The Wednesday Takeaway
For all the grief we give big-league managers and players, most MLB games, even those with a couple of fielding errors or a small army stranded on base, can teach valuable lessons to Little Leaguers and young baseball minds. Every once in a while, though, a game sets the sport back so far that the only saving graces are sheer athletic prowess and a finish so late that the most impressionable fans are long in bed.
Last night’s meeting between the Reds and Astros was precisely that sort of debacle, but it wasn't until the ninth inning that the game truly began to devolve. Astros shortstop Jonathan Villar misplayed a popup that led to a Reds run in the top of the sixth, but those things happen—they’re a part of the game.
The hare-brained play that followed isn’t supposed to be. And yet…
If you enter a tie game and your opponent’s fastest player—indeed, arguably the fastest player in the world—is leading off the ninth inning, you’re supposed to do everything in your power to prevent him from earning the only base he can’t steal. And yet, Josh Fields walked Billy Hamilton on four pitches. And then, after Hamilton stole second, he walked Shin-Soo Choo on four more. And then he threw ball one to Brandon Phillips, hitting with two on and nobody out.
If the opposing pitcher has just thrown nine consecutive balls, it would generally behoove a hitter to force him to prove that he can throw a strike before offering at a pitch with a chance of making an out—much less giving one away. But Phillips bunted the 1-0 pitch and was subsequently hit with the throw to first while running in fair territory. His sacrifice attempt became a batter interference out. Neither runner advanced. And Fields was one-third of the way to escaping the jam.
The Astros’ closer coaxed a fly ball from Joey Votto, on which Hamilton finally advanced to third, but that aggressive baserunning enabled Fields to intentionally walk Jay Bruce. In stepped Ryan Ludwick, who might as well not have stepped in. Ludwick saw six fastballs, all of which had something in common: they hit the catcher’s glove with Ludwick’s bat still on his shoulder. The first three were balls. The next three were strikes. Ludwick looked like what Phillips should have looked like when Phillips squared around to bunt. And the inning was over.
Dusty Baker and Bo Porter traded #bunttowin strategy in each half of the 10th inning with identical results. Namely, no runs on the scoreboard. And it was on to the 11th, when the Astros tried #bunttowin again.
Brandon Barnes singled and moved over to second on a sacrifice by Villar. Alfredo Simon, perhaps the most prescient man in the world, gave Jose Altuve a free pass to first. Then Trevor Crowe singled, Barnes advanced to third, and Altuve, well, Altuve wound up standing right next to Barnes on third base. He became out no. 2, Marc Krauss fanned for out no. 3, and that was it for the 11th.
In the 12th, the Reds sent Todd Frazier, Zack Cozart, and pinch-hitter Xavier Paul to the plate, and each of them made an out on the first pitch he saw. Apparently, midnight in Kevin Goldstein’s neck of the woods no longer spells #weirdbaseball. Instead, it’s amateur hour.
With little time to think or warm up a new pitcher, Baker sent Simon back to the bump for the home half of the 12th, even though the righty was a base-running blunder away from big trouble in the 11th and was nearing 50 pitches. The 11th commandment, thou shalt not use your closer in a tie game on the road, barred Aroldis Chapman’s entrance. In Baker’s defense, although Simon surrendered a couple of one-out singles, this plan actually worked.
By that point, it was clear that the eventual end to this game would be the result of a strategy or event unbecoming of major-league competition. And the worst mistakes are the ones you repeat. The top of the 13th was the top of the ninth all over again—or at least, it started that way, as Jorge De Leon walked Hamilton, Hamilton stole second (on a pitchout!), and De Leon walked Choo. Phillips took a strike, this time, and then was absolved of any possible bunting assignment by a wild pitch. This was a gift-wrapped rally if there ever was one. Finally, after Phillips grounded out and Joey Votto was intentionally walked, Jay Bruce’s two-run double gave the Reds a 6-4 lead.
What aren’t you supposed to do with a newly minted lead in hand? Walk the leadoff man—which, of course, is exactly what Chapman did to start the bottom of the 13th. The southpaw pushed Villar, who drew the free pass, into scoring position with a wild pitch, and a couple of groundouts scored him. So with the bases empty and two away, what did Chapman do? He walked Brandon Laird, and pinch-runner Marwin Gonzalez wound up in scoring position following a Matt Dominguez single.
This one was all set to go on into the night with untold lunacy on tap. But finally, five hours and 18 minutes after first pitch, Chapman whiffed Chris Carter and athletic prowess rose to the fore:
Quick Hits from Wednesday
Josh Hamilton’s first season with the Angels has been a long one. But the former Ranger, who inked a five-year, $125 million deal with the Halos on December 13, is no longer eagerly awaiting its end.
Hamilton relished the spoiler role in yesterday’s game, the rubber match at O.co Coliseum in Oakland. When he stepped to the plate with Erick Aybar on first and Grant Balfour on the mound, the Athletics were up by two runs and two outs away from paring their magic number in the American League West race to five. Hamilton had other ideas: he clubbed a fastball into the right-field stands to knot the game at four runs apiece.
The score went unchanged until Hamilton dug in again two innings later, this time with runners at the corners and nobody out. A’s manager Bob Melvin brought in left-hander Jerry Blevins to face Hamilton, but he could not prevent the outfielder from doing his job. Hamilton plated J.B. Shuck with a sacrifice fly, and that was all the Angels needed to secure a 5-4 victory.
The 32-year-old’s ninth-inning homer was his 21st of the season. He went just 1-for-4 on the afternoon, but still improved his triple-slash line to .245/.302/.433. That’s hardly what the Angels thought they were paying for, but it is worlds better than the early returns on their investment.
At the end of play on August 7, Hamilton was mired in an 0-for-13 schneid that sent his OPS plummeting from .694, where it stood at the beginning of the month, to .667, its lowest point since the end of June. Then, after a day off on August 8, something clicked when the Halos arrived in Cleveland. Hamilton went yard and drew two walks in the series opener, and the past five weeks have brought more of the same.
Including yesterday’s contest, Hamilton owns a .328 average over his last 36 games, a stretch that dates back to the aforementioned visit to Progressive Field. That average is padded with 10 doubles, two triples, and five homers, good for a slugging percentage north of .500, a far cry from the .397 mark Hamilton sported when this surge began. And Mike Scioscia’s club has gone 21-15 since Hamilton woke up from his slumber, which—at the risk of exaggerating the impact of a single player’s turnaround—is a 94-win pace over a full season.
The Halos are 74-78, mathematically eliminated in the West race and a mile behind in the wild card hunt. Hamilton’s late-season contributions are drops in a leaky bucket, rendered leaky, in part, by his mediocre first four month. Nonetheless, if Hamilton’s work over the past month and change is a sign of things to come, one big hurdle toward contention in 2014 will be cleared before the offseason even begins.
If Chris Davis is going to court Most Valuable Player voters into his corner, he’s going to need more than the franchise home run record. A few clutch hits that send the Orioles into October could go a long way.
The first baseman delivered one of them on Wednesday in the 12th inning of Baltimore’s 5-3 win over the Red Sox. Buck Showalter’s club couldn’t hang losses on Koji Uehara on two straight nights, so it waited until the second frame of Franklin Morales’ extra-inning duty while Kevin Gausman—who struck out five of the six batters he faced—Tommy Hunter, and T.J. McFarland held the line.
After Matt Wieters flied out to start the top of the 12th, J.J. Hardy and Brian Roberts singled, and both advanced on a wild pitch. Steve Pearce got the four-finger treatment from John Farrell, and Manny Machado fouled out, leaving it up to Davis with the bases loaded. Davis rolled a base hit into center field, past a diving Dustin Pedroia, to give the Orioles the deciding two-run lead. For the 1-through-4 hitters in Showalter’s lineup, that was the only hit of the night.
The Rangers lost to the Rays and the Indians lost to the Royals, so the Orioles picked up a game on their two closest foes in the race for the second wild card spot. Baltimore is now half a game behind Cleveland and a game behind Texas. Both in this race and his own—in which Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout might prove even tougher obstacles than the junior-circuit teams the O’s are chasing—Davis still has work left to do.
Defensive Play(s) of the Day
J.B. Shuck scored the game-winning run for the Angels. But he also did a whole lot more with his arm.
What to Watch for on Thursday
- The Pirates are 3-0 behind Gerrit Cole this month, and with good reason: the right-hander has allowed just three runs on 13 hits in 20 innings while striking out 21. But the Padres, who took the first three games of this series, have yet to see the best of the rookie right-hander, who was knocked around for 10 hits in six innings on the Petco Park bump last month. It’s up to Cole to help the Bucs dodge the Friars' brooms, and in order to deliver his fourth straight victory, the 23-year-old will need to outduel Ian Kennedy (12:35 p.m. ET).
- Nationals fans who hoped to see Stephen Strasburg toe the rubber this evening won’t be pleased with the latest news from the clubhouse: the right-hander’s forearm is still bugging him, and he won’t be ready to go until at least Saturday. Hence, Gio Gonzalez will pick up tonight’s assignment, the first of four dates with the Marlins, and lock horns with Henderson Alvarez. Giancarlo Stanton, who launched a moonshot to the sandwich stand in yesterday’s game at Citizens Bank Park, is hitless with four strikeouts in eight lifetime at-bats versus Gonzalez (7:05 p.m. ET).
- The series finale between the Rangers and Rays is not one you’ll want to miss. There are considerable wild card implications, sure, but the real reason is the pitching matchup, which pits Yu Darvish against Matt Moore. The 24-year-old Moore’s most recent outing was cut short by rain, but he found time to strike out five Twins in three innings, though he also walked three along the way. Including six starts before his stint on the disabled list, the Rays have come out on top in nine of Moore’s last 10, which is no surprise, because he has held opponents to either zero runs or one run in seven of them. The Rangers have somehow dropped each of Darvish’s last six, the last two of them by 1-0 margins versus the Pirates and A’s (7:10 p.m. ET).