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September 6, 2013

What You Need to Know

Thursday's Wild Card Contender Drama

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
According to general manager Walt Jocketty, when Johnny Cueto—who has been on the disabled list since June 29 while recovering from an aggravated lat strain—is ready to return to the Reds, he will do so as a reliever. Jocketty’s rationale for that plan, which could span the rest of the season, is that there aren’t any active minor-league affiliates with which Cueto could complete a step-by-step rehab assignment, stretching out his arm from start to start.

That puts the onus on the Reds’ five current starters, who have held down the fort for much of the summer. One of them, Tony Cingrani, spent two weeks on the shelf with a lower back strain, but returned to face the Cardinals in the series finale last night. He looked no worse for the wear—on the mound, at the plate, and on the base paths.

Cingrani took advantage of a St. Louis lineup that has struggled to hit left-handed pitching all season, working 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball, over which he permitted four hits and three walks while collecting seven strikeouts. Under different circumstances, the 24-year-old might have pitched deeper into the contest, but he uncorked a wild pitch and walked a batter in a wild sixth inning, leading Dusty Baker to turn to Zach Duke with Cingrani’s pitch count at 79.

By that point, the Reds had already done ample damage to Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, who departed after five frames and was charged with four runs on seven hits. Todd Frazier, Shin-Soo Choo, and Jay Bruce all went deep against Lynn, who also threw a wild pitch and walked four batters, needing 102 pitches to record 15 outs.

That wild pitch occurred during a rather bizarre sequence in the bottom of the second inning, which began innocuously with a fly out by Zack Cozart and a ground out by Ryan Hanigan. Before we go any further, a quick reminder: The Reds player in question here is Cingrani, not Billy Hamilton.

With the count at 0-1, Cingrani, a left-handed hitter, placed a drag bunt between first baseman Matt Adams and second baseman Matt Carpenter and beat Lynn in a footrace to the bag. Then, with an 0-2 count on Choo, he took off for second and beat the one-hop throw from backup catcher Tony Cruz. Lynn’s payoff pitch to Choo skipped into the batter’s box and past Cruz, and Cingrani scampered over to third. He scored on an infield single by Brandon Phillips—a grounder into the 5.5 hole that Ryan Jackson fielded but could not convert into the third out.

Need video evidence of all of that? Here it is—proof that Cingrani is healthy and ready to help the Reds, who are now 1 ½ games behind the Cardinals for the right to host the wild-card playoff and three games behind the first-place Pirates in the Central.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Beat writers covering game one of four between the Red Sox and Yankees were wearing out their “delete” keys last night, as the storylines in the Bronx changed by the hour—and sometimes more often than that.

For six innings, the story was a strong outing for Jake Peavy and a rough one for Ivan Nova, whose struggles were compounded by the subsequent implosion of Preston Claiborne. But then, with the Red Sox up 7-2 in the home half of the seventh, Peavy began to unravel, and his bullpen wasn’t there to help, either.

Ichiro Suzuki walked, Vernon Wells singled, and that was it for Peavy, who gave way to Matt Thornton with the left-handed-hitting Brett Gardner due up next. Gardner singled, Wells stole third, Derek Jeter walked, Robinson Cano grounded into a run-scoring force out, and that was it for Thornton, who turned it over to Junichi Tazawa with the right-handed-hitting Alfonso Soriano due up next. Soriano singled, Curtis Granderson doubled, and—after Alex Rodriguez struck out with the Red Sox lead down to 7-6—Lyle Overbay drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with a single. Ichiro, up for the second time in the inning, struck out, but the damage was done: the Yankees were ahead, 8-7.

Delete. Rewrite.

The eighth inning passed quietly, and Mariano Rivera recorded the first two outs of the ninth without a hitch. But then Mike Napoli singled, pinch-runner Quintin Berry stole second, and Stephen Drew sent Berry home with a flare that knotted the score at 8-8.

Delete. Rewrite.

Craig Breslow, who pitched the eighth inning for the Red Sox, stayed in for the ninth and retired Cano on a line out. But he walked Soriano, and Soriano stole second—the sixth theft of the day for the Yankees, who had only swiped that many on 13 occasions since 1916, as far back as Baseball-Reference’s Play Index goes. That might have been the story, had the Yankees found a way to bring Soriano home with the winning run. Except… Soriano did this, which led Joe Girardi to make this face, and our own Dan Brooks to tweet this.

Delete. Wait.

Girardi gave the ball to Joba Chamberlain in the 10th inning, and the right-hander got Will Middlebrooks to fly out to open the frame. But then Jacoby Ellsbury singled and stole second, and Shane Victorino—still batting right-handed against righties, and still reaping the rewards with a home run earlier in the game—singled him home to put the Red Sox back on top, 9-8.

Write.

Mercifully for the beat writers, Koji Uehara is just about automatic these days. A pop out and two strikeouts took care of Rodriguez, Overbay, and Suzuki to give the Red Sox the game-one victory.

After four hours and 32 minutes, and a whole lot of deleted words, the eyes in both clubhouses turned to the West Coast action, by then well underway. The Orioles beat the White Sox earlier in the day, but the Angels downed the Rays and the Astros upset the Athletics, so the Yankees ceded ground to only one of the other American League wild card hopefuls. Oakland is 2 ½ games ahead of Tampa Bay, which is 2 ½ games ahead of New York, which is a half-game up on Baltimore, which is tied with Cleveland heading into the weekend. Boston’s division lead grew to 6 ½ games over Tampa Bay.

***

At the end of the 13-inning, four-hour-and-17-minute matinee between the Mariners and Royals, in which the teams combined to throw 417 pitches, the story was Mike Moustakas’ walk-off homer, served up by Chance Ruffin, who looked sharp in his return to the majors before that mistake. But the fans who enjoyed an extra hour of free baseball might have filed out of Kauffman Stadium much earlier were it not for a curious decision by Royals closer Greg Holland.

Handed a 6-5 edge in the top of the ninth, Holland was as nasty as ever, pairing high-90s heat with a razor-sharp slider to coax a ground ball from Nick Franklin and fan Michael Saunders. With the Mariners down to their last out, Eric Wedge told Raul Ibanez to grab a bat and hit for Henry Blanco.

Things looked ominous for the visitors after the first pitch: a 100-mph heater that blew right past the 41-year-old’s bat for strike one.

You might think, given that result, that Holland would bring out the gas again later in the at-bat. But the rest of the squares in the above Brooks Baseball plot are red. The next four pitches, all of which were sliders, went for three balls and one strike, filling the count. The sixth offering of the at-bat was the fifth straight slider—and this one was right down the middle.

Ibanez’s bat speed isn’t what it once was, but as his 25 home runs entering the game (24 of them in the first half) suggested, he can still hammer mistakes. And as mistakes go, hanging sliders right down Main Street are among his favorites. This one turned into no. 26.

Moustakas washed all of that away on Thursday. But if Holland and Ibanez cross paths again, the righty might want to stick with the cheese.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day
Another day, another gem from the A’s. This time, it’s Sonny Gray coming off the mound to field a chopper and then firing an off-balance throw to Daric Barton, who did the rest:

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • The Mets are in Cleveland this weekend, and in the opener, Terry Collins will send Zack Wheeler, the club’s top pitching prospect of 2013, to the bump to face the one that got away. Scott Kazmir, a first-round pick in 2002, was shipped from the Mets to the Rays on July 30, 2004, and though he has since made two All-Star appearances and 203 major-league starts, he has never toed the rubber against the organization that drafted him. All of that will change tonight, as the 29-year-old Kazmir (yes, he’s still only 29) tries to overcome a rough patch that has bloated his ERA from 3.89 to 4.36 over the last month. Wheeler, meanwhile, has delivered five straight quality starts, trimming his ERA to 3.36, the lowest it has been since June 25 (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).

  • The National League Central race is far from over, but the three games at Busch Stadium this weekend could go a long way toward deciding it. Once Sunday comes and goes, the Cardinals and Pirates won’t see each other again, at least until October. Mike Matheny’s club, which trails Clint Hurdle’s bunch by a game and a half coming into this series, has found an unlikely savior in Joe Kelly, a swingman who failed to make the Redbirds rotation out of spring training. Now, Kelly is Matheny’s most trustworthy starter, and the Cardinals have come out on top in each of his last seven assignments, including two wins over the Bucs and one apiece over the first-place Braves and Dodgers. The 25-year-old Kelly will attempt to make it eight in a row when he takes the ball in tonight’s opener, in which Hurdle will counter with A.J. Burnett (Friday, 8:15 p.m. ET).

  • Remember the Yankees—that team up in the Bronx that, as recently as August 17, was only four games over .500 and seemingly out of the running? Well, despite the loss last night, Joe Girardi’s club has won 12 of 18 since that point to improve to 75-65, and is only 2 ½ games behind the Rays for the second American League wild card spot. David Huff, acquired by the Yankees via waiver claim in May, pitched 5 2/3 innings in relief of Phil Hughes on September 2, and Girardi has decided to promote the southpaw to the rotation in the right-hander’s place. The UCLA product’s first assignment comes in game three, a matinee matchup with John Lackey (Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET).

  • Fans of both MLB and the NFL will have tough decisions to make on Sunday afternoon and evening. Sure, it’s week one of the NFL regular season. But Jon Lester and Hiroki Kuroda lock horns at 1:05 p.m. ET, and Stephen Strasburg takes the hill a bit later, in the 1:10 p.m. ET start in Miami; both conflict with the early slate of football games. Then, there’s the season’s last head-to-head meeting between the Pirates and Cardinals at 2:15 p.m. ET. And then, as NBC tempts you with Football Night in America, ESPN has Clayton Kershaw squaring off with Homer Bailey and the Reds in primetime at 8:05 p.m. ET. Rest your clicker finger today and tomorrow—you’re going to need it on Sunday.

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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