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The Thursday Takeaway

I promise, the sentence that you are about to read is true. The Twins scored nine runs against Chris Sale on Thursday.

How exactly, does one of the league’s weakest offenses tag one of the game’s best starting pitchers for the most runs he’s ever given up in a start in his career? Well, here was the first run:

And the second run, which was the result of a pair of two-out defensive miscues.

There was certainly some keen baserunning on the part of Torii Hunter and Danny Santana to score those first two runs, but Sale must have been left wondering what more he needed to do to keep the Twins off the board. The White Sox evened the score up with a pair of runs in the top of the third, but things didn’t get any easier for Sale in the home half of the frame.

Joe Mauer started things off with a hard-hit ball into the right-center gap. Adam Eaton, whose mental lapse the previous inning had allowed Santana to score from first on a single, used his wheels to track Mauer’s hit down, but the ball glanced off his glove and fell in for a leadoff double.

Sale walked Trevor Plouffe, and then fell into a full count after jumping ahead 0-2 on Kurt Suzuki. The Wailuku, Hawaii native proceeded to single home Mauer and reclaim the lead for Minnesota.

After striking out Kennys Vargas, Sale induced a weakly hit ground ball by Eduardo Escobar. The only problem was, the ball managed to squeak by Micah Johnson, who, along with the rest of the infield, was in on the grass. Eaton’s wild throw didn’t make things any easier for Sale.

After Escobar scampered to third base on Eaton’s error, the White Sox kept their infield in against Shane Robinson. For the second straight at-bat, Sale got the weak contact that he wanted, only to see the ball trickle through for another cheap hit.

Santana kept the line moving with a single up the middle, which brought Brian Dozier to the plate. Only this time, there was no alternative defensive positioning that would have changed the outcome of the at bat.

Dozier’s three-run jack put the finishing touches on a seven-run third for the Twins. After retiring the next two batters to escape the inning, Sale’s night was over. The Twins would tack on three more runs in the eighth and cruise to a 12-2 rout.

Credit the Twins for some excellent baserunning early on, keeping the line moving and for putting the proverbial nail in Sale’s coffin, but this was not the mauling that Sale’s final line indicated. The White Sox ace was certainly not at his sharpest, but it’s always difficult to expect a pitcher to get four or five outs in an inning. The third inning of Thursday’s game wasn’t the traditional way you think of that phrase, with the extra outs being the result of the infield being in rather than actual defensive mistakes, but Sale paid for it nonetheless.

Quick Hits from Thursday

Jacob deGrom, like Sale, was required to get more than three outs in the fourth inning against the Nationals. Only in deGrom’s case, it was the classic scenario of somebody behind him muffing a play. The culprit? Wilmer Flores.

deGrom had been cruising along to that point, retiring the Nationals in order through the first three innings. His first bump in the road was a leadoff walk to Denard Span in the fourth, but that mistake appeared to be erased when he got Yunel Escobar to ground a tailor-made double play ball to Flores. Citi Field and #MetsTwitter let out a collective groan when Flores made his sixth error of the season—one that was magnified after a single, walk, and a couple of productive outs led to a three-run frame for the Nationals.

Together, Flores and Daniel Murphy have made up arguably the shakiest defensive middle infield in all of baseball, but their tenure as double play partners appears to be over—at least for the time being. After the game the Mets called up Dilson Herrera, who they didn’t bring up just to ride the pine. Until David Wright returns, one would presume that Murphy would shift over to third base in place of the incumbent Eric Campbell. Whether Herrera’s call up is any indication of the team’s concern about the health of either Wright or Murphy is yet to be seen.

As for the game at hand, the Mets had tallied a pair of runs off Stephen Strasburg in the second inning. Flores and Kevin Plawecki each tallied hard-hit doubles against changeups on the inner third and Curtis Granderson added an RBI single to build an early lead for the Mets. But after laboring through 52 pitches in the first two innings, Strasburg settled in—at one point retiring 10 straight batters. For Strasburg, the plan of attack was simple but effective: challenge the Mets with fastballs early and often.

With the exception of one swing-and-miss on a curve, all of those yellow points represent fastballs that Mets hitters swung through in the strike zone. That’s eight swing and misses for Strasburg on fastballs he was able to blow past the Mets in the strike zone and nine total with the heater.

The right-hander left the game after 5 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts, a walk, and a 5-2 lead. The Nationals went back to work in the top of sixth against deGrom, with a single by Yunel Esobcar and a two-bagger off the bat of Bryce Harper putting a pair of runners in scoring position. Two more singles up the middle brought an end to deGrom’s night, with five runs being credited to the reigning National League Rookie of the Year. At least one more would have been charged to deGrom after his departure if not for Juan Lagares.

But the Mets were never able to get back in the game, with Aaron Barrett, Sammy Rolis, and Drew Storen quieting the bats and sending the Mets to their third straight loss.

***

After having a handful of hard-hit balls end up in the teeth of the Cardinals’ shift during Wednesday’s game, Ryan Howard shouldn’t have been too surprised to see the Cardinals take their shifting against him to an even greater extreme.

Howard hit the ball in the air in all four of his trips to the plate, recording one base hit during Philadelphia’s 9-3 loss. With literally nobody on the left side of the infield, it’s somewhat surprising that Howard didn’t square around even once to try his luck at a bunt, like say, Mike Moustakas did on Thursday night.

The Tigers let Moustakas know that they got the hint the next time he stepped to the plate.

The Royals third baseman promptly doubled home Alex Gordon and came around to score later in the inning on Eric Hosmer’s blast over the center field wall. The Royals went on to pound Alfredo Simon for six runs in 4 1/3 innings en route to an 8-1 win behind seven stellar innings from Danny Duffy.

***

The debate of whether or not the National League should adopt the DH has regained steam after Adam Wainwright’s season recently came to an abrupt end as a result of a torn Achilles tendon suffered running out a pop up. One pitcher who is probably in favor of keeping the rules as they are currently constructed is Mike Leake, who smacked the fifth home run of his career on Thursday.

Leake’s blast was the second of back-to-back home runs that Braves starting pitcher Shelby Miller served up, with back-up catcher Tucker Barnhart responsible for the other. The Reds starting pitcher not only did damage with the bat, but stymied Atlanta’s offense, needing just 97 pitches to toss eight shutout innings. Leake didn’t miss many bats during the start, but he generated lots of weak contact, scattering two hits over the outing as the result of pounding the bottom of the zone.

***

Through T.J. House’s first three innings against the Blue Jays, the southpaw had recorded nine groundball outs. He had issued two walks, but had not given up a hit or any other balls in play. Nine straight grounders on balls in play are really impressive and tend to result in good things happening for a pitcher.

The only problem is that House failed to record another out.

House walked Jose Bautista to start the fourth inning and then proceeded to give up line-drive hits to Edwin Encarnacion, Danny Valencia, Russell Martin, and Kevin Pillar, which earned him a trip to the showers. House’s counterpart, Daniel Norris also lasted just three innings, as control issues ballooned his pitch count up to 78 before John Gibbons decided it was just not the youngster’s day.

The five runs that the Jays pushed across in the fourth inning were all they needed, as Jeff Francis, Robert Osuna, Aaron Loup, and Brett Cecil combined to toss six innings of one-run ball after Norris’ shaky outing.

***

The Athletics entered the ninth inning of Thursday’s game down 6-2 to the Angels and staged a furious comeback that had the visitors sweating. Billy Butler drew a leadoff walk against Vinnie Pestano, who was pulled in favor of Angels closer Huston Street after Josh Reddick singled up the middle. The Athletics promptly went single, single, walk against Street to load the bases with no outs and cut the deficit to just two runs.

Street got Max Muncy to hit a lazy pop up on a perfectly placed changeup on the black for the first out. That turned the lineup back over to Sam Fuld, who hit a sinking liner to center. Instead of making a diving effort for the ball, Mike Trout played it safe and let it drop and Canha—the tying run—was forced to hold up at third base. Marcus Semien popped out to Johnny Giavotella for the second out, bringing Ike Davis to the plate. Street left a 1-2 changeup over the heart of the plate to Davis, who hit a hard slicing drive over the head of Mike Trout.

Nothing like having the best player in baseball behind you to bail you out with The Defensive Play of the Day.

Bonus Defensive Play of the Day

Another day, another amazing catch by Kevin Pillar.

What to watch this weekend

Friday:

You know you’ve got a pair of exciting rotations lined up for a series when a Strasburg vs deGrom matchup merely serves as the appetizer for an even more tasty pitching duel the following day. That’s the case for the Nationals and Mets, as each club will send its ace to the hill on Friday in what is expected to be the pitching matchup of the weekend. Max Scherzer’s scheduled start earlier this week was pushed back because the right-hander was dealing with a sore thumb on his pitching hand, so he’ll now square off against Matt Harvey.

The Mets ace was one out away from the second complete game of his career last weekend against the Yankees and boasts a gaudy 31:3 strikeout-to-walk rate through his first 26 and 2/3 innings of the season. Harvey’s been everything the Mets could have hoped he would be and more in his return from Tommy John surgery and has a cool 3.41 DRA to show for it. Scherzer has been even better for the Nationals through four starts, with a 3.09 DRA that ranks among the top 15 in baseball in the early going. You won’t want to miss this one (7:10 p.m EST).

Saturday:

If you head over to our pitching leaderboards and sort by cFIP, you’ll find a handful of names atop the list that don’t strike you as very surprising. James Shields, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Felix Hernandez are all among the top five in the metric, but the other starting pitcher to make up the group—chiming in with the third best cFIP this season—is Chris Archer. The Tampa Bay starter always had an enticing fastball-slider combination, but an uptick in velocity and increased usage of his vicious slider has left opposing hitters walking back to the dugout shaking their heads on numerous occasions.

Archer has been able to simultaneously lower his walk rate while racking up more strikeouts, challenging hitters more in the strike zone (he has a zone rate increase of over four percentage points from last season) while getting them to whiff more at those pitches. His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone has dropped by over six percentage points from last season and through five starts he boasts the fifth-best among starting pitchers. The Orioles will see if they can cool off the 26-year-old in the middle match of the series (7:10 p.m. EST).

Sunday:

Jimmy Nelson’s first full season was off to a promising start, with just five runs allowed and a 17:4 strikeout-to-walk rate through his first three outings. The addition of a knuckle curve that flashed the makings of a true out pitch had our own J.P. Breen buying on Nelson, but the big right-hander proceeded to get smacked around by the Reds in his very next start. Nelson arrived at Great American Ball Park with little command for his pitches, issuing four unintentional walks and getting hit hard on a handful of hanging breaking balls. The result was seven runs, just one strikeout, and a trip to the showers for Nelson before the end of the third inning. Command issues have been something that has troubled Nelson on occasion during his climb up the minor-league ladder, so he’ll be prone to the occasional bad start. However, he possesses three above-average pitches and his latest clunker shouldn’t do too much to alter the overall outlook on his breakout potential. He’ll look to bounce back at Wrigley Field, where he’ll be opposite Jason Hammel, who is coming off an eight-inning, four-hit masterpiece against the Pirates (2:20 p.m. EST).