The Wednesday Takeaway
The scoring in the three-game set between the Giants and Dodgers in Los Angeles began in the bottom of the first inning of Monday’s opener, when Yasiel Puig launched the seventh homer of his young career. It ended in the last of the sixth on Wednesday night, when the Dodgers chased Tim Lincecum with four straight hits, a wild pitch, and two stolen bases off of back-up catcher Hector Sanchez.
In between, at one point every evening, the wheels came off for the Giants.
On Monday, it happened in the home half of the eighth inning, when Bruce Bochy stuck with Madison Bumgarner, even though the lefty’s pitch count was at 107. Nick Punto led off with a double, Bumgarner misfired on his throw to first base following a sacrifice bunt by Mark Ellis, and Puig drove home the go-ahead run with a single off of George Kontos. The makeshift high-leverage crew of Kontos, Javier Lopez, and Sandy Rosario coughed up one more run in the inning, on a line drive by Hanley Ramirez. And, all the while, the absence of the injured Santiago Casilla loomed large.
The Dodgers exposed the shallowness of San Francisco’s bullpen again in the middle match, when Bochy rode rookie Mike Kickham, who was making his second big-league start, into the sixth inning, even as the southpaw’s stuff lost its life. Kickham struck out Puig with breaking-ball-only diet, but Adrian Gonzalez doubled and Ramirez went yard to give Don Mattingly’s club the lead. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier kept the line moving with singles, and after Bochy replaced Kickham with fellow first-year Jake Dunning, a base hit by Tim Federowicz supplied much-needed insurance. Then, with runners at the corners and pitcher Stephen Fife at the plate, Dunning threw away a pickoff try to first base, allowing the Dodgers to tack on one more run—a run that eventually proved pivotal, when the visitors’ ninth-inning rally came up one short.
Trouble stirred again in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s finale, in which Tim Lincecum was handed a 2-1 lead, a rarity for the Giants, who have often been blanked by Clayton Kershaw. Gonzalez lined out to open the frame, but Ramirez singled to left, and it was all downhill from there. Sanchez dropped a high-and-away “pitchout” and failed to get off a throw on Ramirez’s stolen base, a miscue that became critical when Ethier singled the shortstop home. Ethier then stole second himself, thanks largely to an errant throw from Sanchez, and scored on a double by A.J. Ellis. Juan Uribe’s single moved Ellis to third, and a wild pitch by Lincecum—compounded by Sanchez’s inability to contain the bounce—brought Ellis across the plate.
The three foregoing paragraphs contained the names of virtually every Dodgers starter, a fact that highlights the team-effort nature of the home nine’s sweep. With Ramirez, whose triple-slash line rose to .375/.414/.688 on five hits in the series, and Kemp, whose fine play in center halted the Giants’ comeback bid on Tuesday, healthy, the lineup is trending upward. With a dominant Kenley Jansen supplanting Brandon League in the ninth inning, late leads are looking more robust. And with Puig, whose three hits on Wednesday brought his average back up to .435, putting his toolsy, #want-filled stamp on every game, Carl Crawford’s injury is becoming an afterthought.
If anything, though, Crawford’s return, which could come as soon the end of next week, threatens to make the National League West’s hottest squad even hotter, while leaving Mattingly with the challenge of finding playing time for four outfielders, all of whom are either performing excellently or being paid handsomely to do so. General manager Ned Colletti has ample budget room and prospect depth with which to patch the holes that the thinning of the team’s disabled list won’t solve. And, in a division where six games separate the still-in-last-place Dodgers from the front-running Diamondbacks, there is no shortage of time for the club that was the story of last summer and the past winter to become the story of the coming summer and fall.
The team that stole the show last fall, meanwhile, has had its holes exposed over the past week, a 1-6 stretch that started with a dismal showing against the cellar-dwelling Marlins at AT&T Park. Pitching depth, a perennial strength in recent years under the Bochy-Brian Sabean regime, is now a weakness begging to be addressed. The season-ending hamstring injury suffered by Angel Pagan has left a void in the middle of the outfield for which the Giants have no Puig-like remedy. And as Sabean searches for solutions to those quandaries on the trade market, he will face stiff competition from nearly all of his counterparts—some blessed with richer farm systems, others with deeper pockets, a reality made evident by Henry Schulman, who covers the team for the San Francisco Chronicle, with regard to the race to acquire Ricky Nolasco.
Despite those obstacles, all hope is not lost for the Giants in their bid to repeat as division, senior circuit, and World Series champions; they are, after all, only 3 ½ games behind the Diamondbacks, who have concurrently lost three in a row. And although the arrows are now pointing in the right direction for the Dodgers, the uphill battle, with four teams to pass for the NL West crown, has only just begun.
Still, in a division in which four teams have either been swept or are in danger of feeling the bristles on Thursday, the Dodgers, winners of five in a row, are the only ones doing the broomwork.
With its first home sweep of the Giants since 2009, Mattingly’s club replaced the recent memories of disabled-list stints and disappointment with the excitement of a pennant race. And with 85 games left to be played, there still is nowhere for the Dodgers to go but up.
Matchup of the Day
It’s no secret that Phil Hughes is struggling. The right-hander was shelled for five runs on 10 hits by the Dodgers on June 19, lasted only 4 1/3 innings in his previous outing, and has seen his ERA rise from 3.60 to 5.09 over the last seven weeks. There have been calls for his removal from the Yankees rotation. And the presence of Ivan Nova—who held his own despite taking a loss against the Rays on June 23—in the eyes of ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews, “turns up the pressure” on Hughes to perform well this afternoon.
Fortunately for Hughes, his opponent on Thursday is a friendly one: a Rangers team that he has limited to four runs on eight hits over 18 career innings, good for a 2.00 ERA to go with his 15-to-4 K:BB. Unfortunately, much of that good work came in 6 1/3 hitless frames in his second big-league start, way back on May 1, 2007, and Hughes was lit up for four runs in just 2 2/3 innings by the Rangers on April 25, 2013.
Still, on the whole, the 27-year-old Hughes has kept many of Ron Washington’s best hitters on their heels. Elvis Andrus is 3-for-12. Ian Kinsler is 2-for-10. A.J. Pierzynski is 3-for-15. And Adrian Beltre, one of two active Rangers, along with David Murphy, who can boast a home run off of Hughes, is 3-for-16.
That long ball earns Beltre a spot in today’s featured matchup, and he gets the nod amid his longest home-run drought of the season. Beltre, who has 14 homers this year, last went yard 16 games ago, and he has notched only four extra-base hits since that point, though two of them came last night. The last time he went this long without going deep was more than a year ago—an 18-game stretch that spanned from May 28 through June 16, 2012—and this lull marks only his second 16-plus-game rut since early in the 2010 campaign.
Hughes’ success in taming Beltre’s bat has largely been driven by execution—namely, his ability to place the ball in the parts of the zone where the third baseman’s swing is least potent. Here is Beltre’s career heat map, by True Average:
The 34-year-old is a menace on anything thrown over the inner half, particularly in the lower third of the zone. He is considerably less dangerous near his shoetops, up and away, and anywhere just off the outside corner. Those last two weak points have figured prominently into the game plan devised by Hughes and his catchers:
By hitting those spots, Hughes has limited Beltre to three hits and a walk in 17 plate appearances. Of course, two of those knocks came when they last locked horns: in the aforementioned dud on April 25, 2012, to which Beltre contributed a second-inning solo shot and a third-inning RBI single. The homer came on this fastball:
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a first-pitch mistake that badly missed Russell Martin’s glove and tailed right into Beltre’s wheelhouse—the sort of mistake that Hughes has avoided making in virtually all of their other meetings.
Hughes knows well what he must do to keep Beltre at bay in the series finale, something that Andy Pettitte was unable to do in the middle match, when a pair of two-baggers from the third sacker paved the way to an 8-5 Texas win. Execution, though, has not been the righty’s strong suit in recent weeks. And if he struggles to hit his spots again today, Beltre will be ready to pounce.
What to Watch for on Thursday
- After an excellent April and May, Derek Holland seemed poised to finally deliver the breakout season for which fantasy owners and Rangers fans have long been waiting. But things have gone awry for the southpaw since the calendar flipped to June. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and along with the free passes, his ERA has climbed to 5.40 this month, bringing his overall mark up from 2.81 to 3.43. More challenging competition is partly to blame, as Holland has been tasked with shutting down the potent Red Sox, Indians, Blue Jays, and Cardinals in his past four games, but those are precisely the types of lineups that the Rangers will need Holland to beat come October. He’ll get his first look at the 2013 Yankees this afternoon, after coughing up seven runs in six innings of work to Joe Girardi’s squad on April 23, 2012 (1:05 p.m. ET).
- The night’s best duel might take place in the nation’s capital, where the still-undefeated Patrick Corbin is set to take on Stephen Strasburg, who has permitted only one run in each of his last four starts dating back to May 21 (excluding an injury-shortened one on May 31). Corbin has been stuck with nine wins for nearly a month after netting four consecutive no-decisions, but he has worked eight innings in each of his past two assignments. Unlike Holland’s, this lefty’s breakout campaign is looking more robust with each successful outing. And with a 2.19 ERA through 15 of them, there is now plenty of reason to believe that only a mild regression is in store (4:05 p.m. ET).
- Jeremy Guthrie’s ERA has shot upward over the past month and a half, from 2.28 on May 9 to 4.20 as of his most recent outing, and his past three trips to the mound were particularly uninspiring. In them, the 34-year-old compiled a 6.89 ERA and a 1.4 percent strikeout rate. No, you did not misread that: Guthrie struck out one batter in 15 2/3 combined innings, a feat of which only the 2012 version of Aaron Cook could be proud. If you’re wondering how a pitcher could allow a .306/.392/.548 collective triple-slash line while permitting only four home runs and a .254 BABIP, well, that’s how. Now sporting the lowest punchout percentage (11.1) among qualifying starters, Guthrie will try to miss a few more bats in this evening’s matchup with Samuel Deduno and the Twins, the opener of a four-game weekend set (8:10 p.m. ET).