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May 7, 2015

What You Need to Know

Thrice Harper!

by Chris Mosch

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The Wednesday Takeaway
It’s not as if Bryce Harper needed to prove himself to anybody. The 22-year-old entered Wednesday’s game against the Marlins the owner of a .294 True Average over 1,610 plate appearances, all while being younger than many of the game’s top prospects—Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, and so on. And yes, the fun fact that he has yet to face a pitcher younger than him at any professional level still holds true.

Sure, his production took a step backward in an injury-plagued 2014 season and his rising strikeout rate was a cause for concern. But a promising first month of the season and newfound patience at the plate suggested that he could be on the cusp of a true breakout. On Wednesday afternoon, Harper had his best day at the plate since joining the big-league club, and while one game might not tell us whether or not Harper will reach the high expectations that are set for him, it is a reminder of how exciting baseball can be when Bryce Harper is mashing.

The Marlins had jumped out to an early 2-0 lead against Max Scherzer before Harper got his first hacks in to lead off the home half of the second inning. On the bump for Miami was Tom Koehler, who missed just off black with a first-pitch fastball. J.T. Realmuto called for another heater in the same spot but Koehler left the pitch up and Harper took it the other way for a solo shot into the visitor’s bullpen.

Opposite field power is a thing of beauty and few make it look as effortless as Harper. As for Harper’s second blast of the day, it left jaws on the floor

before finally landing in the upper deck, 442 feet away.

Most guys never hit a ball that far in their life. But for Harper, it wasn’t even the longest one he hit during the game. His next time up, he took Koehler deep for the third time in as many at bats and this upper-deck shot traveled 445 feet before touching down.


Harper only got one chance to join the exclusive four-homer club and grounded out with runners at the corners in the seventh inning to give the Nationals a 7-2 lead. However, 202 days after his 22nd birthday, he did become the 10th youngest player to go deep thrice in one game and the youngest since Joe Lahoud in 1969. Of the nine players younger than Harper to accomplish the feat, five of them—Mickey Cochrane, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Mathews and Al Kaline—have plaques hanging in Cooperstown.

While the day deservedly belonged to Harper, he wasn’t the only player in the building who possesses 80-grade power. Giancarlo Stanton is another hulking human being who can hit a baseball a long way and he stepped to the plate against Max Scherzer with two on in the eighth inning. The Nationals starter had been cruising along since giving up a pair of runs in the early going and had struck out 10 with no walks on the afternoon. With his pitch count at 105 and perhaps sensing that the end of the day was approaching, Scherzer left it all on the table against Stanton in a clash between the National League East’s two best stars.

After failing to crack 93 with his fastball against Dee Gordon and Martin Prado earlier in the inning, Scherzer reared back for a 95 mph fastball that he blew past Stanton for strike one. He followed that with a slider with late break that got a chase out of the zone from Stanton to put the slugger in a 0-2 hole.

Scherzer tried to put Stanton away with his fastest pitch of the afternoon but Stanton laid off the pitch, which just missed away. Stanton spit on a slider out of the zone and was able to hold off on another close breaking ball that just missed off the inside corner.


With the count now full, Scherzer quit nibbling and started challenging Stanton. But with Scherzer’s pitch count over 110, his command began to waver and he got away with a couple of pitches over the heart of the plate that Stanton wasn’t able to square up.

There are only so many mistakes you can make in a row to Stanton, and when Scherzer hung another slider on the ninth pitch of the at bat, the Marlins slugger finally gave it a ride.

Stanton’s bomb cut the lead to just two runs and Miami looked to be on the comeback trail against Drew Storen in the ninth inning. The right-hander’s two-strike changeup caught Donovan Solano on the forearm and Dee Gordon took another cambio the other way for a single to put the potential tying run on base with no outs. Storen got Martin Prado to fly out to right field but that only brought up Stanton with the chance to put the Marlins up. Unlike Stanton’s battle with Scherzer an inning prior, this matchup with Storen was short-lived and one-sided. The Nationals closer backed Stanton off the plate with a first-pitch fastball and then proceeded to get the slugger to come up empty on three straight pitches.

The Nationals closer put the finishing touches on a thrilling day at Nationals Park and the team’s third straight series win by getting Marcel Ozuna to chase a filthy slider in the dirt.

Quick Hits from Wednesday

Mike Leake tossed eight shutout innings and helped his own cause at the plate for the second start in a row en route to a Reds win over the Pirates on Wednesday. Joey Votto, on the other hand, ended up watching most of his teammate’s performance from the clubhouse after a questionable ejection by home plate umpire Chris Conroy resulted in a reaction that will likely end up in a suspension for the first baseman.

Votto’s second trip to the plate started off with a pitch low and out of the zone that Conroy called for strike one. Votto does appear to have a word or two about the call for Conroy but does it without showing him up.

The second pitch of the at bat from Gerrit Cole was a fastball at the belt on the inner third of the plate that Votto swung through to run the count to 0-2. Moments later, Votto took a stroll out of the batter’s box, visibly frustrated with himself over missing a pitch he has crushed throughout his career.

Cole’s went back to the fastball on the inner third of the plate, this time at the knees, and Votto foul-tipped the pitch into the mitt of Francisco Cervelli to end the inning. Votto slammed his helmet and walked off toward first base, during which he appeared to have a shouting match across the field with Cole. He could be seen on the broadcast replay yelling at Cole, “You pitch, I’ll hit” before ending with some words that I’ll let you make out for yourself.

Conroy, meanwhile, had his back turned to Votto and was getting additional balls from the ball boy. He apparently thought that Votto’s words were directed toward him because he proceeded to toss the slugger from the game.

Votto actually didn’t realize that he had been ejected until the Reds infield had started warming up for the next inning, and when he finally put two and two together, he went ballistic, bumping Conroy and needing to be restrained by Bryan Price and another umpire.



The Reds might have lost Votto’s bat for the rest of the game but with Leake dealing, the runs that they got in the fourth inning were all they needed. Todd Frazier led off with a triple and scampered home on an infield single by Brandon Phillips that managed to barely stay fair down the third base line. After Cole retired Jay Bruce and Kristopher Negron, Clint Hurdle elected to intentionally walk Tucker Barnhart to get to the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. However, the Pirates skipper may have overlooked the fact that Mike Leake isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill pitcher with a bat in his hands.

And of course, Leake proceeded to rip a hanging breaking ball from Cole down the left field line for a ground-rule double, giving the Reds a 2-0 lead. On the mound, Leake got the Pirates to pound the ball into the ground time and time again, generating 19 groundballs during the outing. Combine that with no free passes issued and it’s not difficult to see how the Buccos were down 3-0 when Leake handed the ball off to Aroldis Chapman.

Despite pitching a clean ninth inning, Chapman’s appearance was slightly unusual in that he failed to record a strikeout in an outing of at least one full inning for just the third time in the past calendar year. However, he did break out a pair of ever-rare changeups, including this ridiculous one that got a swing and miss from Cervelli.

***

With Oswaldo Arcia currently on the mend with a right hip flexor strain, the Twins called up 23-year-old Eddie Rosario to fill in and make his major-league debut on Wednesday night. The first pitch Rosario saw from Athletics starter Scott Kazmir was a fastball up and away and he knew just what to do with it.

It was the first time a Twin has ever homered on the first pitch of his major league career and the first time that any player has done it since Starling Marte did it in July of 2012 off a then-mortal Dallas Keuchel.

Rosario’s opposite-field blast was the first run to cross the plate in what turned out to be a long day for Oakland’s pitching staff. The Twins tagged Kazmir for six runs in as many innings, with Eduardo Escobar adding a two-run homer of his own in the home half of the sixth. After Kazmir departed, Chad Smith and R.J. Alvarez combined to let seven Twins cross the plate in what turned out to be a 13-0 rout. To add insult to injury for Oakland, the game ended with center fielder Shane Robinson robbing Josh Phegley of extra bases with The Defensive Play of the Day.

***

Entrusted with a 6-3 lead, Joba Chamberlain retired the first two White Sox to come to bat in the eighth inning. All the right-hander needed to do was get one more out to get the ball to Detroit’s relief ace, Joakim Soria, and lock down the middle match of the series. Instead, Chamberlain found himself walking off the mound with his head down about 20 minutes later after coughing up six straight hits and letting the South Siders rally back to take a 7-6 lead.

Micah Johnson led things off with a single that landed just inside the left field line. Adam Eaton then ripped a line drive that glanced off Nick Castellanos’ glove at the hot corner to bring Melky Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera turned on Chamberlain’s front-door slider for his first long ball of the year, which evened the score.

Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche and Avisail Garcia continued the barrage, stringing together three straight singles to give Chicago the lead and knock Chamberlain out of the game.

The Tigers fought back off David Robertson in the ninth and looked to be on their way to tagging the White Sox closer for his first run of the season. But just as quickly as James McCann kept the rally going, he brought it to a screeching halt, as Alexei Ramirez made a heads-up play to nab him at first after McCann took too wide of a turn around the bag.

Robertson then got Jose Iglesias to ground out to end the game and clinch the series win for Chicago.

***


The Dodgers starting pitcher depth behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke continues to be a glaring flaw, with Joe Wieland being the latest fill-in option to get knocked around. The Brewers touched up Wieland for a five-spot in the first inning and were able to hold off Don Mattingly’s club behind eight terrific innings by Wily Peralta in a 6-3 win.

The lone bright spot for the Boys in Blue was Joc Pederson, who continues to cement himself as the way-too-early frontrunner for the NL Rookie of the Year award. Pederson connected for his eighth and ninth home runs of the year and raised his OPS to 1.090 by the end of the night. He also robbed Peralta of extra bases, making a sweet running catch before slamming into the center field wall.

***

There was another Los Angeles outfielder who had a pretty fine night both at the plate an in the field. You might have heard of him. Mike Trout?

The reigning AL MVP clobbered a Roenis Elias fastball, with the ball exiting Trout's bat at 107 mph and landing 441 feet away over the center field wall.

That blast gave C.J. Wilson a 3-0 lead to work with and the left-hander pitched well over seven innings of two-run ball, striking out four without a walk. He did, however, get an assist from Trout to get his last batter of the outing.

Joe Smith retired the side in the eighth to bridge the gap to Huston Street but the closer ran into immediate trouble. Kyle Seager led off the inning with a double and moved up 90 feet on a single by Mike Zunino. Chris Taylor lifted a Street two-seamer deep enough into left field to get Seager home and complete the comeback. However, his efforts were quickly spoiled, with a leadoff walk by Carson Smith in the bottom of the frame ultimately coming back to haunt the Mariners, who went down on a walk-off to their division rivals for the second straight night.

Bonus Defensive Play of the Day

Dustin Pedroia is pretty slick. Unfortunately for Pedey, his run-saving play was in a losing effort, as the Rays took the rubber match in Beantown, 5-3, behind a pair of home runs by Evan Longoria.

What to Watch on Thursday

—On the surface it might appear that Corey Kluber has turned back into a pumpkin after his outstanding Cy Young award campaign in 2014. Kluber enters Thursday’s showdown against the Royals with a 4.62 ERA and the Indians have yet to come away with a win in any of his starts. But in reality, Kluber has pitched just fine in his first six starts of the season, with a strikeout per inning, just over two walks per nine and a 3.46 DRA that has him steady with Jake Arrieta for 37th among pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings. He’ll look to have things finally break his way when he takes the hill opposite Edinson Volquez (2:10 p.m. EST).

—Things have been rough over the past week for the Pirates, who ran into the streaking Cardinals over the weekend and are in danger of being swept for a second straight series by the Reds. While Gerrit Cole has garnered most of the attention for his hot start to the season in the Pirates rotation, A.J. Burnett has also pitched very well in the early going, limiting the walks and maintaining a respectable strikeout rate despite his fastball velocity taking a slight dip. Burnett will look to dig the Pirates out of their recent skid opposite Anthony DeSclafani, who will to rebound from his worst outing of the season: a five-walk, four-run game against the Braves (7:05 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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