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The Thursday Takeaway
Yordano Ventura's 10-month-long road from World Series stardom back to big-league dominance had no shortage of twists and turns. He was ejected from back-to-back starts in April, spent a month on the shelf with ulnar neuritis in his throwing elbow in June, and was briefly demoted to Triple-A, with only the season-ending injury to Jason Vargas' elbow sparing Ventura a summertime stint in Omaha. But the electric right-hander appears to have come out the other side just fine.

He'd held foes to two or fewer runs in three straight starts before Thursday, when the Orioles bore witness to the crispest stuff Ventura has wielded all season. He fired 36 four-seamers at the Birds and averaged—yes, averaged—99.6 mph with the fastball, approaching 102 and entering triple digits time and time again:

Then there was his curveball, which coaxed nine whiffs in 32 tries, spun in the high 80s to great effect. Color Ryan Flaherty impressed with this bender at,

if you believe the radar gun, 89.

There were plenty more where that one came from, and the result was 11 strikeouts in six innings, a season high for Ventura, who gave up only two hits, matching a season low. He walked four, but the Royals will live with that if it comes with the unhittable offerings Ventura unfurled Thursday, and he threw 63 of 98 pitches for strikes, so the free passes may have overstated his wildness.

As for the Royals' offense, they got to work in the middle innings, scoring twice in the fourth, and once each in the fifth, sixth, and seventh. Paulo Orlando collected two of the RBIs on a sacrifice fly and a solo home run, and Mike Moustakas turned in a 3-for-4 day out of the cleanup spot.

Those five runs came in handy, because no sooner did Ned Yost remove Ventura than Flaherty sent one out of the park. A still-wobbly Greg Holland coughed up two more tallies in a non-save situation in the ninth, but while his ERA rose to 3.92, the Royals held on to win 5-3.

After the game, Yost credited deadline import and role model Johnny Cueto with steadying Ventura's rocky season. While Kansas City is just 2-4 behind Cueto, who has been charged with six earned runs in consecutive starts, they've won four straight with Ventura on the bump.

Now riding a 13-game lead in the Central and a seven-game cushion on the Blue Jays for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Royals barely need to look in the rearview mirror. Their focus can begin to shift forward to October. And if the Ventura who showed up Thursday sticks around, they'll be primed for a deep run into the postseason again.

Quick Hits from Thursday
It took 13 innings to decide the series finale between the Mets and Phillies, with the visitors bidding for their seventh straight victory and the hosts hoping to avoid a four-game sweep.

You take the good with the bad when it comes to Aaron Harang, who isn't bad for a fifth starter and can surprise you once in a while. The surprise Thursday was a leadoff single in the bottom of the third inning that sparked a five-run rally, capped with a two-run homer by Darin Ruf. The bad was his next two innings on the hill, which featured three Mets homers, bringing their series total to a franchise-record 13, with deadline acquisitions Yoenis Cespedes

and Kelly Johnson teaming up to tie the game 5-5. It stayed tied for a while. A long while. Long enough for Daniel Murphy and Carlos Torres to combine on The Defensive Play of the Day:

Long enough for Elvis Araujo to hurt himself delivering a pitch to Cespedes,

and long enough for Luis Garcia to walk two more batters in the inning, to go with the leadoff walk Araujo issued to Curtis Granderson, and then wriggle out of trouble.

Torres was still in the game in the top of the 13th, when he became the second pitcher to collect a hit in the contest, reaching on an infield single off Hector Neris. The reliever moved up to second on a single by Curtis Granderson, and after Cespedes flied out, Murphy doubled home a pair.

Freddy Galvis compounded the mess with a throwing error that allowed Murphy to take third. He would've been just fine at second, though, because of what Neris did next:

Score that E1 for flubbing the pickup and E1 again for the errant throw. Then add a hit batsman and a Michael Conforto RBI single, and this becomes an altogether forgettable night for Neris.

Conversely, Torres, who assisted on a Web Gem, sparked the game-winning rally, and was credited with the win, would love to remember the 9-5 affair. This bit of history will serve as his souvenir:

Believe Roger McDowell is the last #Mets reliever to score a run in extra innings and earn the win (June 29, 1988).
— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) August 28, 2015

***

Madison Bumgarner is far better known for his hitting exploits than either Harang or Torres, but the owner of five homers in 2015 left the yardwork to the batters in the rubber match between the Giants and Cubs. Juan Perez, Matt Duffy, and Marlon Byrd combined to supply their ace with five runs of support through three innings, three of them on Byrd's second big fly since coming over from the Reds, and Bumgarner went to work slicing and dicing the Cubs.

The southpaw struck out the side in the first inning, before scuffling in the second, giving up a run, and then racking up three Ks for the second straight frame. All those punchouts and the deep counts they entail inflated Bumgarner's workload to 43 through a pair, and his pitch count stayed high throughout the afternoon, sidelining him after the sixth. Nonetheless, the 26-year-old found plenty of time to strut his stuff.

Match a whiff-inducing starter with a whiff-inducing lineup, and you get a lot of whiffs: 21 total on Bumgarner's 98 deliveries, 12 of them on his slider, which looked like this

and six on his curveball, which looked like this

He wound up with 12 strikeouts in six innings, to go with this play,

which might've been the Defensive Play of the Day if not for the Mets' 1-3-1 later in the evening. All of that amounted to the latest in a series of fantastic efforts by Bumgarner, who appears to have August mixed up with October: He finished the month with 37 2/3 innings, 23 hits, six runs, four walks, and 53 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the Giants made sure that their lead wouldn't be threatened in the late stages of the series finale. Kelby Tomlinson authored his first career home run in grand fashion off James Russell, digging out a 1-2 breaking ball

to wrap up the scoring in the 9-1 rout.

***

It's not easy to win a nine-inning game when you hit into five double plays and don't go yard at least once. It's a bit easier when one of those twin killings brings home a run:

And if you have Zack Greinke on your side, well, now you're on to something.

The likely NL Cy Young frontrunner blanked the Reds for seven innings, scattering four hits and two walks while fanning nine. Only one Cincinnati runner even got to third base on Greinke's watch, and when that happened, the right-hander punched out Anthony DeSclafani attempting to bunt, then whiffed Skip Schumaker to leave Jay Bruce 90 feet from home.

Chris Hatcher and Jim Johnson did the rest for the Dodgers, the latter filling in for Kenley Jansen as the closer, and the 1-0 decision was in the books. The only tally scored on Yasmani Grandal's second-inning GIDP, following three straight singles.

Thus did the Dodgers become the first team to win a nine-inning game with five double-play grounders and no homers to their name since … the Dodgers, back on September 8, 2009.

***

Career win no. 100 was both hard-earned and a long time coming for Yovani Gallardo, whose stuff has regressed from the form that once made him one of baseball's top prospects. These days, the right-hander struggles to miss bats, and while he enjoyed a fine first half on the strength of smoke and mirrors, his luck began to turn in late July. He hasn't recorded a seventh-inning out since late June.

That's still true, but 5 1/3 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays' power-packed lineup is impressive enough, even if the venue is Globe Life Park in Arlington instead of their preferred Rogers Centre. Gallardo spent 101 pitches to notch the 16 outs he needed to outduel Marco Estrada, ceding three hits and three walks but keeping Josh Donaldson and Co. without an extra-base knock.

As J.P. Breen pointed out earlier this week, Gallardo's limited ability to change speeds now dampens his swinging-strike rate, and that was the case again Thursday, when he induced just four whiffs. Instead of missing bats, Gallardo set out to miss barrels, and he did that adequately by staying away from the center of the strike zone:

That's not the sexiest approach in the world, but pitchers with eroding stuff do what they gotta do, and Gallardo did enough Thursday to prevent the Jays from scoring. He got eight outs on the ground by eliciting contact on pitches below the strike zone and picked up a couple of Ks when opportunity knocked.

That plus Delino DeShields' outstanding work in the leadoff spot—where he went 2-for-2 with three walks—and Jose Bautista's not-so-outstanding work in right field

combined to deliver a 4-1 Rangers victory.

The Blue Jays are now a game and a half up on the idle Yankees, who lead the Rangers by four games for the right to host the AL's Wild Card playoff. The Angels, who downed the Tigers on Thursday, and the Twins, who lost to the Rays, are nipping on Texas' heels, half a game back.

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
Jon Gray has made four big-league starts for the Rockies since he was summoned from the minors in early August, and the third-overall pick has recorded a no-decision each time out. He was unfortunate to go unrewarded for one-run efforts in outings two and three, but must've had a horseshoe in his back pocket on August 21st at Coors Field, where he was torched for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings of a wild contest the Rox ultimately dropped 14-9.

The Rockies are 0-4 behind a pitcher once heralded as their future ace, but Gray, 5.94 ERA and all, bears no evidence of success or failure on his ledger. According to the Play Index, that ties him with Mike Farmer—who evaded blame for 21 1/3 innings of 8.02 ERA work in 1996—for the longest no-decision streak to begin a career as a Rockies starter. The 23-year-old Gray will vie for a "W," not an "ND," when he toes the rubber at PNC Park this evening, but the extremely obscure franchise record is there for the taking.

While Colorado is winless behind Gray, the Pirates have won 10 straight with his counterpart, Francisco Liriano, on the bump. That's despite a somewhat odd recent stretch for the southpaw, who still sports a strikeout rate above one per inning but hasn't eclipsed five Ks in any of his last five starts. Liriano has dodged big damage by keeping the ball in the yard, with just one long ball authored at his expense in his last 33 frames, but he'll aim to miss a few more bats while dueling Gray in the series opener (7:05 p.m. ET).

Saturday
The Blue Jays paid Russell Martin to contribute on both sides of the ball at a spot where offensive contributions are hard to come by, and outside of a 5-for-38 rut at the outset of the year, until August, they'd largely gotten what they paid for. This month, though, has been an entirely different story.

Since going yard on July 30th, Martin has gone 68 plate appearances over 16 games without logging an extra-base hit. His .349 OPS since August 1st is dead last in the majors (min. 50 PA). It's a testament to the depth of the Jays' lineup that they've been able go 14-2 with next to nothing out of their veteran backstop when he's been in the lineup, but sooner or later, Martin's bat will need to come out of its month-long slumber.

While the 32-year-old's .156 BABIP suggests poor luck has played a role in his summer swoon, poor health is a factor, too. Manager John Gibbons admitted that his catcher is "beat up," nursing a bum hamstring among other ailments that help explain why his bat has gone frigid. Martin took the day off Thursday and has played just twice in the last six days, so he should be well rested, if still not fully healed, for this weekend's home series with the Tigers. If he's in the lineup for Saturday's matinee, he'll face rookie righty Buck Farmer (1:07 p.m. ET).

Sunday
ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball comes to Chavez Ravine this weekend, with Jessica Mendoza supplanting the suspended Curt Schilling in the broadcast booth. She'll join Dan Shulman and John Kruk to call the series finale between the Cubs and Dodgers.

That crew will be treated to a matchup of Jake Arrieta against Alex Wood, with the Cubs' ace doing his damndest to enter the Cy Young Award conversation in the National League. It won't be easy to topple Greinke's 14 wins and 1.61 ERA, but Arrieta can earn some national street cred if he just does what he's been doing for the last two months.

In 13 starts dating back to June 21st, Arrieta has held opponents to 54 hits in 92 innings while striking out 89. Enemy batters are a combined .168/.228/.245 over that stretch. The Cubs are 11-2 with the right-hander on the mound. And his ERA? Try 1.17. Arrieta has yet to face the Dodgers this year, and Don Mattingly's lineup will pose a swift test under the L.A. lights. If he passes it with flying colors, like he has all his others in recent weeks, the senior-circuit Cy Young intrigue will only grow down the stretch (8:08 p.m. ET).