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August 3, 2015

What You Need to Know

July 3, 2015

by Ian Frazer

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The Weekend Takeaways
Who knew a good cry could do so much?

As the Mets bumbled toward the trade deadline, they were no less of a laughingstock than they'd been the whole season. They put together lineups including four guys with batting averages below the Mendoza Line—with one in the cleanup spot, no less—and mocked fans' and the media's dissatisfaction.

On top of all that, they made Wilmer Flores cry. As the Mets skidded toward a 7-3 loss to the Padres on Wednesday, word started filtering around about a supposedly final trade with the Brewers for Carlos Gomez that included Flores. That same word somehow reached Flores, and he was understandably a bit emotional about leaving the team with which he'd spent his entire professional career.

He grounded out in what was presumed to be his last at-bat, and when Flores went back out to shortstop, it was with tears in his eyes.

After the game, however, the truth came out. There was no trade. Flores was still a Met. Medicals had snarled the whole deal, and while many presumed the sticking point to be Zack Wheeler and his repaired elbow, it turned out to be Gomez's hip. (Or, really, it turned out to be money. Either way.)

This was rock bottom. The Mets entered their series with the Nationals on Friday three games back in the division, seemingly primed to slip even further behind.

But they didn't! Friday's contest was a 12-inning slog, and in the bottom of the 12th, with Felipe Rivero on the mound for the Nats …

Flores went from symbol of the Mets' inability to do anything right to a symbol of fight and defiance. It goes almost without saying that the Mets swept the Nationals this weekend.

They might have stumbled into this position ass-backwards, but the Mets are tied with Washington for first place in the N.L. East. They didn't get Gomez, but they grabbed Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers. In fact, Cespedes has been significantly better than Gomez this season in pretty much every area of the game, so … good job, Mets? It just feels wrong to say that, sort of like eating a banana with the skin on.

Sunday's 5-2 win was on Sunday Night Baseball, and it encapsulated a lot of what's going right for them. Noah Syndergaard was steady and durable, and while his fastball was arrow-straight, the fact that it sits in the upper 90s, occasionally touching 100, cancels out most problems. Syndergaard went eight innings and allowed two runs, both on dingers. When he kept the ball down, Syndergaard was basically unhittable, and by walking none made sure he didn't beat himself.

Also, Lucas Duda!? Nine of his last 11 hits have been home runs! It's an insane turnaround for someone who started the season off hot but had stumbled badly during July. As you can see from the heat chart below, Duda has been smashing pitches low in the zone, in line with his loft-geared swing. He has pulled all of those home runs except one.

Then he did this on Sunday night.

Look at them hands! According to the ESPN strike zone and the one on MLB.com Gameday, that pitch wasn't that inside, owing to the tailing action on the pitch; it just looks like it because Duda stands so close to the plate. Still, pretty good!

***

While we're on the subject of crying, those rascally Royals had a bit to say on the subject after their series against the Blue Jays. After dropping the first two games of the series—though they got a decent six-inning, three-run start from Johnny Cueto on Friday—Kansas City bounced back with a 7-6 win on Saturday to set up an opportunity to split the series with a win on Sunday.

Chris Colabello opened the scoring in that game with a two-run dinger in the fourth, and then Jose Bautista drove in Ryan Goins with a ground-rule double in the seventh.

Well, right before that was when the shenanigans had started. Josh Donaldson had been hit with a pitch in the first, buzzed up and in in the third, and in the seventh, got a fastball up and in from Ryan Madson. Donaldson was peeved, and before he could get ejected, Toronto manager John Gibbons stepped in and did that for him.

The Blue Jays escalated the dispute in the next half-inning, when Aaron Sanchez nailed Alcides Escobar and provoked a benches-clearing kerfuffle.

In terms of baseball, the rest of the game wasn't super intriguing. Ben Zobrist hit a two-run dinger to narrow the deficit, but the Blue Jays expanded the lead with two runs off Kelvin Herrera in the eighth.

The drama resumed via the postgame comments, though. First, the Royals' take:

Edinson Volquez on Josh Donaldson: "He's a little baby. He was crying like a baby."
— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) August 2, 2015

Ryan Madson said for Josh Donaldson "to get that upset, I don't think he fully understands the game."
— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) August 2, 2015

Volquez said Donaldson "pimped" HRs this series. "If somebody hits you, you've got to take it, because you're pimping everything you do."
— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) August 2, 2015

Now, the Blue Jays:

Donaldson on whether Wolf should've tossed Volquez : "I don't want him to do that. I thought it was pretty good hitting." #BlueJays
— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) August 2, 2015

Just heard #NedYost comments about the game. Lost a lot of respect for that man today.
— Jose Bautista (@JoeyBats19) August 2, 2015

The Royals and Blue Jays aren't scheduled to meet for the rest of the season, which is unfortunate. Let's hope they have an encounter in the playoffs.

***

I take back every good thing I've ever said about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in this space. Every bit of it! The Angels are on a pretty serious skid, having lost nine of their last 10 games and six straight. The most damaging of those losses were the three to the Houston Astros, the Angels' main competition in the AL West. On July 23, 2015, the Angels were a game ahead of the Astros. On August 3, 2015, they are four games behind the Astros.

The teams both made moves around the trade deadline: Los Angeles traded for David DeJesus, Shane Victorino, and David Murphy, and the Astros went a bit bigger, dealing for Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez. The Angels are projected by PECOTA to be approximately a game better than the Astros for the remainder of the season, but that would still put them behind Houston. What matters more than the projections is that the Astros are currently winning and the Angels are currently losing.

The Astros dropped the opening game of their three-game weekend series against he Diamondbacks, with Pat Neshek giving up solo shots to Welington Castillo and Jake Lamb in the 10th inning to give Arizona the victory.

Houston responded on Saturday, however, by drubbing Jeremy Hellickson and riding the ever-reliable Dallas Keuchel to a 9-2 victory. Carlos Correa and Hank Conger each hit two dingers in the game.

The Astros finished off the series win with a 4-1 victory over Arizona on Sunday, with new acquisition/not-Met Carlos Gomez providing two RBIs in the victory. Gomez had an oh-fer on Friday, his first game as an Astro, but he went 3-for-5 with a double on Saturday and singled on Sunday.

Acquiring Gomez wasn't a move that was panned by anybody, really, but it opens the possibility of a pretty serious logjam once George Springer comes back. Gomez and Springer are the best offensive options, and Preston Tucker is a lefty bat who has been holding his own since making his big-league debut earlier in the season, but Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, and Jake Marisnick all offer their own upsides. Also, there's L.J. Hoes in there, and Marwin Gonzalez, and Jed Lowrie. When Springer comes back, I'm guessing that somebody will either get DFA'd or optioned.

The Astros will be one of the more interesting teams in baseball to watch in the season's later stage, first of all because of their quest to go straight from the doldrums to the postseason but also because of individual players' races for the postseason roster, if applicable. Even if the Astros wind up bumping the Angels from the race in the coming weeks, September will be fascinating, with the expanding rosters throwing a whole litany of players into the mix for a full-time roster spot.

***

The Angels, on the other hand, appear to be at an utter loss for offensive production. They have scored more than five runs just twice in their last 10 games, and one of those times came in a game when their pitchers gave up six. Even Mike Trout seems to be scuffling a teeny bit: He was 0-for-4 and 0-for-5 in the team's last two games against the Dodgers, but he has no real part in the team's struggles because MIKE TROUT IS SLUGGING .627 AND HAVING THE BEST OFFENSIVE SEASON OF HIS CAREER.

(No, YOU stop yelling.)

The Angels got swept by the Dodgers this weekend, losing 5-3 on Friday, 3-1 on Saturday, and 5-3 on Sunday. Those first two were perfectly acceptable, really, because they came to Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The latter gave up two hits in eight innings on Saturday, and like his past three outings, no runs. He's got his own little scoreless inning streak going right now, at 37. Kershaw's batting average against has dipped below .200, his WHIP has sunk ever further below 1.00, and he's still hardly been walking anybody, with one over his past four outings combined.

In terms of pitch usage, Kershaw hasn't changed a ton during this current run of success. It's a lot like Greinke's own streak: A pitcher with superior stuff and sequencing instinct has a run of particularly good control, and when the burden of offense falls entirely on the hitters, they're kind of screwed.

One thing, though: The coincidence of Kershaw adding a slider to his repertoire and his career taking off is pretty well documented, but lately, he's been throwing the absolute hell out of the pitch, making it even nastier. Increased whiff counts on the pitch as of late supports its role in Kershaw's bounceback from his early season not-awesomeness. He was still good, but now he's back to being a superhero.

Defensive Play of the Weekend

I think there's more to this play than is immediately apparent from the video. The video is impressive, for sure. It's a nifty flip by José Iglesias and a solid back end of the play by Ian Kinsler, to barehand the ball and make a solid throw that would have nailed a slower runner. But think of the anticipation on the part of Iglesias: He was probably playing deeper than normal because Manny Machado is known for hitting the ball hard. He sees that Machado gets jammed and that a runner is barreling toward second. The ball wasn't exactly a dribbler, so Iglesias might have been able to scoop the ball and flip to second, but that would have been a closer play. So Iglesias had the mental presence to know he had to charge the ball and make the flip to Kinsler, and he had the physical skills to actually make it happen.

What to Watch on Monday
I'd say that the biggest move of the trade deadline frenzy was the Blue Jays acquiring Troy Tulowitzki, but the second-biggest move was probably getting David Price. On Monday, Price is scheduled to make his first start as a Torontonian against Ervin Santana and the Twins. This matchup is a familiar one for Price, who shared a division with the Twins for approximately a full season. He made his first start of this year against Minnesota, in which he threw 8 2/3 shutout innings, allowed five hits, and struck out five. In his second start against Minnesota, Price gave up three runs over 6 1/3 innings, and in his third, he gave up two runs on five hits in eight innings. The somewhat strange thing is that Price averaged nearly 2 mph more on his fastball in the latter two starts, which were unquestionably worse than the first.

With his move to the Blue Jays, Price's career continues its odd trajectory. He spent his early years with the Rays, a team that was never completely focused on the present, always in something of a rebuilding mode by necessity, forced by their small market and budget to focus on the future and the next trend or market inefficiency. Since then, however, Price has bounced between two teams that are trading their future for greater chance at present success. We can safely say that the Tigers failed, at least this season. For the sake of Prices' chances of getting a World Series ring, he'll hope the same isn't true with the Blue Jays.

***

You know who's still on the Padres? Tyson Ross. You know who else is still on the Padres? Pretty much everybody they had before the trade deadline. This surprised people, because the Padres don't look to be strongly in the hunt for the postseason and, therefore, would have been strong candidates to sell some of their pieces. They could have traded Ross, or Andrew Cashner, or James Shields, or Justin Upton, or Craig Kimbrel, and people would have been like "Well, yeah, they're sellers. They're kind of bad this season." But they apparently did the opposite, reportedly asking about Paul Goldschmidt's availability. The only guy who was probably completely off limits was Austin Hedges.

Alas, all the guys I just mentioned are still on the Padres. Today, Ross is scheduled to start against the Brewers. The Padres are technically still in the playoff hunt, sitting nine games back in the division and 6 1/2 games back in the Wild Card. But pretty much every team in front of them in both races did some sort of improvement project at the deadline, and the Padres just stood pat.

***

The Mets and Nationals are tied for the division lead, and both of them play on Monday. New York squares off against Tom Koehler and the Marlins, with Bartolo Colon getting the start. The Nationals are playing the Diamondbacks, with Doug Fister going. These both look like pretty favorable matchups, though Colon is coming off a seriously rough outing in which he gave up 10 hits and six runs in 2 1/3 innings. Either way, a totally acceptable viewing arrangement for tonight would be to have the Mets on one screen and the Marlins on the other, which doesn't seem like something an MLB fan should be doing in August. But hey, baseball is weird!

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