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July 29, 2015

What You Need to Know

July 29, 2015

by Chris Mosch

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The Tuesday Takeaway
The Astros haven't played meaningful games this late in the season in quite a while. But the young squad decided to make a competitive run a year or two earlier than expected, resulting in Jeff Luhnow and Co. becoming buyers on the trade market, acquiring Scott Kazmir and making even more noise regarding potential deals. Houston entered Tuesday's series against the Angels just one game behind their division foes in the AL West, and Minute Maid Park was ready for the most important series to date of the Luhnow era.

On the hill for Houston was Collin McHugh, who the Astros snatched off the scrap heap prior to the 2014 season after identifying that his curveball had an elite spin rate. McHugh has been a key find, but Tuesday was not one of his finest nights. He issued three walks in the first inning alone, which combined with a double by Conor Gillaspie to give the Angels a quick 2–0 lead. The visitors would tack on two more runs the next inning to put the Astros in an early hole.

But the Astros' offense kept things close in the early going by doing what it does best: mash dingers.

Carlos Correa continued his magnificent rookie season with an opposite-field blast off C.J. Wilson in the bottom of the first

and then Chris Carter drilled a center-cut fastball into the home bullpen to bring the Astros back within one run.

Houston would even the score up at four apiece later in the inning when a misplay at shortstop by Erick Aybar allowed Hank Conger to score from second on a weakly hit ball by Jose Altuve.

Chris Iannetta regained the lead for the Angels with a solo shot in the third inning, but the Astros kept applying the pressure on Wilson. Conger singled to left with one out in the fourth and advanced 90 feet later in the inning when Jake Marisnick worked a seven-pitch walk. Altuve stepped back to the plate with two outs and a chance to get Houston back in it. His single up the middle plated Conger, but Altuve proceeded to get caught in a rundown between first and second. C.J. Cron, who had cut off the throw home, made a poor throw behind Altuve, allowing Marisnick to scamper home and give the Astros the lead.

Altuve would play hero again in the sixth inning, at which point the Astros broke the game open for good. Conger and Colby Rasmus welcomed reliever Mike Morin with back-to-back doubles and Marisnick followed with a hustle infield single. That brought up Altuve, who ripped a double to bring home a pair of runs and give the home squad a four-run advantage.

Evan Gattis would collect his seventh triple of the year (that's not a typo) later in the inning to run the tally to the eventual final score of 10–5. The win improved the Astros' record on the year to 56–45, leaving them percentage points behind the Angels, who dropped to 55–44. Sole possession of the division will be on the line today when Garrett Richards squares off against Lance McCullers in the middle match of what is shaping up to be quite the entertaining series.

Quick Hits from Tuesday
A long list of top prospects have graduated to the big leagues this season. Among those getting the call to pitch, Noah Syndergaard was considered the one with the most shine. But the hard-throwing Syndergaard has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for his first season with the Mets. In 13 starts since being recalled in May, Syndergaard had averaged over a strikeout per inning, walked 2.3 batters per nine and boasted a 3.40 DRA (34th among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings). Under the tutelage of pitching coach Dan Warthen he developed a two-seam fastball that has averaged a full mile faster than the next-fastest two-seamer by a starting pitcher, and even flashed the Warthen slider in his most recent outing.

Syndergaard scrapped the slider against the Padres on Tuesday but it quickly became apparent that he didn't need it. His fastball command was on point, as he painted the black all night with both his four-seamer and two-seamer, and was able to miss bats with the heat and his breaking ball. Through six innings, not a single Padres hitter had managed to reach base, the closest thing to a hit coming on a Jedd Gyorko line drive back to the mound that glanced off the glove of the Mets' young hurler, but was fielded cleanly by Daniel Murphy at second base.

The Mets had grabbed an early 2–0 lead on a Lucas Duda moonshot in the first that exited the bat at 107 mph and landed 462 feet away, the longest ball ever hit at Citi Field by a Mets player. Two runs must have felt like eight with the way Syndergaard was pitching, but the Padres were quickly back in business in the seventh. Will Venable broke up the perfect game on Syndergaard's 82nd pitch with a single up the middle

and then raced to third base after Ruben Tejada showed why he's no Rey Ordonez.

But the Padres were unable to capitalize. Syndergaard induced a pop up by Matt Kemp and then a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Justin Upton to escape the inning unscathed. He would turn in one more scoreless inning of work, getting Alexi Amarista to chase at his 107th pitch of the night—a 97 mph fastball—to rack up his ninth strikeout of the evening.

Curtis Granderson added insurance in the bottom of the eighth inning with a two-run homer, giving the home squad a 4–0 lead and allowing Tyler Clippard to make his Mets debut in the ninth. Clippard, whom the Mets acquired from the Athletics on Monday, allowed a leadoff double but retired the next three Padres to lock down the win.

***

Meanwhile, another of Clippard's former employers, the Nationals, got two key players back in time for their matchup against Jose Fernandez on Tuesday. Jayson Werth had been on the shelf since mid-May due to small fractures in his left wrist and was greeted by a devastating breaking ball from Fernandez in the first inning.


Werth's teammate Ryan Zimmerman had been on the disabled list since mid-June with plantar fasciitis and fared better in his first at bat against Fernandez, ripping a hanging curve from the Marlins' ace down the left-field line for a double in the second inning.

The double moved Bryce Harper—who had an excellent at-bat earlier in the inning to work a seven-pitch walk—to third base. Wilson Ramos would drive Harper in on a sacrifice fly later in the inning to draw first blood for the Nationals.

But that was the only run Washington would manage against Fernandez during his six innings of work. Fernandez didn't appear to have the same command of his curve he exhibited in his previous starts since returning from TJ, and his velocity took a slight dip over his final 30 pitches or so. Nevertheless, he worked around four walks—tied for the most he's issued in a single start—and was able to keep the damage against him to a minimum. Washington's best chance to tack on runs came in the fifth inning, when they loaded the bases with one out, but Werth grounded into a 5-4-3 twin killing to end the inning.

At that point, the Marlins still trailed 1-0, but the home nine started to show signs of life on offense in the bottom of the fifth, when J.T. Realmuto and Ichiro Suzuki collected back-to-back knocks off Jordan Zimmermann with one out. Realmuto would come around to score later in the frame on a sacrifice fly by Adeiny Hechavarria.

The following inning, Dee Gordon—making his first start since dislocating his thumb prior to the All-Star break—led things off with a triple and came around to give the Marlins the lead on Martin Prado's third hit of the night. Prado would score later in what would be Zimmermann's last inning of the night to give the Marlins a 3-1 lead. They would tack on a fourth run in the seventh against Sammy Solis, which looked like it might be a pivotal insurance tally by the time A.J. Ramos loaded the bases with one out in the ninth inning. However, Yunel Escobar grounded into Washington's third double play of the night, dropping the Nationals' lead over the Mets in the NL East to just one game.

***

Over the last month, Trevor Bauer has done a better job at reining in the number of free passes he's handed out. After posting an ugly 4.4 BB/9 through his first 14 starts of the season, Bauer hasn't given up more than two walks in a start since. That streak continued on Tuesday, as Bauer was masterful through eight innings of one-run ball against the Royals. His pitch count was at just 93 and he had given up just four hits, striking out six and walking one in the process, so Terry Francona let him go back out to the mound in the ninth inning of a 1-1 game.

The only problem was that it was Bauer's fourth time through the middle of Kansas City's order and even for a pitcher with so many pitches at his disposal that spelled trouble. The only Royals hitter who had paired hits to that point was Eric Hosmer. The first baseman proceeded to collect his third knock of the night against Bauer, which went a lot farther than the previous two.

Greg Holland was shaky in the ninth inning, walking a batter and throwing just five of his 10 pitches for strikes, but luckily for the Royals stopper, he pitches in front of one of the best defenses in baseball, as he got some help from The Defensive Play of the Day


and a double play later in the inning to pick up his 22nd save of the season.


***

Chris Capuano pitched badly for the Yankees on Tuesday. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise; the 36-year-old lost his spot in the starting rotation after three poor starts in May and hasn't fared much better in relief for the Yankees since. But Capuano was nevertheless called upon to make a spot start against the Rangers and wasn't even able to make it out of the first inning. He walked five and the Rangers managed to score five runs before the left-hander hit the showers, the most they had scored in the first inning during a game this season.

As it turned out, Capuano's outing was not even the worst by a pitcher during the game.

Or the second-worst.

The man opposite Capuano, Martin Perez, had pitched a clean first inning but things unraveled for the 24-year-old in the second. The Yankees would knock Perez around for three doubles and four singles; the hurler even managed to plunk Didi Gregorius before Rangers manager Jeff Banister had to pull his starting pitcher from the game with his club now down 6-5.

In came Wandy Rodriguez to try to clean up the mess. He failed. Rodriguez allowed five more runs to score—three of which were charged to him—before New York's 11-run second inning had come to an end, then found himself back in trouble the next inning. Brett Gardner and Alex Rodriguez started things off with back-to-back singles and each moved up a base after Mark Teixeira drew a walk. If it wasn't yet apparent to the Rangers where this game was heading, Chris Young made it crystal clear.

The grand slam put the Yankees up 15-5 and made Rodriguez the second Rangers pitcher in the game responsible for at least seven runs. By the time utility man Adam Rosales came in to pitch for the Rangers in the ninth inning, the Yankees had extended it to a 19-5 mauling. Sure enough, Brett Gardner took Rosales deep, giving the Yankees 21 runs, the most in a game by any team since May 30, 2012, when the Rangers were on the losing end of a 21-8 game against the Mariners.

To add insult to injury, the Rangers didn't even manage a hit after the first inning; after Capuano was pulled from the game, Diego Moreno and Adam Warren combined to no-hit the home team over the final 8 and 1/3 innings.

***

Things have been looking up lately for Gregory Polanco, who has salvaged a disappointing season for the Pirates with a productive July, the first month this year he's posted a wRC+ above 100. The young outfielder came through in a big spot in the eighth inning of a 3-3 game against the Twins on Tuesday, drilling a 2-2 curveball from Brian Duensing off the right-field wall to clear the bases and give the Pirates a 6-3 lead.

Polanco's bases-loaded knock was followed by a Neil Walker single that extended Pittsburgh's lead to four runs, normally pretty safe with the duo of Tony Watson and Mark Melancon anchoring the bullpen. But Watson just didn't have it, allowing five straight one-out hits in the bottom of the eighth, the final one being a ground-rule double off the bat of Eduardo Escobar that tied the game at seven apiece and had the Target Field crowd going wild.

Clint Hurdle wasn't about to let Minnesota regain the lead without using his best bullpen arm, so he pulled Watson and brought in his closer with Brian Dozier coming to the plate. Melancon got the Twins' keystone to ground out and retired Torii Hunter to get the Pirates to the ninth with the game still tied.

But just as soon as Minnesota had stormed back to make things interesting, Pittsburgh regained the lead on one swing of the bat from Jung-ho Kang.


Kang's solo shot off Twins reliever Glen Perkins lifted the Pirates to the 8-7 win and saved the club from what would have been a devastating loss. On the other side of things, the loss dropped the Twins to 3-7 since the All-Star break. Their lead in the race for the second wild-card spot is down to just two games after the Orioles used a pair of Chris Davis home runs to beat the Braves 7-3.

***

Athletics fans may not have a ton to look forward to down the stretch now that the front office has conceded that the team is not going to contend this season. One thing they will still be able to enjoy in August and September is Sonny Gray starts. The 25-year-old has followed up a solid first full season in the majors with an even better one in 2015, and took a 2.00 DRA (second among qualified starters behind only Max Scherzer) into Tuesday night's matchup against the Dodgers.

Gray turned in one of his best performances of the season at Chavez Revine, holding the Dodgers to just three hits en route to his second complete-game shutout of the season.

Gray pounded the strike zone with his fastball, throwing 51 of 64 heaters for strikes (80 percent) and walking just one Dodger. The right-hander's slider was working particularly well, as he was able to consistently bury it below the knees, generating a season-high 10 swing-and-misses with offering.

The result was nine strikeouts, tying for the second-most punchouts Gray has recorded in a single game this season. Providing the bulk of the offense for Oakland was Josh Reddick, who went 3-for-4 and smashed a solo home run off Brett Anderson in the seventh. The Los Angeles southpaw turned in a fine performance in his first start since dealing with inflammation in his Achilles, tossing seven innings of two-run ball. However, it was simply not enough on a night when Gray was so masterful, as the Athletics would go on to win by a final of 2-0.

The Defensive (Non)Play of the Day
It's hard to give Mookie Betts anything but an "A" for effort when the young outfielder appeared to make a tremendous catch to rob Jose Abreu of a double at the warning track.


But when Betts tumbled over the right-field wall, not only did he land on his head, which caused him to leave the game with concussion-like symptoms, but the ball popped out of his glove. According to Rule 5.09(A), a play is not considered a catch if "simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, [the fielder] collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball."

So not only does Betts appear to be headed to the seven-day disabled list, but his efforts inadvertently turned a would-be double into a home run for Abreu. It's just been that kind of season for the Red Sox.

What to Watch on Wednesday
The Troy Tulowitzki era in Toronto begins Wednesday night when the long-time Rockie takes the field at Rogers Centre for the home team for the first time. The Blue Jays bolstered the American League's top offense with the acquisition of the top offensive shortstop in the game, one who will be licking his chops at the prospect of making his debut against Philadelphia's Jerome Williams. The 33-year-old has been atrocious this season, with his 6.35 DRA ranking third worst among pitchers with at least 50 IP this season and contributing to one of the worst starting rotations ever assembled in the Expansion Era. Taking the mound for the Jays will be R.A. Dickey, who is coming off one of his better performances of the season, an 8 1/3-inning, five-hit gem against the Athletics. However, Dickey has struggled mightily this season, with a 4.66 DRA, his lowest strikeout rate since 2010, and a walk rate that hasn't been this inflated since his days before donning a Mets uniform. If you're in search of a 2-1 game, look elsewhere (7:07 p.m. EST).

A lot of attention was focused on Zack Greinke's scoreless-inning streak prior to its conclusion last Sunday, but in the meantime his teammate Clayton Kershaw has been on quite the roll himself. Kershaw became the first pitcher to ever rack up double-digit strikeouts without allowing a walk or a run in three consecutive starts after shutting out the Mets in his last start. Kershaw's own scoreless streak is up to 29 frames after his last start and his strikeout rate is up to 33.9 percent, which would be the highest single-season rate by a starting pitcher since Randy Johnson's 2001 season. The southpaw will look to extend his streak further against an Athletics squad that just bid farewell to Ben Zobrist, who was shipped to Kansas City on Tuesday in exchange for Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks (10:10 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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