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July 14, 2014

What You Need to Know

Round Up The Usual Weekend Suspects

by Chris Mosch and Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
While the Brewers and Cardinals duked it out in Milwaukee for the National League Central lead, the division’s other two playoff contenders exchanged blows in Cincinnati to try and keep pace with the first half of the season coming to a close.

Friday’s opener started with yet another jaw-dropping moment on the bases by Billy Hamilton. Just when you thought you've seen all that Hamilton can do on a baseball field, he pulls out another first from his bag of tricks. This time it was Hamilton’s evasiveness, not his pure speed, that triumphed.

The Cincinnati speedster led off the bottom of the first with a first-pitch push bunt up the first-base line. Gaby Sanchez fielded the ball with time to spare for what looked like an easy out, but Hamilton—a former wide receiver prospect on the gridiron—juked Sanchez out of his shoes and dived safely into first with one of the most acrobatic baserunning maneuvers you'll see this season.

Zack Cozart ripped Jeff Locke's next pitch into the left-field corner for a double, and Hamilton slid home just ahead of the relay throw to give the Reds an early 1–0 lead. Cozart advanced to third on the throw home, but was erased a batter later when he made the inexcusable mistake of breaking home with no outs on a hard grounder to third base by Todd Frazier. The Reds wouldn't score again in the inning.

The Pirates pushed ahead in the fourth against Mat Latos with a pair of dingers. First, Andrew McCutchen drilled a 1–1 fastball off the plate over the fence in right-center to even the score. Next up was Neil Walker, who hit a sharp grounder to first that Jay Bruce—who was making just his third career start in the infield—was unable to handle. Russell Martin worked an eight-pitch walk, which brought up Pedro Alvarez with two on. Latos fell behind 2–0, and El Toro parked a fastball over the plate into the right-field bleachers to give Pittsburgh a three-run advantage.

Latos departed after five innings due to back spasms that the 6-foot-6 right-hander said "felt like someone stuck a knife in my back," but the former San Diego hurler is expected to make his next start following the All-Star break.

After jumping out to an early lead, the Reds were unable to muster any offense against Locke through the next five innings. Their best scoring opportunity came with runners at the corners and one out, but Latos squandered that threat by bunting into an inning-ending double play. Not even Bruce's latest attempt at bunting to beat the shift was able to initiate a rally.

In the seventh inning, the Reds were finally able to cut into the lead, which had been built to 5–1 after another Pirates run in the sixth. Ryan Ludwick led off with a routine ground ball to third that Alvarez airmailed into the camera well, allowing the Cincinnati outfielder to trot to second base. Ramon Santiago tattooed a one-out double off the wall to plate Ludwick and came around to score later in the inning on a groundout by Hamilton.



Tony Watson hadn't allowed more than one earned run in a single appearance entering Friday, and Clint Hurdle turned to his All-Star setup man in the eighth inning with a two-run lead. Watson retired the first two batters he faced, but Devin Mesoraco launched a 1–2 fastball into the upper deck in left field to cut the deficit in half. That was the beginning of the Pittsburgh southpaw's unraveling, as he proceeded to surrender consecutive singles to Cincinnati’s 6-7-8-9 batters. The final blow that knocked Watson out of the game was a pinch-hit knock by Brayan Pena to give the Reds the 6–5 lead.





Aroldis Chapman fanned Jordy Mercer to start the ninth, and Hurdle decided to utilize the platoon advantage against the Cuban fireballer. He pinch-hit for Travis Snider with Michael Martinez, who struck out on four pitches. Up next in the lineup was Gregory Polanco, but Hurdle rolled the dice with the right-handed Matt Hague, who entered the game with a .520 OPS in 75 career plate appearances. "There's no upside for me," Hurdle said the next day about having Polanco face Chapman in that situation. "Not the way he's swinging. I just didn't think it was a fair matchup." Hague didn't fare any better against Chapman, striking out on three pitches, the last of which was clocked at 103.7 mph. 



The middle match between the two division rivals was on its way to a déjà vu matchup—the Pirates jumped out to a 4–0 lead, only to have the Reds storm back with five unanswered runs. Charlie Morton had been cruising along for Pittsburgh, facing one more than the minimum while using just 56 pitches to navigate the first five frames. That quickly changed.

Zack Cozart began the sixth inning with a four-pitch walk, bringing up the pitcher’s spot. Pinch-hitting for Mike Leake was Chris Heisey, who lined a two-run homer that barely cleared the left-field fence. Pittsburgh’s lead was suddenly sliced in half. Billy Hamilton kept the rally going with a single to center and swiped second base a few pitches later. Ramon Santiago drew a walk, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Representing that run was All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier, who crushed a 3–2 sinker from Morton to send the Great American Ball Park crowd into a frenzy.

Morton had allowed the first five batters of the inning to cross the plate, and just like that, the Pittsburgh lead evaporated. After a pair of scoreless innings from the Cincinnati bullpen, the Buccos appeared to be on their way to a second straight deflating loss. The only glimmer of hope was that this time, Chapman was unavailable. The hard-throwing southpaw had pitched the three previous days, so Jonathan Broxton was assigned the ninth-inning duties. Broxton’s first task was to retire Andrew McCutchen, but he left a 2–2 fastball right down the middle. McCutchen knew the game was tied immediately off the bat.

When you leave a fastball down Main Street to the reigning National League MVP, you’re not going to come out ahead too often. Your chances plummet even further when he knows what’s coming. After hitting his solo blast, McCutchen appeared to be alerting his teammates in the dugout that Broxton was tipping his pitches.

If Broxton did have a tell, the rest of the Pirates weren’t able to pick up on it; the Cincinnati reliever retired the next three batters he faced and hurled a clean frame in Sunday’s game. The Reds looked like they’d be able to bail their big man out with a walk-off win in the 10th inning when Jay Bruce stepped to the plate with runners at first and second with nobody out. The 27-year-old ripped a grounder through the right side and Santiago was waved home from second. However, Polanco unleashed a cannon from right field to nab the runner and keep the game alive. Justin Wilson proceeded to strike out Ludwick and Pena to send the game to the 11th.

In relief for Broxton was J.J. Hoover, but he didn’t have any better luck with McCutchen. Hoover tossed a clean 10th inning and then retired the first two batters in the 11th. However, his first-pitch slider to McCutchen found its way to the left-field stands, putting the Pirates up for good. Jeanmar Gomez managed a perfect frame in the home half of the 11th to even up the series.

The Reds would bounce back to win the rubber match behind six quality innings from Johnny Cueto and a pair of long balls. Francisco Liriano made his return for the Pirates after missing a month with a strained oblique, but was unable to locate his fastball. Of Liriano’s 47 heaters, just 24 of them were delivered for strikes, and the left-hander issued six free passes in four innings of work. Kristopher Negron got his first career start for the Reds and blasted a three-run shot in the second inning to put his club on the board.

The Pirates tallied three runs off Cueto to pull back to within a 4–3 deficit in the bottom of the sixth, but Frazier connected for his 19th dinger of the season—a two-run shot off Vance Worley—to give the Reds a 6–3 lead. Not that the Cincinnati bullpen needed the extra breathing room. Jumbo Diaz, Broxton and Chapman each tallied a perfect inning of relief to secure the series win and move the Reds to within 1 ½ games behind the Brewers and just a half-game behind the Cardinals. With the loss, Pittsburgh fell 3 ½ games off the division pace. —Chris Mosch

Quick Hits From the Weekend
Some pitchers are erratic. Others are wild. A select few have the swing-and-miss stuff to be effectively wild. But none of those adjectives describes what Hiroki Kuroda was on Friday.

Toeing the rubber in the series opener between the Yankees and Orioles, Kuroda pitched seven innings of two-run ball. He didn’t walk anybody. So you might be wondering why the previous paragraph was littered with the word “wild.”

Here’s why:

Although Kuroda threw 66 of his 103 pitches for strikes, a handful of his 37 balls missed the hitting area by a mile. While the right-hander didn’t walk anybody, his control prevented him from protecting a 2-0 lead in the middle innings.

Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson each smacked a solo home run off Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez, but that was all the scoring the Yankees would do in his eight innings. Kuroda gave both of those runs back in the bottom of the fourth.

Moments after Gonzalez escaped a jam by stranding Yankees at second and third, Kuroda hit Steve Pearce with a pitch to begin the bottom of the fourth. Adam Jones followed with a single, putting runners at the corners with nobody out, and Kuroda promptly gifted Pearce the last 90 feet of his trip around the bases by spiking a 57-foot splitter that catcher Brian McCann had no chance to block. Jones moved to second on that wild pitch, and Kuroda granted him third base by uncorking another. Chris Davis plated Jones with a sacrifice fly to tie the game, and Kuroda was fortunate that a subsequent plunking of J.J. Hardy didn’t come back to haunt him.

That’s two hit-by-pitches and two wild pitches in the same inning, if you’re scoring at home, and Kuroda tacked on another wild pitch in the sixth. Add it all up, and you get two HBP, three WP, and no walks. If that seems odd, well, that’s because it is:

Kuroda held a powerful offense in a hitter-friendly park to just three singles in seven frames. Three singles and no walks generally means very few runs for the opposition. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, 131 starting pitchers have logged seven innings while permitting three or fewer hits—all of them singles—and without issuing a walk since the start of the 2007 season. Only two (1.5 percent) of them, Kuroda on Friday and Jarrod Parker on July 12, 2013, allowed more than one run.

The Orioles failed to take advantage of Kuroda’s third wild pitch of the evening, but his first two helped provide bonus baseball for the fans at Camden Yards. And the home team broke through in the 10th, behind a double by Manny Machado and an RBI single by Nick Hundley, to walk off with a 3-2 win in the opener.

Shane Greene and three relievers shut out the Orioles on Saturday, overcoming a more-or-less quality start from Chris Tillman, but Baltimore pulled out the series win with a rain-shortened 3–1 win on Sunday. Baltimore scored all three of their runs in the bottom of the fourth, the Yankees went 1-2-3 in the top of the fifth, and that was that. Well, except for the Steve Pearce walk in the bottom of the fifth. And the 0–2 count on Adam Jones. But really, that was that. Kevin Gausman got his first career complete game.

***

The Brewers, losers of five straight at the start of play on Friday, welcomed the Cardinals to Miller Park with a two-game lead in the National League Central. They greeted Joe Kelly, fresh off the disabled list, with a pair of three-spots in the first two innings, looking poised to shake off the skid and take the opener of their final series before the All-Star break.

Kelly was off from the get-go: He drilled Carlos Gomez to begin his outing, and then gave up a single, a double steal and a walk to load the bases. Aramis Ramirez got the Brewers on the board with a sacrifice fly, and Khris Davis brought home the other two runners with a double later in the inning.

If Kelly was searching for a fresh start in the second, his counterpart, Yovani Gallardo, immediately dashed those hopes with a leadoff single. Gomez singled, too, and triples by Scooter Gennett (here) and Ryan Braun (here) put the Brewers up 6–0.

Kelly finished his return from a nearly three-month stint on the disabled list on a high note. The Brewers threatened to pad their lead when Jean Segura picked up a one-out double in the third, but Kelly recovered to strike out Gallardo and Gomez to end the inning unscathed.

That might have been the turning point in the contest, because for the Brewers, it was all downhill. A few minutes after Kelly got out of the third, Matt Holliday doubled and Matt Adams hit one to the Canadian border:

Suddenly, it was 6–2, and the Cardinals weren’t finished doing yardwork at Gallardo’s expense. Leading off the sixth, Kolten Wong sent a 2–1 fastball into the second deck in right field to make it 6–3:

Two batters later, Jhonny Peralta cranked a two-run dinger into the second deck in left. And just like that, it was 6–5.

That was all for Gallardo, but it wasn’t all for the Redbirds. Reliever Rob Wooten allowed the first three batters he faced to reach on a two singles and a walk. When Cardinals manager Mike Matheny called for Oscar Taveras to pinch-hit, Ron Roenicke countered by removing Wooten in favor of Zach Duke. The lefty did a fine job, wriggling out of the bases-loaded, one-out mess while allowing only one of the three inherited runners to score, but Taveras’ fielder’s choice plated the tying run. But the Brewers, after chucking crooked numbers on the board in the first two frames, were done scoring for the evening. And in the ninth, with Francisco Rodriguez looking to preserve the tie, Matt Holliday delivered the death blow:

The seventh unanswered run for the Cardinals was the deciding one in the 7–6 decision, the sixth straight defeat for the Brewers, whose lead in the Central shrank to one. A 10–2 Cardinals win on Saturday extended the Brew Crew’s skid to seven games, before Milwaukee recovered to win 11–2 on Sunday.

Of course, none of that seems to matter in light of the news Segura received in the clubhouse in the wake of Friday’s game. The shortstop’s nine-month-old son died in the Dominican Republic earlier in the day. Segura flew there on Saturday to mourn his passing. There’s no timetable for his return to the team.

***

Before Sunday’s rubber match against the Diamondbacks, the Giants had not scored eight runs in a game since June 1st, and they had not done it at home since May 25th. Bruce Bochy’s club snapped those lulls in historic fashion to down the visitors, 8–4.

Buster Posey accounted for half of that output with one fifth-inning swing. His grand slam turned a 1–0 deficit into what was, by recent Giants standards, a comfortable 4–1 lead.

Giants starter Madison Bumgarner gave three runs back in the top of the seventh, so that margin would have disappeared. It’s a good thing he had already whacked his second grand slam of the season in the sixth:

With that swing, Posey and Bumgarner became the first battery-mates to hit grand slams in the same game in major league history. They also teamed up for just the third two-slam game in the history of the franchise.

Bumgarner’s long ball made it 8–1 Giants, rendering moot the comeback effort the Diamondbacks mounted against him a half-inning later. The win gave the Giants their first series victory at AT&T Park since a sweep of the Mets on June 6th through 8th.

They enter the break a game behind the first-place Dodgers, who won 1–0 for the second straight day to take three of four over the visiting Padres.

***

Clay Buchholz returned from the disabled list in late June toting a 7.02 ERA. It’s now down to 5.42 after one of the most dominant outings by a Red Sox starter since the turn of the century.

The right-hander was immediately spotted a 1–0 lead when Brock Holt—who wound up 5-for-6—began the game with a home run. He would not need any of the other 10 runs the Red Sox pushed across to down the Astros in the series finale.

Buchholz held Houston to three singles, walked none, and fanned a dozen. He threw 25 of 34 (74 percent) of his fastballs for strikes, and his cutter induced four whiffs in 25 tries.

After handing out eight walks to the Braves on May 26th, his last start before a month off to nurse a hyperextended knee, Buchholz has posted a 24-to-1 K:BB ratio in four starts since the Red Sox activated him on June 25th. Yesterday’s gem was his first double-digit-strikeout effort since April 25, 2013, also against the Astros.

The 11–0 romp completed the series win for Boston, which remains closer to the worst record in the American League (held by the 38–57 Rangers, who have lost eight in a row) than to first place in the East (Orioles at 52–42). General manager Ben Cherington needs to decide soon whether to throw in the towel on his team’s increasingly dubious bid for a second straight pennant.

The Defensive Plays of the Weekend
Mike Carp and Burke Badenhop combined for the most inventive 3–1 putout you’ll see all year:

Kyle Seager had a base to contend with and a speedy runner to beat, but he got the job done:

Conor Gillaspie decided to dillydally his way back to first base on a foul fly ball to left field. So Mike Aviles showed off his arm and threw him out:

Daniel Rathman

WYNTK will return on Thursday with a preview of the weekend action after the All-Star break.

Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here
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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