The Wednesday Takeaway
When the Nationals took the field last night, their hopes of gaining ground on the Mets in the three-game showdown on their turf had already been dashed. The series victory had already been celebrated in the visitors' clubhouse. All the hosts could do now was avoid a sweep.
Washington's homegrown franchise cornerstones, Stephen Strasburg—the first-overall pick in the 2009 draft—and Bryce Harper, who followed in his footsteps in 2010, marched onto the diamond determined to deprive Mid-Atlantic headline writers of the "National disaster" puns they craved. A loss would justify those, of course, because there'd be no other way to spin a seven-game deficit with 23 left to play.
Strasburg pulled no punches. The right-hander dazzled on the mound, with the fiercest curveball he's wielded all season. Color Curtis Granderson impressed:
Yoenis Cespedes, too:
And while those two were flailing, David Wright was backing away from a pitch bending right down the middle:
Strasburg struck out 13 in all, seven of them in an eight-batter stretch between the third and fifth innings. He threw 27 of 35 curves for strikes and got eight whiffs with the 82-84 mph yakker. Aside from a second-inning solo home run by Travis d'Arnaud, Strasburg was impenetrable through seven.
Harper had that one run covered. By the time d'Arnaud went deep, the NL MVP frontrunner had already launched a Jacob deGrom fastball into the seats to draw first blood:
Harper got deGrom again his next time up, leading off the fourth inning with a double and scoring on a single by Clint Robinson to give Strasburg his second one-run lead of the day.
The right-hander was more protective of the 2-1 edge than the 1-0 margin he'd ceded to d'Arnaud. New York went down in order in the fifth, struck out twice around a Granderson walk in the sixth, and watched Strasburg strike out the side in the seventh. The Nats were six outs away from averting disaster, from shipping the Mets off with a still-somewhat-bridgeable five games separating them in the East.
Then came the eighth inning, which evolved into a referendum on each team's deadline dealings, and on the managers steering them through September.
Sandy Alderson spent the late stages of July stocking Terry Collins' offensive cupboard, reeling in a big bat in Yoenis Cespedes, as well as useful complementary pieces like Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, plus reliever Tyler Clippard. Mike Rizzo was content to largely stand pat, save for a move to augment what had been a good-but-not-great bullpen. The acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon forced Rizzo and Matt Williams to play clubhouse diplomats, ironing out any misgivings between the newcomer and then-closer Drew Storen, who had to be demoted to setup duty to satisfy the former Phillie's outlandish, career-goal-driven wishes.
With his non-d'Arnaud starting nine flummoxed by Strasburg, Terry Collins called on Johnson to provide a spark off the bench leading off the eighth. Johnson worked a 2-0 count and looked for a fastball down the chute. Strasburg obliged,
and the ex-Brave bopped a game-tying upper-decker. Strasburg recovered to collect his 13th and final strikeout against pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis, but he gave up a one-out single to Granderson, and Williams decided to pull the plug on his starter's outstanding night.
The seventh inning of Tuesday's middle match, which began with the Nats up 7-1 and concluded with a 7-7 tie, was still fresh in the minds of Nats fans and certainly in the back of their skipper's. The big blow in that frame came off the bat of Cespedes, a three-run double that so spooked Storen that he proceeded to walk the next three Mets he faced, as Williams watched helplessly from the dugout. Some questioned that move at the time, pointing to Cespedes' reverse splits, highlighted by an OPS some 200 points higher against right-handers than off of southpaws. But Felipe Rivero was leaking oil and Matt Thornton, the only other seasoned lefty at Williams' disposal, had already been spent. (Also, that split falls to just 30 points when you consider Cespedes' 2,300-plus-plate-appearance career.)
That wasn't the case Wednesday, when Strasburg pitched into the eighth. Yet with Granderson on first, one away, and Cespedes stepping to the plate, Williams again called on Storen. And one hanging slider later, the Mets were on top:
Facing his former teammate, Clippard, in the top of the eighth, Harper—who on Monday criticized Nationals fans for leaving early—gave those in the stands Wednesday a reason to stick around. His second homer of the day made it 4-3, and Williams had Papelbon warming to keep the deficit at one in the ninth.
But Papelbon could not hold the line. Lucas Duda greeted him with a double and scored on a single by Michael Conforto, the rookie now batting .288/.367/.541, further deepening a lineup rejuvenated by Alderson's deadline moves. Jeurys Familia rendered the Nats' rally hopes futile with a clean, two-strikeout ninth that marked his 39th save.
To go with deGrom and Familia on Wednesday, the Mets had the imported Cespedes and Johnson, plus Conforto and d'Arnaud, and a manager who pushed the "KJ" button at precisely the right time. The Nationals had Strasburg and Harper, and little else, piloted by a skipper determined to have the pitcher bumped by his boss's marquee deadline acquisition retire the import who's emerged as the opposition's stretch-run star.
That narrative is exaggerated, no doubt, but the series finale in D.C. elicited storylines and #hottakes in spades. With a chance to bury the Nationals, the Mets' pickups shined, in part thanks to Collins' direction. Needing a last-ditch rescue to avoid the visitors' brooms, the Nats could not save their own day, in part because Williams repeated the previous day's mistake.
Now, the upstart Mets are up by seven games (and 95 percentage points in relative chances to win the division), looking down on the preseason favorites from a perch so high that you could forgive them for looking ahead to a Division Series matchup with the Dodgers. In the wake of the sweep, Collins called his team "legitimate," and Ian Desmond said the carnage was "devastating."
We'll call it what it is: a National disaster.
Quick Hits from Wednesday
If I showed you this portion of a line score,
told you that neither team involved in the game hit a home run, noted that the sides each had two extra-base hits, and then asked you to fill in the blanks in the run column, you might've guessed something like 6-2 Team A. If I added that Team B drew three walks and Team A only one, perhaps you'd have narrowed the margin to 6-3.
If I told you that 6-3 was wrong, too, and let you rattle off the scores until you got it right, eventually, by the process of elimination, it would've happened. Eventually.
The R-H-E box above comes from the series finale between the Cubs and Cardinals, in which the visitors sought a three-game sweep that might've made the hosts a tad less comfortable with their cushion in the NL Central. Bringing the brooms to Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals were 49-24 at first pitch, would've had the Cubs brimming with confidence down the stretch.
And, by all hit-and-error rights, they probably should've completed the sweep. Especially considering that the Cardinals were starting a center fielder under orders not to throw, and that this handicap proved costly in the very first frame:
Alas, runs, not hits or errors or crippled outfielders, decide baseball games, and in that department, the Cubs managed to fall one short. They were up 3-1 after the second inning and still up 3-1 heading to the bottom of the eighth, after Jon Lester outdueled Carlos Martinez with seven innings of two-hit, one-run work, striking out seven in one of his most impressive performances of the season. The bullpen was much less impressive.
Pedro Strop was the first man out of it; he faced two batters and allowed both to reach. Clayton Richard was next, tasked with retiring Matt Carpenter in a lefty-lefty matchup that went awry when Carpenter hit an RBI single. Wanting another righty to get Stephen Piscotty, Joe Maddon turned to the recently acquired Fernando Rodney and promptly learned why the Mariners let him go:
Rodney's first pitch came in right down the middle, and Piscotty gladly deposited it over Dexter Fowler's head for a two-run double. That was the fifth and final knock of the day for the Cards, and it came after the Cubs rested their case with 11. Trevor Rosenthal retired the side in order to secure the unlikely 4-3 win.
Unlike Randal Grichuk, Chase Headley has no known throwing impediment, and as far as we can tell, Stephen Drew has no medical excuse for not catching a ball well within his reach. Nonetheless, with the bases loaded and two outs in a game the Yankees led 3-1, Adam Warren got Manny Machado to ground sharply to third, and then saw this calamity unfold behind him:
It was scored an E4 on Drew, although the miscue could just as easily have been assessed to Headley for goosing a routine throw. More importantly, the game was tied, which is bad news for the Yankees because they were finished scoring for the night.
Ubaldo Jimenez got through seven innings on 92 pitches, picking up eight strikeouts along the way without issuing a walk, and then handed it over to Darren O'Day and Zach Britton, who went six up, six down. Meanwhile, Steve Pearce went yard and Chris Davis doubled in a ninth-inning insurance run, as the O's went on to win 5-3.
The Yankees stayed a game and a half shy of the Jays in the AL East, thanks to the Red Sox, who feasted on Drew Hutchison and Steve Delabar—the former victimized on David Ortiz's 498th career homer—in a 10-4 romp.
While we're on the subject of throwing things, the Phillies and Braves would do well to discreetly throw some games. Barring an even-more-spirited collapse by the Reds or Rockies, the victor of the descent into the NL East cellar will earn the no. 1 pick in the 2016 First-Year Player Draft.
There are no official awards for players who excel at helping their teams finish last. If there were, David Buchanan would need to clear space on his mantel. Prior to last night, Buchanan had made 10 starts this season, and he'd left each of them with an ERA of 6.44 or higher. On August 6th, the Dodgers torched him for seven runs on 10 hits in four innings. On August 11th, the D'backs hung 11 hits and 11 runs on his line in just 1 2/3. And that was the last straw for the Phillies, who banished Buchanan to Triple-A Lehigh Valley for nearly a month.
The 26-year-old was recalled in time to face the Braves yesterday. He threw 71 pitches for Pete Mackanin before the interim skipper called for help from the bullpen. At that point, there was one out in the top of the fourth.
Jerome Williams spared Buchanan further grief by getting Jace Peterson to hit into a double play. That closed the book on the starter with 3 1/3 innings, 10 hits, four runs (all earned), three walks, a hit batter, and no strikeouts. His ERA inched up to 9.11.
This mess alone was bad enough to place Buchanan in rare company. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he's just the fourth pitcher since 1990 to allow 10 or more hits, dole out four or more walks plus hit batsmen, and throw 71 or more pitches without earning a strikeout in 3 1/3 or fewer innings.
But then there's the matter of the two shellings preceded this 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the lowly Braves. The aggregate line—nine innings, 31 hits, 22 runs (all earned), six walks, three strikeouts, and five homers—is not to be viewed within two hours of a meal. And per the Play Index, Buchanan is the first pitcher in at least a century to surrender 10-plus hits and four-plus runs in four or fewer innings in three consecutive starts.
Which, on the bright side, is just what the doctor ordered for a Phillies side that could soon add a no. 1 pick to a farm system that's exceedingly well stocked after their Cole Hamels trade with the Rangers. From that standpoint, Mackanin and Co. were equally pleased to watch Julio Teheran toss seven innings and hold Philly to just one run. Christian Bethancourt's leadoff blast in the fourth
sealed the home team's fate, as the visitors authored a season-high 18 hits. The Phillies now "lead" the Braves by two games in the race to the caboose.
With the Brewers ahead of the Marlins, 2-0, in the bottom of the third on Wednesday, Martin Prado worked a full count with runners at first and second and two down. He hit the payoff pitch through the middle for a single. And he was credited with two RBI.
That, of course, means that the runner on first must've scored on a routine single to center. The feat becomes more credible when you consider that the runner in question was Dee Gordon. And, in case you still don't believe it happened, here's the video to prove that it did:
As you might've guessed, there's a bit more to this than just Gordon's speed. The pitcher for the Brewers was Ariel Pena, who surely had a lot on his mind as he faced a third-inning jam in his first-ever major-league start. Furthermore, with a runner 90 feet ahead of Gordon, Craig Counsell had elected to play first baseman Adam Lind behind the runner. Gordon had no reason to fear a pickoff attempt—and no reason to worry about anything else with the count full and two away—unless Lind or rookie catcher Nevin Ashley called out "step off!" And that's when his baserunning IQ kicked in:
By the time Pena kicked and dealt, Gordon was more than halfway to second, and with his momentum taking him toward the base, he was practically running from second when Prado made contact. That he scored on the play is no longer a surprise.
Gordon's run knotted the game at 2-2, and the Marlins went on to win 5-2 with three runs in the seventh. Tom Koehler joined Gordon, Prado, and Christian Yelich as the stars of the show for Miami, chucking eight strong frames and striking out 10.
The only silver lining on the Brewers side was Ashley's second-inning RBI double,
his first big-league hit after 10 seasons in the minors. Ashley, previously best known for being married to a woman named Ashley, became the first Brewers player to notch an RBI in his first plate appearance in the bigs since pitcher Yovani Gallardo did it in 2007.
Since we're on the subject of minor-league-veteran catchers enjoying a moment in the big-league limelight, we'd be remiss not to mention Dustin Garneau's first career home run. He'll one day tell his grandkids that it came on an 0-2 pitch in cavernous Petco Park:
And with that bomb off James Shields, after seven seasons in the minors and 30 plate appearances in the majors, Garneau is officially on the dinger board.
Jedd Gyorko has been lighting that board up often of late. He, too, found an 0-2 pitch to his liking
and mashed it into the Western Metal Supply Co. building down the left-field line. The three-run jack off Chris Rusin was no. 14 of the year for Gyorko, who has four long balls in September and eight since August 11th. His OPS climbed above .700 for the first time since Opening Day.
The rest of the Friars had themselves a night against Rusin and friends, as well. Matt Kemp got it all started with a solo shot in the first, and before the 11-4 rout was over, San Diego had 18 hits, seven of them for extra bags. Melvin Upton Jr., who's quietly seen his bat come alive with a .241/.305/.420 line through Wednesday, chipped in a couple of doubles, and Gyorko added a two-bagger to his round-tripper. Shields atoned for some of his struggles on the mound by drawing a bases-loaded walk.
The Defensive Play of the Day
All yours, Chris Coghlan:
What to Watch on Thursday
The Rangers got Derek Holland back from the disabled list about three weeks ago, and over his last two starts, they've watched him rediscover his peak form. Holland fired a three-hit, 11-strikeout shutout over the Orioles on August 30th, then came back six days later to limit the Halos to one run in eight frames. That body of recent work sets the stage for a fine afternoon duel with Felix Hernandez.
Things haven't been quite as rosy for King Felix of late, though he's at least solved the A's, holding them to five total runs over 16 innings in his last two starts. Expanding the "from" endpoint to July 29th, however, yields a 6.45 overall ERA, the product of a .319/.352/.514 batting line for Hernandez's opponents. Since tossing seven innings of two-run ball against the Rangers on August 9th, Hernandez has served up six homers in 24 1/3 innings.
If the extra rest between eight-inning outings fixed whatever was bugging the Mariners ace, this one might be worth diverting your attention away from work (3:40 p.m. ET).
With seven meetings left between the Blue Jays and Yankees, the AL East may well be decided by their head-to-head performance. The first four of those seven are on tap this weekend in a set that begins this evening in the Bronx.
Both sides will turn to their midseason reinforcements in the opener, with the Blue Jays sending ace acquisition David Price and the Yankees turning to blue-chip call-up Luis Severino. The 21-year-old became a key cog for Joe Girardi's club when Nathan Eovaldi was placed on the disabled list with elbow inflammation; the veteran will miss the rest of the regular season, so the rookie will have to pick up the slack. With six or more innings and no more than one run allowed in each of his last three starts, Severino appears well equipped to do just that.
Severino saw the Jays back on August 16th, when he came up short in a matchup with Drew Hutchison despite turning in a textbook quality start. Six innings, three runs, and nine strikeouts is usually an adequate showing at the Rogers Centre, but it wasn't that day, as the Yankees lost 3-1. The right-hander's fastball was too hot for many Toronto batters to handle, collecting eight whiffs in 66 offerings with no hits surrendered, but his slider was surprisingly vulnerable. John Gibbons' lineup went 4-for-5 when putting the breaking ball in play, including a Jose Bautista homer and just one swing and miss in 32 tries.
Severino will likely need his slider to be a weapon against the righty-loaded Jays in the rematch, so he'll hope for sharper command to go with his high-90s cheddar. Mistakes like this one,
which Bautista took yard, won't fare any better in the Bronx than they did north of the border (7:05 p.m. ET).
Jaime Garcia keeps rolling right along, shaving his ERA to 1.89, striking out a season-high nine in his last outing, and defying the regression advanced metrics insist is coming. Even those who suggest that Garcia's blend of worm-killing and walk-aversion makes for an excellent starter see him more as a great mid-rotation arm, with a 3.04 DRA, rather than the Cy Young Award contender his ERA says he'd be with a full-season workload. He's a roughly league-average starter by cFIP (96), but the 29-year-old hasn't shown many signs of accepting that fate.
Mike Matheny will send Garcia to the mound to square off with the Reds, who'll counter with rookie left-hander John Lamb. The 25-year-old has K'd 33 in his first 28 big-league innings, but that's about the only thing he's done right, with 36 hits, 19 earned runs, and four homers stealing the spotlight from his punchout prowess. The Reds have yet to win a game behind Lamb, one of the three southpaws who came back to Cincinnati in the Johnny Cueto deal (7:10 p.m. ET).