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September 3, 2015

What You Need to Know

September 3, 2015

by Ian Frazer

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The Wednesday Takeaway
The Royals own a division lead of 12 games that is five and a half games bigger than any other division lead in baseball, and almost three times the combined number games the Astros and Blue Jays are ahead of their division rivals. On Wednesday night they proceeded to emphasize what everybody knew by pounding the Tigers into the dirt. They started off by hammering the somehow still active Randy Wolf for eight runs in 3 2/3 innings. Ben Zobrist got the scoring started by smoking a solo home run to left off a hanging curve in the first.

After Cheslor Cuthbert singled Kendrys Morales and Jonny Gomes home in the second, Lorenzo Cain expanded the lead to 4-0 with a solo shot in the third. The fourth was when the wheels really fell off for Wolf, as Cain's two-run double made it 6-0 and Kendrys Morales clobbered a three-run shot off Guido Knudson to put the lead at 9-0.

The Tigers might have been able to take some consolation if they'd hit at all. Yordano Ventura built off the momentum of his six scoreless innings against the Orioles on August 27th and allowed one run in seven innings. He struck out 11 batters for his second start in a row.

Ventura's control hasn't been a huge issue this season, but it's gotten a bit out of hand in a few recent starts. In his outing against the Tigers on August 11th, Ventura walked six in six innings, and in his most recent start against the Orioles, he walked four. Strangely enough, those have been two of his cleaner starts, both carrying the line of six innings, two hits, and zero runs allowed. Ventura's 10-hit, six-run, four-inning outing against the Pirates on July 20th, probably his worst start of the year, contained just one walk.

On Wednesday, Ventura walked one batter: Nick Castellanos, on four pitches to start the seventh inning. Ventura proceeded to strike out Tyler Collins and Alex Avila and get Jose Iglesias to ground out.

Wednesday was also Jonny Gomes' debut with the Royals. On the first pitch he saw, an 89 mph fastball from Wolf, he scorched a ball over center fielder Anthony Gose's head and even threw a little bat flip in there for good measure.

Quick Hits from Tuesday
Nationals manager Matt Williams has been questioned about pretty much every aspect of his job in the wake of the team's stunningly underwhelming season. A recent hot topic has been bullpen management: Williams left Casey Janssen in the game in the seventh inning on Monday long enough for Janssen to let the Cardinals blow pas the 5-3 deficit they faced to start the inning. St. Louis won that game 7-5.

Tuesday was even more egregious, as the game was tied 5-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, but instead of turning to closer Jonathan Papelbon, Williams stuck with Janssen, who had thrown 26 pitches the night before. Janssen gave up a double to Cody Stanley, walked Tommy Pham and threw an 86 mph nothingball to Brandon Moss, who blasted it over the fence for a walk-off shot. Wednesday was yet another close game for Williams and yet another chance to make himself the goat.

Despite giving up 11 hits in six innings, Washington starter Max Scherzer held the Cardinals to two runs in his six innings of work while the Nationals got three off Tyler Lyons, two coming from solo shots by Ryan Zimmerman. Here's the second, which was Zimmerman's 200th career home run:

The seventh got a bit hairy for Williams. After Matt Thornton retired a batter, the manager went to Blake Treinen, who allowed singles to Moss and Jhonny Peralta. Treinen struck out Pham, but Williams went back to a lefty in Matt Grace, who gave up the game-tying single to Kolten Wong.

Zimmerman saved the Nationals' skin again in the eighth, this time by doubling in Anthony Rendon from second for the go-ahead run.

Williams did not mess around after that. He went with Storen in the eighth—he struck out the side—and then Papelbon in the ninth. Papelbon gave up singles to Jason Heyward and Moss and with two outs induced an infield chopper from the speedy Wong, but he hustled over to the bag quickly enough to get the feed from Anthony Rendon and seal the 4-3 victory.

Ultimately, the Nationals could only keep their deficit in the NL East from becoming seven, because the Mets beat the Phillies 9-5 with the help of this zany inside-the-park home run from Ruben Tejada.

That just might have topped Jeff Francouer pitching for the title of Phillies-est moment of the season.

Also of note with the Nationals: Bryce Harper was yanked from the game after popping out, and while the move drew some brief speculation that it was motivated by Harper not running out the ball, the Nationals later broke protocol to announce that Harper left with left glute tightness.

***

Lost in the hubbub around Curt Schilling being a xenophobic knucklehead is the fact that he is one of the last two pitchers to record 300 strikeouts in a single season, a distinction he shares with Randy Johnson, who has had a far quieter retirement photographing concerts and races. Schilling might not have that honor for long, because Clayton Kershaw struck out 15 batters on Wednesday night, giving him 251 for the season; he has a month more to get the 49 he'd need to end Schilling and Johnson's reign.

Kershaw got off to a slow start by his standards, only striking out two in the first two innings, but he picked it up from there, getting two whiffs in the third, fifth, eighth, and ninth innings and striking out the side in the seventh. When Kershaw whiffed Andrew Susac to end the top of the eighth, it eclipsed his previous best single-season strikeout total.

Kershaw went the full nine innings, but the Dodgers' offense kept the win in doubt. At least they didn't get no-hit: Justin Turner singled off Mike Leake to lead off the second inning. Carl Crawford then doubled Turner home, giving Los Angeles an early 1-0 lead.

Unfortunately, a 1-0 lead isn't really enough for anybody, even Kershaw. He walked Kelby Tomlinson to lead off the sixth inning, and while he struck out Ehire Adrianza and got Leake to pop out on a bunt, Tomlinson stole second and scored on Angel Pagan's single to left.

New acquisition Chase Utley stepped in and saved the day, though, by getting a sinker at his shoetops and ripping it over the right-center-field wall.

That was all Kershaw needed. He drew a mound visit in the ninth when he gave up consecutive singles to Matt Duffy and Buster Posey with two outs, but he got Marlon Byrd to chase an 89 mph slider to end the game. The win gave the Dodgers a series sweep over the Giants, their most immediate rival in the NL West, and put Los Angeles' division lead at 6½ games.

Defensive Play of the Night

Last night's Yankees-Red Sox game ended with a 13-8 final score, New York being the victor. It was not a night for pitchers, as you can see from these two pitches that Dellin Betances spiked horribly. But holy moly, look at that pick by John Ryan Murphy! And look at that other pick by John Ryan Murphy, on the very next pitch! If I were a major-league catcher I would probably try to do the same thing, but it would be because I'd be deathly afraid of getting in front of a ball in the dirt. Also, I'd fail miserably.

What to Watch on Thursday
The Twins might look totally out of postseason consideration at first glance—they sit 12 games back in the American League Central—but they're in the hunt for the second Wild Card spot, sitting just a game back of the Rangers, who won 4-3 last night against the Padres. The Twins' hopes for tonight rest largely on the broad shoulders of Kyle Gibson, who has had an inconsistent season.

Gibson had a very mediocre April, including a stretch in which he struck out just three batters over three whole starts, but bounced back in May to the tune of a 1.36 ERA over six starts. On May 24th against the White Sox, the team Gibson is set to throw against at 1:10 today, he tossed eight innings, allowed four hits, and struck out eight.

His June was okay—4.70 ERA with 8.2 strikeouts per nine—and his July was better, with a similar strikeout figure and a 3.73 ERA. August has been rough so far, though, with a 5.29 ERA and a K/9 figure that has dipped down to 6.1. Gibson has generally maintained velocity and movement throughout his repertoire; the main culprit is walks, of which he has piled up 16 to 23 strikeouts, as opposed to the 9:24 ratio from May. Gibson's slider has also proven vulnerable, as he limited batters to .143 and .129 averages against that pitch in June and July but has seen that figure climb to .292 in August with a .417 slugging percentage.

***

On August 28th, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote a nifty little article about Francisco Liriano, the Pirates' starter for their game tonight against the Brewers tonight at 7:20. The gist of it is this: Liriano throws just over a third of his pitches for strikes, but is quite successful nonetheless. Or, more precisely, just over a third of Liriano's pitches end up in the PITCHf/x strike zone. This is little concern for Liriano, who has compiled a very adequate 57 walks in 153 2/3 innings this year with an opponents' batting average that is the lowest total of his career.

Liriano has just the sort of profile to succeed in such a manner. All of his pitches, especially his wipeout slider, move enough to make them a bit of a hassle to keep in the zone. They look like good enough pitches to the hitter, however, and that's what counts. When coaches say "throw strikes," they're really saying "throw something that will end up being a strike," which is a bit of a mouthful.

It may be safer for Liriano to stay out of the zone, but he doesn't give up a ton of hits either way, as you can see here.

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