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The Weekend Takeaway
After Friday’s game, Chris Carter now has 36 home runs on the year, putting him hot on the trails of Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton for the MLB lead. The A’s, who shipped Carter to the Astros on February 4, 2013, as part of a package to acquire Jed Lowrie, don’t mind that. They just kindly request that the 27-year-old Bay Area native stop going yard against them.

Up 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning, Jeff Samardzija was pitching well. His only big blemish to that point was a solo shot by Jonathan Singleton. There was a runner on and two away when Carter stepped to the plate, and Samardzija quickly jumped ahead in the count, 0-2.

During Carter’s days in Oakland, that would’ve just about been a death sentence. In 2012, he went 6-for-53 (.113 average) after falling into an 0-2 hole, with two homers and 31 strikeouts. In 2013, his first year in Houston, he did better, raising his average to .156. This year, he’s brought it all the way up to .204.

Once he got ahead of Carter with hard stuff, Samardzija went with a slider that darted way out of the strike zone. No dice, ball one. He got away with a 1-2 mistake, a belt-high fastball that Carter fouled off, then tried to climb the ladder. No dice, ball two. Back to the slider low and away. No dice, ball three.

Down in the squat, catcher Derek Norris was shocked:

Since the sliders weren’t eliciting swings, the A’s battery went back to the heater. Carter fouled off pitch no. 7. Norris called for another hard one, this time in the lower-outside quadrant of the zone:

Samardzija got the outside part of the idea, but he left the 97-mph offering thigh-high, which spells big trouble against Carter these days. Big trouble like this:

From 3-2 A’s to 4-3 Astros with one swing that yielded Carter’s seventh homer of the year against Bob Melvin’s staff. The A’s never recovered. And since the Angels won a hectic extra-inning contest at Target Field, 7-6, Oakland’s deficit in the West ticked up to a season-high six games.

The A’s bounced back with a much-needed, come-from-behind, walkoff win on Saturday. Down 3-1 heading into the ninth and struggling to solve Scott Feldman, Oakland brought the go-ahead run to the plate with runners at the corners and two away. Josh Reddick didn’t win the game, but he tied it with a double that got the monkey off the A’s backs. The next batter, Jed Lowrie, singled, and after eight innings of misery, they were celebrating good times at the Coliseum.

Chad Qualls, the victim of those two clutch knocks, retained his sense of humor even after letting the Astros’ five-game winning streak slip away:

The theme of old friends becoming pivotal enemies carried over into Sunday’s finale, though the way in which it would ultimately decide the game was in question throughout the late innings.

With the A’s up 1-0 in the top of the seventh, the Astros put runners at second and third with one out. Jonathan Singleton’s groundball to second was as productive an out as he could’ve made: Carter scored and Jason Castro moved to third on the play. The next batter, another former Athletic, Gregorio Petit, singled to put the Astros up 2-1.

Following the seventh-inning stretch, Jed Lowrie singled. Then, Nate Freiman, once a Rule Five pick by the Astros who was then claimed off waivers by the A’s, flipped the one-run margin with a two-run homer. And thus, the A’s were ahead 3-2.

With Sean Doolittle on the disabled list and Eric O’Flaherty unavailable with a sore back, Oakland skipper Bob Melvin went with his third-choice closer, Ryan Cook. The right-hander promptly walked Marwin Gonzalez, but he got Singleton to foul out. Pinch-hitter Marc Krauss walked, too, bringing pinch-runner L.J. Hoes into the contest, and Robbie Grossman walked to load the bases. Not a banner effort for Cook.

Keeping with the ex-Astros theme, Melvin gave the ball to Fernando Abad, who spent parts of three seasons in Houston after climbing up the organization’s minor-league ladder. He came to the A’s in November of last year via the Nationals, for whom he pitched in 2013.

Jake Marisnick, the first hitter to face Abad, tied the game with a sacrifice fly. That he hit it to right field, instead of left, was notable, because it enabled Hoes to advance to third. Melvin then made a controversial decision: He intentionally walked Jose Altuve, a .417 hitter versus left-handed pitching, to re-load the bases and set up a possible double play. That’s the glass-half-full view. The glass-half-empty view is that Melvin left Abad with nowhere to put Dexter Fowler.

Abad walked Fowler to force home the go-ahead run. Jonathan Villar fouled out to end the inning, but it was an inning in which the A’s walked five and threw 11 of 34 pitches for strikes. To put that into perspective: Doolittle had walked five batters all season before he hit the disabled list; his replacements on Sunday combined to match that total.

Tony Sipp and Josh Fields combined to strike out the A’s side in the last of the ninth, and that was that. Melvin walked Carter intentionally in the eighth inning of Sunday’s series finale, in hopes that his former employees might be done haunting their old mates. In the latest of a mounting series of frustrations for the green and gold, one of the skipper’s current players did the visitors a favor instead.

Now, the A’s are a season-high seven games behind the Angels and just 2 ½ games away from being bumped from the postseason. If Sunday’s meltdown isn’t rock bottom for what was, just a month ago, the consensus best team in baseball, it’s hard to fathom what will be.

Meanwhile, in Houston, a furniture-store owner better get ready to pay up.

Quick Hits from the Weekend

On Thursday, Chase Headley was the hero for the Yankees. On Friday, he was the goat.

Less than 24 hours after Headley supplied a walkoff homer to defeat the Red Sox, he committed a fielding error on a hot shot off the bat of Alcides Escobar. The ball skipped past Headley and into left field, softly enough for Escobar to round first and end up safe at second, ahead of Brett Gardner’s throw. Norichika Aoki singled Escobar home, and that was all she wrote in the Bronx.

One run was all it took, because Royals starter James Shields flummoxed the Yankees. The right-hander worked 8 1/3 scoreless innings, permitting only three hits, striking out six, and walking none. Wade Davis, filling in for Greg Holland as the closer nursed a sore triceps, fanned a pair in the ninth to strand a runner in scoring position and wrap it up.

The Yankees got seven innings of three-run ball from Michael Pineda, who also went about his business without issuing a free pass. Pineda’s only mistake was an 0-1 fastball to Aoki that leaked out over the plate and was stroked to center. But since he couldn’t play the hot corner or hit, all of his good work on the mound was for naught.

***

Handed a 7-4 lead in the top of the ninth inning on Friday, Nationals closer Rafael Soriano quickly squandered two-thirds of it on a single by Domonic Brown and a two-run homer by Carlos Ruiz. But Soriano retired the next two batters, and the fifth of the inning would be Ben Revere.

One thing was virtually certain: The Nationals’ lead would last at least one more hitter. Virtually, not absolutely, because Revere did, finally, at long last, hit a home run earlier this year. It was his first in the majors, and it remained so through his 1,933rd plate appearance, a walk in the eighth.

After four pitches, the count was 2-2, and the Phillies were down to their last strike. Soriano went with a slider that had more hang time than Ray Guy’s best punt. History suggested that he’d get away with the mistake—that either Soriano or Tyler Clippard, who was warming up in the bullpen, would have a chance to end the game against Jimmy Rollins, who was on deck. History was wrong:

The second home run of Revere’s big-league career was a game-tying solo job over the big “W” tattooed on the right-field wall between the out-of-town scoreboard and the home bullpen. And just like that, it was 7-7.

Friday’s mess was the latest of a mounting string of failures for Soriano, who was excellent in the first half but has scuffled of late. Clippard got Rollins to foul out to end the inning, but bonus baseball would not be kind to the home team.

Brown began the top of the 11th with a can of corn to left-center field. Either center fielder Denard Span or left fielder Bryce Harper could have made a routine catch. The only way the Nats could muck this up was if both of them tried to catch it at the same time. Sure enough

Harper and Span got in each other’s way, and Brown wound up on second base. He moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Maikel Franco, who ended up on second, because first baseman Tyler Moore’s throw to the plate was off line and caromed off of Brown’s helmet. Two batters later, Revere singled and Franco scored to make it 9-7 Phillies.

That second run proved fateful, because the Nationals offense had some fight left in it. After Span flied out, Anthony Rendon worked a walk, then went first-to-third on Jayson Werth’s ensuing single because Revere kicked the play. Moore singled, Rendon scored, and suddenly, it was 9-8. But the Nats failed in their bid for an equalizer, as Jonathan Papelbon bounced back to fan Ian Desmond and get Harper to line out to end the game.

Poor pitching in the ninth and defensive blunders in extras are ominous signs for a pennant hopeful. Fortunately, Matt Williams’ club had a seven-game lead in the National League East when the weekend began, so it could afford the slip-up. The race for home-field advantage throughout the senior-circuit playoffs, though, remains neck-and-neck, with the Dodgers breathing down Washington’s throat.

***

The story in Detroit on Saturday was supposed to be a pitchers’ duel between Madison Bumgarner and David Price. Then, the Comerica Park scoreboard read “Giants 4, Tigers 2” at the end of the first inning. So much for that.

Instead, the middle match between the 2012 pennant winners turned into a duel between the 2012 league MVPs, the two first basemen on this day, Buster Posey and Miguel Cabrera.

Cabrera fired the opening salvo, a two-run bomb in the bottom of the first frame. But that yardwork came in the wake of a four-spot by the visitors, sparked by Posey’s two-out single—the first hit in a five-knock rally—and it only halved Detroit’s early deficit. The Tigers’ best hope for an MVP plaque this year, Victor Martinez, made it a one-run game with his 30th homer of the season in the third.

Two innings later, Posey countered with no. 20:

That would end up being the winning run, because Cabrera’s second dinger, off of Sergio Romo in the top of the eighth, accounted for the only other tally in the game:

On an afternoon when Bumgarner lacked his best stuff, failing to notch a strikeout for the first time in 149 career regular-season games, Posey, who went 3-for-3 with a walk, ensured that his team’s ace would best Detroit’s. Price shook off his rough first inning to strike out 11 and come within one out of a complete game. Only Posey managed to thwart his efforts between innings one and nine.

The 27-year-old was an afterthought in the MVP race after batting .258/.292/.435 before the All-Star break. From the festivities in Kansas City through Saturday’s contest, Posey drilled 10 home runs and walked more times (28) than he struck out. He spent the last 15 games of that tear batting over .500:

Now, following a surge akin to his work in the second half of the 2012 campaign, the Giants’ no. 3 hitter is up to .310/.361/.494 at the plate, to go with above-average framing behind it. That might not yet be enough to contend with Clayton Kershaw, Jonathan Lucroy, Andrew McCutchen, and Giancarlo Stanton, but if Posey keeps it up for the better part of this month, the voters’ already-challenging decision will become even tougher.

The Tigers took Sunday’s nationally televised finale on the strength of Miguel Cabrera’s bat, which delivered a three-run homer in the third inning, Kyle Lobstein’s arm, which yielded 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball, and three players’ legs. Andrew Romine (two), Don Kelly (one), and J.D. Martinez (one) combined for four stolen bases. It’s the first time the Tigers have swiped four bags in a game since August 18, 2009.

***

Saturday’s Giants win over the Tigers was welcomed by the Royals, who briefly went up 2 ½ games in the American League Central. But those smiles quickly turned into frowns when Danny Duffy threw one pitch in his start against the Yankees and called it a day with a sore shoulder. Duffy was diagnosed with rotator-cuff inflammation on Monday, a positive sign because it means the MRI did not reveal any structural damage. The Royals hope Duffy will only miss one start.

At any rate, pressed into early duty, Liam Hendriks gobbled up four innings but did a poor impression of the pitcher he supplanted. The Yankees scored four times (three earned) before Casey Coleman took over and gave up two more. Joe Girardi’s club wound up 5-for-10 with runners in scoring position, thereby plating six runs without the benefit of a homer.

Kansas City’s most effective pitcher on the hot-and-humid afternoon in the Bronx was also the first 2014 draft pick to reach the majors. That would be Brandon Finnegan, who followed Coleman to the hill and chucked two perfect innings while racking his two strikeouts. One of those strikeouts: Derek Jeter, undoubtedly a thrill for the 21-year-old out of Texas Christian University.

Alas, the Royals’ Saturday was low on thrills. Brandon McCarthy turned in 6 2/3 strong innings, and Shawn Kelley, Dellin Betances, and David Robertson kept the visitors off the base paths entirely to secure the win.

The Royals won Sunday’s finale, 2-0, as the Yankees lost for the second time in the three-game set without permitting an earned run. That hadn’t happened in a while. A long while:

Girardi’s squad has now been blanked five times in its last 26 games.

***

Ask most any player, past or present, tasked chiefly with pinch-hitting duties, and he’ll tell you that it’s a tough job. Ike Davis said so. Marlins manager Mike Redmond said so. Even potential Hall of Famer Bobby Abreu said so. And those are just a few recent examples of major leaguers talking up the challenge of grabbing a bat after spending the better part of the game on the pine.

Somehow, Chris Heisey didn’t get the memo.

Through Saturday’s middle match between the Mets and Reds, Heisey had a .229/.275/.404 slash line for the 2014 season. Let’s break that down into pinch-hit and non-pinch-hit plate appearances:

Role

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

PH

43

.293

.326

.707

4

Non-PH

218

.218

.261

.345

3

Chalk it up to a small sample, if you wish, but Heisey, who collected the 100th pinch-hit knock of his career earlier this season, credits his success in the role so many call “tough” to confidence that he built up during his first week in the majors.

It turns out, Heisey’s pinch-hitting is better than his memory of dates. The game-tying home run off of Billy Wagner to which Heisey attributes his confidence came 16 days after his debut. He went on to slug three more that year, totaling four in his first 23 pinch-hit tries in the majors. More than four years later, the 29-year-old is still at it.

With the bases empty in the last of the seventh and the Mets and Reds tied, 1-1, Heisey got a first-pitch fastball and walloped it into the left-field seats for his league-high fourth pinch-hit long ball of the season.

The 2-1 lead held the rest of the way, even though Aroldis Chapman allowed a single and two walks in the top of the ninth. Curtis Granderson, who produced the single, departed in favor of pinch-runner Eric Young Jr., who stole second but was caught stealing third on a double steal that put Dilson Herrera at second. Pinch-hitter Eric Campbell whiffed to end it.

You might say the Reds won the one-run affair in three pinches.

***

One way to get swept in a four-game home series is to have your bullpen get torched for 19 runs. That’s the route the Twins chose with the Angels in town, and by the end Sunday’s 14-4 beating, the Halos left as the league’s leading offense:

A six-run sixth inning, keyed by C.J. Cron’s two-run big fly, featured the bulk of the damage. Howie Kendrick launched his sixth of the year in the second inning and Mike Trout picked up no. 32 in the third. Both of those came at the expense of spot starter Logan Darnell, who gave up five runs in 4 2/3 innings, setting the expanded-but-still-worn-down bullpen up for the woes that ensued.

It was the Halos’ fifth four-game-series sweep of the season, including the four-game beatdown of the A’s the previous weekend. Mike Scioscia’s team now has a magic number of 14 in its bid to win the West.

***

When your team’s starting pitchers are in the league’s top three in a host of significant statistical categories…

…as the Indians’ rotation has been over the last month, there’s a good chance you’ll win some ballgames. Terry Francona’s starters—T.J. House, Corey Kluber, and Carlos Carrasco—joined forces to post a 23-to-0 K:BB ratio in 24 2/3 innings over the weekend. Hence, they broomed the White Sox out of Cleveland despite scoring only seven runs across the three days.

Carrasco and Cody Allen pitched the lone shutout in the series, with the former recording 26 of 27 outs and the latter needing just three pitches to record the last one. With eight strikeouts and 12 ground-ball outs, Carrasco was in control from start to almost-finish.

The 27-year-old has a couple of complete games under his belt in 50 career starts, but he’s yet to log one without permitting a run. He got as close as you can get without actually notching the SHO on Sunday. But with the tying run at first and the go-ahead run at the plate in the ninth inning, Francona wasn’t taking any chances.

Carrasco, whose breakout month has been among the biggest factors behind the rotation’s overall success, has now held opponents to 25 hits and four walks in his last 38 2/3 frames on the hill.

***

After sweeping the Pirates at home, the Cardinals marched into Miller Park with a chance to start putting the Central division on ice. They dropped game two of four, but after a pair of weekend wins, St. Louis has built a 4 ½-game cushion and dropped Milwaukee into third place.

Adam Wainwright did most of the work on Sunday, tossing a complete game seven-hitter. He allowed one run, walked one, and struck out three. The right-hander didn’t miss many bats, but weak contact was the name of the game, and the Brewers supplied plenty of it.

Jimmy Nelson matched Wainwright for three innings, but the Cardinals posted a four-spot in the fourth, and that the ballgame. Their two-run seventh and three-run ninth were extraneous in the 9-1 drubbing.

The Redbirds’ postseason odds are up more than 35 percent over the last seven days. The Brewers’ chances, meanwhile, have fallen by nearly the same amount.

***

In the 10-4 victory over the Cubs that pushed the Pirates past the Brewers in the standings, Gerrit Cole contributed on both sides of the ball. He struck out eight without issuing a walk in six innings, though the Cubs tagged him for two runs in the seventh, when he faced three batters and retired none.

Fortunately for the Bucs, that followed the seventh-inning stretch, before which Cole crushed a two-run homer:

Clint Hurdle’s lineup authored four dingers in all, three of them off of Travis Wood, who was shelled for seven runs on nine hits in just 1 2/3 innings. Wood became the first Cubs starter to give up at least seven runs, at least nine hits, and at least three gopherballs without finishing the second inning since… well, since at least 1914, as far back as the Baseball-Reference Play Index goes.

The Pirates now have sole possession of the senior circuit’s second wild card, with a half-game edge over the Brewers and Braves.

***

The Orioles scored seven runs in Sunday’s extra-inning win over the Rays. Nelson Cruz drove in all of them. Seriously:

Cruz whacked a two-run homer in the sixth. With the O’s down 4-2 in the ninth, he smacked a three-run triple. And, since the Rays came back to tie the game at 5-5, he couldn’t help but crank another two-run jack in the 11th:

The game-winner was no. 39 of the year for Cruz, who’s not making it easy for Stanton or Carter to take the crown.

The Defensive Play of the Weekend

What to Watch on Monday

Today’s docket is a gift from the schedule-makers, with a steady stream of contests from the early afternoon on the Atlantic seaboard through the evening on the Pacific.

It kicks off with a makeup of an Angels-Indians game that was rained out on June 18. Mike Scioscia’s club is stopping in Cleveland on its way from Minneapolis to Arlington, which means that the Halos won’t get a day off until September 25th. By then, Anaheim will have played 23 games in as many days. Jered Weaver, behind whom the Angels are 12-3 since June 21, gets the ball at Progressive Field, where he gave up four runs in six innings two days before the washout. Fortunately for the right-hander, Asdrubal Cabrera, one of the two Indians who went yard the last time he toed the rubber at the Jake, is no longer with the Tribe (1:05 p.m. ET).

***

The Royals and Tigers will tangle six more times before the regular season is out, thrice this week in Detroit and thrice next weekend in Kansas City. Today’s matchup is one of two remaining day games between the clubs, thanks to a quirky first-pitch time at Comerica Park. If you have faith in time-of-day splits, that’s trouble for the Royals, because Victor Martinez, who’s been one of the league’s best hitters this year regardless of setting, has been especially lethal before twilight. He leads all major leaguers who’ve logged at least 150 daytime at-bats with a .981 OPS, to go with a 28-to-12 BB:K ratio. That bears repeating: Martinez, at the age of 35, has notched 2 1/3 walks for every strikeout in day games this year. Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie will try to eat into that ratio this afternoon while taking on Justin Verlander (4:08 p.m. ET).

***

Miller Park is one of the friendliest yards in the majors for right-handed power hitters; its home-run factor of 117 last year placed third behind Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park. Nonetheless, Giancarlo Stanton, the most fearsome right-side thumper in the majors, has yet to solve the yard, slugging just one long ball in 11 career games in Milwaukee.

If you’re hoping to get Stanton out, sliders are your best bet:

Depending on your outlook, that’s either good news or bad news for scheduled Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, for whom the slider is the secondary pitch of choice versus right-handed batters:

Same-side hitters have accounted for 13 of the 17 homers Gallardo’s served up this year—and slugged .414 compared to lefties’ .313 clip—in large part because of his location mistakes with the slider, his “leading” gopherball pitch. Given Stanton’s ability to punish fastballs, expect Gallardo to utilize his preferred breaking ball when the National League MVP candidate is in the box tonight. His ability to do so without hanging one could prove pivotal in the series opener (8:10 p.m. ET).

***

Finally, nothing cures a case of the Mondays better than some late-night Felix Hernandez, and the Mariners ace is raring to face the Astros—the only club that’s managed to pin six runs on him this year—at Safeco Field tonight. That’s something of a deceptive fact, because errors by now-Padre Abraham Almonte and still-Mariner Kyle Seager led to four unearned runs in that April meeting, and Hernandez avenged it with eight innings of one-run work on May 23rd. He’ll duel Brad Peacock in the personal rubber match, Hernandez’s third and final home tilt with the Astros in 2014 (10:10 p.m. ET).