The Weekend Takeaway
On May 10th, the Cubs had just lost 3-2 to the lowly Brewers, and stood with a 45 percent chance at the playoffs; entering Friday’s contest against the Bucs, they were the winners of five straight and had jacked their playoff odds to 59 percent. In contrast, the Pirates came into Friday having dropped their last two to the Phillies and saw their playoff odds sink by 13 points to 24 percent since the beginning of May.
It seemed that the Cubs would keep that momentum rolling after mounting a 10-5 lead by the seventh inning, but Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen home runs brought the game to within one run. Pittsburgh tied it up on a Francisco Cervelli bloop single to send it into extras.
The Cubs squandered a chance with the bases loaded and one out when Starlin Castro made a head-scratching decision to tag on a shallow Matt Szcuzr fly ball and was thrown out in an inning ending double play. Plays like these remind viewers that this version of Starlin Castro still exists deep down:
Then, in the 12th inning, with Sczuzr up at the plate, this happened:
The Cubs followed that up on Saturday with a strong start by Jon Lester, who, after a rough 6.23 ERA in 21 March and April innings—fueled largely by a .423 opponents’ BABIP—has pitched to a 1.67 ERA in 27 innings in May. The Cubs strung enough runs together for the 4-1 win.
Their winning streak would end there. In this so-called “final” season of his, A.J. Burnett has increased his sinker usage to produce a 56 percent groundball rate. Despite five walks, Burnett shut the Cubs out, holding them to 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. This has been a problem for the Cubs, who, despite having a middle-of-the-road offense in regards to wOBA (12th) and wRC+ (17th), have ranked 26th in baseball with runners in scoring position.
A Francisco Cervelli RBI single would be the sole blemish on an otherwise solid seven-inning, seven-strikeout effort for Jake Arrieta. Neil Walker and Starling Marte doubles in the eighth inning would seal the Pirates’ victory to stop the Cubs six-game tear.
Quick Hits from the Weekend
If you add up Michael Pineda’s strikeouts from his past two starts, he still falls one short of Corey Kluber’s total last Wednesday. The big man followed up his 16-whiff performance by tallying only one K against the Royals, as they knocked him around for five runs and a 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings.
The Royals eventually scored 12 in a steady onslaught at the plate despite hitting no home runs—that's tied for the second-most runs a team has scored in a game this season without hitting a big fly, per the Baseball-Reference Play Index. It’s a familiar theme for the Royals, who have scored the second-most runs in baseball on the seventh-fewest home runs. This is actually an upgrade over last year’s notoriously light-on-power team, who were dead last in baseball in home runs and 14th in runs scored. This game featured five RBIs by Lorenzo Cain, who, at this writing, is leading the American League with 2.7 bWAR, fueled partially by a +12 defensive rating. (He's "only" 13th in baseball by WARP.)
Chris Young, who’s now made three solid spot starts for the Royals with his somewhat increased velocity, held the Yankees to one run in 5 2/3 innings. In 28 innings, Young’s H/9, BB/9, and K/9 are all better than his resurgent campaign for the Mariners last season—although his 0.94 ERA is propped up by a .132 opponents’ BABIP. Disappointingly, he missed facing the also-resurgent Chris Young by five batters.
* * *
After halting their five-game losing streak with a 12-run outburst against the Brewers on Saturday, in which they scored 10 runs in the fourth inning, the Mets readied themselves for Noah Syndergaard’s second big-league start.
The big righty suffered a scary moment when he hit Carlos Gomez with a 97 mph fastball on the helmet flap, but Gomez passed a concussion test and Syndergaard finished the outing after six innings with only one earned run and four strikeouts. His control was improved, as he threw 67 of his 95 pitches for strikes. In his first start, just 54 percent of his throws weren't wayward.
* * *
Miller needed four strikeouts to complete his two-hit shutout, a rather extreme example of what has made him successful this season. He’s bumped his groundball rate up from 40 percent last season to 49 percent through his first seven starts of 2015 using a sinker that he’s relied upon much more.
Although he’s begun to throw fewer sinkers and get back to the fastball more, there’s no denying the change in his arsenal. Miller himself has acknowledged the adjustment that began in the second half of 2014, when he dropped his opponents’ OPS by .113 and his ERA by 1.37. Thirteen of Miller’s 27 outs were groundballs in this game, right in line with his average for the season.
Of course, it might be pretty tough to sustain that .203 BABIP, and as a groundball pitcher a rise in BABIP could be especially tough on Miller. But when you’ve got Andrelton Simmons in your infield, anything’s possible.
After the game, another chair tipped, as the Marlins let go of manager Mike Redmond after the team got off to a 16-22 start. Perhaps all the back and forth over Redmond’s wobbly chair status last month was just Loria waiting for the perfect moment to fire Redmond, as Jeff Torborg got off to an identical 16-22 start as Marlins manager in 2003 before he was replaced with Jack McKeon… and we all know how that ended up.
* * *
Hunter Pence is back!
Hopefully, we’ll be seeing some masterpieces like these again soon.
Pence’s return is a welcome addition to a Giants offense that is 25th in runs, although ranking 8th in wRC+ and 13th in wOBA. Pence could also boost the Giants defense, as he was 14.8 FRAA in 2013, if a more modest 1.0 FRAA in 2014.
All Pence has done so far is go 4-for-8 with four runs in his first two games off the disabled list. He hit a homer on Sunday to help pick Chris Heston, who went 2+ innings and gave up five runs. Saving the game was Santiago Casilla, who became the 74th pitcher in major-league history to throw an immaculate inning and the second this season after Mike Fiers’ on May 7th.
* * *
The Defensive Play of the Day
In most cases, blowing through a stop sign isn’t the smartest thing to do. In Ryan Raburn’s case, it still probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it did help preserve Friday’s 8-3 win for the Indians:
What to Watch on Monday
–Lance McCullers will make his big-league debut on Monday night against the Athletics. McCullers, ranked seventh in the Astros farm system by BP and 52nd in baseball by MLB.com, was a first-round supplemental pick out of high school in 2012. You can read more about him here in J.P. Breen and Christopher Crawford’s write-up.
–Kluber and Chris Sale will be toeing the rubber against each other in a good old-fashioned AL Central showdown. Sale finished third in the Cy Young award voting to Kluber last year, but both pitchers began this spring slowly. Of course, Kluber broke out with his historic 18-strikeout performance last Wednesday, and Sale had a solid start of his own last Tuesday against the Brewers, throwing eight innings of three-hit, two-run ball. If both pitchers are now close to or at their midseason form, this will be a pitching duel you won’t want to miss.