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April 15, 2014

What You Need to Know

Back-and-Forth Baseball

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
At the start of the eighth inning, yesterday’s series opener between the Braves and Phillies was a tidy 2-1 affair. Ryan Howard homered in the second inning to give the home team its lone run of the game, and Evan Gattis went yard in the sixth to turn the visitors’ one-run deficit into a one-run lead. Then, three relievers took turns making history, as Citizens Bank Park lived up to its unforgiving reputation.

B.J. Rosenberg went first. He faced three batters—Gattis, Dan Uggla, and Andrelton Simmons—and all three of them found the seats, becoming the second troika of the season to go back-to-back-to-back. It had been at least 64 years since another reliever was so badly bludgeoned.

With the Braves now up 5-1, Luis Avilan decided to one-up Rosenberg. He served up only one tater, but that one was a three-run bomb off the bat of Domonic Brown, which scored the third, fourth, and fifth runs of the frame and put the Phillies ahead 6-5. Little did Avilan know that, an inning later, he would become the first pitcher since Jack Knott in 1934 to be credited with a win after allowing at least five earned runs and recording no more than three outs*.

Jonathan Papelbon had worked on three straight days, so Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg entrusted Jake Diekman with his first career save opportunity. The hard-throwing lefty was dealt a tough task, with a long line of right-handed hitters due up, separated only by Freddie Freeman, whose True Average versus same-side pitchers last year was a respectable .277. To make matters worse, Diekman couldn't throw a strike.

Whether it was ninth-inning nerves, erratic mechanics, or both, Diekman missed the strike zone with 11 of his first 14 pitches. He walked both B.J. Upton and Justin Upton. In between, Freeman bounced a 3-1 pitch to Chase Utley, which the second baseman failed to convert into an out. Evan Gattis struck out on three pitches. Then Diekman hung a slider to Uggla. And this happened.

Uggla’s grand slam, which made him the fourth player to slug a pair of long balls on Monday night (more on that in a moment), gave the Braves a 9-6 lead. He and Gattis formed the first Braves pair to do it since Jason Heyward and Omar Infante in 2010.

David Carpenter, filling in for Craig Kimbrel, permitted only a walk while nailing down Avilan’s, um, historic win.

*Micah Owings allowed five runs and got the win on September 27, 2011—in a game in which Ryan Roberts hit an ultimate grand slam—but one of the five runs was unearned.

Quick Hits from Monday
Earlier in the evening, the only other major-league stadium to rank in the top five for home-run hitters of either handedness gave Citizens Bank Park a run for its money. The Pirates and Reds lit up Great American Ball Park for 10 homers, the most ever drilled in a single contest there. And that was at the end of six innings, when the 7-7 tie was postponed by rain.

The Pirates went back-to-back three times; the duo of Neil Walker and Gaby Sanchez did it twice, and Starling Marte and Travis Snider accounted for the third. Homer Bailey served up four of the blasts, bringing his gopher-ball total through 14 1/3 innings this year to six. That probably isn’t what the Reds were looking for when they tendered the right-hander a six-year, $105 million extension in February.

Fortunately, each time Bailey or J.J. Hoover dug the Reds a hole, their own offense dug them out. Todd Frazier gave Cincinnati a 2-1 lead in the first. After Bailey blew that one, Ryan Ludwick gave him a 4-3 lead in the fourth. When that one sailed over the wall, with rain threatening to shorten the game were it to become official, Joey Votto brought the Reds back up 6-5 in the fifth. And after the Pirates pushed ahead again in the sixth, Devin Mesoraco ensured that the Reds would live another day.

That day is tomorrow. The Bucs and Reds will resume swinging for the fences with a shot to break the all-time single-game record at 5:30 p.m. ET.

***

Let’s move on to another hitter’s haven, Globe Life Park in Arlington, where the only tally on the scoreboard after five frames was a solo shot by Mike Zunino. Making his first big-league start since July 2012, Colby Lewis was doing just fine. Then the BABIP overlords and Lewis’ injury-marred defense took matters into their own hands.

Robinson Cano hit a grounder that tipped off the glove of diving second baseman Josh Wilson for an infield single. Corey Hart popped out. Michael Saunders hit a line drive into the left-center field gap, which center fielder Leonys Martin stabbed at and missed, turning a likely double into a sure triple. Kyle Seager rolled a single through the middle of a drawn-in infield.

That was it for Lewis, but the Rangers weren’t done wrecking their own defensive efficiency.

Justin Smoak sent a bouncer toward third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who entered the game 32.7 fielding runs below average for his career; true to form, Kouzmanoff got eaten up by a high hop and turned the possible double-play ball into zero outs. Dustin Ackley followed with a single, but not before catcher J.P. Arencibia failed to catch a foul pop and nearly suffered a serious injury in the process. Right fielder Alex Rios kicked around the single, enabling Smoak to go to third.

Think we’re done? Not remotely. Zunino earned a clean single. Abraham Almonte chopped an infield hit into the 5.5 hole, just over the glove of a lunging Kouzmanoff. And the Rangers—and the new emphasis on clean transfers—picked things up from there.

Brad Miller hit a comebacker, a tailor-made 1-2-3 twin-killing opportunity, at Pedro Figueroa, who did his part. The southpaw threw it to Arencibia, who stepped on the plate to (for the moment) record one out but bobbled the ball before he could throw it to first.

Last year, that would’ve reloaded the bases with two outs. This year, following a challenge by Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, the play was overruled into an error on Arencibia, and everybody was safe.

A sacrifice fly by Cano, who—you might remember—led off the inning, brought home the sixth Seattle run of the frame, many more than the visitors would need in what ended up a 7-1 rout.

***

The Brewers had won nine straight. Their starting pitchers hadn’t been charged with more than three runs in 26 straight, dating back to last September 15. Jon Jay and the Cardinals halted both of those streaks on Monday night.

Jay’s three-run homer in the sixth-inning, tacked onto a solo dinger by Jhonny Peralta in the second, gave Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez ample support, as the right-handers carved up Milwaukee’s lineup. Lynn fanned 11 over seven innings of work, the first time he’d amassed that many strikeouts in a scoreless outing since June 13, 2012, when he whiffed a career-high 12.

Both Lynn and his counterpart, Matt Garza, benefited from home-plate umpire Bob Davidson’s strike zone, which stretched, inconsistently, in every conceivable direction. Davidson served Matt Carpenter with his first career ejection in the fifth inning for arguing what was a generous called third strike.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Ron Roenicke’s squad didn’t go down without a fight. This 8-6-2 relay to nab Matt Holliday at the plate was right out of a Tom Emanski training video:

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Since at least 1914, only one pitcher has struck out eight or more batters in each of his first three big-league starts. That's Stephen Strasburg, who did it in four straight in June 2010. Masahiro Tanaka has a chance to join or best Strasburg, but you have to walk before you can run, and the Japanese import will need to fan eight or more Cubs this evening to give himself a chance in his following start. Jason Hammel gets the ball for Rick Renteria’s club in the North Siders’ first visit to the Bronx since 2005 (7:05 p.m. ET).

  • Through Shelby Miller’s first two starts of 2014, left-handed-hitting opponents have torched him for a 1.241 OPS despite a .214 collective BABIP. Neither of those is a misprint: They are 6-for-18 (.333) with a triple, three homers, four walks, and two strikeouts. A decrease in the right-hander’s curveball velocity, from about 80 mph to around 78, might be to blame, but it’s Miller’s fastball—generally his bread-and-butter pitch—that has done him in to date.

    Fortunately for Miller, the Brewers’ top offensive threats—Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Ryan Braun—all bat from the right side. The only lefty-swingers on Ron Roenicke’s roster are Scooter Gennett, Lyle Overbay, and Logan Schafer. We’ll find out tonight if mitigating the platoon woes helps the 23-year-old get back on track in a duel with Marco Estrada (8:10 p.m. ET).

  • The White Sox are off to a 7-6 start, but their record might be even better were their bullpen less leaky. Robin Ventura’s relievers have combined for a 6.93 ERA over their first 37 2/3 innings of work, allowing opponents to bat a league-worst .295 (at the start of play on Monday) while walking 26 (a league high for teams whose bullpens have pitched fewer than 40 innings) and striking out 27 (a league low for bullpens that have logged more than 40 frames). Nate Jones’ back injury is partly to blame, as is the offseason trade that sent former closer Addison Reed to Arizona, but Matt Lindstrom and co. must find a way to round into form without them. Tonight’s White Sox starter, rookie Erik Johnson, hasn’t completed the sixth inning in either of his first two starts, so the pen is likely to factor into the outcome of the opener (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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