The Wednesday Takeaway:
Through the Yankees’ spending splash in 2014, painful collapse in 2015, sluggish start and subsequent unthinkable rebuild in 2016, and electrifying return in 2017, the only constant has been Dellin Betances. Now, the trade rumors are finally quieting, the million moving pieces are settling down, and the Yankees have a concrete, and incredibly bright, long-term future. But something feels off—the bedrock of the franchise is wavering.
Betances, the brilliant and dominant relief ace, the most effectively wild pitcher in baseball, the consistently fearsome presence in the back of the Yankees bullpen, is lost. The 6-foot-8 arm, who has been sitting batters down with a steady diet of high-octane fastballs and viciously bending curveballs, suddenly can’t find the strike zone. Now that Betances can’t seem to grasp even the faintest modicum of command, the Yankees seem just as lost as their homegrown reliever.
Precipitously falling from four games up in the AL East to four games back, the Yankees are 9-16 in one-run games and their shaky and currently leaderless bullpen has been to blame. The situation only grew worse for the Yankees on Wednesday, when they found themselves locked up in a tied game with the Blue Jays in the eighth inning. Joe Girardi went with the obvious move, bringing in Betances to hold the score long enough for the Yankees to (hopefully) break the tie. Unfortunately, this ideal scenario would never be realized.
The normally trusty Betances, amidst a rough stretch, quickly fulfilled fans’ worst fears with a leadoff walk to Miguel Montero before uncorking eight straight balls to walk both Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins, loading the bases. Dellin managed to settle down enough to retire Jose Bautista on a five-pitch strikeout, but he quickly returned to his wild ways with a brutal, six-pitch walk to Russell Martin, walking home a run and handing Toronto a lead before being pulled by Girardi.
Although Adam Warren was able to stop the bleeding and escape the jam without another run allowed, Roberto Osuna entered for the Jays and retired the side to seal the game for his club. Common sense dictates Betances will be fine, and the All Star break may be the cure to his case of wildness, but it’s frightening to see such a steadfast and resolute pitcher look simply helpless on the mound, blowing the game for the Yankees while injecting uncertainty into his current role with the club.
A Public Service Announcement: Alex Wood is real. I repeat: Alex Wood is real. No, I’m not just confirming his actual physical existence on this earth, I’m talking about his performance. Wood brought his ERA on the season down to 1.67 after displaying sheer dominance against helpless Diamondbacks hitters on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to believe he deserves the pristine numbers he’s posted this season after watching him.
Wood is finally turning into the pitcher we all expected, and then some, when he took the world by storm as a wacky southpaw in Atlanta, delivering pitches like a misshapen character from QWOP (remember that game?) and watching his offerings twist through the batter’s box just as unpredictably as his pitching motion. Flashing impressive strikeout stuff and carrying a 2.78 ERA through 2014, the future looked bright for Wood.
Then, the league adjusted to Wood and his unique mechanics. He settled in as a serviceable, but unspectacular fourth starter, and it looked like that’s where his long-term role would remain. Well, it sure looks like it's Wood’s turn to adjust, as he made some tweaks to his release point last season and looks like a new pitcher, now with the National League in the palm of his hand.
At his best, Wood is a ground-ball machine who has top-15 ground-ball rates among all starters with his three pitches. A sinker (63 percent ground-ball rate), changeup (68 percent), curveball (65 percent) mix has been weakly beat straight into the ground when batters manage to make contact, which for the record, isn’t often. All three pitches rank in the top 20 in whiffs per swing as well.
Wood went with his classic pitch mix on Wednesday and found great success, throwing his sinker about half the time and his secondaries both a quarter of the time, netting plenty of swings and misses on all three offerings while also painting the corners with his excellently spotted heater. Wood easily held velocity as the game went on and was nothing short of dominant over the 85 pitches he threw. Going seven scoreless innings, Wood ceded just three hits and two walks while striking out 10.
Since allowing four runs in a May 2 start, Wood has given up all of six runs in nine subsequent starts, good for an absurd 1.10 ERA. Somehow, Wood isn’t an All Star, but he may just end up getting Cy Young votes if he continues throwing like this for the rest of the season, which isn’t such a bad consolation prize.
One of the most important parts of a baseball team happens to also be the most forgettable, and one must find this out the hard way—you’ll never know how vital middle relievers are until they’re not doing their job. The Rays were the latest team to be hit with this reality check when their middle relief corps appeared to take the day off, leaving Tampa Bay in the dust at the end of a long and painful loss.
The Rays got off to a promising enough start, with former top prospect Blake Snell turning in one of his better starts of the season with five scoreless innings (though he did, naturally, issue four walks in the process). On offense, the Rays knocked home three runs against John Lackey, giving them a solid lead to work with in the final four innings. They just needed their middle relievers to hold the three-run advantage, and, well, I’m guessing you’ve figured out what happened next.
The Cubs smelled blood (in fact, cubs can smell blood from 20 miles away! Thanks for tuning into The Animal Channel) after that shutout-ending dinger, and continued their onslaught the next inning with a go-ahead two-run single from Ian Happ off Adam Kolarek.
For those keeping score at home, that’s seven unanswered runs to turn a three-run lead into a four-run deficit; a painful loss for the Rays that was a direct result of shoddy middle relief. Trust me, those fringe-y middle relievers are awfully important, even if you won’t remember the Adam Kolareks and Chase Whitleys of the world.
I’ll be honest with y'all—I’m firmly in the "designated hitter in the National League” camp. I was scarred when I was younger after watching Chien-Ming Wang’s career felled after running the basepaths, and Adam Wainwright’s torn Achilles' tendon further served as a reminder that professional hitters should hit, and professional pitchers should pitch. That being said, I still enjoyed the hell out of Bartolo Colon’s dinger, and turn on the TV whenever Madison Bumgarner’s coming up to bat. Fundamentally, I might not like the idea of pitchers hitting, but I still like watching pitchers hit. Go ahead, call me a hypocrite, I get it.
Anyway, that personal tangent was a means of setting up one of my favorite home runs of this season. Yup, you guessed it, a pitcher went deep, and it was glorious. Enjoy Jon Gray, owner of a .106 batting average as a big leaguer, smash his first home run of his career.
Most importantly, this was a Big League Homer. Jon Gray’s first home run since (presumably) high school wasn’t a cheap one—forget the Coors Field excuse, this 467-foot blast was the longest in Coors this season and the furthest by a pitcher since 2015. Gray, as he should, certainly enjoyed the moment, giving us a little Sammy Sosa hop out of the box and taking his time rounding the bases.
Gray didn’t have the most memorable day on the mound, though you can bet he won’t forget this day anytime soon. In a 5-3 victory for Colorado, Gray’s two-run shot proved vital to the win, making the home run just a little bit sweeter.
While there exist plenty of stat-heads in the major leagues, there’s a solid population of baseball players who don’t keep too close an eye on their peripheral numbers, and understandably so. For pitchers, carrying a palatable ERA is challenging enough—worrying about how good they should be doing is a largely unnecessary additional burden to carry. Sometimes, it helps to overlook FIP and just pitch.
Ervin Santana’s thoughts on FIP haven’t been quoted into the public record, but he certainly hasn’t let his own ominous FIP get to him. Despite an unsightly mark of 4.72, Erv’s pitched like an ace this season and is showing no signs of slowing down. Sure, he has a questionably low BABIP, worrying strikeout rate, and unsustainable strand rate—all indicators he’s due for regression—but Santana didn’t look like a deteriorating pitcher on Wednesday. He threw like an ace.
Going all nine innings in the start, Santana allowed just two runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out five. Unfortunately, he was tagged with the complete-game loss after being out-dueled by Halos hurler Parker Bridwell and LA’s bullpen. Bridwell went six scoreless innings in what was likely the finest start of his big-league career, as the 25-year-old rookie struck out five while allowing four hits and three walks.
The Angels didn’t do much at the plate, with the deciding run coming when Cameron Maybin stole home on a double steal, but the smart baserunning, along with a Kole Calhoun solo shot, proved to be enough thanks to Bridwell’s strong start.
The Marlins are hosting this summer’s All-Star festivities, so they need to give their fans something to cheer for. Most of the fun will likely come from the Home Run Derby, which features Miami’s dynamic duo of Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Bour. Sensing the pressure of this event, the two sluggers decided to get some warm-up reps on Wednesday.
Stanton kicked things off with a first inning line drive home run …
… then went deep an inning later for his 23rd home run of the season.
That’s right, two home runs in two innings for your no. 1 seed in this year’s derby (speaking of which, a certain no. 2 seed, Aaron Judge, also went deep yesterday).
Not to be outdone, Bour added a blast of his own in the ninth inning, reminding us that Stanton isn’t the only Marlins slugger who can hit dingers.
As an East Coast-based writer, West Coast night games that go into extra innings are the bane of my existence. Regardless, I’ll have to soldier through and recap the Royals-Mariners bout. I’ll spare you the first nine innings, since I sort of spoiled that part for you … believe it or not, these two clubs went into extra innings. Jason Vargas, somehow pitching like an ace this season, had a rare rough outing by giving up six runs over five frames, though Ariel Miranda of the Mariners did just as poorly by matching Vargas’ line.
Both teams’ relief corps froze the score at six until the top of the 10th inning, when James Pazos faced off against Sal Perez with a runner on first base and … boom:
Defensive Play of the Day
Sometimes, the best plays are the hard ones that look easy. Jae-Gyun Hwang did exactly that against Nick Castellanos on Wednesday, making an extremely challenging sliding, backhanded grab before spinning around to fire a strike to first base, recording the out.
What to Watch on Thursday
The Tigers and Giants will kick off Thursday baseball at 1:10 pm ET, with Anibal Sanchez (6.34 ERA) looking to build upon recent success against Johnny Cueto (4.26 ERA). A little over an hour later, the Cubs’ Mike Montgomery (2.80 ERA) will look to continue his strong first half against the Brewers and Zach Davis (5.03 ERA) in an important NL Central showdown.
Later in the evening at 7:05 pm ET, an enticing pitching matchup will take place between Mike Foltynewicz (3.83 ERA) of the Braves and Gio Gonzalez (2.77 ERA) of the Nationals. Folty took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in his last start and has been dominant of late, so it’ll be worth keeping an eye on him in what could be a pitcher’s duel against Gonzalez.
Two minutes after the Nationals/Braves game’s first pitch, the Astros’ Lance McCullers Jr. (2.69 ERA) will take the mound against the Blue Jays and Francisco Liriano (5.66 ERA). McCullers Jr. has been a strikeout machine this season and every one of his electric starts are must-watch TV.
Speaking of must-watch television, Chris Sale’s (2.61 ERA) start against the Rays will be mandatory viewing because, well, he’s Chris Sale. Toeing the rubber against the Red Sox’ ace is Jacob Faria (2.23 ERA), a rookie who isn’t having such a bad season himself.