keyboard_arrow_uptop

The Thursday Takeaway
The penultimate Cubs-Pirates series of the season was a chance for the current NL Central runners-up to spar over the right to host the senior circuit's Wild Card game. Pittsburgh, the home team, entered with a four-game lead over Chicago, and with a rainout makeup tacked onto the front end of what had been a three-game set, that meant the visitors could draw even with a sweep. Joe Maddon's team wasn't able to do that, dropping the opener rescheduled from August 3rd, but it did get the next-best thing.

Chicago's third victory came in the series' second matinee, a game that did not lack for scoring and storylines. The Cubs loaded the bases in the opening frame on two singles and an error by Jung-ho Kang. Then, Anthony Rizzo hit a run-scoring double-play ball, a positive outcome for the Pirates, given the circumstances, except that …

Chris Coghlan's slide into second took him right into Kang's left knee. The slide was within the rules, keeping Coghlan within an arm's length of the bag, and it wasn't egregiously late by takeout-slide standards. It was, however, very different from what Kang saw in the KBO, where going hard into the bag draws stank-eye from the middle infielders.

Credit Kang, who was taken to the hospital for an MRI to determine the extent of the damage, for hanging in there and getting the ball to first base to complete the 4-6-3. Unfortunately, that will be the last act of his rookie season, because the injury is significant: a torn MCL in his knee and a fractured tibial plateau that required surgery, as first reported by Dejan Kovacevic of DK Pittsburgh Sports.

Back on the field, Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks was out the door after three innings, the victim of homers by Travis Snider,

Gregory Polanco,

and Pedro Alvarez, whose two-run shot flipped a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 Bucs lead.

That edge quickly evaporated in the top of the fifth. Coghlan kicked it off with a double and scored on a two-run bomb by Rizzo.

Charlie Morton survived the first baseman's 30th homer of the year, but Kris Bryant's subsequent single was all Clint Hurdle could stomach from his starter. Joe Blanton got the next crack at the Cubs, and that went no better for Pittsburgh. Alvarez booted Miguel Montero's grounder, exacerbating the jam. Then Addison Russell singled in Bryant, and both Montero and Russell moved up 90 feet on a passed ball by Francisco Cervelli. None of that would've mattered if Blanton had retired the opposing long reliever, but …

Clayton Richard lined a two-run double through the gap in left-center and scored on a single by Tommy La Stella. Blanton left without recording an out, and the Cubs had raced ahead, 9-4.

The Pirates got two runs back in the seventh, which began with a ground-rule double by Josh Harrison, who scored on a single by Polanco. Neil Walker's two-bagger, also of the ground-rule variety, brought in Polanco. But Jordy Mercer, who replaced Kang, struck out, stranding Walker, the last Pirate to reach second base, 180 feet from home.

Travis Wood notched his second save of the season with two innings of perfect, five-strikeout relief, sealing the deal on the 9-6 Cubs win. Maddon's bunch swept Hurdle's in the three originally scheduled games, leaving the Bucs licking their wounds.

Despite the doom and gloom of three straight defeats and losing a Rookie of the Year candidate, the Pirates remain two games up on the Cubs and still within striking distance of the Cardinals, who are five ahead of Pittsburgh but must now contend with Chicago. The Bucs can rest assured that each win this weekend will benefit them in the standings, either by padding their lead over the Cubs or by narrowing the gap between them and the Cards.

That's the glass-half-full view. The flipside is that bad news is sure to accompany each defeat. And with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw next on the docket in Chavez Ravine, the Pirates won't have long to sort out life without their 3.2 WARP infielder before the rubber meets the road.

Quick Hits from Thursday
Here's the Royals' starting lineup from Thursday's meeting with the Indians:

  1. Ben Zobrist, LF
  2. Mike Moustakas, 3B
  3. Kendrys Morales, DH
  4. Eric Hosmer, 1B
  5. Salvador Perez, C
  6. Alex Rios, RF
  7. Omar Infante, 2B
  8. Alcides Escobar, SS
  9. Jarrod Dyson, CF

If you'd been asked to bet on one of these players to knock in seven runs in a game, next to Dyson, Infante probably would've returned the biggest payout. So if you were brave enough to do that, come cash your ticket.

The second baseman got his big day started with a second-inning long ball off Corey Kluber:

Kluber lasted only four innings Thursday, before watching the bullpen pour fuel on his fire. Kyle Crockett got into trouble in the fifth, then handed the reins to Jeff Manship, who was on the receiving end of Infante's two-run double. Infante singled off Gavin Floyd in the seventh inning to drive in his sixth and seventh runs of the night. All told, the keystoner went 3-for-4 with a double, a homer, seven RBIs, and a sacrifice bunt, helping Kansas City overcome a rare four-inning debacle in the field by plating 87.5 percent of its runs.

As you might imagine, the list of players who've packed a big fly, seven runs batted in, and a sacrifice hit into the same game is quite short. It'd only been done seven times in the last century, most recently by Ryan Raburn, who on July 25, 2007 became the first to pull it off in some 77 years. Lou Gehrig did it twice in 1930. In each of those seven games, the player in question touched home plate at least three times himself and watched his team put at least 13 tallies on the board. Not so for Infante, who only scored when he drove himself in, and whose Royals only won 8-4.

In fact, the game was close enough for Greg Holland to pick up his 32nd save, this time in much more comfortable fashion. The right-hander needed just three pitches to bail Franklin Morales out of trouble, getting a sac fly and a double play to wrap it up. Holland registered 90.9 mph with his lone heater of the day, so his velocity still bears monitoring, but Ned Yost won't fret too much as long as he's getting the job done.

***

Having weathered three straight defeats and facing the specter of a four-game sweep, the Astros were in gut-check mode Thursday. Another loss would mean a 2½-game deficit in the American League West, a division the Astros led by 5½ games as recently as August 26th.

Trouble is, if history would be any guide to the outcome of the series finale in Arlington, A.J. Hinch's squad was doomed from the start. Lance McCullers was due to pitch for the Astros, and (via Baseball-Reference) his brief body of work against active Rangers looked like this:

McCullers flirted with trouble in each of the first two innings, allowing a runner to reach scoring position with one out both times, but he tossed a pair goose eggs onto the Globe Life Park scoreboard. The Astros, though, were flummoxed early by Colby Lewis, and before they figured him out, Mitch Moreland solved McCullers:

With that swing of the bat, the Astros were in a 3-0 hole. They began to dig their way out of it in the very next half-inning, mounting a two-out rally that yielded two tallies. Jed Lowrie singled and scored on a double by Evan Gattis, who touched the plate on a single by Luis Valbuena. And just like that, it was 3-2.

McCullers did his job the rest of the way, booking a textbook quality start with six innings, three runs permitted, and five strikeouts to his name. Lewis was a run better, spreading seven knocks across a half-dozen frames to limit the guests to their fourth-inning pair, but he was by no means dominant. So if the Astros' bullpen—which had been leaky in the first three games of the series, with closer Luke Gregerson on paternity leave—had gotten its act together and kept this one close, a comeback just might have been in the cards.

Instead, all four relievers who saw time on the bump for Houston also saw their ERAs rise. Josh Fields gave up a run in one-third of an inning and Tony Sipp gave up another before squaring away the seventh. Oliver Perez got two outs without allowing a hit, but he still managed to have a run slapped onto his line, because Vincent Velasquez faced four batters before recording the last out of the eighth.

It was 5-2 Texas before Bobby Wilson doubled off Velasquez and 6-2 when Shin-Soo Choo singled in a pair. That was Choo's 14th hit in 28 at-bats on the homestand, his September surge a driving factor behind the Rangers' rise in the standings.

None of those insurance runs mattered, because Jeff Banister's bullpen left the Astros stuck on two. Keone Kela allowed two men to reach in the seventh before stranding both of them. Sam Dyson retired the side 1-2-3 in the eighth. And Ross Ohlendorf mopped up the last three outs of the rout.

While the Rangers can't get too comfortable in the top spot, the Astros now face their largest West-division deficit of the season with just 15 left to play. Hinch's bunch opens a nine-game homestand this evening, welcoming the A's to Minute Maid Park, where the Astros are 48-24. More home cooking is now the Houston's only hope, needing to make up ground quickly to avoid entering the postseason as a Wild Card—which would put its 29-46 road ledger under the microscope—or missing the playoffs entirely after being virtually assured of a ticket to the dance just one week ago:

***

It's probably too late for Mike Trout to chase down Josh Donaldson in the American League MVP race. Probably. But that doesn't mean the Angels outfielder is going to stop trying.

After the Twins scored five times and sent Halos starter Hector Santiago to the showers in the first inning Thursday—in part because the Angels forgot how to field a popup—Trout spearheaded a second-inning six-spot with a grand slam:

He did some more yardwork in his fourth-inning turn at the dish

and chipped in three walks to further the Halos' 11-run outburst at Target Field. The Twins hung around but never fully matched their guests on the scoreboard, as Mike Scioscia's late-inning arms got the job done save for Aaron Hicks' homer off Joe Smith in the eighth.

On a night when neither starter escaped the second and when four of the five relievers deployed by Paul Molitor were charged with at least one earned run, Trout was the leader of an unstoppable pack. The eighth-place hitter, Chris Iannetta, and the no. 9 batter, Taylor Featherston, also went deep for the Angels, as the bottom four in the lineup all produced multi-knock games.

Trout was on another level, though, a level not seen in more than five years, according to the Baseball-Reference Play Index. He's the first player to slug two homers and draw three unintentional walks in a game since Jack Cust did it for the A's on July 24, 2010, and only 27 others have accomplished that feat in the last century. Trout now has 38 homers on the year, which would've been enough to tie Donaldson at the start of play yesterday, but the Blue Jays' third baseman clubbed one in the ninth inning of Toronto's 5-0 victory over Atlanta.

The 11-8 win pushed the Angels within 2½ games of the Astros for the second junior-circuit Wild Card spot. They leave Minnesota just a game shy of the Twins, who are vying for the same berth.

***

Ceremonial First Pitch of the Day
The Milwaukee Bucks' Michael Carter-Williams is pretty good with a basketball in his hands. When armed with a baseball, though, he's downright dangerous:

Pregame entertainment gave way to an in-game scare when Tommy Pham sent a line drive back at the mound at a helpless Jimmy Nelson:

The Brewers' starter was hit in the side of the head, but, fortunately, he was able to walk off the field a few minutes later. Pham wound up on second base with a double when the ball caromed well into foul territory on the third-base side.

Four innings later, another baseball claimed another victim. This time, it was a fan hit by a line drive off the bat of Matt Holliday. Play was stopped while medical staff attended to the fan, who never lost consciousness but may have suffered a broken nose.

Back on the diamond, the Cardinals dominated play from the outset, going up 2-0 in the first, stretching that to 5-0 in the third, and finishing off the scoring with Matt Carpenter's sixth-inning, second-deck solo shot:

John Lackey secured his $400,000 contract bonus for reaching the 200-inning plateau with seven scoreless innings. He scattered five hits and two walks while striking out eight, going at least six frames for the 18th consecutive start. Per the Baseball-Reference Play Index, the injured Adam Wainwright is the only other St. Louis starter to assemble such a streak since 2005.

The Brewers mounted a ninth-inning rally, putting two aboard for Jean Segura, who cranked his fifth homer of the year off Mitch Harris with Milwaukee down to its final out. That only got the Brew Crew halfway to the Cards' total, though, and the Redbirds held on, 6-3.

The Defensive Play of the Day
We're getting to the point where Francisco Lindor turns in a play worthy of recognition here every time the Tribe takes the field. If he keeps doing it, 1) we'll keep rewarding it,

and 2) he'll have an endless reel of highlights on which to rest his case to be the AL's Rookie of the Year.

BONUS: The Defensive Non-Play of the Day

Avisail Garcia almost

earned himself Play of the Day honors, but almost doesn't cut it when the game is on the line.

Billy Butler's three-run jack off David Robertson gave the A's a 4-2 win over the White Sox, spoiling Jose Quintana's seven innings of one-run work. Robertson has now served up five homers this year, all of them to right-handed batters.

What to Watch This Weekend

Friday
Marcus Stroman was predictably rusty in his return to the mound after spending most of the season on the shelf with a torn ACL in his left knee, but the right-hander got by without his best stuff. He kept the Yankees to three runs on four hits and two walks in five innings, with all of the tallies coming on Brett Gardner's fifth-inning home run.

The 24-year-old had solid control in his 2015 debut, but he lacked command within the strike zone,

frequently finding the heart of the plate. As his velocity waned in the middle innings, with his pitch count approaching 80,

Gardner and the Yankees found a way to cash in.

It might take a little while for Stroman to rebuild his precision and stamina, but the Blue Jays will be eager to see steps in the right direction this weekend. Stroman's first Rogers Centre start of the year is a date with a resurgent Red Sox lineup. He'll have to contend with a red-hot David Ortiz, who's batted .377/.446/.825 over his last 139 plate appearances while collecting his 500th career home run, as he duels Rick Porcello tonight (7:07 p.m. ET).

Saturday
It's been a while since the Padres trotted out a left-handed starting pitcher. A long while. Seven hurlers have gotten the ball from Bud Black and Pat Murphy to begin games this year, and all of them have thrown from the starboard side.

To find the last southpaw, you'd have to go all the way back to September 28, 2014, when Robbie Erlin toed the rubber at AT&T Park and was sent to the showers after just 1 2/3 innings. Barring something unforeseen, the nearly yearlong drought will come to an end this weekend, and Erlin will be the man who snaps it.

The Oakland, California native, who turns 25 on October 8th, is generally around the zone but doesn't miss many bats. He's also gotten more flyballs than grounders in limited big-league action to date. Neither of those traits bodes well for a start at Coors Field, but that's where he's due to go in the middle match of the Padres-Rockies series. Yohan Flande will oppose Erlin for Colorado (8:10 p.m. ET).

Sunday
After the hubbub surrounding Matt Harvey's 180-inning cap—the pros and cons of which are still being debated, even though the UNC product changed his mind—the Mets followed through on their plan to skip his most recent turn in the rotation, which would've come on the heels of a beating at Nationals Park on September 8th. With 12 days of rest under the right-hander's belt, Terry Collins and Dan Warthen will expect much better results under the Sunday Night Baseball spotlight.

Harvey's task on ESPN is quieting the crosstown Yankees in the Subway Series finale at Citi Field. He was excellent on April 25th in the Bronx, coming one out shy of a complete-game victory, but he's unlikely to pitch that deep into this contest because the Mets' cushion in the NL East has Collins looking ahead to October. “If we get in the postseason, we've got to have Matt Harvey ready to pitch," Collins said five days ago, and that might mean pulling him in the fifth inning, regardless of his effectiveness.

Harvey's counterpart Sunday, CC Sabathia, is more accustomed to leaving early these days, as the former workhorse is averaging under six innings an outing since the beginning of June. The veteran southpaw has actually performed quite well of late, compiling a 2.76 ERA over his last half-dozen starts. He just can't turn over a lineup for a third time anymore:

PA in Game

AVG

OBP

SLG

1st

.252

.310

.402

2nd

.304

.345

.449

3rd

.321

.366

.574

Add in Harvey's potential restrictions, and that likely means the bullpens will figure prominently into final regular-season meeting between the New York clubs (8:08 p.m. ET).