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July 28, 2014

What You Need to Know

July 28, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway
When the Angels, winners of five straight to wrap up the “first half,” looked up their schedule coming out of the All-Star break, here’s what they saw:

  • Three home games against the Mariners, who were moving up the standings with 14 wins in 22 games heading into the hiatus;
  • Three home games against the first-place Orioles; and
  • Four home games against the first-place Tigers.

And, as if that homestand weren’t enough of a challenge...

  • Three road games against the first-place Orioles;
  • Three road games against the hard-charging Rays; and
  • Two road games against the first-place Dodgers, as part of a four-game home-and-home set.

Have fun with that.

All three games in the Mariners series were one-run nail-biters, but the Angels took two of three. They weren’t so lucky in the Orioles series, in which every game was decided by two or fewer runs, as the Birds left with two in hand. And the opener of the Tigers set didn’t go so well, either, as Detroit took Thursday night’s matchup by a final score of 6-4.

Just over a third of the way into the 20-game gauntlet, Mike Scioscia’s club was 3-4. Now, it’s halfway through the toughest part of its regular-season docket. And 6-4 looks a whole lot better than that.

The Angels held the Tigers to just two runs over the last three games of the series. They got 5 2/3 innings of one-run work from Tyler Skaggs on Friday and 3 1/3 nearly flawless frames from the bullpen, as newcomer Huston Street converted the save. On Saturday, they got seven outstanding innings from Matt Shoemaker—who’s risen from undrafted free agent to back-of-the-rotation fixture—followed by two goose eggs from the relief corps, including one from another new arrival, Jason Grilli. Hector Santiago only got through 5 1/3 one-run innings on Sunday, but with the bullpen relatively well-rested and a travel day on tap, Scioscia asked for and received 3 2/3 fine frames from Mike Morin, Joe Smith, and Street.

All of those efforts on the mound set the stage for a few unlikely heroes at the plate.

Mike Trout went 1-for-11 between Friday and Sunday. Albert Pujols went 2-for-10. Josh Hamilton went 1-for-7. Together, the boppers had a grand total of one extra-base hit.

Enter Efren Navarro.

The Tigers were up 1-0 when Hamilton left Friday’s contest with a sore knee. The Angels tied it in the last of the sixth, when Chris Iannetta and Kole Calhoun delivered back-to-back one-out doubles. Drew Smyly recovered to strike out Trout, and then Brad Ausmus intentionally walked Pujols, counting on Smyly to retire Navarro.

That didn’t happen, and Navarro’s single was the decisive hit in the 2-1 affair.

The Angels only needed one run on Saturday, as Shoemaker and Co. pitched a shutout. Navarro put it on the board in the second inning with his first career home run:

On Sunday, it was David Freese’s turn. Among the items on general manager Jerry Dipoto’s deadline shopping list might be a lefty partner for the right-handed Freese, who entered play yesterday batting just .225/.293/.297 sans the platoon advantage. Well, if there ever were a way for a player to tell his boss, “I don't need no stinkin’ platoon partner,” a game-winning homer in the eighth inning might do the trick. Joba Chamberlain, the victim of Freese’s yardwork, had allowed only one long ball in 42 1/3 innings this year.

Thanks to Freese, Navarro, and the pitching staff, the Angels emerged from their grueling 10-game homestand with a winning record, a feather in their cap as they embark on an even-more-grueling road trip to the East Coast and back. Most importantly, even though the A’s have spent the past six days playing the bottom-feeding Astros and Rangers, the Halos haven’t ceded much ground.

The Athletics were 1 1/2 games up in the West at the break, and they’re just two games ahead now. If the Angels can avoid falling further behind over the next 11 days, there will be no doubt that they’re in it to win it with 10 head-to-head meetings left.

Quick Hits from the Weekend
Rumors of a midseason Red Sox purge predated the All-Star break. Word surfaced on July 8th that the Cardinals were eager to strike quickly and snag Jake Peavy to patch a hole in their injury-ravaged rotation. But general manager Ben Cherington held on well past the break and through the opener of a three-game series at Tropicana Field, in which the slipping Sox took on the resurgent Rays.

That opener pitted Jon Lester against David Price, a duel of aces whose futures with the teams that drafted and raised them to stardom were also murky. Halfway through it, the visitors, behind a solo homer from Shane Victorino, appeared poised to halt the Rays’ seven-game winning streak and stop their own three-game skid.

Desmond Jennings changed that with one swing:

But Lester’s center-cut fastball, which turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 hole, wasn’t the death knell for the defending champions. Dustin Pedroia doubled with one away in the top of the sixth and David Ortiz drove him in with a single to tie it up. Ortiz moved into scoring position on a base hit by Jonny Gomes and crossed the plate on a single by Victorino to put the Red Sox back on top.

Had that comeback stood up, Cherington might have gone to bed on Friday night wondering if there was just enough fight left in his squad to warrant a little more patience. But it wouldn’t stand up.

For the 2014 Red Sox, the bottom of the seventh inning was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Andrew Miller entered in relief of Lester after the stretch and drilled Jose Molina with a 2-2 slider to put the tying run on base. He punched out Logan Forsythe, salvaging some dignity from the appearance, but manager John Farrell had seen enough. Enter Junichi Tazawa.

The first 158 regular-season relief appearances of Tazawa’s major league career had two things in common: Each of them concluded with no more than one walk and no more than two runs on the right-hander’s line. So you might forgive Cherington for thinking that his team was toast when Tazawa melted down like never before.

The 28-year-old’s outing began with a seven-pitch free pass to Jennings, which advanced Molina to second base and led Joe Maddon to insert Cole Figueroa as a pinch-runner. Five pitches later, Figueroa touched home plate on an RBI single by Ben Zobrist, who finished the evening 4-for-4.

With runners at the corners, Tazawa faced a strikeout situation with Brandon Guyer in the box, but he missed inside with a forkball, left a slider well upstairs, and fired a fastball off the plate away to fall behind 3-0. A get-me-over curveball netted strike zone, but Tazawa overthrew a 3-1 heater to load the bases with walk no. 2.

Already in uncharted waters, Tazawa sunk himself and his team by hanging a curveball that Evan Longoria yanked down the left-field line for a bases-clearing double. The Red Sox showed some fight, with a run in the ninth to make it 6-4, but we may look back on Tazawa’s wildness and Longoria’s knock as the final nail in their coffin.

Fans who slept in on Saturday morning awoke to find out that Peavy had been traded to the Giants for two minor league pitchers. Those who stayed tuned to the news later in the day heard from ESPN Boston’s Gordon Edes that more moves might soon follow.

Both are signs that as far as the front office is concerned, the 2014 Red Sox ship may have sailed. The 2014 Rays, winners of 20 of 26 after splitting the weekend tilts, might just be getting started.

* * *

Three batters into their National League West showdown at AT&T Park, the Dodgers were up on the Giants. Yasiel Puig got them going with a one-out triple, then scored on a single by Adrian Gonzalez. That proved to be a harbinger for the rest of Friday’s opener, in which Puig became the first Dodger since 1901 to collect three triples in the same game.

The top of the fifth inning turned into a three-bag bonanza for Don Mattingly’s lineup, as Puig joined forces with Dee Gordon and Matt Kemp to notch three in the same frame. Gordon and Puig each drove in one run with their triples and Kemp brought home a pair, keying a five-spot that broke the contest wide open.

They’d add one more run in the sixth, when Gordon singled and Puig tripled him around the bases. One last tally for each side—the Dodgers’ on a single by Hanley Ramirez in the eighth, the Giants’ on a single by Tyler Colvin in the garbage-time ninth—completed the 8-1 rout.

While Puig, who became the third player in the last century to tack a double onto three triples, was busy racking up 270-footers, Zack Greinke was occupied mowing down the Giants. The right-hander fanned 10 in seven scoreless innings, including four in the last of the third, when Hunter Pence reached on a wild pitch. Like Puig, Greinke now owns a membership card to a club that’s admitted just three players. He joined A.J. Burnett and Chuck Finley as the only pitchers who’ve logged multiple four-strikeout innings in the majors.

As for the Giants, they learned the hard way that losing the opener of a three-game series ahead of a date with Clayton Kershaw isn’t a sound strategy. Kershaw was Kershaw in Saturday’s middle match, which is to say that he two-hit the home nine to lower his ERA for the season to 1.76. It’s safe to say that the southpaw has figured out the Giants ...

... and his latest masterpiece put the Dodgers back in first place.

They extended their lead on Sunday thanks to a fifth-inning three-spot that spoiled Peavy’s Giants debut. The Dodgers are up by more than a game for the first time since July 4th. The National League West rivals won’t see each other again until September 12th through 14th.

* * *

Gio Gonzalez and Johnny Cueto were both on point in Saturday’s tilt between the Nationals and Reds. That meant baserunners would be at a premium, even in the hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ball Park.

To make matters worse, many of the batters who managed to reach first weren’t sure what to do once they got there.

The Nationals stranded a pair in the first inning, but they seemed to be in business again when Bryce Harper walked to begin the second. The next batter, Wilson Ramos, launched a deep fly ball to the right-center field gap. It was hit far away from right fielder Jay Bruce, but also quite high in the air, so Bruce had time to track it down on the run. Unfortunately for the Nationals, Harper didn’t read it that way and the by the time he saw Bruce catch the ball, it was a tick too late for him to get back to first.

In the bottom of the second, Bruce drew a base on balls from Gonzalez and was promptly replaced by Chris Heisey when the latter hit into a fielder’s choice. With an 0-1 count on Skip Schumaker, Heisey gambled on first movement and lost. Gonzalez threw over to first, Adam LaRoche threw to second, and Heisey was erased.

Fortunately for the Reds, Heisey would get his revenge. In the fifth inning, he bypassed the danger of getting picked off with a ground-rule double. After Schumaker unproductively flied out to left, Heisey stole third and scored on a single by Brayan Pena.

That would be the game’s only run, in part because the teams kept making outs on the bases.

In the last of the sixth, Johnny Cueto got to first on an infield single. Billy Hamilton spared him the trouble of running the bases by hitting into a force play at second. And then Hamilton got picked off and caught stealing, as Adam LaRoche aggressively caught the throw from Gonzalez moving forward, giving him time to gun down the speedy Hamilton before he got to second base.

While Heisey made up for his caught stealing in the second, Harper doubled down. He walked with one out in the seventh, after which Ramos tapped a slow roller that third baseman Ramon Santiago could not convert into an out at first base. Frazier, though, helped convert it into an out between second and third base because Harper ventured too far past the keystone and the Reds caught him in a pickle.

The Nationals had one more chance to pull even when Ian Desmond walked to kick off the ninth against Aroldis Chapman. Contact is tough to come by with the flamethrower on the bump, so manager Matt Williams decided to play small ball. Trouble is, Chapman isn’t particularly easy to bunt, either, and Harper fouled off his first attempt. He squared around again with the count 0-1, but this time, Desmond took off. Harper pulled the bat back, taking strike two, and Pena’s throw down tailed into Zack Cozart’s glove as he slapped the tag on a sliding Desmond.

Harper struck out looking on the next pitch. Wilson Ramos struck out looking, too, and that was that in the 1-0 decision.

The Nationals, who did not have an extra-base hit on Saturday, put nine men on first base and lost three of them. The Reds, who had two doubles—including the pivotal one by Heisey—put five runners on first, saw two of them get picked off, and gave away another when Cozart hit into a double play.

It’s tough to score runs in any park when runners are so difficult to come by and so easily squandered. The Nats learned that lesson the hard way. The Reds overcame it to snap their losing streak at seven games.

* * *

The Brewers carried a 5-1 record for the week into their last meeting with the Mets after taking two of the first three in the series. Two rookies, Jacob deGrom and Jimmy Nelson, duked it out with the visiting squad looking to get away with a sweep. DeGrom was red-hot coming in, and the Brew Crew couldn’t cool him off.

With Matt Harvey out for the season and Noah Syndergaard biding his time at Triple-A, deGrom—a ninth-round pick in the 2010 draft—has stolen the pitching show in Queens. He’d tossed 21 innings of two-run ball over his previous three starts, trimming his ERA from 4.39 to 3.01 in less than a month and a half.

The 26-year-old added to his fine run with 6 1/3 shutout innings, giving a Mets offense that slept into the afternoon enough time to wake up. Lucas Duda’s alarm rang in the sixth inning, when the first baseman thumped a two-run homer that accounted for the only runs in the ballgame.

DeGrom had a rough go in the seventh inning, bunting into a double play in the top half before permitting singles to two of three batters after the stretch. But Vic Black came to his rescue, inducing popups from both of the pinch-hitters Ron Roenicke sent to the plate to preserve the two-run lead.

At an average of 94.6 mph and a peak velocity over 96, the fastball was deGrom’s best weapon on Sunday. He threw 79 two- and four-seamers—68 percent of his 116-pitch allotment—and induced 11 swing-and-misses with the hard stuff. Fifty-nine (75 percent) of his 79 heaters went for strikes.

Now sporting a 2.79 ERA after 14 starts in his big-league career, deGrom is quietly building a solid case for National League Rookie of the Year recognition. If he keeps it up and the voters keep him in mind, deGrom could become the first Mets pitcher to win the award since Dwight Gooden in 1984.

The Defensive Play of the Weekend
Tom Koehler might have a gnarly bruise near his left shoulder blade, but at least his shortstop, Adeiny Hechavarria, got the out:

No pain, no gain, right?

What to Watch on Monday
Trade rumors continue to swirl around Ian Kennedy, who might be the most coveted starting pitcher on the trade market if the Rays and Red Sox are both skittish about exporting their left-handed aces. Kennedy was scheduled to pitch today, but was scratched due to an oblique injury. A source of concern about Kennedy even before the announcement of the injury is that the right-hander has been considerably wilder in his last three starts than he had been before July 12th. The 29-year-old has handed out 12 walks in his last 19 innings on the bump, which in turn has prevented him from pitching beyond the sixth in each of his last two assignments. He won't get a chance to rehabilitate his value now, as the Padres will instead turn to Jason Lane—yes, that one—to start in his place. The Braves will counter with Ervin Santana (12:10 p.m. ET).

Scouts may have lost one last pre-deadline opportunity to see Kennedy, but other pitchers caught in the trade winds are scheduled to pitch in today's evening action. In fact, two seasoned veterans who might be on the move, the Phillies’ A.J. Burnett and the Mets’ Bartolo Colon, are set to square off at Citi Field. Burnett provided the scouts in attendance at Citizens Bank Park with a fine display last week, fanning eight Giants over as many scoreless innings. Meanwhile, for clubs that value strike-throwers, Colon has walked more than one batter only once in his last eight starts (7:10 p.m. ET).

Clay Buchholz was hit around a couple of times after returning from the disabled list, but his control was impeccable, as he chucked up a 26-to-1 K:BB ratio over his first 35 2/3 innings off the shelf. Unfortunately for Buchholz, his wheels came off in last week’s battle with the Blue Jays, as he issued four walks and twice hit the no. 9 batter over six shaky innings. Tonight, the right-hander will see the same Toronto lineup, this time at Fenway Park, where manager John Farrell will hope Buchholz has a better idea of where the ball is going. The visitors are set to go with R.A. Dickey (7:10 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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