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September 17, 2015

What You Need to Know

September 17, 2015

by Chris Mosch

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The Wednesday Takeaway
The Pirates have been furiously trying to run down the Cardinals in the National League Central over the past few weeks. But even with the Pirates entering Wednesday just 3½ games behind the division leaders, the most likely outcome remained that they would square off with the Cubs in the NL Wild Card game, with our Playoff Odds pegging St. Louis at 80 percent to win the division. (And that's before St. Louis beat Milwaukee 5-4 on Wednesday.)

Pittsburgh pulling off the improbable comeback would certainly make for great September drama but so would a one-game playoff between the Cubs and Pirates, if their two one-run games to kick off their latest series was any indication. The Pirates took the series opener on Monday by a score of 5-4 and the Cubs evened the series on Tuesday, 2-1, behind a complete-game gem by Jon Lester. Wednesday's game—the third of the four-game set—pitted Jake Arrieta on the mound opposite A.J. Burnett, and while it wasn't the most fundamentally sound game, it featured the type of excitement that we can only hope is matched in a potential one-game playoff between the two squads.

The Cubs had the opportunity to draw first blood in the third inning when a drive to the warning track by Dexter Fowler glanced off the glove of Starling Marte, resulting in a one-out triple. After walking Kyle Schwarber, Burnett bounced back to strike out Chris Coghlan for the second out. When Andrew McCutchen reeled in Anthony Rizzo's flyball to center field to end the inning, Dexter Fowler's decision not to break for home on a wild pitch earlier in the at bat loomed even larger.

But the Cubs did break through first in the sixth inning when Kris Bryant drove a 3-2 breaking ball from Burnett over the head of Marte for an RBI double. Bryant would advance to third on a single and then score on a safety squeeze by Starlin Castro, giving the Cubs a 2-0 lead. The Pirates were gifted one of those runs back in the bottom of the inning when Arrieta threw away the third out of the inning on a comebacker, allowing Gregory Polanco to score from second base.

The Cubs had a chance to pad their 2-1 lead in the seventh against Joe Blanton but a questionable managerial move left potential runs on the table. Miguel Montero reached on an infield single with one out then raced all the way around to third base on a steal attempt when Francisco Cervelli's throw ended up in center field. After striking out Starlin Castro, Blanton intentionally walked Javier Baez to get to Arrieta, who was already at 99 pitches and working through the Pirates lineup for a third time. Instead of going to a pinch-hitter with a key insurance run 90 feet away and letting Pedro Strop pitch to the bottom of the Pirates order in the eighth inning, Maddon elected to leave Arrieta in to hit for himself. The starting pitcher fanned to bring the rally to an anticlimactic halt.

In the bottom of the eighth, things started to get crazy. Neil Walker led the inning off against Arrieta with a slow chopper to the right side of the infield. Rizzo fielded the ball and shoveled a toss to Arrieta, who was covering first base on what was shaping up to be a bang-bang play, but the throw by Rizzo was bounced and Walker had himself an infield single. Walker was lifted for Pedro Florimon, who took off running on Arrieta's 2-1 offering.

Cervelli hit a line drive right at Javier Baez, who had taken a step toward second base, but the Cubs' shortstop dropped a very catchable ball. Instead of a double play for the Cubs, the Pirates had runners at the corners with no outs. Josh Harrison grounded the very next pitch to Baez, who redeemed himself by gunning home to nab Florimon at the plate. The play was reviewed, with Clint Hurdle arguing that Montero hadn't given Florimon a lane to home plate. However, the Cubs' catcher was found not to be in violation of Rule 7.13, with replay officials ruling that he had been reacting to the "trajectory" of the throw.

With the Pirates still trailing, Pedro Alvarez drew a walk to load the bases for Polanco. The outfielder chopped a ball to second base but given his speed and how softly the ball had been hit there was virtually no chance for Starlin Castro to either come home or turn a 4-6-3 double play. Instead he went to first base and multiple rundowns ensued.

Alvarez had no choice but to stop dead in his path or else he would risk being tagged out in a potential double play. Once the tying run had crossed and Alvarez realized he was caught in a rundown, he tried to stay in it long enough for Harrison to make a dash for home as the go-ahead run. Flawless execution by the Cubs' fielders kept it a tie game heading into the ninth inning.

With the game shaping up to be a battle of the bullpens, each team got key defensive efforts, with both Castro and Marte each putting forward deserving nominations for The Defensive Play(s) Day.

First, Castro in the bottom of the ninth to start an inning-ending double play:

and then Marte in the top of the 11th to erase a potential one-out double by Tommy La Stella.

After getting scoreless appearances from six relievers, Hurdle went to Vance Worley to pitch the 12th. Chris Denorfia greeted the Pirates' reliever with a single to right and was replaced by pinch runner Quintin Berry, who moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch. Berry would come around to score after a single and sacrifice fly to give the Cubs a 3-2 lead, which Hector Rondon would preserve in his second inning of work. Would you look at that! Using your closer in a tie game on the road actually pays off sometimes!

Quick Hits from Wednesday
Dallas Keuchel's outstanding season has been an integral part of the Astros' surprising surge into the playoff hunt this season. The sinkerball-hurler has maintained his extreme groundball rate while missing even more bats this season, leaving him with 5.6 WARP heading into Wednesday's game against the Rangers; that total had him in an essential deadlock with Sonny Gray and David Price for the top honors in the American League.

With the Astros dropping out of first place in the American League West for the first time since July 28th after Tuesday's loss against the Rangers, there's nobody A.J. Hinch would rather have the ball than his ace starter.

It turned out to be a bad time for Keuchel to turn in his worst start of the season.

Things started off harmlessly enough for Keuchel, with Delino DeShields reaching on an infield single and Shin-Soo Choo dumping a bloop single into left field to lead off the game. Prince Fielder brought home the game's first run two batters later when he turned on a first-pitch fastball and ripped it past Chris Carter at first base.

Mike Napoli was up next for the Rangers and the midseason pick up clobbered a fastball that Keuchel left over the middle of the plate to give the Rangers a 4-0 lead. Keuchel's command issues continued with Rougned Odor punishing a pipeshot later in the inning to give the home squad an early 6-0 lead. The six runs in the first inning were more than Keuchel had allowed in a single start all season.

But the damage was far from over. Fielder continued the home run barrage with a moonshot off Keuchel in the third inning

and the Rangers went on to knock the southpaw out of the game in the fifth inning, with Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus coming through with RBI singles. Keuchel exited with a career-high nine runs allowed and failed to make it through five innings in a start for the first time since 2013.

Fielder would add his second dinger of the game off Michael Feliz in the sixth inning and Bobby Wilson put an exclamation mark on the 14-3 drubbing in the seventh inning with Texas' fifth home run of the game. The Rangers now hold a 1½-game lead over their intrastate rivals and will go for the four-game sweep on Thursday.


***

Washington's epic collapse this season has been even more astounding when you consider how amazing Bryce Harper has been. The 22-year-old has truly broken out into the type of player many envisioned when the Nationals selected him first overall in the 2010 draft. Harper entered Wednesday's game with a 203 wRC+ and 9.1 fWAR, giving him essentially the same fWAR this season as the rest Washington's position players combined.

Harper continued to do what he's done all season during his team's 12-2 rout of the Phillies: terrorize opposing pitchers.

Harper's seventh-inning blast off Justin De Fratus was his 40th home run of the season, making him the seventh player to ever hit 40 home runs in an age-22-or-younger season. Five of the other seven are in the Hall of Fame and one of the others is Alex Rodriguez.

***

Francisco Lindor continued to bolster his case for the American League Rookie of the Year award by stuffing the stat sheet during Cleveland's 5-1 win against the Royals. Lindor got the Indians out to an early lead in the first inning, jumping all over a center-cut fastball from Danny Duffy to give the home nine a 1-0 lead.

Lindor helped the Indians extend that lead with a two-run single in the second inning and another run-scoring base knock in the fourth inning. He also made this outstanding defensive play at shortstop to rob Alex Rios of a hit in the fifth.

Lindor's 3-for-4 night raised his wRC+ to 130, pulling him even with Carlos Correa. Batted-ball-data-based fielding metrics and FRAA disagree on the spread between Lindor and Correa when it comes to defense but the Cleveland shortstop has clearly been superior at the position and is building a convincing case to be considered the front-runner for the AL ROY with just a few weeks remaining in the season.

Player

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

wRC+

DRS

UZR

FRAA

Correa

9.5%

18.4%

.224

.292

130

-2

-4.1

-1.3

Lindor

6.1%

14.8%

.154

.347

130

7

6.7

2.8

Miguel Sano's monstrous offensive numbers also warrant serious consideration for the honors of top rookie in the junior circuit. Regardless of who emerges with the hardware, the number of exciting young players currently making an impact in baseball makes it an exciting time to be a baseball fan.

Bonus Defensive Play of the Day
With Troy Tulowitzki currently on the mend, Ryan Goins has been getting more playing time at shortstop for the Blue Jays. Tulo's bat is difficult to replace, but defensively, the Jays aren't missing a beat at the six-hole.

What to Watch on Thursday
Corey Kluber has yet to make a start in September due to a right-hamstring strain but after a handful of encouraging side sessions the reigning AL Cy Young Award–winner will return to the hill against the Royals on Thursday. Kluber has steadily traded in his two-seam fastball for his four-seamer over the course of the season, with his four-seam usage hitting its peak right before he was sidelined.

The switch in Kluber's fastball of choice helps explain a decreased groundball rate this season and has helped him maintain a similar overall contact rate despite his slider registering fewer swing-and-misses this season. Despite inferior surface statistics to his 2014 numbers, Kluber's cFIP and DRA aren't too far behind the marks he posted in his breakout season. At the end of the day he trails only Dallas Keuchel, Sonny Gray, David Price, and Chris Archer in the American League in WARP. Kluber will look to help the Indians cling on to the fringes of the Wild Card chase opposite Kansas City's Yordano Ventura (7:10 p.m. EST).

***

The final game of the exciting four-game clash between the Astros and Rangers will take place on Thursday, with Lance McCullers getting the ball for the visitors and Colby Lewis taking the hill for the home squad. In his last start, Lewis nearly twirled a perfect game, with the Athletics reaching base for the first time against the right-hander in the eighth inning. The veteran has been a mainstay for the Rangers in the aftermath of Yu Darvish's preseason surgery, with only he and Yovani Gallardo making at least 25 starts this season for Texas. During that time, Lewis has been serviceable, with a 3.79 DRA that ranks him 43rd among starting pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. The 36-year-old Lewis will look to help Texas extend its division lead over the Astros while the rookie McCullers will try to help his club avoid the series sweep (8:05 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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