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The Tuesday Takeaway

Entering Tuesday, Mariners starting pitchers had turned in three straight awful performances. Chris Young was roughed up for seven runs in three innings of a blowout loss to the Astros on Saturday. Hisashi Iwakuma lasted just four innings in a loss in Sunday’s rubber match and James Paxton was torched for nine runs in 2 2/3 innings during Monday’s series opener in Toronto. A better pitching performance appeared to be on the horizon with Felix Hernandez lined up to take the hill against the Blue Jays last night.

As it turned out, even Felix couldn’t bring an end to Seattle’s pitching woes.

The Blue Jays drew first blood against the Mariners' ace in the first inning, using a ground-rule double by Jose Bautista and an RBI single by Edwin Encarnacion to take an early 1-0 lead. Hernandez buckled down to retire the next 11 hitters after Encarnacion’s single and was armed with a 2-1 lead heading into the fifth inning, courtesy of Robinson Cano’s two-run single off R.A. Dickey in the third.

That streak of batters retired ended when Dalton Pompey sent an elevated fastball from Hernandez into the second deck to even the score at two apiece.

That was just the beginning of what turned out to be a nightmare inning for Hernandez. Anthony Gose followed Pompey’s home run with a double and Josh Thole reached on a generously scored bunt single, the result of Hernandez bobbling the bunt right back to the mound. Ryan Goins gave Toronto the lead with a sacrifice fly, and the wheels fell off for Hernandez after that.

The Blue Jays went single, walk, walk, single, fielder’s choice before Pompey worked an eight-pitch walk to load the bases in his second trip to the plate during the inning. With the Mariners now down 6-2, Lloyd McClendon gave his ace the hook, and after reliever Domonic Leone allowed two of the inherited baserunners to score, the final line for Hernandez read: 4 2/3 innings, seven hits, eight runs, three walks, and five strikeouts. Toronto ended up taking the game by a 10-2 final.

The rare implosion by Hernandez resulted in not only the most runs he had allowed in a single inning this season, but also the most he had surrendered in a single game all year. The eight total earned runs Hernandez gave up tied a career worst for the right-hander and his ERA jumped from a league-leading 2.07 to 2.34.

Not only did Hernandez’s worst outing of the season drop the Mariners three games behind the Royals for a wild card slot with just five remaining, it also loosened his grasp on the Cy Young Award race, which he appeared to have all but wrapped up a month ago. After last night’s start, Corey Kluber holds a 2.39-to-2.60 FIP advantage while pitching just three fewer innings. Last night’s blowup by Hernandez also narrowed the gap in ERA between the two, despite Hernandez pitching in front of a much better defense and to a superior receiver behind the dish. Cleveland’s ace will have a final chance to sway the voters Saturday night against the Rays.

Quick Hits from Tuesday

Pittsburgh’s magic number entering last night was down to two, so a win against the Braves plus a loss by the Brewers would guarantee them a ticket to the playoffs for the second straight year. Taking care of business for Pittsburgh meant going through Alex Wood, who was spotted an early lead.

Atlanta’s bats were rolling early against Gerrit Cole, but a walk, double, and single through the first four batters resulted in just one run due to a pair of outs given away on the basepaths. After Emilio Bonifacio drew a free pass to lead off the game, Freddie Freeman ripped a one-out double down the right-field line to give Atlanta an early lead. However, Freeman was thrown out trying to stretch his base knock into a triple, and Justin Upton’s single shortly after was for naught. Two pitches later, Jason Heyward let a 1-0 fastball pass right down Broadway and watched Upton thrown out trying to steal second base.

The Braves supported Wood with another run in the second inning, while Andrelton Simmons provided the southpaw with his latest defensive gem, a full-extension grab to rob Josh Harrison of a one-out single.

Pittsburgh cut into the 2-0 lead with a run in the fourth on a double steal with two outs and runners at the corners. The next inning, Travis Snider evened the score:

The Pirates used a pair of doubles by Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte to take a 3-2 lead in the fifth, while Cole settled down to retire the final 17 batters he faced en route to seven stellar innings of work. Jared Hughes relieved Cole and his first pitch to Chris Johnson was grounded deep into the hole at shortstop, where Jordy Mercer answered Simmons’ fantastic snag earlier in the game with a fine defensive play of his own.

Simmons tried to start a rally with a one-out single off Hughes, but pinch-runner Jose Constanza was erased shortly after when Evan Gattis hit into a 6-4-3 double play.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Aroldis Chapman had just shut the door on Johnny Cueto’s 19th win of the season. Cueto needed just 97 pitches to hold the Brewers to one run across eight outstanding frames, while Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco provided the offense with a pair of solo jacks. All of that meant that a scoreless inning in the ninth would clinch at least a spot in the NL Wild Card game for Pittsburgh.

Mark Melancon was unavailable for the Buccos in the ninth after pitching in four of the previous five days, but Tony Watson was an effective replacement, coaxing a game-ending double play to clinch the playoff berth and commence the champagne celebration.

***

Last night’s pitching duel in Cleveland featured a pair of electric young hurlers who know a thing or two about fastball velocity. Topping the starting-pitcher leaderboard in fastball velocity this season is Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura, who entered last night averaging a tick over 98 mph with his heater. Opposite Ventura was Danny Salazar, who ranks 13th among starters with an average velocity of 95.6 mph. The matchup easily lived up to the hype early on, as Salazar fanned six, elicited eight swing-and-misses and allowed just a pair of infield singles through the first two innings. Ventura responded by striking out three through two innings and keeping the Indians off the board in the early going.

But Salazar hit a bump in the road in the fourth when Billy Butler led off with a walk and Alex Gordon followed with a single to right center. Two batters later, Omar Infante ripped an inside fastball at the belt from Salazar for a one-out double down the left-field line. A strong relay from Michael Brantley to Jose Ramirez gave the Indians a chance to get Alex Gordon, who was trying to score from first, but Ramirez skipped his throw to the plate past Yan Gomes and Infante was able to move up to third base. The Royals stranded Infante there, however, as Salazar buckled down to induce an infield pop up by Mike Moustakas and then blew a 95 mph heater past Alcides Esobar for a swinging strikeout.

Salazar appeared to put the crooked number behind him the next inning when he retired the first two Cleveland hitters, but missed locations eventually spelled the end of the night for the 24-year-old.

With two outs and nobody on, Gomes was set up low and away for Salazar’s 3-1 pitch to Eric Hosmer, who is slugging just .383 against such pitches. Instead, Salazar’s 97 mph fastball missed over the center of the plate, where the Kansas City first baseman is crushing the ball this year. Lo and behold, Hosmer scalded Salazar’s offering off the right-center-field wall to keep the inning alive.

Up next was Billy Butler, who also worked himself into a favorable 3-1 count against Salazar. Butler may be having a down year at the plate, but he knows what to do with…

… a center-cut fastball. The ground-rule double plated Hosmer and extended the lead to 3-0. Salazar fell behind 3-1 to a third straight batter, Alex Gordon, before deciding to just put him on intentionally and take his chances against Salvador Perez. Salazar proceeded to miss badly with a 1-1 fastball to Perez that ended up down the pipe and ripped into the left-center gap by Perez for a bases-clearing double.

That was the end of the night for Salazar, whose dominating start quickly turned into an eight-hit, five run clunker. That lead was more than enough cushion for Ventura, who tossed seven scoreless frames on 117 pitches. The 23-year-old wasn’t the most efficient, throwing just 67 strikes and walking four, but it was enough for the Royals to win by a 7-1 final and put pressure on the Tigers to either beat the White Sox or finish the night in a tie atop the American League Central.

***

The lack of confidence that Brad Ausmus has in his bullpen became glaringly apparent last night when the Detroit manager refused to turn to his closer, Joe Nathan, until David Price had finally conceded a three-run lead to the White Sox in the ninth inning.

Price was outstanding through his first eight innings of work, issuing zero walks and giving up just three hits heading into the ninth with a 3-0 lead. He did get an assist in the fifth inning, however, when J.D. Martinez brought back a potential home run off the bat of Josh Phegley.

Price started the ninth at just 95 pitches, but trouble loomed for the hard-throwing lefty when Adam Eaton singled and Alexei Ramirez doubled to lead off the inning. That brought up Jose Abreu as the tying run, but Price bounced back to strike out the rookie slugger on three pitches. Moments later, Avisail Garcia grounded a single up the middle to make it a one-run game, which prompted Ausmus to emerge from the top step of the dugout.

With Nathan warming up and Price at 105 pitches, the Comerica Park crowd showered Ausmus with a sea of boos, as Tigers fans let it be known that they had more confidence in Price finishing out the game than their shaky closer. After a short conversation between Price and Ausmus, the Tigers skipper headed back to the dugout, much to the delight of the home crowd.

Price got Dayan Viciedo to fly out, but Paul Konerko blooped a single to left, moving Garcia up to third. Even with the tying run 90 feet away, Ausmus stuck with his prized midseason acquisition. Marcus Semien quieted the Comerica crowd shortly after when he poked Price’s final pitch of the night—a 2-1 changeup off the black—into center field to tie the game.

After serving up five base knocks in the inning, Price finally exited in favor of Nathan, who promptly walked his first batter to load the bases. The veteran reliever escaped the jam and kept the score even heading into the bottom of the ninth by getting Carlos Sanchez to fly out to center and strand the bases full of White Sox.

Despite the late-inning scare, Ausmus and his club were able to come away with the win in addition to a few extra gray hairs. Ian Kinsler led off the bottom of the ninth with a single to left off Jake Petricka and moved up 90 feet when the South Side closer walked Torii Hunter. That left it up to Miguel Cabrera, who laced a single through the left side to give the Tigers the walk-off win and maintain their one-game lead over the Royals in the AL Central.

***

Remember earlier this year when Madison Bumgarner and Yasiel Puig exchanged words and things got heated over a home run bat flip?

Well, things got testy again last night when round two of the Bumgarner-Puig showdown developed after Puig was plunked for the second straight night. This time, the benches cleared.

Bumgarner appeared to say something immediately after hitting Puig, which caught the ear of the polarizing outfielder and made him furious. After the dust had settled, Bumgarner had to refocus, already down 1-0 after serving up a leadoff home run to Justin Turner. Bumgarner got the next batter, Adrian Gonzalez, to fly out, but Matt Kemp launched a fastball over the center-field fence, giving the Dodgers an early 3-0 lead and himself a fine way to celebrate his 30th birthday.

After emotions ran high in a rough first inning for the Giants, Bumgarner was locked in from there on out, allowing just a single over the next six innings. His teammates didn’t provide him much in the way of run support, however, as the only runs the Giants scored off Zack Greinke came off the bat of Bumgarner.

Bumgarner had actually tried to bunt over Juan Perez earlier in the at-bat, but he missed Greinke’s first pitch and tapped the second offering foul. Bumgarner proceeded to take Greinke deep on the 0-2 curveball for his fourth long ball of the season. Bumgarner’s home run and strong season at the plate earned him an at-bat from Bruce Bochy with one out in the top of the eighth and the Giants down 3-2, but Bumgarner came up empty on a fastball at the letters from Greinke to conclude the eight-pitch battle.

The Giants' starter retired pinch-hitter Darwin Barney to start the eighth, but his night came to an end when Turner took him deep for a second time.

After scattering six hits, striking out five, and issuing zero free passes over eight innings, Greinke passed the ball off to Kenley Jansen, who slammed the door for his 44th save of the season. The loss dropped the Giants 4 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and reduced Los Angeles’ magic number for clinching the division to one.

***

One of the several explanations given for Oakland’s second half swoon has been that Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray have been unable to duplicate the success they found earlier this season. Since the calendar flipped to August, Gray has a 4.64 ERA in 10 starts to go with a mediocre 45:22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 innings.

On Tuesday, the young Oakland hurler struck out 12 and turned in his most dominating outing in months, but it was still not enough for the A’s to come out on top against the Angels.

Gray’s breaking pitches were especially on point during his outing, as he generated a combined 15 swing-and-misses from his slider and curveball. The Vanderbilt product lived primarily in the lower third of the zone and was able to get the Angels to chase plenty of breaking pitches below the knees.

While Gray managed his fair share of yellow dots representing swing-and-misses in the pitch chart above, there’s also that light blue dot in the middle of the plate, which was this 91 mph fastball to Gordon Beckham:

Beckham’s solo blast extended Anaheim’s lead to 2-0, the eventual final score. Despite Gray’s best efforts, the A’s were blanked over 5 1/3 innings by Wade LeBlanc and didn’t fare any better against the Angels’ bullpen. The loss dropped Oakland into a tie with the Royals for the top AL Wild Card spot.

Defensive Plays of the Day

Denard Span’s tremendous diving snag at the warning track to rob Matt den Dekker also came with a price, as the Nationals' center fielder exited the game with a bruised right knee while making the catch. Fortunately, Washington has the luxury of resting Span before they’ll need to pencil his name atop their lineup come playoff time next week.

After taking extra bases away from Tommy Medica earlier in the game, Brandon Barnes did himself one better in the eighth inning, crashing into the left-field wall to make a phenomenal catch and preserve Colorado’s 3-2 lead.

What to Watch on Wednesday

With the Tigers and Royals in a neck and neck battle for the American League Central title, every win over the final week will go a long way in determining which of the two teams will have to put their season on the line in the AL Wild Card playoff game. A date at home with the White Sox would normally spell a favorable matchup for Detroit, but not today, as the Tigers will draw Chris Sale in the final start of the season for the South Side’s ace. Because of an early-season injury, Sale won’t have the body of work to match strong seasons from Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber when it comes to crowning the AL Cy Young Award winner, but the southpaw has been arguably as impressive on a per-game basis this season. He’ll close out his 2014 campaign opposite Justin Verlander, who is fresh off one of his more impressive starts of the season. The former Cy Young winner walked none and scattered seven hits over 7 1/3 innings in a blowout against the Royals, allowing one run in a start for just the second time this season (1:08 p.m. EST).

After the conclusion of Detroit’s matinee tilt, the Royals will take their hacks against Trevor Bauer in search of a series sweep of the Indians. Barring a miracle finish for Cleveland, this will be the final start of Bauer’s first full season in the big leagues. Despite entering today with a 4.06 ERA, Bauer has missed bats at a healthy clip and has shown flashes of brilliance. He’s integrated his cutter and splitter into an already deep arsenal and certainly has the potential to blossom even more next year in his age-24 season. Opposite Bauer will be Jason Vargas, who has given up at least four runs and been unable to make it through the sixth inning in his past three starts (7:00 p.m. EST).

If you need an excuse to stay up late tonight, look no further than a date with Clayton Kershaw on the hill and Vin Scully on the mic. A win for the Dodgers would wrap up the NL West, while a Giants win or Brewers loss would clinch a playoff spot for San Francisco. While Kershaw will make the final start of an expected Cy Young award campaign, the Giants will counter with Tim Hudson, who, despite faltering down the stretch, has pitched admirably this season after coming back from last year’s gruesome ankle injury (10:00 p.m. EST).