The Thursday Takeaway
After holding the Astros to one run in 5 1/3 innings in his major-league debut and then keeping the Twins off the scoreboard for six frames in his second start, Robbie Ray might have come under the illusion that pitching in the big leagues is easy. If he did, the Rangers smacked the southpaw right out of it on Thursday afternoon.
Ray lasted just 3 1/3 innings in the series finale at Comerica Park, over which he was torched for seven runs on nine hits. The 22-year-old walked four and struck out only one. Of the 83 pitches Ray threw, only two yielded swings-and-misses. His ineffectiveness led manager Brad Ausmus to put infielder Danny Worth on the mound in the top of the ninth, which led to this amusing fact:
Danny Worth got more swinging strikes today than Robbie Ray. @cantpredictball
— Neil Weinberg (@NeilWeinberg44) May 22, 2014
The former Nationals prospect, who joined the Tigers in the offseason deal that sent Doug Fister to Washington, had as much trouble missing the zone as he did missing bats; only 43 of his 83 pitches went for strikes. Ray’s velocity data from the outing might be a cause for concern:
The left-hander’s fastball peaked at 95 mph on his first pitch of the game, but by the fourth inning, it was firmly in the Reagan Era. Ray held his velocity much better in his previous start on May 11, so while there were no reports of an injury or soreness, it’s fair to wonder if a relief appearance on May 18 hindered him in some way in the series opener at Comerica Park, in which he filled in for Rick Porcello.
All four of the Rangers’ extra-base hits off of Ray came on four-seamers, including this two-run shot by Shin-Soo Choo on a 2-0 pitch in the fourth. That was the last delivery Ray would throw in the 9-2 Texas victory, which marked the Tigers’ fourth straight loss at home on the heels of a sweep at the hands of the Indians.
The victory brought much-needed good news to the Rangers, who received a couple of potentially devastating injury reports alongside it. Jurickson Profar, who’s been sidelined with a teres major ailment since spring training, reinjured the muscle during his rehab process and could miss the rest of the 2014 season. Meanwhile, Prince Fielder is headed for surgery to fix a herniated disk in his neck and is unlikely to see the field again until next year.
While the Doug Fister for Ray, Ian Krol, and Steve Lombardozzi trade no longer looks as promising for the Tigers as it did earlier this month, the one-for-one barter of Fielder for Ian Kinsler appears shrewder than ever.
Quick Hits from Thursday
Eight innings into the series finale between the Athletics and Rays, the storyline was the successful return of Alex Cobb, who outdueled Sonny Gray in what was shaping up to be a 1-0 decision. Cobb mixed pitches well, kept the ball down, and had outstanding command of his secondary arsenal, earning strikes with 23 of his 30 changeups and 22 of his 28 curveballs.
But all of the right-hander’s good work was undone in the ninth inning, when Grant Balfour failed to secure the win against his former club. Balfour was already on thin ice in his second tour in Tampa Bay after posting a 5.71 ERA and walking 16 batters in 17 1/3 innings over his first 17 appearances, which isn’t quite what the Rays had in mind when they handed him a two-year, $12 million contract. Unfortunately, he was no better on Thursday.
Ex-Ray John Jaso led off the top of the ninth with a single, after which pinch-runner Craig Gentry stole second. Balfour then issued a walk to Josh Donaldson that put the go-ahead run on base. He struck out Brandon Moss to give the home crowd a glimmer of hope. That’s when Yoenis Cespedes stepped into the box.
The Rays had the proper game plan for Cespedes with a runner in scoring position. Pitching backward made sense in that situation, because the Cuban outfielder is far less dangerous on first-pitch sliders than he is on 0-0 fastballs. Jose Molina gave Balfour a get-me-over target on the outer half of the plate, but Balfour backed up a slider that badly missed the glove and watched Cespedes tattoo it into the left-field corner for a game-tying double.
The 36-year-old ultimately wriggled out of the jam without further damage, but he left the Rays facing waters they had yet to chart this year. None of Tampa Bay’s 19 wins had been of the walk-off variety. They’d need to earn their first to dodge a sweep.
Cespedes briefly gave the A’s a 2-1 lead in the top of the 11th, with a sacrifice fly that followed a double by Josh Donaldson, but the Rays—despite Balfour’s best efforts—weren’t letting this one slip away. Evan Longoria, James Loney, and Desmond Jennings all singled in the home half of the frame to knot the score at 2-2. And that’s when Sean Rodriguez delivered the deathblow:
The three-run blast off of Luke Gregerson sent the Tropicana Field fans home happy and denied the A’s the dream of starting a nine-game road trip with a six-game winning streak. For the Rays, meanwhile, all’s well that ends well. They just have to hope that the adage holds true not only for Thursday’s victory, but also for their commitment to Balfour, whose former velocity and command have eluded him in the early going.
Speaking of great outings straight off the shelf, Chris Sale had one, too. And his team’s closer did his best to blow it, as well.
The 25-year-old Sale blazed through the Yankees’ lineup for six innings. He struck out the side in the first and permitted only one baserunner (Zoilo Almonte, who reached on a two-out single in the sixth) while fanning 10 over the course of the evening. Sale’s changeup was his bread-and-butter; he used it 23 times, 13 for strikes (all of them swinging and seven of them whiffs).
In doing so, he became the first pitcher since at least 1914 to strike out 10 Yankees without walking any in a run-less outing of six or fewer innings. Most pitchers who dominate so profoundly while tossing only 86 pitches stay in the game, but Sale’s disabled list stint led manager Robin Ventura to exercise caution. That the lefty shed any rust that collected on his arm so quickly only adds to the impressiveness of the performance.
On the other hand, Sale’s relatively early departure left the White Sox bullpen with three innings to eat. Zach Putnam and Daniel Webb held the line in the seventh and eighth, maintaining the 2-0 edge the home team had gained in the second inning. But it’s a good thing Adam Dunn singled home an insurance run in the South Siders’ half of the eighth, because Ronald Belisario, who took over the closer role in Matt Lindstrom’s stead, barely escaped with his second save.
Belisario recorded two outs while allowing only a single to Ichiro Suzuki, but the last out proved to be the hardest to get. He walked Derek Jeter and then watched both runners advance on a passed ball by catcher Tyler Flowers. The right-hander subsequently gave up a single to Mark Teixeira that brought the Yankees within a run, but he fanned Alfonso Soriano to preserve the 3-2 win.
With former closer Addison Reed now in Arizona following an offseason trade, managing the bullpen has been a challenge for Ventura for much of the season. The White Sox lead the league in reliever walks with 96, 13 more than the second-place Dodgers have issued, and they’ve struck out only 119 batters in 159 innings.
Fixing the bullpen is an issue that general manager Rick Hahn can eventually address as he completes the rebuilding process. The health of the staff ace is a much more pressing concern. And if Thursday’s return is any indication, Sale is as good as ever.
If you’ve ever wondered why major-league teams need an army of coaches, the Brewers provided an answer on Thursday. Their pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, and their bullpen coach, Lee Tunnell, were both away from the team at graduations. That put extra responsibilities on manager Ron Roenicke’s plate, which may have cost Milwaukee the game.
With the Brew Crew up 4-2 after the seventh-inning stretch at Turner Field, Matt Garza sandwiched a fly out between two singles to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. Roenicke called for Brandon Kintzler, who failed to do his job, surrendering a run-scoring double to Gerald Laird.
Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez called for a pinch-hitter—the switch-hitting Ryan Doumit—and Roenicke had seen enough from Kintzler. He wanted Will Smith to come into the game. The problem? Smith hadn’t been warming up, because Roenicke hadn’t communicated his plan properly to Rick Tomlin, who was filling in for Kranitz.
As a result, Smith got only the eight warm-up tosses allowed to relievers when they enter, and Doumit eventually singled home both Laird and Dan Uggla, putting the Braves ahead 5-4. Rob Wooten relieved Smith and struck out Justin Upton, but the damage was done.
David Carpenter and Craig Kimbrel shoved in the eighth and ninth, racking up four strikeouts while throwing only seven balls across the two innings to collect their ninth hold and 12th save, respectively.
Credit Roenicke for being upfront with reporters about the mishap in his post-game presser. It’s little consolation to the Brewers, who’ve dropped five of six and nine of 15, but it offered us a window into the inner workings of a big-league coaching staff—and what can go wrong when one or two regulars are away.
What to Watch for This Weekend
- With a 3.45 ERA through nine starts, it’s tempting to think that Charlie Morton should have found some way to pick up a win by now. But while the right-hander has given the Pirates plenty of opportunities to help him improve his 0-6 record, he’s also allowed opponents to push across nine unearned runs. And although Morton’s 7.4 percent walk rate is adequate, he’s also hit a league-high nine batters, which puts a damper on his 2.06 K:BB ratio. The 30-year-old’s next chance to break into the win column comes in tonight’s battle with Jordan Zimmermann and the Nationals (7:05 p.m. ET).
- Felix Hernandez struck out at least eight batters in each of his first four starts, half of which saw him reach double digits, but he hasn’t topped seven punchouts in a game since that streak ended on April 16. Two of Hernandez’s last six starts have been against the Astros, who whiff about as much as any team in baseball, with 403 strikeouts through Wednesday, the second-highest total in the majors. King Felix will get another chance to pad his K rate when Bo Porter’s club visits Safeco Field this evening. He hasn’t gone seven straight starts without fanning eight at least once since May 11-June 17, 2012 (10:10 p.m. ET).
- After turning down a qualifying offer from the Indians and eventually receiving a four-year, $50 million offer from the Orioles, Ubaldo Jimenez opted to take his talents to Baltimore. Now, the 30-year-old has a chance to make the Tribe regret not tendering him a longer-term commitment. Jimenez got off to a rough start with the O’s, sporting a 6.59 ERA at the end of April, and after bouncing back in his first three May starts—allowing just one run and striking out 20 in 19 1/3 innings—he was touched up for five runs in as many frames by the Royals his last time out. He’ll carry a 4.50 ERA and 4.31 FIP into his first-ever assignment against the Indians, who are set to counter with Corey Kluber (12:35 p.m. ET).
- Jaime Garcia, who underwent shoulder surgery to repair partial labrum and rotator cuff tears last May, showed fine control in his return to the mound, tossing seven innings versus the Braves without issuing a walk. The left-hander’s velocity perked up to 91 mph in his 2014 debut after sitting in the 88-89 range last year, a promising sign, even though he surrendered a couple of long balls in the no-decision. Next up for Garcia: a matchup with Tony Cingrani, who served up three big flies at Citizen Bank Park on May 18 (7:15 p.m. ET).
- Justin Verlander doesn’t often give up five runs in a start. It’s even rarer to see him do so in back-to-back outings. And to find the last time opponents dinged the hard-throwing righty for five tallies in three straight games, you’d have to go all the way back to July 26-August 11, 2008. To avoid seeing that five-plus-year stretch come to an end, Verlander will have to keep the Rangers at bay in Sunday’s series finale at Comerica Park. He’s scheduled to face Colby Lewis, who coughed up five runs in six innings versus the Mariners on May 20 (1:08 p.m. ET).