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The Thursday Takeaway
When the Nationals added Max Scherzer to an already-impressive rotation, they were billed as a favorite to capture the National League pennant on the strength of a top-notch starting five, perhaps the cream of the majors’ crop. Scherzer has justified Washington’s massive investment with an outstanding first four months, but the rest of Matt Williams‘ quintet has been closer to the middle of the pack than the league’s elite. The Nats entered play Thursday with a 3.76 rotation ERA, placing them just sixth in the senior circuit and behind the NL’s other likely contenders.

The depth that was supposed to set the Nationals’ fivesome apart has withered since Opening Day, in part due to Stephen Strasburg‘s injury, but more as a consequence of across-the-board regression behind Scherzer. Strasburg hasn’t been Strasburg even when healthy; Jordan Zimmermann‘s strikeout rate has plunged to a career-low 17.7 percent; and Gio Gonzalez is sporting a 4.31 DRA. Then there’s Doug Fister, who’s gone from being tabbed as the league’s best fifth starter to losing his job.

Fister is only partly responsible for his own demotion to the bullpen, which Williams announced postgame Thursday, but his 6.12 DRA is intolerable for a contender, and his 122 cFIP doesn’t portend much better results going forward. Despite Fister’s demise, though, the Nationals were quiet in the deadline starting-pitcher market, settling for a late-inning relief upgrade in Jonathan Papelbon. That might be because they had a ready-made arm waiting in the wings.

Joe Ross was called up in early June and held his own, booking five innings of three-run ball in a nondescript debut before dazzling in his next two outings, the latter an 11-strikeout domination of a Pirates team that was no-hit by Scherzer the next day. He returned a month later and added three more quality starts before toeing the rubber yesterday afternoon against the Diamondbacks.

The 22-year-old Ross throws his fastball in the low-90s, reaching back for 94-95 from time to time, but it’s his slider that was a weapon of mass destruction in his first six big-league starts. Opponents were 6-for-60 in at-bats terminating with the offering, and 33 of those 60 were Ks. Ross has precocious command of the two-plane breaker, evidenced by his willingness to backdoor Jarrod Saltalamacchia with it on a 3-2 count:

And then there’s the chase version, which had Yasmany Tomas looking silly

on one of the eight whiffs the slider induced in 35 tries.

Facing a Diamondbacks lineup loaded with lefties and switch-hitters, but without Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, Ross was by and large a two-pitch hurler, mixing in just 10 changeups among his 89 deliveries. That mix can leave him vulnerable to left-handed batters, who had an .877 OPS in 60 plate appearances before Thursday and added a Saltamacchia homer and David Peralta double to their output. But those two extra-base knocks aside, Ross—who still hasn’t allowed one to a righty swinger—had the Snakes on lockdown.

The long ball was the only run Arizona managed in the rookie’s six frames, as he scattered five total hits and struck out seven without walking a batter. Going walk-free is a way of life for Ross, who now has a shiny 47-to-4 K:BB ratio in his first 45 big-league innings, the key to his remarkable—and historic—consistency out of the gate:

Joe Ross has opened his career with 7 straight starts of 4+ Ks, no more than 1 BB. That's 2 more starts than anyone else since 1914.
— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) August 6, 2015

That consistency is precisely what the Nationals were lacking from Fister, who gave up five runs on three homers in six innings to the D’backs in the series opener.

Ian Desmond handed Ross an early lead Thursday with a second-inning solo shot, and the Nats rallied to go ahead 2-0 before Saltalamacchia went yard. A two-run counterpunch in the fifth made Casey Janssen‘s seventh-inning adventure easier to stomach, and Clint Robinson‘s eighth-inning jack had the fans breathing easy en route to an 8-3 win.

Soon after came word from Williams that Ross isn’t going anywhere, that Fister would be the casualty when room is made for Strasburg, who’s due to start Saturday. The only question now is how long the new arrangement will last.

James Wagner of the Washington Post wrote about the innings conundrum that the club faces with Ross, who threw 121 2/3 in the minors in 2014 and is now up to 121 total, including 76 in Double-A and Triple-A. If Ross is kept to around 150 frames, he might be through for 2015 by the end of the month, leaving Williams with a wobbly back end of the rotation down the stretch and, potentially, into October. Limiting Ross to five innings per start—as Wagner noted the Nats did in the minors—would put more pressure on the bullpen, and perhaps that’s one reason why general manager Mike Rizzo felt compelled to add Papelbon to the fold.

Now that they’ve committed to Ross over Fister, Rizzo and Williams will need to parse these issues and establish a plan. But that’s a problem for another day. For now, the Nationals very well might have the league’s best fifth starter. It’s just not who we thought it would be.

Quick Hits from Thursday
It turns, out, Zack Greinke is human. So human, in fact, that he couldn’t avoid blowing a 3-0 lead to the Phillies before recording his first out.

The Dodgers sent eight men to the plate in the top of the first, then watched one of the worst teams in baseball do the same in the home half. Bunt single, single, walk, single was the way Greinke’s day began, and it hit rock bottom when Domonic Brown ran into a fastball mistake,

flipping a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead.

At that point, Greinke had had his fill of getting knocked around, so he set the Phillies down with a groundball and two strikeouts to get the Dodgers back to hitting. And by the Dodgers, I mean Greinke himself, who led off the top of the second with a single and scored on a three-run jack by Adrian Gonzalez:

Greinke’s day began poorly, but by then David Buchanan‘s had sunk even lower, with six runs on his line and another on the way

courtesy of Greinke, who authored his first homer of the year to make it 7-5 L.A.

It’s a good thing Greinke did that, too, because the Phillies would get to him for one more run, marking the first time he’d allowed a half-dozen tallies in a start since August 19, 2012. The 31-year-old had gone longer without permitting six runs than he had without getting three hits to back his own cause, which he did in July 2013 and again yesterday, with a sixth-inning infield single that sparked a Dodgers three-spot.

Yasmani Grandal‘s sacrifice fly, following back-to-back doubles by middle infielders Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, pushed the Dodgers’ lead to 10-6. The bullpen did the rest, outside of a ninth-inning hiccup from Joel Peralta, who left the game with an injury before Kenley Jansen finished off the Phils, 10-8.

Greinke’s six-inning, six-run dud bumped him down the ERA leaderboard to … oh wait, nope, he still tops all qualifying starters at 1.71, almost a third of a run better than runner-up Scott Kazmir. And, just to remind us that he’s a man of many talents, the righty did something at the plate that no Dodger had pulled off in more than nine decades:

Zack Greinke is the first Dodgers pitcher to go 3-3 or better with a home run since Leo Dickerman in 1923.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 6, 2015

***

Ian Kinsler began his second year in Detroit with a flourish, going 11-for-25 with a double, triple, and four walks in the Tigers’ first six games, all of them wins. But the Tigers’ season went south after an 11-2 start, and the second baseman’s slowdown was one reason why.

Between April 13th and July 1st, Kinsler batted just .242/.313/.325, and Detroit slipped into a 32-38 lull. The tools that once made Kinsler such a treasured fantasy asset were AWOL, as he slugged only two homers and stole just five bases in those 70 games, shy of the pace he’d need to match last year’s 15 swipes.

Then, on July 2nd, Kinsler went 3-for-5 with a double. Two days later, he collected three knocks again. Those signs of life foreshadowed a 23-game surge that saw the 33-year-old bat .404/.434/.638 in 99 plate appearances between July 9th and August 5th. It was of little use to the 2015 Tigers, who went 9-14 and became deadline sellers amid their second sacker’s awakening, but a nice sign for 2016-17, when Kinsler remains under contract with Detroit.

Here’s another:

Kinsler’s walk-off homer against Ryan Madson gave the Tigers an 8-6 win over the Royals in the rubber match at Comerica Park, where the early star was Victor Martinez, who went deep twice.

V-Mart was unimpressed with Yordano Ventura, who’s justified the Royals’ decision to demote him to Triple-A last month before Jason Vargas‘ season-ending elbow injury KO’d that plan less than 24 hours later. In three games since being yo-yo’d from KC to Omaha, Ventura has struck out just 10 batters in 19 innings while serving up four homers, including this one on a 3-1 pitch that came in too high:

In Ventura’s defense, both Martinez dingers followed fielder’s choice outs that pivot man Omar Infante couldn’t convert into double plays. Then again, walking as many batters as you strike out (three) isn’t a sound strategy, and perhaps it’s a sign that the young righty could use a little Triple-A time to regain his command, just as the Royals thought he might.

Anibal Sanchez, who was only marginally better than Ventura, handed his bullpen a 6-4 lead after Drew Butera took him deep with nobody out in the top of the seventh. Neftali Feliz and Blaine Hardy combined to blow it, as Tigers relievers are wont to do, leaving the game in the hands of the bullpens, normally good news for the Royals.

Ned Yost paraded Franklin Morales, Kris Medlen, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis to the mound, and the Tigers came up empty against all of them before Kinsler got to Madson in the ninth. Since Bruce Rondon and Alex Wilson did their jobs—the latter working around a single and two walks—that was enough to make Kinsler’s shot a series-clinching walkoff.

***

While we’re on the subject of two-homer days, Khris Davis had one, too.

Power hitters love them some high sinkers, and Odrisamer Despaigne left a 93 mph pitch up in a 1-1 count to Davis in the third inning. The Brewers outfielder didn’t miss it:

Matt Garza took that 4-0 lead and said thank you very much, that’s all I need. He clamped down on the Padres, permitting just a run on two hits—one of them a Melvin Upton Jr. homer—in seven innings, walking two and fanning five. Michael Blazek took it the rest of the way, but not before Davis clubbed his second three-run bomb of the afternoon:

Another 1-1 count, another long one, this time off Kevin Quackenbush, turning a 7-1 romp into a 10-1 laugher. The two taters Thursday were the second and third Davis has sent to the right of center this year,

perhaps an indication that the 27-year-old’s all-fields power stroke is slowly returning after time off to nurse a right-knee injury. With Ryan Braun entrenched in one corner spot, Davis needs to keep hitting to fend off a possible challenge from the recently acquired Domingo Santana, who fizzled in his early big-league trials but can match Davis in the power department.

Thursday’s two-homer, six-RBI outburst—Davis’ first big flies since July 18th—should buy the incumbent a little rope, but the 22-year-old Santana is 8-for-19 since joining Triple-A Colorado Springs and could challenge for time when rosters expand.

***

The Giants came to Chicago a half-game up for the second Wild Card berth, putting that edge on the line in a four-game weekend set at Wrigley. One game in, the lead has walked across the diamond to the other clubhouse, as the Cubs took the opener, 5-4.

All five of the home nine’s tallies came in the first two innings, against an awfully erratic Chris Heston. The rookie right-hander got Dexter Fowler to line out to begin the bottom of the first, but then he walked Kyle Schwarber, hit Anthony Rizzo with two outs, and walked Kris Bryant to load the bases. Heston didn’t walk Jorge Soler, but he did fall behind him, and with the count at 3-1, he had to throw a pitch in the strike zone. So he did … a foot away from the target of catcher Hector Sanchez, right into Soler’s happy zone, wherefrom the outfielder pounded it to left field for a two-run single.

Heston proceeded to fall behind Starlin Castro, 3-0, but he got out of the frame with no further damage. He wasn’t so lucky in the second, when opposing starter Jason Hammel led off with a single, moved to second on a single by Addison Russell, and scored on a three-run bomb by Schwarber:

The Cubs were in fastball counts throughout Heston’s four innings on the hill, as he notched first-pitch strikes to just eight of 20 batters and committed a slew of location mistakes within the zone. He had no command over his curveball, spinning just eight of 21 benders for strikes and struggling to avoid the middle of the hitting area:

That enabled the Cubs to sit dead red unless hangers came their way, so it’s no surprise that Heston headed to the showers early. The damage was done before the bullpen tossed four scoreless frames, as two-run homers by Brandons Belt and Crawford merely drew the Giants to within one. And that was as close as they got.

Like Heston, Hammel was gone after 12 outs, getting an aggressive hook from Joe Maddon following a leadoff walk in the fifth. Justin Grimm got out of that jam before Tommy Hunter served up Crawford’s blast. Jason Motte, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon completed the final three innings uneventfully.

The Cubs are now up by half a game, and the Giants added injury to insult when they learned that their deadline acquisition, Mike Leake, would miss today’s start with a hamstring strain. Ryan Vogelsong will take his turn, but the late scratch puts additional strain on a bullpen that worked hard Thursday and might now be one man short. Leake was hopeful that he’d resume his spot in the rotation during the next turn, but hamstrings can be fickle, so the situation bears monitoring in the coming days.

The Defensive Play of the Day
Kevin Pillar is no stranger to this spot, but this might be his most deserving entry yet:

Pillar went 0-for-4 at the plate, but while he supplied the glove-work, Edwin Encarnacion turned in two doubles and this homer

to lead the Jays to a 9-3 win over the Twins.

The romp capped a four-game sweep that pushed John Gibbons‘ club three games above Paul Molitor‘s in the Wild Card standings. At 58-52, the Jays are also 1½ up on Baltimore, though the East division rivals are actually tied in the loss column, with the O’s at 55-52.

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
Is there a better way to begin your weekend than a battle between two of the best teams in the National League, with each sending its ace to the hill? It’s Clayton Kershaw for the Dodgers and Gerrit Cole for the Pirates in the first of three at PNC Park.

Kershaw hasn’t allowed a run in a while. A long while. He’s held opponents scoreless in each of his past four starts, all of them lasting at least eight frames, while piecing together this line: 34 innings, 16 hits, zero runs, one walk, 45 strikeouts. Enemy batters are a combined .138/.153/.155 in their last 118 plate appearances against Kershaw. Seriously.

Cole isn’t Kershaw—nobody is—but a 36-to-4 K:BB ratio and just two homers allowed in his last 41 2/3 innings will usually play just fine. Except the Pirates won’t win if they don’t score, so the soon-to-be-25-year-old’s efforts might be rendered moot if he can’t keep the opposition off the board for the first time since June 7th. The right-hander’s budding Cy Young Award candidacy currently rests on his league-leading 14 wins, a nice résumé with which to impress the old guard but not enough to set him apart in a crowded field. Outdueling Kershaw in a marquee matchup would be a fine bullet point to add to his case (7:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday
The Blue Jays shipped a truckload of young talent to Detroit in hopes that David Price could pitch them into the playoffs and beyond, and the southpaw’s debut win over the Twins—a prime Wild Card rival—was the first step toward justifying Alex Anthopoulos’ investment. Step two: a showdown with the Yankees in the Bronx.

Now, it might seem foolhardy to suggest that any offense has an elite starter’s number, but Price’s last two games against Joe Girardi‘s club have been strikingly similar and equally disastrous. The former Ray saw the Bombers on August 27, 2014, and was torched for eight runs on 12 hits and a walk in 2 1/3 innings. If you thought his subsequent start couldn’t possibly be worse, well, he was gone after two on April 22nd of this year, with eight runs on 10 hits and three walks to wash down at the local saloon.

That disaster at Comerica Park still accounts for nearly one-fifth of the earned runs that Price has surrendered to date, 22 starts into his 2015 campaign. His 2.45 ERA drops to 2.01 if you throw it out, and that would lead all qualifying starters in the American League. Alas, ERAs are unforgiving, so if the 29-year-old wants to shave his back down, he’ll need to do it by avenging that bludgeoning in his second start wearing blue. Ivan Nova is scheduled to go for New York (1:05 p.m. ET).

Sunday
Prince Fielder has been in the majors for about a decade, so he’s faced a lot of pitchers a lot of times. He’s logged at least 15 plate appearances against more than 100 different big-league hurlers. Only one of them has managed to hold him hitless each time they’ve locked horns.

If you rattled off guesses trying to identify the pitcher in question, you’d probably come up with Felix Hernandez and call off the search before long. Prince is 0-for-17 lifetime versus King Felix, with just one walk to breathe life into his .000/.056/.000 slash line. That base on balls came in their very first head-to-head meeting, back on April 25, 2012, and for Fielder, it’s been downhill from there.

So what’s Hernandez’s secret to silencing one of the American League’s best hitters, who is in the midst of a renaissance at the age of 31? Nothing fancy, really,

just a whole lot of stuff away and very little in.

By now, there are no secrets in King Felix’s arsenal and no doubts about where his batterymate, be it Mike Zunino or Jesus Sucre, will be setting up when Fielder digs in. Check out the series finale at Safeco to see if Prince can finally get off the schneid (4:10 p.m. ET).