June 18, 2014
What You Need to Know
Can't Retire the Royals
The Tuesday Takeaway
After Hank Conger flied out for what could have been the third out of the inning, Kole Calhoun picked up his third of four singles on the night, this one an RBI base knock that moved Ibanez to third. Next up was Mike Trout, who took Tomlin oppo for a three-run jack.
Billy Butler set the table with a single after battling Scherzer to a 3-2 count. Butler would advance to second on an error by right fielder JD Martinez, but it wouldn’t matter: Alex Gordon stepped to the plate and promptly belted his eighth home run of the season. Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas more or less repeated the same process, with Perez drawing a walk and Moustakas driving him in with his seventh big fly.
Scherzer’s allowing four runs without recording an out was enough to draw pitching coach Jeff Jones’s attention, but whatever Jones said during his mound visit didn’t do much good. Alcides Escobar followed Moustakas’s home run with a single, Jarrod Dyson reached on a bunt single after Ned Yost challenged the initial out call, and Norichika Aoki singled to right field to load the bases.
Scherzer put the next batter, Omar Infante, in a 1-2 hole, but Infante got the better of Scherzer anyway, singling up the middle to plate Escobar and Dyson. Eric Hosmer did just enough to allow Aoki to score, tapping a dribbler back to the mound. Scherzer finally got out of the inning by retiring Butler and Gordon, but not before the Royals batted around (and then some) and put the Tigers in an unmanageable hole.
The damage continued in the fifth, when Butler, Gordon, and Perez combined to knock Scherzer out of the game. He didn’t get much help from his bullpen, as Phil Coke entered the game and allowed two inherited runners — Gordon and Perez — to score.
All told, Scherzer allowed 10 runs and recorded only 12 outs, marking his worst start since May 3, 2010, when he allowed 10 ER in 4⅓ innings. It was just the latest sputter in what has been an uncharacteristic month for Scherzer, who has posted a 6.84 ERA over his last six starts. Granted, Scherzer snuck in a complete-game shutout last Thursday, but that was his first quality start since May 16th.
The Royals, meanwhile, are wielding the league’s fourth-best offense this month, after toiling at the bottom of the league in May. They’ve jumped their team OPS by better than 140 points to .781. Billy Butler seems to be finding his usual high-average form, Alex Gordon continues to dominate, and Mike Moustakas is now hovering around league-average production (which is worlds better than where he’s been).
With the Tigers slipping — they’re 11-19 over the last month — the Royals now find themselves in first place for the first time since May 1st of last year. And Royals fans, perhaps unaccustomed to this kind of success, seem to be dealing with complicated emotions. —Nick Bacarella
The Nationals got a taste of the outright National League East lead last Wednesday, when they climbed past the Braves for the first time since May 5, but they ceded that edge over the weekend by getting swept by the Cardinals. Two straight losses by the Braves gave the Nats a chance to surge back to the top of the division—and they did just that with a 6-5 win over the Astros on Tuesday night.
Tanner Roark and Dallas Keuchel—both little-known starters before the 2014 season who’ve become first-half darlings by posting sub-3.00 ERA to this point in the year—struggled throughout their five innings apiece on the Nationals Park hill. But while the Astros lefty coughed up a pair of two-spots in the first three frames, the hosts’ right-hander never allowed a crooked number.
Led by Anthony Rendon, who finished 2-for-4 with two doubles and drove in three runs, the Nationals raced ahead early and didn’t look back until the top of the eighth. The third baseman drove in the first two tallies of the contest with a two-bagger in the top of the first. Ryan Zimmerman scored Rendon with a double of his own, and it was 2-0 Nats after one.
The home nine scored twice more in the bottom of the third, when Zimmerman collected his second RBI double of the night and Ian Desmond tacked on a run-scoring single. The Astros countered that tally in the top of the fourth, which began with three consecutive singles, but Roark did well by holding the visitors to just one run. Jason Castro struck out with the bags juiced and nobody on, after which Matt Dominguez plated the lone tally with an infield single. A Jonathan Villar fly out and a Robbie Grossman strikeout got Roark out of the jam.
Those runs became crucial in the top of the eighth, when Tyler Clippard unraveled. Three straight hits to begin the frame brought home a run and put runners at the corners with nobody out. Clippard struck out the next two hitters he faced, but Dexter Fowler singled, Jose Altuve doubled, and suddenly, it was 6-5.
Aaron Barrett came to Clippard’s rescue, inducing a lineout by George Springer, and Rafael Soriano cemented the three-hour-and-41-minute victory, which put Washington back atop the East. —Daniel Rathman
Masahiro Tanaka first pitch on Tuesday night sailed over the right field fence courtesy of Jose Reyes’s bat. That would be the only time Blue Jays hitters were able to get to the Yankees ace; Tanaka fanned 10 in 6 innings on his way to his league-leading 11th win.
Consistency has been Tanaka’s calling card so far this season. He’s relied heavily on his splitter, inducing weak groundouts to go with his 113 strikeouts (tied for second in the league). Scroll through his strike zone plots and you’ll notice that his game plan hasn’t varied over the last few months. The steadiness of his approach has made him the only pitcher to throw six or more innings in his first 14 starts so far this season. Perhaps the best example of his composure, though, is Tanaka’s release point. The baseball world drooled when the GIF depicting Yu Darvish’s release point debuted last year, but it might just be that Tanaka’s zone is even tighter. Compare Darvish’s, who faced off last night against the A’s, with Tanaka’s:
Instant replay received another test on Tuesday night after Chris Davis hit a deep fly ball to right field in the Orioles’ game against the Rays. At first glance, it appeared that Tampa left fielder David DeJesus had a beat on the ball, but he could only deflect it after crashing into the outfield wall. Davis was initially awarded a double, plating Nick Markakis and Steve Pearce in the process. After review, though, the ball was determined to have hit the bottom of the foul pole, not DeJesus’s body or the wall.
Davis’s grand slam came as part of Baltimore’s five-run third inning, which would lead to Erik Bedard’s early exit. The Rays responded in the bottom of the inning with solo home runs by Sean Rodriguez and Desmond Jennings. They then drew to within one run in the fifth, when James Loney doubled in Matt Joyce and Evan Longoria.
Tampa reliever Kirby Yates kept the game tight after Bedard’s departure in the fifth, but Brad Boxberger allowed Baltimore to score the game’s decisive runs on a two-run Steve Pearce round-tripper in the seventh.
Trout wasn’t the only player who launched a pair of long balls on Tuesday, as Jonathan Lucroy also left the yard for the seventh and eighth time this season. Lucroy’s second tater came with the bases full of Brewers and proved to be the difference in his club’s 7-5 win against the Diamondbacks.
Lucroy has long been adored in sabermetric circles thanks to his astounding receiving skills behind the dish, but Tuesday’s offensive performance upped his slash line this season to .340/.401/.537. The 28-year-old’s .938 OPS trails only Derek Norris’s .949 mark among qualified catchers. —Chris Mosch
In yesterday’s What to Watch For section, Daniel Rathman pointed out the Athletics’ dominance against Yu Darvish since the 27-year-old has come over to the States. Things didn’t get any better for Darvish on Tuesday, as he failed to make it out of the sixth inning for just the second time this season (the other start, naturally, was against the A’s).
Armed with one of baseball’s most effective pickoff moves, Johnny Cueto has been among the best when it comes to containing the running game. On Tuesday, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison each swiped a bag against the battery of Cueto and Bryan Pena, becoming just the second pair of teammates ever to steal a pair of bases against Cueto in a single game.
Jose Reyes circa 2008 swiping second base against Cueto won’t turn too many heads, but Oliver Perez? The game recap of the May 11, 2008 game describes Perez as “catching the Reds napping” and says that his stolen base didn’t even draw a throw.
In the sixth inning, Harrison slid in headfirst, just ahead of Pena’s throw. —Chris Mosch
The Defensive Play of the Day
What to Watch for on Wednesday
Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @danielrathman