The Weekend Takeaway
The last two months of the regular season kick off today, and no teams are closer in the race for first place than the Blue Jays and Orioles. It’s late enough in the season that the standings are beginning to solidify—or so the Cubs’ seven-game lead over the Cardinals seems to imply—but not late enough that an unforeseen injury or trade deadline acquisition can’t impact a team’s chances of making the playoffs.
The tension in the AL East came to a head over the weekend during a three-game set in Toronto, where the Blue Jays clinched the series on back-to-back wins and vaulted into first place for the first time since April. The series culminated in a 9-1 blowout on Saturday, fueled by a seven-run inning from the Jays’ lineup and backed by seven innings of a J.A. Happ three-hitter.
Happ augmented his efforts with 11 strikeouts, matching a season-best strikeout record dating back to, well, the beginning of July. In the second inning, a curveball to Pedro Alvarez ended up in the right field bleachers for the Orioles’ first and only run of the afternoon:
Happ limited opposing batters to another two hits and three walks, preventing them from reaching beyond first base with a combination of weak grounders and fastballs that seemed to hug the inside corner of the strike zone:
While Saturday’s match-up was the perfect blend of dynamic offense and pitching, both from Happ and Toronto’s newly refurbished bullpen, the Blue Jays’ tenuous grasp on first place began to slip by Sunday afternoon.
The Jays struck first against Orioles’ right-hander Chris Tillman, eking by on an RBI forceout in the second inning and a Troy Tulowitzki homer in the fourth. The offense that churned out 15 runs between Friday and Saturday’s outings, however, vanished in the final seven innings of a 12-inning battle.
Unable to dig their heels in against Tillman and his 4.02 DRA, and equally flummoxed by the full gamut of the Orioles’ bullpen, the Blue Jays conceded the lead in the 12th, when Adam Jones saw this pitch
and did this to it:
One game does not a division winner make*, though, and with the Orioles on a scheduled offday, the Blue Jays will get another opportunity to right the standings in their favor.
*In August, that is.
Quick Hits from the Weekend
I probably don’t have to tell you that Justin Verlander pitched well this weekend; it’s kind of what he does. Eleven strikeouts against the Astros? Nine frames of two-run ball? Sure, why not. It’s only been two weeks since his last double-digit strikeout, two-run performance, after all.
While it’s not unusual for Verlander to stand unchallenged on the mound, he met an equally ferocious competitor in Mike Fiers, who struck out six batters and held the Tigers’ offensive drive to one unearned run over 6 â…“ frames. Fiers, who came over to Houston at the 2015 trade deadline, has regressed a little since his days in Miller Park. His K/9 rate, once the crown jewel of his peripheral stats, dropped from 9.0 in 2015 to 6.3 through July 2016. Not helping matters is his 5.18 DRA and 116 cFIP pairing, both of which are approaching his highest career marks to date.
Backed by a 6.2 average run support and a bullpen that ranks third in ERA (3.09) and first in FIP (3.01), however, Fiers and the Astros looked unstoppable on Friday night—until Jose Iglesias stepped up to bat. With two outs in the ninth and runners at the corners, Houston reliever Will Harris lobbed a cutter just inside the strike zone:
Iglesias returned the ball to first baseman Jason Castro, who tossed it back to Harris and caught Iglesias just as he touched first base. One walk-off celebration and replay review later, second base umpire Phil Cuzzi ruled in favor of the Tigers, preserving both Justin Verlander’s first complete game of the season and the Tigers’ 1.5-game lead over the Astros in the wild card standings.
Celebrating a win before it officially been announced may be a bit of a faux pas, but the enthusiastic response Jose Iglesias received paled in comparison to the fervor with which the Marlins celebrated their own walk-off win.
Far from a pitchers’ duel, the Marlins and Cardinals went head-to-head on Saturday night in a battle of home runs and clutch hits. The Marlins struck in the first inning with an RBI double and single off of St. Louis right-hander Carlos Martinez, who hammered the strike zone but never seemed to miss quite as many bats as he wanted to:
As the Marlins worked on a four-run spread and tried not to get plunked by Martinez (the unlucky fate of one Giancarlo Stanton), the Cardinals squared off against Miami newcomer Andrew Cashner. Cashner, a casualty of the trade deadline and the Marlins’ push for a wild card spot, exited his first East Coast outing with six innings of four-hit, two-run ball as the Cardinals played off some shaky defense and one poorly-located fastball.
It hasn’t been the smoothest road for the right-hander, who missed time twice already this season with a strained hamstring in May and neck and back tightness in June. Although he made a seamless transition back to the mound in July, his 3.4 BB/9 rate and 1.5 HR/9 rates are the highest they’ve been in several years and have inflated his cFIP to a career-worst mark of 115.
All traces of the 1.0 WARP pitcher the Marlins acquired appeared to fade on Sunday night, however, and it was Fernando Rodney, not Cashner, who provided the catalyst for Stephen Piscotty’s two-run rally in the eighth inning. In the ninth, it only took two Matt Bowman fastballs and one near-collision in the outfield to create this level of chaos on the field:
If there’s one way to celebrate your team acquiring Andrew Cashner and walking off on a triple and gaining the lead in the wild card race, that’s it.
Defensive Play of the Weekend
Even Kevin Kiermaier stands in awe of Kevin Kiermaier highlight reel catches.
What to Watch on Monday
After a tumultuous series in which the Blue Jays gained and then lost the AL East division lead, they’ll have a chance to reclaim first place on Monday night against the Astros (8:10 ET). Marcus Stroman takes the hill for Toronto with a 3.92 DRA on the season, his highest career mark to date after a rough handful of starts in June. Stroman found smoother terrain in July, pitching deeper in games and emerging with a three-hitter that reflected the dominance he exhibited earlier in the season. He’s still on pace to finish the year with a career-best 3.0 WARP, and his current 2.2 mark is only a whisker away from matching his rookie 2.5 total. Behind Stroman, the Jays’ offense is second-best among their American League rivals, notwithstanding the few extra-inning blunders they’ve made this season.
If you need a palette cleanser from the division race drama, Stephen Strasburg and the first-place Nationals headline the evening slate against the last-place Diamondbacks (9:40 ET). Against the backdrop of Chase Field, Archie Bradley will take the mound as he continues to toil through his sophomore season. Armed with a 3.88 DRA and 103 cFIP, his Achilles’ heel appears to be a 4.5 BB/9 rate, good for second-highest among major league starters in 2016. Paired with a deadly 1.2 HR/9 rate, Bradley will have to hope his 4.9 run support average finds a way to circumvent Strasburg’s run-suppressing powers.