The Weekend Takeaway
So, this little tidbit has been circulating this weekend.
104 people at ESPN, SI, FanGraphs & Baseball Prospectus made predictions w/ their names attached. 104 picked the Nats in the NL East.
— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) April 5, 2015
I was one of those 104 people! So proud. I made it, mom and dad! If you're wondering, I do not regret that decision. Every projection system was projecting the Nationals to handily win the division. They were better than the Mets in pretty much every area minus young pitching talent with flowing blond hair.
But no one gets a trophy for winning the projected standings, unless certain baseball ops departments hand out that sort of thing. And what the Mets did this weekend was much more important and much, much more unexpected. After being dead in the water of Wilmer Flores' tears and becoming the laughingstock of baseball, they clinched the National League East title.
New York accomplished the feat on Saturday at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The game was a laugher, a 10-2 win that saw the Mets take a 7-2 lead after three innings. Matt Harvey pitched 6 2/3 innings in which he allowed nine hits and struck out six.
The Reds actually had three more hits than the Mets, but New York made up for the lack of quantity with pure mashing-ness. Lucas Duda whacked a grand slam in the first inning off John Lamb, and Curtis Granderson hit a solo shot the next inning.
David Wright hit a three-run shot in the top of the ninth to extend the Mets' margin of victory to 10-2, and Jeurys "Somos" Familia came in for the clinching in the ninth.
This will be the Mets' first postseason appearance since 2006, a team driven by Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, and, well, David Wright. The man has seen the best, and then the worst, and now the best again, with a bright future likely ahead for a team with such a wealth of young pitching talent.
Anyway, what's Juan Uribe up to?
Juan Uribe to media: "You want to talk to the players or do you want to watch football? You want to talk to me? Eh, I didn't play anyway."
— Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) September 27, 2015
Ah, okay. Uribe has a chest injury described by Terry Collins as "not favorable," so he might not play in the postseason, which would be a death blow for a cologne industry desperately hoping to improve its footprint in the baseball world. – Ian Frazer
Quick Hits from the Weekend
Another Jake Arrieta start, another flirtation with perfection. What, you were expecting something different?
On the hill under the primetime lights on Sunday Night Baseball, the Cubs' ace staked his latest claim to the NL's Cy Young Award by retiring the first 18 Pirates he faced. He wound up going seven innings, allowing just one hit and one hit batter, and striking out nine Bucs. And just in case his consistent dominance on the mound was starting to get mundane, Arrieta mixed in a 411-foot oppo taco
The solo shot, which put the Cubs up 2-0 in the second inning, was Arrieta's second of the season, following his first career dinger on July 12th. That means he's now hit as many big flies as he's allowed over that two and a half–month stretch. The right-hander boasts a 0.80 ERA since the All-Star break and a 0.44 ERA since the beginning of August. And while Zack Greinke leads the league in season ERA at 1.65, the Dodgers' righty's best 10-start bunch (June 7th to July 31st) had an aggregate 0.86 ERA, nearly double the mark Arrieta has assembled over his last 11.
The latest was precisely the sort of outing Joe Maddon wanted from his top dog to avoid a sweep and announce to the Pirates that the NL Wild Card showdown will be no picnic, even though it's now very likely to be played in Pittsburgh. Sunday's 4-0 win only drew the Cubs to within 4½ of the Bucs, who are three shy of the Cardinals and still have an outside shot to usurp the Central-division throne.
The Cubs officially clinched a playoff spot when the Giants lost to the A's on Friday night. Barring an upset in the standings, expect Arrieta to duel Gerrit Cole—who won Friday's series opener while leaning as heavily on his fastball as he has all season—on October 7th at PNC Park. –Daniel Rathman
If you've thrown Jarrett Parker a fastball in the strike zone this month, there's a pretty good chance he's swung at it:
And with good reason. After all, when Parker swings at fastball strikes, he can mash them 474 feet, to parts of the stands that baseballs seldom visit:
A's rookie Ryan Dull lived to tell the tale of craning his neck to watch that moonshot, as his team held on to win Friday's opener. Dull and the Athletics did not survive this one:
That tiebreaking grand slam was Parker's third homer on Saturday, and his fifth in a span of nine at-bats. He became the first Giant to amass three big flies and seven RBI in a game since Willie Mays in 1961. And he put a smile on the face of the pitcher who, along with his former teammate, was supposed to be the star of the show.
All the pregame attention ahead of the middle match was on the pitching probables, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. Two members of the "Big Three" that keyed the Moneyball era going head-to-head in the twilights of their careers. Two pitchers who've enjoyed big moments on both sides of the San Francisco Bay plying their craft in front of fans of both the green and gold, and orange and black.
But as so often happens in baseball, the expected storyline isn't the one that unfolds. Zito was shelled and got the hook from Bob Melvin one batter into the third. Hudson couldn't throw a strike to save his life in the bottom half of that frame. He left the mound with a 2-0 count, an end so embarrassing that he had no desire to reemerge for a curtain call, even as the crowd showered him with a standing ovation.
Just like that, the stage was wide open for a new star. And Parker, who went yard off of Zito in the second inning, assumed that role in the 14-10 slugfest.
It's hard to know what to make of Parker, a former second-round pick who also went 2-for-3 Sunday with a walk and a strikeout. He's now batting .400/.455/1.033 overall after going 1-for-9 with five Ks in his first call-up to the majors. And he had multiple misadventures in the outfield over the weekend, though he did enough at the plate to bury those and then some.
Virtually all of Parker's big damage has come on fastballs, often in ball-strike situations—the first pitch, a full count—where there was a good chance sitting dead red would pay off. Dull and the A's obliged, but future foes, now aware that a dangerous hitter awaits, might not.
The 26-year-old former Virginia Cavalier was well outside the Giants' top-prospect list at the start of the 2015 season, with a long swing and unrefined approach casting significant doubts on the utility of his prodigious power. One big weekend, no matter how historic, won't erase those concerns, but Parker's torrid September has put him back on the radar as a corner-outfield option for the Giants to ponder in 2016.
More saliently for now, Parker helped the Giants stave off elimination. They are six games behind the Dodgers heading into a four-game showdown at AT&T Park, where a single Los Angeles victory between now and Thursday would seal the deal. It'll be Zack Greinke against Jake Peavy in the opener (10:15 p.m. ET). –Daniel Rathman
The Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention on Saturday, as a dumpster fire of a season finally burned out with the Mets taking home the NL East title. But then, the very next day, a leftover ember sparked a whole new odious inferno for Matt Williams and company to extinguish.
It was 4-2 Washington in the top of the eighth Sunday, when Jeff Francoeur launched a two-run homer that set off the latest debacle in a season full of them. Jonathan Papelbon was called on to finish off the frame, so the closer was in the dugout, not the bullpen, when the Nationals came to bat in the last of the eighth. That would soon prove important because Bryce Harper led off the bottom of the eighth with a flyout, and Papelbon took exception to Harper's light jog to first on the can of corn:
Harper was taken aback by Papelbon's apparent intention to play run-the-ball-out sheriff, and the confrontation quickly went from verbal to physical, with several players and coaches—most notably Ian Desmond—separating the two before it escalated any further. A Getty Images photo of Papelbon grabbing Harper's neck soon went viral on Twitter, and while the shot exaggerated the nature of the fight, which never reached the stage of the closer choking the star outfielder, there's no hiding the ugliness of the incident.
To make matters worse, while Harper was removed from the game amid several defensive changes before the top of the ninth, Papelbon stayed in. All hell broke loose with one away, as Freddy Galvis walked and Andres Blanco homered to put the Phillies up 6-4. Then, Trea Turner, the rookie freshly inserted at shortstop, made a fielding error, Darin Ruf drew a walk, and pinch-hitter Odubel Herrera was plunked. That would do it from Papelbon, who watched the rest of the eight-run meltdown—which included another error and three more hits—from the dugout. By the time it was over, the Nats were down 12-4, and they went on to lose 12-5.
Whether the tussle with Harper became a distraction for Papelbon that fueled the implosion or not, the postgame fallout was as troubling as what happened on the field. Williams initially told reporters that he left Papelbon in the game because "he's the closer," and the closer typically pitches the ninth inning in tied games for the home team. He said hours later that he didn't know the extent of the confrontation when he chose to leave Papelbon in the game, and that he didn't see the video until after the presser because he had other team commitments.
All of that is believable, because Williams was stationed on the side of the dugout nearer to home plate, and Desmond viewed the altercation as a "non-story," so he and the others who broke up the fight might've treated it that way at the time. It's plausible that Williams did not know the details until it was too late.
But a manager's job is to keep a close watch on his club, to know the pulse of the team in and between games. This wasn't the first Harper-Papelbon run-in in recent days: Harper took a thinly veiled shot at the closer Wednesday, when Papelbon drilled Manny Machado—who'd homered off Max Scherzer in his previous at-bat— calling the HBP "pretty tired," then saying, "I'll probably get drilled tomorrow." A more prescient skipper might've viewed the situation as a ticking time bomb, with a direct confrontation looming the next time Papelbon caught Harper playing the game in what he perceived to be the wrong way. He might've taken steps to calm tensions before they flared, or at least gotten to the bottom of the incident before speaking with reporters.
Managing—whether it's players or people, bullpens or the media—isn't easy. Doing it well entails handling an array of tasks and issues, from in-game strategy to clubhouse relations, all of which can mount down the stretch. The disappointing season might be viewed, in part, as a referendum on the skipper, enough to go in a different direction when the Nats look ahead to next year. And Sunday's calamity is just one more reason to wonder whether Williams is the right man for the job. –Daniel Rathman
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the closest division battle is the one found in the AL West, where the Astros are 2½ games back of the Rangers, who themselves were 5½ games behind Houston in late August.
A lingering question seems to be whether not making the playoffs would qualify as a collapse for the Astros. Taken in isolation, it might be, but a "collapse" only ever happens with another team playing well enough to sneak into the division lead. The Rangers, in a way, have done what the A's did to Texas in 2012. They even have Josh Hamilton again!
And while the Rangers' win Friday put them 4½ games up and seemingly in control of the division, the Astros responded with victories on Saturday and Sunday to put themselves in position to counter their collapse by taking advantage of that of another team. Four and a half games over just more than a week is worse than 5½ games over a month, I think.
Saturday's game was tied at 4-4 as late as the third inning, but dingers by Chris Carter and Colby Rasmus helped Houston gain a 9-4 advantage by the bottom of the eighth. The Astros hit six home runs in all in the game, and Carlos Correa had two of them. He's good at baseball, and his 21 home runs in his rookie season tied Lance Berkman's team record.
Making the feat even more impressive is the fact that Correa has played 21 fewer games than Berkman did in his rookie season. Berkman also had a 34-game look the previous season to get acclimated to the majors.
Sunday saw more shakiness from the Astros' relievers. Houston led 3-1 after seven innings, but Oliver Perez gave up a leadoff triple to Rougned Odor in the top of the eighth in relief of Dallas Keuchel and got yanked immediately after.
Houston's pen was perfect after that, however, as Harris and Gregerson teamed up to finish off the game. If the Stros are indeed going to make a late push for the division title—or hold on to the second Wild Card spot, for that matter—they're going to need the bullpen to be a lot better, as it had racked up a putrid 6.32 ERA in 30 days as of Sunday night. That's second worst in baseball, behind just the Braves. The Braves! –Ian Frazer
Defensive Play of the Weekend
Statcast said Mike Trout had 97 percent route efficiency on this catch. That version of the highlight video (which I'll link here, because I'm nice) adds a bunch of numbers and #calculations to the whole deal, which is cool if you like that stuff. To me, it feels a bit like the TV show Deadliest Warrior, which aired on Spike for a few seasons. It involved historical experts recreating battles between various fighting people from various time periods. Yakuza vs. mafia, for example!
A big part of the show was when they took dummies that simulated human flesh and whacked them with various weapons. Then they would bring in a science dude and he'd say something like "the head of this mace was traveling approximately 256 mph when it made contact with the face. This blow would surely be lethal." He would say this as the dummy stood nearby, its head looking like Jell-O run through a blender.
So that's basically what Statcast does for this catch. A bunch of data to confirm the insanely obvious: It was a good play. –Ian Frazer
What to Watch on Monday
Nothing cures a case of the Mondays like a little day baseball, and there's a matinee on the docket this afternoon, thanks to a July 8th rainout that now has the Reds making a quick jaunt to the nation's capital between two home series in Cincinnati. To make matters even less convenient for Bryan Price's squad, this also means that the visitors will get an extra date with Max Scherzer.
The Nationals' big offseason import had no command of his fastball in his July 7th start,
missing up and out over the plate on numerous occasions. Cincinnati was ecstatic to send Scherzer to the showers after just 4 2/3 frames that day, going 5-for-7 when putting the four-seamer into play, including a Joey Votto home run.
Scherzer's last outing left a rotten taste in his mouth, ending with the aforementioned Machado homer that spoiled a dozen strikeouts in 6 2/3, his highest K total since May 27th. He'll hope the hard stuff goes where he wants it to go in the rematch with the Reds, who'll counter with Brandon Finnegan (3:05 p.m. ET).
Trivia time: Who is the only starting pitcher since 2004 to log at least five complete games in a season without notching a shutout?
I asked you that to tell you this: Corey Kluber has four such games, and two of them came in back-to-back August starts against the Twins. Paul Molitor's lineup finally solved the Indians' ace in their most recent meeting, chasing Kluber after 3 2/3 innings with four runs on his line. With the head-to-head series between Cleveland and Minnesota bunched up on the schedule, Kluber will make another set of consecutive starts versus the Twins a month after he carved them up.
Both of the Central-division Wild Card hopefuls can scarcely afford to lose games, with the Astros and Angels fighting over the road berth in the playoff game with a week to play. That means Kluber and Twins right-hander Phil Hughes take the bump this evening with their backs against the wall. And if Kluber can go nine again despite allowing at least one run, he'll tie our trivia answer, Felix Hernandez, who did it in 2011 (7:10 p.m. ET).
Speaking of the Astros, you've probably heard by now that traveling hasn't been their cup of tea this year. Their 29-46 record away from Houston is easily the worst road mark among playoff contenders in either league. But if A.J. Hinch is going to steer the club to the playoffs in his first year at the helm, the Astros are going to have to take some victories back to their hotels in Seattle and Phoenix.
Houston's six-game road trip begins in the Pacific Northwest, where the Mariners will send Roenis Elias to the bump to welcome the guests to Safeco Field. Elias had a unique outing the last time the Astros were in Seattle, becoming the first starter in at least a century to give up two homers and hit two batters while walking none and striking out 10. The big flies that day came courtesy of George Springer and Marwin Gonzalez, but they weren't enough in a 5-2 Mariners win.
Elias' counterpart that day, Lance McCullers, is his opponent again in the series opener. The rookie has enjoyed a fine first big-league campaign, but he hasn't led the Astros to victory on the road since May 23rd, his second start in the majors and first away from south Texas. They're 0-9 behind McCullers on the road since that long-ago win in Detroit (10:10 p.m. ET). –Daniel Rathman
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