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September 21, 2015

What You Need to Know

September 21, 2015

by Daniel Rathman and Ian Frazer

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The Weekend Takeaways
The Cubs and the Cardinals are rivals, apparently. It can be a tough to remember something like that, especially given how far apart the teams were success-wise the last decade, but now that they're both good (and sustainably so), tensions between the teams have mounted again.

Let's get the shenanigans out of the way first. On Friday, Dan Haren bonked Matt Holliday in the head with a pitch. The maliciousness of this event seems questionable at best, because it was Holliday's first at-bat of the game—he was pinch-hitting for Tyler Lyons—and because Haren bent down after delivering the pitch, presumably in regret.

That apparent penance, however, wasn't enough for the Cardinals. Lyons had plunked Anthony Rizzo in the fourth inning, and maybe St. Louis thought Haren's HBP was revenge. Or maybe not, but when Rizzo came up in the seventh inning, Matt Belisle threw behind him.

Belisle and Matheny got run, and Joe Maddon had some choice words after the game.

"We don't start stuff, but we will finish stuff," Maddon said. And boy oh boy did they! After that 8-3 win on Friday, the Cubs came out firing (beanballs) again on Saturday, plunking Cardinals hitters three times in a 5-4 win. Kolten Wong got hit in the sixth, and then again in the eighth, both on 2-2 pitches.

That second one produced a warning to both dugouts. The Cubs either hadn't gotten their fill or just really have something against former University of Hawaii athletes, however, because Hector Rondon nailed Greg Garcia to start the ninth, and he and Maddon were tossed.

That inning later saw a spirited Cardinals comeback end on a sensational Addison Russell diving stop to take away a single from Stephen Piscotty.

Sunday's game did indeed have a hit by pitch, as Carlos Martinez got Starlin Castro in the seventh, but it was deemed unintentional and life went on. That wildness multiplied about twelvefold in the next inning, as Kevin Siegrist walked Rizzo, and when Jonathen Broxton came on in relief, he walked Kris Bryant and Tommy La Stella.

Russell came up, but he couldn't replicate his heroics of Saturday. He flew out to Jason Heyward, and Heyward made a dart of a throw home to nail Rizzo quite easily.

That pretty much did it. Trevor Rosenthal worked around Starlin Castro's leadoff single in the ninth, and the Cardinals salvaged a game from the series. They still lead the Pirates in the NL Central, but at four games with 13 to go, the division title is far from a foregone conclusion. —Ian Frazer

Quick Hits from the Weekend
Panic has subsided in Kansas City, at least for the moment, because Johnny Cueto had a decent start this weekend. If we're being charitable, we could even say that it was "good": seven innings, eight hits, two runs, one walk against the Tigers.

After that start, Cueto's ERA is now 3.43, which really speaks to how good he was before this bad stretch. And Friday's start began like it was going to be another bad one. Ian Kinsler, the second batter of the game, singled to center, and Miguel Cabrera doubled to right to score Kinsler.

Victor Martinez singled after J.D. Martinez whiffed, and when Cabrera tried to score, Paulo Orlando threw him out to get Cueto out of the inning.

One thing that was working for Cueto appeared to be his changeup. He got eight whiffs with that pitch, twice as many as he'd gotten in any single game since July 1st. That pitch is Cueto's bread and butter, so if it's not missing bats, then his strikeout game is severely hamstrung. Here's Cueto striking out Anthony Gose on that very pitch.

Does Cueto's improved changeup mean that he's fixed that supposed "leaking" issue he's supposedly had with his front side? Maybe, but we don't know if that was an issue in the first place. And, oddly enough, that pitch wasn't running any less or anything.

Here's what was likely the issue: location. See Cueto's start against Baltimore on September 13th, when he gave up 11 hits, on the left, and then the one against Detroit on the right. He was much stingier in spotting the changeup against the Tigers, which is good, because that's not generally a pitch that you leave over the plate to challenge hitters.

The Royals couldn't turn Cueto's solid start into a win, though. Kansas City tied the game at 3-3 in the top of the ninth and took a 4-3 lead in the 12th, but Greg Holland—whose struggles are probably of more concern than Cueto's—coughed up two runs in the bottom of the 12th to give the Tigers a walk-off win. Detroit took Saturday's game as well, but the Royals responded with a 10-3 win on Sunday, boosted by Kendrys Morales' three dingers. —Ian Frazer

***

When the Rangers acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies at the trade deadline, they viewed the left-hander as a long-term asset under contract through at least the 2018 season. Texas was 50-52 when Hamels first toed the rubber in his new uniform, eight games back in the AL West and given just a 7.8 percent shot of making the playoffs according to our odds. This seemed at the time to be a move made with the future in mind; any present-year impact would be gravy.

Hamels did little to improve the Rangers' 2015 chances in his first two outings with the club, serving up five homers en route to a pair of Texas defeats. Then, the Rangers reeled off six straight victories behind their new ace, the last of those a 5-3 win that pushed Texas into first place.

The left-hander took the mound Saturday looking to extend the aforementioned streak to seven. And he turned in his best Texas outing yet in support of that goal.

With the Rangers offense all over Vidal Nuno and the Mariners' bullpen, peppering the line score with crooked numbers in the second, fourth, fifth, and eighth innings, Hamels didn't need his best stuff to down Seattle. But he brought it anyway:

The 31-year-old had excellent command of a five-pitch mix, locating his changeup and curveball down in the zone. He fired 28 of 32 fastballs for strikes, a remarkable 87.5 percent clip that enabled Hamels to keep the Mariners behind in the count and on their heels. Besides Franklin Gutierrez's second-inning solo homer, the M's were flummoxed, striking out 12 times without drawing a walk in Hamels' seven innings on the bump.

Evan Grant, a baseball columnist for the Dallas Morning News, pointed out in the wake of the 10-1 Rangers romp that Hamels has steadily upped his cutter usage in recent outings, citing data from Brooks Baseball:

Based on the results Saturday, opposing hitters would be wise to expect that trend to continue. The Mariners saw 26 cutters, 16 of them for strikes, half of those swings-and-misses. Hamels' eight whiffs induced with the cutter were his high for the game, and many of them came when he tied up right-handed hitters inside. Along with his changeup, the cutter gives Hamels an additional weapon with which to combat opposite-handed batters, including dangerous ones like Nelson Cruz, who went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts.

The middle match accounted for Texas' lone win in the three-game series, which saw Jeff Banister's club fall 3-1 on Friday and 9-2 on Sunday. The Astros, meanwhile, took two of three from the A's, so the Rangers' AL West lead stands at 1½ games entering play today. This one increasingly looks like it'll come down to the wire, which means the three head-to-head matchups looming in Houston next weekend are likely to be pivotal. If the probables hold, Hamels—behind whom Texas has won seven in a row—will get the ball in game one. —Daniel Rathman

***

When Matt Harvey is on the mound, the Mets are tough to beat. That much we know. If there were any doubters left, taking in the first five innings of Sunday Night Baseball, featuring the finale of the weekend Subway Series at Citi Field, would have swayed them.

Harvey was outstanding. He held the Yankees to just one hit and one walk. He struck out seven in five frames. And he threw 51 of 77 pitches for strikes. When everything in your arsenal is working that well, pitching is fun. So it's no surprise Harvey told reporters after the game, "More than anything, I want to be out there."

Only, come the sixth inning, he wasn't, because of the innings restrictions that forced Harvey himself to cool tensions with reassurances in a Players Tribune piece, and because of the Mets' desire to allow their flamethrowing righty to work into the playoffs under a plan that satisfies his surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, and agent, Scott Boras. So it's a good thing the Mets took a 6½-game cushion into first pitch Sunday, because otherwise, Harvey's premature exit would've been much more than just a one-night debacle.

While Harvey was dominant, his counterpart, CC Sabathia, was crafty. He, too, struck out seven, but he also gave up five hits and three walks in a half-dozen frames. All that mattered, though, was that after surrendering a first-inning tally, Sabathia kept the Yankees within easy striking distance. One mistake could flip the script on the nationally televised contest, and while Harvey kept those to a minimum, all hell broke loose when he was removed.

Hansel Robles was the first man out of Terry Collins' bullpen, and his night began with an infield single by Jacoby Ellsbury, which Daniel Murphy upgraded to a double with a throwing error. Brett Gardner followed with a comebacker, but an error by third baseman David Wright put Yankees at the corners with nobody out. Next up, Carlos Beltran, who quickly made those miscues hurt:

His two-run double made it 2-1 Yankees, and they weren't done yet. With one away, Robles uncorked a wild pitch to move Beltran to third. He proceeded to walk Greg Bird, giving the visitors another first-and-third opportunity. After Chase Headley struck out, nearly squandering the insurance-run chance, Dustin Ackley picked him up in a big way:

That's a three-run jack for a 5-1 Yankees lead, and while they were done scoring for the frame, they weren't even halfway there for the game. Eric O'Flaherty took over and got two outs, but he also created a mess, giving up a single to Ellsbury, hitting Brian McCann with a pitch, throwing a wild pitch to move a runner to third, and plunking Greg Bird to load the bases. Collins pulled the plug on O'Flaherty, only to watch Erik Goeddel walk Headley to force in a run.

It was 6-1 in the top of the eighth, when Carlos Torres entered and issued a one-out walk. Pinch-runner Rico Noel did his job perfectly, swiping second and scoring on an Ellsbury single. A two-out walk to Beltran advanced Ellsbury to second, at which point Collins summoned Tim Stauffer in relief of Torres. McCann greeted Stauffer with an RBI single, which Juan Lagares, typically outstanding in center field, kicked around, allowing Beltran to move to third. Of course, that E8 was just water under the bridge in the grand scheme of things, because Bird's oppo taco would've scored Beltran anyway:

After all that, it was 11-1 Yankees. The post-Harvey carnage: 11 runs on eight hits, six walks, a hit batter, two wild pitches, and three errors. Harvey might've wanted to be out there, but, more than anything, the Mets left on the field when he departed probably wanted to get away.

Of course, while the Mets might fret about this 11-2 calamity for an evening, they're unlikely to rue it come the end of the season. It's just one loss out of many. And with their division lead at six games with 149 in the books, if they just go 7-6, the Nats would have to go unbeaten to earn a tie at the top.

The Yankees, though, very much appreciated Harvey's removal, a golden opportunity to make up ground on the Blue Jays, which they seized with the late-inning yardwork. The gap between those teams is just 2½ games, with three upcoming at the Rogers Centre in a series that starts tonight. It'll be Adam Warren and David Price in the opener, with first pitch scheduled for 7:07 p.m. ET. —Daniel Rathman

The Defensive Play of the Weekend
Jarrett Parker used to play on the college summer league team that was 15 minutes from my house. Jarrett Parker hadn't even started college at that time, to give you an idea of how good he was at baseball. So yeah, seeing A.J. Pollock make this catch makes me a bit sad, but at the same time, Jarrett Parker is a Major League Baseball player, and I am not. So at the end of the day I have nothing but spite and jealousy for Jarrett Parker, and I hope for many more catches like this to cross his path in the future.

—Ian Frazer

What to Watch on Monday
Sending Jeff Samardzija to the hill is a roll of the dice these days—dice that have very few favorable sides. The right-hander held the Angels to one run in seven innings on August 19th, but that's his lone quality outing since the beginning of August, a span over which he's assembled a brutal 9.24 ERA. Samardzija's opponents have torched him to the tune of a .336/.403/.621 slash line in his last nine games—clubbing 12 homers among 71 total hits in 49 2/3 innings—and his most recent outing, a three-inning, 11-hit, 10-run drubbing at the hands of the A's, was the worst of the bunch.

Come the offseason, that carnage, which has left Samardzija with a league-worst 219 hits and 116 earned runs allowed, will cost the impending free agent a good deal of money. For now, it's of much greater concern to manager Robin Ventura, who this afternoon will somehow need to navigate a doubleheader with the 30-year-old starting game one. Kyle Ryan goes for Detroit in the matinee (1:08 p.m. ET).

Then, it'll be Erik Johnson and Randy Wolf in game two (7:08 p.m. ET).

***

A.J. Burnett has now made two starts for the Pirates since coming off the disabled list, and he pitched well against the Cubs last week, fanning eight in 5 1/3 innings. Most importantly, the 38-year-old's stuff looks crisp after a month-plus on the shelf to alleviate the inflammation in his right elbow:

Burnett's velocity has returned—or improved—following a dip in July that corresponded with three straight beatings, over which he coughed up 32 hits in 16 innings. Now, the question is how hefty a workload manager Clint Hurdle can place on the veteran who's announced that he'll retire at the end of the 2015 season.

Burnett's effectiveness waned in the sixth inning his last time out, with three straight one-out knocks prompting Hurdle to pull the plug. His pitch count was 83 at that point, and it remains to be seen how much assistance Burnett will require from his relievers come October. A stiff test awaits this evening, when he takes on the Rockies at Coors Field, just Burnett's third-ever visit to the mile-high venue. He's 0-2 with a 7.30 ERA there, and it's the only active ballpark in which Burnett has never won a game. Jon Gray will go for Colorado (8:40 p.m. ET).

***

Speaking of Coors Field, a couple of teammates who called it home in 2014 have since gone their separate ways. Both stayed in the NL West, with Brett Anderson joining the Dodgers in free agency and Jhoulys Chacin finding his way to the Diamondbacks, who called him up in late August. They'll reunite in Los Angeles as opponents this evening.

Chacin has ably rounded out the Arizona rotation, putting up a 2.95 ERA with a 14-to-5 K:BB ratio in three starts since his promotion. The Snakes' version of Chacin has shaved his four-seam-fastball usage in favor of sinkers, and he's also introduced a cutter to his mix:

That pitch is still a work in progress, evidenced by opponents' .438 average and .750 slugging percentage in the 16 at-bats where it's been the terminal offering. Instead, Chacin's bread and butter to date has been his slider, which has racked up 10 strikeouts in 18 at-bats without turning into a single hit. Tonight, the Dodgers will get their first look at the new-look Chacin, who last pitched at Chavez Ravine on June 17th of last year (10:10 p.m. ET). —Daniel Rathman

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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