The Tuesday Takeaway
In a season in which the Phillies have hit rock bottom in terms of their on-field product, there has been little to cheer about at Citizens Bank Park. The team has taken a better approach in the draft in recent years and now boasts a collection of interesting prospects, but despite the steps forward I would imagine that it has been a tough year to be a season-ticket holder. On Tuesday, Phillies fans finally got a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel when Aaron Nola—the seventh overall pick of the 2014 draft—got the call to make his big-league debut.
Fastball command is one of the chief reasons the LSU product was able to navigate through the minor leagues so rapidly, and his polish was evident in the early going. John Jaso welcomed Nola to the big leagues with a double to lead off the game but the right-hander proceeded to mow down Steven Souza Jr. with three perfectly placed heaters.
Nola was in a groove in the early going and was in good position to keep it going with the opposing pitcher due to lead off the inning. On the mound for the Rays was Nate Karns, who did some preparation for the Tuesday's interleague matchup over the weekend in Toronto, as noted before the game by Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin.
Karns entered the game 0-for-8 at the plate in his major-league career and had just one hit to his name in professional ball. But the show that Karns put on during batting practice in Toronto ended up paying off, as he deposited the first pitch he saw from Nola into the left field stands.
It was the first time an American League pitcher had gone deep since Zach Britton did it back when he was starting games for the Orioles in 2011, and the first time a Rays pitcher had left the yard since Esteban Yan homered against the Mets in 2000 on his first MLB swing.
The Karns home run turned out to be the only damage the Rays were able to do against Nola, who settled in over six innings of work. The right-hander scattered five hits, walked just one batter, and struck out six, with three of those punchouts victimizing Souza. Nola showed that he was able to spot his fastball the first time they squared off, but used his other two offerings to finish off the Rays rookie in their two subsequent showdowns.
The second time Souza came to bat, Nola started him off with a 93 mph fastball with run at the knees, and the outfielder fouled it off for strike one. Nola came back with two more heaters with arm-side run that bore in on the hands of Souza, who fouled them both off and fell in a 0–2 hole. With Souza at his mercy, Nola went to a curveball low and away—one of his better ones of the day—getting the rookie hitter to chase it for the strikeout.
The third time up, Souza stepped to the plate with runners at first and second and no outs. Nola started him off with a fastball that just missed off the plate and then missed low with a changeup. He went back to the fastball on the next two pitches, with Souza fouling the first one off and then watching the second one catch the outside part of the plate for strike two. The Phillies youngster proceeded to pull the string one more time, getting Souza to fan on a changeup that dove out of the strike zone, to the delight of Nola's father and the rest of the Citizens Bank Park crowd.
Meanwhile, the Phillies were having a tough time scoring runs against Karns, who was pulled after five scoreless innings, 85 pitches, and two trips through Philadelphia's batting order. Kevin Kiermaier didn't make things any easier for the home squad, nailing Cody Asche at third base with a money throw on a first-to-third attempt in the second inning and then making a diving catch to rob Cameron Rupp of a leadoff hit in the fifth inning.
Steve Geltz, Xavier Cedeno, Jake McGee, Kevin Jepsen, and Brad Boxberger combined with Karns to complete the shutout, with the reliefs corps allowing just two runners to reach base during over the final four innings. Karns' home run turned out to be the difference in the 1–0 win, making it the first time since Yovani Gallardo's solo home run on April 29, 2009 against the Pirates that a 1–0 game has been decided by a pitcher home run. It was the first time that such a game has ever been decided by an American League pitcher in interleague play.
As for the Phillies, Tuesday's game served as a microcosm of the organization's season to date: The team tacked on another "L" to its MLB-worst record but Nola's impressive debut provided a glimmer of hope for the organization's future.
Quick Hits from Tuesday
Shane Greene's return to the majors isn't going all that well. After being sent down to the minors at the beginning of June, the right-hander returned for Detroit's final game of the first half only to be pounded by the Twins for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings. On Tuesday against the Mariners he picked up right where he left off, with the visitors putting up a four-spot before the Tigers even got to take their first hacks.
Greene failed to make it out of the fifth inning, allowing six hits, walking two, hitting a batter, and striking out just one. By the time he hit the showers, the Mariners had tacked on another run on a booming 455-foot blast of the bat of Nelson Cruz
that traveled an estimated 467 feet and left the bat at 113 mph. As Jeff Sullivan so elegantly pointed out, that's very far.
Detroit chased Walker from the game in the fifth, with Yoenis Cespedes launching a two-run blast into the visitor's bullpen to even the score. But the bullpen didn't fare any better in the inning, with David Rollins and Tom Wilhelmsen each allowing a pair of runners to reach in the inning and the Tigers taking a 7–5 lead.
The Mariners the advantage in half in the sixth, but the Tigers got that run back on a Nick Castellanos home run in the seventh, leaving the newly acquired Neftali Feliz to preserve a two-run lead in the eighth inning. Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager, and Robinson Cano each singled off the former Ranger to load the bases for Seth Smith; a wild pitch let in one run and led to an intentional walk of Smith to reload the bases.
Due up next for the Mariners was Chris Taylor, but manager Lloyd McClendon opted to pinch-hit with Franklin Gutierrez, who was promoted to the big leagues two weeks ago after missing all of 2014 with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that affects the spine. Gutierrez, once considered one of the best defensive center fielders in the league, proceeded to take Feliz's 1–1 fastball the opposite way for a grand slam to give the Mariners an 11–8 lead.
Detroit would add one more run in the bottom of the inning against Fernando Rodney, but Carson Smith came in to record the final four outs of the game, sending the free-falling Tigers back under .500.
Clint Hurdle was left wanting an explanation from the MLBAM headquarters in New York after a bizarre would-be home run by Starling Marte was ruled a ground-rule double in the second inning of Tuesday's game against the Royals. He was probably also left wanting an explanation later in the game when the Pirates made an inexplicable out on the basepaths that ended up costing them an opportunity to complete the furious comeback they mounted against Greg Holland in the ninth inning.
First, the weird play:
Marte's fly ball appeared to hit the top of the wall and, with some weird spin, bounce into the home bullpen. The ruling on the field was a home run, but after looking over the play in New York, the ruling relayed back to the umpires in Kansas City was that Marte would only be awarded two bases. Shortly after, MLB released a brief statement that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Stephen Nesbitt passed on in a post:
MLB released a brief statement attempting to explain its ruling. The replay official "definitely determined" that the ball struck below the top of the wall and bounced over. Had it struck the top of the wall and bounced over, it would have been a home run.
Sean Newell of Vice Sports scanned through the official rules on MLB.com and wrote a post in the aftermath, coming to what seems to be a pretty convincing conclusion given that the ball hit the top of the padding, which to the best of my knowledge is not the top of wall in left field. (I'm admittedly not completely familiar with Kaufmann Park's ground rules and couldn't find anything that indicated otherwise. For what it's worth, the Kansas City broadcast made a quip shortly after that if the ball had been two feet higher it would have been a "real" home run.)
You can take a look at the post for Newell's full interpretation of the rules but here's the main takeaway:
Here's the relevant rule for a ground rule double, which begins "The batter becomes a runner when—"
(e) A fair ball, after touching the ground, bounds into the stands, or passes through, over or under a fence, or through or under a scoreboard, or through or under shrubbery, or vines on the fence, in which case the batter and the runners shall be entitled to advance two bases;
This, coupled with the definition of "In Flight" seems to make Marte's shot a ground rule double: "IN FLIGHT describes a batted, thrown, or pitched ball which has not yet touched the ground or some object other than a fielder."
With the call going the way it did, the Pirates were unable to bring home Marte that inning. Later in the inning, Jason Vargas, making his first start since being activated from the disabled list, departed with elbow pain. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Wednesday. Joe Blanton relieved Vargas and held the Pirates scoreless through the fifth inning, and Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis combined to shut out the visitors through the eighth inning.
But Gerrit Cole was matching the zeroes Kansas City's bullpen was putting on the board. He cruised through the first seven innings, scattering just three hits and an HBP. The Royals finally got to the Pirates' ace in the eighth inning, quickly following a one-out Neil Walker error with a trio of singles by Alex Rios, Jarrod Dyson, and Alcides Escobar that gave the home nine a 3–0 advantage.
In came Holland to shut the door, but things got bumpy real quick for the Kansas City closer. Marte started things off with an infield single and Jung-ho Kang followed with a double over the head of Lorenzo Cain, who took an uncharacteristically poor route to the ball. However, Holland was bailed out by Cain and Alcides Escobar stringing together two strong throws to nail Marte at the plate.
Your first reaction was probably the same as mine was: WHAT ARE YOU DOING MARTE?!? You're down three runs in the ninth and you're thrown out at home by 10 feet? But upon further review…
So yeah, Marte probably gets a pass on this one. Not exactly the finest moment for Pirates third-base coach Rick Sofield, however.
Holland got Pedro Alvarez to strike out, but allowed the next three Pirates to reach base, loading the bags for Gregory Polanco with two outs. Holland proceeded to strike out the outfielder to finish off the 3–1 win, but it's hard not to wonder whether this game has a different result with some better decision-making by Sofield. The Royals will take the win, though; coupled with Minnesota's 7–0 loss to the Angels, it gives the reigning AL champs a 6 1/2 game lead in the Central, a margin that will surely put a smile on Cain's face.
In Monday's series opener between the Mets and Nationals, the NL East leaders got a handful of stellar defensive plays—most notably a diving stab at third by Yunel Escobar and a running catch by Michael Taylor—that helped carry them to a 7–2 win. In the middle match of the series, it was the defensive miscues that eventually did the Nationals in.
Jacob deGrom and Joe Ross were both dealing in this one, with the former sitting 96 mph with his fastball to go along with his hard low-90s slider and a hook that garnered six swing-and-misses. Both faced the minimum through three innings, with Ross allowing his first baserunner on a Curtis Granderson single to lead off the fourth. With the count 1–1 on Ruben Tejada, Mets skipper Terry Collins called for a hit-and-run, but Tejada swung through Ross' offering. Granderson was a dead duck at second base, but Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos double-clutched and the Mets outfielder slid in ahead of the tag.
Second baseman Danny Espinosa stayed in position as long as he could in case Tejada put the ball in play, but as you can see above, he would still have had plenty of time to cover second and receive the incoming throw had Ramos just fired down immediately. Wilmer Flores would drive Granderson in later in the inning with a two-out single, drawing first blood for the visitors.
Ramos made up for his blunder in the fifth inning, driving a 98 mph fastball on the outer third from deGrom the opposite way for a two-run blast to give the Nationals a 2–1 lead. That held until the seventh inning, when another miscue cost the home squad a pair of runs.
Credit the Mets with taking advantage of the Nationals' mistakes, as the club's recent futility with runners in scoring position reached its pinnacle when they went 1-for-26 with runners in scoring position during last Sunday's 18-inning marathon in St. Louis. However, this should have been a game where the Nationals handed the ball off to Drew Storen in the ninth inning with a two-run lead. Instead, Tanner Roark gave up four runs in the ninth to extend New York's lead to 7–2, the eventual final score.
After throwing 44 pitches in a two-inning outing on Sunday and tossing another scoreless inning on Monday, Aroldis Chapman was unavailable to pitch in Tuesday's game. That was good news for Cubs hitters, who instead got to face J.J. Hoover down 4–2 in the ninth inning. Dexter Fowler led things off against Hoover with a single to right, which brought Kyle Schwarber to the plate. The Cubs rookie fell into a quick 0–2 hole but battled back to a full count, fouling off three pitches along the way, before Hoover finally grooved the ninth pitch of the at-bat.
That game-tying dinger left the bat at 108 mph, the third ball in play hit by Schwarber at over 100 mph on the night, according to Statcast. It turned out there would be a fourth ball leaving Schwarber's bat at triple digits, as Reds reliever Nate Adcock found out in the 13th inning.
Schwarber's 4-for-7 day fueled the 5–4 win for the Cubs and improved his line to .410/.439/.744 through his first 41 major-league plate appearances. Not a bad way to burst onto the scene.
The Defensive Play of the Day
There weren't many things that went Colorado's way in their 9–0 pummeling at the hands of the Rangers, whose offensive barrage was led by Shin-Soo Choo, who went 4-for-5 and hit for the cycle. However, Troy Tulowitzki did provide one positive highlight for the home squad, with this fantastic play to rob Adrian Beltre of a base knock.
What to Watch on Wednesday
At the end of spring training, the Reds made the somewhat surprising decision to relegate Tony Cingrani to the bullpen. On the one hand, Cingrani has always profiled as a potential bullpen guy due to his fastball-heavy arsenal, deceptive motion, and lack of a decent third pitch, but given that the Reds were passing over his potential for the likes of Jason Marquis and Raisel Iglesias (who was also projected by many scouts to be a bullpen arm), the move was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time, one that left the 26-year-old "disappointed and angry."
Cingrani proceeded to validate Cincinnati's concerns with an ugly 26:17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 1/3 innings out of the bullpen before a strained left shoulder sidelined him in June. The Reds have stretched Cingrani out during his rehab assignment at Triple-A, where he made four starts, striking out 18 and walking six across 14 innings. He'll join the rotation in the second game of a twinbill against the Cubs on Wednesday, taking the hill opposite Dallas Beeler, who will make his second start of the season for the visitors. If Cingrani pitches well, he should reclaim a permanent spot in the rotation given that trade targets Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake (the latter of whom will get the ball in the 12:35 p.m. EST matinee) appear to be on their way out the door (6:10 p.m. EST).
As for your choice of a west-coast nightcap, a darn good pitching matchup is scheduled to go down in Arizona. Jose Fernandez has hardly missed a beat since returning from Tommy John surgery, with his velocity falling in line with his pre-surgery gun readings. His vaunted breaking ball has averaged about an inch less sweep in his first three starts than it did 2013–14 but the pitch has nevertheless garnered swing-and-misses once every four pitches.
Opposite the Marlins' ace will be Robby Ray, who has emerged as the Diamondbacks' best starting pitcher since being called up for good in early June. In nine starts (including a spot start in May) spanning 55 innings pitched, the young southpaw has posted a 2.78 DRA, garnering strikeouts at a modest clip and keeping the free passes to a minimum. His fastball velocity has spiked to 94 mph this season—up nearly two mph from his average velocity in 28 major-league innings last year—and he has mixed in his breaking ball more at the expense of his changeup. The change was considered to be Ray's best complementary piece and profiled as an average pitch, while the scouting report at the time of his promotion was that his breaking ball was slurvy and lagged behind in consistency and effectiveness.
This season, Ray has scrapped the change completely against same-side hitters, with an overall usage of 11 percent and a whiff rate well below the league average for the pitch. On the other hand, Ray's breaking ball has served as a capable bat-misser, generating whiffs at an above-average rate. The Snakes will turn to the 23-year-old as they look to take the rubber match from the Fish in what should be a fun late-night duel in the desert (9:40 p.m. EST).
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