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September 22, 2014

What You Need to Know

September 22, 2014

by Daniel Rathman

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The Weekend Takeaway

From good pitching to timely hitting, questionable bunting to controversial umpiring—and on the heels of the early excitement, a dose of late-inning drama—Saturday’s American League Central battle between the Tigers and Royals had it all.

Max Scherzer held up his end of the bargain in a highly anticipated duel with James Shields, tossing seven innings of one-run ball. The right-hander saved some of his best pitches for the biggest spots. If he hadn’t, the home team’s curious small-ball strategy might have paid off.

After Shields retired the Tigers in order, the Royals’ leadoff man, Alcides Escobar, doubled. The next batter was Norichika Aoki, a red-hot 13-for-16 coming into the game. Recent success notwithstanding, Aoki bunted (on his own) to move Escobar to third.

Up third was Josh Willingham, whose deepest flaw as a hitter was perhaps the one that could most hurt the Royals in this situation. The 35-year-old strikes out about one third of the time versus like-handed pitchers, and he’s particularly susceptible to sliders down and away. It should come as no surprise that Scherzer’s plan was to entice Willingham to go fishing:

The plan worked to perfection, as Willingham whiffed twice on breaking balls darting away from him. Alex Gordon, who’s slumped for much of September, struck out, too, and Scherzer was out of the jam.

Neither team mounted much of a threat until the bottom of the third, when Yost’s speed-clustered lineup, featuring Jarrod Dyson at the bottom and Escobar at the top, yielded precisely the result he sought: two singles, two fast runners, and a chance to raise hell on the basepaths. But Yost, perhaps seeing how well Shields was pitching, or perhaps just married to the idea of manufacturing a run, forwent the opportunity to put on a double steal and gave Aoki the bunt sign. Aoki improved to 2-for-2 in the sac-bunt department, giving Willingham another shot with a man on third and less than two away.

Scherzer’s approach was different this time: He flipped in a curveball over the outer third, potentially with the intent of stealing a strike. Willingham had seen 197 first-pitch curveballs from righties before that at-bat, and he’d only put eight of them into play. There’s a reason for that—namely, that he doesn’t hit them well. On this occasion, though, Willingham offered, but all he got for the trouble was a foul popup that became out no. 2. Gordon struck out again, and for the second time in three innings, Scherzer was home free.

Moments later, the Tigers took the lead:

Torii Hunter’s solo shot broke the scoreless tie, but the edge was short-lived. The Royals got a one-out double from Dyson in the last of the sixth, giving them a man in scoring position—and, as importantly, a situation in which bunting would be imprudent, even by old-school dogma. Escobar knotted the score with an RBI single.

Shields kept the Tigers scoreless in the top of the sixth. Then, in the bottom half, Salvador Perez singled and Eric Hosmer doubled, bringing us to the controversial umpiring segment of this recap.

With runners at second and third, and one out, Omar Infante, a contact hitter much better suited for the situational task, hit into some rotten luck. Infante lined a 2-1 fastball right to second baseman Ian Kinsler, who sidearmed an errant throw to second in a bid to double off Hosmer. The ball rolled diagonally across the infield dirt, well into the 5.5 hole, and by the time Nick Castellanos corralled it, Perez was on his way to score the go-ahead run.

Except…

…since the ball had initially been caught on the fly, at some point, Perez needed to tag up. The above screenshot shows the point at which Perez came closest to third base, and he’s already in the process of changing direction to run home, an ill-timed mental mistake.

So, Perez was doubled off on appeal, and the inning was over, right? Eventually, yes, but hold your horses, because third-base umpire and crew chief Larry Vanover did not see what happened. He ruled Perez safe at first, before Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus begged to differ, on the advice of rookie infielder Hernan Perez, and Vanover tried to initiate a review.

So, the review showed what you saw in the screenshot above, and the call was overturned, right? Eventually, yes, but this play was not subject to replay review, a fact to which Vanover was alerted when he contacted the control center. If the league’s statement is truthful, Vanover’s judgment was not colored in any way by what he heard on the line.

What’s not certain, though, is whether the Kauffman Stadium crew’s decision to show replays of the play on the video board had an impact on the consensus that the umpires ultimately reached. That's not allowed, as Vanover himself told FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal after the game, but however the umpires determined that Perez never tagged up, their discussion yielded the correct call.

Rosenthal called for more transparency in a column written later Saturday afternoon, but as far as the game was concerned, both sides had to move on.

Unfortunately for the Royals, the run they squandered on Perez’s blunder proved costly soon after, as the Tigers scored twice in the top of the seventh on singles by J.D. Martinez, Tyler Collins, and Rajai Davis. Shields helped the rally along with a walk and a wild pitch, and by its conclusion, Detroit led 3-1.

There were more twists in store, though, as Perez atoned for his baserunning miscue with a two-out single in the last of the eighth. Yost promptly replaced the catcher with pinch-runner Lane Adams, a curiously intriguing move, given that the tying run was merely coming to the plate, and because of the earlier mistake. Adams used his speed to move into scoring position on a wild pitch by Joba Chamberlain, who then coughed up a single to Hosmer that drew the Royals to within one. Infante grounded out to end the inning.

Wade Davis did his job in the top of the ninth, giving the Royals a chance to come back off of Joe Nathan. Singles by Dyson and Escobar put them in business with two on and one out, and Aoki coming to the plate. There was no reason to bunt here, so Aoki swung away—though he might as well have bunted, because his groundball to second advanced the runners a base each and brought Nathan to within one out of the save.

Willingham was due up next, and Yost preferred a left-handed hitter, even though Phil Coke was ready in the Tigers bullpen. His choices were Raul Ibanez and Carlos Peguero. The latter is a .192/.238/.376 hitter in 227 major-league plate appearances, so the choice was obvious. Ibanez grabbed a bat and dug in, setting up a battle of greybeards with the game on the line.

Nathan prevailed, getting Ibanez to roll over a 1-0 fastball for a grounder to first that ended one of the most eventful games of the year.

The 3-2 affair clinched the series for the Tigers, who failed, 5-2, in their attempt to sweep the Royals on Sunday. Detroit’s lead is 1 ½ games and its magic number is down to seven, as the Tigers return home to welcome the White Sox and the Royals head to Cleveland to take on the Indians.

Quick Hits from the Weekend

The long-lasting and ultimately season-ending injuries to Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki get the lion’s share of the blame for the Rockies’ post-May 7th blues, and Nolan Arenado’s fragility and myriad rotation maladies have taken their toll, too. But the absence of Michael Cuddyer, who strained his left hamstring early in the year, then returned for two weeks only to head to back to the disabled list with a fractured shoulder socket, then came back for two days only to be sidelined by a right hamstring pull, hasn’t helped either.

Credit Coors Field for breathing life into Cuddyer’s bat in 2013, his second year in Colorado, when he batted .331/.389/.530 with 20 homers, but park-aided or not, the 35-year-old’s contributions to the Rockies lineup were significant. He was on track to deliver a similar—or superior—campaign this year, batting .327/.371/.562 entering play on Friday, squeezing 12 doubles and eight homers into the 175 plate appearances he’d been able to make.

As a reward for fighting through his ailments, in the series opener versus the Diamondbacks, Cuddyer enjoyed one of the finest nights of his big-league career, and saw a first-year third baseman do the same alongside him.

It didn’t start out that way, for Cuddyer—the cleanup hitter in Walt Weiss’ order—who struck out in his first at-bat; or for the Rockies, who trailed 1-0 at the end of three. Cuddyer made another out in the fourth, a line out to right, but Colorado scored three times anyway, with Rafael Ynoa’s first career double highlighting the rally.

Cuddyer’s first contribution came in the fifth inning, when he doubled with two down. Corey Dickerson followed with a walk and Wilin Rosario singled to put the home team up 4-1. The next batter was Ynoa, who smacked a two-run triple and came within a few feet of an inside-the-park home run:

With three RBI to his name, Ynoa was finished driving in runs. Cuddyer had not yet started. And the bad news for the D’backs is that by the end of the night, the former Twin would plate a career-high seven.

He got more than halfway to that total in the sixth inning, when Eury De La Rosa relieved Chase Anderson. A single, a productive groundout, and another single added to Colorado’s lead, before the third single of the frame and a hit batsman loaded the bases for Cuddyer, who cleared them

with a grand slam. The Rockies had scored 11 times in three innings, and they weren’t done.

Joe Paterson helped them out by plunking Charlie Blackmon to begin the eighth, ahead of Cristhian Adames’ first career knock. A walk drawn by Brandon Barnes put three aboard for Cuddyer again. And while he didn’t follow up his first grand slam with another one, he did drive in three:

Cuddyer would ultimately score the Rockies’ 15th and final run on a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson, who stopped at third on Ynoa’s fourth and final hit of the night, another double.

With two career firsts and a night to remember for a veteran, Friday’s 15-2 romp could scarcely have gone better for Weiss’ club. The Rockies extended their winning streak to five games with a 5-1 victory on Saturday, and they made it six in a row with Sunday’s 8-3 decision, in which Cuddyer went 1-for-4 with a seventh-inning big fly.

***

This is a pitch chart of Jose Altuve’s third-inning at-bat against Taijuan Walker on Friday:

Altuve, all 65 inches of him, crouched slightly in the box, hit that pitch, a 95-mph fastball some 53 inches off the ground, for a single.

Before you chastise the Astros second baseman for even daring to swing at something that high, bear in mind that the hit-and-run was on, which left him no choice. When it comes to making the most of a rough situation, this just about takes the cake:

Then again, it wasn’t nearly enough for the Astros to overcome a fourth-inning Seattle onslaught that began with two Houston errors and ended with seven runs on the board. Shortstop Jonathan Villar and first baseman Chris Carter each made one error in advance of this three-run bomb by Mike Zunino:

Kyle Seager launched a three-run jack of his own later in the frame, and the M’s were off and rolling to a 10-5 win.

The Astros took both weekend tilts to secure the series win, 10-1 on Saturday and 8-3 on Sunday. Altuve—who went 2-for-4 in the finale and has notched multiple hits in 10 of his last 11 games—is now batting .345 on the year, well ahead of the pack for the American League batting title.

***

Jerome Williams posted a 6.04 ERA in three months with the Astros and was sent packing. Along the way, he picked up an undeserved win over the Athletics on April 26th for two innings of shoddy relief amid a four-run Houston rally.

The right-hander didn’t go far, in geographic or divisional terms, inking with the Rangers and making his 2014 debut for the club against those very same A’s. This outing, on July 25th, went much better, as Williams turned in six innings of one-run ball and came away with another “W.”

But Williams was shelled for 10 runs on 13 hits in 4 1/3 innings in his subsequent start, and the Rangers told him to hit the road. He went farther this time, all the way to Philadelphia in the National League East. Thanks to the new interleague format, though, Williams would see Bob Melvin’s club once more. And that meant a chance to make major-league history—the sort of history that only consummate journeymen get to make.

Williams and the A’s reunited on Saturday, in the middle match of the series at the Coliseum, and the 32-year-old was on point again. He traded zeros with Drew Pomeranz, Eric O’Flaherty, and Dan Otero for six innings. Then, in the seventh, Williams got a little help in the form of a two-run shot by Freddy Galvis.

He returned to post a shutdown frame after the stretch, then watched the Phillies tack on one more in the top of the eighth on an RBI single by Marlon Byrd. All that stood between Williams and history now were two bullpen innings sans the suspended Jonathan Papelbon.

Antonio Bastardo got through the first, setting the stage for Ken Giles to notch his first big-league save. He did, with a clean, 10-pitch inning. And now Williams, who has just six wins on the season, boasts three of them at the expense of the wilting green and gold.

The A’s came alive offensively right off the bat on Sunday, countering a first-inning Philly run with three of their own. The Phillies scored twice in the third, but the A’s went back ahead with one in the bottom half. Two A’s runs in the fifth barely lasted 10 minutes, as the Phillies got them right back in the top of the sixth. Six-all, and six-all it stayed until extras, when…

Josh Donaldson brought a frustrated crowd some much-needed relief with a two-run walkoff shot. The third baseman’s heroics put Oakland back in the driver’s seat for the top wild card seed, with a half-game lead over Kansas City. The Mariners are 1 ½ back in their bid to knock off one of the two current favorites.

***

For a while, it seemed that Adrian Gonzalez’s early yardwork would be the story of Saturday’s contest between the Dodgers and Cubs. The first baseman cranked a two-runner in the first and a three-runner in the third, both off of his former Red Sox teammate Felix Doubront, to put the Dodgers ahead 6-3 after three. It was the first time that Gonzalez had parked two southpaw pitches in the seats in one game since September 25th, 2010, when—with some assistance from the thin air at Coors Field—he went deep off of Jorge De La Rosa and Joe Beimel.

The 32-year-old first baseman’s second-half renaissance was going to be the focus of this Quick Hit. But then the Dodgers bullpen flipped the script.

Roberto Hernandez, who got the start on Saturday, deserves some of the blame for the disaster that ensued, because he needed 88 pitches to finish four innings despite working with a big lead. But with an expanded bullpen giving Don Mattingly a wealth of options, the short start should not have undone the visitors, who scored six times before Hernandez departed.

Paco Rodriguez got through the fifth unscathed, and Pedro Baez bailed out fellow rookie Daniel Cuolombe, who issued two walks without recording an out, to post a goose egg in the sixth. At that point, it was time for the setup cogs to pave the way to closer Kenley Jansen.

J.P. Howell had been outstanding at that. He’d tossed 47 innings without serving up a homer. And he’d fanned a batter per inning while permitting only eight earned runs along the way.

But Howell didn’t have it on Saturday. Handing a leadoff walk to Chris Coghlan, who’d homered earlier in the game, was a cardinal sin with a five-run lead, and with one out, Coghlan advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Anthony Rizzo. A single by Mike Olt and a fly out by Luis Valbuena put two on with two out for Arismendy Alcantara.

Four pitches later, Howell saw his earned-run total for the year spike 50 percent, and he was gopher-ball free no more.

But the Dodgers still led by one, and Brandon League got out of the inning, putting the narrow margin in the hands of Brian Wilson. Trouble is, Wilson didn’t have it either.

A single by John Baker put the tying run aboard. The Cubs gave Wilson an out for no gain on a Matt Szczur sacrifice bunt gone wrong, which brought Coghlan, 3-for-3 with a walk and a dinger, to the plate. One horribly placed two-strike pitch later, Coghlan had a multi-homer game, and the Dodgers’ lead was gone along with the baseball.

According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Coghlan became the 12th Cub in the last century to bat 1.000 with two-plus homers and a walk in a game with five or more plate appearances. David DeJesus had the last such effort, on August 15th, 2012.

The Cubs held on to win, 8-7, shaking off consecutive Dodgers romps, 8-4 on Thursday and 14-5 on Friday, the latter in spite of a rocky afternoon for Clayton Kershaw, who batted before stepping on the mound. Kershaw endured five innings to become the first pitcher to reach 20 wins this year, as Edwin Jackson and Chicago’s long-relief crew unraveled early and often.

The Dodgers took the fourth and final game of the series on Sunday, 8-5, behind Jamey Wright and the bullpen, with Matt Kemp slugging his 23rd homer.

***

Here are Corey Kluber’s outs by inning on Sunday:

· First: pop out, strikeout, strikeout

· Second: strikeout, strikeout, ground out

· Third: ground out, strikeout, strikeout

· Fourth: strikeout, strikeout, strikeout

· Fifth: ground out, strikeout, strikeout

· Sixth: line out, strikeout, strikeout

· Seventh: fly out, bunt pop out, foul out

· Eighth: strikeout, fly out, pop out

Notice that the first six frames have something in common: Each of them featured two Kluber Ks. The seventh broke the streak at 13 innings, dating back to Kluber’s previous outing, a 14-strikeout showcase over the Astros.

Sunday’s effort at Target Field, an eight-inning, two-run start, also included 14 punchouts. Kluber’s curveball, which yielded 14 strikes in 16 tries, eight of them via the whiff, was an absolute menace to Twins hitters in the series finale. With the hook doing most of the dirty work, the Indians ace became the first pitcher to strike out 14 in back-to-back starts since Randy Johnson did it in 2004.

Also reading “14” was the hits column in the box score for the Tribe, which scored seven times despite going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position and not hitting a home run. The fifth inning was a three-ring circus, starring this goat rodeo by the middle infielders, a couple of unintentional walks, and a run-scoring balk between them.

Cleveland stretched its lead from 2-1 to 5-1 with the wacky rally, and that was all the help Kluber and Nick Hagadone would need to put the Twins away, 7-2. The Indians are way down but not quite out in the wild card race, 3 ½ games shy of the tumbling A’s with the Mariners in between them.

More likely is Kluber’s campaign for AL Cy Young recognition, which was stealthy for a while, but has taken center stage with his recent collection of strikeouts. He now has 258 of them in 227 2/3 innings of work, setting up a final-week battle with Felix Hernandez.

The Defensive Plays of the Weekend

No weekend of baseball is complete without something special from Mike Trout:

***

Enrique Hernandez was an infielder during his days in the Houston farm system, but he’s seen time in the outfield in the majors, and he’s handling it just fine:

***

The Yankees executed one of the weirdest 1-4-3 double plays you’ll ever see:

***

Bryan Shaw didn't want to deal with a man in scoring position in a one-run game, so he teamed up with Jose Ramirez for this gem to retire the lead runner:

What to Watch on Monday

While the standings currently show the margin between the Tigers and Royals at 1 1/2 games, they exclude a suspended game from August 31, in which Kansas City trails, 4-2, heading into the last of the 10th. If the Royals fail to rally in that one, they’ll have to pick up the pieces for a regularly scheduled battle with the Tribe almost immediately after its conclusion. Danny Duffy and Carlos Carrasco are set to square off in the “opener” at Progressive Field, which is slated to begin one hour after the first pitch of the suspended contest, unless the Royals tie it (6:05 p.m. ET; 7:05 p.m. ET).

With the AL West race long over, what once was a highly anticipated final-week showdown between the Angels and Athletics now carries significance only for the home team, as the visitors are merely in town to play spoiler. Jeff Samardzija, who took a complete-game loss in his lone start against the Angels while wearing green and gold, despite permitting only two runs (one earned), can only hope for more run support than the bagel his teammates produced on August 30. Samardzija has fanned nine or more batters and held opponents to two or fewer runs in four of his last five starts, but the A’s are just 1-4 behind him in that span. The right-hander will face off with C.J. Wilson in the opener (10:05 p.m. ET).

The final Giants-Dodgers series of the regular season kicks off this evening in Chavez Ravine, where the hosts are safe with any outcome except getting swept. Up first for the Giants as they try to narrow the gap in the NL West is Jake Peavy, who enters sporting a 1.13 ERA in seven starts dating back to August 13. Dogged by the long ball earlier this season, Peavy has compiled a five-start stretch free of gopher balls, and San Francisco has come out victorious in each of his last four assignments. Los Angeles will counter with Dan Haren. A series win would clinch the West for Mattingly’s squad (10:10 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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