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The Thursday Takeaway

It had been 20 months since Matt Harvey made his last regular season start. The right-hander missed all of the 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October 2013 and this past spring he looked sharp, posted a 23-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and maintained velocity similar to his pre-surgery marks. Mets fans were understandably hyped to see their star pitcher make his return to the mound. Harvey didn’t disappoint.

In the early going, Harvey sat 96-97 mph with his fastball, which was right in line with his average velocity with the offering in 2013. His secondary offerings were crisp, with the right-hander generating six swing-and-misses with his secondary pitches during the start. Prior to surgery, Harvey’s breaking ball of choice was his sharp slider, which averaged 90 mph and generated whiffs at a 17.6 percent clip. However, during the spring, Harvey rediscovered the comfort he had with his curveball—the University of North Carolina product’s go-to secondary pitch in college.

On Thursday, Harvey’s confidence in his curve was apparent. He threw 15 curves compared to just five sliders during the outing and was able to throw the curve for strikes, including one to get out of his biggest jam of the day. In the second inning, Ian Desmond ripped a two-out double and then moved up 90 feet on an infield single by Dan Uggla. Up next was Jose Lobaton, who worked a 3-2 count before Harvey froze him with a hammer:

But Harvey wasn’t the only one with nasty offerings at Nationals Park. His counterpart and fellow Tommy John surgery-survivor Stephen Strasburg showed excellent late life with his fastball early on, boring this 95 mph in on the hands of David Wright in the first inning to shatter his bat and generate a double play in the process.

Strasburg’s curve and changeup were also on point early on. He didn’t pick up any whiffs with his curve but did register nine called strikes with it, keeping hitters off-balance early in the count and buckling a few knees in the process. Perhaps the most impressive showcase of Strasburg’s secondary pitches was his strikeout of Michael Cuddyer in the fifth inning, when the right-hander started him off with a curve, then went changeup, changeup, changeup, generating a pair of swing-and-misses in the process.

But Strasburg faced a great deal of misfortune in the third inning, resulting in a crooked number on the board that ended up distorting his final line. Curtis Granderson started the Mets off with a one-out single off Strasburg. The Nationals starter appeared to be out of the inning when he got Wright to ground a tailor-made double play ball to shortstop. However, Ian Desmond’s rough series continued, as he botched the potential inning-ending double play for his third error of the series.

Strasburg then got Lucas Duda into a two-strike hole, but a 1-2 curveball hit the Mets first baseman on the foot to load the bases. Cuddyer followed by blooping a well-placed inside fastball by Strasburg just beyond the reach of Dan Uggla for an RBI single. Daniel Murphy’s Baltimore chop moments later made it a 2-0 game. Travis d’Arnaud continued Strasburg’s tough run of with a softly hit single to shallow center to extend the lead to 4-0.

As it turned out, that’s all the offense New York would need with Harvey on mound (although they would add two more runs off Strasburg in the sixth inning). The 26-year-old was on a soft-pitch cap and was pulled after striking out nine and walking just one over six scoreless innings. He threw 63 of his 91 pitches for strikes.

It was a terrific return outing for Harvey, who was for the most part able to hold his velocity over the course of the outing and looks primed to be a force in the National League East again this season. But if there’s one batter who wasn’t thrilled to see the right-hander back in action, it was Bryce Harper.

As a fan of the game, sure, Harper was excited to see Harvey back. He even told the New York Post as much after Wednesday’s game:

Even facing him, you get excited. Even if he punches me out, he’s so much fun to watch.

Harvey punched him all three times they faced off on Thursday, with Harper now 0-for-10 with five strikeouts in his career against Harvey. As keen as Harper may be to go head-to-head with Harvey, he’ll be even more enthusiastic when he finally gets the upper hand in the matchup.

Sam Miller has previously written both about the Harvey vs Harper matchup and about Harper’s toughest at bats, noting that Harper often gears up for premium heat up in the zone and in his eyes. That was certainly the case on Thursday, with Harper responsible for six of the nine swing-and-misses on Harvey’s fastball. For your viewing pleasure, here’s a look at yesterday’s three Harvey vs Harper matchups:

First AB:

Second AB:

Third AB:

New York would go on to win by a final score of 6-3, earning the series win over the Nationals. For a Mets squad looking the make the playoffs for the first time since 2006, having a healthy Harvey anchor the rotation is a must. It was only one start and one against an injury-riddled Nationals lineup and how Harvey responds when his workload ramps up even further is yet to be seen. But for at least one night, the Mets could definitively say that Harvey is back.

Quick Hits from Thursday

Walk. Strikeout. Walk. Strikeout. Strikeout. Strikeout. Strikeout. Walk. Walk.

That was the result of Trevor Bauer’s first trip through the Astros lineup on Thursday and was effectively his first outing of the season in a nutshell. It wasn’t until Bauer’s 54th pitch of the day that Jose Altuve popped out to second base for the first ball in play against the Cleveland right-hander.

Bauer needed 71 pitches to get through the first three innings, through which he had tallied seven strikeouts, four walks and allowed zero hits. Here’s a look at his pitch chart to that point.

Bauer was all over the place, either missing far out of the strike zone or leaving his pitches over the heart of the plate. The numerous dark red boxes show that the Astros hitters were just missing putting a charge into some of those fat pitches. But Bauer was also getting plenty of swing and misses and continued to do so over the next three frames, tightening up his command and only needing 40 more pitches to get through the sixth.

But that brought Bauer to 111 pitches and despite being in the midst of a no-hitter, Terry Francona had little choice but to give him the hook. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, is the only time since 1914 that a starting pitcher has struck out at least 11 batters, walked five and thrown at least six no-hit innings.

Bauer departed with the Indians up 4-0 with one of those runs the result of Yan Gomes deking fellow catcher Hank Conger with a sneaky slide in the second inning.

Kyle Crockett and Scott Atchison each turned in a hitless inning of relief to keep the no-hit bid in tact heading into the ninth. Nick Hagadone struck out Chris Carter to start the inning and bring the Indians to within two outs of the franchise’s first no-hitter since Len Barker’s perfect game in 1981. But Jed Lowrie decided to play spoiler:

Cleveland went on to take the rubber match by a final score of 5-1. In the grand scheme of things, the Indians got the win and left Houston on a high, but there are surely at least a handful of Indians fans wishing Francona had given Cody Allen the chance to close out the no-hitter.

On the one hand, Allen was well rested and had thrown just nine pitches the day before. But on the other, Cleveland heads home for a three-game set starting tomorrow against the Tigers. With the American League Central expected to be a tightly contested division, Francona clearly preferred to have his ace reliever available for the entire weekend.

***

After having the start of Wednesday’s game pushed back more than two hours by rain, poor conditions struck again in Cincinnati on Thursday, with the game being delayed more than an hour after three-and-a-half innings. That rain held Anthony DeSclafani to just 73 pitches, but he made the best of them, tossing six solid innings in his Reds debut.

Last month, Eno Sarris talked to DeSclafani about the development of his changeup, which the former Marlin used just five percent of the time during his 33 innings pitched last season. DeSclafani told Sarris that he had spent his time during the Arizona Fall League working on the pitch and that he planned on using it more this season. That was certainly the case on Thursday, with the right-hander throwing 12 changeups (16 percent usage) and generating four swing-and-misses with it. Further evidence of DeSclafani’s comfort with the pitch was that seven of those changeups came against same-sided hitters. DeSclafani threw just five right-on-right change ups all of last season.

Below is one sequence in which DeSclafani was able to get one of his four whiffs on a changeup. The first pitch is a 92 mph fastball to Neil Walker at the knees that just misses for ball one (Devin Mesoraco didn’t do DeSclafani any favors). The next pitch was in basically the same location, except DeSclafani pulled the string on an 84 mph change up that Walker swung over—presumably reading it as a fastball.

Here’s another swing and miss on the change, this time to the right-handed Starling Marte.

DeSclafani ended up striking out six batters in as many innings while issuing just a single walk. He ultimately didn’t factor in to the decision, leaving with the score tied at 2-2. However, he did get to celebrate with his teammates in the middle of the diamond when the Reds walked off in the ninth inning on a Gregory Polanco error.

***

It shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to see the Giants and Padres locked in pitcher’s duel in the series opener between the NL West clubs. It also probably won’t come as a shock that the Padres ended up losing because of a defensive miscue.

Ian Kennedy started the game strong for the Padres but was forced to leave in the third inning with a left hamstring strain. Odrisamer Despaigne picked up where Kennedy left off, tossing 4 and 2/3 perfect innings of relief.

Tim Hudson matched the zeros of the Padres pitchers, tossing 6 and 1/3 scoreless innings for the Giants, albeit while striking out just one batter and walking five (one intentional). It was the first time since August 20, 2012 that Hudson had issued four unintentional walks in a single game.

The game remained scoreless into the ninth inning, when Craig Kimbrel entered for his home debut at Petco Park. Angel Pagan worked the count full against Kimbrel and then ripped a grooved fastball over the head of Wil Myers for a leadoff triple. Kimbrel then walked Buster Posey on five pitches, putting himself in quite the predicament.

The Padres brought the infield in and Kimbrel got Brandon Crawford to pop out to shortstop for the first out. Next up was Casey McGehee, who hit a grounder right at shortstop Clint Barmes, who was still playing in on the grass. Barmes corralled the in-between hop with his momentum going backwards, so instead of going home, he went to second base and the Padres were able to turn the double play and escape the jam.

The game remained scoreless into the 12th, with Padres reliever Nick Vincent in for his second inning of work. After retiring Buster Posey, Vincent got Brandon Crawford to hit a pop fly to shallow left field. However, miscommunication between Barmes and Justin Upton resulted in the ball falling in for a two-base error. An out and an intentional walk later, Vincent hung a 2-2 breaking pitch to Justin Maxwell, who singled to center to break the scoreless tie. Santiago Casilla retired the Padres in order in the bottom of the inning to give the visitors the series opener.

***

The Alex Rodriguez comeback tour is sure to elicit its fair share of boos once it hits the road. But as of Thursday, the Yankees were still in the Bronx and the Yankee Stadium crowd loved every bit of the slugger’s first home run of the season.

Rodriguez’s longball and the Teixeira one that followed shortly after were two of the few mistakes made by Toronto rookie Daniel Norris in his season debut. The southpaw cruised into the sixth inning with a 5-1 lead, the difference being a four-run second by the Jays against CC Sabathia. But the two solo home runs resulted in an early exit for Norris, who lasted 5 2/3 innings with five strikeouts and two walks.

Norris turned the ball over to 20-year-old Robert Osuna, who struck out three batters in 1 and 1/3 scoreless innings. Brett Cecil, who was stripped of the closer’s role after a shaky outing on Wednesday, pitched a scoreless eighth inning, before giving way to Miguel Castro. The other 20-year-old in the Toronto bullpen sat 96-97 with his fastball and kept the Yankees hitter off-balance with a handful of 90 mph changeups and a single 83 mph slider, retiring the side in order for his first career save.

***

Over the past four seasons, Greg Holland has made a strong case for the title the top relief pitcher in baseball not named Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman. He trails only the new Padres closer with a 1.92 FIP since 2011, striking out fewer batters than Chapman but also having a better walk rate than the Cuban southpaw during that span. Part of that was Chapman’s ridiculously high walk rate in his rookie season, which he has since corrected.

No matter how you slice it, Greg Holland is really good and he’s done it relying primarily on his filthy fastball-slider combination. He throws the occasional splitter and used to keep a curveball in his back pocket but scrapped the pitch after the 2012 season. Over the past two seasons, Holland threw either a fastball or slider 97.5 percent of the time with the splitter accounting for the other 2.5 percent.

But during the spring, the Holland curveball made a return. The Royals played their games at Surprise Stadium, which luckily for us is equipped with a Pitch f/x camera. After completely ditching the curveball the last two years, Holland worked the offering back into his repertoire five times during the spring. On Thursday, with the Royals up 4-1 on the White Sox, the Holland curve made its triumphant return to regular season action.

Talk about being taken by surprise! Adam LaRoche’s reaction clearly showed that he didn’t get the memo about being on the lookout for a curveball.

Holland’s curve is a fine pitch. Probably above-average. But I don’t think anybody is expecting it to become a regular part of Holland’s repertoire. His fastball and slider are both near-elite pitches and have thrust him into the upper tier of relief pitchers in baseball. But the curve could add a third velocity range that hitters would have to keep in the back of their mind—the one he threw on Thursday came in at 77 MPH. Holland’s splitter is thrown in the high-80s, at basically the same speed as his slider. So while the occasional splitter would take hitters by surprise, it wasn’t nearly the same change of pace that his curveball could be.

Holland is going to remain primarily a fastball-slider guy. But after scrapping his curve two years ago, Holland apparently feels comfortable enough with the pitch to work in back into his repertoire. At the very least, it will be interesting to monitor how regular an appearance the curve makes. The potential gains are relatively minor but when one of the best relievers in the league gives you another pitch to prepare for, it just doesn’t seem fair.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Lorenzo Cain made a phenomenal catch on the run before crashing into the center field wall in the second inning against the White Sox

and then made another nice catch against the wall the next inning.

Little did we know, the opposing center fielder, Adam Eaton, would turn in an early candidate for catch of the year later in the game.

What to Watch this Weekend

Friday:

Pace of play was one of the most talked-about storylines this past offseason with a handful of new rules implemented in February and the prospect of a pitch clock at the major league level looming. While likely inconclusive, the early returns on the emphasis of a quicker pace have been encouraging, with the average time of games down by 11 minutes through Wednesday’s slate. Major League Baseball is already cracking down in order to maintain the rapid tempo, with 10 warning letters being sent out to players who have violated the new pace of game rules since the start of the season. One player the league won’t have to worry about is Mark Buehrle, who takes the mound for the Blue Jays on Friday.

While baseball games have continued to get longer the ageless southpaw has remained the game’s fastest worker, averaging 16.7 seconds between pitches since 2007 (since Pitch f/x data is available). Buehrle quickens up the game for even the most leisurely paced hitters, and given that the Orioles were among the quickest to get back in the batter’s box last season, you won’t have to worry about there being much dead time in the home half of this game.

On the other hand, Bud Norris, who will be opposite Buerhle, averaged 24 seconds between pitches last season, ranking as the 17th-slowest among qualified starting pitchers. The Blue Jays project to be the third-best offense in baseball by True Average, so whether or not this matinee is completed in under three hours likely hinges on if the right-hander is able to tame Toronto’s bats (3:05 p.m. EST).

Saturday:

It was just six months ago that we saw Madison Bumgarner and James Shields squared off in Game 1 and Game 5 of the World Series, with the eventual MVP of the series emerging victorious in a pair of dazzling performances. On Saturday, the two hurlers will face off again but with Shields now sporting a Padres uniform. On Opening Day, the Diamondbacks didn’t fare much better than the Royals did last October, managing just one run over seven innings against the Giants left-hander. The Padres will see if they can finally get Bumgarner to crack in the third matchup of the four-game set (8:40 p.m. EST).

Sunday:

Chris Sale’s first start of the season was pushed back after a freak accident unloading the back of his truck at home resulted in a broken bone in his right foot in late-February. With over a month to recover, the White Sox ace will make his season debut at home in a Sunday matinee opposite Minnesota’s Phil Hughes. The Twins struggled to manufacture any offense against the Tigers in their opening series, going an American League record 24 innings before pushing across their first run of the season in the seventh inning on Thursday. It’s as appetizing a matchup as Sale could have hoped for to ease his way back into the White Sox rotation (2:10 p.m. EST).

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AmericanMagpie
4/10
Why no Beltre whiff followed by a homerun from the knee?