September 18, 2008
Thursday's Games to Watch
Matchup: Mariners (57-94) at Royals (68-84), 1:10 p.m. CT
Ichiro could not fully enjoy his big night, however, thanks in part to Ryan Shealy, who hit a solo homer to put Kansas City on the board in the fourth. The shot was the sixth that Shealy has hit in 39 at-bats since being called up from Triple-A Omaha, where he had 22 homers and an 879 OPS. Shealy has nearly doubled the home-run total of Kansas City first basemen in just 10 games; before the slugger's September call-up, Royals first basemen, led by Ross Gload, had just seven homers all season. Take out Shealy's production and the Royals have had just a .275/.320/.369 line out of first base in 572 plate appearances, but that poor production out of such a key offensive spot should disappear next year. The Royals not only have the righty-swinging Shealy, but also Kila Ka'aihue, a 24-year-old left-handed masher who launched 37 homers between Double- and Triple-A this season, and ranked fifth in all of the minors with a .628 slugging percentage.
Matchup: Brewers (84-68) at Cubs (91-59), 1:20 p.m. CT
Dale Sveum has only been in charge for two games, but has already put his stamp on the Brewers, or at least on their batting order. Sveum quickly ended the brief tenures of Corey Hart and his .310 OBP in the leadoff spot and Ray Durham in the three hole, a configuration Ned Yost resorted to in both games of Sunday's doubleheader, which was his last experiment before the axe fell. Instead, Sveum has elected to hit Mike Cameron leadoff, a position he occupied just once earlier this season, while moving J.J. Hardy out of the two hole in place of Durham and bumping the slumping Ryan Braun back up to his usual position batting third. Putting Cameron atop the order is an interesting move, but the veteran center fielder's .333 OBP is lower than the major leagues' leadoff man average of .343. Getting on base is a team-wide problem for Milwaukee, with the best choice still seeming to be Durham and his .378 mark. Durham has seen much more playing time since returning from a strained shoulder earlier in the month, as the Brewers, finally fed up with Rickie Weeks' disappointing season, have elected to go to a straight platoon at second: Durham has started each of the last four games, all against right-handers, while Weeks played the two against lefties before that. Going to the timeshare is the correct call according to the numbers: Durham is at .309/.386/.463 this year versus righties, while Weeks is at .259/.392/.430 against southpaws, and both players have a sub-700 OPS versus the other hand.
Matchup: Cardinals (78-73) at Reds (70-81), 7:10 p.m. ET
Lohse will be attempting to stop the Cardinals' season-high seven-game losing streak, which has taken St. Louis out of the hunt for the wild card at six games behind with 11 to play. The Cards' offense produced just 17 runs in the losing stretch, leading Tony La Russa to attempt some desperate maneuvers to wake up his team's bats, including putting light-hitting middle infielders in the outfield corners. With Rick Ankiel down for the season due to a sports hernia (a painful injury that seemingly has become more common), the Cardinals have a conspicuous hole in one outfield spot which they have been unable to fill: last night La Russa started middle infield reserve Brendan Ryan and his 587 OPS in right field, a game after Felipe Lopez took his 689 OPS out to left field. La Russa also tried Aaron Miles in left field last week, in addition to mixing in veteran journeyman Josh Phelps and rookies Nick Stavinoha and Brian Barton. The Reds also have been working with a patchwork offensive mix-yesterday they started a particularly unimposing lineup that included Danny Richar, Wilkin Castillo, Andy Phillips, Corey Patterson, and Paul Janish-yet Cincinnati has managed to win seven of its last nine thanks to the pitching staff, which has allowed less than 3.3 runs per game in that run. The team's starters have been particularly impressive, with 14 runs allowed in 59
Matchup: Twins (82-70) at Rays (90-60), 7:10 p.m. ET
The wild card is out of reach for the Twins, and after four straight losses the division title is receding into the distance as well. Minnesota put 22-game-winner Cliff Lee on the ropes last night and came up with 17 baserunners, but they were able to plate just four of them in a 6-4 defeat. As a result, Chicago remains 2˝ games ahead of the Twins, but Minnesota still has three left with the White Sox at home, so all is far from lost. To pull off the comeback the Twins will have to do something about their bullpen, which like so many potentially playoff-bound relief corps has been a flaming wreck in the second half.
Matchup: Giants (68-84) at Diamondbacks (75-76), 6:40 p.m. MST
The stories about Lincecum's freakish physical nature abound-how his twisting, off-kilter delivery is perfectly suited to get the most from his 5'11" 160-lb frame, or how he didn't need to ice his arm in college despite the fact that he regularly threw huge numbers of pitches (reportedly including 15 Category Five starts of 133-plus pitches during his three years at the University of Washington, according to college baseball analyst Boyd Nation). While Lincecum may well be a physical anomaly, the decision to push the limits of his rubber arm for a Giants team well out of contention is highly questionable, as BP founder Gary Huckabay expounded upon recently. Lincecum has passed through the "injury nexus," that period of heightened injury sensitivity when a pitcher is still filling out and his tendons and muscles are still growing; a 2003 study by Will Carroll and Nate Silver found that the risk of pitcher injury is most acute at ages 21 and 22, before dropping down to its lowest point at age 24. That fact doesn't excuse the last four starts for Lincecum, however, as Bochy and the Giants are threatening to bring back pitcher abuse, which had been virtually extinguished from today's game.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.