campaign. At the end of the day on June 6, the last time the Royals suffered a setback, Hosmer’s triple-slash line was a dismal .260/.300/.352. His .652 OPS would’ve ranked dead last among qualifying first basemen in 2013, 47 points behind Mark Reynolds, who was designated for assignment last August.

Hosmer began to turn his season around on June 7, when he slugged a solo shot as part of an 8-4 win over the Yankees. He went deep again two days later, chipping in a two-run tater off of Corey Kluber, as the Royals saddled the Indians righty with a season-high six runs.

The 24-year-old was kept in the park the next three days, but a 4-for-10 showing with three walks would suffice. Then, in the first inning of yesterday’s series finale on the South Side, he gave Andre Rienzo a taste of his power:

Hosmer crushed a 1-2 curveball that stayed up over the outer part of the plate just to the left of dead-center field to give the Royals an early 2-0 lead. That spot, just to the left of center, was one of Hosmer’s favorite power alleys in 2013.


But during the first two-and-a-half months of 2014, he simply wasn’t hitting any deep fly balls to that part of the park:

That’s why Sunday’s long ball is an encouraging sign for Hosmer and the Royals, who grabbed a commanding, 5-1 lead on Salvador Perez’s three-run shot in the third.

James Shields was knocked around early but wound up logging a quality start by scattering 10 hits and a walk over six innings on the mound. Four relievers did the rest in the 6-3 win, which improved the Royals’ road record to 18-16—the same as their ledger at home.

That’s good news for Kansas City, because up next on its docket is a visit to Comerica Park with first place in the Central on the line. The Royals and Tigers both have 36 wins, but the visitors are three back in the loss column, for a net margin of 1 ½. Jason Vargas and Justin Verlander are set to duke it out in the opener (7:08 p.m. ET).

Quick Hits from the Weekend
Bobby Abreu batted cleanup for the Mets on Friday. That’s 40-year-old Bobby Abreu, with one home run to his name since the 2012 season, batting in the no. 4 hole in a major-league game for the first time since July 15, 2012. But to those who thought manager Terry Collins was off his rocker, Abreu offered a 4-for-4 evening that keyed New York’s win.

With the Padres up 2-0 in the last of the second, Abreu picked up the Mets’ first hit: a leadoff double. Chris Young and Lucas Duda both made unproductive outs, but Taylor Teagarden followed with an RBI single that halved the Padres’ lead by scoring Abreu from second.

Neither team would score again until the bottom of the fourth, when Abreu sparked a rally with a one-out single. Young lined out, but Lucas Duda doubled to plate Abreu and then crossed the dish himself on a ground-rule double by Matt den Dekker that put the Mets ahead 3-2.

In the home half of the fifth, Abreu went from touching the plate himself to helping his teammates do so. Ruben Tejada singled and Daniel Murphy walked to give the Mets runners at first and second with nobody out, but David Wright nearly put the kibosh on the attack by hitting into a double play. Not to worry…

…the cleanup man had his third baseman’s back. Abreu tallied an insurance run by scoring Tejada from third with a single to right, and he added one more two innings later with a knock through a drawn-in infield.

That’s four hits in as many at-bats for Abreu, who joined an exclusive Mets club that featured only two members before his outstanding Friday night:

Meanwhile, fellow quadragenarian Bartolo Colon turned in 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball to ensure that Abreu’s work at the plate would be sufficient for the Mets to secure the victory. They’d do so by a final score of 6-2.

After dropping Saturday’s middle game, the home nine recovered to take the rubber match, even though Daisuke Matsuzaka departed after one inning with what was termed “a severe upset stomach.”

***

A ninth-inning bullpen meltdown almost cost the Pirates a win over the Marlins on Friday. It did force them to play four extra innings. But in the end, it also gave the organization’s top rookie position player a chance to deliver his first signature big-league moment.

Up 6-2 on the strength of eight solid innings from Jeff Locke, manager Clint Hurdle handed the ball to Justin Wilson to finish off the Fish. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do with a four-run lead, it’s hand the opponent much-needed baserunners. Wilson didn't get that memo: He sandwiched a strikeout between two free passes, forcing Hurdle to call for Jason Grilli.

The righty didn’t get the memo, either. He wrapped two walks around a run-scoring force out, then gave up a two-run single to Reed Johnson that made it 6-5. Grilli then intentionally walked Giancarlo Stanton to set up Mark Melancon with a situation in which the game-ending out could be recorded at any base.

Trouble is, Melancon didn’t oblige either. He jumped ahead of Casey McGehee, 0-2, then threw four straight balls to force in the tying run. That’s six walks in the inning, if you’re counting at home, and a very unhappy Pirates manager pacing around the dugout at the end of the afore-linked clip.

The sides held each other off the scoreboard for the next three frames, but with a man on and one away in the top of the 13th, Gregory Polanco chose a dandy time to slug his first major-league home run:

Those late-night heroics, which proved decisive in the 8-6 win, would’ve been ample cause to celebrate for the 22-year-old right fielder. But the big fly wasn’t Polanco’s first hit of the night—it was his fifth, as he improved to 5-for-7 with three runs scored and two RBI. And Polanco chipped in this snow-cone Web Gem, to boot.

The Santo Domingo native kept on hitting throughout the weekend, going 2-for-5 in both Saturday’s identical 8-6 victory and Sunday’s extra-inning defeat to put himself in rarefied Pirates air:

Getting mentioned in the same breath as Roberto Clemente is never a bad thing—particularly during your first week in The Show. Polanco needs 2,988 more hits to match the Hall of Famer’s career output, but with a franchise-high 12 through his first six games, he’s off to a fine start.

***

The Brewers welcomed the Reds to Miller Park over the weekend riding a streak of six consecutive series wins or splits. To avoid their first series loss since May 19-22, the Brew Crew had to take Sunday’s rubber match. It was not to be.

Marco Estrada’s gopher-ball woes reared their ugly head from the get-go:

Billy Hamilton, who homered in his last at-bat on Saturday, went deep again to begin Sunday’s finale, swatting a 1-2 curveball mistake out to right field to put the visitors ahead right off the bat. Unfortunately for Estrada, that was a harbinger of things to come.

Todd Frazier flied out, but Joey Votto singled, and Brandon Phillips followed with a two-run jack. It was 3-0 before the first Brewer dug into the box against Reds starter Mike Leake, and while the home nine battled back in the last of the fourth—when Estrada helped himself with an RBI infield single—the right-hander coughed up the lead moments later.

Hamilton led off the fifth with a single, and Todd Frazier sent him home with a two-run round-tripper just to the right of the Brewers bullpen in left-center field. That put the Reds back up, 5-3, and the Brew Crew would not equalize again. Jonathan Lucroy homered to start the last of the fifth, but the 5-4 margin was as close as Milwaukee would get in what wound up a 13-4 rout.

The three homers slugged against Estrada in five innings on the hill brought his total to a staggering 23 in 84 frames. To put that in perspective, Jose Lima’s 48 gopher balls in 2000 stand as the record for a pitcher who worked fewer than 250 frames. Estrada is on track to match that total in just 175 innings.

And here’s a scary thought: If the Brewers don't make a change in the coming few days, Estrada’s next turn in the rotation will come up on Friday in the thin air of Coors Field.

***

At the end of play on Sunday, the Giants had the best record in the league and the largest cushion of any division leader at 6 ½ games. But by earning their first sweep at AT&T Park since 2008, the Rockies served their National League West rivals a reminder that it’s not over ’til it’s over.

All three Colorado victories came in late-inning-comeback fashion—the first two in the ninth and the third in the eighth inning of a game the Giants led 7-3 after six. Defensive miscues by the Giants contributed to bullpen meltdowns from a relief corps that came into the series as one of the most reliable in the league despite the absence of primary setup man Santiago Casilla.

It all began in the ninth inning of Friday’s opener, in which the Giants carried a 4-2 advantage into the final frame. Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Morneau singled to get the Rox rolling, and then Wilin Rosario flied deep enough to center to allow Tulowitzki to advance to third. Instead of hitting the cutoff man to hold Morneau at first, Pagan threw to third base, allowing both runners to move into scoring position with one away. The Giants intentionally walked Corey Dickerson to set up a double play and forces at every base, but Ryan Wheeler foiled the plan:

Wheeler’s game-tying single was the first of many occasions during the weekend on which the Rockies would take advantage of Giants miscues in the field. The next batter, DJ LeMahieu, singled to center:

Dickerson, who’d been handed first base, scored the go-ahead tally on the play, as Pagan had the ball clank off his glove. Pagan then threw toward home plate instead of second base, permitting LeMahieu to move into scoring position. Michael McKenry singled home Wheeler and moved LeMahieu to second, which proved important…

…when McKenry got himself into a pickle and stayed in it long enough to allow LeMahieu to cross the plate when Ehire Adrianza bobbled the ball. That gave the Rockies a 7-4 lead, and LaTroy Hawkins never endangered it, retiring the Giants in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Pagan’s adventures in center field continued on Saturday, except this time, it was bad routes rather than throwing instincts that were the problem. With a runner on first and nobody out in the second, Wheeler lined a ball into the left-center gap, and Pagan failed to get behind it, instead allowing the ball to roll past him and continue all the way to the wall:

Later in the same frame, Brandon Barnes lined one to the same area, and while Pagan was able to track it down with a sliding grab, he might’ve been able to catch it standing up had he taken a deeper angle:

Whether Pagan was overestimating his own speed or underestimating the contact the Rockies were making, the issue boiled over in the ninth, when Barnes hit what likely would’ve been a double into right-center that Pagan played into a two-run, go-ahead inside-the-park home run:

Hawkins again notched the save with a scoreless ninth, and the 5-4 win secured the series for the visitors.

On Sunday, the Giants were up 7-4 heading into the top of the eighth. Pagan had been scratched from the lineup with lower-back stiffness, so he wasn't around to help the Rockies come back. It didn’t matter.

Troy Tulowitzki singled. With one out, Drew Stubbs tripled him home. McKenry singled home Stubbs. Then, Charlie Culberson drew a walk, which might not have been the worst outcome for the Giants, because the next batter, LeMahieu, hit a ground ball to short that might’ve yielded a twin killing. Except that shortstop Brandon Crawford bobbled the ball, and Adrianza, the second baseman, did, too, preventing the Giants from ending the frame. With runners at the corners and pinch-hitter Justin Morneau coming up, Bochy went to lefty specialist Javier Lopez. That didn’t work:

Morneau’s two-run two-bagger put Colorado up 8-7. Nick Masset, Rex Brothers, and Hawkins protected that edge the rest of the way.

When the Rockies’ plane landed in San Francisco, the Giants were 35-0 on the year when leading after eight innings. Now they’re 35-2, and their lead in the West is as small as it’s been since the beginning of June.

***

Matt Adams hit the shelf with a calf strain on May 29 with three home runs to his name. Most of the first baseman’s offensive contributions had been the product of a .390 BABIP, because he’d also fanned 40 times compared to only five walks in 202 plate appearances. It seems a couple of weeks on the disabled list helped the portly first baseman to rediscover his power stroke.

Just about no one could get anything going at the plate in Friday’s duel between Lance Lynn and Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals went 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals never had such an at-bat. What the home team did have, though, was Matt Adams:

That blast accounted for the only run in the 1-0 decision, in which Zimmermann was saddled with a 76-pitch, complete-game (eight-inning) loss. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he’s the first pitcher to work so efficiently and still suffer a defeat since the Orioles’ Jose Bautista did on September 3, 1988. All thanks to Matt Adams.

Saturday’s middle match, a battle between Stephen Strasburg and Shelby Miller, was deadlocked at 1-1 after the seventh-inning stretch. Up stepped Adams to change that:

He cranked a 3-1 challenge fastball into the home bullpen, putting the Cardinals up 2-1. They’d score two more times in the inning and win 4-1, but the first baseman opened the door and accounted for the game-winner once again.

On Sunday, Adams got his yardwork out of the way early…

The two-run dinger off Doug Fister gave the Redbirds an early lead. When it cleared the wall, Adams had officially doubled his home-run total for the season in three days.

Matt Holliday padded the lead to 3-0 with a solo homer in the third, and the Nationals never recovered, as the Cardinals completed the sweep with a 5-2 win.

***

Yasiel Puig likes flipping his bat. Sometimes, it doesn’t quite go as planned:

The Defensive Plays of the Weekend

Erick Aybar gets the honors for two fine efforts on Saturday. This diving stop, which became a force play at second…

…and this leaping snag, which came at the expense of his opposite number, Andrelton Simmons:

What to Watch for on Monday

  • At the end of play on May 6, Cole Hamels was sporting a 7.02 ERA, but the left-hander has quietly morphed into one of the league’s best starters since a five-run drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jays that day. Over his last seven assignments, Hamels has racked up a 56-to-15 K:BB ratio in 50 2/3 innings on the bump, and three of those 15 free passes were intentional. He’s also been extraordinarily difficult to square up, limiting opponents to just 35 hits and two long balls during that same span. The 30-year-old will attempt to keep on rolling as he leads the Phillies into Atlanta for the first of three meetings with the Braves. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez will send Julio Teheran to counter Hamels (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • The fans at Miller Park haven’t seen much of Wily Peralta lately: Four of the right-hander’s last five starts have come away from Milwaukee, and tonight’s date with the Diamondbacks at Chase Field will make it five of six. Peralta scattered 11 hits over six innings of two-run work versus Arizona on May 7, when he became just the 18th pitcher since 1914 to hold an opponent to no more than a couple of tallies while allowing at least 11 hits and one homer in six or fewer frames. The 25-year-old will try to fend off the Snakes in a more conventional fashion during a duel with Brandon McCarthy tonight (9:40 p.m. ET).

  • Chris Young spent the prime years of his career with the Padres, but despite a 32-start tour with the Mets immediately after that, he’s never gone up against the San Diego club. That’ll change tonight, as the 6-foot-10 righty locks horns with Friars ace Tyson Ross at Safeco Field. Young could hardly ask for a better matchup to get back on track after a pair of rough outings versus the Rays and Yankees, but his peripherals suggest that more trouble is in store. The Dallas native is rocking a solid 3.68 ERA, despite a lowly 35-to-32 K:BB ratio and 11 gopher balls in 73 1/3 innings. That’s good for a 5.43 FIP—made worse by the friendly home environment in which he’s made six of 13 starts—and it portends more regression. We’ll find out in the opener whether the worst offense in baseball can deliver it (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

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