The Thursday Takeaway
Justin Verlander became the latest victim of Toronto’s explosive offense on Wednesday, as the Blue Jays cranked three more home runs and put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep over the AL Central leaders.
Verlander averaged a tick over 96 mph with fastball velocity for the first time this season, but the Jays did the bulk of their damage off Verlander’s secondary offerings and ended up putting up six runs (five earned) on the 2011 AL MVP. In seven innings of work, Verlander surrendered eight hits and four walks while striking out just four batters. The 31-year-old has now fanned four or fewer batters in seven of his 13 starts, and he has just two more strikeouts this season than Yankees reliever Dellin Betances.
Down 2-0, Toronto started its offensive output with a three-spot in the fourth inning, which was started by a two-base error that was the result of a miscommunication between Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter on a Jose Bautista fly ball. The Jays knocked a trio of singles off Verlander in the inning—one each off his changeup, curveball, and slider—and worked a free pass to take a 3-2 lead.
The Tigers evened the score at 3-3 in the home half of the fifth inning, but the Jays would push ahead for good during their half of the sixth. Adam Lind led off the inning by working a five-pitch walk, which brought up Juan Francisco. Verlander thought he could sneak a first-pitch changeup by Francisco, but he was mistaken:
Francisco has never exactly been a bat-to-ball type of hitter, and he still has serious problems against southpaws. However, he’s crushed right-handers this year to the tune of .306/.383/.673. and boasts the MLB’s third-best OPS versus righties. The long ball was Francisco’s 10th of the year, and the next batter, Brett Lawrie joined him in the double-digit dinger club.
Melky Cabrera added a solo shot in the 9th off Phil Coke to become the fifth Blue Jays hitter to reach the double-digit home run mark this season. Toronto is now up to 87 home runs this season, extending its lead over the second-best team—the Rockies—to 12.
Toronto is now riding a five-game winning streak and has won 17 of its last 20 games. With series sweeps of both the AL West and AL Central leaders under their belts, the Jays will play host to the Cardinals for a three-game set this weekend, hoping to cross another contender off their checklist.
Quick Hits from Thursday
The last time we saw Yordano Ventura on May 26, he exiting in the third inning with elbow discomfort that was later determined to be the product of a valgus extension overload. After reports of no lingering pain after subsequent bullpen sessions, Ventura made his return to the mound on Thursday against the Cardinals, and the 23-year-old passed his final test.
Ventura hit triple-digits during the first inning and his heater sat between 97-99 mph for the majority of his outing, which lasted six innings and 91 pitches. The right-handed flamethrower only recorded one strikeout, and mixed in just 10 curveballs and five changeups, but he did maintain his velocity into his final inning of work.
Ventura threw 55 of his 91 pitches for strikes and finished the night allowing two runs on seven hits. When Ventura walked off the mound for the final time, the scoreboard read 2-0, but his teammates tagged St. Louis’ Michael Wacha for a three spot in the bottom of the sixth to ensure Ventura his third win of the season. It appears that we can all take a deep breath for now.
The Yankees managed to salvage the third game of their series against the A’s, behind six quality innings of work by Masahiro Tanaka. In the top of the 1st, John Jaso took advantage of one of the few mistakes that Tanaka made during the Thursday matinee, yanking a sinker left over the heart of the plate into the second deck to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. Jaso’s blast marked the 13th consecutive game that the Athletics have gone deep.
However, Tanaka retired the next 10 Oakland batters, and allowed just four singles and a walk after that point. When Tanaka wasn’t hitting his targets in the strike zone, he kept the ball low. His most effective offering during the outing was his slider, which he threw 20 times—all for strikes.
Opposite Tanaka was Drew Pomeranz, who struck out seven and walked one batter over seven innings of two-run ball, lowering his ERA to 2.20. However, the Yankees capitalized on a Brandon Moss error in the 2nd inning to push across their first run. Leading off the next inning was Brett Gardner, who turned on a fastball from Pomeranz for his fourth tater of the season, which proved to be the game-winning run. With Craig Gentry standing on third base, David Robertson punched out Derek Norris for the final out in the ninth inning, preserving the 2-1 win and picking up his 13th save of the season.
The resurgent Astros got a pair of two-RBI base knocks from 24-year-olds George Springer and Jose Altuve in a decisive four-run eighth inning, which clinched their ninth win in their last 12 games and a series victory against the Angels.
With a 4-3 lead and the bases loaded, Altuve laced a 1-0 offering off Fernando Salas down the left field line for a two-run double. Springer followed suit with a single up the middle that plated Altuve and Dexter Fowler to give Houston an 8-3 lead. Those insurance runs proved to be pivotal, as Paul Clemens coughed up a pair of runs in the 9th inning before Chad Qualls came in to put out the fire.
After recording just a single at bat in the past four games due to lower back stiffness, Mike Trout returned as the designated hitter for the Halos on Thursday and promptly smacked a double and a triple. Trout is expected to return to the field, patrolling center field on Friday.
In the second inning of a scoreless game at Wrigley Field, Mets left fielder Andrew Brown made a tremendous throw to home plate for what appeared to be the third out of the inning. Brown’s throw beat Chicago’s Luis Valbuena—who was tagging from third base on the fly ball—to the plate, and home plate umpire Clint Fagan ruled him out on the tag. However, replays showed that Valbuena snuck his hand in before Travis d’Arnaud applied the tag and the Cubs challenged the play and had it overturned.
Next up for the Cubs was their starting pitcher Travis Wood, who belted his second home run of the year on Jacob deGrom’s first offering:
Wood’s tater was the eighth of his career and upped his slash line this season to .273/.333/.591 in 27 trips to the plate. On the mound, Wood kept the Mets off the board through the first five innings, but was lifted after allowing a walk and a pair of singles to start the sixth. Brown evened the score back up for the Mets the next inning with a two-run blast off Justin Grimm, but the Cubs quickly retook the lead on Anthony Rizzo’s 11th home run of the year. Chicago would hold on for a 7-4 win to complete the three-game sweep—their first of the season and just their third series win.
The Rangers avoided a three-game sweep and snapped their seven-game losing streak versus the Orioles, but they made it as difficult as possible. Chris Tillman made the start for Baltimore and lasted just 11 batters—exiting without recording an out in the bottom of the second as the Rangers staked Colby Lewis to an early 5-0 lead. The O’s chipped away at the deficit, getting a pair back on a Nick Markakis dinger in the third and two more on an Adam Jones double in the fifth before drawing even on a Chris Davis RBI single that drove home Jones.
The Rangers reclaimed the advantage in the seventh when Elvis Andrus scored the go-ahead run on one of three errors committed by shortstop J.J. Hardy. Alex Rios and Chris Jimenez followed with consecutive RBI singles to stretch the lead to 8-5.
Starter-turned-reliever Robbie Ross hurled two scoreless frames to pick up the win. Opening Day starter Tanner Scheppers—who was activated from the disabled list earlier in the day—gave up an eighth-inning home run to Jones before Joakim Soria pitched a clean ninth to seal the win for the Rangers.
Madison Bumgarner’s third pitch of the game against the Reds on Thursday was a fastball that Todd Frazier took opposite-field for a solo shot that gave his club the quick 1-0 advantage. However, Bumgarner buckled down shortly after, allowing a single to the next batter, Brandon Phillips, and then proceeding to mow down 23 of the next 24 batters.
Michael Morse put San Francisco ahead in the second inning with a 440-foot, two-run blast into the upper deck in left field. The visitors never looked back. Mike Leake recorded a 2.16 ERA in May, but June was not as kind to the Cincinnati right-hander, who exited after giving up five runs in as many innings.
Brandon Crawford launched a three-run shot to right-center in the fourth and by that time the Giants southpaw was already on cruise control. Bumgarner finished the outing striking out five batters over eight innings and didn’t hand out any free passes. His cutter was particularly effective, as he threw 38 of the 49 offerings for strikes, including six of the swing-and-miss variety.
With the 6-1 win, the Giants won a series in Cincinnati for the first time since August 2009, and upped their MLB-best record to 39-21. With the division rival Dodgers idle, San Francisco extended its lead in the National League West to 8 ½ games.
Wily Peralta pitched in and out of trouble Thursday night, walking three and using 103 pitches to navigate just five innings. But the Brewers swatted a trio of long flies to earn the win and split the four-game set with the Twins.
After retiring the first two batters in the third inning, the Twins loaded the bags against Peralta on a single and two walks, before Oswaldo Arcia cleared the bases with an absolute bomb to right field.
Carlos Gomez, who earlier in the game robbed Trevor Plouffe of extra bases with a leaping catch at the wall, uncorked a three-run blast off Kevin Correia in the fourth to pull within a run. Khris Davis went opposite field for his 10th home run in the sixth inning to give the Brew Crew a 5-4 lead. Jonathan Lucroy capped off the long-ball fusillade with a two-run shot in the ninth. Francisco Rodriguez finished off the Twins with a perfect ninth to record his 18th save—tying him with Huston Street and Sergio Romo for the league lead.
The Rockies continue to plummet in the NL West standings, as the Diamondbacks swept them on Thursday in the second straight slugfest between the two teams. Despite losing by a final of 12-7, Colorado did have an exciting moment in the 8th inning, when Brandon Barnes hit the club’s first inside-the-park-homer since Eric Young Jr. in 2012.
Defensive Play of the Day
Troy Tulowitzki looked poised to pick up his third extra-base hit of the night in the ninth inning against the Diamondbacks, but David Peralta robbed him with a fine leaping grab at the track.
What to Watch for Over the Weekend
- The Phillies dropped their sixth straight game on Wednesday, as the Nationals put the finishing touches on a series sweep of their division foes. Philadelphia will head to Great American Ball Park for a three-game set starting Friday, but any hope of ending their six-game skid will rest on figuring out Johnny Cueto. After the Brewers torched Jeff Samardzija last week, Cueto now lays claim to the title of baseball’s ERA leader. However, a .186 BABIP spells certain regression, and he’s managed to strike out over a batter per inning despite opposing hitters making more contact and swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than last season. Ryne Sandberg will counter with Cole Hamels, who has assumed the role as the club’s ace with Cliff Lee on the disabled list. (7:10 p.m. ET)
- Before this season, the phrase “pitching duel” would have been one of the last ways to describe a matchup between Phil Hughes and Dallas Keuchel. But here we are on June 6, and this contest between the Twins and Astros has the potential to be one of the best of the day. Hughes trails only David Price and Tim Hudson in walk rate this season and currently sports the lowest HR/FB rate of his career, which has helped him accumulate the ninth-best PVORP this season. In addition to ditching his slider for a cutter during the offseason, Hughes’ success starts with drastically improved fastball command. The once highly touted Yankees prospect boasts a 55.6 percent zone rate with his heater through 11 starts this season, compared to a 47.6 percent zone rate from 2012-2013.
Keuchel has also lowered his walk rate, and has thrived with his league-leading 66.7 percent ground-ball rate. Another big reason for Keuchel’s 2.74 FIP has been his slider, which has generated a 52.5 percent whiff-per-swing rate—the highest rate among pitches that have been thrown at least 200 times this season (8:10 p.m. ET).
- With Colorado’s playoff hopes spiraling after losing 11 of their last 13 games, the club will turn to their no. 2 prospect Eddie Butler who will make his major-league debut on Friday against the Dodgers. Ron Shah and Craig Goldstein wrote up an excellent profile of Butler yesterday, and the 46th-overall pick of the 2012 draft will face a stiff test in his first outing at Coors Field. With Jordan Lyles landing on the disabled list after suffering a fracture on his glove hand, it may only be a matter of time until Jonathan Gray joins Butler on the major-league roster. (8:40 p.m. EST)
- Chris Sale has been spectacular since returning from an elbow injury suffered in April, allowing just four batters to reach base in 18 innings since returning from the disabled list. Sale’s year-to-date numbers are staggering, as he currently sports a better WHIP than any qualified relievers. With Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols all healthy and in the Halos’ lineup, there will be enough enticing matchups to watch for in this one (10:05 p.m. ET).
- Zack Wheeler is coming off his most impressive starts of the season, and will try to keep the ball rolling against the team that selected him sixth overall in the 2009 draft. Wheeler’s drawback this season has been his high walk rate, but he’s issued just two free passes and struck out 16 batters during his past two starts against the Cubs and Phillies. The Giants have won 11 of their last 14 games entering this weekend tilt with the Mets and will serve as a tough test for the 24-year-old hurler. Getting the call for the Giants will be Tim Lincecum, who got tagged for eight runs in his last start against the Reds (4:05 p.m. ET).