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September 25, 2015

What You Need to Know

September 25, 2015

by Chris Mosch

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The Thursday Takeaway
It's been a foregone conclusion for a while that the Royals would win the AL Central. Yet this September has caused more than a few Royals fans to break into a sweat. The starting pitching has been terrible and the team learned on Thursday that Greg Holland would likely need Tommy John surgery.

Also concerning has been the struggles of Johnny Cueto, who has been extremely shaky since mid-August. Kansas City's midseason acquisition went through a five-start stretch starting on August 21st in which hitters posted a 1.086 OPS. Cueto was striking out slightly fewer batters than he had earlier this season but that can partly be attributed to the switch to the American League. His walk rate was fine but judging by the eight home runs he gave up during that span, it seemed like the problem was rooted in his command and was a matter of missing his spots more than usual.

Cueto's most recent start was much more encouraging, as he held the Tigers to just two runs over seven innings. Another strong start on Thursday against the Mariners would be another step in the right direction as the Royals prepare for a second straight playoff run. With Kansas City's magic number down to two, champagne was on ice in the home clubhouse.

There were ups and downs in the early going for Cueto, as Seattle got on the board in the second inning when Brad Miller went the other way for an RBI double on a 3-1 fastball that bled over the heart of the plate. However, Cueto also fanned a pair in the frame and racked up two more in the third inning. All of Cueto's various deliveries were out in full force and he added a few extra shimmies to throw off Nelson Cruz's timing during his strikeout to end the third inning.

The Royals backed their starting pitcher with a run in the first and another in the second on a solo blast by Mike Moustakas. Cueto ran into trouble in the fourth inning, giving up a single and a pair of doubles to the heart of Seattle's order to fall behind 3-2.

But the Royals wouldn't trail for long. James Paxton left in the second inning with a torn fingernail so things quickly turned into a bullpen game for the Mariners. Eric Hosmer tied things back up in the fifth with a solo blast off Rob Rasmussen, the fourth Seattle pitcher of the game.

Lorenzo Cain regained the lead for the Royals in the sixth off Joe Beimel with a two-run single to plate Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist.


Kansas City wouldn't look back. Cueto settled in and completed seven sterling innings of work while the Royals' offense picked apart what was left of the Mariners' bullpen. They scored two more runs in the seventh inning and pushed the lead to 10-3 in the eighth. Meanwhile, the final out was recorded in Minnesota, where the Twins lost to the Indians 6-3. Kansas City's magic number was down to one.

Everyone was on their feet Kaufmann Stadium as Wade Davis took the hill in the ninth inning. Logan Morrison prolonged the wait with a solo home run to lift Davis' ERA back over 1.00, but moments later, the newly appointed Royals closer got Kyle Seager to ground out to first base to clinch Kansas City's second straight playoff appearance and first division championship since 1985.

Quick Hits from Thursday
While Minnesota's loss allowed the Royals to pop champagne on Thursday, it was also a missed opportunity for the Twins to pull within a half-game of the idle Astros in the race for the second AL Wild Card spot. Things got off on the wrong foot for Kyle Gibson, with Jason Kipnis going oppo to give Cleveland the early lead.

The Indians added two more runs against Gibson in the first inning and then piled on in the third. Jose Ramirez led off with a double and Francisco Lindor advanced him 90 feet with a base knock of his own. Carlos Santana proceeded to break the game wide open.


Gibson didn't make it out of the third inning but his counterpart, Cody Anderson, twirled 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball for the Indians. The Twins would further cut into the lead against Bryan Shaw, who served up a two-run dinger to Eddie Rosario in the eighth inning. But that wasn't enough for Minnesota to dig their way out of the early deficit, as Cody Allen tossed a clean ninth inning to drop the Twins 1½ games out of a playoff spot.

***

Clayton Kershaw didn't have his best stuff in Thursday's series finale against the Diamondbacks but it was hardly a terrible outing for the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Through five innings Kerhsaw had struck out nine Diamondbacks and issued just one walk. He was missing plenty of bats, with 19 whiffs, nine of those coming via his heater. The Diamondbacks strung together some singles to push across a run in the second inning and another the next inning, then Brandon Drury pounced on a hanging breaking ball to give Arizona a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning.

Kershaw admitted after the game that he didn't have his best curveball and got on himself for giving up too many two-strike hits. (Three of his six hits allowed, including the home run to Drury, were with two strikes.) As you can see in his pitch chart, he left a number of breakers up in the zone.

His pitch count was at only 80 through five innings, but with his spot due up to lead off the bottom of the fifth, Don Mattingly lifted him for a pinch-hitter. Needless to say, Kershaw wasn't too pleased and he let his skipper know it.

Yes, Kershaw confronted his manager and gave him an earful. No, this doesn't mean the clubhouse is falling apart or that Mattingly doesn't command the respect of his best players. This is a case of one of the most competitive players in baseball fighting to stay in the game and wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Mattingly brushed off the incident and said that Kershaw's reaction didn't bother him at all. There's little to see here. Move along.

Kershaw was upset at the time but his teammates responded by picking him up immediately.

The Dodgers loaded the bases against Patrick Corbin with a single and a pair of walks and Howie Kendrick cut Arizona's lead to one run with an opposite-field single. A strikeout and a walk later, Chris Heisey stepped to the plate with the bases juiced and two outs. What happened next forced even Kershaw to crack a smile.

Heisey's grand slam swung the Dodgers' win expectancy from 43 percent to 89 percent, making it the second-most Win Probability Added that Heisey has ever contributed on a single hit in his career. The only hit to beat it was back on September 11, 2010 when Heisey—then with the Reds—ripped an RBI double off Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. Cincinnati would go on to win that game in extra innings.

As far as Thursday is concerned, Heisey's home run put the Dodgers up for good, as Juan Nicasio, J.P. Howell, Yimi Garcia, Chris Hatcher, and Kenley Jansen navigated the final four innings with little issue.

***


The Nationals haven't been able to get out of their own way in the second half, and their chances at staging a late NL East comeback were already slim to none heading into their series this week against the Orioles. Baltimore has played their way out of a playoff berth in the second half as well, but they were more than happy to play spoiler and deal the final blow to Washington's hopes.

The Orioles went into Nationals Park and took the first two games of the series and
jumped out to an early lead in the series finale, with Manny Machado opening the scoring with an RBI base knock in the first inning. Jonathan Schoop clubbed a two-run blast in the fourth to give the visitors a 3-0 advantage. Washington cut into the lead in the fifth inning, with Trea Turner ripping the first extra-base hit of his career as part of a two-run frame.

The score remained 3-2 until the seventh inning when Wilson Ramos hit a towering moonshot off Chaz Roe to even the score. Yunel Escobar doubled home Matt den Dekker later in the inning to give Washington the lead on a play on which Anthony Rendon was thrown out on a bang-bang play at the plate. Washington left even more runs off the board when Manny Machado snagged Jayson Werth's scorched liner down the third-base line. It's safe to say the 23-year-old third baseman was pumped up.

That run-saving play by Machado proved to be crucial. Blake Treinen came into the game the very next inning to try to bridge the way to Jonathan Papelbon, but the Orioles got to the hard-throwing reliever with a bloop and a blast.

Treinen missed missed badly with a fastball to Matt Wieters, who smoked his seventh long ball of the season to regain the lead for Baltimore. Washington had a chance to come back in the bottom of the eighth when Clint Robinson led off the inning with a double against Brad Brach. Wilmer Difo replaced Robinson but was thrown out at third base when Ian Desmond tried to bunt him over. It was a questionable decision to bunt Difo over in the first place, but the execution was equally poor.


The Nationals were unable to push across a run during the inning and came up empty in the ninth against Darren O'Day, who put the finishing touches on the series sweep with the save for the third straight night.

Meanwhile, the Mets took their series opener against the Reds behind 5 2/3 solid innings of work from Steven Matz and a big two-out rally in the seventh inning keyed by Daniel Murphy's go-ahead RBI triple. New York's 6-4 win pushed their lead over the Nationals in the NL East to 7½ games and their magic number to lock up the division is down to three.

The Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Adeiny Hechavarria has been dealing with a strained hamstring since early September and Miguel Rojas has gotten the chance to showcase what he can do at the six hole. On Thursday he made a sweet diving play up the middle to rob Darin Ruf of a base hit

and then made a difficult over-the-shoulder catch for the final out of Miami's 1-0 win.

What to Watch this Weekend
It's becoming increasingly likely that the Rangers will be crowned the AL West champions at season's end. Texas became the favorites to win the division according to our Playoff Odds for the first time on September 16th and haven't looked back since. They entered Thursday's games with 84 percent odds to win the division and only bettered those chances with their 8-1 route of Oakland that increased their lead to 3½ games. Houston's best shot at avoiding a one-game playoff would start with a series sweep against their division rivals that begins at Minute Maid Park on Friday. You'll recall that the Rangers got the brooms out when the two squads clashed earlier this month and the Astros will look to repay the favor with Scott Kazmir, Collin McHugh, and Dallas Keuchel on the mound this weekend. The Rangers will counter with Yovani Gallardo, Derek Holland and Martin Perez.

Nostalgia will be the theme of Saturday's matchup between the Giants and Athletics, as Tim Hudson is scheduled to take the mound opposite long-time teammate and Oakland fan favorite Barry Zito. No, you haven't stepped into a time machine that has taken you back to 2002. The A's recalled Zito from Triple-A Nashville earlier this month and the veteran left-hander will get the chance to make his first start since 2013. The third member of the famed Oakland trio, Mark Mulder, will be on hand for the game and the Athletics plan to honor the three men in what should be an emotional reunion for all three and the franchise (4:05 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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