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September 11, 2014

What You Need to Know

September 11, 2014

by Chris Mosch

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The Wednesday Takeaway

With the Tigers and Royals tied atop the American League Central, one of the squads would walk away with sole possession of the division by the end of last night’s series finale. However, the leader would have to be determined nearly an hour later than planned due to the downpour of rain that delayed the start of the game. The sky continued to open up throughout the night and at times led to tough playing conditions, but that didn’t stop James Shields from turning in an outstanding performance for the visitors.

Ian Kinsler led off the home half of the first with a single, but was erased by a stellar pickoff move from Shields. The Kansas City ace went on to retire the next 18 Tigers that stepped to the plate, with only two balls leaving the infield.

Shields zone plot

Shields pounded the lower third of the strike zone and was able to miss bats with his changeup, cutter, and curveball. He threw the three offerings a combined 57 times and elicited a strike 40 times (70.2 percent), including 14 of the swing-and-miss variety. Shields did get some help behind him, as Mike Moustakas made an incredible snag and throw—when the in-game downpour was at its peak—to rob Torii Hunter of a hit in the fourth.

The Royals tallied four singles off Rick Porcello in the top of the fourth to fetch Shields a 2-0 lead. With Shields dealing, that lead appeared to be safe until the seventh inning, when a Hunter single and Miguel Cabrera walk put the tying runs on base with just one out. Victor Martinez flied out to right field for the second out, which brought J.D. Martinez to the plate with the opportunity to do some damage.

The younger Martinez has crushed fastballs this season, but has struggled against sliders and changeups, and has a tendency to chase breaking pitches and off-speed offerings below the knees. With that in mind, Shields attacked the former Astro accordingly.

Shields v. Martinez

Martinez fouled off the first curveball from Shields, then swung through the second breaking pitch, putting him in an 0-2 hole. The next two pitches from Shields were both in the dirt and Martinez was able to lay off. However, Martinez swung through Shields’ 98th and final offering, a 2-2 change, to strand Hunter and Cabrera.

With Greg Holland still nursing a triceps injury, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis teamed up to retire the final six Tigers in order while the Royals tacked on an insurance run in the ninth to earn the 3-0 win and regain sole possession of first place in the division. The two squads will lock horns again next weekend for a three-game set in Kansas City. If the rotations align as planned, the weekend finale will feature a duel between Shields and Detroit ace Max Scherzer.

Quick Hits from Wednesday

For former undrafted free agent Dan Butler, yesterday’s double off the Green Monster was more significant than the typical two-bagger with your team down 8-0 in the sixth inning. First off, the hit wiped away Wei-Yin Chen’s perfect game bid, which lasted 5 and 1/3 innings and eventually resulted in seven innings of stellar one-run ball by the southpaw. Second, Butler’s double was his first hit since being called up to The Show and ended up being one of three hits he recorded.

The 27-year-old rookie was a backup catcher at the University of Arizona and spent the next six seasons in Boston’s minor league system after being passed over in the draft in 2009. He tallied a second double in the eighth inning and capped off his day with a single in the ninth.

The outcome of the game appeared to be a done deal early on, as the Orioles used five singles, a double, two walks, and an error to hang a six-spot on Brandon Workman in the third inning. Caleb Joseph padded the lead in the fifth with a two-run blast off Craig Breslow that just cleared the top of the Green Monster. But even with a 10-1 lead heading into the last of the ninth, Joe Saunders cast just enough doubt on the final outcome to make things interesting.

Xander Boegarts led off with a double and moved over to third when Jackie Bradley Jr., who was pinch-hitting for David Ortiz—presumably to get some extra hacks—grounded out for the first out of the inning. Saunders walked Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig, and then served up a two-run double off the Monster by Daniel Nava. Moments later, minor-league journeyman Carlos Rivero launched his first big-league home run:

Rivero’s blast cut the lead to 10-6 and signaled the end of the day for Saunders, whose disastrous outing drew parallels to the ugliest side of a former Baltimore closer.

Tommy Hunter entered in relief of Saunders, and immediately allowed Butler to reach on an infield single. Jemile Weeks flew out to Alejandro De Aza for the second out of the inning, but new Orioles left fielder Quintin Berry decided to play a game of hot potato and nearly botched the play. Mookie Betts drew a walk to bring the tying run to the on-deck circle, which brought out Buck Showalter to lift Hunter in favor of Darren O’Day. The right-handed submariner got Bogaerts to ground into a fielder’s choice to third to end the game and avoid the possibility of an embarrassing collapse.

***

When it comes to dominating pitches, there aren’t many that can rival Craig Kimbrel’s knuckle curveball. The Atlanta closer has paired the mid-80’s offering with his near-triple-digit heat to post historically gaudy strikeout numbers since his debut in 2010. Entering Wednesday, not one home run had ever been hit off Kimbrel’s curve, while only one extra-base hit had been tallied against it.

Kimbrel pitches

When a pitch gets put it play just nine percent of the time, and 73 percent of those balls in play are hit on the ground, it doesn’t often leave the yard. That streak came to an end in the ninth inning of yesterday’s game against the Nationals, however, off the bat of a 21-year-old who is known to have some pop.

Bryce Harper’s moonshot off Kimbrel was too little too late for the Nationals, however, as the Braves already held a 6-1 advantage behind seven strong innings from Aaron Harang. The 36-year-old veteran scattered six hits across the outing, struck out nine, walked zero and allowed just an unearned run, while the Braves plated three over six innings against Stephen Strasburg and added a trio of insurance runs against reliever Jerry Blevins. With the win, Atlanta avoided being swept by their NL East foes and kept pace with the Pirates and Brewers in the wild card hunt.

***

Off the bat, Jean Segura’s grounder to short in the third inning against the Marlins looked like a routine out. Instead, Adeiny Hechavarria airmailed his throw into the Brewers' dugout and Segura advanced to second base. Still, to this point, there’s nothing too out of the ordinary going on.

However, at first glance, it appeared that Segura missed first base when making a sharp cut towards second following the bad throw.

Naturally, Jared Cosart stepped off the rubber and threw over to first base to appeal the play. But Segura, knowing that he had indeed touched first base ...

... took off for third base on the appeal and slid in safely. Segura was ruled safe and the call was upheld after going to review. He would come around to score one pitch later on a Wily Peralta sacrifice fly, concluding an adventurous trip around the bases for the Milwaukee shortstop.

Peralta spun 6 1/3 quality frames and Matt Clark launched his first career home run as part of a two-run seventh that put the Brewers up 4-1. Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez did the rest to stop the bleeding for the Brewers, who won for just the second time in their last 15 games.

***

Ben Revere often uses his speed to get to balls that few other center fielders are capable of reaching. However, even the swift Phillies center fielder had no chance of getting to Andrew McCutchen’s fly ball in the fifth inning of yesterday’s game. Revere’s severe misjudgment of the ball’s eventual landing spot (colored in red) ...

... led to this:

To make matters worse for Revere, the ball ricocheted off the brick wall and all the way back into center. After seeing the ricochet, McCutchen took off in a dead sprint and wound up crossing the plate standing up for his first career inside-the-park home run, which evened the score at three. Two batters later, Russell Martin gave the Pirates the lead with a more traditional home run off Jerome Williams that cleared the left-center-field wall. Josh Harrison extended Pittsburgh’s lead in the sixth inning with an RBI double and the Pirates plated another insurance run later in the inning on a Starling Marte single.

Vance Worley lasted just five innings for the Buccos, but the Pittsburgh bullpen was flawless, as Bobby LaFromboise, John Holdzkom, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon combined to retire the final 12 Phillies in order and lock down the win. Coupled with St. Louis’ 4-2 loss to the Reds, the Pirates cut the Redbirds’ lead in the Central to 3 1/2 games, while maintaining their own 1 1/2–game lead over the Brewers and Braves in the wild card standings.

***

Yesterday marked the first time since August 26th that Terry Collins penciled Eric Young Jr.’s name into the Mets' starting lineup. The speedy outfielder wasted little time rewarding his skipper for the decision, getting the Amazin's on the board in the second inning against the Rockies with the first of his three hits on the day:

Drew Stubbs was unable to corral EY’s base knock into the right-center gap, and the speedy outfielder motored around into third base for an RBI triple. That would be all the run support Rafael Montero and the Mets bullpen needed, as the 23-year-old took a no-hitter into the fifth and got 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief behind him to clinch his first career win. Juan Lagares added a sacrifice fly for insurance in the seventh and the Mets completed back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2012.

With a sweep of the Rockies and wins in nine of their last 12 games, the Mets sit 5 1/2 games back in the wild card race. That deficit isn’t impossible to overcome, but our playoff odds still peg the Mets with less than a one percent chance to claim the final wild card spot. With David Wright shut down for the year and four teams ahead of them, this final push is likely too little too late, but a 10-6 record the rest of the way would give them their first .500 season since 2008.

Defensive Play of the Day

Despite Donaldson’s acrobatic diving catch and seven shutout innings from Jeff Samardzija, Oakland continued its free-fall with another blown lead by its bullpen. Adam Dunn’s RBI single in the fourth gave Oakland a 1-0 advantage, but the White Sox rallied for a pair of runs against Luke Gregerson in the eighth. After dropping last night’s game by a 2-1 final, Oakland’s last six losses have been of the one-run variety. Sean Doolittle’s return from the disabled list can’t get here soon enough for Oakland.

What to Watch on Thursday

Just two-thirds of the teams across the league are scheduled to take the field on Thursday, but those in need of their pitching fix won't be disappointed with the match-ups on tap. The evening features a handful of stellar pitching duels highlighted by Alex Cobb versus Michael Pineda (7:05 p.m. EST), Tanner Roark versus Bartolo Colon (7:10 p.m. EST), and Nathan Eovaldi versus Michael Fiers (8:10 p.m. EST), but a collection of enticing matinee games should keep you busy during the day.

Start the afternoon off with a dose of Corey Kluber, who shook off his shortest game of the season—a five-run outing against the Tigers in which he hit the showers by the end of the third—with a 104-pitch, complete game last weekend against the White Sox. Cleveland’s ace will look to follow up that performance in the first game of a doubleheader at Progressive Field against the Twins, who will counter with Kyle Gibson in the matinee (12:05 p.m. EST). Ricky Nolasco will take the hill opposite T.J. House in the second game, which is scheduled to begin roughly 30 minutes after the early game’s conclusion.

Approximately half an hour after Kluber delivers his first pitch, Lance Lynn and Johnny Cueto will square off in a National League Central duel. Cueto has been one of the few bright spots for a sinking Cincinnati squad during their recent plunge, and if not for some guy named Kershaw, Cueto may very well have been on his way to claiming his first Cy Young award. The hurler already boasts a deep repertoire that he’s used to handcuff hitters throughout the season, but during his latest outing against the Mets, he unveiled his newest trick:

Maybe Cueto’s version of the eephus was just a one-time thing. The opposing pitcher, Dillon Gee, was up to bat, so there was less risk built in for the Reds' righty if things started to go awry. On the other hand, his teammate, Alfredo Simon, has been known to lob one in every now and then, so perhaps this could turn into Greinke-Wolf 2.0. At the very least, it’s an interesting wrinkle to keep an eye on in the midst of what should be a fantastic pitching duel (12:35 p.m. EST).

Another excellent pitching duel has the potential to take place on the South Side of Chicago, but judging by how Scott Kazmir’s past few starts have gone, whether or not we’ll get one remains unclear. Since the calendar flipped to August, Kazmir’s comeback season has hit a major rut, as the left-hander owns a 7.18 ERA and .779 opponents’ OPS over his last seven starts. A good chunk of that damage came in two starts against the Angels, when the AL West leaders teed off against Kazmir for 13 total runs, but his shakiness was still present in his last start against Houston, when he walked five and allowed three runs across 6 1/3 innings. He’ll need to turn in a better effort on Thursday if he wants to keep pace with his southpaw counterpart, Chris Sale (2:10 p.m. EST).

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

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