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BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Toronto Blue Jays (9th) @ Los Angels of Anaheim (5th)

The Blue Jays are easily the best-kept secret in baseball. This is a team that has crept into the upper-third of the game’s best teams with hardly anyone noticing. Not that folks are at fault for that. For one thing, the Jays are in the upper third because so few National League teams have their acts together this year. For another, any team that has Shea Hillenbrand as its VORP leader among its position players is not going to generate a lot of hype.

This is not meant as a slight to Hillenbrand because, all denigrations about his lack of selectivity aside, he’s turned out to be a pretty decent hitter. His EqA is just under .300 this year, right about where it was last year. He’s ended up having a lot longer shelf life than many of us would have believed, and I include myself in that “us.” He’s also figured out a dandy way to increase his value without having to lay off the hacking: getting hit by pitches. He’s been plunked 20 times so far this year, by far a career high and good for a comfortable lead over the next-most prolific plunkee, Jason Giambi of the Yankees, with 16.

BEST NATIONAL LEAGUE MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Chicago Cubs (16th) @ Houston Astros (10th)

I’m a fan of the Astros organization. By that I mean I think they are one of the better-run teams in baseball. I certainly wish them no ill-will, but I have to say this: I take a certain perverse joy when I hear them lose on the radio because of the effect it has on their broadcaster, Milo Hamilton. For those of you who have never heard Milo do a game, he is of the genus homerus shamelessus. He’s so blatant that it immediately makes me start pulling for the other team. Maybe he’s the nicest guy in the world–I don’t know–but whenever he starts referring to the Astros as “we,” I sign up for the other side.

Lance Berkman doesn’t have a single sacrifice fly in 374 plate appearances this year. If, as some would have us believe, a willingness to give oneself up in order to move runners over is the ultimate sign of a player’s true value, then here are the least valuable players in the majors this year:

Players with most plate appearances and zero sac flies:

439: Todd Helton, Rockies
409: Jermaine Dye, White Sox
393: Orlando Cabrera, Angels
383: Mike Piazza, Mets
380: Jason Giambi, Yankees
374: Lance Berkman, Astros

What is interesting about this list is that none of these men are leadoff hitters, unlike a number of the players on the all-time single-season list (starting in 1954, when they officially began counting the stat):

751: Pete Rose, 1973 Reds
721: Kirby Puckett, 1986 Twins
705: Gene Richards, 1980 Padres
704: Vada Pinson, 1959 Reds
689: Steve Sax, 1982 Dodgers
687: Tony Womack, 1997 Pirates
686: Lou Brock, 1965 Cardinals
684: Don Blasingame 1959 Cardinals
683: Bill Bruton, 1955 Braves
681: Adam Dunn, 2004 Reds

Normally, when compiles a list of any sort, there are at least a couple of repeaters–players who show a pattern of a certain type of behavior. In this case, only one name appears twice in the top 32 all-time: Bill Bruton. It would seem that luck and circumstance play very important roles in a stat like this. As for Bruton, he went 611 appearances without one the year before, making for a two-year total of 1,294 sans sac-ing.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Kansas City Royals (30th) @ Seattle Mariners (25th)

So, you’ve lost 15 games in a row and what is your great reward? You get to be the spear carriers in the third scene of the first act of an epic career in the making. There are pitchers who are competent but not especially entertaining (somebody like Mike Mussina) and there are pitchers who are fun to watch but not necessarily effective (somebody like later model Byung-Hyun Kim). Then there are the precious few like Felix Hernandez who are both. While it may be true that most people prefer offense as a spectacle, there’s nothing quite like a new, dominant pitcher when he first bursts on the scene to excite a crowd.

The Royals have a way to go before they tie the 1988 Orioles’ 21-game losing tear. One thing they have in common with that team, though, is the amount of runs they’ve allowed. After 21 straight losses to open the year, the O’s had surrendered 129 runs. Through 16 straight losses, that’s exactly how many the Royals have given up. The difference is in runs scored. Kansas City has plated 56 runs to the O’s 44. The Royals have only lost three one-run games in their skid which, if nothing else, keeps them from getting their hopes up–their big ninth-inning collapse against the Indians on August 9 notwithstanding.

Given their runs scored/runs against during the streak, the Royals probably should have won two or three games. It only stands to reason that any team on a losing streak–except one that is getting shut out just about every game–has been under-performing against their run differential.

If they can’t get a win in the next two games against Seattle, it’s not getting any easier. Three games in Oakland are followed by visits to Kansas City by the Red Sox and Yankees for three games each. I’m not suggesting they’re going to lose 27 straight games, but they’ve laid the groundwork to go 3-24 or 4-23 in this span.

THE MY APOLOGIES TO THE NATIONALS MATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Washington Nationals (20th) @ Philadelphia Phillies (13th)

I have to take a moment and publicly lock myself in virtual stocks for one of the worst predictions ever. Last time out, I indicated that the real color of the Nationals’ pitching staff would be on display in the extremes of Coors Field once they got away from the cuddly confines of RFK. Yes…well done. Instead, the Nats reinserted themselves into the Wild Card picture.

What they did at Coors is fairly historic. In the process of sweeping the Rockies, Washington pitchers allowed just four runs. No visiting team has ever managed to do that before in Denver, either in Coors Field or Mile High Stadium. A couple clubs have come close, but, usually, a team that allows just 10 runs in a three-game set has the right to act like they’ve thrown a trio of shutouts.

In the third series ever played in Colorado, their fellow upstarts the Marlins held them to just seven runs. The Marlins lost the opener 5-4, then won 2-1 and 11-1. The next year, the Braves finished the strike-shortened season–and the baseball career of Mile High Stadium–by beating the Rockies 7-4, losing to them 1-0 and beating them 13-0. The 1-0 game comes with an asterisk, though, having gone only six innings. Greg Maddux twirled the three-hitter to close the ballpark and the season on August 11. The next time the Braves came to town, it was new stadium with the same result. From June 16 to 18, 1995, Atlanta beat Colorado 2-0, 7-1 and 9-4.

That’s about it, really. A few teams have managed to surrender eight or nine runs in a series, but the Nationals really pared it down. Yes, there was a rare 13-hit shutout in the mix and yes, these are not your older brother’s Rockies, but attention must be paid–this was an awesome accomplishment.

Do you know what this past Saturday was? That’s right: Lefthander’s Day. There were 14 major league games played that day. Do you know how many of the starting 28 pitchers were lefties? That’s right: none. It would seem that lefties are not about to take over the world and have to resign themselves to having only one day out of 365 to call their own. The good news for the sinister crowd is that if the majors ever take a page out of Hollywood and use one of the higher apes to play baseball, chances are, it’ll be a lefty.

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