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September 25, 2014

What You Need to Know

September 25, 2014

by Chris Mosch

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The Wednesday Takeaway

The focus of yesterday’s matinee tilt between the Tigers and White Sox was supposed to be on a marquee pitching matchup between one of baseball’s top young hurlers and a former Cy Young Award winner trying to pitch his club one step closer to a division title. Chris Sale and Justin Verlander each played their part on the mound in making the pitching duel live up to the highest expectations, but accusations of sign stealing and a hit by pitch that cleared the benches ended up overshadowing a critical win for the Tigers.

We start up in a scoreless tie during the third inning, with two on, two outs and Sale down 2-1 in the count against Victor Martinez. Sale takes not one, not two, but three different looks behind him, out toward center field before calling his battery-mate, Tyler Flowers, out to have a talk.

Sale proceeded to get Martinez to swing through a 96-mph fastball for strike two, foul off a slider, and then blow another 96-mph heater by the Detroit slugger. On his way back to the dugout, Sale turned back towards the field and raised his cap out to center field before making another gesture in the same direction.

Sale continued to keep the Tigers off the board during the next two innings, but the CSN Chicago cameras also caught Sale peering back into the outfield no fewer than four more times during those two innings on the mound. When the White Sox were taking their hacks in the top of the sixth, Sale could be seen talking to a teammate and continuing to look back out towards the field. With the White Sox now holding a 1-0 lead, Sale fanned Miguel Cabrera to start the last of the sixth, which brought Martinez back up to the plate. Sale’s first pitch—a 94-mph heater—drilled Martinez square in the shoulder, and after some words were exchanged, the benches cleared.

The most notable exchange between Sale and Martinez was caught clearly on camera, when the South Side hurler pointed back out towards center field and appeared to say, “That’s your boy out there, huh?

As MLB Network’s Al Leiter pointed out during a segment on MLB Tonight, prior to the controversial pitch, White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers cycled through multiple signals despite Detroit having no runners on base. With nobody on base, Flowers had flashed just one signal during Martinez’ at bat in the first inning and did so again earlier in the sixth inning with Miguel Cabrera at bat. This seems to further the case that Sale was worried about Martinez stealing or being relayed signals, along with Sale cupping his hands around his eyes, as if he was using binoculars, when talking to his teammates in the dugout the next inning.

The sixth inning was Sale’s last of the day, but he left with the score tied after Martinez had come around to score on a sacrifice fly later in the inning. With Javy Guerra on in relief, Rajai Davis singled with one out in the seventh and Ian Kinsler drove him home shortly after with a double down the left field line. Detroit’s second baseman mocked Sale’s binoculars gesture after arriving at second base, while his teammates responded by doing the same.

Kinsler came around to score later in the frame to give Justin Verlander a two-run cushion, and the Tigers busted the game wide open in the eighth inning with a three-spot. Lost amidst the controversy between Sale and Martinez was how well both starting pitchers performed on the mound. Verlander threw 76 of his 109 pitches for strikes, fanning six and walking zero across eight innings of one-run ball, marking the first time all season that he turned in back-to-back walk-less starts. Meanwhile, if Martinez or any other Detroit hitters were being tipped off to Sale’s pitch selection, it was hardly working; the South Sider struck out 10 batters across six innings and elicited 22 swings-and-misses during the outing.


After the game, Sale shot down the idea that he was accusing the Tigers of stealing signs, claiming that he had been pointing to a fan in center field that had been heckling him during his bullpen warmups. Contrary to Sale’s claim, Martinez told the media after the game that White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia—Martinez’s ex-teammate in Detroit—had told him when the benches cleared that Sale thought someone in the stands had binoculars and was relaying signs to Martinez.

With playoff baseball on Detroit’s horizon, Brad Aumus wisely avoided engaging in any type of beanball war with the White Sox, but he was nonetheless peeved at what had transpired throughout the afternoon. More importantly for the Tigers, they were able to come away with a 6-1 win in a tough matchup against one of the league’s best pitchers, while extending their division league to two games after the Royals dropped their series finale to the Indians in the evening.

Quick Hits from Wednesday

With the division crown within reach and a final chance to sway National League MVP voters, Clayton Kershaw took the hill last night with the opportunity to put the finishing touches on what has been an incredible 2014 campaign. Not only did Kershaw end up providing what we’ve come to expect from him on the mound, but he also helped out his own cause with the bat against the Giants and flashed some leather to help keep his division rivals off the board.

With the game scoreless in the third, the Giants threatened to open up an early lead against Kershaw with runners at second and third with no outs. Kershaw’s counterpart, Tim Hudson, hit a sharp grounder back up the middle, but the Dodgers ace made an incredible behind-the-back snag to stop the runners in their tracks and record the first out.

San Francisco would push across a run later in the inning on a fielder’s choice, but Kershaw was ultimately able to escape the inning only down 1-0. That was the only run the southpaw would allow during the outing, as the Giants were unable to manage much hard contact against Kershaw and came up empty on his breaking pitches all night long.

In the fifth, it was Kershaw’s turn to show what he could do with the bat. With Carl Crawford standing at third base with two outs, Kershaw laced Hudson’s 1-1 offering into the right-center gap and motored around to third base for a stand-up RBI triple—the first three-bagger of his career.

Yasiel Puig’s opposite-field solo blast gave Los Angeles the lead the next inning, and the Dodgers didn’t bother taking their foot off the pedal. Doubles by Matt Kemp and Crawford plus an RBI single by Juan Uribe gave Los Angeles a 5-1 advantage by the end of the sixth, which would be ample cushion with Kershaw dialed in. The 26-year-old struck out 11 over eight innings, with San Francisco’s biggest offensive rally erased before it was able to come to fruition. Gregor Blanco had recorded a one-out single against Kershaw in the seventh, and Matt Duffy followed with a single to center. Blanco tested Puig’s arm by attempting to go first-to-third on the broken-bat bloop hit, but the Cuban outfielder gunned Blanco down to squash the scoring threat.

The Dodgers put the game out of reach with a four-spot in the eighth and turned the ball over to Brian Wilson to get the final three outs. When Darwin Barney made a sliding play in the hole to record the final out of the game, the Dodgers were able to call themselves NL West champions for the second straight season.

***

At first glance, you wouldn’t imagine there would be much at stake during a late-September matchup between the cellar-dwelling Diamondbacks and Twins. However, Minnesota’s Phil Hughes had 500,000 reasons to be invested in his final start of the season on Wednesday, as he needed just 8 1/3 more innings to achieve the half-million-dollar bonus in his contract for reaching the 210-inning mark.

Despite a breakout season beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, Hughes had yet to record an out in the ninth inning this season. However, he appeared well on his way against the Diamondbacks, pounding the strike zone early and often. Hughes needed just 96 pitches to navigate the first eight innings, throwing 76 of his offerings for strikes, walking zero and notching 21 of 30 first-pitch strikes.

With the Twins leading 2-1 heading into the ninth, Hughes looked like a lock to walk away from his final start of the season with his wallet weighing a little heavier. But then, the worst possible scenario for Hughes struck:

A one-hour-and-five-minute rain delay effectively washed away Hughes’ chance at reaching the 210-inning mark, which he admitted he was entirely aware of heading into the start. The Twins could theoretically throw Hughes out for a relief appearance over the weekend to accrue his final out; after all he’s been worth over four wins this season and his $8 million base salary has turned out to be a steal for Minnesota this season.

However, that would also put his MLB single-season record K:BB ratio in peril. After striking out five without walking anyone yesterday, Hughes is now the proud owner of 181 strikeouts and 16 walks (including one intentional walk) this season, which equates to an absurd 11.31 K:BB ratio. If Hughes pitched this weekend and issued a walk without tallying a strikeout, his current mark would dip below Bret Saberhagen’s previous single-season record of 11.00, which he recorded with the Mets in 1994.

***

After a horrendous four-game string of performances from their starting pitchers, the Mariners finally got a quality outing last night from their young phenom, Taijuan Walker. The 22-year-old turned in his best major league outing to date, holding the Blue Jays to just one run on four hits over eight innings and striking out six. However, even Walker’s best efforts couldn’t snap Seattle’s losing streak, as Mark Buehrle outdueled the youngster in a brisk matchup that lasted one hour and 59 minutes.

Buehrle worked the edges of the plate all night long with his fastball and changeup, striking out 10 and issuing just one walk over eight shutout innings. After recording the final out of the sixth inning, Buehrle received a standing ovation from the Toronto faithful for reaching the 200-inning mark for the 14th consecutive season.

Ryan Goins provided the game’s lone run with an RBI single in the eighth inning, and John Gibbons gave Buehrle the opportunity to complete what he had started. However, Chris Taylor led off the ninth with Seattle’s third hit of the night, and Buehrle was lifted in favor of Aaron Sanchez. The Barstow, California, native promptly picked off pinch-runner James Jones at first base, and then retired Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley to close out the 1-0 win.

***

While Sanchez was busy putting the finishing touches on Toronto’s win shortly after 9 p.m. ET, the Red Sox and Rays were plodding their way through a typical slow-paced AL East bout.

Tampa Bay took the lead with a two-run first inning off Anthony Ranaudo and Boston answered against Jake Odorizzi an inning later. Garin Cecchini launched his first career big-league home run off Odorizzi to lead off the second and Boston plated another run later in the inning to even the score.

Odorizzi hit the showers in the fourth after loading the bases to start the inning, but Brandon Gomes allowed all three runners to score plus a few more. Xander Bogaerts ripped a two-run single off the Green Monster to break the 2-2 tie. Daniel Nava broke things open with a two-run double to the deepest part of Fenway Park, landing just beyond the reach of Kevin Kiermaier. Before the inning was over, Gomes uncorked a pair of wild pitches and issued two walks to extend the lead to 7-2.

Boston hung one more crooked number on the board in the sixth, as Kirby Yates and Steven Geltz combined to walk four, hit a batter and give up a double, which resulted in four more runs for the home nine. Tampa Bay added a run in the ninth, but that was far too little too late in an 11-3 loss that lasted three hours and 40 minutes.

***

There was only one man who managed to figure out Kyle Lohse last night. It wasn’t Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, or even Billy Hamilton. Only one Reds hitter was able to reach base against Lohse, who spun a complete-game, two-hit shutout in his final outing of the year, and it was Jack Hannahan.

The 34-year-old journeyman tallied a single against Lohse and another base knock in the fifth, but Milwaukee’s right-hander was otherwise flawless. Lohse attacked the zone with fastballs and sliders and got the Reds to chase his changeup below the knees with his Vulcan changeup.


Cincinnati’s pitching staff didn’t have nearly the night that Lohse did, as Daniel Corcino and four relievers combined to issue ten walks against just four strikeouts during the 5-0 loss. As a staff, the Reds threw just 81 of their 169 total pitches for strikes. One of the few shining moments for Cincinnati last night was when Hamilton made The Defensive Play of the Day to bring back Ryan Braun’s potential home run in the third inning…

…but even that positive takeaway for the Reds took a turn for the worst, as Hamilton’s rookie campaign is likely over after suffering a mild concussion from hitting the wall during the catch.

***

The A’s staged a furious late-inning comeback to try and take yesterday’s rubber match against the Angels, but a pair of costly errors came back to haunt Oakland. Howie Kendrick was the thorn in the side of Jon Lester early on, as the Anaheim second sacker tallied an RBI single in the top of the first and a two-run double in the third to give the visitors a 3-0 lead.

Luis Jimenez led off the fifth against Lester with a double to left, but was able to advance to third when the normally sure-handed Josh Reddick dropped Grant Green’s shallow fly ball to right field. That error directly led to Anaheim’s fourth run, as Jimenez eventually scored on a one-out sacrifice fly.

Oakland conceded another freebie in the seventh, when Gordon Beckham scored all the way from first after Josh Donaldson skipped Colin Cowgill’s bunt single past first base all the way to O.Co’s visitors bullpen in foul territory.

But even down 5-0, the A’s clawed back against reliever Mike Morin. Derek Norris led off the seventh inning with a single and then Morin retired Stephen Vogt for the first out of the inning. Oakland proceeded to go single, double, triple against Morin, which prompted Mike Scioscia to bring in Joe Thatcher to face Coco Crisp.

The southpaw reliever served up an RBI single to reduce the lead to one run, but got Sam Fuld to ground into a fielder’s choice for the second out. Enter Jason Grilli, who walked Josh Donaldson, but buckled down to strike out Adam Dunn to squash the rally. Fernando Salas and Huston Street did the rest to close out the Angels’ 98th win.

***

Jake Arrieta capped off his breakout season with a dominating performance on the hill against the Cardinals and just for good measure, he helped his own cause with his first career triple:

Arrieta’s extra-base knock off John Lackey gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead and proved to be the difference in the game. On the mound, Chicago’s ace spun seven innings of two-hit ball, giving up just one run (unearned) and recording double-digit strikeouts for the fourth time this season. By nearly doubling his slider usage, Arrieta has been able to miss more bats than ever before this year and finishes the season with a 2.25 FIP and over a strikeout per inning.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost a crucial opportunity to distance themselves from the Pirates in the NL Central. With a 1 1/2 game lead over Pittsburgh heading into the final weekend of the season, St. Louis can’t afford any missteps when they travel to Arizona for a three-game series starting on Friday.

Bonus defensive play of the day

Alex Gordon continues to spoil us with yet another outstanding diving snag.

What to Watch on Thursday

While Toronto’s second-half swoon has left their fans feeling blue down the stretch, the promotion of the club’s top young arms has given Jays fans reason for optimism heading into next season. Marcus Stroman has emerged as a starter that Toronto should be able to rely on for years to come and Aaron Sanchez has been a strong option out of the bullpen since being called up in late July. Like Sanchez, Daniel Norris has been used strictly out of the bullpen since joining the big league club, but John Gibbons will reward the 21-year-old with his first major league start on Thursday against the Mariners. Gibbons has already indicated that Thursday will be a bullpen game for Toronto, meaning it’s unlikely that Norris will pitch more than three or four innings, but Toronto fans will still get the chance for a glimpse of the future (4:07 p.m. ET).

It’s not as if it’s been lacking promotion, but just in case you haven’t heard, tonight will be the last time that Derek Jeter will take the field at Yankee Stadium. Jeter’s career will undoubtedly be celebrated throughout the night, but also making an exit after tonight’s game will be the voice of Bob Sheppard. The legendary Yankee Stadium public address announcer of over 57 years passed away in 2010, but his introduction of Jeter has lived on through a pre-recorded introduction that is still played when The Captain steps to the plate during home games. With Jeter riding off into the sunset, so, too, will Sheppard’s memorable introduction: “Now batting for the Yankees, the shortstop, number two: Derek Jeter. Number two” (7:05 p.m. ET).

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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