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The Monday Takeaway

The Red Sox found themselves in an early hole on Monday against the Blue Jays but they chipped away at the lead throughout and capitalized on a shaky night from Toronto’s duo of young relievers.

Boston starter Joe Kelly found himself on the ropes in the first inning, with the Blue Jays going single, stolen base, single, walk to put the pressure on early. Russell Martin’s two-run double later in the inning put the damage at three runs and gave his batterymate Aaron Sanchez some early room to work with.

However, for Sanchez, the first inning was characteristic of how his season has been to this point. The 22-year-old was coming off of a seven-walk outing against Baltimore and started against the Blue Jays by issuing free passes to each of the first two batters he faced. David Ortiz laced a double down the left field line and Pablo Sandoval ripped a single off the Green Monster to cut the deficit to one run. Things could have gone even worse for Sanchez if not for a perfect throw by Russell Martin to gun down Betts.

But after a rough first inning both starters were able to get back into a groove. Kelly struck out six of the next seven batters he faced, with the anomaly being a poorly located fastball that Devon Travis crushed for his sixth home run of the season. The right-hander has experienced an uptick in his velocity this season and even hit triple digits at one point during Monday’s start. The former Cardinals finished with a career-high 10 strikeouts in six innings, giving up five runs on five hits and three walks. He also got some help behind him from a particular flying Panda.

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As for Sanchez, he displayed some of his best command of the season after his disastrous first inning. He didn’t allow a walk after the first two batters and finished with seven strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings. He did have some trouble maintaining his fastball velocity throughout the start, but his two-seamer’s signature arm-side movement was present and allowed him to rack up six swinging strikes with the pitch. Sanchez’s curveball was also working pretty well. Hanley Ramirez and his helmet can testify to that.

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Sanchez departed with a 5-4 lead, which Aaron Loup preserved before handing the ball off to Robert Osuna to begin the eighth inning. A pair of hard-hit singles by Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia to lead off the inning dug the rookie reliever into a hole. A wild pitch and an intentional walk to David Ortiz loaded the bases with no outs and Hanley Ramirez coming to the plate. Osuna was able to escape the predicament with just one run crossing the plate but it had less to do with him working his own way out of the jam and more about his teammates having his back. First, Dalten Pompey bailed him out with a spectacular diving catch to rob Ramirez of extra bases.

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Then, Josh Donaldson showed off his athleticism with an impressive leaping grab to deny Daniel Nava the go-ahead hit.

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However, the defensive show put on by Toronto turned out to only delay the inevitable. Fellow Toronto rookie reliever Miguel Castro gave up a pair of one-out singles in the ninth inning, which set the stage for Mookie Betts to send the Red Sox faithful home walk-off winners for the first time in his career.

Quick Hits from Monday

Entering Monday, Dillon Gee ranked among the league leaders in least time taken between pitches. When combined with a high strike percentage, the result is the perfect recipe for pace-of-play, as pointed out by Caron Cistulli. Gee’s affinity for moving the game along quickly was on display in Miami, with the right-hander navigating through the first seven innings of the game as efficiently as one could imagine.

Gee needed just 59 pitches to cruise through seven innings, walking zero, striking out two and picking up 14 groundball outs along the way. He retired the first two batters of the eighth inning—one by groundout and one by strikeout—but the Marlins strung together a trio of singles to push across the game’s first run and bring Gee’s night to an end. The final tally was 70 pitches for Gee, with 57 for strikes (81 percent). According to the Baseball Reference Play Index, the former Longhorn became just the fifth starting pitcher in the last century to record at least 23 outs in 70 or fewer pitches. Yes, Greg Maddux was one of the other four.

But Gee wasn’t the only starting pitcher dealing in Miami. His counterpart, Jared Cosart didn’t have nearly the same control of the strike zone, but limited the Mets to just a pair of singles and three walks over eight scoreless innings. Cosart turned the ball over to Steve Cishek, and the Marlins closer found himself in a quick jam after a poor initial read by Marcel Ozuna resulted in a leadoff double.

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Cishek wanted nothing to do with Lucas Duda, pitching around him with an open base to put the winning run on base. Cishek proceeded to retire Michael Cuddyer for the first out of the inning, which brought Daniel Murphy to the plate. The second baseman has gotten off to a rough start to the season but Mets fans will be more forgiving after Monday’s heroics.

Murphy followed up his go-ahead three run blast with a slick defensive play in the bottom of the frame to help Jeurys Familia lock down his ninth save of the season. Despite the late-inning theatrics, the game took just an hour and 58 minutes to complete. With the Nationals’ 8-4 loss in Atlanta on Monday, the Mets now hold an eight game lead over the consensus National League East pre-season favorites.

***

While the Mets continue to create separation between themselves and the rest of their division, the cross-town Yankees had the opportunity to vault themselves into sole possession of first place in the American League East. After taking two of three from the Mets over the weekend, the Yankees entered Monday’s game against the Rays tied with them atop the division.

The two squads were mired in a scoreless tie through four innings and the first run off the game crossed the plate without a ball leaving the infield. Nate Karns issued a two-out walk to Stephen Drew in the fifth inning, with Didi Gregorious following with an infield single. Karns got the hook from Kevin Cash after walking Jacoby Ellsbury to load the bases but his successor, Brandon Gomes, promptly walked in the first run of the game.

Tampa Bay got that run back the next inning off Adam Warren, who finished the night with six strikeouts and zero walks across 5 and 2/3 innings. But Brian McCann responded in the home half of the frame.


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McCann’s second-deck blast reclaimed the lead for the Yankees and they tacked on two more runs before the night was over. Meanwhile, the Bronx bullpen was dominant for the second straight night, with Justin Wilson, David Carpenter, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller allowing just two runners to reach base over 3 1/3 scoreless frames.

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The 2015 season has been rough on Taijuan Walker, who entered Monday night with 15 runs allowed in 12 and 2/3 innings with an ugly 14:10 strikeout-to-walk rate to go with it. Following Talker’s second start, our own Doug Thorburn examined the 22-year-old’s early struggles, noting that he was struggling to repeat his delivery and recommended that he widen the narrow velocity range that hitters were able to time up in the zone. Walker continued to live within that band against the Rangers on Monday, throwing just four curveballs, but he was changing eye levels more than he had been in previous starts.

Compare the chart above with the what Walker had done in his previous three starts and it becomes apparent that the youngster was giving batters more varied looks that in previous outings. Furthermore, Walker was able to throw strikes without living over the middle of the plate, painting the edges of the plate more so than in previous outings while only issuing one free pass. Walker’s efficiency was evident by needing just 92 pitches (62 strikes) to complete seven innings, scattering six hits, striking out five and allowing just an unearned run.

It should be noted that the Rangers offense doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of too many pitchers but Walker needed a start like this to get back on track. He’ll look to build upon his strong outing this weekend in a matchup against the Astros.

***

Coming into the season, we knew that the Astros were going to swing and miss a lot. It was also presumed that the offense would provide some thump, with numerous hitters that made up for the swing-and-miss in their game with power potential. Both qualities of Houston’s lineup were on display in San Diego, with James Shields registering 12 strikeouts courtesy of a career-high 25 swing-and-misses.

The Astros didn’t discriminate against which of Shields’ offerings they would counter against with empty swings, whiffing eight times against his cutter, seven times against his change up and six times against his curveball. One of the few mistakes Shields made on the night was a fastball left up that Jed Lowrie crushed. A costly error by Alexi Amarista led to a pair of unearned runs off Shields in the fifth inning, which was the only other damage done against Shields during his six innings of work. Opposite Shields was Colin McHugh, who continued to ramp up his slider usage after finding success with the pitch in the second half of last season.

That red dot in the upper right-hand corner denotes McHugh’s 43 percent slider rate through his first three starts of the season. He built on that against San Diego, throwing 47 of his 92 pitches for sliders (51 percent), with 38 of them for strikes. McHugh cruised through his first four innings of work but got tagged by the Padres for three runs in the fifth.

Neither starter factored into the decision, with the two pitchers departing the game amidst a 3-3 stalemate. However, it was San Diego’s bullpen that uncharacteristically became unhinged. Brandon Maurer served up a solo blast to Jason Castro in the seventh and Joaquin Benoit let all four batters he faced reach in the eighth. Three of them came around to score. Colby Rasmus added Houston’s third dinger of the night with a two-run shot off Cory Mazzoni in the ninth to cap off Houston’s 9-4 victory.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Justin Maxwell’s hot bat has earned him consistent playing time over the past week but he showed that he can flash the leather, too.

However, Maxwell’s grab wasn’t nearly enough for the Giants on Monday, as the Dodgers emerged with the 8-3 win. Over 46,000 Dodgers fans bought tickets to the Joc Pederson show and watched the youngster swat his third home run of the year, add an RBI double and make a great over-the-shoulder running grab that turned into a double play.

What to Watch on Tuesday

—Max Scherzer’s swollen right thumb will delay his next turn in the rotation and with the prized offseason acquisition not expected to miss significant time, the Nationals decided against stretching out Tanner Roark for a spot start. Instead, the club opted to give the call to A.J. Cole, who will make his major-league debut against the Braves on Tuesday. Cole trailed only Lucas Giolito on BP’s Nationals top prospects list and was ranked No. 30 overall by the prospect team in February. Cole comes armed with good command of a fastball that can sit in the mid-90s but has lacked a reliable swing-and-miss offering, with his slider profiling as average and his best secondary offering being a plus changeup. Cole will likely head back down to Syracuse after the outing but Tuesday will be a chance for the 23-year-old to showcase why he’s considered a guy with a true mid-rotation ceiling (7:10 p.m. EST).

—With news that Adam Wainwright’s season is over after tearing his left Achilles tendon, the Cardinals are counting on the development of their two young starters—Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez—more than ever. Both pitchers are off to outstanding starts this season, due in part to developing repertoires. Martinez has incorporating his changeup more often while Wacha has nearly doubled his cutter usage.

Throughout his career, Wacha has exhibited a reverse platoon split due to a filthy changeup and a curveball that major-league righties have fared quite well against. In 2013, Wacha went to either his fastball or changeup over 90 percent of the time, but judging by his first few starts of the season, that version of Wacha could soon be a distant memory. Through three starts, Wacha has opted for his cutter nearly as often as his cambio, with the former being his secondary offering of choice against righties. With more weapons at his disposal, Wacha will look to build on his strong start to the season against the Phillies (8:15 p.m. EST).

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