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September 5, 2014

What You Need to Know

September 5, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway

When an eight-game losing streak sends you tumbling from first place in your division to the brink of the playoff picture, it’s easy to begin feeling helpless. When you hold a lead at the end of only one of your last 56 innings on the diamond, desperation surely starts to set in.

The Brewers, with Carlos Gomez nursing a wrist injury and Ryan Braun away for the birth of his daughter, could not have chosen a less opportune time for their collapse. They welcomed the Cardinals, the team they led less than a week ago but at which they’re now looking up, to Miller Park on Thursday for the opener of a four-game showdown. And their tailspin continued almost immediately.

Five batters into the game, four of whom singled, Ron Roenicke’s team was in a 2-0 hole. The home nine countered with a run in the bottom of the first, on Jonathan Lucroy’s league-leading 47th double, but it still trailed by one. The miserable stretch was at 57 frames and counting.

Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta made it even more difficult to snap in the top of the third, which began strikeout, hit-by-pitch, strikeout, walk. But the effectively wild fun ended when Kolten Wong turned in an RBI single. Peralta proceeded to plunk Xavier Scruggs before striking out Peter Bourjos to end the erratic inning.

Rickie Weeks went yard leading off the sixth to make it 3-2, as that insurance run Peralta coughed up in the third suddenly became critical. With the bases loaded and two away, Logan Schafer flied out, and the frustrations mounted. They grew deeper still in the seventh, when, up with runners at the corners and two away, Lucroy popped up a 2-1 curveball to bail Carlos Martinez out of trouble.

Then, in the eighth, the Cardinals gifted Milwaukee a leadoff baserunner on a throwing error by Scruggs, who was making his major-league debut. Khris Davis singled, and there were two on with nobody out. Hector Gomez pinch-ran for Ramirez. Martin Maldonado pinch-hit for Lyle Overbay, tasked with bunting the tying and go-ahead runners into scoring position. He tried—but his second bunt attempt was caught by the pitcher, Pat Neshek, and the runners stayed put.

Then The Defensive Play of the Day happened, as Peter Bourjos robbed Schafer of what initially looked to be a double that would at least tie the game and perhaps give the Brewers the lead:

Jean Segura lined out to leave both runners aboard. The Brew Crew stranded two more in the ninth when pinch-hitter Jason Rogers flied out to end the game.

The carnage: 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, 11 runners left on base, and the aforementioned lull up to one lead at the end of their last 65 innings.

All of which means the Brewers—who had a share of first place in the Central just five days ago—are now four games behind the Cardinals, who’ve won six straight, and merely tied with the Braves for the second wild card spot. Their playoff odds have gone from cinch to coin flip in the last week, and their odds of winning the division are down to one-in-six.

The Brewers have six more games left versus the Cardinals, three at home this weekend, three in St. Louis on the 16th-18th, at the conclusion of the 11-game homestand that began last night. For most second-place teams whose division crown is still within reach, that might be a blessing. The way things have gone for the Brewers lately, it might be a curse.

Quick Hits from Thursday

Mark Buehrle and Jake Odorizzi plied their crafts in different ways on Thursday. Buehrle kept the ball down and elicited 14 ground-ball outs. Odorizzi let the Blue Jays hit it in the air within the range of his outfielders to the tune of 17 fly outs. The results—eight scoreless innings for the lefty, 7 1/3 for the righty—were virtually the same, and squared altogether by the work of Brad Boxberger.

Jake McGee only permitted one baserunner to hold the line in the top of the ninth. Brett Cecil allowed three but struck out the side to avoid taking the loss. And so it was on to extra innings.

McGee was set to stay in the game for the Rays, but then Jays manager John Gibbons entered pinch-hitter John Mayberry Jr. That prompted Joe Maddon to counter with Steve Geltz, which in turn led Gibbons—armed with an expanded roster—to send Mayberry back to the pine in favor of Colby Rasmus.

Geltz, whose major-league debut came in 2012 with the Angels, was excellent in his first two appearances for the Rays. He’d struck out four in 1 1/3 innings. But there would be no strikeouts in store this time. Instead, there was this:

Rasmus hammered Geltz’s payoff pitch way deep to right, accounting for the only run in the 1-0 affair. It’s the first time the Jays have won a game over the Rays by that final since August 8, 2010, when Brandon Morrow tossed a one-hitter and fanned 17.

***

The Red Sox slugged three homers off their former teammate, Chris Capuano, two by David Ortiz and one by Brock Holt. Those jacks gave them a 4-3 lead heading into the ninth, when Koji Uehara ascended the bump in the Bronx.

Boston’s closer came on in the midst of an uncharacteristic rut. He’d been shelled for 12 hits in his last 4 1/3 innings, walked a batter, hit a batter, and watched his ERA balloon from 1.40 to 2.36. Brian McCann had taken Uehara deep on Tuesday, but his dinger came in garbage time of a 9-4 Red Sox victory in which the right-hander was merely shaking off rust from a long break.

Uehara had no such cushion to work with on Thursday. This mistake to Mark Teixeira, a 2-2 splitter that didn't split, was much costlier:

Tie game. Then, two batters later, Uehara’s heart sank when another splitter didn’t:

Ballgame. Chase Headley’s big fly, his fourth with the Yankees, was the 10th authored at Uehara’s expense this year, his worst gopher-ball total since 2011. It also brought home the 18th earned run scored against the 39-year-old in 2014, the most he’s given up in any year since the Orioles moved him to the bullpen in 2010.

***

Giancarlo Stanton tied Nelson Cruz for the major-league lead by swatting his 36th home run on Wednesday. With the Marlins off last night, Cruz had a chance to pull back ahead. It didn’t take him long:

The first pitch Cruz saw from Mike Leake wound up over the fence, just to the left of the 410 foot marker in center field. That made it 2-0 Orioles.

Then Chris Davis doubled, J.J. Hardy walked, and Kelly Johnson doubled to extend the lead to 3-0. Next up, Nick Hundley:

Make that 6-0. Despite the early hole, the Reds were undeterred.

They got two in the third. Jonathan Schoop got one back with a homer in the last of the fourth, but Cincinnati scored once in the sixth and four times in the seventh to square the game at seven apiece. Sadly for the visitors, all of that good work at the plate was undone moments later by their bullpen.

Manny Parra entered with the task of retiring Nick Markakis, who singled. Alejandro De Aza advanced Markakis into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Then Sam LeCure took over to contend with a string of three righties in four batters. Adam Jones singled. Nelson Cruz walked to load the bases. The only batter LeCure retired was the lone lefty, Chris Davis. The third righty, Hardy, followed with a single that brought Markakis and Jones home with the eventual winning runs.

***

The Angels were on and the A’s were off yesterday, so Mike Scioscia’s club had a chance to pad its American League West division lead back to five games.

Up 4-1 in the sixth, the Halos were all set to do that until Eduardo Nunez got in their way. His game-tying three-run shot served as a call to the Angels bullpen, landing nearby to tell Jason Grilli that he’d better get ready to relieve Hector Santiago.

Fortunately for the Angels, Grilli was ready. He teamed up with Kevin Jepsen and Joe Smith to preserve the 4-4 tie into the ninth. And that’s when the visitors’ offense got its act back together.

David Freese led off with a ground-rule double off Glen Perkins. Pinch-runner Tony Campana scrambled to third on a sacrifice bunt by John McDonald. Chris Iannetta brought Freese in with a sacrifice fly. And the Angels were back up, 5-4.

On came Huston Street to close it out, but not before Danny Santana and Brian Dozier kicked off the last of the ninth with singles to put the closer in a bind. Street got Joe Mauer to hit an unproductive fly ball to left field, which didn’t advance the runners and yielded out no. 1.

Up stepped Kennys Vargas, off to an impressive start in his first taste of the majors with a .319/.340/.511 line in 144 plate appearances heading into Thursday night. With eight doubles and six homers to his name, the 23-year-old was a threat to walk off the Twins with one swing.

Set that aside for a moment and take a look at the pitch plot below:

Street Vargas zone map

There are seven offerings shown, all of them either changeups or sliders, none of them within a few inches of the strike zone. For most big-league hitters, the first four or five would have amounted to a bases-loading walk.

I say four or five, because umpire judgments come into play, and on this particular occasion, plate ump Paul Emmel ruled pitch no. 2 a strike. So, instead of a four-pitch walk, Vargas would have to settle for a five-pitch one. He was up in the count, 3-1, and all he had to do was leave the bat on his shoulder on one of the next three pitches.

Alas, for all of his early thumping, Vargas arrived in the majors as a pure, undisciplined fastball hitter. He’d struck out 37 times and drawn only four walks.

Vargas results and averages by pitch type

All but one of his 14 extra-base hits and all but one of his four bases on balls had come on heaters. So, Street just kept throwing changeups. And, no matter where you throw a changeup, there’s a pretty good chance Vargas is going to swing at it. He did, three straight times, fouling off the middle one between two whiffs that granted Street out no. 2 instead of a bases-loaded, one-out mess.

Eduardo Escobar flied out, and the Angels escaped with the 5-4 win.

***

Trevor Bauer gave up four runs and allowed the Tigers to bat around in the first inning on Thursday.

Ian Kinsler doubled and Tyler Collins singled to put runners at second and third with nobody out. After Miguel Cabrera hit an unproductive comebacker, Bauer intentionally walked Victor Martinez to load the bases, only to uncork a wild pitch that scored Kinsler and eventually walk J.D. Martinez. Nick Castellanos lined out, but two singles and a walk later, it was 4-0 Detroit. Kinsler grounded out to end the frame.

Despite that early calamity, Bauer settled down and pitched 4 1/3 scoreless frames. The Indians bided their time against Max Scherzer before breaking through for one in the fourth, one in the sixth, and two in the seventh to knot it up. Bonus baseball was in store at Progressive Field. In hindsight, the Tribe might’ve preferred to get the game over with sooner.

Josh Tomlin’s 11th inning began smoothly, with a groundout by Andrew Romine. The bad news for the Indians is that Romine would bat again in the frame. The worse news is that, this time, there would be more extra-base hits mixed in.

After notching out no. 1, Tomlin walked Rajai Davis, allowed a single to Kinsler (who took second on the futile throw to third), intentionally walked Ezequiel Carrera, and then foiled his own plan by giving up a two-run single to Suarez. That’s when disaster struck

in the form of a three-run tater by Victor Martinez.

Terry Francona came out to fetch Tomlin in favor of Bryan Price, who promptly drilled J.D. Martinez and gave up a double to Castellanos. Romine atoned for his first at-bat in the inning by driving home a pair with a single in his second, before Davis ended the rally with a fielder’s choice.

By then, it was 11-4 Tigers, and the Tribe went down in order in the bottom half of the inning. Coupled with the Yankees’ and Blue Jays’ wins, the extra-inning rout dropped the Indians into fifth place in the hunt for the second wild card. The Tigers are a half-game up on the Mariners, who blew out the Rangers, heading into the weekend slate.

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday

Here’s a worrisome trend:

Lackey velocity

The pitcher whose velocities you see steadily plummeting in the above Brooks Baseball table is John Lackey, whom the Cardinals acquired in the early days of the tumble. Outside of a five-inning, nine-run mess on August 9th, Lackey hasn’t given general manager John Mozeliak the sort of buyer’s remorse spurred by Justin Masterson, who was so ineffective that Mike Matheny relegated him to the bullpen. The Cardinals are 5-1 behind Lackey, and outside of that drubbing at the hands of the Orioles, the right-hander’s ERA with his new club is 2.43.

Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find five unearned runs lurking in the background, to go with seven gopher balls in just 38 1/3 innings. Opponents are batting .361 and slugging .583 against Lackey’s sinker since the trade; they were hitting .241 and slugging .367 off of it before the deal. And it may be worth noting that while only 84 of the 278 (30.2 percent) sinkers Lackey threw for Boston were terminal pitches in plate appearances, 39 of 100 (39 percent) have been during his first month in St. Louis, suggesting that hitters may be looking for the diminished pitch.

Tonight, Lackey gets the ball in game two of a critical four-game series with the Brewers at Miller Park. He held Ron Roenicke’s club to two runs on seven hits in as many innings on August 3rd, his first start for the Cards. With Lackey’s hard stuff down a couple of ticks since then, it bears watching whether the Brew Crew will employ a fastball-and-sinker-oriented approach to take advantage.

Braun, who’s back from paternity leave, was struggling to catch up to fastballs before taking a few days off for the birth of his daughter. We’ll see if the time off the field—or Lackey’s lagging velocity—helps Braun in his return. Mike Fiers gets the ball for Milwaukee (8:10 p.m. ET).

Saturday

Searching for the weekend’s best on-paper pitching duel? Look no further than the lefty-lefty pairing of Madison Bumgarner and David Price, set for Saturday afternoon at Comerica Park.

The marquee matchup marks the first September assignment for Bumgarner, who’s coming off a terrific August. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning of a one-hit shutout over the Rockies, permitted no more than one run in four of six starts, and racked up a 56-to-3 K:BB ratio, joining Curt Schilling as the only Modern Era pitchers to compile a month with 55-plus Ks and three or fewer walks. Bumgarner scattered five hits over 7 1/3 one-run frames while fanning nine in a win over the Tigers on July 1, 2011, then limited them to two hits in seven innings in Game Two of the 2012 World Series.

Price’s sixth outing in a Detroit uniform was one of his best and most important to date. He got the best of Indians ace Corey Kluber, who labored on Labor Day, with seven innings of one-run work, walking two and striking out eight. Price owns a relatively pedestrian 3.86 ERA since coming over from Tampa Bay, but that comes with a 43-to-9 K:BB ratio in 39 2/3 innings, so there’s reason to believe that better results are in store. The ex-Ray logged nine innings in a fine duel with Tim Lincecum on August 3, 2013, paving the way for an extra-inning win (1:08 p.m. ET).

Sunday

Derek Holland spent the first five months of the season nursing his left knee, on which he underwent microfracture surgery in January. While the Rangers plunged into last place and used a major-league record 38 pitchers in part due to Holland’s absence, the 27-year-old was thrilled to return earlier this week, and he looked as sharp as ever. The Royals can attest to that: Holland held them to a run on six hits in seven innings, recording six punchouts without issuing a walk. Next up: a chance to play spoiler against the Mariners, who’ll send James Paxton to the bump in the series finale at Globe Life Park (3:05 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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