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September 18, 2013

What You Need to Know

Nothing Quiet on the Wild Card Front

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
The Rangers notched at least one home run in each of their first seven September games, though the yardwork did them little good, as they went 2-5. In their next seven, all losses, they didn’t go deep even once. Slugging .291 as a team over the course of that skid, during which they never led, Ron Washington’s squad was in dire need of a jolt. On Tuesday, Ian Kinsler didn’t wait long to supply it.

The leadoff man walked into the batter’s box so anxious to whack a first-pitch fastball that he almost yanked Jeremy Hellickson’s 92-mph, get-me-over offering foul. It was a shrewd plan of attack for a hitter tasked with sparking a dormant offense. And Hellickson lasted only 39 more pitches before the Rangers sent him to the showers with five runs on his 2 2/3-inning line.

Kinsler was in the middle of the action again in the top of the third inning, which began with a Mitch Moreland walk and a Leonys Martin double. The second baseman singled both of them home and then scored on a two-run shot by Elvis Andrus, his double play partner’s third of the season. Two batters later, Hellickson’s afternoon was over. Martin’s was only getting started.

Batting at the bottom of Washington’s order, the center fielder did his best to serve as a second leadoff man, using his catalytic powers to help the visitors manufacture another run in the fifth. He started that frame with his second two-bagger of the contest, advanced to third on a fly ball by Kinsler, and scampered home on a sacrifice fly by Andrus. The game was well in hand by the time Martin made his final plate appearance in the top of the ninth, but he thumped a Cesar Ramos pitch 412 feet just for good measure to give the Rangers a 7-1 lead that the Rays would not even begin to bridge.

The two-double, one-homer output marked the first three-extra-base-hit game of Martin’s big-league career, and his first two-XBH showing since he logged three in a four-day span in late June. With the rest of the offense scuffling, Kinsler, Andrus, and Martin—who combined to go 7-for-12 while the other Rangers went 3-for-24—shouldered the load in one of the team’s biggest wins of the season.

Alexi Ogando, starting for the first time in more than a month, did his share, too. The right-hander held the Rays to a run on two hits (one of them a Jose Lobaton homer) in five innings before giving way to the bullpen, which posted goose eggs the rest of the way.

After the game, Andrus told reporters, including ESPN Dallas’ Richard Durrett, “The homer by Ian made the whole team relax.” The Rangers, now once again tied with the Rays atop the wild card standings, aren’t out of the woods yet. But they held back the pack of wolves chasing them for at least one night.

Quick Hits from Tuesday
Two of those wolves, the Indians and Royals, have gnawed to a split through the first two games of their head-to-head series—yielding a sigh of relief for their prospective prey, whose battle is also tied 1-1. Kansas City set a team record with 17 strikeouts in Monday’s series opener and seemed well on its way to victory last night before Michael Bourn and the Tribe flipped the script.

That script had all sorts of accolades in store for rookie right-hander Yordano Ventura, who put the electric arsenal Jason Parks detailed in yesterday’s Call-Up post on display early and often. The 22-year-old earned only two strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings—a pedestrian total, particularly for a flamethrower whose heater sat in the high 90s and touched 102 mph—but he mixed his locations effectively and coaxed a couple of double-play balls while holding the Indians without an extra-base hit. Ventura gave the fans in attendance at Kauffman Stadium a lot to like. His relievers, dominant for most of the season, were another story.

The Royals entered last night’s contest with a 2.54 bullpen ERA, tops in the junior circuit by nearly half a run (Rangers, 3.01) and about one-fifth of a run shy of the league-best Braves (2.35). Ventura left the setup crew with a 3-1 lead and a 2 1/3-inning bridge to traverse to closer Greg Holland. Will Smith issued a base on balls, but Louis Coleman immediately picked him up with a strikeout. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar were unable to do the rest.

Herrera took the ball in the top of the seventh and promptly hit Yan Gomes before surrendering a triple to Bourn that brought him home. Nick Swisher knotted the tally at 3-3 with a sacrifice fly, and it was a whole new ballgame.

Davis took over in the top of the eighth and, for the second straight inning, handed the Indians’ leadoff man a free pass. Carlos Santana walked, and Terry Francona sent Drew Stubbs to first base to pinch-run. Stubbs advanced to second on a ground out by Michael Brantley and then scored the eventual winning run on a double by Asdrubal Cabrera. In Davis’ defense, Alex Gordon—one of the league’s best defensive corner outfielders—got an uncharacteristically poor read on the liner. Nonetheless, Davis fell behind in the count 2-0 and had to give the Indians shortstop a good pitch to hit, so he can hardly be absolved of blame.

Tasked with keeping Cleveland’s edge to one run in the ninth, Hochevar became the third consecutive reliever to flunk his assignment—and once again it was the first batter of the frame who did him in. Bourn led off with his sixth big fly of the season, and Chris Perez retired the Royals side in order in the last of the ninth to seal the 5-3 Indians win.

The 2-for-4 night was a much-needed one for Bourn, who has underperformed in the first year of a four-year, $48 million contract, recording only a .315 on-base percentage and spending three weeks on the disabled list with a finger injury. Tuesday’s outburst was only his second multi-XBH effort of the season, and the first, a 2-for-6 night in a 13-0 romp over the Rays, came more than five months ago.

Cleveland will hope that it’s a sign of things to come from Bourn, who is now riding a seven-game hitting streak and could hardly pick a better time to heat up. The Tribe remains just a half-game back of the Rangers and Rays, though the Orioles, who downed the Red Sox by snapping Koji Uehara’s streak, the Yankees, who dropped their series opener in Toronto, and the Royals, who host the Indians again tonight, are all in hot pursuit.

***

If it’s any consolation to Gordon, he wasn’t the only outstanding fielder who flubbed on Tuesday. Andrelton Simmons and Manny Machado, who committed two errors apiece, were right there with him.

Simmons’ miscues were more noteworthy than Machado’s, in part because the O’s overcame their third baseman’s rough night, but mainly because they led to all sorts of craziness. The Braves shortstop was charged with one error in each end of the doubleheader versus the Nationals, which Washington swept.

The Nats trailed the Braves 5-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth in the matinee—generally a safe lead for the visitors, whose closer, Craig Kimbrel, had not allowed three runs in any of his first 244 major-league outings. Unfortunately, with an assist from Simmons, no. 245 brought that run to a screeching halt.

Kimbrel lacked his typically sharp control, sandwiching walks by Adam LaRoche and Anthony Rendon around an infield single by Wilson Ramos, which resulted in a bases-loaded jam with nobody out. Chad Tracy brought the Nationals to within one run with an RBI ground out, setting the stage for Denard Span to tie the game win the game with a bouncer up the middle.

Simmons misplayed the hop, and the Nats took game one, 6-5.

Fast forward to the third inning of the nightcap, when things got much, much weirder. It’s tough to hit a double-play ball and nearly end up with a Little League inside-the-park home run on the same play, but Span—who also extended his hitting streak to a league-best 28 games in the twin bill—did just that:

A hot shot to first, a high throw to the shortstop covering second, a low laser back to first that caromed into right field, a backward throw by the second baseman who scampered to retrieve the ball, a forward relay by the second baseman who scampered to retrieve the ball again, a better throw by the first baseman to the plate, a swift tag by the catcher—just a garden-variety twin killing.

Unlike Simmons’ first error, this one—while more eventful—was immaterial to the outcome of the game. The Nationals got on the board in the bottom of the second and tacked on three more runs in the eighth while Tanner Roark, Craig Stammen, and Rafael Soriano blanked the Braves. All that the two wins accomplished for Davey Johnson’s club was to help it keep pace with the Reds, who rolled past the Astros. The Braves, losers of three straight, on the other hand, are now just a half-game ahead of the Cardinals in the race for the senior circuit’s no. 1 seed.

Defensive Play(s) of the Day
The Marlins lost yesterday’s game 6-4, but their work in the field was top notch:

Giancarlo Stanton was on the money with this throw to third in the second inning:

Later in that frame, Chris Coghlan—making just his sixth big-league start at third base—proved that he can pick it at the hot corner:

And, in the seventh, Adeiny Hechavarria made a slick backhand play to deny pinch-hitter Pete Orr a leadoff knock:

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • Neil Walker started the month of September in a 7-for-39 skid, which prompted Clint Hurdle to give him a breather last Thursday. In the ensuing four games, the second baseman went 1-for-14, earning a spot on the pine again last night. The Pirates need more from the switch-hitting Walker, who has fanned in 11 of his 53 at-bats this month and has seen his OPS tumble to .723, its deepest valley since July 26. Pittsburgh fell 5-2 with Josh Harrison at the keystone on Tuesday night, and must now win its next two games to salvage a split versus the Padres in a series that once seemed like an ideal opportunity for the Bucs to return to first place. Assuming that he’s back in the lineup, Walker will take his hacks against Tyson Ross, who was charged with six runs and failed to finish the first inning in Philadelphia on September 12 (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • September hasn’t been kind to Derek Holland, either—at least not to this point, as his ERA has climbed from 3.00 at the start of the month to 3.49 three starts into it. In two starts against the A’s and one versus the Angels, Holland has allowed 18 runs (13 earned) on 21 hits, five of them homers, in 13 1/3 total innings. That comes out to an 8.78 ERA, and, even worse, a .362/.433/.707 opponents’ triple-slash line of which even Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera would be proud. The Rangers, who finally broke out of their seven-game lull on Tuesday, need Holland to regain his early-season form. His next chance comes in a duel with Chris Archer this evening, the third of four games against the Rays at Tropicana Field (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Danny Salazar may not be eating innings, but he sure is racking up the strikeouts. The rookie right-hander has collected 17 of them in his last two starts, even though he worked only four innings in the first and 3 2/3 in the second. That’s not a misprint—Salazar has fanned 17 in his last 7 2/3 innings on the bump. As the Indians wrap up their series with the Royals, they’ll need more of that from Salazar, though manager Terry Francona might trade a couple of strikeouts for an extra inning from the 23-year-old, who is operating on an 80-pitch limit. Salazar, who owns a 54-to-13 K:BB ratio through his first 40 2/3 big-league innings, has not yet faced the Royals; the home team is scheduled to counter with Bruce Chen in the finale (8:10 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

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