The Tuesday Takeaway
The Braves had a one-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. The Reds had the bottom of their order coming up. And Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was set to unleash one of the league’s most dominant short-burst pitchers, Craig Kimbrel.
That’s an automatic win for the Braves, and a tough loss for the Reds, who halved a two-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth against Eric O’Flaherty, right? For two batters, it sure seemed that way. Kimbrel, who fanned a remarkable 50.2 percent of the hitters that he faced last year, subjected Jack Hannahan and Corky Miller to that cruel fate, and he needed only eight pitches to do it.
But then, the tables turned.
Dusty Baker sent Devin Mesoraco to the plate to pinch-hit for Jonathan Broxton, and the young catcher drilled the sixth pitch of his at-bat—and the fifth consecutive four-seam fastball—out to right-center field to tie the game. Four pitches later, Shin-Soo Choo sent everyone at Great American Ball Park home with a walk-off blast to left-center field, his second long ball of the game and seventh of the season. Meanwhile, the blasts upped Kimbrel’s gopher-ball counter for the year to three, the same total that he allowed during all of last season and in 2011.
The blown save was the 24-year-old righty’s third in five tries, the first of which snapped a streak of 18 consecutive conversions dating back to last September 5, and the most recent of which equaled his blown-save tally from 2012. Kimbrel has leaned more heavily on his fastball this year, a significant hike from 67 percent to 80 percent, and his whiff rates on his heater and curveball are down 6-8 percentage points each, according to his Brooks Baseball card. That still makes Kimbrel an excellent reliever—with a fastball that regularly hits 97 mph on the radar gun—and his new mix has still yielded 21 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings, so only a minor tweak may be necessary to restore his impenetrable form.
Thus, for now, the recent lull is merely a reminder that even the best closers with the most otherworldly stuff are human. Mariano Rivera blew three saves in six attempts from September 11-26, 2010. Trevor Hoffman did the same from July 16-August 1, 2000. And both went on to save hundreds more.
The Braves have dropped four of their last six, falling to 19-13 on the season, and their lead of the Nationals is down to two games. But if Kimbrel’s slump is Atlanta’s greatest concern, 29 other teams would take that quandary over their own.
Matchup of the Day
Matt Moore was a bit shakier in his most recent start, a five-inning, four-run effort at Coors Field, than in the five that preceded it, but the Rays lefty remains a perfect 5-0 and his team is still undefeated behind him. Tonight, Moore will make his first start at Tropicana Field since April 22—coming home to a ballpark where he has been charged with only one run in 14 innings this season—and match wits with the Blue Jays for the first time this season.
The 23-year-old Moore has logged a 3.26 ERA in four career starts against Toronto, pitching 19 1/3 innings and recording 21 strikeouts without surrendering a home run. But one Blue Jays hitter who has surprisingly been a pest is part-time outfielder Rajai Davis, a right-handed hitter who is off to a .271/.311/.400 start through 70 at-bats. If Davis is in manager John Gibbons’ starting lineup, he’ll carry a 4-for-10 line with two doubles, no walks, and three strikeouts into game three of four between the American League East rivals.
Seven of Davis’ 10 career plate appearances versus Moore are tracked on the afore-linked matchup page, and in that small sample, the southpaw has relied heavily on his fastball in early counts. Of course, considering that Davis prevailed in both of his at-bats against Moore in their most recent encounter, on September 22, 2012, during which he saw six fastballs in seven offerings, Moore might want to alter his approach. Davis’ double in that game, from which Moore was lifted after only 2 2/3 innings, came on a middle-middle sinker, and his subsequent single came on a changeup below the zone, insufficiently set up by the three fastballs Moore used before it.
Davis, who has only 22 career long balls in well over 2,000 at-bats, isn’t much of a hitter, and Moore should be able to improve their head-to-head numbers if he can avoid the few hot spots in the Connecticut native’s swing. The more intriguing chess match between them would take place if Davis, who has stolen six bases in seven attempts this year and is 229-for-282 (78.4 percent) in his career, reaches first or second base. Moore and the Rays’ catchers allowed 20 swipes with him on the mound in 2012, a total exceeded by only three lefty starters: Madison Bumgarner (27), Cole Hamels (23), C.J. Wilson (22). However, while each of those three also helped to nab at least 10 would-be thieves (27 percent), Moore and his batterymates caught only four (17 percent).
And Davis, like most base-stealers, hasn’t been fooled by Moore’s pickoff moves. He went 4-for-4 on steal tries last year, swiping second and third two times each, victimizing Chris Gimenez twice, and Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton once apiece. Gimenez is back at Triple-A Durham, but either Molina or Lobaton will be in the squat again tonight, and each will need Moore’s help to contain Davis on the basepaths if he continues to frustrate the lefty from the batter’s box.
Moore has made strides in his ability to contain the running game this year, ceding only one steal in six starts. Davis and the Blue Jays, who rank third in the league with 25 stolen bases on 29 attempts (third with an 86 percent success rate), will test that improvement tonight (7:10 p.m. ET).
What to Watch for on Wednesday
- Pop quiz: Yu Darvish leads the American League in strikeout rate at 40.5 percent; which starting pitcher leads the National League? That pitcher has seen his career 21.6 percent punchout clip, which held steady at 21.2 percent last year, surge more than 12 percentage points to 33.3 percent in the early going. With a .323 BABIP balancing out some of the effects of a potential regression in his 80.9 percent strand rate, that pitcher’s 2.57 ERA is supported by a 2.24 FIP, and he has already been worth 1.1 WARP through just seven starts. Now that you’ve had a few seconds to mull it over, that pitcher is A.J. Burnett, and this afternoon, he’ll lock horns with Felix Hernandez for an afternoon duel at PNC Park.
The last (and only) time Hernandez faced the Pirates, Jose Bautista was their leadoff man, and John Van Benschoten was still working his way out of a big-league job. Burnett last took on the Mariners as a member of the Yankees on September 13, 2011, when Charlie Furbush was still a starting pitcher and Jesus Montero was in the lineup for New York (12:35 p.m. ET).
- After a rough beginning of the season, which saw Chris Tillman depart each of his first three outings before the end of the sixth inning, the righty has bounced back of late, recording at least 18 outs and allowing no more than two earned runs in his three starts since then. Tillman’s most recent outing, an eight-inning blanking of the Angels in Anaheim, was his most impressive of the season, as he permitted only three singles and earned strikes with 55 (74.32 percent) of the 74 fastballs that he threw. The 25-year-old will hope that his improved heater command carries over into tonight’s date with the Royals, in which Kansas City skipper Ned Yost will counter with Luis Mendoza (7:05 p.m. ET).
- The Brewers, who snapped a five-game skid on Tuesday night, have emerged as one of the league’s most formidable offenses against left-handed pitching, Led by Ryan Braun and batting-title leader Carlos Gomez, manager Ron Roenicke’s lineup carried a .289/.346/.480 triple-slash line versus southpaws into Tuesday’s game, and this evening, it will pose a challenge to Rangers starter Derek Holland, who is in the midst of a possible breakout campaign. The 26-year-old is fanning more batters than ever (22.4 percent), walking fewer than ever (6.1 percent), and has served up only two home runs in 42 2/3 innings—all of which has resulted in a 2.59 FIP through six outings. He tossed eight shutout innings and struck out 10 Red Sox on May 3, and will try to deliver a worthy encore at Miller Park tonight (8:10 p.m. ET).