SweetSpot: Baltimore Orioles

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BALTIMORE -- Ten Major League Baseball teams will clinch postseason berths in the final two weeks of the regular season, and the celebrations will run the gamut from garden-variety joyous to 1962 Faber College Delta House-caliber euphoric.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers are annual visitors to this realm, so logic says their festivities will be a tad more muted. If the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners make the playoffs after extended postseason absences, they can be excused for cutting loose.

The 2014 Baltimore Orioles fall in the more raucous end of the spectrum. Yes, they’re only two years removed from the franchise’s last postseason appearance. But pardon them for acting like they haven’t been here before.

The O’s shed some historical baggage in 2012 when they reached the playoffs as a wild card. They took a much bigger step toward validation Tuesday night, beating the Toronto Blue Jays 8-2 to win their first American League East title in 17 years.

[+] EnlargeOrioles
Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsCamden Yards was rocking as the Orioles clinched their first division title since 1997.
After Tommy Hunter retired Ryan Goins on a groundout to end the game, the Orioles donned goggles and helmet cams and sprayed each other with champagne in the home clubhouse before returning to the field to celebrate with the fans. Outfielder Adam Jones grabbed an orange Orioles flag, slapped hands with die-hards on a Ripken-esque tour of the park, and even got the grounds crew into the act. More than an hour after the final pitch, Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” played over the Camden Yards PA system and players mingled in foul territory with their wives and kids.

“We’ve been grinding our tails off, and now we get to release it,” Jones said. “Good things come when you work hard as a unit. This has been a long time coming for the city of Baltimore.”

It was a memorable night all-around for baseball in the Beltway. While the Orioles were wrapping up the division, the right-field scoreboard at Camden Yards showed the Washington Nationals beating Atlanta 3-0 to clinch the National League East title.

The Orioles won behind five occasionally harrowing innings from Ubaldo Jimenez, a $50 million free agent who’s been a major disappointment in his first season with the team. Fittingly enough, their eight RBIs were divvied up among Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, Jimmy Paredes and Nick Hundley -- the type of unheralded supporting players who have played major roles in a season marked by potentially devastating injuries for the O’s.

Pearce, Baltimore’s first baseman, hit a three-run homer off Drew Hutchison to get things rolling in the first. After failing to establish himself in Pittsburgh, Pearce was signed three times and released twice by the Orioles since 2012 before emerging as a godsend in the lineup this season. He has a .541 slugging percentage and is tied for seventh in the AL with 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR).

Paredes, who is hitting .419 (13-for-31) since coming over from Kansas City in a cash deal in late July, launched a solo shot off Hutchison in the second inning.

And De Aza, acquired from the White Sox for two minor leaguers in late August, broke the game open with a three-run triple off Aaron Loup in the seventh. He’s hitting .333 (15-for-45) since joining the Orioles.

A festive crowd of 35,297 picked up the pace as the night progressed. Orioles fans incessantly booed Toronto shortstop Jose Reyes, who was involved in a spat with Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph on Monday night, and there was some mild carryover from the hostilities when Loup hit O's right fielder Nick Markakis in the back with a fastball and Darren O’Day responded by plunking Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista in the posterior. But the ill will never boiled over enough to detract from the sense of inevitability at Camden Yards. The louder the fans got, the more the momentum built.

“I wish I had a camera taped to my chest to hear the crowd,” said Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty. “It was pretty surreal. This is a great sports city, and they love their two teams here. In the sixth, seventh and eighth, it was all building up to that ninth inning. To be able to win it here at home was pretty special.”

With the division title in the bag and the Angels most likely out of reach for the top AL seed and the home-field advantage it brings, the Orioles will probably spend the next two weeks letting injuries heal, getting their pitching in order, and trying to stay sharp in anticipation of the American League Division Series.

They have done an admirable job of protecting their home turf to reach this point. After going 19-21 in their first 40 games at Camden Yards, the Orioles have posted an MLB-best 29-8 record at home since late June. It’s been 2½ months since they lost two straight in Baltimore.

They’ve gotten here by cutting a swath through the American League East. The O’s are 42-23 against Boston, New York, Toronto and Tampa Bay this season.

And they have a flair for hitting big flies in abundance, no matter who is in the lineup. With two more home runs Tuesday, the Orioles lead the majors with 196.

This is how they roll. A team with a more fragile constitution might have had difficulty recovering from catcher Matt Wieters’ Tommy John surgery in June, Manny Machado’s season-ending knee surgery and the 25-game amphetamine suspension that will keep Chris Davis out of action for the rest of the regular season and a sizable chunk of the playoffs. The Orioles, taking their cue from manager Buck Showalter, simply aren’t built to take “no” for an answer.

“We’re a cohesive unit,” Jones said, “and we’ve got a strong-ass bond.”

Before the Orioles dispatched Toronto to wrap up the division title Tuesday, Davis made news by helping to lift a pickup truck and free a trapped motorist in response to an accident on I-295 near Baltimore. Several hours later, his teammates helped raise the spirits of a hard-core sports town that’s spent too much time looking up in the standings at the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays over the past decade and a half.

“This is what you train for in the offseason and why you put in the work -- to win the East,” Pearce said. “We did it tonight. It was all worth it. The ups and downs. Spring training. The struggles and the long hours and the doubleheaders. It was all worth it.”

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 17, 2014
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What a night. Two clinchers, a no-hit bid into the eighth inning from the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (for the second time this season), a benches-clearing incident between the Yankees and Rays after manager Joe Girardi went a little crazy when Derek Jeter got hit by a pitch, Jose Altuve breaking Craig Biggio's Astros club record for hits in a season. As always, check out the latest standings, playoff odds and upcoming schedule on the Hunt for October page.

video 1. The Nationals clinch the NL East behind Tanner Roark. That's one way of asking: Will Roark be in the Nationals' postseason rotation? He's 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA now after tossing seven shutout innings in the 3-0 clincher over the collapsing Braves. There's nothing fancy about him except he throws strikes, locates his two-seam sinking fastball and four-seamer on the corners and mixes in a slider, changeup and curveball, giving him a five-pitch repertoire. He's in his first full season in the majors, but don't worry about an innings limit here: Roark is 27, turns 28 in early October and still looks strong.

Starting Roark would bump Gio Gonzalez from the rotation, although, depending on the opponent, maybe having the lefty Gonzalez in there instead of four right-handers make sense. There's also an argument that Gonzalez -- despite a 3.79 ERA -- has actually been every bit as good as Roark. The fielding independent pitching numbers (FIP) have Gonzalez at 3.20 and Roark at 3.54 entering Tuesday. That's because Gonzalez has the better strikeout rate -- 9.0 K's per nine innings compared to 6.4 for Roark. But is that a deficiency for Roark? His two-seamer isn't a big strikeout pitch but gets ground balls. Yes, that means relying a little more on defense than Gonzalez does.

The difference in their ERAs stems primarily from results with runners in scoring position: Roark has allowed a .252/.310/.397 line, while Gonzalez has allowed a .281/.348/.465 line.

Of course, Gonzalez is the veteran, which might ultimately enter into manager Matt Williams' decision. Plus, Roark has more experience pitching out of the bullpen, having made 29 relief appearances between Triple-A and the majors last season. Either way, Williams has a nice luxury in that he can have a quick hook with any of his starters in the postseason if necessary.

video 2. Joe Nathan is starting to remind of 2009 Brad Lidge. Remember that year? Lidge was horrendous all season with the Phillies, going 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and 11 home runs and 34 walks in just 58⅔ innings, and yet, Charlie Manuel stuck with him as closer all season and the Phillies still managed to reach the World Series. Manuel's loyalty finally burned him in Game 4, when Lidge entered in the ninth of a 4-4 tie and gave up three runs.

What does that have to do with Nathan? He hasn't been quite as bad as Lidge but inspires the same level of confidence in Tigers fans right now. After J.D. Martinez hit a dramatic three-run homer in the top of the ninth off Glen Perkins to give the Tigers a 3-2 lead over the Twins, Nathan coughed it up by allowing the Twins to score twice. It wasn't all his fault, although he did get the rally started with a one-out walk to Trevor Plouffe. Kurt Suzuki hit a liner to shallow left-center on which Ezequiel Carrera appeared to get a slow read and missed the diving catch. (Would Austin Jackson have made the play?) The winning run then scored with two outs on Aaron Hicks' infield chopper up the middle. Nathan is 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA and seven blown saves. Again, not quite as bad as Lidge, but still the symbol of a shaky Detroit bullpen.

video 3. Don't blame Ned Yost! Unfortunately for the Royals, they weren't able to take advantage of Detroit's loss and remained 1½ games behind the Tigers -- or two games behind, counting the suspended game they're losing to the Indians. (Yes, I'm required to mention that every night!)

Yost actually did what he didn't do on Sunday: bring in Kelvin Herrera in the sixth inning. And it worked, as Herrera got the final out to preserve a 4-4 tie. After the Royals then took a 5-4 lead, things were looking good, but Herrera gave up two singles in the seventh, and Wade Davis -- pitching in the seventh for the first time all season -- walked Jose Abreu, pitching him a little too carefully. Conor Gillaspie, after fouling off two pitches, then hit a 2-2, 97 mph fastball for a bases-clearing triple, and Herrera and Davis both saw their scoreless-inning streaks of more than 30 end.

Yost did the right thing. He brought in his two dominant relievers in crucial situations in a close game. On this night, they just got beat. Considering how dominant they'd been, they were probably due. But don't blame this one on Ned.

video 4. Steve Pearce, legend in the making. The Orioles clinched with an 8-2 win over the Blue Jays (good night, Toronto). The big blow was Pearce's three-run homer in the first. What a story he's been. The 31-year-old had spent parts of seven seasons in the majors but never batted more than 188 times. Pearce began the season with the Orioles but appeared in just three games before Baltimore designated him for assignment on April 27. The Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce on waivers, but Pearce had the right to become a free agent rather than accept the claim, which he did. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed Pearce to a major league contract. He hasn't stopped hitting and is now at .294/.371/.541 with 18 home runs, and he's hitting fifth for a division winner. Just another reason we love this game.

video 5. Brewers notch big comeback win. In the first of a three-game series in St. Louis, the Brewers tied it in the top of the ninth and won it in the 12th inning. They move up to four games back of the Cardinals and remained 1½ behind the Pirates for the second wild card. Good job by the Milwaukee pen with just two hits over five scoreless innings. Jhonny Peralta nearly tied it with a long fly in the 12th to the warning track, but Gerardo Parra hauled it in and Francisco Rodriguez escaped with a 1-2-3 save.

Five things we learned Friday

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
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The Pirates won to move to 13-4 against the Cubs this season, and the Brewers won their third straight, walking off versus the Reds, as both teams kept pressure on the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

Check out the Hunt for October page for standings, playoff odds and the upcoming schedule. Here's what else went on Friday night:

1. The Mariners beat the slumping A's.

The A's got closer Sean Doolittle back, but that did little to stop their slide: When Doolittle went on the disabled list with an intercostal strain on Aug. 23, the A's were 76-52 and tied for first in the American League West. They had already lost eight of their prior 12 games and had relinquished a four-game lead on the Angels. With Doolittle shelved, the A's lost 13 of their next 18, which included six blown saves.

What was once a lead-pipe cinch for a playoff spot has become quite precarious, with Oakland now only a half-game ahead of the Mariners for the first wild-card spot. Doolittle returned just in time to help his team battle Seattle in the first of a three-game series at Safeco Field. However, he never got in the game, as Seattle hit three solo homers and the A's went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 4-2 Mariners win.

Going forward, the A's have the vastly easier schedule, but can they restart their offense in time to hold off Seattle?

2. The Dodgers and Giants will go right down to the wire in the roller-coaster NL West.

On June 8, the Giants (43-21) led the Dodgers (33-31) by 10 full games in the division. The teams then swapped momentum, as Los Angeles won 36 of their next 57 and San Francisco lost 36 of their next 56. The Dodgers were up by 5.5 games on Aug. 12, a 15.5 game swing in just over two months. The Giants had trimmed that lead down to two games as they headed into a three-game series at AT&T Park that started on Friday. Matt Kemp came into the game hitting .333/.400/.635 in his past 17 games, while Buster Posey was an obscene .463/.477/.838 in his past 19.

Posey contributed an RBI double in the first inning as the Giants touched up Hyun-Jin Ryu for four runs en route to a 9-0 victory, cutting the Dodgers' lead in the division to one game. Ryu left after that first inning with a recurrence of shoulder irritation that had shelved him for three weeks earlier in the season, and it remains to be seen if he'll be available for his next start. Even after this weekend, these two teams still have a three-game set in Los Angeles that begins on Sept. 22.

3. Royals' infield defense let them down again, and Tigers retook AL Central lead.

On Thursday, Kansas City made three errors on the infield, which led to two unearned runs in a 6-3 loss to the Red Sox. Those three miscues brought the total errors by Royals infielders (including 21 by their pitchers) to 76 this season. On Friday, Mike Moustakas made his second error in as many nights, and Yordano Ventura threw a wild pitch to allow the Red Sox to score another run.

Eric Hosmer provided the only offense with a two-run homer, and Kansas City dropped a 4-2 decision. Meanwhile, David Price tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run, eight-hit ball as the Tigers routed the Indians 7-2. Detroit is now back in the AL Central lead for only the second time since Aug. 10. Given the Royals' ordinary offense, they have a smaller margin for error (all puns intended) and can't afford to be giving runs (and games) away so easily.

4. The Orioles can take a punch, and then some.

The Orioles had their All-Star third baseman (Manny Machado) for a mere 82 games before losing him in early August for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Their No. 1 catcher (Matt Wieters), off to a career-best start at the plate, went down and needed Tommy John surgery in May. Their starting first baseman (Chris Davis), who despite slumping to a sub-.200 average had still hit 26 homers, just got suspended for 25 games for testing positive for amphetamines. With all this, Baltimore continued its surge toward the AL East title, sweeping a day/night doubleheader from the Yankees in which they yielded only one run over 20 innings.

The sweep pushed the Orioles' AL East lead to 11.5 games and moved them within 3.5 games of the best record in the AL. Since being only one game over .500 after 69 games, they've won 53 of their past 78. Coming into Friday, the O's had used only seven different starters pitchers (fewest in the AL), with five of those amassing at least 20 starts (second-most in the AL). It's not that the starting pitching has been superb all year, as they rank in the middle of the pack in most categories. However, they have pitched much better as a whole since the All-Star break: a 34-17 record with a 3.03 ERA prior to Friday, versus 52-42 with a 3.84 ERA in the first half of the season. The staff's good health has meant they haven't had to rely upon untested, not-ready-for-The Show talent.

5. The Mets finally said "no more hospitality" to the Nationals in Queens.

If the Nationals manage to secure the best record in the NL (they currently lead by a half-game), they can credit their league-best .622 winning percentage at home, as well as their "home-field" advantage in Queens, New York. Coming into Friday, Washington had won 12 straight (and 26 of its prior 30 games) at Citi Field. This season, it had won all four contests in New York, by a combined score of 20-6.

The Mets got off that schneid by jumping on Gio Gonzalez for three first-inning runs and outlasting the Nats 4-3. The Nationals still have two more games at Citi Field this weekend, with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann scheduled to start.

Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

Dunn among vets seeking first playoffs

September, 12, 2014
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For an aspiring major leaguer, the first milestone is reaching the big leagues. Once he's played his first game, another goal -- playing in the postseason -- can be just as long and arduous. Just ask Adam Dunn.

Dunn had played 1985 major-league games over 14 seasons and none of them in the playoffs, the most among active players. The wait to make the playoffs has made his wait to reach the big show -- a relatively short four years and 343 games in the minors -- seem like a flash. So the potential to finally play baseball rather than golf in October was one of the reasons why the big slugger, who announced recently that he plans to retire after the season, approved his trade from the White Sox to the A's on Aug 31. Despite the A's recent swoon, they still have a 92 percent chance of making it into baseball's postseason tournament, according to coolstandings.com (which we use on ESPN).

But Dunn's not the only veteran with a decent chance of fulfilling a playoff dream. Several seasoned players stand a better than even chance of seeing October action for the first time: The Royals’ Scott Downs and Josh Willingham, the Orioles' Nick Markakis, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Dodgers' Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm and the Nationals' Scott Hairston.

Some of those players have come close. Dunn's best previous opportunity came after the Reds traded him to the Diamondbacks in August of 2008 to help them chase the Dodgers. But the 44-game rental wasn't enough as Arizona fell two games short of the NL West title. Four years later, Dunn's White Sox led the AL Central for most of the second half of 2012 but faltered in the season's final week and finished out of the money by three games.

Markakis, on the other hand, has actually played for a team that made the playoffs. It's just that injury prevented him from playing during the postseason. With less than a month remaining in the Orioles' wild-card season of 2012 season, C.C. Sabathia broke Markakis' left thumb with a pitch, sidelining the right fielder for the team's wild-card game and five Division Series games.

Willingham is a different story. Despite playing for five different clubs in his 11-year career, he hasn't come close to the playoffs. Heading into this season, Willingham's teams have languished with a .438 winning percentage and finished an average of 20 games back of their division leader. So when he came over from the last-place Twins to the first-place Royals on Aug. 11, he was in unfamiliar territory. If the Royals do hold on and win the Central, though, Willingham isn't a sure thing for the playoffs: He only recently returned to the lineup after having been out since Aug. 29 with a sore back.

Willingham's Kansas City teammate Bruce Chen broke in with the Braves when fall ball was as much of a certainly on their schedule as spring training. Chen was part of the NL East title-winning clubs in 1998 and 1999, but didn't make the playoff roster. He played most of the 2014 season with the playoff-hunting Royals, but found out last week that the Royals designated him for assignment, shelving his playoff dream after 16 seasons.

Players can use their beleaguered teammates' pursuit of the playoffs as motivation. Markakis' outfield mate Adam Jones claims the team is "still [angry] about" Sabathia's pitch. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to teams rallying around long-suffering stars: He managed the Yankees in 1995 when the team won their final 11 of 12 games and 26 of 33 to at last take Don Mattingly to the playoffs in his final season. And this year, Mattingly’s Dodgers team includes pitcher Jamey Wright, who is in his 19th season but only last year saw the the playoffs (with Tampa Bay).

But if the A's plan to use Dunn’s quest as a rallying cry for their own, the Cardinals and Pirates will have to look to motivators other than helping forbearing teammates realize a dream. That's because those NL Central contenders simply don't have many veterans who haven't played October baseball. Their longest-tenured players without playoff experience are Peter Bourjos and Ike Davis, respectively, each 27 years old and in only his fifth major-league season.

Given a reprieve from a playoff-less career, Donnie Baseball went out with a .440 OBP and .708 SLG in the Bombers' five-game 1995 ALDS loss to the Mariners. As Mattingly later said, "I would have been disappointed had I not gotten at least that one chance to play in the postseason, because you really wanna see how you handle it. And I did get that chance."

It’s a swan song that Adam Dunn would like to emulate this year. Will he -- and others -- get the chance?

Longest-tenured vets who have never appeared in postseason for playoff contenders

Athletics -- Adam Dunn, 14 seasons in majors
Royals -- Scott Downs, 13 seasons
Braves -- Aaron Harang, 13 seasons
Dodgers -- Kevin Correia, 12
Blue Jays -- R.A. Dickey, 12
Nationals -- Scott Hairston, 11
Mariners -- Felix Hernandez, 10
Brewers -- Zach Duke, 10
Orioles -- Nick Markakis, 9
Tigers -- Rajai Davis, 9
Angels -- Chris Iannetta, 9
Yankees -- Brandon McCarthy, 9
Indians -- Scott Atchison, 8
Giants -- Yusmeiro Petit, 7
Cardinals -- Peter Bourjos, 5
Pirates -- Ike Davis, 5

Matt Philip writes about the Cardinals at Fungoes.net.
1. Mike Trout isn't exactly tearing things up right now.

As late as July 24, Trout's OPS was over 1.000 -- .309/.396/.606. Since then, 37 games, he's hit .227/.298/.413 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs but also with 47 strikeouts. Some of this is just the natural ebb and flow of a baseball season, but some of this is the streakiness that can occur with a hitter who strikes out a lot, which is what Trout has morphed into this season. He's gone hitless the last two games, both losses to the Astros. We've all heard about Trout's difficulties hitting pitches in the upper half of the zone -- he's hitting .151/.329/.253 on such location in 2014 -- and during this stretch, it's not surprising he's seeing more pitches up in the zone, 29 percent of all pitches compared to 24 percent through July 23.

2. Alex Gordon continues to come up big.

Gordon is going in the opposite direction as Trout, hitting .299/.367/.639 with 10 home runs over his past 27 games, during which the Royals have gone 18-9. His two-run shot in the fourth inning staked the Royals to the lead in a 4-1 win over the Rangers and underrated Jason Vargas tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 3.14.

3. Derek Jeter is still batting second.

The Yankees beat the Red Sox behind seven solid innings from Hiroki Kuroda and Brian McCann's 4-for-4 performance, but let's address this Jeter issue. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, but his season line is .261/.309/.319. His on-base percentage is below the league average and his power is way below the league average. Why is he still hitting in the second spot, the position sabemetricians have deemed the most important in a lineup? OK, we know why he's hitting second. Joe Girardi doesn't have the guts to move Jeter down in the lineup and Jeter doesn't have the leadership to move himself down. Jeter has started 122 games, 119 of them batting second. Guess which team's No. 2 hitters have scored the fewest runs in the majors? Which team has the second-fewest home runs from the No. 2 spot? The Yankees are 21st in OPS from that spot, and that's only because the non-Jeter No. 2 hitters have gone 26-for-74 (.351), with two of the five home runs.

4. Justin Verlander isn't going to figure things out.

Every time he throws out a decent start, everyone expects that it's a sign he's going to turn things around. In his previous start he had allowed one run in seven innings. But on Wednesday, he gave up seven runs to the Indians. It's September. Among 95 qualified starting pitchers, he's 90th in ERA. Among 131 pitchers with at least 100 innings, he's 117th in ERA. It's time to stop expecting JUSTIN VERLANDER to turn up.

5. Miguel Gonzalez pitching himself into O's playoff rotation.

With his first career shutout, Gonzalez has now allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his past nine starts. Has he solidified a spot in the playoff rotation behind Chris Tillman? Maybe, but the home runs are still a concern. In those nine starts, he's allowed nine home runs, but just 15 runs. As long as they're solo shots, he's OK, but there's some playing with fire here. He's also struck out just 39 in 63 innings. Buck Showalter will have an interesting decision between Gonzalez, Bud Norris Kevin Gausman and Wei-Yin Chen to see who gets left out of the four-man playoff rotation.

Five things we learned Friday

August, 30, 2014
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1. Another Friday, another no-hit bid against the Cincinnati Reds

Last week Atlanta Braves starter Mike Minor tossed 7 2/3 innings before the Reds put a hit on the board. Friday, it was Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edinson Volquez who kept Cincinnati hitless for the first six frames. Volquez, a former 17-game winner with the Reds, was picked up off the scrap heap by Pittsburgh this winter and has been a pleasant surprise. Although his peripheral statistics don't necessarily support his 3.45 ERA, he is unlikely to turn into a pumpkin down the stretch after nearly 160 innings of work this season.

Volquez tied a season high with 114 pitches Friday. He was charged with one earned run on three hits and three walks. He struck out six. He pounded the ground with 10 ground-ball outs. Although he has done a lot of work close to the earth, it is his work in the air that has been the big key in 2014. Last year, opposing batters had a .310 average on fly balls against Volquez. This season, that mark sits at .172. Advanced metrics place the Pirates' outfield in a negative light, but someone is converting those fly balls into outs on a consistent basis.

Despite the lack of knocks, the Reds were able to keep both games close, losing in the 12th inning last Friday and briefly taking a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday before conceding the lead and the game soon after. The wins were important to Atlanta and Pittsburgh as both are still chasing the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card race. In fact, the Pirates' three-game winning streak has them sneaking back into contention in the NL Central as well.

For those interested, the Reds host the New York Mets next Friday at the Great American Ballpark.

2. DeGrom continues strong season

The Mets are in the midst of another lost season, but once again a trio of young arms gives the organization and its fans some hope. They lack the cool nickname of "Generation K," but Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom may be the foundation of a rotation that gets New York's other baseball team back to the postseason. DeGrom, the only active member of the trio, was on the bump Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Without the hype of Harvey or Syndergaard, deGrom has snuck up on most people this season. The lanky right-hander tossed seven strong innings against the Phillies, allowing just one unearned run. Of his 18 starts, deGrom has gone at least six innings in 14 of them. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 13 of those contests.

The rookie boasts a full arsenal of pitches, but Friday night's game plan centered around a mid-90s fastball that he commanded well. It accounted for nearly 75 percent of his pitches thrown Friday, as deGrom honed in on the lower half of the zone to his arm side. The heater was the weapon of choice on 16 of the 22 outs he recorded.

It's been said before, but "maybe next year" for the Mets.

3. Orioles continue to pound away

After taking three of four from the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles were back at it Friday night, blowing out the Minnesota Twins 9-1. Baltimore's pitching staff has been largely mediocre this season, but its offense packs a powerful enough punch to push the O's past the opposition on most nights. The club's .163 ISO -- isolated power measures the ability to hit for extra bases by stripping singles from slugging percentage -- is tops in the AL, trailing only the Colorado Rockies in the majors.

Chris Davis is having a disappointing season after his breakout 2013 campaign, but he hit another home run -- this one a grand slam -- on Friday that gives him seven in August and 24 on the season. While that is a far cry from last year's pace, Davis appears to be getting a bit more into the swing of things even if his average sits below .200.

In Davis' void, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce have picked up the offensive slack. Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore after a difficult time finding work on the open market. His 34 home runs lead the majors. Pearce was once a top prospect in the Pirates' system, but has spent most of his career shuttling between the majors and minors. This season, he has broken out in a big way with an OPS approaching .900 and 16 homers in limited action. He left Friday's game with an abdominal strain. Considering Manny Machado's injury, the team can ill afford to lose Pearce, as crazy as that may sound.

4. Verlander better versus White Sox

The Detroit Tigers have one of the game's top pitchers (Max Scherzer) and traded for another one (David Price) on July 31. Meanwhile, the team's former top hurler was on the mound Friday night, looking to close the gap in the highly contested AL Central race.

Justin Verlander has been off his game for most of this season. His ERA is approaching 5.00 and he has allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2006. Friday's effort was not vintage Verlander; however, it was still encouraging since he is no longer considered the team's top gun.

Facing the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, Verlander worked seven innings, allowing one run on nine hits and two walks. He struck out seven batters, throwing 77 strikes in 116 pitches. It was the first time since April 17 that he allowed one run or none in a start.

Despite a recent run of inconsistency, the Tigers are within arm's reach of the division lead. With Anibal Sanchez's future in doubt, Verlander once again becomes a key figure in Detroit's rotation. If he can be just part of what he once was, it may go a long way in the club's quest for a fourth straight division title.

5. Young Cubs on the prowl

The Houston Astros have been painted by some as the poster boys of "process." Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have also been in rebuild mode and, unlike Houston, which may have some sour grapes among its bunch, their organizational tree is starting to bear fruit at the highest level.

Javier Baez was first to capture the nation's attention this summer with his risk-versus-reward approach at the plate. His big swings have left nearly an equal amount of oohs and ughs depending on whether he made contact or not. This week, the club promoted Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to the big leagues. That decision is already paying dividends.

Though he is just three games into his major league career, the 22-year-old Soler has seven hits in his first 12 plate appearances. On Friday, he recorded his first multi-home run game, belting a pair of homers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Soler's first homer was a solo shot in the seventh inning that tied the game at 2-2. Baez put the Cubs ahead 4-2 with an RBI double the next inning, but the big blast came once again from Soler, who smacked a two-run homer to left field. Two innings, two at-bats and two home runs that covered 858 feet. Not bad for the third night on the job.

As exciting as the win was for the Cubs, it was equally devastating for a Cardinals team that is clinging to an NL wild-card spot by the slimmest of margins.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.
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It's another edition of Rapid Fire ... except this time I ask Eric the questions.


The first time I saw Adam Jones play was in August 2007 at Camden Yards, but he was with the Seattle Mariners then and had recently been called up from the minor leagues for his second stint in the majors. I was there with my wife’s family and told them to watch out for this kid -- he’s a highly rated prospect who has a great arm. I looked pretty smart when Jones, playing left field, caught a line drive in the first inning and doubled Brian Roberts off first base. He’d go 3-for-4 at the plate and score four runs in a 13-5 Mariners' victory.

Seattle would win 88 games that year, and with a young Felix Hernandez on the rise and Jones’ arrival, you could envision a bright future for the Mariners … and then, that offseason, Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi traded Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherrill and two other minor leaguers to the Orioles for Erik Bedard.

My friend Ted the Mariners fan sent me an email Monday night: “Watching Adam Jones is very depressing. Just robbed a home run, then gunned a runner trying to tag up for a double play.”

Ted’s sadness, however, is balanced by the joy of Orioles fans, who have enjoyed Jones’ hustle, enthusiasm, consistency and greatness over the past seven years.

I’ll admit: Despite my enthusiasm back on that cloudy August night years ago, I was slow to come around in appreciating Jones. I focused too much on his major weakness -- he rarely walks, which leads to league average-ish (or slightly below) on-base percentages -- and groused the defensive metrics didn’t agree with the Gold Gloves he was winning.

The sad thing about focusing too deeply or too much on the numbers is you can fail to fully appreciate a player. Jones is the kind of player any team would want, the kind of player baseball should do a better job of promoting: He’s charismatic, he plays with flair, he plays hard, he’s durable, and he’s good. He’s the kind of player every fan should love -- even Mariners fans.

The numbers say he isn’t quite a superstar; maybe not. He does make a lot of outs, and many Orioles fans I’ve conversed with in recent years have agreed with the defensive metrics that suggest Jones might be overrated in center field. OK, so maybe he’s not perfect. But there he was Monday, with the Orioles leading 9-1 in the sixth inning, tracing a fly ball to that short fence in Camden Yards, robbing Evan Longoria of a home run and throwing out Matt Joyce as he tried to tag from first base; he still has that arm I saw seven years ago.

Maybe the most underrated aspects of Jones’ game are his durability and consistency. After missing zero games in 2012 and just two last year, he’s played every game this season. When he got off to a slow start -- just one home run in his first 30 games -- it looked like he’d have a bad year, at least in the power department. Instead, here he is: Hitting in the .280s like he has the past four years and up to 24 home runs. In this day of carrying just 12 or 13 position players on a roster, having a guy who plays every day is more important than ever.

Jones isn’t unappreciated; he has started the past two All-Star Games, for example. But I’m here to finally say I’m on board.

* * * *

At the age of 23 in 2007, Nick Markakis hit .300 with 23 home runs, 43 doubles and 112 RBIs. The next year, he hit .306/.406/.491 with 20 home runs, 48 doubles and 99 walks and led American League position players in WAR (he was rewarded with not even one 10th-place vote in the MVP voting). He was kind of the opposite of Jones: A player statheads loved with all those walks, that doubles power, the cannon arm and the good defense in right field.

[+] EnlargeNick Markakis
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesNick Markakis may not be a prototypical speedy leadoff man, but he provides the Orioles with plenty of value.
He was just 24, and everyone wondered how good he’d be if he ramped up that home run output just a bit.

Then a funny thing happened. In 2009, tight as Markakis was entering what should have been his peak years, the game started changing: Offense declined across the league and pitchers began dominating, and as Markakis failed to replicate those numbers from his early seasons, he began to be viewed as a disappointment. Where was the power? Where were the 100-RBI seasons? He was no longer underrated but forgotten.

But here’s the thing: He has remained a good player, an above-average offensive performer other than in 2013. He still has a strong arm (he leads the AL in assists from right field), and while he no longer fits the conventional mold of a 25- or 30-homer right fielder, he has provided the Orioles good production from the leadoff spot with a .348 OBP and his 12th home run Monday.

A lot of teams might have given up on Markakis at some point and traded him for some pimply-faced kid in A-ball who throws 96, after viewing him through the lens of what they thought he’d be, as opposed to what he is.

Buck Showalter had some issues figuring out what Markakis had become as well. In 2012, he batted Markakis third the first part of the season, then moved him into the leadoff spot. He was having a solid season with a .293 average and .363 OBP when he got injured in September and missed the Orioles’ postseason appearance. Despite that success in the leadoff spot, Markakis hit all over the place in 2013 -- he started in six different spots in the lineup. This year, like Jones, he has played every game while starting in the leadoff spot.

Like Jones, that durability is a hidden asset. Other than in 2012, Markakis has been out there almost day, having played 160-plus games in five of his other six full seasons and 157 in the other. Think of all the time lost to injuries this season by star players across the league and remember that durability is as much a skill as hitting, running or throwing. The Orioles have two guys they know they can count on every game.

So maybe Markakis didn’t develop into a superstar hitter. You can debate why -- the pitching, decreased bat speed, something else -- but appreciate him for what he is: A solid player on a division-leading team. The Orioles have a $17.5 million team option for him next year; that might seem a lot for a guy who has never made an All-Star team, but you know what? I’d pick it up.
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In Game 1 of the Seattle Mariners-Boston Red Sox series at Fenway Park on Friday, Felix Hernandez allowed three runs in 5.2 innings -- the first time he'd allowed three runs in 18 starts.

In Game 2, Chris Young pitched just 3.2 innings.

In Game 3, Hisashi Iwakuma lasted just 2.1 innings, the shortest outing of his Mariners career.

What arguably has been the league's best trio of starting pitchers had a terrible weekend ... and yet the Mariners swept the Red Sox at Fenway for the first time in franchise history in a series of three games or longer.

Yes, you can credit the reeling Red Sox, now losers of eight straight, for helping out. You can credit the much-maligned Mariners offense that had a dramatic five-run ninth inning on Friday, a seven-run inning on Saturday and 13 hits on Sunday.

Mostly, you can credit the best bullpen in the league. Mariners relievers pitched 15.1 innings in the three games and allowed one run while punching out 21 Red Sox hitters as the Mariners rallied from deficits in all three games. Seattle's bullpen now owns a major league-best 2.38 ERA, which would be the lowest since the 1990 A's had a 2.35 mark. The average major league bullpen has allowed 3.86 runs per nine innings; the Mariners have allowed 2.63. Other bullpens may have better win-loss records -- Seattle's is 19-18, but you have to factor in the Mariners' lack of offensive punch -- but the pen has been a major reason the Mariners currently hold a tenuous grip on the second wild card over the Tigers.

A few keys to the pen's success: good health; expert handling by manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits; and a group that currently runs eight deep, most of whom can crank it up into the mid-90s -- the Mariners' average fastball velocity from their relievers is fourth highest in the majors. Leading the way there is converted starter Brandon Maurer, who bombed out of the rotation early in the year, but has averaged 96.1 mph with his fastball as a reliever while posting a 1.80 ERA.

I'm not a fan of having eight relievers on your roster, but these days, when complete games are few and far between (the Mariners have just one, from Roenis Elias), that depth has allowed McClendon to do some unusual things with his relievers. For starters, he's not afraid of a quick hook with his starters. Mariners starters have gone five or fewer innings in 40 games, the ninth-lowest figure in the majors -- even though Mariners starters have the third-best ERA in the majors. (The Braves have the fewest "quick hooks" with 22.) Obviously, Felix and Iwakuma usually go deep into the game, but knowing his offense doesn't score many runs, McClendon has been careful about not letting the game get away early when the other three starters are out there.

Despite the quick hooks -- which means using multiple relievers in the same game -- McClendon hasn't abused his relievers. According to Baseball-Reference.com, entering Sunday the Mariners had used the same reliever in back-to-back games just 64 times; only the Rangers, Blue Jays and Nationals had done so fewer times. And because he's rarely using his relievers in consecutive games, McClendon often lets his guys go more than one inning. Tom Wilhelmsen has 21 outings of more than one inning, fifth most among relievers, and has compiled a 2.03 ERA in those games, totaling 44.1 innings. Rookie Dominic Leone, who escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the third inning on Sunday with an infield pop-out and strikeout, has 19 such appearances totaling 34.2 innings with an ERA under 2.00. With his philosophy of not using guys on back-to-back days, McClendon hasn't settled on just one eighth-inning guy, with Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar primarily sharing those duties.

McClendon has been conventional in his use of closer Fernando Rodney -- just two outings of more than one inning -- and lefties Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel as LOOGYs, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Rodney gets the glory with the saves and the arrows, but maybe that's a good thing since he gets to enter without runners on base; he's only fifth among the current Mariners relievers in OPS allowed (and just barely ahead of Farquhar).

Counting blown saves from the middle relievers, the Mariners have just 10 -- tied with the Royals for second fewest in the majors behind the Padres -- an impressive figure considering how many close games the Mariners play.

SportsNation

Which playoff contender has the best bullpen?

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Discuss (Total votes: 7,110)

The Mariners are one game up on Detroit and you can point directly to the two bullpens as a reason why. Here are four other dominant bullpens that have helped contenders get where they are:

2. Kansas City Royals

The Royals don't have the Mariners' depth with a 3.40 ERA, but they do have the best late-inning trio in the majors in Kelvin Herrera (1.51 ERA), Wade Davis (0.80 ERA) and Greg Holland (1.79 ERA). Jason Frasor was acquired to add a strong fourth guy. The Royals haven't needed the depth -- their bullpen has pitched the second-fewest innings in the majors -- but it will be interesting to see if manager Ned Yost tries to get more out of this group down the stretch as the Royals battle the Tigers for the division crown.

3. Atlanta Braves

No surprise that the Braves would rank high with closer Craig Kimbrel once again crushing in the ninth inning. Like the Mariners, they don't usually have any margin for error considering their lack of runs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has had to mix and match more than McClendon as David Carpenter and Luis Avilan haven't repeated their outstanding 2013 campaigns, but Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro have been solid in supporting roles and James Russell recently came over from the Cubs to give the Braves a lefty presence.

4. Los Angeles Angels

For the season, the Angels are just 14th in the majors with a 3.45 bullpen ERA (before their Sunday night game), but the bullpen you see now isn't the one that was there in April. General manager Jerry Dipoto has rebuilt much of the pen, with the likes of Huston Street and Jason Grilli joining rubber-armed Joe Smith, and since June 1 it has a 2.85 ERA and since July 1 a 2.32 ERA.

5. Baltimore Orioles

You can consider the A's here, except closer Sean Doolittle just went on the DL, or the Yankees, who have a strong back-end duo with Dellin Betances and David Robertson, but I'd go with the Orioles. Buck Showalter's pen didn't have a set closer back in April, but Zach Britton has run with the role (2.04 ERA, 27 saves in 30 chances) and the pen has picked up momentum as the season has progressed. It's no coincidence that the O's began pulling away in the AL East as the bullpen started dominating -- it has the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the majors since June 1.



Losing Machado hurts O's lineup, defense

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
2:34
PM ET
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CHICAGO -- With the news already out, the Orioles’ brass was ready to put the best possible face on the fact that third baseman Manny Machado will have to miss the remainder of the season with an injury to his right knee almost identical to the one he suffered to his left knee last season. Beyond the big-picture question of how well and how soon one of the game’s most exciting young stars will recover, having this happen to a first-place team automatically creates stretch-run questions of how well the Orioles will adjust.

Meeting with reporters before the game, general manager Dan Duquette acknowledged, “Manny came to us yesterday and said his knee wasn't responding to the rest … He has a very similar injury to his right knee that he had last year to his left knee. … Given this injury and the time of the season, we thought that we would rest it and try to recover and play for the rest of the year. But Manny didn’t feel like that was the best option.”

But manager Buck Showalter was quick to refer to the resilience the Orioles have shown all season, saying, “I don’t get in that ‘woe is me, the earth is shaking, the sky is falling’ mentality. We’ve played 40-50 games without him. … We’d like to have him, but life goes on, baseball goes on. It’s not uncharted territory for this team.”
[+] EnlargeChris Davis
Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY SportsWill Chris Davis have the range to cover the O's needs at third base?

But with the waiver-trade deadline around the corner, you have to wonder if the Orioles aren’t going to make a move while there’s still time. Showalter said, “I’m looking at the people we have here, the people we have in Norfolk, the people we have in Bowie, and lean on the versatility of our players.”

On a practical level, that’s because there may not be that many options that fit the Orioles’ needs right now. As Duquette observed, “There is a very limited pool of players that are available at this time of the year, because a lot of players' contracts don’t get through the trade/waiver process, so it’s a very limited pool. I think we have some pretty good depth in-house, and we’ve had some players step up -- like Steve Pearce -- and do a good job. We’re going to continue to need players to step up in those situations.”

Pearce will be part of the solution to fill the need for power hitter at-bats to replace Machado, but that will be at his best position, first base. That’s because Chris Davis is being challenged to show if he can still handle third base. You might well worry, because although Davis split time between first and third as a prospect working his way up through the Rangers’ farm system, he was always expected to end up at first, and because he hadn’t played an inning at the hot corner in two years since starting 25 games there for the Rangers and Orioles in 2011. But after Davis was pressed into action at third during Machado’s suspension in June and after it didn’t prove embarrassing, he is the obvious choice to get most of the starts at third, especially with Pearce and Delmon Young both hitting their way into the lineup at first base and DH (or left field when Nelson Cruz DH’s).

While Davis can't provide Machado’s range and quickness, he does at least boast a strong arm, so you can understand how it might seem survivable. It isn’t as though we haven’t seen teams win after making sacrifices on defense at third: The Tigers and Giants both won pennants in 2012 with Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval not providing a ton of value afield, and the Cardinals won a couple of pennants and a World Series without David Freese making anyone forget Terry Pendleton.

That’s in the abstract, though, but the problem of playing the comparatively less-mobile Davis regularly at third presents a challenge for more defense-dependent pitchers. Orioles pitchers rank 11th overall in the league in strikeout rate (18.8 percent), the lowest mark of any contending team in the AL. So it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the Orioles have been getting the benefit of one of the highest Defensive Efficiency marks in baseball, converting 70.4 percent of all balls in play into outs, the third-best rate in the AL.

Obviously, that number is in danger of going down with Davis at third. Fortunately for them, none of the Orioles’ starting pitchers is an extreme ground-ball guy, with none of them rating more than average in groundout/fly-ball-out ratio. However, it’s in the pen where guys like Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter and T.J. McFarland generate a ton of ground-ball outs. Result? You shouldn't be surprised to see Davis switched off third or out of the game for a defensive replacement in the later innings.

The other added-on risk is whether or not Pearce will be overexposed at the plate in full-time play. Pearce already has 100 more at-bats so far than he got all of last year or in any major league season in his career. With a .785 OPS against righties so far this season, you wouldn't pigeonhole him as a platoon hitter, but on his career, he has a .664/.856 righty-lefty split that should make O’s fans worry. If that’s the shape of things to come, the Orioles’ heavily right-handed lean in the lineup could become a significant handicap down the stretch. We'll see if they add a lefty bat who can play the infield and/or outfield corners to help with that, but as Duquette observed, it won't be easy.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
5:49
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With a little more than a month left in the season and many division races still not settled, it's not too early to talk about what might have been, what might still could be, and what kinda is what we thought it kinda is ... or was ... or whatever. Just within the last week, we've had two new division leaders and a slew of injuries to reshuffle expectations. Did I mention that the waiver wire deadline hasn’t passed yet? Yup, it's a changing landscape, and whoever's doing the painting is keeping the 2014 baseball season a little squiggly.

Feel free to chime in on what you think might happen in the comments section below.

And without further ado -- because if we wait too long, these thoughts might go out of date faster than the Tulowitzki-to-Yankees rumors – on to the best of the SweetSpot Network contributing sites from the past week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Roundup: Jackson Trade, Lessons from Saber Seminar: Ryan P. Morrison examines the D-backs' trade for Brett Jackson and discusses a dozen or so nuggets of cutting-edge sabermetrics wisdom from last weekend's Saber Seminar in Boston. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Jon Shepherd takes the Ice Bucket Challenge: Jon Shepherd, whose family has been impacted by ALS, has his take, but highlights the need to secure more long-term funding beyond episodic viral campaigns. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Should the Cubs Pass on Signing an Ace this Offseason?: As we get closer and closer to the offseason, Joe Aiello wonders whether the Cubs should be looking at a nontraditional route when it comes to building their rotation for next season. Follow on Twitter: @vftb

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced Lajaway
The Evolution (or Devolution) of the Indians Pitching Staff: Stephanie Liscio takes a humorous month-by-month look at the fans' confidence level in the Tribe's starters. Follow on Twitter: @StephanieLiscio

Don't Give Up on Tomlin: Ryan McCrystal analyzes how Josh Tomlin has been a victim of bad defense and bad luck in recent weeks. Follow on Twitter: @TribeFanMcC

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Honoring Todd Helton: The Colorado Rockies retired Todd Helton's jersey number, the first Rockies player afforded such an honor. Richard Bergstrom reminisces on his career.

Rockies Bloggers Panel Recording 8/16/14: It was one of the most anticipated panels of the year, filled with bloggers flying into town to commemorate Todd Helton's retirement and a special guest. Members of Rockies Zingers, Purple Row, Rockies Review and Mile High Sports discuss the Rockies injuries and trainers/coaches along with the potential offseason moves. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers


New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Brian McCann's Crazy Reverse Platoon Split: Brad Vietrogoski attempts to explain the flip-flop of Brian McCann's production against right- and left-handed pitching this season. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS

What If: The 1994 World Series: Domenic Lanza looked at how the '94 Fall Classic could have played out if the Yanks and Expos had stayed on track as the best teams in baseball that year. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Cardinals walk off via hit-by-pitch for second time this season: Jon Jay helped the Cardinals win their second straight game in their final at-bat Tuesday night when he drew a bases-loaded plunking from Reds reliever J.J. Hoover. The Cardinals hadn’t had a walk-off hit-by-pitch in more than 25 years, but now -- including Greg Garcia back on May 13 -- they’ve had two in 2014. Pip lists all of the walk-off HBPs over the last 25 years. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes

San Francisco Giants, West Coast Bias
Giants pursuing Rusney Castillo: Tim Kennedy delves into the Giants' dealings with Cuban player Rusney Castillo. With the possibility of being a contributor to a major league team in 2014, he could certainly help out a Giants ball club fighting for its life. Follow on Twitter: @giantsbaseball

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The Replacements: Brandon Land takes a look at the current roster for the Rangers, and why it's unreasonable to have high expectations in a season so rife with injury. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away

What will Orioles do without Machado?

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
10:10
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When Baltimore Orioles' third baseman Manny Machado injured his right knee on an awkward swing in Monday night's win over the New York Yankees, many fans had flashbacks to when Machado was carted off the field late in the 2013 season in Tampa Bay after he crumpled to the ground. Machado eventually needed surgery on his left knee, and he wasn't able to return to the Orioles' lineup until May.

Machado got off to a slow start when he returned, posting a slash line of .220/.271/.284 in May and botching a few routine plays in the field that he would normally make. But it wasn't realistic to expect that he would immediately return to star form after such a serious injury, and Machado eventually shed the rust and turned things around. He has been playing strong defense at third base, and his offensive numbers have improved each month:

May: .252 wOBA
June: .338 wOBA
July: .394 wOBA
August: .416 wOBA

Despite missing all of April and that slow start, Machado currently ranks fifth among Orioles' position players in FanGraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement at 2.3. He's right behind Nelson Cruz (2.4) but ahead of Nick Markakis (2.1), who has played in every game and has accumulated 190 more plate appearances.

So Machado has certainly played a key role in the Orioles' 68-50 record and six-game lead in the American League East. But the Orioles are going to be without Machado for at least a little while, as it was reported Tuesday night that he has a right knee ligament sprain. More information will be provided on the severity of Machado's injury on Wednesday, but a stint on the disabled list is not out of the question.

It appears that Machado has avoided a second major injury to one of his knees, but his timetable at the moment is uncertain. Going forward, the Orioles will need someone to play third base. Buck Showalter has a few options. After Machado left the game on Monday, Chris Davis entered the game as his replacement at third. So Davis could spend some time at both corner infield positions while Machado is out. Ryan Flaherty has shown that he can at least handle the position competently defensively, and Jonathan Schoop spent some time in the minors playing both second and third base. The Orioles also have some third base options in Triple-A Norfolk: Steve Lombardozzi, Jimmy Paredes and Cord Phelps. (Phelps appears to be the call-up, if needed.) And it's not unreasonable that the Orioles would at least think about acquiring a player from outside the organization who has cleared revocable waivers, though that would be a drastic alternative.

Obviously none of those options is ideal. Davis is hitting .197 -- although does have four home runs in his past seven games -- and the O's have tried to give him a day off every now and then, which they may not be able to do now. He's started 68 games at third in his career but has a .913 fielding percentage and hasn't played there much since starting 17 games in 2011. Flaherty and possibly Schoop would probably be all right defensively, but they have been awful at the plate. Realistically, the Orioles would be grateful to get by with even average or below-average production while Machado recovers.

Machado is a fantastic talent, and the Orioles won't be able to replace him if he ends up missing significant time. Thankfully, the Orioles have already banked plenty of wins and a sizable division lead, and they'd have to play pretty terrible baseball the rest of the season to blow it. Of course anything can happen and no lead is truly safe, but if the O's aren't able to hold onto their division lead, it won't be just because Machado injured his knee.

Matt Kremnitzer is a writer for Camden Depot, the Orioles blog in the Sweetspot Network.

Orioles primed to run away with AL East

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
11:24
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For most of the season, the American League East has been considered by many to be the AL (L)East, a division of mediocrity that no team seemed to want to win.

A look at the standings heading into this weekend reveals a much different story.

Following their 12-2 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday, the Baltimore Orioles improved to 66-49, maintaining their five-game lead in the AL East. For all the talk of the dominance by the Oakland Athletics this season, it is now the Orioles who have the largest division lead of any team in baseball.

Baltimore's success is not just the product of beating up on its diminished division foes. The only teams in the majors with a better overall record than the Orioles are the A's and the Los Angeles Angels.

But that stat underestimates how well the Orioles have been playing for more than two months now. The team struggled out of the gate, dropping their first two series and (despite a few promising win streaks in April and May) had a mediocre 26-27 record after losing in Houston on May 30.

The next night -- behind the strong pitching of Chris Tillman -- the Orioles went out and beat the Astros 4-1 and haven't looked back. They are 40-22 since May 31, the best record of any team in baseball during that stretch. Yes, better than those two superpowers out west.

Consistency has been key for the Orioles, who haven't lost more than two games in a row since the end of May.

It's fitting that Tillman was again on the mound for Friday night's statement win, holding the Cardinals scoreless through six innings and finishing with just two runs allowed on four hits over 6⅔ innings.

His season has followed a similar trajectory to the rest of the team. He pitched poorly through the first two months, bottoming out on June 5 when he was rocked by the Texas Rangers for five runs and didn't record an out after the first inning.

That horrible outing raised his ERA to 5.20 through his first 13 starts, and he was clearly frustrated with himself, saying after that game, "it's been a constant battle. It's evident. I know what needs to be done. Just got to do it."

Something must have clicked after that game, because he has been lights-out ever since. His ERA now stands at 3.73 for the season, and it is an impressive 2.40 over his past 12 starts. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of those starts, holding batters to a .220 average while allowing only five homers in 78⅔ innings.

His ERA ranks 10th among AL starters since June 10, putting him in the company of elite pitchers Jon Lester, Felix Hernandez, Garrett Richards, David Price and Chris Sale.

He held the Cardinals to just one hit in 10 at-bats with men on base Friday, continuing a trend of strong pitching while throwing from the stretch over the past two months. He has allowed a .214 batting average and .569 OPS with runners on since June 10, a huge improvement from the .294/.380/.504 line during his first 13 starts of the season.

Tillman wouldn't have gotten the win on Friday night without a standout performance from the Orioles offense, which hit a season-high six homers and scored its second-most runs of the season.

The Orioles broke the game open in the second inning, taking a 4-0 lead, thanks to an RBI single from Nick Hundley and a three-run homer off the bat of Manny Machado. That was a good omen for the O's, who are an MLB-best 46-10 when scoring first.

J.J. Hardy joined the hit parade with home runs in the third and fourth inning, finishing with a season-high four RBIs. Hardy, who hit at least 20 homers in each of his first three seasons with the team, had gone deep only four times in his first 106 games of 2014.

Adam Jones added a solo shot in the fifth inning, while Chris Davis and Ryan Flaherty each connected in the sixth to give the Orioles a commanding 12-0 lead.

Tillman did allow a couple runs in the seventh inning, but Brian Matusz and Brad Brach held the Cardinals scoreless for the remainder of the game as the O's cruised to another easy win.

An AL East title now seems destined for an Orioles team that hasn't finished atop the division in more than 15 years.

This is the eighth time in the divisional era (since 1969) that the Orioles have held a lead of at least five games in August or later. They have won the division crown in each of the previous seven years.

While the A's and Angels beat each other up out west, and the Detroit Tigers remain in a battle with the surging Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, the Orioles have quietly positioned themselves to run away with the AL East and set themselves up for a long postseason run.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
8:01
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So how's that deadline deal working out for your team? Got buyer's remorse yet? Injuries continue to be the underlying ripcurrent across the MLB ocean and this week saw some unfortunate ones, as Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutcheon were both hurt (really, Tony?), and the already injured Cliff Lee was officially shelved for the season. Lesser names -- but still big impact to their teams -- like David Phelps and the newly acquired Allen Craig -- also hit the DL. By the way, what happened to preseason MVP candidate Bryce Harper?

Speaking of bad news, pseudo-doctor Tony Bosch surrendered and plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids. I don't much care to hear any more names. Having just read "Blood Sport" about Bosch and Biogenesis and the infiltration of PEDs throughout baseball, the need for more dirt to be thrown on this great game isn't there for me.

But at least Cubbies fans get their latest peek at their future, with the call-up of Javier Baez. And there's always the feel-good stories like Jose Abreu, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout to bring you back. Lastly, a hearty congrats to A.J. Preller, the new GM of the San Diego Padres. You hirin', bro?

On to the best of the SweetSpot Network this week, touching on some of these issues:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Operation Beanball is the newest embarrassment: After Paul Goldschmidt's hand was broken last Friday, the D-backs, from Miguel Montero up to Tony La Russa, were outspoken about retaliation. As Jeff Wiser explains, the club's conduct is adding insult to injury. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Caleb Joseph is an All-Star: Jon Shepherd delves into the surprising season Caleb Joseph has had, going from unprotected in the Rule 5 draft to, perhaps, being one of the best catchers in baseball. Of course, you know, small sample size. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Zingers in da clubhouse: What's it like to have media access for the first time? Richard Bergstrom literally walks through the Rockies clubhouse, dugout and press box and even talks to a player or two without goofing up too much. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

Minnesota Twins: Twins Daily
Will Alex Meyer pitch in the majors this year? Twins fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the top pitching prospect, but Nick Nelson explains why they may be waiting until 2015. Follow on Twitter: @TwinsDaily.

New York Yankees: It's About the Money
Whither the 2015 rotation: Domenic Lanza looks ahead to the Yankees' options for the 2015 rotation. All told, it's not that bad if they can make the moves to land some of the available arms. Follow on Twitter: @DomenicLanza.

McCarthy mixes fastballs brilliantly to tame the Tigers: Brandon McCarthy has pitched well since joining the Yankees in July. Brad Vietrogoski examined his latest start against the Tigers and illustrates just how good he was at mixing his pitches. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
With trade, both Cardinals and Red Sox may have relied on availability heuristic: Let’s take another look at the deadline trade involving John Lackey, Corey Littrell, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. What made the teams’ respective GMs pull the trigger on this particular package of players? Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
Watching Nick Franklin: R.J. Anderson breaks down the strengths and weakness of the new Rays infielder. Follow on Twitter: @R_J_Anderson.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Let's look at some of the fallout from the trade deadline -- things people said -- and then make some predictions for what happens the rest of the way.

1. The acquisition of Jon Lester makes the Oakland A's the favorite in the AL West.

Prediction: The A's win the West.

The trade for Lester didn't actually upgrade the A's odds to beat the Los Angeles Angels all that much -- using player projection totals and remaining schedule, Baseball Prospectus says the trade increased Oakland's chances a mere 2 percent. The Angels won on Sunday, thanks to a five-run first inning, while the A's were shut down by James Shields in a 4-2 loss to the Royals, so Oakland's lead is one game. Still, I like Oakland's rotation depth. C.J. Wilson's return on Saturday after missing a month was a disaster as he got knocked out in the second inning, Tyler Skaggs just landed on the DL with a shoulder issue and you wonder how the Angels' rotation will hold up after Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.

2. With John Lackey and Justin Masterson, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central.

Prediction: The Pirates win the Central.

The Cardinals remain the favorite, according to our playoffs odds, and Lackey pitched seven strong innings on Sunday to win his Cardinals debut, but I'm going with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here's the thing about Lackey and Masterson: The Cardinals' rotation was pretty good before the trades; Lackey and Masterson may be upgrades over what Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez would have done the rest of the season, making the trades important, but they aren't necessarily an improvement over what the Cardinals had received so far from their various starters in those slots. The Cardinals are eighth in the majors with a 3.47 rotation ERA, and I don't expect them to do much better than that moving forward.

The St. Louis offense, meanwhile, is still next to last in the NL in runs scored. In what should be a three-team race down to the wire, the Pirates are my pick. One major reason: Francisco Liriano. In four starts since coming off the DL, he has a 1.96 ERA. He's looking more like the guy who was so good last year. If they can get Gerrit Cole back from his lat strain -- he was scratched from his Saturday start and instead threw a bullpen session -- even better. Note: If the injury to Andrew McCutchen's side that forced him out of Sunday's game proves serious, all bets are off.

3. Even with David Price, Max Scherzer is still the Detroit Tigers' ace.

Prediction: Price starts Game 1 of the division series.

This may be most important decision Brad Ausmus has to make all postseason: Which guy do you line up for two potential starts in the first round? The past two years against the A's, it has been Justin Verlander, and he rewarded Jim Leyland with two dominant efforts. But it won't be Verlander this year. My bet is on Price, who has been more consistent this season than Scherzer and has a 2.03 ERA over his past two starts. The Tigers may play the Orioles and the O's have an OPS of .732 against righties and .695 against lefties, another reason to slot Price in the first game.

4. The Los Angeles Dodgers made a mistake by not getting Lester or Price.

Prediction: The Dodgers win the NL West.

Josh Beckett didn't do anything to boost the confidence of Dodgers fans with another poor effort on Sunday; he got knocked out after scuffling through 94 pitches in four-plus innings. In three starts since the All-Star break, he has gone 3.2, 4.1 and 4 innings, respectively. Dan Haren has been even worse, with a 10.03 ERA over his past five starts.

Still, I agree with the decision to hold on to Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. At some point, you need to infuse some youth, and with Pederson heating up again at Triple-A, he may be in the Dodgers' outfield sooner rather than later. The Dodgers will win the West thanks to the best top three in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

5. The Baltimore Orioles should have added a starting pitcher.

Prediction: The Orioles win the AL East.

Maybe the Orioles lack an ace in the mold of Price or Lester, but good luck getting those guys from a division rival. Plus, there's this: Since June 9, the Orioles have the third-best ERA in the majors and second-best rotation ERA in the American League (3.05). Chris Tillman outdueled Hisashi Iwakuma 1-0 on Sunday in the latest strong effort from a Baltimore starter.

The question: Is there some smoke and mirrors going on here? Since June 9, Orioles starters are 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings and 28th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That does make you wonder; on the other hand, the Orioles are a very good defensive teams (fifth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved) so they do turn more batted balls into outs than most teams. The O's may like to have an ace for the postseason, but they can get there without one.

6. The Seattle Mariners are better after acquiring some bats.

Prediction: The Mariners still don't have enough offense to win the wild card.

Since the All-Star break they've allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors -- 2.88. And they're 6-10. They lost 2-1 on Friday and 1-0 on Sunday. Kendrys Morales has looked terrible since coming over from the Twins, where he also looked terrible. Austin Jackson was a much-needed move for center field, but he and Chris Denorfia aren't game-changers on offense, even above and beyond what the Mariners had. And they can't count on Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma giving up just one or two runs every time out.

7. Stephen Strasburg isn't an ace yet.

Prediction: The Washington Nationals win the NL East ... and Strasburg starts Game 1 of the playoffs.

Wait, did somebody write that about Strasburg? He sure looked like one on Sunday, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves lost their sixth in a row, creating a 3.5-game lead for Washington, its biggest since holding a 3.5-game on June 1.


8. The San Francisco Giants should have picked up a second baseman.

Prediction: They'll get one in August.

Even with a nine-run outburst on Sunday, over the past month the Giants are hitting .231/.290/.342, the second-lowest OPS in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners). A second baseman isn't going to cure this, but Brandon Belt returned on Saturday and that should help. Buster Posey may be heating up, hitting .352 over the past two weeks and that will help. Brian Sabean has made waiver pickups before, so don't count him from getting somebody -- maybe a guy like Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs. As the offense improves, the Giants should solidify their place in the wild-card standings (playing the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks will help a lot also).

9. The Cleveland Indians punted the season in trading Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Prediction: Not necessarily ...

The Indians won their third in a row on Sunday on Michael Brantley's 12th-inning home run, and they're just three games back for the second wild card. I'm not predicting them to win it (I'll go with the Toronto Blue Jays), but I'm predicting them to hang in there.

10. The A's are now World Series favorites.

Prediction: OK, I'll go with that. Aren't the A's overdue for some October magic?

So, my post-deadline picks:

AL wild card: Angels over Blue Jays
NL wild card: Giants over Brewers

ALDS: Tigers over Orioles
ALDS: A's over Angels

NLDS: Dodgers over Giants
NLDS: Nationals over Pirates

ALCS: A's over Tigers
NLCS: Dodgers over Nationals

World Series: A's over Dodgers ... Jon Lester wins Game 7 and then signs a $175 million contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Sam Fuld wins World Series MVP honors. Billy Beane announces retirement and says, "I was never really into this sabermetrics stuff anyway."

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