September 2, 2014
What You Need to Know
September 2, 2014
The Labor Day Weekend Takeaway
“Embarrassing” and “pathetic” were just two of the words that Oakland skipper Bob Melvin used to describe his team’s play during the weekend’s critical showdown against the division-rival Angels. The A’s began the four-game series just one game behind the Halos in the American League West, but Oakland’s bats went into hibernation during the weekend series as their chances of claiming a third straight division crown are rapidly slipping away.
After dropping the series opener on Thursday in extra innings, the A’s sent their ace Jon Lester to the mound on Friday in hopes of climbing back to within a game of the division lead. Lester and Jered Weaver were in the midst of a scoreless duel until the fifth inning, when the A’s were dealt a blow both on the scoreboard and to the health of their center fielder Coco Crisp.
Crisp’s extraordinary effort nearly robbed Chris Iannetta of a two-run blast, but the impact that the center fielder made with the outfield wall jarred the ball out of his glove. Crisp left the game and missed the remainder of the series with a neck strain. Oakland’s leadoff hitter is considered day-to-day.
The Angels added a run in the sixth and padded their lead in the seventh when Albert Pujols crushed an Evan Scribner meatball for a solo home run. The quartet of runs was more than enough cushion for Weaver, who twirled seven shutout innings of three-hit ball. Joe Smith and Huston Street did the rest to take game two.
After losing Garrett Richards for the season, the Angels tried out Wade LeBlanc in the team’s no. 5 spot in the rotation, a short-lived experiment. Instead of ponying up for a starting pitcher on the trade market, Anaheim opted to try out the bullpen game approach for Saturday’s matchup against Jeff Samardzija. The strategy worked to perfection.
Cory Rasmus got the ball first for Mike Scioscia’s club in his first start since 2011 at Class-A Lynchburg. Rasmus—the brother of Toronto outfielder Colby—answered the call with three nearly flawless innings, allowing just an infield single to Josh Donaldson in the first inning. The 26-year-old struck out six and delivered 32 of his 49 offerings for strikes before handing the ball over to Michael Roth, who had just been called up from Double-A. Roth walked a pair and allowed an infield single to load the bases, which prompted Scioscia to give him the hook in favor of Yoslan Herrera, who coaxed an inning-ending double play off the bat of pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes.
A pair of singles, an error, and a wild pitch led to two runs for the Angels in the bottom of the fourth, which was all they would get against Samardzija. The right-hander retired the final 14 hitters he faced, finishing the start with nine punchouts and zero free passes in eight innings of work. The Notre Dame product hit 99 and 100 mph with his final two fastballs, but walked off the mound for the final time with the A’s still facing a 2-0 deficit.
After Herrera worked out of the jam in the fourth inning, Fernando Salas, Jason Grilli, Kevin Jepsen, and Joe Smith each pitched a perfect inning of relief. Sam Fuld managed a leadoff single against Huston Street in the ninth, but the veteran closer clinched the series win with his 35th save of the season.
Looking to avoid the series sweep, the A’s turned to Scott Kazmir for the finale, exactly one week after the Angels chased him in the fourth inning of a seven-run shellacking. Kazmir sent the Angels down in order in the opening frame on Sunday, but things quickly went south for the veteran left-hander.
Josh Hamilton led off the second inning with a single and moved into scoring position after Howie Kendrick worked a six-pitch walk. Hamilton came around to score two batters later on a single to left by Erick Aybar to draw first blood. Kazmir proceeded to walk the next three Angels, which was enough for Melvin to give his starter the hook. Dan Otero relieved Kazmir and allowed all three inherited runners to score, which sunk the A’s into a 6-0 hole out of which they couldn’t climb.
The free passes handed out by Kazmir during the inning were the main culprit behind his unraveling, but the 30-year-old wasn’t getting any help from home plate umpire Gerry Davis. Kazmir didn’t miss his spots by much, and his displeasure with Davis’ tight strike zone was apparent; the Oakland starter was visibly frustrated about several calls, particularly on pitches that he felt caught the inside third against right-handed hitters.
After taking Kazmir out of the game, Melvin confronted Davis about his strike zone and was immediately ejected. After the game, Kazmir voiced his displeasure with how Davis called the game and indicated that Davis had been reprimanded for making a “cry baby face” towards Oakland’s dugout during the previous night’s game.
Regardless of Kazmir’s feelings towards Davis, that didn’t stop his counterpart, Matt Shoemaker, from extending his scoreless innings streak with seven shutout frames. Shoemaker fanned seven and walked none while allowing just five singles, finishing the month of August with a 1.31 ERA, a .485 opponent OPS, and a 38:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 41 1/3 innings. The former undrafted free agent extended his scoreless innings streak to 23 1/3 innings and became the first Angels pitcher to toss three consecutive outings of at least seven innings and zero runs allowed since Nolan Ryan.
Oakland tacked on a run against Mike Morin in the eighth, which was the club’s first run scored since the sixth inning of Thursday’s game. That 29-inning span of futility marked the third longest scoring drought in franchise history and prompted Melvin to hold a closed-door meeting with the team after Sunday’s blowout.
On Monday, Jason Hammel turned in eight innings of one-run ball, arguably his best start since joining the A’s, and the newly acquired Adam Dunn went yard in his first at-bat donning the Oakland green and yellow. Oakland ended up thumping the Mariners by a 6-1 final to pull back within 4 1/2 games of the Angels, who were idle on Labor Day. However, the A’s entered Monday’s game with less than a one in ten chance of winning the American League West, a percentage that shouldn’t drastically change even after their win. The A’s will have a chance to make up ground on the Angels when the clubs square off for a three-game series during the final week of the season, but it’s becoming more and more likely that Oakland’s season could come down to a one-game playoff.
Quick Hits from the Labor Day Weekend
The Giants had their way with the Brewers over the weekend, sandwiching Jake Peavy’s near–no hitter between a 13-2 blowout on Friday and Sunday’s 15-5 pummeling. With Milwaukee scuffling, all the Cardinals needed to earn a share of the National League Central lead was to split their four-game series with the Cubs. However, with Chicago’s bright young sluggers taking their hacks, that’s a task easier said than done.
Shelby Miller took the hill for the Cardinals in Friday’s series opener and was spotted an early 2-0 lead. Leading off the second inning for the Cubs was Luis Valbuena, and Miller got away with a first-pitch fastball down the middle to the Chicago third baseman. The pitch had missed its intended target, low and away.
On the next pitch, Yadier Molina—back from his nearly two-month stint on the DL—set up low and away again. Miller's 92 mph fastball missed in the exact same location, but this time, Valbuena was ready and deposited the pitch in the right field seats to put the Cubs on the board.
The two clubs exchanged zeroes for the next four innings, but in the top of the seventh, Miller made another crucial mistake over the middle of the plate. This time, he left a 94 mph fastball—intended to be low and away—up at the letters to Jorge Soler. Tie game.
Aside from the mistakes made to Valbuena and Soler, Miller pitched admirably for the Cardinals, allowing just the two runs on four hits over seven innings. With the game still even heading into the eighth, Mike Matheny lifted the 23-year-old after 93 pitches in favor of Pat Neshek, who entered the weekend series the proud owner of a 0.83 ERA.
By the end of the appearance, Neshek's runs allowed had nearly doubled.
Pinch-hitter Logan Watkins started things off with a grounder through the right side for a leadoff single. Chris Coghlan yanked a ground-rule double to right field moments later to move the go-ahead run 90 feet from home. Next up was Javier Baez, who ripped an elevated fastball from Neshek into the left center gap to put the Cubs up 4-2. After retiring Starlin Castro and Valbuena, it looked like Neshek would escape with just a two-run deficit. But with Soler up to bat, the St. Louis reliever committed the same sin that Miller had made earlier in the game: missing up in the zone. The crack of the bat left little doubt as to where the ball was heading.
The Cubs went on to win 7-2 and took the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader behind seven outstanding innings from Felix Doubront. The 26-year-old southpaw gave up one run on seven hits and struck out four in his Cubs debut, while Justin Masterson hit the showers before the end of the fifth inning. On Monday, the Cardinals announced that Masterson—who has a 7.90 ERA and .927 opponents’ OPS in six starts since being acquired at the trade deadline—would be heading to the bullpen.
In the nightcap, Matt Holliday’s three-run home run in the fifth inning off Tsuyoshi Wada was the difference heading into the eighth inning. The Cardinals held a 4-1 lead behind six innings of quality work by Marco Gonzales, but the game quickly got out of hand in the eighth.
Holliday smoked his second dinger of the night, this one off Kyuji Fujikawa, to lead off the inning. The Cardinals proceeded to collect five singles, three walks and a hit by pitch before Carlos Villanueva—the third Cubs reliever of the inning—got Matt Adams to hit a sacrifice fly for the inning’s first out. By that point, the Cardinals had scored eight runs in the frame and the score stood at 12-1. St. Louis tacked on one more run before Oscar Taveras hit into an inning-ending double play.
St. Louis’ chances at earning a series split got off to a bleak start during Sunday’s finale when the Cubs hung a five-spot on John Lackey in the second inning. Holliday continued his hot hitting for the Cardinals with yet another home run to get the Redbirds on the board in the fourth. The next inning, Holliday capped a three-run frame with an RBI double that plated Matt Carpenter, who had reached earlier in the inning on a very catchable fly ball to the warning track that bounced off Arismendy Alcantara’s glove for a double.
Alcantara made up for his miscue in the seventh with a solo jack that gave the Cubs a 6-4 lead, but the Cardinals stormed back in the home half to even the score. The next inning, Holliday stepped to the plate against Villanueva with two outs and the bases loaded:
Holliday’s hot shot up the middle ricocheted off Villanueva and into left field, which brought two runs around to score. The Cardinals added one final run to their comeback tally to take the Sunday matinee by a 9-6 final.
The Cardinals finished the weekend tied with the Brewers for the National League Central lead and had the opportunity to stand alone atop the standings after Milwaukee dropped their sixth straight contest on Monday. All they needed to do was beat Pittsburgh.
The Labor Day matchup saw the Pirates hold a 4-2 advantage over the Cardinals heading into the seventh. Kolten Wong had sustained a scary head injury on Sunday that required him to undergo concussion tests after the game (he passed), so it was of little surprise that the rookie second baseman wasn’t in Monday’s starting lineup. However, with his club down two and in search of some spark against Gerrit Cole, Mike Matheny called upon Wong in a pinch-hit situation. The Hilo, Hawaii native delivered:
Wong’s two-run shot into the home bullpen evened the score, and Cole exited the game after serving up a triple to Jon Jay moments later. Former Cardinal John Axford entered the game for the Buccos and immediately issued a free pass to Taveras. Up next was none other than Holliday, who had already collected a two-run double earlier in the game. The veteran outfielder capped off his impressive holiday weekend at the plate with a go-ahead RBI single through the left side that gave the Cardinals the lead and thrust them to the top of the NL Central standings. When Trevor Rosenthal struck out Gaby Sanchez for the final out in the ninth, it marked the first time since April 4th that the Brewers have not held at least a share of the division lead.
Meanwhile, the Pirates continue to lurk behind the Cardinals and Brewers in the National League Central picture. Coming off series wins against St. Louis and Milwaukee, Pittsburgh looked to slay a third division foe when they entered their weekend series against a scuffling Cincinnati squad.
As has been the case for much of the second half, Josh Harrison stuffed the stat sheet and played the role of human highlight reel during Friday’s series opener. Edinson Volquez was dealing for the Buccos and had a no-hitter going through six innings with help from Harrison’s stellar glove work at the hot corner.
Todd Frazier led off the fourth inning with a grounder into the 5.5 hole, but Harrison ranged to his left to make a great diving stop and throw the Cincinnati slugger out at first.
With Mike Leake also keeping the Pirates off the board, the Reds looked to take the lead in the sixth after Billy Hamilton drew a one-out walk and advanced to third base after a steal and a throwing error by Devin Mesoraco. Frazier struck out for the second out and Brandon Phillips followed with a hot shot to third base, but Harrison was there to keep Volquez’s no-no and shutout intact with a nice backhand snag. Mesoraco broke up the no-hit bid with a single through the teeth of the shift to lead off the seventh and Jay Bruce followed with an infield single. Up next was Kristopher Negron, who hit a sharp grounder down the third base line but ...
... Harrison robbed the Reds of yet another hit, this time reaching out to touch the third base bag with his bare hand while sprawled out on the ground, then popping back up and throwing to first to complete the double play. Volquez got out of the inning unscathed.
That wasn’t the case the following inning, as Cincinnati pushed across the first run of the game. However, the damage could have been worse if not for a heads-up play by Harrison.
Tony Watson came on to relieve Volquez after the hurler put two runners on with two outs. Mesoraco laced Watson’s 1-2 offering into left center for an RBI single, but Brandon Phillips advanced from first to third after Starling Marte fumbled the ball. To make matters worse, Marte bounced his throw back into the infield and Jordy Mercer was unable to corral it. Phillips broke for home as the ball skipped along the edge of the outfield grass, but Harrison was there to gun down the Reds second baseman at the plate to keep the deficit at one run.
To that point, Harrison had bailed out his pitchers with an assortment of excellent plays in the field. In the bottom of the eighth, he picked his club up with the bat as he tacked on his third hit of the day. Andrew Lambo reached on a one-out infield single against Jonathan Broxton—making his final appearance before being shipped out to Milwaukee on Sunday—and up stepped Harrison:
Broxton’s first-pitch fastball to Harrison was right down Broadway, and the Pittsburgh spark plug drilled it off the right-field wall. Bruce misread the carom, which allowed Lamb to score from first and Harrison to motor all the way to third for the game-tying triple. Jose Tabata plated Harrison moments later with a chopper through Cincinnati’s drawn-in infield to give the Pirates the 2-1 lead, which Mark Melancon preserved with a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
The Pirates didn’t record a hit after the second inning of the middle match of the series, but a three-run blast in the first inning by Neil Walker was all the offense necessary. Vance Worley spun 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball with Justin Wilson, Watson, and Melancon retiring the final eight Reds to close out the 3-2 win.
Harrison was back at it in the series finale, leading off the Sunday matinee with a solo home run off Johnny Cueto, which prompted a resounding “Cue-to” chant from the Pittsburgh crowd, reminiscent of last year’s Wild Card game. Harrison’s big weekend was symbolic of his hot second half: He’s the proud owner of a .960 OPS since the All-Star break and ranks 18th among position players in WARP this season despite 45 fewer plate appearances than anyone in the top 20 not named Paul Goldschmidt.
Mercer added a solo blast of his own in the second inning off Cueto, but the Cincinnati right-hander would bear down and shut out the Pirates over the next six innings. Chris Heisey evened the score with a two-run shot off Francisco Liriano in the fifth and then went yard for a second time in the ninth, this one a game-winning blast to help the Reds avoid the sweep. The Pirates get two more chances to directly cut into St. Louis’ three-game lead on them in the Central before drawing a favorable 13-game stretch against the Cubs (6), Phillies (4), and Red Sox (3).
There hasn’t been too much for the Phillies to celebrate this season, but they finally had a reason to pop champagne on Monday after four pitchers teamed up to complete baseball’s fourth no-hitter this season.
Cole Hamels hadn’t allowed a hit through six innings against the Braves, but the left-hander’s quest for his first no-hitter was cut short after needing 108 pitches to get the first 18 outs. The nine-year veteran had his fastball working against the free-swinging Atlanta squad, expanding the top of the strike zone and generating 12 swing-and-misses with his heater.
Hamels struggled out of the gate with his control, walking the first two batters of the game and needing 24 pitches to get through the first inning. Hamels buckled down to retire 11 of the last 12 batters he faced, but he had trouble getting ahead in the count early and ended up issuing five free passes (and plunking Phil Gosselin in the second inning). On pace to eclipse 160 pitches, Hamels didn’t fight Ryne Sandberg’s decision to pinch-hit for him in the top of the seventh.
With a 5-0 lead, Hamels gave way to Jake Diekman, who claimed that he was unaware that he had entered the game in the midst of a no-hitter. The former 30th-round pick fanned Andrelton Simmons and Gerald Laird before picking up a first-pitch groundout to preserve the no-no.
Next up for the Phillies was hard-throwing setup man Ken Giles. The rookie right-hander struck out all three batters he faced and, in the process, raised his strikeout-per-nine rate north of 13 batters. All that was left for the Phillies to etch the game into the record books was for Jonathan Papelbon to pitch a clean ninth inning. The Braves put three balls into play against Papelbon, but all three found their way into mitts of Phillies defenders and the visitors joined together on the mound to celebrate the 12th no-hitter in franchise history.
Behind the dish for Monday’s no-hitter was Carlos Ruiz, who also called the pitches during both of Roy Halladay’s no-hitters. According to Elias, Ruiz is now tied for second place for the most no-hitters caught and trails just Jason Varitek, who caught four no-hitters while in Beantown. Also deserving of a pat on the back is Marlon Byrd, whose diving catch in the third took away the closest thing to a hit that the Braves were able to get.
A date with Felix Hernandez at Safeco Field is typically not the ideal offensive environment. Don’t tell that to the Nationals though, who used the long ball to their advantage against Seattle’s ace on Friday, a theme that continued throughout the weekend for the National League East leaders.
Anthony Rendon got things going in the bottom of the first by crushing a rare meatball from Hernandez into the left-center stands for a solo tater. In the third, Jayson Werth belted a slider to practically the same spot as Rendon’s home run, which gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead.
Leading off the fourth inning, Ian Desmond fell into an 0-2 hole against Hernandez, a scenario in which most hitters don’t find success against the Mariners ace. However, Desmond turned in an impressive at bat, fouling off five pitches and laying off two offerings out of the zone. On the 10th pitch of the at bat, the Washington shortstop finally got something good to hit and clubbed Hernandez’ fastball over the fence.
Wilson Ramos belted a solo blast two batters later to extend Washington’s lead to 5-2 and hand Hernandez the first four-homer game of his career.
Bryce Harper joined the party with a bomb to straightaway center in the eighth off Joe Beimel and, moments later, Ramos teed off for a second time to go back-to-back with Harper. The six home runs were more than enough support for Jordan Zimmermann, who struck out eight and walked one over six innings of two-run ball.
The Nationals took Saturday’s game by a final of 3-1, keyed by a first-inning two-run blast by Werth. Washington ended up dropping the series finale to Seattle, but Harper continued to heat up on the brink of September by clobbering a pair of moonshots off Hisashi Iwakuma.
Washington’s home run barrage played no favorites as they shifted to Los Angeles to take on the Dodgers Monday night. Roberto Hernandez fell victim to four home runs, including a pair of blasts off the bat of Denard Span. It was just the second time that the light-hitting outfielder has gone deep multiple times in a game, with the other instance taking place six years ago during his rookie season with the Twins.
Defensive shifts have picked up steam across baseball over the past few seasons, but Friday night’s game between the Dodgers and Padres featured an infield alignment that took shifting to a new extreme. Five-man infields are nothing new in a do-or-die situation, but the Dodgers combined the five-man infield and the full overshift in the 12th inning of Friday’s game and came up with the following infield alignment.
Your cast of Dodgers from first base to second base: Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, Dee Gordon, Miguel Rojas.
This isn’t the first time a team has aligned four infielders to the right of second base, as the Cardinals employed a four-infielder shift against Lucas Duda earlier this season and the Royals have done the same against David Ortiz. But with the infield in and all four fielders bunched together, there was practically no way that Seth Smith was going to pull a base hit through the right side of the infield. There are arguably diminishing returns to clustering four fielders closer than ever before, but Smith’s extreme pull tendencies and the difficult nature of situational hitting gave the Dodgers ample reason to take shifting to new heights. (It's also worth noting that Justin Turner stayed home at third base to not only keep Alexi Amarista close at third, but to take away the option of a possible walk-off bunt against the shift!)
The shift ended up paying off for the Dodgers, as Smith grounded Kevin Correia’s second pitch right into the defense. Dee Gordon fielded the grounder cleanly, but lost the opportunity to get an inning-ending double play by bouncing the throw home, which required a nice scoop by A.J. Ellis to simply get the force at home.
Gordon’s poor throw ended up costing the Dodgers moments later when Yasmani Grandal singled to right field to send the Padres home walk-off winners.
The Defensive Play of the Weekend
The Brewers ended up tallying a leadoff hit the next inning, but at the time, Brandon Crawford’s outstanding dive and glove flip to start an inning-ending double play preserved Jake Peavy’s no-hitter.
What to Watch on Tuesday
Jose Bautista absolutely tore the cover off the baseball over the weekend against the Yankees, crushing a home run in each game of the series to extend his streak to five straight games with a homer. Bautista sits just one blast shy of his third career 30–home run season and will try to reach that mark and keep his streak going at the Trop on Tuesday. Jeremy Hellickson will try to avoid joining Alex Wilson, Joe Kelly, Chris Capuano, Michael Pineda, and Brandon McCarthy as Bautista’s latest victims (7:10 p.m. EST).
The Rangers’ season to forget hit its first snag in early January when Derek Holland required microfracture knee surgery to repair his left knee, which the 27-year-old injured in a fall at his home. Nearly nine months after his surgery, Holland will make his return to a big-league mound in Kansas City, where he’ll square off against Jeremy Guthrie. It’s been a lost season for Texas, but an encouraging step for the club would be for Holland, who is under contract for the next two seasons (plus two club options), to end the final month of the season on a high note (8:10 p.m. EST).
Those of you looking for the pitching duel of the night will have to stay up late, but you’ll get that plus your weekly Clayton Kershaw fix when the Dodgers take on the Nationals. Don Mattingly’s club will take their hacks against Doug Fister, while Harper and the Nationals will try keep their hot hitting alive against baseball’s premier hurler (10:10 p.m. EST).
Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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