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April 9, 2015

What You Need to Know

Yo, Adrian

by Daniel Rathman

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The Wednesday Takeaway

Adrian Gonzalez had a single, a double, and a home run on Monday. He had another single, another double, and another home run on Tuesday. Three more hits on Wednesday would put him in rarefied air.

No National Leaguer had begun a season with a troika of three-hit games since Orlando Cepeda did it for the Giants in 1963. But Gonzalez wasn’t satisfied with Cepeda’s company. He wanted the presidential suite to himself.

So instead of just booking three more hits, or finishing a triple shy of the cycle for the third straight day, the Dodgers first baseman set his sights on a feat no one had ever accomplished: five homers through three games.

Standing in the way was the Padres’ Andrew Cashner, no pushover in the gopher-ball department. Cashner served up only seven long balls in 123 1/3 innings last year, and just 12 in 175 frames the year before. The 2015 Dodgers had logged a combined 119 major-league plate appearances against the Friars’ starter, and Gonzalez owned their lone home run.

That bomb wasn’t exactly ancient history. It came seven months ago, on September 9th, 2014, the product of a sinker aimed down-and-in that clipped too much of the plate.

Errant heaters spelled trouble again last night. Cashner earned a 1-2 count advantage over Gonzalez with nobody on and two away, but missed well above Derek Norris' down-and-in target.

Cashner and Gonzalez next matched wits to begin the bottom of the third. This time, Gonzalez jumped ahead in the count, 1-0. The count was different, but the pitch selection was the same: Norris wanted another hard one, down and in. This offering was a bit slower—94 instead of 97—but the salient details were the same. Cashner missed his target up, and Gonzalez made him pay:

Fast forward to the fifth. Nobody on, nobody out, and a 1-0 count. Sound familiar? It should. Only this time, Norris thought better of the Padres’ original recipe for retiring Gonzalez and decided to set up away. No matter. Cashner’s sinker ventured right back over the middle-in section of the plate, and Gonzalez sent it on its way:

The first baseman’s third blast of the night made it 6-2 Dodgers, but the home club wasn’t quite home free. It’s a good thing for Don Mattingly’s squad that Gonzalez had history on his mind, because Brandon McCarthy’s first impression on the fans at Chavez Ravine didn’t quite go as planned.

McCarthy exhibited his customary control, compiling a K:BB ratio of 9-to-1, but his command wavered, and the revamped Padres lineup took advantage. The right-hander had already allowed a homer to Justin Upton and a double to Yangervis Solarte when he took the mound for the sixth, and that extra-base-hit total would spike before Mattingly could ready a reliever. Will Middlebrooks smacked his first dinger since coming to San Diego, and Yonder Alonso and Solarte followed with two-baggers. It took the best efforts of Paco Rodriguez and Pedro Baez to protect the 6-4 lead.

But while the visitors solved McCarthy, they couldn’t solve Gonzalez, who was done homering but not yet finished hitting. He returned to the box in the sixth, facing left-hander Frank Garces, and worked the count into his favor, 3-1. Garces didn't tempt fate with a challenge fastball, but his get-me-over breaker wasn’t good enough:

That RBI single made it 7-4, the eventual final score. Gonzalez was in the on-deck circle when Yasiel Puig flied out to end the eighth, and closer du jour Joel Peralta chose the win over another at-bat.

Quick Hits from Wednesday

Yesterday wasn’t a great day for baseball in Detroit, with the temperature skirting 40 degrees and little in the way of sunshine. Unfortunately for the Twins, an afternoon meeting with the Tigers was on the schedule, and the weather gods kept the rain away.

The news was bleak enough for Minnesota heading into the last of the fourth, following a three-spot by Detroit in the third, because scoring was something the visitors had yet to do 13 frames into 2015. Then, things took a turn for the embarrassing.

Nolasco began the inning by issuing a leadoff walk to Alex Avila, creating a jam that grew tighter when Jose Iglesias picked up an infield single, the softest of the Tigers shortstop’s four hits in the contest. The next batter, Anthony Gose, lined a ball into the right-center gap—a sure double, considering Gose’s speed, that became a triple because the Twins employ a 39-year-old right fielder:

That was all for Nolasco, as first-year skipper Paul Molitor handed the ball to Tim Stauffer, who jumped ahead of Ian Kinsler, 0-2. Trouble is, the 0-2 pitch was a hanging curveball that Kinsler drilled into left center. Given Kinsler’s wheels, this, too, was likely to become a double even if Jordan Schafer corralled it cleanly. But Schafer, who, unlike Torii Hunter, cannot blame poor outfielding on quadragenarian knees, did anything but corral it cleanly:

Kinsler took third on the error, but—in a welcome dose of good news for the Twins—he was stuck there with two away, following a ground out by Miguel Cabrera, an intentional walk issued to Victor Martinez, and a line out by J.D. Martinez. All Stauffer had to do was get Yoenis Cespedes out, which he did, by inducing a grounder to second. But first:

And, with that, the score was 7-0 Tigers. They’d touch the plate four more times while holding the Twins off the board for the second straight day.

The 11-0 romp marked the first time the Tigers have ever blanked an opponent in each of their first two games. Conversely, the Twins joined the 1977 expansion Mariners as the only American League clubs who’ve failed to score in their opening pair of contests in the designated hitter era.

***

The only other matinee on the Wednesday slate was much tidier. Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn provided a nice respite for those in the workday MLB.TV crowd who couldn’t bear to watch the events transpiring in Detroit.

Arrieta has made a living out of flummoxing the Redbirds: In five career outings against St. Louis entering yesterday’s game, he’d limited them to no more than two runs and fanned at least a batter per inning each time. And, despite two first-inning walks and a third-inning single by Lynn, the right-hander’s 2015 debut was no different than those prior meetings.

The Cards were okay with that, though, because Lynn had the Cubs locked down for most of the afternoon, too. But all of that changed after the seventh-inning stretch.

After six excellent frames, Lynn finally slipped up. He drilled Anthony Rizzo to begin the bottom half of the inning, then threw away a pickoff attempt, allowing Rizzo to advance into scoring position. Starlin Castro cashed in the mistake with an RBI single, putting the Cubs on top and sending Lynn to the showers. Two sacrifices—a bunt by Chris Coghlan and a fly by Miguel Montero—made it 2-0 Chicago.

And that was all she wrote for the Cardinals, who had no more luck against the reliver parade of Phil Coke, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon than they did while Arrieta was on the bump. The Cubs’ starter now lays claim to this incredible résumé when facing their bitter rivals

after picking up where he left off in a breakout 2014.

***

While the Red Sox splurged on Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval this past offseason, and did so again to retain Rick Porcello for four more years on Tuesday, the Phillies scoured the scrap heap for retreads like Jeff Francoeur and Aaron Harang. At least for one night, Ruben Amaro Jr. got a whole lot more bang for his buck than Ben Cherington did.

Porcello and Harang were neck-and-neck for five-and-a-half innings in their respective debuts, and the Boston righty was on his way to a sixth goose egg when he fanned Ryan Howard to kick off the last of the sixth. But then Darin Ruf drew a walk and Cody Asche singled, putting Porcello in a bind. And while Francoeur might not be the hitter he once was, he can still punish a mistake:

That three-run jack gave Harang a 3-0 lead, which he carried through three more batters. The 36-year-old finished with just two hits and a walk on his line after 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight on 105 pitches, 70 of them strikes. Jeanmar Gomez came on in relief and navigated the two-on, one-out jam when a base-running blunder by Dustin Pedroia turned a Mike Napoli liner into a double play.

With Porcello done, John Farrell turned to Robbie Ross Jr., who started his Boston career by coaxing a bouncer to third off the bat of Ben Revere. Pablo Sandoval fielded it, but with the speedy Revere bolting down the line, he short-hopped Napoli and turned an out into a three-base error. Two batters later, a sac fly by Chase Utley gave the Phillies their fourth run of the evening. It also left Ross with this quirky line: 1 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, only nine pitchers in major-league history had produced that output, and only Dustin McGowan had done it since 2002.

The Sandoval-aided insurance tally nearly became critical, because Ken Giles scuffled in the eighth. An error by Ruf followed by a walk and a single got Boston on the board, and a pair of two-out free passes later, the deficit was half gone. But the Red Sox would get no closer, as old friend Jonathan Papelbon came to Giles’ rescue and got his former teammate, Ramirez, to strand the bases loaded with a fly ball to left.

Philadelphia’s 4-2 victory squared the series at one game apiece. Justin Masterson and David Buchanan are due to go in the rubber match tonight.

***

What’s a good way to inspire confidence after signing a multi-year extension? Ten strikeouts over 6 1/3 scoreless innings will do.

Carlos Carrasco—$22 million, risk-averting deal in hand—toed the rubber in Houston and mowed down the Astros, much like he dominated the opposition down the stretch last year. The 28-year-old racked up a 78-to-11 K:BB ratio over 69 innings after moving to the rotation on August 10th, en route to a 1.30 ERA. Somehow, the Tribe only went 5-5 behind those 10 starts.

But that’s a story for another day. There would be no such late-inning implosion at Minute Maid, where the Tribe held a 1-0 edge when Carrasco departed.

Houston skipper A.J. Hinch trotted out a relatively balanced lineup—five righties, two lefties, and two switch-hitters batting left. No matter the handedness of the batter in the box, Carrasco had a simple plan:


He pounded the left half of the plate (from the catcher’s perspective), going inside to righties and outside to lefties to get ahead in the count. Then, he spun his breaking stuff past the lower-right corner to collect a handful of whiffs. Location mistakes were few and far between.

In other words, Carrasco displayed the sort of maturity the Tribe patiently awaited, through bean balls and erratic performance, until he finally emerged as a force last summer. The only question now is whether he can sustain it over a 30-start load.

The Defensive Play of the Day

You know you’ve made a nice play when the other team’s Twitter account gives you a tip of the cap:

Take it away, Khris Davis:

That gem helped to keep the Brewers within striking distance despite long balls by Corey Dickerson and Carlos Gonzalez, setting up a ninth-inning rally that culminated with RBI singles by Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez. But the visitors had another run in the hopper, on a bomb by Wilin Rosario in the 10th, and the Brew Crew had no answer. Old mate John Axford nailed down the 5-4 Rox win with a save in his former home yard.

What to Watch on Thursday

The wait is over, Mets fans: Matt Harvey returns this afternoon for the series finale at Nationals Park. Now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, the right-hander shredded opposing lineups in the Grapefruit League, amassing a 21-to-1 K:BB ratio over 22 2/3 innings of 1.19 ERA ball. Harvey will look to carry that over into games that count, kicking off his 2015 with a tantalizing matchup against fellow UCL-replacement survivor Stephen Strasburg. Come for the high-90s gas, stay for the razor-sharp secondary stuff in what promises to be the duel of the day (1:05 p.m. ET).

***

An eighth-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2013, Kendall Graveman rocketed up the minor-league chain to earn a cup of coffee at the tail end of last season. The 24-year-old sufficiently intrigued the Athletics for GM Billy Beane to demand his inclusion in the return package for Josh Donaldson. Now, the fans at O.co Coliseum will get their first look at the Mississippi State University product, whose first big-league starting assignment comes against Rangers righty Nick Martinez. Expect a high volume of cutters from Graveman this afternoon, as the right-hander unfurls a pitch that he learned by accident at High-A Dunedin and rode all the way to The Show.

The A’s offense, meanwhile, will aim to solve a pitcher who padded hitting stats around the league last year yet somehow stymied the majors’ sixth-best club by TAv. Big-league opponents collectively batted .275/.342/.453 against Martinez in his rookie campaign, clubbing 18 homers in 610 plate appearances, and those numbers would have been even better sans the Athletics’ dinger-less, .203/.286/.324 output across four games. The lone member of the Rangers’ Opening Day 2014 rotation to hold a spot in the 2015 starting five, Martinez will try to sustain his success against Oakland while taking on a revamped lineup in the matinee (3:35 p.m. ET).

***

Later in the evening, one of the few hurlers to survive Alex Anthopoulos’ penchant for exporting blue-chip prospects will begin to mount his bid for Rookie of the Year honors. VW Camper resident Daniel Norris’ first task of 2015 is containing the Yankees offense in the Bronx, where Joe Girardi will counter with CC Sabathia.

Just as all eyes were on the radar gun Monday, when Masahiro Tanaka tried and failed to ground the Jays with a diminished fastball, the digits flashing after every Sabathia delivery will be the center of attention this evening.


The left-hander’s fastball has been leaking oil since 2011. He tried to stem the tide by shedding pounds in 2013, and while that health-conscious decision seemed to slow the decline in his velocity, it did nothing to reverse the trend. Sabathia’s four-seamer kept plummeting toward 90 mph before knee trouble ended his 2014 season just eight starts in, and his sinker now registers in the 80s more often than not. Discontent with the results following his weight loss, the 34-year-old put about 30 pounds back on to his frame. Tune in tonight to see if a return to his old figure brings about a renaissance for the well-compensated former ace (7:05 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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