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The Thursday Takeaway
The Rays rotation took a hit during the spring, with Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly forced to the disabled list with an elbow and shoulder injury, respectively. If and when those two are back at full strength, Tampa Bay’s has the potential to be one of the best young rotations in the American League. One of the reasons to be optimistic is Chris Archer, who baffled the Blue Jays on Thursday with a mid-to-high-90s fastball and bevvy of nasty sliders.

The 13 swing-and-misses with the slider were the most Archer has ever racked up in a single start. The pitch has been a significant part of the right-hander’s game since he’s been in the majors, and his confidence in the pitch was evident throughout the game. Take his at bat against Justin Smoak in the second inning. After falling behind 2-0, Archer blew a fastball by him for strike one. Archer then missed low and in with a slider to fall behind 3-1. Instead of being deterred, he went back to the pitch for strike two

and then finished the Blue Jays first baseman off with another for the punch out.

Having that much command for a slider with that much depth and thrown that hard creates a nightmare for opposing hitters, and the Blue Jays managed to scratch out just two singles against the young right-hander. Archer finished the night with 11 strikeouts—one shy of his career-high—with two walks and a hit batsman over seven innings, throwing 68 of his 109 pitches for strikes.

Archer has been primarily a fastball-slider pitcher since joining the big-league roster, using his changeup just 5 percent of the time last year. The third offering clearly lags behind the other two but Archer said he worked on improving the offering during the spring and through three starts he has nearly doubled his usage of the pitch from last season. Archer flashed a couple of solid changeups on Thursday

and if he can continue to improve his feel for the pitch, it could go a long way toward closing his lefty/righty split (139 points of OPS) and taking the next step forward.

Opposite Archer on Thursday was Aaron Sanchez, who was coming off a rough season debut in which he got knocked around by the Orioles. It was expected that Sanchez’s fastball velocity would take a slight dip from the 97 mph he averaged out of the pen last season, but it dropped a full four ticks during his first major-league start. He failed make it out of the fourth inning in that start.

On Thursday, Sanchez’s velocity was much more encouraging. He sat 96-97 with the pitch in the first few innings before settling in around 94-95, finishing with an average fastball velocity of just over 95 mpg. As usual, the pitch was getting some crazy arm-side movement:


But as has often been the case throughout his career, Sanchez’s iffy command is what got him into trouble. After allowing Kevin Kiermaier to reach on a single up the middle in the third, Sanchez dug Rene Rivera into a 0-2 hole. Russell Martin wanted Sanchez to run a two-seamer back over the outside corner but instead the pitch ran back over the inner third and Rivera went inside out and singled to right center.

Sanchez fell behind to the next batter, David DeJesus, and ended up walking him to load the bases. He ended up getting out of the jam with minimal damage, first getting Steven Souza to ground into an RBI force-out and then getting a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out to escape with just one run allowed. The Rays would tack on another run in the fifth inning against Sanchez.

In the sixth, Evan Longoria started things off against Sanchez with a double and then moved 90 feet on a groundout. With a lefty due up, John Gibbons elected to go to Aaron Loup out of the bullpen. Kevin Cash countered by sending Tim Beckham to the plate as a pinch-hitter. The night before, Beckham had a home run taken away when Kevin Pillar scaled the left-field wall to make a spectacular catch. On Thursday, the former first overall pick didn’t give Pillar the chance for a repeat performance.

Beckham’s home run proved to be the difference for the Rays, with the Blue Jays scoring a run in both the eighth and ninth inning. Brad Boxberger got Ryan Goins, the potential tying run, to pop out to shortstop to close the door on the 4-2 win.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Giancarlo Stanton home runs are a joy to watch. Heck, the BP staff has dedicated an entire post to its favorite Stanton home runs. We haven’t seen a Stanton long ball since last season but that changed on Thursday after Dillon Gee left a payoff fastball over the heart of the plate to the Marlins outfielder.

Stanton’s first home run of the season made him the Marlins all-time career leader with 155 and gave the Fish a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Martin Prado made Gee pay for another mistake in the fourth inning, hammering a hanging breaking curveball to make it a 3-0 game.

In the fifth inning, Wilmer Flores erased that lead with one swing of the bat.

Gee ran out of steam in the sixth inning, walking a pair to load the bases with two outs before Terry Collins came out to give him the hook. In came Rafael Montero, who walked in the go-ahead run before getting the third out of the inning. Lucas Duda led things off in the bottom of the inning with a double and came around to score on a Michael Cuddyer single. The former Rockie would score later in the inning to reclaim the lead for the Mets.

But the Marlins fought back the next inning, with Ichiro Suzuki ripping a one-out triple to the warning track in right center. That brought the infield in for Dee Gordon. The second baseman hit a grounder, which Daniel Murphy made a nice backhand stab at to corral. Murphy got up quickly and rushed a wild throw home that pulled Travis d’Arnaud off the plate. However, Suzuki had hesitated and contemplated going back to third after anticipating being out at home. After seeing that Murphy’s throw was wild, he broke back toward home and was called out on a bang-bang play at the plate. A replay review of over five minutes ensued with the call on the field being overturned.

But the Mets threatened again in the bottom of the frame. John Mayberry Jr. drew a one-out walk and stole second base, with Curtis Granderson drawing his major-league-leading 11th free pass to put a second runner on base. With two outs, Duda stepped in against southpaw Mike Dunn and the hot-hitting first baseman delivered with his third hit of the night to give the Mets the lead.

Cuddyer would drive in an insurance run later in the inning and Carlos Torres and Jeurys Familia combined to shut the door on the 7-5 win. It was New York’s fifth straight victory, longer than any win streak they posted last season, and it moved them ahead of the idle Braves atop the National League East.

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With Cole Hamels and Doug Fister scheduled to take the hill on Thursday, those in attendance at Nationals Park were expecting a pitching duel. That wasn’t exactly the case, however, with Hamels erratic throughout his outing and Fister so-so, issuing four walks for the first time since September 2013.

With the score tied at 2-2, Hamels started off the fifth by falling into a 2-0 hole against Michael Taylor. The rookie center fielder was looking for a fastball and Hamels missed badly with one up at the letters.

The next inning, Jayson Werth led off with a double off Hamels, who then walked Bryce Harper to bring up Ryan Zimmerman. The third baseman extended Washington’s lead by ripping a double down the right field line to score Zimmerman and Harper, with the latter running through the stop sign at third after making a last-second read that Jeff Francoeur had missed the cutoff man.

Zimmerman’s double gave the Nationals a 5-2 lead and the Phillies had no response. Their best opportunity to put a dent into the lead came in the seventh when Fister loaded the bases with two outs. However, Matt Thornton relieved Fister and got Chase Utley to fly out to center field. Drew Storen closed the door on the win in the ninth for his third save of the season.

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Archie Bradley outdueled Clayton Kershaw in his major-league debut last weekend and drew another NL West ace in Madison Bumgarner on Thursday night. For the second straight start, Bradley outpitched one of the game’s top starting pitchers, as he scattered just four hits and two runs over 6 2/3 innings and departed with the lead. Bradley was surely in line to be the answer to a future trivia question involving pitcher wins, Cy Young award winners and World Series MVPs, but Ender Inciarte cost the rookie the “W” by misjudging what would have been the final out of the game.

Inciarte had a long way to go and it wasn’t the easiest of plays, but nevertheless, his misplay resulted in an RBI triple by Joe Panik. A pair of walks—one intentional and another unintentional—loaded the bases for Nori Aoki, but Andrew Chafin got him to swing and miss at three sliders out of the strike zone to escape the jam.

Arizona regained the lead in the top of 10th on A.J. Pollock’s solo shot, but Chafin worked himself right back into a jam. The southpaw reliever started off the inning by walking Gregor Blanco. Up next was Angel Pagan, who hit a hard grounder to third that was knocked down on a diving stop by Aaron Hill, who subsequently made an unwise throw that got away from Paul Goldschmidt and allowed Blanco to advance to third.

That was it for Chafin, with Chip Hale bringing in Evan Marshall. The right-hander loaded the bases with a walk of Buster Posey but then struck out Brandon Belt for the first out of the inning. Up next was Matt Duffy, who hit a soft grounder into the hole at short. Nick Ahmed had a play at third base but bobbled the ball to keep the bases loaded with the game tied. With #shrimpalert in full force for the second straight inning, Marshall got some help from Goldschmidt, who made a diving stop to get the second out on a force at home. The reliever then got Brandon Crawford to strike out to keep the game going.

Sergio Romo took over for the Giants in the 12th and allowed Inciarte to reach on a leadoff single to center. A strikeout and a steal of second base later, the Giants elected to intentionally walk Paul Goldschmidt and face Cliff Pennington instead. Romo got the light-hitting middle infielder to pop up for the second out but hung a slider middle-in to Hill moments later.

That gave the Snakes a 7-5 lead, which nearly evaporated in the bottom of the inning. The lead was cut to 7-6 when Duffy doubled home Belt with two outs, which gave Panik the chance to prolong the game even further. The second baseman got good wood Delgado’s 1-2 changeup, smacking a line drive right back up the middle. Unfortunately for Panik, the ball landed in the glove of Delgado and the Diamondbacks came away with the win in the series opener.

The Defensive Play of the Day

There’s a reason the Diamondbacks moved Chris Owings to second base to make room for Nick Ahmed.

What to watch this weekend

Friday:

The Cubs had to wait exactly 12 days into the season to guarantee that Kris Bryant wouldn’t accumulate a full year of service time in 2015. On Friday, the 13th day of the 2015 MLB major-league season, Bryant will make his major-league debut. It wasn’t clear whether the Cubs would call up Bryant the very day after the service time cutoff, with such a move being possible ammunition against them in the case of a grievance by the MLBPA. But with Mike Olt reportedly headed to the disabled list in a corresponding move, the Cubs now have a counterargument in a potential grievance, which may be an explanation for why they felt comfortable pulling the trigger on Bryant’s call-up the exact day after the cutoff. In any case, the Bryant era has arrived in Chicago and the 22-year-old will make his highly anticipated debut against James Shields (2:20 p.m. EST).

Saturday:
Jake Odorizzi held his own during his rookie season due in large part to the splitter learned from teammate Alex Cobb prior to the 2014 season. Two starts into the 2015 season, Odorizzi appears to have tweaked his repertoire again, ditching his slider and making his cutter a major part of his pitch selection. Odorizzi lacked a consistent breaking pitch last season, mixing in a curve, slider and cutter, but relying on each of them no more than eight percent of the time. It’s been only two starts, but so far Odorizzi has opted for the cutter 26 percent of the time, with it being his most used offering against right-handed batters. Here’s a look at a handful of cutters he used against Russell Martin during his last outing.


As a pitch that sits in the mid-to-high 80s, Odorizzi’s cutter velocity slots nicely between his fastball and splitter and serves as a good pitch to throw off the timing of right-handers. The splitter remains the pitch that Odorizzi will rely on to get batters to swing and miss at, but the cutter has flashed some good bite (the second one above, for example) suggesting that with more work it could be a quality third pitch for him to consistently rely on. The right-hander will look to continue his refinement of the pitch against the Yankees, who will counter with Masahiro Tanaka (7:10 p.m. EST).

Sunday:

The baseball world collectively cringed when the left knee of Garrett Richards buckled covering first base in a game against the Red Sox last August. Richards was carted off the field with what was later revealed to be a torn patellar tendon that required surgery. Nearly eight months after the gruesome injury that prematurely ended his breakout season, Richards is scheduled to make his 2015 debut for the Angels against the Astros. Richards has always boasted premium velocity and last year he threw even harder, attacking hitters with a fastball that averaged 97 mph. He made things even more unfair for hitters by pairing his power fastball with a filthy high-80s slider:


The pitch ranked 11th among sliders in whiffs per swing last season and helped Richards rack up nearly a strikeout per inning on his was to a sparkling 2.61 FIP. Richards threw 91 pitches during his final rehab outing on Tuesday, so he shouldn’t be too limited in terms of pitch count against the Astros. His return to the rotation will certainly be welcomed by the Angels, whose starting rotation is filled with its share of question marks (2:10 p.m. EST).