The Tuesday Takeaway
Hope springs eternal when teams break camp and head to their respective openers with 0-0 records. Every team, from the heaviest favorites to the longest of long shots, is in first place on the first day of the season.
The Nationals, a popular pick to win the senior circuit pennant, certainly fit into the former category, and they began their 2015 campaign with a home game against the Mets. Game one of 162 was a 3-1 defeat behind their marquee offseason addition, Max Scherzer. And with it, the Nats were 0-1 and no longer atop the East.
As the Mets raced out to a 14-4 start, stretching their division lead to 4 ½ games and restoring it to 4 ½ on the 1st of May, the Nationals wavered between disappointing and embarrassing, piling up bad defeats and defensive miscues, and in no way resembling the sort of dominant contender many thought they could be. Instead of moving toward the top of the standings, Matt Williams’ club descended into the cellar, falling eight games back of the Mets at the end of play on April 27th.
That 8-4 loss to the Braves, as it turned out, would be the nadir of Washington’s first 40 games. The next day, they recovered from a 10-2 deficit after four innings to top Atlanta, 13-12, in one of the wildest contests of the year to date. And, clichés about one game saving a team’s season be damned, that game just might have saved the 2015 Nationals.
Their East-division deficit shrank to seven games with that victory, and to six the next day. By May 3rd, it was down to four. On May 15th, as the Nationals began what would be a three-game sweep of the Padres, they were within one. And last night, with this swing of the bat by Ryan Zimmerman,
for the first time since the start of regular-season play, the preseason-prediction darlings earned a share of first place.
Zimmerman’s two-run homer off of Andrew Miller was his first off a lefty since September 2nd, 2013. Perhaps even more impressively, it accounted for the first runs charged to the Yankees’ new closer since 2014. And it was Washington’s fourth longball in the 8-6 win.
In a game that saw both starters chased before the sixth inning, the Nationals' bullpen rose to the challenge while the Yankees’ deep relief corps faltered twice. Before Miller, the blame fell on David Carpenter’s shoulders for serving up this game-tying solo shot to Wilson Ramos, which extended the catcher’s hitting streak to 19 games and tied this one at 6-6.
Meanwhile, the Nats bullpen was on its way to logging five scoreless frames, over which the Yankees would only manage two hits and a walk. After dropping six runs on Gio Gonzalez’ line between the fourth and fifth innings, Joe Girardi’s squad failed to get a runner into scoring position the rest of the night.
Thus, the home offense had plenty of opportunities to break the 6-6 draw. The Yankees, armed with Miller and the still-unblemished Dellin Betances, had reason to believe that their night would go on, until the 11th, at least, or maybe even the 12th.
Zimmerman had other ideas.
By going yard off of Miller, he pulled even with Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Mike Schmidt with 10 career walk-off home runs, and pulled his team even with the Mets for first place in the National League East.
Quick Hits from Tuesday
The Nats needed help to get their slice of first place, of course, and they got it from the Cardinals, who remained undefeated behind Michael Wacha.
Serving as Mike Matheny’s ace in the wake of Adam Wainwright’s season-ending injury, Wacha turned in seven innings of two-run ball at Citi Field on Tuesday, holding the Mets to four hits and two walks while fanning five. Daniel Murphy’s two-run tater in the fourth was the home team’s lone blow.
By then, the Cardinals were up 4-2, having scored exactly once against Jon Niese in each of the first four frames. Niese broke that streak with a shutdown fifth, only to fare considerably worse in the sixth. Four batters and four hits later, the left-hander was finished. Three hits—including a bunt knock by Wacha—and a sacrifice fly off of Erik Goeddel made it 10-2 St. Louis, the eventual final score.
And, as if that weren’t enough fun for the Redbirds, they had a little more in the top of the ninth, with the game safely in hand. Rookie southpaw Jack Leathersich entered for the Mets and began by getting Matt Adams to pop out. Then he drilled Jhonny Peralta. And then, Mike Matheny decided to let Randy Choate hit for himself.
A few facts about Randy Choate:
- He is 39 years old.
- He has appeared in 620 games over parts of 15 big-league seasons.
- And, until Tuesday, he had never touched first base for any reason other than defense.
Plate appearances for relievers are few and far between, and that’s especially the case for specialists like Choate, who often depart in the middle of half-innings, long before their skippers can decide whether the score is lopsided enough to let them bat. Choate made three trips to the box in 2001 and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. He made one more in 2004 and K’d again. Then, a decade went by without the world being treated to a Randy Choate at-bat.
Finally, less than four months shy of his 40th birthday, Choate got the go-ahead from Matheny to make his way to the plate. And then, he got the go-ahead from Leathersich to take first base:
Choate saw six pitches from Leathersich and took all of them. After the first one, which missed by a few inches, he took a strike. Only one of the next four offerings was remotely close to the plate. And so, thanks to Jack Leathersich, when you look up the on-base percentage leaders for the 2015 season sans a playing-time qualifier, a 39-year-old reliever with one plate appearance in the last decade will sit at the top of the list.
As for Choate on the basepaths, well, Matheny might have been relieved to see his next batter, Mark Reynolds, line out. That enabled Choate to stay put, risking neither injury nor the sort of mistakes one might make when running the bases for the first time in a 15-year career. Kolten Wong proceeded to ground out, Matheny lifted Choate for Sam Tuivailala, and the 10-2 decision was in the books soon after.
Sanchez missed high with a 96-mph heater, and Calhoun whacked a laser over the left-field wall to knot the game at one run apiece. You might be wondering what’s so special about Calhoun’s fourth homer of the year, and the 29th of his career, and the second of the night, following the first-inning jack by Josh Donaldson that put Toronto out in front. Here’s what:
Until yesterday, 27 of Calhoun’s 28 big flies had gone to right field or right-center, and the other landed just a smidge to the left of center. Oppo tacos weren’t on the 27-year-old’s menu. And, with one exception, neither were homers on pitches over the outer third of the plate:
The unique equalizer didn't help the Angels for long on Tuesday, because a throwing error by Erick Aybar put the wheels in motion for the Jays to manufacture a run in the last of the fifth. Hector Santiago walked Steve Tolleson, advancing Kevin Pillar—who reached on the miscue—to second. Back-to-back sacrifices, a bunt by Ryan Goins and a fly by Donaldson, made it 2-1 Toronto.
But Calhoun and the visitors had an answer for that, too. Calhoun walked to start the top of the seventh and eventually scored on a single by Chris Iannetta. An inning later, Aybar atoned for his error with a leadoff single and scored the winning run in the 3-2 decision on a sacrifice fly by David Freese.
The Twins paid the Pirates a visit at PNC Park on Tuesday, and Clint Hurdle greeted his guests by trotting out a pair of pitchers that Minnesota previously employed. The Twins were not impressed.
Facing the club with which he reached the majors for the first time since 2012, Francisco Liriano took on an entirely new lineup, featuring none of the Twins who started the last time he toed the rubber against them. Brian Dozier, batting second and playing second, the spots occupied by Eduardo Escobar in Minnesota’s previous date with Liriano, dashed the southpaw’s dreams of a shutout with this first-inning dinger:
And things would get a whole lot worse from there.
Liriano limited the Twins to just that one run in the first, and he got two outs after permitting a pair to reach base on the second. But then he hit Danny Santana to load the bases. And then he allowed a run-scoring wild pitch. And then he walked Dozier. And then Joe Mauer singled home three—yes, three—runs:
And before Liriano could figure out how three runs came across on a grounder through the left side of the infield, Trevor Plouffe brought home two more:
Liriano stayed in to finish off the second with a Torii Hunter flyout, but the damage was done. His line: 2 IP, 5 H, 7 R/ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2 HR, HBP, WP, assembled on 55 pitches, just 28 of them strikes.
The lefty’s ineffectiveness set the stage for an appearance by fellow ex-Twin Vance Worley, who fared much better. He saw seven batters and set down six of them. But Liriano had dug the Bucs a hole too deep for them to surmount.
That wasn’t for lack of opportunities, considering Ricky Nolasco allowed 10 hits and a walk in 5 2/3 innings, and Ryan Pressly was shaky out of the ‘pen. Pittsburgh had 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position on Tuesday, to go with Pedro Alvarez’ boat-bound home run:
But on a night when the Bucs’ starter was thoroughly torched, a 4-for-17 RISP line was insufficient. Aaron Thompson, Blaine Boyer, and Glen Perkins teamed up to nail down the 8-5 win, improving the Twins to 22-17, quietly just three games back of the first-place Royals.
Joining Liriano in the seven-run shame closet Tuesday was Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez, the victim of back-to-back-to-back jacks in a six-run Brewers third.
Ryan Braun’s three-run job came first,
followed by successive solo shots by Adam Lind
and Aramis Ramirez,
to complete Milwaukee’s first back-to-back-to-back set since 2012, when Braun and Ramirez also partook in the derby.
That was ample support for Jimmy Nelson, who stifled the Detroit lineup to the tune of eight innings of one-run ball. Nelson walked four, but he permitted only three hits, all of them singles, evading the trouble his occasional control woes otherwise might’ve stirred. Corey Knebel pitched an uneventful ninth to cap the 8-1 romp.
Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan came into Tuesday’s game at Petco Park with the ninth-worst BABIP among all qualifying hitters at .213. There’s only one way to avoid putting your fate at the mercy of the BABIP gods, and that’s to stop hitting the ball into play. So that’s what Coghlan did.
Leading off the third inning, he went yard:
Up first in the fifth inning, he struck out. With the bases empty and one away in the seventh, he struck out again, thus contributing a couple of Ks to Padres starter James Shields’ season-high 11.
With two down and nobody on in the ninth, Coghlan put another one over the Petco fence, this time off of Craig Kimbrel:
Unfortunately for the Cubs, while Coghlan found a way to boost his offensive numbers without improving his BABIP, he didn’t manage to make either of his bases-empty homers count for more than one run.
Since a Dexter Fowler solo shot accounted for the rest of Chicago’s scoring, the Padres escaped another rocky Kimbrel appearance to edge the Cubs, 4-3, behind a pair of eighth-inning tallies.
An error by Addison Russell at the keystone opened the door for the Padres to take the lead in the bottom of the eighth, as a bunt single by Abraham Almonte moved Clint Barmes, who reached on the error, into scoring position. Cory Spangenberg’s ensuing sac-bunt attempt was halfway successful: It got Barmes to third but Almonte was retired at second on a fielder’s choice. Derek Norris rendered that irrelevant by scoring Spangenberg all the way from first with a two-run double. Spangenberg’s tally was the eventual winning run.
The Defensive Play of the Day
What to Watch on Wednesday
Groundballs might be the name of the game in the lone matinee on today’s slate. It’s Jesse Hahn for the A’s and Dallas Keuchel for the Astros in the afternoon battle at Minute Maid Park, and both rank among the league’s top 30 in groundball rate, with Keuchel pacing all starters at 64 percent.
The Athletics’ offense, which tops the American League in worm-killers hit to date at 526, just two years removed from a focus on hitting the ball in the air, could play right into Keuchel’s hands. They did just that last month in Oakland, when the left-hander chucked a two-hit shutout, en route to the 1.87 ERA he carries into today’s rematch. The Astros, meanwhile, might not be so willing to cooperate with Hahn; they’ve only bounced 391 balls into the dirt so far, the second-lowest total in the junior circuit. Oakland is just 1-6 behind the right-hander, who’ll be seeing the Astros for the first time in his young career (2:10 p.m. ET).
At 3.32 pitches expended per plate appearance, the lowest average among qualifying starting pitchers, Bartolo Colon likes to send his foes on their quickly and efficiently. Matt Carpenter, who sees 4.27 pitches per trip, on the other hand, is in no hurry to resolve his at-bats. The two have met 10 times in their careers to date, and so far, at least when it comes to plate-appearance duration, Carpenter has gotten his way.
The Cardinals infielder has seen five or more offerings from the Mets starter in nine of their 10 head-to-head showdowns, and the lone exception was a three-pitch trip that ended with a home run. In all, Carpenter is 3-for-10 lifetime versus Colon with two singles and that long ball, and he’s struck out twice without working a walk. Tune in tonight to see if Colon can tempt Carpenter with early-count pitches enough to accelerate their meetings, or if the TCU product can keep maximizing his airtime in the batter’s box against the veteran right-hander’s wishes (7:10 p.m. ET).
The Cubs finally grew tired of Travis Wood’s penchant for serving up untimely homers—six of them in total, over his first three May starts—and manager Joe Maddon relegated the southpaw to the bullpen over the weekend, when he picked up his first major-league save. Taking Wood’s spot in the rotation is Tsuyoshi Wada, who spent the first month-plus of the season nursing a strained groin. The 34-year-old posted a 3.25 ERA over 13 starts with the Cubs last year, his big-league debut, though his 4.46 DRA and 100 cFIP suggest he was considerably more pedestrian than the superficial metrics made him seem. That means there’s room for improvement in year two, which for Wada begins with a date with Tyson Ross and the Padres at Petco Park.
Ross, incidentally, enters play tonight with a 63.1 percent ground-ball rate, the highest among all qualifying National League starters and second only to Keuchel across the majors. Sacrificing all those dead worms to the ERA overlords hasn’t fully spared Ross the perils of walking 5.1 batters per nine innings, because the grounders he’s allowed have been ill-timed and poorly placed. After inducing 21 double-play balls a year ago, Ross has coaxed only one to this point in 2015, and once you tack on the uptick in walks, it’s easy to see why his ERA has shot up from 2.81 to 3.94. The 28-year-old will try to shave it versus the Cubs this evening, a month and two days after he needed 115 pitches to navigate 5 2/3 eventful innings at Wrigley Field (10:10 p.m. ET).
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