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September 30, 2015

What You Need to Know

The Chaos Chase

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway

At the conclusion of play last night, the National League’s playoff participants were set. The American League’s, on the other hand, were anything but. We begin in the AL West, the center of the latest round of musical chairs, after the Indians-Twins contest was among four games rained out Tuesday. And in just that one division, there was plenty of action to break down.

The Rangers were and still are in first place, so we’ll start with them. Texas hosted Detroit yesterday, with Cole Hamels on the hill, and to the dismay of the crowd at Globe Life Park, their team’s marquee deadline acquisition didn’t bring his “A” game. Instead, Hamels gave up six runs, his worst performance in that department since coming over from the Phillies, leaving it to the offense to bail him out.

As it turned out, Hamels picked a good night to be generous. The Tigers were even more charitable, and it wasn’t all their starter’s fault. Daniel Norris struggled and struggled and struggled in the first inning, but manager Brad Ausmus—with 17 other pitchers at his disposal—opted to let the rookie expend 54 pitches in the opening frame without turning to a reliever. That’s the most times any pitcher has kicked and dealt in a single inning this year, and it certainly ran afoul of the typical owner’s manual for a 22-year-old blue-chip prospect obtained in a deadline blockbuster. But the Rangers’ first-inning five-spot had as much to do with the infielders behind Norris as with the pitcher himself.

Norris took the hill with a 2-0 lead and began by getting a groundball to Ian Kinsler, who promptly committed the first of four Detroit errors. The next batter, Shin-Soo Choo, went yard,

and just like that, it was 2-2. After a single, a walk, and a wild pitch, the Rangers had runners at second and third with nobody out. But at least Mike Napoli hit a harmless popup. Yeah, about that:

Jefry Marte made the popup not-so-harmless by missing it by four feet, allowing another run to score. Napoli would ultimately round the bases on a triple by Rougned Odor, and by the end of the first, it was 5-2 Texas.

Strangely, Marte’s reward for that error was a trip across the horn to third base, where he took over for Nick Castellanos, who left with an index-finger contusion. He atoned for his first-inning miscue with an RBI single in the third, helping the Tigers to draw even at 6-6. But then, the Rangers pulled ahead on a ground-rule double by Adrian Beltre. And then, Marte had to play defense again…

The rookie infielder’s second error of the game didn’t come back to bite the visitors, but the 7-6 deficit, which seemed so trivial early, proved decisive when the fat lady sang. Hamels settled in and the bullpen gobbled up the last nine outs, as Shawn Tolleson notched his 34th save. According to the Baseball-Reference, Norris is only the second pitcher since 1990 to emerge with a no-decision after throwing 71 or more pitches in 1 2/3 or fewer innings in a game his team went on to lose. If it’s any consolation to the left-hander, the other was Randy Johnson, on September 7, 1991.

In more salient news, the Rangers improved to 85-72 and retained a two-game lead in the West. There’s a new runner-up in that race, though…

***

…because while the Astros lost to the Mariners, 6-4, the Angels earned their seventh win in a row. Unlike the Tigers-Rangers matchup, this one was all about the pitching, and it was one-sided from the start.

Chris Bassitt, who got the ball for the A’s, might as well have started every batter in a 1-0 hole. He fell behind 13 of 19 after the first pitch, and the righty’s inability to get ahead got him pounded. The Angels chased Bassitt after 3 2/3 innings of eight-hit, six-run awfulness, and their pitcher had no more mercy on the Athletics than their hitters did.

Nick Tropeano struck out two in the first. Then, he fanned two more in the second. And another pair in the third. And a couple more in the fourth. And another in the fifth, before Max Muncy decided enough was enough and clubbed a solo homer.

By the time Tropeano was through with the A’s, he had a career-high 11 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. Muncy’s homer was the only run on his line, and the green and gold had just two other hits and a walk to show for their efforts at the plate. The 25-year-old Tropeano tossed almost as many breaking and offspeed offerings (45) as he did fastballs (49), largely avoiding belt-high mistakes:

The righties kept reaching for the slider,

the lefties corkscrewed on the changeup,

and Tropeano was well on his way to the best outing of his young big-league career. Mat Latos booked a couple of uneventful innings in his Halos debut, and Anaheim cruised to an 8-1 victory…

***

…which took on heightened importance when Houston was felled by its latest bullpen problem.

The Astros and Mariners were tied at four heading into the bottom of the eighth, when Oliver Perez relieved Will Harris with one away. Perez went 1-for-2 in his lefty-specialist assignment, retiring Robinson Cano but allowing a two-out single to Seth Smith. A.J. Hinch then called on Pat Neshek to face Mark Trumbo, who singled to put men on the corners. Neshek then walked Franklin Gutierrez, loading the bases for long-time minor leaguer Shawn O’Malley, who woke up Tuesday with a .435 on-base percentage in 47 trips to the plate. After striking out as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, he delivered in the eighth:

The two-run single could’ve been worse for the Astros, as Jake Marisnick’s throw home went to the backstop and allowed both remaining runners to advance. But even the two-run gap proved unbridgeable, as Tom Wilhelmsen wrapped up the 6-4 decision in the ninth.

With it, the Mariners played spoiler for the Astros, knocking Hinch’s bunch a half-game out of playoff position. If the season ended today, the second Wild Card berth would belong to the Angels…

Quick Hits from Tuesday

…and they might want to look into nonrefundable accommodations in the Bronx. The Yankees had some hopes of chasing down the Jays last week, but those are all but dead now. While Toronto had its game in Baltimore rained out, the Yankees might’ve wished the showers had raced to the Bronx in time to wash away theirs.

Michael Pineda had himself a first-inning fiasco, as the Red Sox went double, single, fielder’s choice, double, fielder’s choice, double, before Blake Swihart smacked a three-run bomb:

And while Pineda recovered from the worst inning of his career to date, completing six frames thanks to his strike-throwing prowess, his bounce-back was trumped by that of Rick Porcello. The Boston righty was touched up for four runs in the first, including a Dustin Ackley homer, but he wound up going eight with just those four tallies on his line. Pineda gave up seven total runs, and that was before Swihart cranked his second big fly of the night.

The Red Sox went on to win 10-4, and they no doubt enjoyed casting doubt on the Yankees’ no. 2 starter. Beyond that, they also trimmed the Jays’ East-division-clinching magic number to one, all while John Gibbons’ club caught some extra Z’s at its Baltimore hotel. The Jays can lock up the East with a win in either end of their twinbill today.

***

One was a different sort of magic number for Clayton Kershaw yesterday—it was the number of hits he afforded the Giants in a dominant NL West clincher.

Spotted a 1-0 lead in the first inning, Kershaw carved up the Giants before watching his teammates play home run derby at Madison Bumgarner’s expense. Perhaps showing a little fatigue, Bumgarner became increasingly vulnerable in the middle frames, as he set a career high in innings pitched in a regular season. Kiké Hernandez launched a 448-footer deep into the center-field stands in the third:

Justin Ruggiano punished a slow curve in the sixth:

And A.J. Ellis made it a back-to-back set:

If fatigue was a factor, credit Kershaw with wearing down Bumgarner with a 13-pitch at-bat in the fifth:

But that wasn’t the most impressive thing the defending NL MVP did Tuesday. Not by a long shot. His moundwork was sublime: nine innings, just a Kevin Frandsen single and a walk, and 13 strikeouts. It made Kershaw the first pitcher in major-league history to deliver two shutouts with no more than one hit, no more than one walk, and at least a baker’s dozen in the strikeout column.

And the 8-0 rout made the Dodgers division champions for the third year in a row.

As a result, the Giants are out. The Dodgers win the West, joining the Mets as division winners. The Cardinals’ magic number in the Central is two, so, like the Jays, they could clinch their division crown with a win in either end of their doubleheader against the Pirates. And with the Bucs three up on the Cubs, it’s quite likely that Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole will go head-to-head in the Wild Card playoff at PNC Park.

***

Speaking of the Cubs, they downed the Reds by a final score of 4-1. Dan Haren was the star of the show, baffling the Cincinnati offense over 7 1/3 stellar innings. The righty limited the home lineup to three hits and punched out six. Chicago scored four times in the first inning, and Haren never looked back.

While Haren’s work throughout the game made him the star of the show, Anthony Rizzo did something in the first inning—or, rather, had something done to him—that put the first baseman in an extremely exclusively 30-30 club. As Reds starter Josh Smith scuffled in the first, he plunked Rizzo to load the bases with one out. It was Rizzo’s 30th HBP of the season.

Rizzo went 0-for-3 with a walk after his first trip, but that one gave him 30 plunkings to go with 30 homers. He’s just the second player ever to pair those two accomplishments in the same season, joining Don Baylor, who did it in 1986.

***

Down in Atlanta, Ian Desmond—who helped break up the weekend altercation between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon, and who later called it a “non-story”—should count his blessings that the closer has been banished from the Nats clubhouse.

Here’s Desmond, bunting with two on and nobody out in a one-run game:

Let’s have a closer look at Desmond’s hustle out of the box:

Yikes.

That 2-5-4 double play KO’d a potential rally in a game where all three runs were scored on homers. A.J. Pierzynski had both of Atlanta’s while Trea Turner connected on the first of his career for Washington:

Besides the homer, fellow rookie Matt Wisler was outstanding for the Braves. He scattered four other hits and two walks in seven-plus innings while striking out four. After an up-and-down first three months in the majors, Wisler now has his first set of back-to-back seven-inning starts.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Trayce Thompson had extra bases taken away from him by Lorenzo Cain, so he returned the favor by robbing Ben Zobrist:

What to Watch on Wednesday

Unlike his former teammate Tim Hudson, Barry Zito has not officially announced his future intentions. If, like Hudson, he chooses to retire after this season is over, his final start will come this evening in Anaheim.

Zito’s 2015 major-league debut went poorly. He was gone after two innings, partly because he wasn’t stretched out to go deep into the game, but mostly because the Giants had tattooed him for four runs on six hits, including a Jarrett Parker home run. That might’ve been it for the 37-year-old, except the A’s decided to shut down a scuffling and beat-up Sonny Gray, opening up this evening’s assignment against Garrett Richards.

Bob Melvin elected to give it to Zito, perhaps to the chagrin of the AL Wild Card contenders fighting the Angels for playoff position. When the left-hander last pitched for the A’s in Orange County, the date was September 28, 2006. The Halos lineup featured such luminaries as Reggie Willits and Robb Quinlan. And Mike Trout was 15 years old (7:05 p.m. ET).

***

Also tasked with supplanting a frontline starter, but in a significant contest for his team, is Cardinals lefty Tyler Lyons. The 27-year-old lefty has held his own as a swingman this year, assembling a 49-to-15 K:BB ratio in 50 innings, but when it comes to stepping in for Carlos Martinez, the Texan has a lot of boot left to fill.

Martinez, who’s done for 2015 with a shoulder injury, leaves having served up just 13 long balls in 179 1/3 innings. Lyons, who assumes his role, enters with 10 gopherballs on his line in 50. If there’s a dose of good news for the Cardinals, it’s that Lyons kept the Pirates off the scoreboard the last time he started against them, going 5 1/3 innings while permitting just three hits and a walk. Mike Matheny will seek a similar effort this time out in the second game of a doubleheader after a rainout Tuesday (7:05 p.m. ET).

But before that, don’t miss the front end of the twinbill, an ace-off between Michael Wacha and Gerrit Cole (1:35 p.m. ET).

***

Scott Kazmir has found rocky sledding on the mound of late, getting the boot from the A’s and Rangers before he could finish the fourth inning. He’s been taken deep six times in his last 20 1/3 innings, and to make matters worse, he’s logged a lowly 10-to-7 K:BB ratio over that same span while also drilling three batters. That’s not quite what the Astros were seeking from their deadline acquisition down the stretch.

With few desirable alternatives, manager A.J. Hinch has elected to stick with Kazmir, who now gets the ball in the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field. The 31-year-old has prevailed in the majority of his past encounters with the M’s best bats. Kyle Seager is 3-for-16. Robinson Cano is 10-for-47 with 14 strikeouts and zero (!!!) walks in 49 plate appearances. And Nelson Cruz is 6-for-29 with 11 strikeouts and no bombs in 31 trips.

We’ll focus on that last matchup here, because it’s grown increasingly lopsided in the pitcher’s favor over the past two years. Here’s how Kazmir has approached Cruz:

The theme here is obvious: Lots of hard stuff away, with an occasional changeup or slider to prevent the batter from getting too comfortable. Kazmir and Cruz have squared off nine times since the beginning of the 2014 season—after a nearly-four-year hiatus while the southpaw awaited his renaissance—and seven of them have ended in strikeouts. In those seven showdowns, Kazmir has thrown 29 pitches, and 27 of them have been fastballs and sinkers.

If there’s a hole in Cruz’s swing against left-handed heaters, which he’s generally pummeled over the past two years, it’s up and away:

That affirms Kazmir’s plan to pound that quadrant of the strike zone when Cruz is in the box, a strategy that he used to slap the Mariners DH with a hat trick on September 2nd. Expect more of the same this evening, at least until Cruz makes an adjustment that has thus far eluded him (10:10 p.m. ET).

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

Related Content:  Los Angeles Dodgers

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