The Thursday Takeaway
Brewers starter Mike Fiers turned in the 79th immaculate inning in major-league history yesterday. Unfortunately for his team, that was just about the only immaculate aspect of Fiers’ performance.
In fact, the right-hander told reporters after the game that he “pitched like crap,” a fitting description for squandering an early 1-0 edge and failing to see a 3-3 tie through the sixth. Fiers’ five-plus-inning effort opened the floodgates to the Brewers bullpen, a perilous plan, as it turned out, with a Hurricane building strength in the other dugout.
Yasmani Grandal’s bat ran cold in the early days of his first season with the Dodgers. The University of Miami product was 6-for-36 with 10 strikeouts and three double-play grounders in his first 42 trips to the box, a forgivable slump for a catcher with Grandal’s elite pitch-framing prowess—even more so because he was playing through a shoulder injury—but one from which he was surely eager to emerge. As the pain in the switch-hitter’s AC joint subsided, his bat began to come around.
By the time the Dodgers arrived in Milwaukee, Grandal’s OPS was up nearly 200 points from its April 23rd pit. It sat at .791 at first pitch on Thursday, and inched upward steadily with a walk in the first inning, a single in the third, and another walk in the fifth, all at Fiers’ expense.
Then the bullpen took over for the home team. And the Hurricane made landfall.
The two-run single above capped a four-run rally that put the Dodgers ahead 7-3 after five-and-a-half. Since the Brew Crew would only score once more, the Dodgers could’ve stuck to that total and left Wisconsin with a win.
Instead, they doubled it. Almost exclusively thanks to Grandal.
Rob Wooten got the call in the eighth inning from new Brewers manager Craig Counsell, and quickly worked his way into a two-on, one-out jam. Grandal got him out of it… just not the Wooten would’ve liked:
With three more runs on the board for the visitors, Counsell had no reason to rush to burn another reliever, but Wooten did his best to leave his skipper no choice. Two walks in four batters to start the ninth brought Jonathan Broxton into the contest, and Joc Pederson greeted the big righty with a single. That left two men on with two away, and Grandal was equally generous in clearing the bases for Broxton as he was with Wooten:
Grandal’s second three-run bomb in as many innings was the cherry on top of the Dodgers’ 14-4 romp. The Hurricane’s damage for the day: two walks, four hits—two of them long balls—and a total of eight RBI.
The 26-year-old is the first catcher to plate eight or more runs since J.R. Towles did it on September 20th, 2007, and the first Dodger with that many RBI since James Loney racked up nine in 2006. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Grandal also stands alone among the big-league backstops of the last century with two big flies, two walks, and eight RBI in one game.
After spending the first two weeks of the season using his glove to compensate for his bat, Grandal has formed into an all-around threat. With a .301/.414/.534 triple-slash line through 23 games, he now leads National League catchers, not just in framing runs, but in BWARP, too.
Quick Hits From Thursday
When the Twins were last three games over .500, they still played their home games in a dome. Nick Blackburn was their starting pitcher. Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome appeared in the lineup. And Eddie Rosario, who smacked the first pitch of his major-league career out of the yard on Wednesday night, was five days removed from celebrating his 18th birthday and fresh off his first professional season.
The only holdover on the 2015 roster from the Twins’ starting nine that day is Joe Mauer. And he took Thursday off.
Aiming to prolong the aforementioned drought—and, more saliently, to avoid losing three of four—Athletics manager Bob Melvin opted for offense over defense behind his starter, Drew Pomeranz. He slid Eric Sogard to shortstop and Brett Lawrie to second base, making room at the hot corner for Max Muncy to add an extra lefty to the lineup facing right-hander Ricky Nolasco.
Melvin’s gambit paid dividends early, when Muncy supplied the first of back-to-back sacrifice flies that gave the A’s a 2-0 lead. But while Lawrie-at-second giveth, Lawrie-at-second also taketh away:
Oakland probably wasn’t going to turn two no matter who was playing the keystone on Shane Robinson’s slow roller to short, but a more seasoned second sacker might’ve settled for the fielder’s choice or known better than to rush his throw. Instead, the E4 allowed the tying run to score and gave Robinson an extra base. The speedy outfielder proceeded to steal third and cross the plate on Rosario’s subsequent sacrifice fly.
It didn’t take long for the A’s to rally, and their two-run top of the third briefly made Melvin’s lineup choice a footnote. Lawrie atoned for his error by turning a 6-4-3 double play in the fourth inning. And all seemed well in the visitors’ dugout.
But then, the next batter, ex-Athetic Kurt Suzuki, singled, and the one after that, Robinson, hit a groundball to short
where Sogard bobbled it around. Rosario’s subsequent RBI single, which tied the game 4-4, made that one hurt.
An inning later, the A’s problem wasn’t errors, it was walks. Three of them, to be exact, the first two issued by Pomeranz, the last by Dan Otero, loading the bases with one out. Having two runners in scoring position came in handy for the Twins, because Eduardo Escobar brought both of them home with a single
and the second tally would be the eventual winning run.
Ike Davis’ sixth-inning solo shot got the A’s within one, but that’s as close as they would get. When Lawrie singled with two away in the eighth, Twins manager Paul Molitor signaled for his left-handed closer Glen Perkins to neutralize Muncy, the lefty hitter Melvin rearranged his infield to start. Pinch-hitter Marcus Semien struck out, and the Athletics went down in order in the ninth.
The 6-5 victory sealed an 8-3 homestand for Molitor’s squad, which improved to 16-13, three-over-.500 for the first time since October 3rd, 2010.
16-13 is about where those bullish about the Indians’ 2015 chances might’ve expected them to be after 29 games. And they’d have a chance to tote that ledger later this weekend had they managed to win just four of Corey Kluber’s first six starts.
Four in six behind the defending American League Cy Young Award winner seems reasonable, right? Yeah… not so much.
Kluber entered Thursday’s outing at Kauffman Stadium 0-4 despite 39 strikeouts in as many innings, and his lone no-decision came in a Cleveland loss. He’d given up five or more runs in three straight starts, watching his ERA bloat to 4.62. The right-hander blamed his “sequencing,” suboptimal, perhaps, because Yan Gomes, who navigated Kluber through his outstanding 2014 campaign, has spent the bulk of this year on the shelf.
Whatever the culprit, it reared its ugly head again early yesterday, when Eric Hosmer greeted Kluber with a first-inning home run:
The first baseman’s blast came on the heels of a hit batsman and two singles, so four hitters into the game, the Royals had already extended Kluber’s streak of four-plus-ER outings to four. With his dreams of a quality start dashed at the outset, Kluber settled in, keeping Kansas City off the board until the last of the fifth.
In the meantime, the Tribe went to work against Edinson Volquez—or, more precisely, Volquez went to work against himself. One day and 1 2/3 innings after Sam Miller suggested that the righty had learned to stop walking batters, Volquez started walking them again.
He walked two in the second inning, after a Lonnie Chisenhall triple and David Murphy ground out got the Indians on the board, but regained control soon enough to avert further pain. Volquez looked to be back on track at the start of the third, when he threw four strikes in five tries to strike out Jason Kipnis. He fell behind 2-0 and gave up a single, but then got the second out with the runner still at first.
After that? Walk. Walk. Walk. And that’s how the Royals’ four-run lead was trimmed to one.
If there ever were a time for those who braved the 137-minute rain delay to get food or use the john, the third inning and the top of the fourth was it. Four straight plate appearances—including the Roberto Perez strikeout that ended the top of the third—were decided at the plate on Volquez’s watch, and between Volquez, Kluber, and Royals reliever Franklin Morales, those four started a stretch of 10 in which eight went into the book as “BB” or “K.” With just three foul balls scattered throughout those eight, cracks of the bat at Kauffman Stadium were few and far between.
Volquez departed with six BBs over three innings of three-run ball, but that was okay, because the Royals vaunted bullpen justified its lofty reputation. Morales gobbled up two innings. Luke Hochevar, back in the majors for the first time since September 2013, K’d a pair in a scoreless sixth. Ryan Madson endured a Carlos Santana solo shot to preserve a 5-4 lead that grew to 7-4 after the seventh-inning stretch. And Wade Davis and Greg Holland did the rest.
Bearing the four-run first inning in mind, notching seven strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings of five-run work wasn’t the worst outcome for Kluber. His performance in innings two through six was much more reminiscent of the pitcher who carved up the junior circuit last year than the one who’d been touched up for 13 extra-base knocks in 39 frames coming into Thursday’s game.
But the first inning does count, and the four runs the Royals scored were just one shy of what they’d need to top the Tribe. They got three more along the way, and the 7-4 decision sent the Indians tumbling to 11-17 on the year, and 0-6 behind their suddenly vulnerable ace.
Alex Rodriguez came into Thursday night’s game with the Orioles still seeking home run no. 661 to pass Willie Mays for fourth place on the all-time list. He came up with two on and nobody out in the first inning, and raced ahead in the count, 2-0, against Chris Tillman. Then he lifted a high fly to the short porch in right field
where Delmon Young turned what could’ve been a wall-scraping, go-ahead, historic three-run round-tripper into merely a long, game-tying, soon-to-be-forgotten sacrifice fly.
So, in his next at-bat, with the Yankees and Orioles now tied at two apiece, Rodriguez hit one where no one could catch it.
That 423-foot bomb, a more appropriate display for A-Rod’s future career highlight reels, gave the Yankees a 3-2 edge in a game they’d go on to win 4-3.
The Orioles battled back on consecutive doubles by Travis Snider and Caleb Joseph in the top of the fifth, only to have a pair of doubles by Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira—separated by a Rodriguez strikeout—restore the one-run margin.
Taking a deficit of any sort, even the narrowest of shortfalls, into the late innings of a date with the Yanks is a dicey proposition these days, with the dynamic duo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller awaiting. So when Justin Wilson bridged the 1 1/3-inning gap between Nathan Eovaldi’s 5 2/3-frame outing and the eighth, that was all she wrote for the Birds.
For most of last night’s meeting with the Astros, it seemed the Angels’ miscues would be afterthoughts to laugh about in the wake of a win. Mike Trout got the Halos on the board in the last of the first
and that solo blast held up as the game’s only tally for much of the night.
In the meantime, Anaheim starter Hector Santiago handed out four walks and committed two balks in 6 1/3 innings. Typically, when pitchers are generous with the –alks, they struggle to post goose eggs, but for Santiago, that wasn’t the case. He limited the Astros to just one hit, and promptly erased Jose Altuve’s first-inning single with a twin killing. In so doing, per the Play Index, he became just the second pitcher since at least 1914 (and the first starter) to be charged with four or more walks and two or more balks in a scoreless outing. Mike Corkins, the only other member of that club, did it in long relief on April 13th, 1974.
While Santiago toyed with trouble on the mound, Albert Pujols had his head up his hind end on the bases. On first with one away in the bottom of the fourth, Pujols took off on Matt Joyce’s flyball, granting Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick this 8-unassisted double play:
You don’t see that every day.
And you also don’t often see baserunners getting hit with batted balls—except, well, right now, you kind of do. Two games ended in that fashion last weekend, and in the eighth inning of Thursday night’s game, with the Angels in position to add to their lead, Pujols drilled one toward Chris Iannetta, who ran right into it:
Thus, what might’ve been a run-scoring hit instead became Pat Neshek’s escape rope out of the jam. The Angels were up two-zip, but a larger lead would have served them well with closer Huston Street pressed into duty for the third straight day.
Street wasn’t terrible, by any stretch, missing barrels and breaking bats, but also was far from his sharpest form, and the Astros smelled blood. Four singles in five batters—the third of them the first career hit for Preston Tucker—evened the score at 2-2, after which Street walked Jonathan Villar to load the bases. Ordinarily, setting up the force at home and a variety of double-play options might not have been the worst outcome, but the on-deck hitter was Jose Altuve, against whom the odds of a strikeout were low and whose speed would make turning two a formidable challenge. To wit:
Score that fielder’s choice, 4-6-uh oh, and a 3-2 Astros lead.
Cesar Ramos prevented the visitors from giving their closer, Luke Gregerson, any additional cushion, but Gregerson needed none. He slammed the door with a 1-2-3 ninth, as the Astros snapped a three-game skid and upped their AL West division lead to six.
There’s a lotta season left and a lotta changes in the standings to come, but if one game matters when push comes to shove, this may be the one the Halos wish they could have back.
The Defensive Play of the Day
While the A’s infield defense was suspect Thursday, Billy Burns was just fine in center:
What to Watch This Weekend
Cole Hamels’ first half-dozen starts of 2015 weren’t exactly what the Phillies were hoping for, either for their own benefit or to drum up trade interest among the contenders with mounting rotation issues. The left-hander has amassed 39 strikeouts in 37 innings, which is nice, except those have come with 19 walks and eight home runs allowed, which is not so nice. And the distribution of those long balls and free passes is a bit curious, to say the least.
That right-handed batters have done the bulk of the extra-base hit damage to Hamels is no surprise, though the split is extreme, even with the platoon advantage in mind. Righties have accounted for all eight jacks and five of the six doubles on Hamels’ line to date, good for an .824 OPS over 116 plate appearances. On the flipside, while Hamels has only faced about one-fourth as many lefties (42 PA) as righties, he’s walked nearly as many (nine compared to 10), and actually one more when you subtract two intentional BBs from the latter total. Lefty swingers are reaching base at a .357 clip versus Hamels, which won’t send rival GMs rushing to dial Ruben Amaro Jr.’s number any time soon.
The trouble here appears to be 31-year-old’s wavering command of his fastball and cutter, the two pitches on which he leans most heavily with the platoon advantage in his favor. Here’s the salient pitch plot from 2014
when Hamels successfully established the outside corner and was able to expand the hitting area for opponents and get them to fish about one-third of the time. Now, compare that to 2015
when Hamels’ hard stuff hasn’t hit the outside-edge targets with the same regularity. Enemy swing rates beyond the outer boundary of the zone are down across the board, and Hamels has been particularly erratic in three-ball counts, which explains the uptick in walks.
Tonight, Hamels will look to rein in the fastball and cutter so he can hold up his end of the bargain in what could be the day’s best duel. Matt Harvey and the Mets are in Philadephia to open a three-game weekend series with Hamels and the Phils, who they swept at Citi Field on April 13th-15th. While Hamels did not pitch in Queens last month, Harvey turned in a textbook quality start, punching out eight in six innings of three-run ball despite surrendering a couple of homers. Both aces have room to improve tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).
After a little over two weeks spent wetting his feet in the majors, Carlos Rodon has finally secured a chance to start for the White Sox. The left-hander made just three trips to the hill during his time in the bullpen, the most recent on May 2nd, when he worked around six hits and a walk to blank the Twins over three innings. Rodon’s electric stuff, which made him the third-overall pick in last year’s draft, has yet to fool big-league competition, but perhaps a return to his familiar role will produce better results. His starting debut forms an exciting matchup with Reds ace Johnny Cueto, who owns a robust 40-to-6 K:BB ratio through six starts. Cueto was lit up in his lone career start against the South Siders, but that was way back on June 20th, 2009; Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are the only other holdovers from Cincinnati’s lineup that day (7:10 p.m. ET).
Sunday (all weekend, really)
What makes this swing-and-miss unlike any other whiff to this point in 2015?
It happens to be the only time Michael Brantley has come up empty on a right-hander’s offering this year. No, really, it is. Here’s a pretty picture to prove it:
Brantley has only struck out once in 54 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers to date, the lowest total among all players with at least 25 PA in their split and a unique, backwards-K-shaped feather in Jeff Samardzija’s cap. He also has only struck out twice in 39 career meetings with Mike Pelfrey, Phil Hughes, and Trevor May, the three starters set to go for the Twins in this weekend’s series in Cleveland.
Tune in tonight at 7:10 p.m. ET, tomorrow at 4:10 p.m. ET, and on Sunday at 1:10 p.m. ET to find out if the Minnesota righties can what only Shane Greene has done so far this year: make Brantley whiff with the platoon advantage by his side.