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September 14, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Blue Jays (80-69) at Red Sox (87-61), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (224 IP, 3.21 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 193 K) vs. Jon Lester (189 1/3, 3.76, 1.31, 138)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 85-64 (666 RS, 571 RA); Boston, 89-59 (781 RS, 624 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #4; Boston, #1
Prospectus: Today's game is a rematch of one of the year's most exciting pitching matchups, as Lester and Halladay face off for the second time this season. This will be Halladay's first start of the year on three days' rest, and his first since 2004, when he went seven innings against the Royals on 101 pitches. In order to give the Jays a last shot at the playoffs, Halladay has volunteered to go on limited rest when necessary, which has the added benefit of potential extra credit for the Cy Young Award race as well. For his career, Halladay has made four starts on three days' rest: he took on the Montreal Expos in June of 2003, going eight innings with six strikeouts, no walks, and no runs allowed; he again went eight innings against the Yankees later that same season, this time giving up a pair of runs and a homer while striking out six with no free passes issued; and for his last short-rest start of '03 he went seven innings against the Orioles while giving up two hits, no runs, striking out four, and once again walking none. The 2004 start against the Royals was also a success, with Halladay going seven, whiffing four hitters, giving up just three runs, and continuing his streak of not walking a batter on short rest.

As for Lester, his early-season matchup against Doc Halladay was a turning point of sorts for him; he had struggled prior to the appearance with just 4.5 strikeouts, 5.4 walks, and 1.4 home runs per nine. Granted, this was in only 31 2/3 innings at that point, but if you were to look back at footage of those early starts, Lester appeared to be a different pitcher than he is now. It shows in his stat line from that time forward, as he went eight innings while holding the Jays to one run that night, and has a 2.80 ERA, seven strikeouts, just 2.3 walks, and 0.5 homers per nine since. Red Sox color analyst Jerry Remy credited Lester's start against Halladay for his turnaround, as he felt facing off against an efficient pitcher like Halladay who goes after hitters may have rubbed off on Lester some-the lefty began to work faster himself, and there may be something to that given his success since then, which included his no-hitter against the Royals just a few weeks later.

Matchup: Twins (82-66) at Orioles (65-82), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Nick Blackburn (176 2/3 IP, 4.43 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 89 K) vs. Radhames Liz (65, 8.17, 1.92, 47)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 83-65 (766 RS, 666 RA); Baltimore, 68-79 (741 RS, 803 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Baltimore, #23
Prospectus: The Twins are tied with the White Sox for first place in the AL Central again, though they have two fewer games left on the season and are a single percentage point behind because of it. Today's game presents an excellent opportunity for them to secure first place for themselves, as Blackburn, one of the team's better pitchers (third among Twins in SNLVAR with 3.9), faces Liz, who has been a disappointment for the last-place Orioles. After a promising stint at Triple-A Norfolk where Liz tossed 87 innings with 8.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, and just six homers on the year, he was promoted to the Orioles, at which point his wheels came off. Liz has seen his strikeouts dip to a still-useful 6.5 per nine, but his walk rate skyrocketed; he's averaged 5.7 unintentional passes per nine with the O's. Add to that a 2.1 HR/9 that would project to 46 bombs over 200 innings pitched, and it's easy to see why Liz has an ERA and FIP that rival his strikeout rate.

Besides having two fewer games remaining than the White Sox, the Twins also have a tough schedule in front of them from now until the last weekend of the season, when they get to take on the lowly Royals at home. They have a three-game set against a hot Indians team that's finally coming close to their expected record, and then four games against Tampa Bay, who lead the American League East and ranked third in last week's Hit List. Then they have three games against the White Sox. Given those next few series, beating up on Liz and finishing up a sweep of the O's may be their last chance to gain any cushion, however slight.

Matchup: Tigers (70-76) at White Sox (81-65), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Justin Verlander (184 1/3 IP, 5.32 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 149 K) vs. Javier Vazquez (188 2/3, 4.48, 1.30, 180)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 72-74 (738 RS, 751 RA); Chicago, 81-65 (732 RS, 646 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #17; Chicago, #6
Prospectus: The White Sox have their own problems, above and beyond having the Twins breathing down their necks, as the offense has been unable to produce since Carlos Quentin went down with his self-inflicted injury. The team has hit a collective .243/.303/.388 in his absence, and that's with the bulk of those games coming in Chicago, where the offense normally does well. Today's doubleheader will give the White Sox an opportunity to gain some ground on the Twins, who play a single game today. Of the two, the late contest is clearly in the White Sox's favor, with staff ace John Danks facing off against the aged and increasingly decrepit Kenny Rogers.

Before that though, there's this early afternoon game, with two starters going at it who have performed below expectations. Verlander's pitching better lately than he did during the early part of the season, but he is still not entirely right. His average fastball velocity is down by 1.2 mph from last year (which is itself down slightly from the two seasons before). If you look at Verlander's FIP, he appears to be suffering from poor luck, as his ERA is 0.61 higher due to his low strand rate of 65 percent, which FIP adjusts for. The thing is, though, that Verlander has pitched much more poorly from the stretch (opponent's line of .315/.383/.458) than from the windup (.202/.294/.310). That's a far cry from 2007, when he allowed a .230/.317/.350 line with runners on; if this is a fluke that will regress with more time, then it's just bad luck for Verlander, but the Tigers may want to spend time this offseason doing some tinkering in order to get their ace back into form.

Matchup: Brewers (83-65) at Phillies (81-67), 7:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeff Suppan (167 IP, 5.28 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 82 K) vs. Brett Myers (172 2/3, 4.48, 1.37, 153)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 80-68 (690 RS, 629 RA); Philadelphia, 84-64 (720 RS, 622 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #7; Philadelphia, #9
Prospectus: With two games to play today and just two games separating these clubs thanks to two straight victories from the Phillies, Philadelphia has a chance to tie things up with wins against Dave Bush in the afternoon tilt and then Suppan in this evening's game; while Joe Blanton/Bush is a fairly even contest, Suppan versus a reinvigorated Brett Myers may not be a favorable matchup for a Brewers team that can't find its stroke lately. With a 2.7 SNLVAR in 167 innings, Suppan is the weakest link in the Brewers rotation. His K/BB ratio is just 1.3, and he's giving up 1.4 HR/9; his 4.63 ERA is almost a run lower than expected according to his FIP; despite the rise in homers and walks, and his ERA looks the same as last season's performance with Suppan benefiting from the Brewers' improved defense.

The Phillies are in a position to sweep the Brewers given these matchups, which is great for those who love an old-fashioned pennant race (meaning, everyone except for baseball-hating Communists and/or people watching football this weekend instead), but bad for Brewers fans, who need not be reminded about what happened to their playoff hopes in 2007. If the Brewers can eke out a split in the doubleheader today, that crisis can be averted for now.

Matchup: Cubs (88-58) at Astros (80-67), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (173 1/3 IP, 3.74 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 117 K) vs. Randy Wolf (174, 4.86, 1.39, 146)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 90-56 (779 RS, 602 RA); Houston, 73-74 (665 RS, 672 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Houston, #15
Prospectus: It took all weekend to get here, but the Cubs and Astros can finally begin their series tonight in the comfort of Milwaukee, only 90 miles from Chicago and a place where the Cubs oftentimes hear cheers from their own fans. While there are some in Houston griping about that, the split in home-field advantage over the course of a season, never mind a three-game set where the park isn't even going to be full of people, is not that great, and it isn't like it's the cheers of the crowd that cause the Cubs to slug higher in their hometown. The Astros were on fire prior to being idled by Ike, winning six straight and nine of their previous 10 games; they've jumped up the standings in the NL Central and also now sit just 2 games behing the Brewers in the wild-card race. Even if the Astros were to sweep the Cubs in this two-day series, they are most likely out of reach of the division title, but with the way the Brewers have been playing, a strong showing in their rivals' home park would help them wrest the wild-card title away from the Brew Crew.

Zambrano is making his first start since September 2; trouble with his arm necessitated some extra time off, and the rainouts have given him even more time to heal, which may be to the Cubs' benefit in the long run. Perhaps Wolf could have used a few extra days off as well, as he began his September by throwing 128 pitches against this same Cubs team in a complete-game shutout, but the Astros have shuffled their rotation around and he's still on regular rest. Wolf has been a very good pitcher for the Astros thus far, with 6.8 strikeouts per nine, 3.3 walks per nine, and a 3.81 ERA over 54 1/3 innings in nine starts. He's managed to drop his ERA by around a third of a run despite leaving the pitcher-friendly comforts of Petco Park; his acquisition, which seemed questionable at the time, has instead been an integral part of this recent Astros' run.

Related Content:  Chicago Cubs,  The Who,  Pythagorean Standings

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