The Thursday Takeaway
In 81 games before Wednesday’s matinee against the Nationals, the Giants had lost only one game in which they led by three or more runs. But as they leave Washington for Pittsburgh on the heels of a three-game sweep, that number has climbed to three.

In 83 games prior to Thursday’s finale against the Mets, the Phillies had been 35-0 when leading after eight innings. But as they head home from New York having lost two of three, that streak has come to an end.

One of the many virtues that has led to the Nats’ and Mets’ 1-2 standing atop the National League East is their ability to relentlessly capitalize on mistakes. When opponents fail to plate runners on third with less than two out—as the Giants did on two occasions in last night’s loss—the Nationals eventually make them pay. When the opposing team’s starter fails to deliver shutdown innings and protect narrow leads—as Cole Hamels was unable to do on two occasions in last night’s loss—the Mets eventually make his team pay.

In many ways, the Giants-Nationals and Phillies-Mets series finales, both played in the early-evening slot and completed within minutes of each other, had the same narrative. The visitors pulled ahead in the middle innings and, despite their inability to produce insurance runs, carried their leads into the ninth. Their closers struggled with their command, and poor batted-ball luck combined with shaky defense ultimately proved to be their undoing.

A shortstop without Brandon Crawford’s throwing yips might have made a better relay to first on Adam LaRoche’s walk-off fielder’s choice to send that game into extra innings. A right fielder with more range than Hunter Pence might have reached David Wright’s walk-off single to preserve that tie, too. But while the Nationals and Mets won the games in their last at-bats, earlier shortcomings by the Giants and Phillies were at least as fateful as their ninth-inning meltdowns.

For the Giants, Thursday’s defeat means another game lost to the Dodgers in the National League West standings, where Los Angeles now merely needs to tread water against Arizona to remain in first place when Matt Kemp returns. For the Phillies, Thursday’s setback means another gutshot to a fan base not accustomed to the plethora of painful losses that have mired the team in last place.

But while the Giants are only 1 1/2 games back and the Phillies 13, the lessons from their losses on Thursday are the same: The Nationals and Mets are legitimate contenders, and if you squander opportunities to beat them, they will find a way to beat you.  

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • With Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury on the mend, this weekend’s four-game showdown with the Yankees at Fenway Park could give the Red Sox a valuable opportunity to gain ground. Bobby Valentine’s team dropped three straight in Oakland earlier this week and is now 7 ½ games behind first-place New York, but his lineup could look considerably better shortly after the All-Star break. Slowing down the red-hot Robinson Cano will be crucial for Boston in this series, as the second baseman enters on a streak of five consecutive two-hit games. Cano is 23-for-71 with nine doubles and three homers in his career against Josh Beckett, who gets the ball in tonight’s series opener. The Yankees will counter with Hiroki Kuroda—and if you have not yet read The New York Times feature on Kuroda’s upbringing in Japan, be sure to do so before game time (Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Carlos Lee has already settled in to his new home with the Marlins, and the first baseman delivered a 2-for-4 effort in his fifth major-league debut, helping Miami to a 4-0 win over Milwaukee on Thursday. The 36-year-old will face a familiar foe in the middle match of this weekend’s three-game set with the Cardinals, as Kyle Lohse—against whom Lee is 23-for-73 with five homers—toes the rubber for St. Louis. Lee has nearly three times as many plate appearances (80) versus Lohse as any of his new teammates, so the Fish will look to El Caballo to lead the way (Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET).
  • After taking a month off to recover from shoulder fatigue, Derek Holland returns on Saturday to take on the Twins, who were on a roll until the Tigers held them to four combined runs in a pair of losses on Wednesday and Thursday. Holland’s biggest challenges will be Joe Mauer, who went 2-for-4 yesterday to raise his average back to .330, and Josh Willingham, who is batting .278/.384/.792 with 10 homers in 72 at-bats against lefties this season. Minnesota will counter with Samuel Deduno, who will be making his 2012 debut after logging a 63 percent ground-ball rate for Triple-A Rochester (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).
  • Jarrod Parker starts against the Mariners on Saturday looking to improve on his 2.46 ERA, which ranks 10th in the majors and fourth among American League starters. Barring an implosion, the 23-year-old will have the lowest ERA for a rookie starter entering the All-Star break since Francisco Liriano logged a 1.83 mark in 2006. Parker tossed seven innings of one-run ball, walking four and striking out nine, in a victory over Seattle on June 27 (Saturday, 10:10 p.m. ET).
  • One of the few bright spots for the 2012 Phillies, Carlos Ruiz has a 1.015 OPS coming into this weekend’s three-game series with the Braves. That gives him a chance to become the first full-time catcher to reach the All-Star Break with an OPS over 1.000 since Joe Mauer did it in 2009. (No other primary catcher has accomplished the feat since 2000.) It won’t be easy for Ruiz to maintain the pace, though, as the 33-year-old is just 13-for-56 lifetime against the Braves’ scheduled starters, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, and Jair Jurrjens (Sunday, 1:35 p.m. ET). In other Phillies news, Ryan Howard has completed his rehab assignment and is expected to return to the lineup tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).

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Not to disagree with anything you wrote, but it should be noted that it took a tremendous amount of batted-ball luck for the Giants to build that lead in the first place.