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September 20, 2012

What You Need to Know

Thursday, September 20

by Daniel Rathman

The Wednesday Takeaway
Isn’t it amazing what a change of scenery can do? Kevin Youkilis, disgruntled and feckless in Boston, has compiled an 805 OPS in Chicago. Marco Scutaro, after collecting 102 hits in 95 games in Denver, already has 72 to his name through 50 contests in San Francisco. And, perhaps most remarkably, Ichiro Suzuki, left for dead after 402 futile at-bats in Seattle, has found the fountain of youth in New York.

The 38-year-old requested a trade from the Mariners in early July, and general manager Jack Zduriencik obliged on July 23, when Ichiro left the home clubhouse at Safeco Field to switch uniforms and join his new teammates in the opposite dugout. He astutely observed that the trade had sent him from the team with the fifth-most losses to the one with the most wins, giving him a long-awaited chance to contribute to a pennant race. Then, he went 1-for-4 in his second major-league debut, a 4-1 Yankees victory that marked the start of a 12-game hitting streak, his longest in nearly a year.    

At the time, the deal was merely a salary dump for Seattle and little more than a flier, at the cost of two middling minor-league arms and $2.5 million, for New York. Joe Girardi already had two veteran reserve outfielders at his disposal in Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez, but neither fit the requisite profile. The Yankees lost Brett Gardner to a sore elbow in mid-April, and Brian Cashman struggled to supplant his slick-fielding, contact-hitting contributions, running through Dewayne Wise and Darnell McDonald before opting to give Ichiro a try. Gardner underwent surgery on that elbow the day after the trade, and he is only now preparing to return as a pinch-runner.

In the weeks after the aforementioned hitting streak, Ichiro continued to do things that just a month earlier seemed long in his rearview mirror.  On Aug. 10 in Toronto, he tied a career-high by driving in five runs, half of the Yankees’ output in a 10-4 win. On Aug. 19 in the Bronx, he delivered his second two-homer game since 2010, helping Hiroki Kuroda to outduel Josh Beckett in Beckett’s final Red Sox start. And a month later, he enjoyed a 4-for-4 outing for the first time since Sept. 21, 2010.

Ichiro’s four-hit effort in the nightcap of yesterday’s twinbill with Toronto followed a 3-for-4 showing in the matinee, giving him seven hits in eight at-bats on the day, his highest total in a two-game span since June 16-17, 2007. In addition to the four knocks, Ichiro also stole four bases, the first time he had done that since Aug. 4, 2010. He became the first major-league player to go 4-for-4 with four steals since Julio Borbon on Aug. 15, 2009, and only the second Yankee to do it in the Live Ball Era, joining Rickey Henderson, who was eight years younger when he pulled off the feat on April 11, 1988. Best of all, in the sort of poetic coincidence that only baseball can produce, both Ichiro’s last four-hit game and Henderson’s four-hit, four-swipe effort also came against the Blue Jays.

By catalyzing the Yankees’ 4-2 and 2-1 wins in the doubleheader sweep, Ichiro played a pivotal role in keeping New York ahead of Baltimore—which won its 15th consecutive extra-inning game hours later—in the American League East. That’s precisely the sort of impact he could only dream of making two months earlier.

Ichiro told reporters after game two, “I came in in the middle of the season, and I always just wanted to contribute, wanted to be able to help in this pennant race.” The change of scenery gave him a chance. And with a .317 average in 53 games with the Yankees, he has seized it.

What to Watch for on Thursday

  • The Astros have scored eight combined runs in their five games at Busch Stadium this year. Jaime Garcia has allowed at least three runs in each of his seven career meetings with Houston, en route to an 0-5 record and an 8.10 ERA. That means something’s gotta give in today’s matinee, when Garcia is set to take on Bud Norris—or Edgar Gonzalez, if Norris’ flu-like symptoms persist. Considering that he’s a solid, if unspectacular, pitcher, the 26-year-old Garcia’s dismal history against the Astros is one of those baseball mysteries with no obvious explanation. The southpaw will need to contain the mighty Justin Maxwell, who is 4-for-6 lifetime with two doubles and a home run off Garcia, to exorcise his demons before Houston moves to the American League (1:45 p.m. ET).
  • After falling to the Brewers, 3-1, on Wednesday, the Pirates have come to a crossroads. They were an even 25-25 when the calendar flipped to June, and their winning percentage has not dropped below .500 since then. But now, 98 games later, Clint Hurdle’s team is 74-74 and in the midst of a tailspin that threatens to result in the franchise’s 20th consecutive losing season. The challenge of stemming the tide, which has washed away the Pirates’ playoff hopes during a 4-12 start to September, falls on Wandy Rodriguez’s left shoulder as he toes the rubber this afternoon in a duel with Michael Fiers. Rodriguez has delivered half of Pittsburgh’s victories this month, topping the Astros on Sept. 4 and the Cubs his last time out, but Ryan Braun is his kryptonite. A candidate for Most Valuable Player honors, Braun could not ask for a better opportunity to pad his case than a date with Rodriguez, whom he has battered to the tune of a .378/.465/.838 triple slash, including five doubles and four home runs, in 43 plate appearances (4:05 p.m. ET). 
  • Matt Kemp may have resuscitated the Dodgers’ season in game two of yesterday’s doubleheader with a ninth-inning solo shot that put the kibosh on a six-run Nationals rally. Had Los Angeles failed to recover from its meltdown in the bottom of the eighth, it would have plunged to three games behind second-place St. Louis in the loss column, a gap that likely would have proved insurmountable with only 13 games left to play. But Don Mattingly’s squad is only a third of the way through its untimely road trip to Washington and Cincinnati, and unfortunately for the Dodgers, even though the Nats and Reds have virtually clinched their divisions, they are still jockeying for the league’s number-one seed. Chris Capuano, who beat the Nationals with 6 2/3 shutout innings at Dodger Stadium on April 29, gets the ball in the rubber match against Ross Detwiler. That might be good news for Adrian Gonzalez, who went deep in his lone career encounter with Detwiler but is currently buried in a 22-game homer-less drought (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • And the Dodgers aren’t the only Los Angeles-area team whose playoff hopes are on life support. The Angels failed to take advantage of the A’s second consecutive loss last night, as C.J. Wilson was lit up by his former team in a 6-2 Rangers win. Tonight, Mike Scioscia will ask Zack Greinke to match wits with Yu Darvish, in a duel of righties that have produced a quality start in each of their past five outings. Greinke has not yet faced the Rangers since coming over from Milwaukee in late-July, but he has ownage on many of Texas’ best hitters. Ian Kinsler is 3-for-18 with seven strikeouts. Nelson Cruz is 1-for-9 with four whiffs. And, most notably, Josh Hamilton wears an 0-for-16 collar with seven punchouts of his own. Greinke’s ability to sustain his dominance over that powerful trio may determine his team’s fate in the series finale (10:05 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

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