The Thursday Takeaway
The Padres and Reds played two on Thursday, with the first matchup pitting Johnny Cueto and Ian Kennedy against each other in a matchup between baseball's ERA leader and its FRA leader.
Nick Bacarella mentioned in yesterday's WYNTK that Cueto entered Thursday as the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela to start a season with eight starts of at least seven innings pitched while allowing two or fewer runs. That streak continued after Cueto tossed his second shutout of the season on Thursday, and he is now the first starting pitcher since 1914 to start a season with nine such starts.
The Cincinnati ace faced just two over the minimum and didn't allow a Padre to make it to second base until the ninth inning—when Will Venable advanced to second on a fielder's indifference. Cueto registered 15 swinging strikes—his second-highest total of the season—and finished with eight strikeouts against two walks.
Cueto's counterpart, Ian Kennedy, had one of his poorest outings of the season, as the San Diego right-hander served up 11 hits (which tied a season-worst) and failed to record a 1-2-3 inning. He managed to escape unscathed through the first four innings, but wasn't as fortunate when Brandon Phillips came to bat with two on in the fifth.
Kennedy didn't fool Phillips with the 2-1 changeup, and paid for leaving the offering over the heart of the plate. The Reds would tack on two more runs in the sixth inning, when Zack Cozart singled home Ryan Ludwick and Bryan Pena. Kennedy departed after six innings and 101 pitches, striking out four batters and issuing a single free pass.
With nine more scoreless frames, Cueto trimmed his league-leading ERA to 1.25. All but two of the runs Cueto has given up this season have come via the longball, and it's only a matter of time before his .160 BABIP and 99.5 percent strand rate fall back to earth. In the meantime, Cueto will try to extend his streak of seven-inning, two-run starts next week in Washington. —Chris Mosch
Quick Hits from Thursday
In game two of the San Diego-Cincinnati twin bill, Billy Hamilton created his fourth "Hamilrun" of the season, which Ben Lindbergh defined as manufacturing a run without recording a hit. After drawing a six-pitch walk from Tyson Ross to lead off the bottom of the first, Hamilton swiped second base on a first-pitch pitchout to Chris Heisey:
and took off for third base on the very next pitch.
After Heisey reached base on a four-pitch walk, Hamilton trotted home to score the first run of the nightcap on a Brandon Phillips groundout.
Behind a trio of home runs from Rene Rivera, Everth Cabrera, and Yonder Alonso, to back seven innings of one-run ball from Tyson Ross, the Padres were able to split the doubleheader by taking the finale, 6-1. Entering the game, Ross' slider had the eighth-best whiff/swing rate among pitchers who had thrown at least 100 sliders this season, and he increased that rate with 12 swing-and-misses against the Reds. —Chris Mosch
Mike Trout has achieved a lot since emerging on the baseball scene, but late Thursday night (and in the wee hours of the morning on the East Coast), the Angels' superstar checked one more item off his long list of accomplishments: a walk-off blast.
Grant Balfour entered the ninth inning with a 5-2 lead, but proceeded to walk the first two batters he faced, Hank Conger and Efren Navarro. The Angels' batting lineup turned back over, and Colin Cowgill followed with a groundball through the right side of the infield, plating Conger and cutting the lead to 5-3. Joe Maddon had seen enough from Balfour, who has now allowed 11 runs and walked 14 batters 15 1/3 innings this season.
Maddon brought in Brad Boxberger from the bullpen to face Trout, but the two-time MVP runner-up, tattooed the third pitch he saw—a 1-1 breaking ball—from Boxberger into the home bullpen to give the Angels the walk-off win.
Trout made the highlight reel earlier in the game, as he made a picturesque diving catch to rob Logan Forsythe of extra bases in the top of the first inning:
Thursday's late heroics sent the Angels to their sixth win in seven games, and improved their season record to 22-18. With Oakland idle on Thursday, the Angels gained a half game on the two-time defending AL West champions, and now trail the Athletics by 2 1/2 games. With the Rangers reeling from their multitude of injuries, this may turn out to be a two-team race out west. —Chris Mosch
For the second straight night, the Mets sent one of their prospects to the mound to make his major-league debut against the Yankees. It was the first time since September of 2003 that a team started a pitcher making his major-league debut on back-to-back nights.
On Thursday, Mets rookie Jacob deGrom faced off against Chase Whitley, who was also making his debut. Not only did deGrom exceed expectations in his first start, but he did something that no other Mets pitcher had been able to do this season: get a base hit. Prior to deGrom's first trip to the plate in the third inning, Mets pitchers had gone 0-for-64, a streak that trailed only the 1914 Indians pitching staff, which had gone hitless over 94 at-bats. But the former Stetson University shortstop laced an 0-1 offering to center field, returning the favor to Whitley, who had recorded a hit off deGrom in his first career at-bat in the top half of the inning.
Whitley allowed just a pair of singles through four innings, but walked Ruben Tejada and Juan Centeno before giving way to Dellin Betances with two outs in the fifth. With runners at second and third, Betances got Eric Young Jr. to ground out to third, which would be the last ball the Mets would put into play against Betances. The 26-year-old faced six more batters and retired them all by way of the strikeout, giving him 39 punchouts in 22 1/3 innings. After Betances' appearance on Thursday, the right-hander has now bolstered his strikeout rate to 44.8 percent, trailing only Craig Kimbrel in that category this season.
For the home squad, deGrom turned in an outstanding performance in his debut. The 25-year-old had excellent command of his fastball and settled in with his changeup as his secondary pitch of choice against a lefty-heavy Yankees lineup. deGrom relied on his fastball and slider against Alfonso Soriano and Yangervis Solarte—the only position players in the lineup that hit right-handed—but used 17 changeups against the rest of the order, and generated 11 strikes with the off-speed pitch. The only blemish on deGroms's night was a two-out RBI double by Alfonso Soriano in the seventh inning, which proved to be enough for the Yankees, as David Robertson got the final four outs of the game for his seventh save of the season. —Chris Mosch
Edwin Encarnacion took his parrot for two trips around the bases on Thursday, as the Toronto first baseman cranked two home runs against the Indians. The first blast came on a splitter that Danny Salazar hung over the heart of the plate in the bottom of the second inning:
In the fifth inning, Encarncacion deposited a fastball from C.C. Lee into the second deck:
The performance was Encarnacion's second multi-home run game of the season, and after a sluggish April, he owns a .259/.328/.828 slash line in May. —Chris Mosch
Phil Hughes left his start yesterday in a very good position. Not only did he put together a very strong six-inning start, allowing one run on five hits and eight strikeouts, but he received offensive support early on. Chris Parmalee crushed a two-run blast in the second inning, which was followed by a walk, long single and sacrifice fly sequence by Aaron Hicks, Eduardo Escobar, and Brian Dozier, respectively. The 3-1 lead gave Hughes and the Twins an 85.1 percent win expectancy when he exited, which climbed to 94.2 percent through the top of the eighth after strong bullpen performances by Jared Burton and Casey Fien.
Leading off the top of the ninth, David Ortiz drove a Glen Perkins 93-MPH fastball to left field for a single. After Perkins retired Mike Napoli with a swinging strikeout, he allowed consecutive singles to Johnny Gomes and Mike Carp, to load the bases. After overpowering David Ross with three consecutive fastballs for the second out, Will Middlebrooks stepped to the plate in a bases-loaded situation.
Middlebrooks immediately swung at the first pitch Perkins had to offer, driving a single to right field to tie the game at three apiece. Perkins then struck out Jackie Bradley Jr., finally relying on his breaking stuff after throwing four-seam fastballs on 13 of the 16 pitches he threw before facing Bradley. Before this game, Perkins had relied on his four-seam fastball 56.8 percent of the time this season, but he ramped up his use of the pitch yesterday (81.2 percent) and followed suit on Thursday.
Andrew Miller swiftly pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the ninth to force the game into extra innings. The Twins made a pitching change to Brian Duensing, who relies on his four-seam fastball much less than Perkins. Despite being a bit wild, Duensing successfully retired the side, throwing none of his 13 pitches for four-seamers (perhaps as a result of seeing how the Red Sox destroyed them in the ninth).
Miller remained in the game, and successfully generated an Eduardo Nunez groundout before giving up a double to Kurt Suzuki. After getting Chris Parmalee to strike out swinging, a hitter came to the plate with a runner in scoring position and two outs for the second inning in a row. This time, it was Aaron Hicks who delivered in the clutch, as he singled to left field and knocked in Kurt Suzuki.
Even though the Red Sox fell short, the team put together a fantastic effort late in the game, but Minnesota cleverly avoided the loss by using a pitcher who does not heavily rely on a four-seam fastball in the 10th inning. Perhaps if the Red Sox replaced Andrew Miller with Koji Uehara, the outcome would have been different. —Morris Greenberg
To add to the excitement of the day on Thursday, there was a second walk-off win. Unlike the Red Sox-Twins game, however, no team maintained a strong lead. Rickie Weeks put the first run on the board for Milwaukee in the third inning with a solo shot off Wandy Rodriguez. Tony Sanchez then hit his own two-run home run off Yovani Gallardo in the fifth, to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead. After the two teams exchanged solo home runs in the fifth and sixth inning, the score remained 3-2 Pirates until the bottom of the ninth.
Facing the meat of the Brewers lineup, Mark Melancon immediately loaded the bases, giving up a single to Ryan Braun, and two consecutive walks to Jonathan Lucroy and Mark Reynolds. Melancon is normally successful at getting batters to swing at pitches outside the zone with his cutter and curveball, but yesterday, he could not fool any of the Brewers:
This patience by the Brewers allowed Khris Davis to come up with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the ninth. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Davis drove a cutter to center field, allowing Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy to score and the Brewers to walk off as winners.
The outcome of this game does not reflect how the Brewers have been playing for the majority of this season. In yesterday's game alone, the team only drew just one walk through the first eight innings of play before suddenly becoming immune to chasing pitches in the ninth. For perspective, the Brewers have swung the third-most often at pitches outside the zone this year this season, chasing 33.6 percent of the time before yesterday's game. If we accept the current outside-the-strike-zone swing percentages of Braun, Lucroy, Reynolds, and Davis to be representative of their plate discipline tendencies, and assume Melancon was throwing balls outside the zone with approximately the same rate of success at getting hitters to chase as the average pitcher (which actually understates his usual dominance), it would be extremely unlikely for those four hitters would not swing at any of Melancon's outside offerings. It is very likely that Melancon was also just off yesterday, but even so, the patience the Brewers displayed to win the game was very uncharacteristic. —Morris Greenberg
What to Watch for this Weekend
- Jeff Samardzija is still without a win this season despite trailing only Johnny Cueto with a 1.45 ERA. He'll try to pick up his first win of the season against the division-leading Brewers at Wrigley Field in the first of a three-game set. In his last outing, Samardzija tossed six scoreless innings, against the Braves, only to watch Ervin Santana go seven innings without surrendering a run and have his bullpen give up a pair of runs. The Braves won by a final of 2-0, which made 11 straight starts dating back to last year in which Samardzija has given up three runs or less without seeing a "W" next to his name on the box scorethe longest such streak dating back to 1914. The Cubs have mustered just 1.7 runs per game during that stretch, over which they are 1-10. They'll look to reward their ace for his superb efforts with a win against Kyle Lohse, who himself has yet to give up more than three runs in a start this season (2:20 p.m. ET).
- The pitching matchup of the day will take place in Beantown, where Jon Lester will face off against Detroit's Max Scherzer. Lester's strikeout rate has jumped up even higher than his elite 2009-2010 marks, and the Boston southpaw trails only Scherzer in strikeout rate this season. And just when you thought the reigning AL Cy Young award winner couldn't miss any more bats, he lowered his contact rate, as he sports a career-low 72.4 percent mark through his first eight starts of the season. If you like strikeouts, you're in for a treat (7:10 p.m. ET).
- Homer Bailey and Cole Hamels have both struggled in the early going this season, but each pitcher is coming off his best start of the season and square off on Saturday. Hamels gave up 13 runs during his first three starts after returning from bicep tendonitis, but allowed just one run and racked up ten strikeouts over seven innings against the Mets in his last outing. For Bailey, home runs and a higher-than-normal BABIP have crippled him this season, but both his BABIP and HR:FB rate have started to normalize during his last three starts. His latest outing was a 7 1/3 inning gem against the Rockies, in which he allowed just one run on four hits and a pair of walks. Both hurlers will look to continue moving in the right direction in game two of this three-game series.
- A pair of starting pitchers will make their return from the disabled list on Sunday, as Jaime Garcia is scheduled to make his season debut at home against the Braves, while Anibal Sanchez takes the hill for the first time in three weeks in Boston. Garcia hasn't pitched for the Cardinals since May 17 of last season due to shoulder surgery and will be opposite Gavin Floyd, who will make his third start of the season. The St. Louis southpaw pitched well in a rehab start with Triple-A Memphis on Monday and is poised to slot in as the no. 5 arm in the rotation with Tyler Lyons on the disabled list. (2:15 p.m. ET)
- The Tigers and Red Sox will conclude their weekend series on Sunday Night Baseball, as Jake Peavy is pitted against Sanchez, who will make his first start after suffering a finger laceration on his pitching hand. The return of Sanchez should bump Robbie Ray out of Detroit's starting rotation, but it's unclear whether that means the promising 22-year-old will head to the bullpen or back to Toledo. (8:00 p.m. ET) —Chris Mosch