The Tuesday Takeaway
With first place in the American League West on the line in Arlington, the Rangers announced their intent to seize it loud and clear—and early—on Tuesday night. Derek Holland erased a leadoff single with a double-play ball and a two-out double with a groundout. Then the Rangers' offense went to work.
Delino DeShields Jr. greeted Collin McHugh with a single. He proceeded to steal second before Shin-Soo Choo drew a walk. Prince Fielder singled in DeShields. Adrian Beltre singled in Choo. Both sluggers advanced when Mitch Moreland was hit by a pitch. Rougned Odor plated Fielder on a fielder's choice. And Elvis Andrus singled in Beltre. Just like that, the Astros were down 4-0.
The first-inning mess was the latest in a mounting line of them for McHugh, whose regression from a breakout 2014 campaign has largely been confined to the first two frames of his 2015 starts. He'd given up more earned runs (16), more doubles (seven), more homers (four), and more walks (14) in the opening frames of his outings this year than in any other. He'd fared much better the third time through opponents' orders (.669 OPS), when many starters see their effectiveness erode, than the first (.825), and that was before the Rangers sent nine to the plate before their third out Tuesday night.
But the Astros had held at least a share of the division lead every day since July 29th, and they were in no mood to surrender it without a fight. A.J. Hinch's club answered quickly, with three runs in the second. The first four Houston batters of the inning reached: Colby Rasmus walked and scored on a Chris Carter double; Carter moved to third on a single by Jonathan Villar and scored on Hank Conger's ensuing hit. Jake Marisnick made it a 4-3 affair with a textbook safety squeeze:
The Astros were back at it in the top of the fourth. Conger doubled and Marisnick singled him to third, putting Holland in a bind. The southpaw nearly wriggled free when George Springer grounded out without scoring Conger and Jose Altuve lined out, but intentionally walking Carlos Correa did not put Holland out of harm's way. Evan Gattis followed with a two-run single that staked the Astros to a 5-4 lead.
That edge was short lived, too, as the Rangers weren't through with McHugh. The right-hander nearly escaped the fourth, but he gave up a two-out single to Prince Fielder. Then McHugh watched the big man motor 270 feet, peaking at 18 mph according to Statcast, on a two-strike double by Adrian Beltre:
Soon, the second game of a high-stakes, four-tilt series at Globe Life Park was in the hands of the bullpens. Hinch's first five relievers were up to the task, as were the four called on by Jeff Banister. That was enough to push this one into the bottom of the ninth, still tied 5-5.
Oliver Perez, now a lefty specialist who entered in the eighth to neutralize Choo, stayed on to begin the ninth, but he flubbed his second assignment by giving up a single to Fielder. Hinch replaced Perez with Will Harris, and Banister swapped Fielder—who'd done his share of baserunning for the day—out for Drew Stubbs, who moved to third on a single by Beltre. Next up: Moreland, who lined a ball right to Rasmus in shallow center. While the ball wasn't hit deep, it was hit hard enough that Rasmus didn't have time to set his feet for a strong throw home. He caught it, then fired short and well left of the intended target
as Stubbs scampered home with the winning run in the standings-flipping walk-off. The Rangers, whose deadline deal for Cole Hamels was regarded more as a long-term investment than a 2015 boost, are now alone in first place for the first time all season. They hadn't even held a share of the division lead since April 10th.
But the Lone Star State rivals are just halfway through this series, with three more head-to-head meetings looming in Houston on September 25-27th. The Rangers will have to fend off Astros ace Dallas Keuchel to retain their newfound hold on the top spot in the standings tonight.
Quick Hits from Tuesday
It was The Strasburg and Harper Show for the Nationals on Tuesday. Sometimes, even the best efforts of two first-overall picks aren't enough to secure a victory. Last night in Philadelphia, they were plenty.
Twitter was on no-hitter watch for Stephen Strasburg a couple of innings into the contest, a testament both to the crispness of his stuff and the weakness of the Phillies' lineup. Andres Blanco hit cleanup for the first time in his major-league career and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. But he ought not feel too bad, because most of his teammates were right there with him.
Strasburg had excellent command from the get-go,
keeping fastballs out of the middle and burying changeups down and away. The cheddar was far too sharp for the Phillies' tastes, as the San Diego State product racked up 17 whiffs with the hard stuff alone. He added 10 more on the changeup. And then he snapped off this curveball to the opposing pitcher,
which is like bringing an assault rifle to a pillow fight.
The result: 14 strikeouts over eight innings of one-hit ball, the lone knock a Cody Asche single leading off the fifth. Strasburg elicited 30 whiffs from the Phillies on 105 pitches, the third-biggest swing-and-miss collection amassed by any pitcher in the past decade.
With all that said, you can't win if you don't score, no matter how nasty your pitcher is. That's where Bryce Harper came in:
His 38th and 39th homers of the season—the former of which handed Strasburg a lead before he took the mound—tied and broke the franchise record for a left-handed batter. Those are two more bullet points for Harper's extensive MVP résumé, which also includes a league-leading .338 average and 1.134 OPS. He now has eight big flies in his last 11 games.
Behind Strasburg's masterpiece and Harper's power display, the Nationals won 4-0 and gained a game on the Mets, who fell 9-3 to the Marlins. Washington has won three straight but is still mired 8½ back of New York.
Here's a chart that ought to have Royals fans a wee bit perturbed about the health of their closer:
And here's a GIF that ought to keep them squirming:
That's Greg Holland, less than a month removed from averaging 95 mph with his fastball, registering "87" on the Progressive Field radar gun with a four-seamer. This was, to be sure, a 3-0 pitch, and it's possible that the right-hander intentionally took a little off to avoid issuing a leadoff walk to Lonnie Chisenhall with a two-run lead to protect. But for Holland, taking something off used to mean "93," not "87." On Tuesday, 93-94 was what Holland got when he reached back and emptied his tank.
The 29-year-old recorded his 31st save of the season in spite of his waning velocity, stranding a hit and a walk. That's well and good for now, with the Royals comfortably ahead in the AL Central, but Ned Yost and his medical staff have just a few short weeks to figure out what's ailing their closer before the games really start to count.
On the bright side, the Royals got strong work from Wade Davis and Ryan Madson, the latter of whom would make a reasonable replacement for Holland were he pressed into the terrific troika at the back end of Yost's staff. And they also enjoyed 6 1/3 scoreless innings out of Kris Medlen, who didn't strike out a batter but got 11 outs on the ground.
Josh Tomlin was terrific for the Tribe in a tough-luck defeat, surrendering a second-inning RBI single to Salvador Perez and a fifth-inning home run to Alex Rios, the latter Kansas City's only hit after the fourth. Tomlin got 13 outs in the dirt to go with six strikeouts and no walks. He's now served up 29 homers since the beginning of the 2014 season while doling out just 19 walks and hit batsmen combined.
The Royals' magic number in the Central is down to nine, while the Indians' long-shot hopes of swiping the second Wild Card berth are even longer, with five games between them and the Astros.
No team has been better in one-run games this year than the Pirates, who entered Tuesday's twin bill 31-15 in such contests; they would soon play two more. From that standpoint, the Cubs were fortunate to return to their Pittsburgh hotel with a split.
The Cubs scored first in game one but had no time to savor their 1-0 edge, as Jason Hammel struggled to throw strikes, forcing Joe Maddon to get his bullpen busy in the last of the first. Hammel settled in eventually and got through 3 2/3, but not before the Pirates scored thrice in the first and once more in the fourth.
Trevor Cahill was the man called upon for long relief, and he did his job on the mound, turning in two scoreless innings while striking out four Pirates. Cahill also did his best to chip in at the plate, slapping a hard liner into right field. But the trouble with stinging one in that direction if you're a plodding pitcher is that cannon-wielding right fielders are there to make you regret you did:
Gregory Polanco fired to first, and Cahill was out by 10 feet. The Pirates went on to win, 5-4.
First base at PNC Park was the scene of the most entertaining moment of game two, as well. Jon Lester gave his skipper exactly what he craved after a long opener, firing a complete game five-hitter, and he also got a certain oft-discussed, frequently laughed-about monkey off his back:
For the first time since 2011, Lester overcame his yips and picked a runner off of first. This comes with a caveat, of course: The audacity of Starling Marte to bolt for second with Lester in the set position looking right at him. Then again, it was Lester's yips that prompted Marte's nonchalant steal attempt in the first place, so perhaps the 1-3-4-3 rundown was the most fitting way to end his pickoff drought.
The southpaw was even better throwing to home than he was to first, keeping the Bucs without an extra-base hit while striking out nine. Lester got ahead and stayed ahead throughout the evening, notching first-pitch strikes to 25 of 32 foes and inducing 11 groundouts to go with his Ks. Dexter Fowler's fifth-inning RBI double—following a fielder's choice bunt by Lester on which the Pirates failed to record an out—was the difference in the 2-1 decision.
With the split, the Pirates stayed four up on the Cubs for the right to host the NL's Wild Card playoff. Each side ceded a half-game to the Cardinals, who topped the Brewers in extras, but gained a half-game on the Giants, who we'll get to in a moment …
You now know that the Giants lost to the Reds, but that's hardly a spoiler. In this case, the how is vastly more interesting than the what.
We'll pick up the action in the top of the seventh, with a nod to Jarrett Parker, whose first career home run, a pinch-hit solo shot, helped the Giants carry a 5-3 lead into the frame in question. It began with Josh Osich on the mound, and the left-hander struck out Tucker Barnhart to kick off the seventh. He then walked Skip Schumaker, the ninth-place hitter after a double switch, and compounded that sin by making a three-base throwing error on a swinging bunt by Jason Bourgeois. Or so it seemed:
The ruling on the field was that 1) no interference occurred in foul ground down the first-base line, and 2) Schumaker was safe at home. This put both managers in something of an awkward position, and Bruce Bochy was the first to express his displeasure. Once the umpires discussed and reaffirmed the no-interference verdict, Bochy challenged the call at home, and it was overturned. Schumaker was out. Now, Bryan Price had a gripe that he would've kept to himself had the safe call been upheld: The fan nicked the ball with his fingertips, Price claimed, and the umps phoned New York to check, but there was no indisputable evidence with which to reverse the call and return the runners to second and third.
So the Reds went on with Bourgeois at third and two down, which was just fine, it turned out, because the next batter, Jay Bruce, singled to right to halve the deficit. That prompted Bochy to get a new left-hander to face Joey Votto, and Javier Lopez appeared to have done the job with one pitch, only Brandon Belt booted the hot shot right at him, keeping the Reds' rally alive, with Votto advancing all the way to third. Lopez was pulled in favor of the right-handed Hunter Strickland, who promptly surrendered a game-tying single to Brandon Phillips. Strickland furthered the meltdown by hitting Todd Frazier with a pitch and then walking Ivan DeJesus to force in the go-ahead run. George Kontos became the fourth reliever of the inning, but he, too, squandered his chance to salvage a shred of dignity for the middle-relief crew, coughing up a two-run single to pinch-hitter Ramon Cabrera that made it 8-5 Cincinnati. Kontos proceeded to bounce a slider past his catcher and all the way to the backstop, but that proved to be his best move of the evening, as Buster Posey retrieved the ball in time to retire DeJesus at the plate.
Let's add that all up. We've got five runs on three hits, two errors, two walks, and a hit by pitch. We also have three pitching changes by the Giants and two replay reviews, plus the umpire meeting that preceded those calls to New York. And that's how you get a 38-minute half-inning.
But wait, there's more.
We move on to the bottom of the eighth, with the score still 8-5 Cincinnati. J.J. Hoover took over for the Reds and struck out Matt Duffy before walking Buster Posey. He then gifted Posey second base on a wild pitch and walked Marlon Byrd. With the left-handed Belt coming up, Price took no chances and went straight to Aroldis Chapman, who blew Belt away. Now, the Giants, short on right-handed pinch-hitters because of injuries that pressed would-be bench bats into regular action, turned to Madison Bumgarner, who quickly whiffed twice. Hitters don't generally escape 0-2 holes with Chapman on the mound, but Bumgarner—of all hitters—did:
Now, surely, luck couldn't strike twice for the Giants, not with Ehire Adrianza at the plate, looking even more overmatched than Bumgarner was at the outset of his seven-pitch stay in the box. Or maybe, on this bizarre night at AT&T Park, it could:
Chapman overthrew a fastball and nailed the feeble-hitting Adrianza in the front foot, forcing in a run to make it 8-6. He struck out Alejandro De Aza to end the inning, but the damage had been done, chiefly to Chapman's pitch count, which stood at 19 with a whole lot of work left to do.
The flame-throwing southpaw went back to the mound still up by two, but the grueling first frame and the ensuing break had taken some heat off his heater:
And the Giants capitalized, sparked by a leadoff double from Angel Pagan. The center fielder scored on a one-out infield hit by Duffy, who moved into scoring position when Todd Frazier misfired after diving to snag the grounder. Posey followed with a single to left that tied the game, and the error loomed large because Byrd and Belt both popped up.
Not to worry, though. Frazier might not be infallible on defense, but he sure is dangerous with a bat in his hands:
Sergio Romo learned that the hard way on the third pitch of bonus baseball, a poorly located fastball that wound up clearing most of the fans still in the left-center-field bleachers.
That was all the Reds would get in the top of the 10th, but it was all they'd need, as Jumbo Diaz secured his first major-league save, stranding De Aza at second after a two-out ground-rule double. Ex-Red Mike Leake led off the frame for the Giants as a pinch-hitter, the second starting pitcher Bochy had deployed in that capacity in a game that 1) only lasted 10 innings and 2) was played with expanded rosters.
Cincinnati's 9-8 victory snapped a six-game losing streak in extras and dealt a harsh blow to a Giants club that fought valiantly but came up a hit short. The defeat won't make much of a dent in San Francisco's already-slim postseason odds, but it may be remembered as the final nail in the defending champs' 2015 coffin.
On a personal note, I attended the aforementioned, four-hour-and-two-minute wild one at AT&T Park, fully expecting to return home and begin writing with the on-field action over for the night. The Dodgers and Rockies had other ideas.
Chris Rusin and Brett Anderson traded six-inning, three-run outings, and those matching quality starts opened the floodgates for a parade of relievers only seen in 16-inning games in September. The Rockies used 12 bullpen arms and the Dodgers trotted out 10. The last man out of Don Mattingly's pen was a starter, Mat Latos, who also became the marathon's goat. Nolan Arenado saw to that in the top of the 16th,
smashing a first-pitch fastball over the center-field wall to put Colorado up 5-4 and tie Harper for the NL big-fly lead at 39. Gonzalez Germen earned the save for the Rox, working around a hit and a walk in the bottom half of the 16th.
The Giants' loss meant there was little harm in the loss for the Dodgers, who stayed 7½ up in the West with 18 to play. The Dodgers are seven back of the Cardinals for home-field advantage in the NLCS.
The Defensive Play of the Day
This one might've looked easy. But it was only easy thanks to Kevin Kiermaier:
Kiermaier's gem helped the Rays top the Yankees, 6-3.
What to Watch on Wednesday
No discussion of the best pitches in baseball these days is complete without mention of Danny Salazar's splitter. Most hitters who've had the misfortune of encountering it this year would agree, as they're batting a collective .150 with 102 strikeouts in the 194 at-bats that have terminated with the right-hander's preferred terminator. You read that correctly: To this point in the year, 52.5 percent of the at-bats that have ended with Salazar's splitter have gone into the book as strikeouts, better than the 52.2 percent clip generated by Clayton Kershaw's vaunted curve.
At its best, the pitch in question looks like this
and makes the MVP frontrunner look silly.
But since striking out 10 Blue Jays in seven innings to outduel David Price on August 31st, Salazar has been decidedly less impressive in two September meetings with the Tigers. He was chased in the fourth inning two starts ago and needed help in the seventh his last time on the hill, walking as many (three) as he K'd before Bryan Shaw failed in relief.
You might be wondering how a pitcher with Salazar's splitter could strike out only four batters over 10 innings across two games. The truth is, these are uncharted waters for the 25-year-old, who'd never before punched out fewer than four in consecutive big-league starts. Which is why this chart might be cause for concern:
Salazar's velocity has been dropping steadily throughout the 2015 season, most prominently on the splitter, which averaged nearly 88 mph in April and has dipped below 85 in September. The downticks didn't cost Salazar much in the spring and early summer, but this month has been a different story:
Enemy batters have stopped whiffing on the splitter, and that's bought them a few more fastballs, on which they've gone 8-for-25 with a triple and two homers since the turn of the month.
The timing could not be worse for the Indians, who are not yet out of the running for a Wild Card spot, or Salazar's fantasy owners, who need him now more than ever. All concerned will cross their fingers and hope for better results when he welcomes the Royals to Progressive Field this evening for a matchup with Danny Duffy (7:10 p.m. ET).
Speaking of the aforementioned MVP favorite, Josh Donaldson, he's climbing something of an esoteric leaderboard. Since tracking of intentional walks began, the record for home runs in a season by a player who didn't draw a single four-finger salute belongs to Roger Maris, with 61 in 1961. Now, Maris is in no danger of being overtaken by Donaldson, but the next man on the list, Alex Rodriguez, would be looking over his shoulder if, for some reason, he cared about staying in second place.
A-Rod slugged 42 round-trippers for the Mariners in 1998 without being given a free trot to first. Behind him sits Curtis Granderson, with 41 in 2011. Donaldson is on their tail at 38. And with the likes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting behind him, the third baseman has no reason to expect the Bonds treatment any time soon.
He'll take aim at the Turner Field fences tonight against Shelby Miller, who, by the way, has seen his winless streak climb to 21 starts. With David Price set to go for the Jays, Miller will have to keep Donaldson and company at bay to avoid it reaching 22 (7:10 p.m. ET).
Andrew Cashner has not been charged with an unearned run in any of his last four starts. This qualifies as big news in Padres Land, because for most of the season, the UERs were coming in droves for Cashner, who's had enough trouble with the earned ones, considering his Petco-deflated 4.27 ERA. For now, the righty's unearned-run total is holding firm at 22, or 21.8 percent of all the runs he's permitted.
The record for unearned runs allowed in a season by a Padres pitcher is 26, held by Steve Arlin, who set it in 1971, and Bobby Jones, who matched in 2001. To find the last pitcher who gave up more than 22 unearned tallies for any team, you'd have to go back to 2011, when the Cardinals' defense slapped Jaime Garcia with 23 of them.
Cashner's next, um, opportunity to tie or blow past Garcia comes tonight, when the Padres pay the D'backs a visit. He's set to face Robbie Ray, who didn't give up a run of any kind to the Dodgers in his most recent outing, going five scoreless in a victory that snapped a streak of seven consecutive Arizona defeats behind the southpaw. Cashner would appreciate a bit more help from his infielders than he got in his last trip to the desert, when he had four unearned runs tacked onto his line in as many innings thanks to Clint Barmes and Will Middlebrooks (9:40 p.m. ET).