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April 15, 2015

What You Need to Know

Matt Harvey's 'Weird' Return

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway

Matt Harvey’s return to Citi Field began in entirely predictable fashion: with back-to-back strikeouts. But by the end of the night, both beat writers and the flamethrowing Mets starter were terming this battle with the Phillies “the weirdest game ever.”

Weird how? Well, for starters, the next batter, Chase Utley, hit a home run:

It was Utley’s first big fly of the season, but more importantly, it was the first surrendered by Harvey in 61 1/3 innings. The right-hander got back on track, whiffing three of the next for Phillies batters, and the Mets knotted it up on an RBI single by Michael Cuddyer. Normalcy restored.

Until the bottom of the second, that is, when Phillies starter David Buchanan let a couple of pitches get away. Wilmer Flores and Cuddyer both took hard ones off the hands, and while Flores’ plunking turned into a run on a three-tally double by Lucas Duda, Cuddyer’s merely cost the Mets a position player when he had to leave the game.

Would Harvey retaliate? That was the burning question. But when home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez ruled that he’d hit Freddy Galvis, revenge wasn’t on anyone’s mind.

In fact, the Mets didn’t think Galvis had been hit at all. Unfortunately, while replays suggested the skepticism was warranted, manager Terry Collins was too slow to pull the trigger on his challenge. Harvey was already on the hill, and play would continue. But not without a four-minute delay to determine that the play was not reviewable:

Utley followed with a single, which one might attribute to Harvey’s hiatus, cutting the Mets’ lead to 4-2.

It got even narrower when Cody Asche cranked a solo shot in the top of the fourth, the Phillies’ second homer of the game. And if you’re wondering why that’s weird, well, they had two total jacks in their seven preceding regular-season contests.

Fast forward to the top of the fifth, and it became clear this wasn’t Harvey’s finest hour, because the opposing pitcher, Buchanan, turned in a double. The next two batters both made unproductive outs, leaving Buchanan at second with two away and Utley up. You know what that means:

Time for revenge. Followed by a warning to both dugouts.

The intrigue grew further when Utley stole second and Howard was awarded first base on catcher’s interference. D’Arnaud wasn’t a fan of the call

and his vehement denial forced Collins to come to his defense. The Mets couldn’t afford to lose another position player with Cuddyer already out, so instead, they lost their skipper.

It’s a good thing for the home club that d’Arnaud wasn’t ejected, because his RBI single made it 5-3 in the last of the fifth. The lead grew to 6-3 on a solo blast by Daniel Murphy in the seventh, after Jake Diekman wriggled out of a sixth-inning mess by striking out pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

Game over? Not so fast. Utley had another homer in the hopper. And the Mets had another position player to lose. David Wright felt a pull in his hamstring as he tried to steal second, and as he struggled with his secondary leads, he pulled himself from the game.

A DL stint might be in Wright’s future, but the Mets had a more immediate dilemma: They needed someone to play third base. One option was shifting Lucas Duda over from first, but they settled on a more adventurous choice:

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you—that’s backup catcher Anthony Recker, the owner of a grand total of zero professional innings at the hot corner.

It’s a good thing for the Mets, and interim closer Jeurys Familia—pressed into duty for the third straight day because of the injury to and subsequent suspension of Jenrry Mejia—that none of the Phillies hit the ball in Recker’s direction. It’s less good that Jeff Francoeur hit one a mile:

That’s a threefold increase in season long balls for the Phillies, if you’re counting at home, and just like that, it was 6-4.

Recker, standing nervously at third base, could not have been more pleased that his only action was throwing the ball around the horn after Odubel Herrera struck out.

Another K put an end to the three hours and 12 minutes of absurdity to which the Mets treated the 39,489 who came out to welcome Harvey back to Queens.

Quick Hits from Tuesday

Speaking of weird, 8-7 probably wasn’t the final score most expected from a Stephen Strasburg start. But the Red Sox got to Strasburg for five runs in 5 1/3, which was two fewer than the allotment Justin Masterson granted the Nats.

With 109 pitches on the San Diego State product’s line, Matt Williams had no choice but to try to massage 11 outs from his bullpen. GM Mike Rizzo shuffled the deck a bit earlier in the day, designating left-hander Xavier Cedeno for assignment and replacing him with right-hander Rafael Martin, whose story is well worth reading if you haven’t done so yet.

Now that you’re back, spoiler alert: Martin didn’t debut in this one. Williams left it in the more seasoned hands of Craig Stammen and Matt Thornton, who finished off the sixth with the lead intact. The seventh, though… that was another story.

Porous defense has felled the Nationals as much as their bullpen in the early going, and last night was no different.

Ian Desmond got it all started with his sixth error in eight games, putting the leadoff man, Hanley Ramirez, on first. Then, Thornton drilled Shane Victorino, and suddenly the go-ahead run was at the plate with nobody out. A fly ball by Mike Napoli advanced Ramirez to third at the expense of out no. 1, and when John Farrell announced Allen Craig as a pinch-hitter, Williams countered with Blake Treinen

…who promptly beaned Craig to load the bases. Not to worry, the next batter, Ryan Hanigan hit a comebacker—a possible double-play ball, and at least a force out at the plate. Or, uh, this:

Brock Holt followed with an RBI groundout to put Boston up 8-7, the eventual final score. Treinen’s blunders gave the Red Sox three runs without the benefit of a hit, a feat the club hadn’t accomplished since August 25th, 2001. More notably, in the grand scheme of things, it secured the Sox’ third straight series win, something they hadn’t done at the outset of a season in more than six decades:

***

A.J. Burnett didn’t make many mistakes on Tuesday. Facing a tough Tigers lineup, he scattered seven hits—six of them singles—and two walks over 6 2/3 innings while fanning eight. Unfortunately for the Pirates, two of those walks came back-to-back with one out in the seventh, and Rajai Davis made Burnett pay with an RBI single. That was all the help Shane Greene would need.

Save for a handful of fastballs and one errant curve, Greene kept the ball confined to the lower three-fourths of the strike zone on Tuesday, stifling Clint Hurdle’s offense with terrific efficiency. The 25-year-old never exceeded 14 pitches in a frame, and four of his eight innings were over before he could reach double digits.

Greene’s arsenal is deeper now than it was last year, with a changeup gradually emerging to help him combat left-handed foes. J.P. Breen touted Greene as a “buy” in his fantasy column earlier this week, citing the offspeed offering as a boon that could lift the former Yankees farmhand to greater heights in his sophomore year. After using 10 changeups against the Twins in his 2015 debut, Greene pulled the string 10 more times Tuesday, coming away with six strikes and one whiff. More importantly, none of the cambios sailed over the heart of the plate, a sign that Greene’s command of the pitch has come a long way.

Whether it was changeups or fastballs, sliders or curves, the Bucs couldn’t solve anything Greene chucked at them in the 2-0 Detroit victory, and were the game being played at Comerica Park, the righty might’ve finished it. He was at 81 pitches through eight, but with the ninth spot in the order due up third in the top of the ninth, and Jose Iglesias in scoring position with one out, manager Brad Ausmus opted for a shot at an insurance run over a shutout for his starter.

Pinch-hitter Victor Martinez struck out, threatening to foil the strategy, but Ian Kinsler picked him up with a run-scoring single two batters later. More importantly, Joakim Soria sealed the deal on two comebackers and a pop fly.

***

After watching implosion after implosion cost his team victories a season ago, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn spent the winter revamping his bullpen. Among the key moves were the acquisition of Dan Jennings from the White Sox, and the free-agent signings of Zach Duke and David Robertson. All three toed the rubber in relief of Jose Quintana last night, working an inning apiece. And by the end of the night, you couldn’t blame Hahn for patting himself on the back.

Eleven Indians came to bat against the South Siders’ relief corps in the series opener at Progressive Field, and eight of them struck out. One drew a walk and another reached on an error, but Jennings induced a Michael Bourn groundout to extinguish that seventh-inning threat. Duke and Robertson both K’d the side.

That’s notable, because according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, the White Sox’ relievers—all of them, together—combined for a grand total of two inning-plus outings in which they struck out every batter faced last year. (Trivia: One pitcher accounted for both of those innings—can you name him? Answer at the bottom of Quick Hits.) Duke and Robertson teamed up for their second and third such efforts of the new season.

In the other clubhouse, the Tribe’s dismal, three-hit, one-unearned-run, 14-strikeout effort at the plate added insult to a frightening injury. Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco was helped off the field just two batters into the game after being struck in the wrist and head by a Melky Cabrera line drive. Thankfully, the right-hander suffered only a jaw contusion, with no signs of a concussion per the club’s official Twitter report.

***

Also deserving of a pat of the back is Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who persuaded the Marlins to part with pitching prospect Anthony DeSclafani and minor-league catcher Chad Wallach in exchange for a season of Mat Latos.

Latos, who pitched Monday, is presently toting a 17.36 ERA, the product of 11 hits and five walks packaged into just 4 2/3 innings on the hill. That’s nearly 16 more earned runs per nine innings than DeSclafani has averaged to date.

The ex-Florida Gator, who turns 25 on Saturday, fired seven shutout innings on Tuesday at Wrigley Field, paving the way for a 3-2 Reds win. DeSclafani collected five strikeouts in the outing, the fruits of eight swings-and-misses by Cubs batters. Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, the righty can be susceptible to left-handed hitters when his changeup isn’t working. But it was good enough Tuesday to induce a twin killing with Miguel Montero at the plate:

Continued progress with the offspeed offering could determine DeSclafani’s eventual role, with the range of outcomes still teetering between mid-rotation starter and late-inning reliever. He lacks the frontline ceiling Latos once possessed, but with the now-Marlin’s velo slipping while the ex-Marlin’s arsenal matures, DeSclafani is poised to make the Fish regret letting him get away.

***

After Ben Revere got the home run monkey off his back last year, it eventually found its way onto Elvis Andrus, who slugged tater no. 2 on May 21st, 2014, and didn’t go yard again the rest of the season. Andrus’ streak reached 481 at-bats, before he did this in the Rangers’ 8-2 victory over the Angels last night:

Andrus now boasts more long balls this season than Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, Troy Tulowitzki, and his teammate Prince Fielder—combined. He wasted no time apprising his first baseman of that fact:

And, with Andrus on the board, the longest homer-less streak in the majors now belongs to Adam Eaton, who last touched ‘em all on April 12th, 2014. The White Sox center fielder is at 467 at-bats and counting entering today’s game.

***

Another day, another blast for Nelson Cruz, who went back-to-back with Robinson Cano with two away in the top of the first:

Cruz has now gone deep in four straight games, totaling five dingers in that span to draw even with Adrian Gonzalez for the major-league lead.

But just as David Huff left a couple of fat ones for the Mariners to race ahead in the opening frame, Hisashi Iwakuma would hang one to let the Dodgers back into the game:

Alex Guerrero, the walkoff hero on Monday, was back in the spotlight with that two-run homer, which made it a one-run game.

It was still a one-run game in the ninth, with the Mariners on the verge of edging the Dodgers, 5-4. Trouble is, Seattle employs Fernando Rodney as its closer, and the 38-year-old is a glutton for drama.

When he’s right, that drama just means a deeper sigh of relief when the third out is recorded and the game is won. When he’s not, it spells a meltdown like the one that nearly doomed the Mariners on Sunday in Oakland, before Cruz bailed Rodney out with a 10th-inning bomb.

There would be no bail-outs Tuesday in Chavez Ravine, because the Dodgers finished what they started. Rodney coughed up a pair of singles to begin the inning, before lucking into a fielder’s choice out at the plate on a dubious contact play. He proceeded to walk Adrian Gonzalez, loading the bases with one out for a familiar foe, former Angel Howie Kendrick.

One pitch later, the party was on in L.A.:

While Rodney’s ERA is not-quite-Latosian, it shot up to 16.20 with the clunker last night. He’s permitted six hits and four walks in 3 1/3 innings, and—perhaps most worrisome of all—only one of the 19 batters he’s faced to date has struck out.

***

Trivia answer: Maikel Cleto.

The Defensive Play of the Day

File this one away for Play of the Year discussion six months from now…

What to Watch on Wednesday

A combined no-hitter wasn’t in the cards for the Indians last week, but Trevor Bauer did two-thirds of the job. The righty was the epitome of effectively wild in his first start of the year, booking 11 strikeouts in six hit-less innings but handing out five walks along the way. In doing so, he became the first pitcher in at least a century to pack at least that many Ks and BBs into a half-dozen frames without permitting a knock.

The Astros’ whiff-happy offense contributed to Bauer’s unique line, but the 24-year-old’s slider would’ve sliced and diced just about any opponent. He twirled 30 of them on April 9th, 21 for strikes, 16 of the swinging variety, half of those whiffs.

What’s interesting about all this is that while the velocity on Bauer’s fastball was down a tad from 2014, his slider and changeup were noticeably harder. This isn’t the first time the UCLA product has touched 85 with his preferred breaking ball—he did it last September against the Royals, with no benefit—but it is the first time the more-powerful version of the slider has proven so effective, particularly when thrown in the strike zone and not solely as a chase pitch. That might be why Bauer elected to spin twice as many sliders as curveballs at the Astros, even when a lefty hitter was in the box, a departure from his pitch mix to opposite-handed batters in 2014.

Keep an eye on Bauer’s choice of breaking balls and their velocity this afternoon to see if the changes seen last Thursday represent an adjustment or just an Opening Day fluke. He’ll take on Hector Noesi in the getaway-day matinee against the White Sox (12:10 p.m. ET).

***

If anyone ever questions the perils of putting stock in spring training statistics, point them to Taijuan Walker’s Cactus League numbers this year and then to his regular-season opener. The 22-year-old right-hander was dynamite in the desert, tossing 27 innings of 10-hit ball over seven outings, and compiling a 26-to-5 K:BB ratio to boot. Then he got the ball in Oakland, and all hell broke loose.

Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon was forced to put Walker out of his misery with just one out in the fourth inning, as the A’s tagged him for nine runs on nine hits and two walks. Fastball command was the primary culprit in the shellacking, as the Louisiana native was all over the place, missing up, leaving it over the plate, and seldom painting the corners.

That won’t do this evening, either, with another potent offense on tap. Walker is due to square off with the Dodgers, led by MLB home run leader Adrian Gonzalez, who went yard thrice on poorly placed hard stuff from Andrew Cashner last week. Former Athletic Brett Anderson gets the ball for L.A. (10:10 p.m. ET).

***

Tim Lincecum spent the offseason working with his father, Chris, who designed his mechanics, in hopes of rediscovering his long-lost dominant form. But if part of the right-hander’s goal was to achieve a rebound in fastball velocity, well, the results from Friday’s outing at Petco Park speak for themselves:

The 30-year-old saw the zip on his heater dip even further in his 2015 debut, from its 90.3 mph average last year to a mean velocity of 88.7 mph. Lincecum continued a recent run of success versus the Padres, which includes no-hitters in each of the past two seasons, with seven scoreless innings, but it’s not yet clear whether a possible improvement in command can mask his deteriorating stuff. Tonight’s matchup with Tyler Matzek will give us another data point, as the Rockies and Giants wrap up their three-game set at AT&T Park (10:15 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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