The Thursday Takeaway
The disappointing 2015 season has been far from what the Mariners hoped for after missing a Wild Card spot by just one game in 2014. The starting rotation was supposed to be dominant and instead it has been below average. The bullpen that finished last season with the best ERA in baseball has turned in the seventh-worst ERA in 2015. The lineup has been filled with a number of underperformers, most notably Robinson Cano.
One of the lone bright spots on the team has been Nelson Cruz, whom the club signed during the offseason to a four-year contract that was widely criticized due the slugger’s age and one-dimensional skill set. The ageless slugger has done nothing but mash in the first year of his $57 million deal, boasting a .341 TAv that trails only that of Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and Miguel Cabrera (among qualified hitters).
Cruz had been out for just over a week with a strained right quad but he made his return to the lineup on Thursday. With Felix Hernandez on the bump for the home squad and the playoff hopeful Rangers in town, this was as exciting a September matchup in a lost season as a Mariners fan could hope for.
Cruz singled back up the middle in his first at-bat back and came around to score on a two-run double by Mark Trumbo that gave the Mariners an early 2-0 lead. On the mound for Seattle was Felix Hernandez and the ace right-hander turned in one of his better outings of the season.
Hernandez went eight scoreless innings, the first start in which he has kept the opposing team off the board since July 9th. The right-hander struck out eight and walked four, but held the Rangers to limited hard contact. The visitors managed just three hits off Hernandez—two of which were on fieldable ground balls—and the only hitter who made consistent hard contact against him was Adrian Beltre. The Rangers’ third baseman got under a pitch in his first trip to the plate and hit a towering fly ball to left field and then flied out to the right-field warning track later in the fourth inning.
The two-run advantage was enough for Hernandez on Thursday but his teammates decided to provide him with even more of a cushion. Derek Holland had settled in after his rough first inning, putting up zeroes over the next five innings. But Jesus Sucre led off the seventh inning with an opposite-field double off Holland. The Mariners’ backstop came in to score later in the inning on a Ketel Marte single, extending the lead to three runs. With two outs in the inning, Cruz came up and with one swing of the bat put the game out of reach.
The long ball was Cruz’s 40th home run of the year, matching his home run total from last season in Baltimore and giving the Mariners a 5-0 lead, the eventual final score. With the Astros taking Thursday off, the Rangers fell 2½ games back of their Texas rivals in the AL West and now cling to a one-game lead over the Twins for the second wild card.
Quick Hits from Thursday
A.J. Burnett was stellar for the Pirates in the first half of the season, posting a 2.11 ERA across 18 starts while holding opposing hitters to a .635 OPS. The right-hander has had an astounding career revival as he’s trekked on into his 30s, but even he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to replicate his first-half success, telling reporters after a second rough start after the break, “You expect me to go out and do what I did the first half, you’re nuts.”
But even Burnett would have hoped that the second half would have gone better than it has so far. He gave up 19 runs in three post-break starts before missing the next six weeks with inflammation in his right elbow. Burnett made his return to the rotation on Thursday against the Brewers, but even that got off to a rough start.
Scooter Gennett started things off by ripping a belt-high fastball into the right-center gap for a double and came around to score the game’s first run after a pair of ground outs. With two outs in the inning, Adam Lind hit a sharp single on a center-cut fastball to center to keep the inning going. That brought up Khris Davis and Burnett’s early command issues continued to bite him in a big way.
Davis’ moonshot traveled approximately 440 feet and left the bat at 109 mph, making it the third hit of the inning with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph. Burnett settled down after the first inning, with four scoreless innings before exiting after throwing 64 pitches.
The Pirates scratched their way back with a run off Wily Peralta in the fifth and another in the seventh that was charged to the Brewers’ starting pitcher. In the eighth inning, Andrew McCutchen completed the comeback off Corey Knebel.
With the Reds putting the finishing touches on an 11-0 thrashing off the Cardinals, all the Pirates had to do to draw within four games of the NL Central leaders was pull off the extra-innings win. The bullpens exchanged zeroes in the 10th and 11th innings but the Brewers pulled ahead in the top of the 12th on a Ryan Braun RBI single. Francisco Rodriguez came in to close it out for Milwaukee but Gregory Polanco greeted him with a blast into the right-field deck to tie the game.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, that would be where their comeback trail came to an end. With Mark Melancon and Tony Watson unavailable, Clint Hurdle was forced to go with Radhames Liz for a second inning of work. The 31-year-old reliever struck out three of the first four batters he faced in the 13th but a wild pitch on one of those strikeouts resulted in runners on first and second with two outs. Back-to-back singles by Jordan Schafer and Luis Sardinas gave the Brewers a 6-4 lead, allowing Kyle Lohse to pick up his second save since being demoted to the Milwaukee bullpen.
Thursday already featured a light docket of games but rain up and down the East Coast left MLB.tv watchers without even a fourth game to stream on their quad view when the 7 p.m. EST games started. Not many lineups have been able to stop Jake Arrieta from dominating lately but rain in Philadelphia pushed back the Cubs hurler’s start to Friday. The opener of a four-game series with major AL East division implications between the Blue Jays and Yankees was also rained out, so fans will have to wait a day for a juicy matchup between David Price and Luis Severino.
That was the scene at Turner field at the scheduled game time and somehow the grounds crew was able to get the field in playable condition two hours and 20 minutes later. Anyone who waited out the delay was rewarded with a firsthand view of a Bartolo Colon RBI single.
Colon’s eighth hit of the season shot off the bat at 100 mph, per Statcast, and gave the Mets a 3-0 lead. Juan Uribe gave Colon even more cushion (cough) with an RBI single against his former team in the seventh inning, which extended the lead to four runs. The 42-year-old starter had extended his scoreless innings streak to 31, setting the record for the longest scoreless innings streak by a pitcher his age or older. Warren Spahn and Cy Young previous held the record for pitchers 42 years or older with scoreless innings streaks of 27 innings.
But Jace Peterson snapped that streak in the seventh inning with a triple down the right-field line that plated Nick Swisher. Andrelton Simmons drove in Peterson moments later to make it 4-2. That’s as close as the Braves would get. The Mets would tack on a run in the eighth inning and two more in the ninth on a double by Uribe, giving Dario Alvarez and Addison Reed more than enough room to finish out the 7-2 final.
The Defensive Play of the Day
Lonnie Chisenhall has been surprisingly good in right field since being moved off third base to make room for Giovanni Urshela. Chisenhall was sent down to the minors in June and got some work in the corner outfield with Triple-A Columbus before being called back up to be the starting right fielder after Brandon Moss was shipped to St. Louis. In just over 200 innings in the outfield, Chisenhall has accumulated seven Defensive Runs Saved, with UZR liking him just as much.
Chisenhall made a nice running play in the gap to rob Victor Martinez of extra bases in the fourth inning of Thursday’s game against the Tigers, but his key defensive play came in the seventh inning. The Indians held a 3-2 lead behind 6 1/3 solid innings from Danny Salazar but the young starter left a mess behind for Bryan Shaw to take care of in the seventh. With runners at second and third and two outs, Ian Kinsler singled to right field, which brought across the tying run. Chisenhall made sure that the Tigers wouldn’t take the lead, gunning out Anthony Gose at the plate on a safe call that was overturned by replay review. Bonus points to Yan Gomes for the excellent tag.
The Indians immediately regained the lead when Michael Brantley led off the bottom of the inning with a home run off Alfredo Simon. The Indians tacked on one more run in the inning to make it 5-3 but the Tigers drew even in the eighth inning against Shaw and Cody Allen. That set the stage for Brantley to give the home nine the lead for the second time of the game. This time it was for good.
Brantley’s second home run of the game and 15th of the season gave Cleveland a 7-5 lead, which Allen preserved with a clean ninth inning. Coupled with the Rangers’ loss in Seattle, Cleveland is now only four games out of the second Wild Card spot. Indians fans can only hope that the magic of 2013 can be brought back to life.
What to Watch this Weekend
Marcus Stroman wasn’t supposed to pitch this season. The Blue Jays were dealt a devastating blow when their promising young hurler tore the ACL in his left knee while fielding a bunt during pitchers’ fielding practice this March. At the time of the injury the team announced that Stroman would miss the 2015 season. But with help of the Duke University Human Performance Laboratory and a rehab plan structured on personalized data, Stroman significantly reduced his expected recovery time and will make his season debut for the Blue Jays on Saturday in a critical matchup against the division-rival Yankees.
Stroman threw 81 pitches in his final rehab start on Monday with Triple-A Buffalo, and despite an ugly final line, the 24-year-old told reporters after the game, “stuff-wise, arm-wise, knee-wise, health-wise—I’m ready to go.” The Jays have gotten by this season with a starting rotation that ranks 19th in baseball with a 4.43 DRA thanks to one of the—if not the most—powerful lineups in the game. If Stroman can return to being even close to the pitcher who ranked 13th in DRA among starters with at least 100 innings pitched in 2014, the Jays will enter October as the most feared team in the Junior Circuit. He’ll take the hill on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader—the result of Thursday’s rainout—opposite Ivan Nova. The game will start roughly 30 minutes after the end of the first game, which is scheduled to begin at 1:05 p.m. EST.
Also making his return to the mound this weekend will be Jose Fernandez, who has been on the shelf since early August with a right biceps strain. After missing a year due to Tommy John surgery the Marlins were understandably cautious with their ace, and after some encouraging recent bullpen sessions the club plans to have him return on Saturday against the Nationals (7:10 p.m. EST). Fernandez was outstanding in seven starts after returning from surgery in July, maintaining his pre-surgery velocity, striking out 53 and walking just 10 across 43 innings of work. With little to play for the rest of the way, the best thing the Marlins could hope for in September would be for a healthy Fernandez to dominate and finish the season on a positive note.