SweetSpot: New York Mets
- Harvey didn't have great command on this day (he normally gets a swing-and-miss percentage of 27 percent but was just 13 percent today), although some of that is a testament to the Reds' hitters, especially Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, who are so good at making a pitcher work to get them out. He left a couple of sliders over the middle of the plate but the one big mistake he made was a 3-0 fastball to Votto with Zack Cozart on second in the third. Votto is Mr. Discipline, so Harvey was probably thinking Votto would take a pitch, especially with first base open and one out. He threw a 96-mph fastball down the middle and Votto launched it over the wall in left.[+] Enlarge
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJoey Votto's two-run homer in the third put the Reds up, 2-1.
- The next time Votto came up, Cozart was again on second base, although with two outs this time. The Mets didn't fool around and intentionally walked Votto. Brandon Phillips also walked but Harvey got Jay Bruce to ground out on a curveball.
- It was 2-2 entering the seventh but Harvey had already thrown 100 pitches. The Reds had the top of their lineup up and while you could consider bringing in a lefty there to face Choo, who is hitting .146 against southpaws, this is the Mets' bullpen we're talking about and Jesse Orosco and John Franco weren't available. Harvey got Choo on a groundball but Cozart singled to center. That brought up Votto, with Harvey at 109 pitches. Mr. Discipline would take a pitch here, right? Maybe try to take a walk against a pitcher nearing the end of his stint? Nope. Harvey started him off with a changeup and Votto lined a single to center. Phillips then singled to give the Reds the lead and knock Harvey out of the game. (The Reds added another run to make it 4-2.)
- It was the first time in 16 starts that Harvey allowed more than three runs (in fact, he'd given up as many as three only two times) and the second start this year where he allowed more hits than innings. I guess he's allowed to be human every now and then.
- In the bottom of the seventh, Daniel Murphy singled off Mat Latos with two outs to drive in a run and make it 4-3. Latos was only at 99 pitches, but Mets announcer Ron Darling suggested a pitching change may be in order since Ankiel had been on Latos all day. Dusty Baker left in Latos and Ankiel tripled off the wall in left to tie it up. And then Dusty took out his starter.
- Ike Davis is having the season from hell. He did draw two walks and Darling suggested he looked a little more comfortable at the plate, but he's now hitting a miserable .147/.236/.245. And then a bit of defensive indecision cost the Mets in the ninth. With runners at the corners (Votto had been intentionally walked again), here's the result of Phillips' check-swing, go-ahead RBI double. I don't know if Davis had a shot at the runner at home, but you still have to field the ball and let the ump call it foul instead of hoping it goes foul.
- Votto is now hitting .358/.484/.545 with seven home runs. And there are those complaining that he's not driving in enough runs.
1. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
This may surprise you, but Hernandez and Iwakuma have the highest WAR (wins above replacement) of any pair of pitchers in the majors. And before we write off Iwakuma's outstanding start to the season as a fluke, here are the American League ERA leaders going back to last July 1, when Iwakuma joined the Mariners' rotation:
Justin Verlander: 2.77
James Shields: 2.86
Hiroki Kuroda: 2.97
So the M's have Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who has pitched 230-plus innings the past four seasons and who has been as effective as any starter in the game for nearly a year. And they have Iwakuma, who will give up some home runs, but he's walked only 11 batters in 10 starts and his splitter has turned into a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .184 off it with one home run, 35 strikeouts and two walks in 79 plate appearances ending with the pitch. If the Mariners fall out of the wild-card race, maybe they'll look to trade Iwakuma while his stock is high, but I fear that would be a mistake and they would be making a Doug Fister-like trade that backfires. Iwakuma is for real.
2. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
The Tigers' rotation is so good that you could also slot Fister or Max Scherzer here and have an equally terrific duo. I still like Scherzer as the club's No. 2 as the season progresses, but Sanchez has been terrific so far and has ramped up his strikeout rate to new highs, up more than 9 percent from last season (68 in 55.1 innings). His ERA is 2.77, and while his home run rate is probably unsustainable (just two allowed), his BABIP is too high on the other end at .356. Moving forward, those two results should cancel each other out as they normalize and Sanchez should remain outstanding.
3. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game right now -- he's gone 22 consecutive starts allowing three earned runs or fewer, the longest such streak since Pedro Martinez had 23 in 1999-2000 -- and Greinke would be the ace of many teams. Now that Greinke is back from his broken collarbone, we'll see if everyone has written off the Dodgers too quickly.
4. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Somehow, Kuroda still flies under the radar despite playing in New York. He's not flashy, but batters are hitting .201 AVG/.254 OBP/.292 SLG against him. There's some luck going on here since his .229 BABIP will probably rise, but his slider has been untouchable: opponents are 8-for-61 (.131) against it without an extra-base hit. Meanwhile, Sabathia has lost some velocity off his fastball, but he pitches down in the zone more, throws strikes and keeps the Yankees in games. Since his pitch counts have run high at times he's averaging only 6.5 innings per start, so maybe his days as a 230-inning workhorse are over (he missed a few starts last year, remember, and pitched just 200 innings). Remember as well that these guys have to pitch half their games at Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls can land in the right-field stands.
Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Yes, young guns Shelby Miller and Matt Harvey have seemingly pushed Strasburg out of the limelight, but he's still pretty good and still throws hard (best average fastball velocity among starting pitchers). Nonetheless, he's been surpassed by Zimmermann as the club's ace. Zimmerman doesn't rack up the huge strikeout totals so the advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP suggest his ERA will rise (well, it will, since it's at 1.62 right now). But he throws strikes with Maddux-like precision (nine walks in nine starts) and while there were concerns heading into the season about his ability to go deep into games, his efficiency has allowed him to toss three complete games without throwing more than 107 pitches. He's 7-2 and could be 9-0 -- in the two games he lost, he allowed two runs.
That's my top five, and I couldn't find room for Adam Wainwright and Miller, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Chris Sale and Jake Peavy, Matt Moore and David Price, Matt Harvey and anybody. It's a pitcher's game right now, that's for sure.
Quick reactions from Monday's games ...
- If you've seen the scary video of Bryce Harper crashing face-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium, you know the end result could have been much worse than a bloodied face. Aside from Harper needing to learn what "warning track" means, the reaction from some of the Nationals is frustrating. "That's all you can ask for as a pitcher, a guy going 110 percent," said winning pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. No, no, no. Absolutely wrong. There's rarely a good time to go crashing into a wall, especially when the score is 6-0. There is no way making that catch -- and getting ONE OUT -- is worth the risk of the injury. Sometimes you have to play this game at 99 or 95 percent. Manager Davey Johnson said, "I don't want to change him." Fine. I get it. The hustle, the energy, that's part of what drives Harper to excel. But you have to be smart. I'm pretty sure Davey's behind-the-scenes talks with Harper will be a little different than his public posturing.
The one guy who got it right was Ryan Zimmerman: "I would rather him not go all-out into the wall. Some people look at it as a bad thing. If you play that hard every day, there is something to be said about that. He's going to play a long time and you have to learn to take care of your body. As he grows, he'll learn what to do and what not to do." Zimmerman is speaking from experience, as a player who has battled injuries in his career. I love Harper's all-out play; I don't love him running into walls.
- Josh Beckett left after three innings after tweaking his groin, but gave up four runs before then anyway and fell to 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA. The Dodgers can use injuries as an excuse for their 15-22 record, but Beckett has been awful, Matt Kemp has been bad, Andre Ethier is slugging under .400, their third basemen are hitting a combined .185 with a .526 OPS and closer Brandon League has a 6.28 ERA.
- Great day for Aaron Hicks, whom the Twins have resisted sending down to the minors despite his slow start. He homered twice off Hector Santiago of the White Sox in a 10-3 victory and then robbed Adam Dunn of a home run. Love the big smile from Hicks as he gets up from the ground. Let's hope this gets his season going in the right direction.
- The Mets signed Rick Ankiel. He had been released by the Astros because he's struck out in over half his plate appearances. He started in center field. In a related note, the Mets lost 6-3 to the Cardinals.
- Travis Wood pitched seven scoreless, two-hit innings against the Rockies and has quietly put up a 2.03 ERA for the Cubs. Wood is a fly ball pitcher -- he had 12 fly ball outs on Monday, seven on the ground -- and when the ball stays in the park, he can be very effective. He's had a lot of effective outings of late. In his past 17 starts dating back to last August, he has a 2.65 ERA, .189 average and .263 OBP allowed and just eight home runs. He's a guy the advanced metrics don't love because his strikeout rate isn't high, but he could be developing into a nice 1-2 combo with Jeff Samardzija.
- The Rockies, meanwhile, are starting to struggle with the bats on the road. I've touched on this earlier this season, that Colorado's problems in the past has been more about the hitters doing bad on the road than the pitchers doing bad at home. The Rockies started out fine on the road, but the bats have gone dry, getting three hits in two games against St. Louis over the weekend and now getting three-hit by the Cubs.
- Joe Blanton is a guy the advanced metrics overrate, because he walks so few batters his strikeout/walk ratio is terrific. Last night, for example, he had seven strikeouts and no walks. But he gave up 12 hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings in an 11-4 loss to the Royals. Maybe there was some bad luck: "I felt like I threw the ball good tonight and my stuff was good," Blanton said. "When they made contact they found holes, broken-bat balls fell in for singles and balls bounced their way down the lines. It was one of those weird games. There were a couple of innings where I was one pitch away from it." Still. He's now 0-7 with a 6.46 ERA, and it's not that big of a surprise he's been this bad. He wasn't good last season in the National League, and there was no reason to expect him to come over to the AL, face deeper lineups, and suddenly get his ERA closer to 4.00. He's not good.
In April, Jose Bautista had turned into a three true outcomes type of player: home run, walk or strikeout. He hit seven home runs and had a slugging percentage over .500, but was hitting just .200.
Was he just finding his stroke as he returned from last year's injury problems? Or was he no longer the MVP-caliber hitter of 2010 and 2011, when he hit 54 and 43 home runs, drew walks, and hit .260 and then .302?
He hit his first two home runs of May on Sunday in a 12-4 pasting of the Red Sox to raise his overall batting to .246/.360/.544 -- respectable, if not quite 2011-level Bautista. And the Blue Jays need 2011-level Bautista if they have any hope of recovering from their awful start.
I'm not quite sure he's there yet. While Bautista can crush any fastball -- he's hitting .333 with six home runs in 51 at-bats ending with a fastball this season -- it was his production against "soft" stuff that allowed him to hit above .300 in 2011. Check out these two charts on his batting average against soft stuff in 2011, and then the past two seasons:
As you can see, that's a lot of red (hot) in 2011 and a lot of blue (cold) since. This year, he's 7-for-51 (.137) with three home runs against soft stuff. He split his home runs on Sunday -- one came off a first-pitch Ryan Dempster fastball, the other off an 0-1 83 mph slider from Clayton Mortensen. Bautista is a dead pull hitter -- only one home run to center and one to right-center over the past two seasons -- which can leave him vulnerable to breaking stuff on the outside part of the plate.
I haven't seen enough evidence that he's going to punish those pitches like he did a couple years ago, so I would guess he'll be prone to ups and downs throughout the season. He's still a huge threat at the plate, but not the MVP bat of 2011.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. One hit. Twenty-seven down. In a 3-0 win over the Rockies on Friday, the St. Louis rookie became the fifth pitcher since 1961 to allow the first batter to reach base and then retire 27 in a row, joining John Lackey (2006 Angels), Jerry Reuss (1982 Dodgers), Jim Bibby (1981 Pirates) and Woodie Fryman (1966 Pirates). Miller had the Rockies guessing wrong -- or merely looking -- all night long, as he got 30 called strikes, the second-most by a starter this season. Eight of those closed out Miller's 13 strikeouts. Just a dominant performance. In fact, for all the attention given to Matt Harvey this year, compare the two young right-handers:
Miller: 5-2, 1.58 ERA, 45.2 IP, 29 H, 3 HR, 11 BB, 51 SO, .179 AVG
Harvey: 4-0, 1.44 ERA, 56.1 IP, 27 H, 3 HR, 14 BB, 62 SO, .142 AVG
2. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Not to be outdone, Wainwright took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday, finishing with a two-hit shutout in another 3-0 win for the Cards. Wainwright improved to 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and had strong words about his rookie teammate: "You follow Roger Clemens a couple times like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," he said. "Once you see Shelby mow through a lineup like he has all year, you want to go out there and do it, too." Kudos also to Cards manager Mike Matheny for leaving in Miller to throw 113 pitches, and Wainwright to throw 120. In this day when managers are too willing to yank starters at 100 pitches, it is good to see a manager let his guys go the distance.
3. Chris Sale, White Sox, and Jon Lester, Red Sox. Two more one-hit shutouts, Lester on Friday, Sale on Sunday. Can't anyone here hit anymore? Lester got 12 ground-ball outs as he joined Pedro Martinez (2000), Hideo Nomo (2001), Curt Schilling (2007) and Josh Beckett (2011) as Red Sox pitchers to throw a one-hit, no-walk shutout in the live ball era. But Sale threw his wearing the so-ugly-they're-cool 1983 throwback uniforms.
Clutch performance of the weekend
Evan Longoria, for his two-out, two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to give the Rays a dramatic 8-7 win over the Padres on Saturday. My favorite part: There's some sort of picnic area in left-center (yes, "picnic area" and "domed stadium" is kind of an oxymoron) where the ball landed, and it looks like half the fans out there didn't realize it was a game-winning home run.
First off, credit Ben Zobrist for a drawing the two-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Huston Street, working back from a 1-2 count. Street knew that was the batter he had to get. "You get him 1-2, you've got to make a pitch," he said. "I'm frustrated about that just as much as leaving a pitch to Longoria in the middle of the plate." The Rays had led 6-2 before the Padres scored five in the seventh, leading Joe Maddon to say it would have been one of Tampa's worst three losses of the year. "But you can't go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you've got to put the other team away. I'm not happy with that. That's inappropriate. That's got to stop," he said.
The Rays finished the sweep on Sunday, however -- their fifth win in a row -- and clawed a game over .500.
Well, that Padres-Rays game was pretty good. Miller's game was mesmerizing. Toronto's win over Boston on Saturday featured Adam Lind's go-ahead home run in the ninth off Junichi Tazawa, after the Red Sox had tied it in the bottom of the eighth. But I'll go with Cleveland's 7-6 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Saturday. Or Cleveland's 4-3 win on Sunday, in which the Indians tied it in the ninth and won it in the 10th, leading to this quote from Mark Reynolds, who delivered the go-ahead single: "With two strikes, I'm just trying to shorten up my swing and get something into play," he said. Wait ... since when does Reynolds shorten up his swing? Gotta love baseball.
The Indians took two of three from the Tigers to move into a first-place tie with Detroit.
Hitter on the rise: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
He had six home runs through April 21, but his average fell to .173 after a three-strikeout game on April 25. In 16 games, he's hit .419/.478/.694, with three more home runs, eight doubles and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight). He has six three-hit games in that stretch, and he's showing he's more than just an all-or-nothing slugger. He's showing he's a guy who is going to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter for a long time.
Pitcher on the rise: Zach McAllister, Indians
Don't believe in the Indians? Don't believe in the rotation? McAllister is starting to look like another solid option alongside Justin Masterson. He didn't get a decision in Sunday's game but pitched a solid six innings. He's 3-3 with a 2.68 ERA and a decent 33/13 SO/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. He's a fly ball pitcher but has allowed just five home runs in seven starts. If he keeps the ball on the right side of the fence he has a chance to be successful.
Brandon Phillips play of the week
This one was pretty.
Happy Mother's Day
Pablo Sandoval uses his pink bat to launch one into McCovey Cove. Tim Lincecum backed up Sandoval with his best outing of the year as the Giants took the final three of four from the Braves. Tough stretch coming up for the Giants, however: 20 of their next 30 on the road, including series in Toronto, Colorado, St. Louis, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
Team on the rise: Indians
They're 12-2 over the past 14, hitting .305 with 24 home runs -- and that stretch does not include that 19-6 win over Houston earlier in the season. The pitching staff has a 2.98 ERA with 13 home runs allowed. The Indians lead the majors in home runs and OPS, and guys like Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall have room to do better.
Team on the fall: A's
Awful week, losing four to Cleveland and then two of three to Seattle. They scored more than three runs just once in seven games as injuries to outfielders Coco Crisp, Chris Young and Josh Reddick have left them playing Michael Taylor and Brandon Moss in the outfield (with Daric Barton or Nate Freiman replacing Moss at first base). Jarrod Parker is still scuffling (6.86 ERA, four walks in 6.1 innings on Saturday). The A's just need to get healthy, and they didn't hit their stride last year until July (they were 37-42 and 13 games out on July 1), so they may be down now, but hardly out.
Here are other things you need to keep an eye on for this weekend!
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsThe Los Angeles Angels' C.J. Wilson, coming off a 12-strikeout performance against the Astros, will try to keep it going against the White Sox this weekend.
2. Pass the suntan lotion: While Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz takes offense to allegations his body has been illegally aided, ace right-hander Clay Buchholz has remained relatively quiet about Toronto Blue Jays announcer Jack Morris accusing him of doctoring baseballs with a foreign substance on his arm, later suggested to be a mixture of suntan lotion and rosin (and for a night game in a dome!). Well, what better way for Buchholz to make a statement than in person as the last-place Blue Jays visit Fenway Park. Buchholz is scheduled to face lefty Mark Buehrle Saturday afternoon. In this case suntan lotion is reasonable. If Buchholz pitches poorly, though, it's not going to help his reputation. I'll say he pitches well.
3. Hit on 20: Two first-place teams with more than 20 wins continue their series out West as the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants meet in what could be -- you'll hear this quite a bit over the next four months -- a playoff preview. After all, these teams faced off in the 2010 playoffs. The worst of the starting pitchers still pending in the series is, believe it or not, Tim Lincecum. Hey, the numbers support that. Lincecum is scheduled to meet Kris Medlen Sunday, and while the two-time Cy Young Award winner has had much success against current Braves hitters in the past, that's totally irrelevant. Lincecum isn't the same pitcher he used to be. His underwhelming numbers look pretty much on par with his 2012 ones, with the high ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate.
4. Carlos in Charge: One of the best players many have never heard of will bring a 14-game hitting streak and an NL-leading .386 batting average to Cincinnati this weekend. Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez is hitting .491 during this stretch, and the highlight pitching matchup comes right away on Friday, as Cincinnati Reds rookie lefty Tony Cingrani faces right-hander Yovani Gallardo. It's also an important outing for Cingrani, with right-hander Johnny Cueto (oblique) nearing a return to the active roster. It's either Cingrani or Mike Leake who will lose a rotation spot, and while it might seem an obvious choice, it probably isn't to Dusty Baker.
5. Harvey's bar: New York Mets right-hander Matt Harvey has set the bar quite high in the early going, posting a 1.28 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 4-0 mark through seven starts, and Sunday he gets to face another underwhelming offense in the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's possible Harvey really is a legit Cy Young fave, but here are the teams he's dominated so far: Padres, Phillies, Twins, Nationals, Dodgers, Marlins, White Sox. Not exactly top offenses. Still, Harvey is must-see TV each time out. A few years ago the same could be said of lefty Francisco Liriano; he's a Pirate now, scheduled to make his season debut Saturday, but after posting an ERA on the wrong side of 5 three of the past four seasons, it's tough to muster interest in him.
Have a great weekend!
When I was a kid, that game was pretty famous; certainly more famous than it seems now. I have a book The Sporting News published in 1986 titled "Baseball's 50 Greatest Games" and the Cadore-Oeschger battled ranked sixth, ahead of memorable games like Carlton Fisk's 1975 World Series home run, Johnny Vander Meer's second consecutive no-hitter and the Brooklyn Dodgers finally winning the World Series in 1955.
Certainly, the game was different in 1920, but still ... 26 innings is a little crazy. I'm pretty sure no reporters thought to ask managers Wilbert Robinson and George Stallings why they let the pitch counts run so high. Cadore faced 96 batters and Oeschger 90. Conservatively estimating an average of three pitches per batter, we're talking nearly 300 pitches for each guy. Oeschger (pronounced "Eshker") would estimate he threw about 250 pitches, mostly fastballs, while Cadore would guess he'd thrown "at least 300 curves."
The game started at 3 p.m. at Braves Field in Boston and lasted until 6:50, when umpire Bill McCormick called it, despite pleas from the players to go one more inning so they could say they played three full games. It was also the first day of daylight savings, so if the game had been played a day earlier it would have been called well before the 26th inning.
The New York Times report on the game didn't mention Cadore and Oeschger until the fourth subhead below the headline and the game story didn't mention the two hurlers until the ninth paragraph. The big story was that the game had lasted a record 26 innings, not that both pitchers had gone the distance. "The less hardy of the fans began to show signs of the strain by moving restlessly in their seats and babbling about perpetual motion and eternity," wrote the anonymous scribe. Only later in the story did the paper report:
"Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore were the real outstanding heroes among a score of heroes in the monumental affray of this afternoon. ... Instead of showing any signs of weakening under the strain, each of them appeared to grow stronger. In the final six innings neither artist allowed even the shadow of a safe single."I suspect the gray, damp weather may have helped a bit as well in those days before lights. The closest a team came to winning in extra was the 17th, when Brooklyn loaded the bases with one out. The next batter grounded back to Oeschger, who got the force out at home, but the throw to first to complete the double play was in the dirt and Ed Konetchy tried to score from third, only to get thrown out, with Boston catcher Hank Gowdy apparently making a diving tag on Konetchy's spikes.
From there, neither pitcher wanted out. Years later, Cadore would say of Brooklyn manager Robinson, "If he had tried to make out of the game, I think I would have strangled him."
Long outings by pitchers weren't unusual then. Oeschger, in fact, had dueled Burleigh Grimes for 19 innings almost exactly a year earlier (April 30). Lefty Tyler and Art Nehf had each pitched 21 innings in separate games in 1918 and Milt Watson pitched 20 when matched up against Tyler.
Neither pitcher threw again for more than a week. Cadore said he couldn't raise his arm for three days to comb his hair, but he returned and had a fine season, helping Brooklyn reach the World Series (he lost his only start).
It's difficult to know whether either pitcher suffered long-term damage because of the game. Both were 28 years old for their epic duel, but Cadore wasn't as effective after 1920. He'd been an excellent pitcher in 1917, 1919 and 1920 (missing most of 1918 while serving in the Army), but fell off in 1921 and 1922 was his last full season in the majors. He married the daughter of Dodgers president Charles Ebbets and worked on Wall Street until the stock market crash in 1929, later moving to Idaho to mine copper.
Oeschger's 1921 numbers were nearly identical to his 1920 season as he won 20 games. But he too declined rapidly beginning in 1922, surviving in the majors until 1925. He became a junior high phys ed teacher and vice principal in California and lived until he was 94, the last survivor among participants in the longest game in major league history.
It was just the second time in 30 years that a team hit back-to-back home runs with two outs in the ninth to win a game (Nick Green and J.D. Drew did it for the Braves in 2004). That it came off Kimbrel, regarded as the game's best closer, was all the more shocking.
First, Devin Mesoraco, pinch-hitting, lined a 3-2 low fastball just over the fence in right-center to tie it and then Shin-Soo Choo hit his second homer of the game, off another low fastball, for the improbable walk-off.
We all remember how dominant Kimbrel was last season. Not only did he strike out over half the batters he faced, he allowed just four extra-base hits -- three home runs and a double. He's now allowed three home runs and two doubles in 2013 in just 13.1 innings and has blown three save chances -- and the Braves lost all three games. You can point to his still-great strikeout totals (21) but the bottom line is Kimbrel has not done the job. That's three losses for the Braves in games they led entering the ninth inning, after losing just one such game a year ago.
In 2012, the 30 teams combined to lose just 111 such games --3.7 per team. So unless Kimbrel is perfect the rest of the way, the Braves' ability to protect ninth-inning leads will likely be worse than the average major league team.
Making Kimbrel just another overrated closer.
Other quick thoughts:
- Adam Rubin has the story on Harvey's dominant performance against the White Sox -- he allowed only Alex Rios' infield single, a play Ruben Tejada could have made if he'd played it a little more aggressively. Batters are hitting .133 off Harvey so far. He joins a list of notable no-decisions in recent years, a great list dug up by ESPN Stats & Info: Randy Johnson (May 8, 2001, 9 IP, 3 H, 20 SO); Kevin Millwood (Aug. 28, 1999, 10 IP, 2 H, 9 SO); Francisco Cordova (July 12, 1997, 9 IP, 0 H, 10 SO). Cordova and teammate Ricardo Rincon ended up combining for a 10-inning no-hitter that day for the Pirates.
- Paul Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer off Brandon League in the ninth to give the Diamondbacks a 7-5 win over the terrible Dodgers, but check out these two plays from Didi Gregorius. I wonder if he makes that play on Rios ...
- Not to be outdone, check out these two plays from Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons.
- Adrian Beltre, however, had the play of the night to rob Yuniesky Betancourt. The Brewers beat the Rangers anyway as they scored five in the first inning -- including Betancourt's eighth home run.
- The good news for the Giants: A 6-4 win over the Diamondbacks to snap a five-game losing streak and a win for the first time when Matt Cain started. The bad news: Cain scuffled yet again. Cain was sailing along until the fourth inning, when he served up home runs to Jason Kubel, Eric Chavez and Martin Prado. Cain left with a no-decision, and while he remains winless in six starts, it's not just poor run support that explains his 0-2 record. He's allowed nine home runs in his past four starts, including three in two of those. He'd allowed three in a game just twice in the previous three seasons. He also walked four against Arizona. Should the Giants be worried? Kubel and Prado hit fastballs that were both down and in, while Chavez hit a changeup off the plate out to left. Blame Cain for the first two, but give Chavez credit for his. Hitters have been doing a lot of damage off Cain's fastball, hitting .264/.354/.528, compared to a .255/.332/.429 line last year. I think he'll be fine but everyone seems to agree that his stuff just hasn't been as sharp. Keep an eye on his fastball next time out; as with nearly every starting pitcher, everything else plays off the fastball.[+] Enlarge
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Giants on Monday recorded their first win of the season in a game that Matt Cain started.
- The Matt Harvey-Jose Fernandez matchup kind of fizzled as Fernandez lasted just four innings and 81 pitches while Harvey was pulled in the sixth after laboring through 121 pitches. The game ended up going 15 innings, thanks primarily to the Mets going 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position. The game featured 512 pitches, 16 pitchers and last more than 5 hours. Not exactly one for the time capsule. Shaun Marcum, who had started and threw 70 pitches on Saturday, ended up taking the loss for the Mets, giving up two runs in the bottom of the 15th after the Mets had scored in the top of the inning. At 10-14, reality is starting to hit the Mets: They're not very good. As for Fernandez, after a dominating first two starts, he's been hit around a bit, primarily to hitters jumping on his fastball early in the count. They're hitting .367 off the pitch in his past three starts. He's going to be a very good pitcher but he's learning that it's a big leap from Class A to the majors.
- Giancarlo Stanton landed on the DL after the game with a strained right hamstring suffered in the 10th inning. A shame, especially considering he had homered three times in six at-bats entering the game and looked ready to begin a patented Stanton terror. He missed time last year with a knee problem and then a strained intercostal muscle and you have to start wondering if durability is going to be an issue with him.
- Indians 9, Royals 0. Takeaways: 1. Ubaldo Jimenez won a game! Don't count on this becoming a regular habit. 2. Jason Kipnis hit his first home run. Kipnis (.185/.260/.277) and Lonnie Chisenhall (0-for-4, .221/.254/.368) have to start producing if the Indians want to do anything. 3. Eric Hosmer, another doughnut; .250, three doubles, no homers now and the frustrations build. 4. The Wade Davis (4.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R) starter experiment is probably nearing its end. His stuff just doesn't play up as a starter. Move him back to the pen where he was so good last year with Tampa and give Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar another shot at the rotation. Wait, did I just say to start Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar?
- Props to the Brewers: After starting 2-8, they'll end up finishing April with a winning record after beating the Pirates 10-4 to go to 13-11. Starter Yovani Gallardo hit his second home run -- one of five the Brewers hit -- and gave up just three hits in seven innings. Jean Segura is really looking good for the Brewers, with three more hits to raise his average to .364.
- The Dodgers activated Hanley Ramirez from the DL but he didn't start, which seems a little strange. He pinch-hit and struck out in a 12-2 loss to Colorado. The Dodgers' 6-7-8 hitters: Skip Schumaker, Luis Cruz and Justin Sellers. Come on. In his second major league game, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado went 3-for-6 with his first home run. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
- Kevin Gregg picked put up his fourth save for the Cubs. KEVIN GREGG.
- A's fans chanting to Josh Hamilton: "Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Josh." (In reference to his dropped fly ball in Game 162 last year that helped the A's win the AL West.) Job well done, A's fans.
Considering the importance of winning the division and avoiding the ridiculous wild-card play-in game, the last thing the Braves wanted to do was dig a hole and try to catch the Nats from behind. Atlanta's 16-9 start -- which includes a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday when No. 5 starter Julio Teheran faced off against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg -- is even more impressive when you consider everything that has gone wrong for the Braves so far:
- Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann hasn't played a game.
- First baseman Freddie Freeman missed 14 games.
- Jason Heyward is hitting .121 and is currently on the DL after an appendectomy.
- B.J. Upton is .146.
- Dan Uggla is hitting .177.
- Teheran scuffled through 5.1 innings on Monday but allowed just two runs -- lowering his ERA to 5.08.
AP Photo/Evan VucciJustin Upton is batting .304 with 12 home runs for the first-place Braves.
Most importantly, the Braves are now 4-0 against the Nationals, which means the Braves earn an A as I hand out my grades for April in the National League. Justin Upton earns an A+ for his monster month -- only four players have hit more home runs in April (Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols share the April record with 14) and only Bob Horner (14 in July 1980), Andruw Jones (13 in June 2005) and Ozzie Virgil (13 in May 1987) have hit more in a calendar month in Atlanta Braves history.
The Nationals, meanwhile, earn a C- for a lackluster 13-13 start -- they're 5-1 against the Marlins and 8-12 against the other major league opponents on their schedule. The Nationals also reported that Strasburg experienced forearm tightness during Monday's game and will be examined on Tuesday. Strasburg walked four while allowing just two runs in six innings against the Braves, but he hasn't been the Strasburg of 2012, or at least the Strasburg of the first three months of 2012. His strikeout rate is down, left-handed hitters have a .391 OBP against him and his ERA is 3.13, ranking just 26th in the NL. Strasburg earns a C, but teammate Bryce Harper earns an A+.
Some other NL grades for April:
Pirates bullpen: A. A key to Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central has been a pen that has gone 6-2 with a 2.59 while pitching the second-most innings in the majors and allowing a .202 average, second behind Kansas City's .201 mark. Closer Jason Grilli has gone 10-for-10 in saves and has allowed one run in 11 innings.
Matt Harvey, Mets: A. I'd give him an A+, but he actually allowed a run against the Marlins on Monday. Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and has held opponents to a .153 average. He did throw 121 pitches in just 5.1 innings against the Marlins, but more than anything that serves to show that Harvey has room to get even better. Which is a scary idea if you're a National League hitter.
Marlins: D-. Last in the majors in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and ownership.
Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, Reds: A. It seems like there's a perception that the Reds are an explosive offensive team, but that wasn't the case last year (ninth in the NL in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's park) and while the Reds are second in the NL in runs scored in 2013, they also rank ninth in slugging percentage. The Reds rotation, however, was terrific last year and has been terrific again, second to the Cardinals with a 2.97 ERA. Latos and Bailey remain two of the more underrated starters in the NL. Latos threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Monday, picking up his second win and lowering his ERA to 1.83. Bailey is 1-2 thanks to poor run support but has a 2.81 ERA. The two have combined for 69 strikeouts and just 17 walks, and when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, he might give the Reds the best starting pitching trio in the league.
Cardinals bullpen: F. St. Louis starters are 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA. St. Louis relievers are 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA and .301 average allowed.
Pablo Sandoval's waistline: F.
Pablo Sandoval's bat: B.
The decision by the Brewers to sign Yuniesky Betancourt: D-. I mean, really ... Yuni was going to help the Brewers?
Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Don't you love baseball?
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: A. He's back, he's hitting, he's fielding and the Rockies are in first place. The Rockies have to hope that the strained shoulder Tulo suffered on Sunday isn’t serious (he sat Monday’s game, but there are no plans for a trip to the DL).
Matt Kemp, Dodgers: D-. Heading into Monday's games, FanGraphs rated Kemp 33rd among 36 full-time NL outfielders in WAR -- ahead of only Juan Pierre, Jon Jay and Ben Revere.
Starlin Castro, Cubs: C. I have to remind myself he's still just 23, but Castro is in his fourth season and just hasn't that much with the bat. He's hitting .271 with two home runs, but his approach -- just three walks -- is still limiting his upside. A hitter with an OBP under .300 just isn't that valuable.
Weather in Colorado: F. Please, baseball, don't play games when the weather is below freezing.
The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. -- Mark Twain
If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first. -- Mark Twain
* * * *
I went on ESPN Radio on Friday to discuss the slow start of the Los Angeles Angels, pointing out the obvious: The rotation was a concern heading into the season, was a bigger concern now with Jered Weaver on the disabled list, and that nobody should be surprised that Joe Blanton is pitching somewhere between awful and atrocious. I also said the offense will be fine. What I neglected to mention was that the Angels were heading into a big weekend home series against the Tigers, staring at a 4-10 record and facing the team many consider the best in the American League. Three more losses would put the Angels at 4-13 and put them in the same big hole as last season when they were unable to overcome a 6-14 start.
Well, three games does not rescue a season, but maybe it will help rescue the Angels' April. They took advantage of the good fortune of not facing Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and roughed up the Tigers 8-1 on Friday, 10-0 on Saturday and then won 4-3 on Sunday on Mark Trumbo's dramatic walk-off piece against Phil Coke in the 13th inning, following a bizarre intentional walk to Albert Pujols in the previous inning.
We learned something about the Angels this weekend; namely that their demise has been too quickly fabricated. But we also may have learned something about the Tigers, who are a mediocre 9-9 and exposing the same flaws as last year when everyone predicted them to run away with the AL Central and they didn't.
So, some random thoughts on the Angels and Tigers
1. As always, don't overreact to two weeks' worth of stats. Remember when Peter Bourjos couldn't hit three days ago and it was a huge mistake for the Angels to count on him as their regular center fielder (and Vernon Wells has been doing so well for the Yankees!)? Well, Bourjos had three hits on Friday, three on Saturday and another on Sunday and is hitting .302/.333/.491. Look, he's not a .300 hitter and the one walk is an issue, but he's probably not going to be awful.
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokAfter a slow start to the season Mike Trout has now raised his average to .307 and hit his first career grand slam on Saturday.
3. Josh Hamilton continues to struggle, enough that Jim Leyland had the left-handed Coke intentionally walk Pujols with two outs and the bases empty in the 12th. Hamilton struck out on three pitches but Trumbo led off the 13th and hit a 3-1 changeup deep into the left-field stands. So many things to discuss with that move: putting the winning run on base (crazy!), the complete lack of respect for Hamilton (how far has he fallen?), leaving Coke in for a third inning to face a string of righties (well, he didn't get through the first one). Interesting stuff there.
4. As for the Tigers, they're 9-9 and that's with a lot of things going well so far: Miguel Cabrera is hitting .355, Torii Hunter is hitting .392, Prince Fielder is hitting .333 and slugging .638. Austin Jackson and Jhonny Peralta have been fine. Four starters have an ERA under 3.00. They lead the majors in strikeouts. The bullpen hasn't been great -- 20th in the majors in ERA -- but the Tigers have lost just one game they've led heading into the eighth or ninth. They've lost two extra-inning games, but those came in the 12th and 13th innings, hardly the fault of the bullpen, and have won a 14-inning game. The pen hasn't been great but isn't the reason the Tigers are .500.
5. Alex Avila: The new Rick Wilkins? Avila and the bottom of the Tigers' lineup have struggled -- the same problem as last year when Detroit's offense had two of the best hitters in baseball (and a superb Jackson) and was still inconsistent scoring runs.
6. Rick Porcello [n.]: A mushroom whose legend grows in the absence of light and rational inquiry.
We don't want to overreact to any of this. The Angels are still throwing Blanton out there every fifth game, and if they lose three in a row to the Rangers this week, we'll be right back asking, "What's wrong?" The Tigers have six games at home against the Royals -- that's the division-leading Royals -- and the Braves, which will potentially tell us more about the Tigers than this weekend's fiasco in Anaheim did. In the long run, I still believe the Tigers will end up benefiting from a weak AL Central, but after 18 games I don't think we can assume they're going to have an easy road to a third straight division title.
Oh, as for the frog quote above, that was just there to make you laugh. Or maybe to suggest that maybe neither the Angels nor Tigers are the biggest frogs in the American League this year many thought back in March.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Ryan Braun, Brewers. Braun hit a first-inning, three-run homer off Jeff Samardzija in Friday’s 5-4 win over the Cubs and a go-ahead, three-run shot off Scott Feldman in the sixth of Sunday’s 4-2 win. Suddenly, the Brewers have won seven in a row and are 9-8 after that 2-8 start.
2. Pirates pitching staff. After losing the series opener on Thursday, the Pirates cooled off the red-hot Braves with three straight wins, holding the Braves to three runs in the three games. Wandy Rodriguez threw seven innings of one-hit ball on Friday and the bullpen tossed six scoreless innings in relief of terrible Jonathan Sanchez on Sunday.
3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Harvey makes a repeat performance with his gem to beat Stephen Strasburg on Friday. Here’s everything you need to know about the hottest pitcher in baseball (4-0, 0.93 ERA, .108 average allowed).
Clutch performance of the weekend
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays. The Rays entered the weekend scuffling at 5-10, but swept the A’s at home. Hellickson outdueled Jarrod Parker 1-0 on Saturday, allowing three hits in seven innings, with Matt Joyce's home run standing up.
Red Sox 4, Royals 3 (Saturday). From the stirring pregame ceremony paying tribute to the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombing, to David Ortiz’s rousing speech ("This is our f------ city!") that even the FCC forgave, to Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline", to the Red Sox rallying for three runs in the bottom of the eighth to win 4-3, it was a game many in Boston won’t forget.
Hitter on the rise: Joey Votto, Reds.
I mean, Votto was already pretty good. But there were those worried about his power production, with just one home run in more than 50 games going back to last year. But he homered on Saturday and Sunday (going 7-for-11 in the two games) and is now hitting .328/.522/.516.
Pitcher on the rise: Garrett Richards, Angels
The Angels have always liked Richards’ power arsenal and he’s getting a chance to start with Weaver on the DL. His first start was a so-so effort against the Astros, but on Saturday he shut down the Tigers on two hits over seven innings. More impressively (and importantly), he struck out eight and walked nobody. Command has been the big question for him, and if the 24-year-old throws enough strikes he’ll hold on to his rotation spot when Weaver returns.
Team on the rise: Rockies
The Rockies blew a 4-2 lead to the Diamondbacks to end their eight-game winning streak, but at 13-5 are tied with the Braves for the best record in baseball. Yes, they’re 6-0 against the Padres and 3-0 against the Mets, so they’ve taken advantage of a soft schedule, but that’s what you have to do. Their next 19 games are against the Braves, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rays, Yankees and Cardinals, so let’s see where they stand on May 12.
Team on the fall: Mariners
The Mariners scored eight runs in six games, got shut out Friday and Saturday by the Rangers and haven’t won two in a row since starting the season 2-0. The Mariners are right back where they’ve been in recent years: 29th in the majors in batting average (.218), 28th in OBP (.285) and 26th in runs scored. A bad, boring, slow baseball team; you wonder how much longer manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik will have their jobs.
Aces on display: Matt Harvey is really good. Stephen Strasburg is really good. These aces face off Friday night in what might be New York's best chance, believe it or not, at a win. I mean, after Harvey on Friday, Bryce Harper gets to tee off on Jeremy Hefner and Dillon Gee! But on Friday, it's the first of what should be many matchups between right-handed power arms Harvey and Strasburg. They could have met last year, but John Lannan had already replaced Strasburg in the rotation. What, you forgot Strasburg was shut down early last year? It really wasn't publicized much, so that's understandable. OK, same thing might happen to Harvey this year, but the Mets will just have to use someone else in Game 1 of the playoffs. Yep. Perhaps Hefner.
Yu are the man: I ranked Texas Rangers Yu Darvish right-hander among the top 10 starting pitchers for this season, and so far, so good, but it's worth noting his kryptonite as a rookie was, believe it or not, the Seattle Mariners, Friday's opponent. Darvish is 18-10 with a 3.80 ERA in 32 career starts. The first three times Darvish faced Seattle he allowed 16 earned runs in 16 innings, with 20 hits and 14 walks. Since then Darvish has righted the ship with two excellent outings against the M's, including last week, but isn't this guy must-watch TV anyway, especially coming off a blister problem?
Bring your parka: It hasn't been, shall we say, warm in Denver this week, as the Colorado Rockies and Mets found out. David Wright homered into a snowbank. Pitchers are wearing ski masks. Shouldn't be much of a change for the Arizona Diamondbacks, right? The Rox are the last remaining team without a home loss, and nominal ace Jhoulys Chacin and his 1.96 ERA is scheduled to take the mound Friday against Ian Kennedy. OK, so maybe the Rockies aren't playoff bound, but the team can certainly hit, and if Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio can win 40 games between them, who knows? It's not like the Dodgers are running away with things out West.
Help wanted: Josh Hamilton gets a lot of attention for his slow start and how it's contributed to his Los Angeles Angels struggling, but check the rotation now that Jered Weaver is hurt. Angels pitchers rank last in baseball in ERA (5.43) and the starters have been even worse (6.07). It's a perfect time to face the mighty lineup of the Detroit Tigers, eh? Good luck to Tommy Hanson, Garrett Richards and C.J. Wilson. The Angels will save Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas for the Rangers series next week, as I'm sure that will go a lot better.
Papi time!: Meanwhile, on the field in Boston many eyes will be on designated hitter David Ortiz, as he is scheduled to make his season debut. Ortiz homered for Triple-A Pawtucket Thursday and proclaimed himself ready for big league action, and it's doubtful the team will deny him. The Red Sox have actually received stellar production from their DH slot sans Big Papi, as Mike Napoli and Daniel Nava have hit well in the role, and Jonny Gomes has drawn walks. Still, none of them is Ortiz.
Enjoy your weekend!
As you probably know, strikeouts continue to climb higher and higher.
In the chart at the right, are strikeouts per game:
As Dave Cameron wrote last week on FanGraphs,
Over the past 30 years, the strikeout rate in MLB has gone from 14.0 percent to the 20.0 percent it stands at today. It took 24 years to move from 14 percent to 17 percent, but it’s only taken six years to move from 17 percent to 20 percent. Those six years correspond perfectly to the PITCHF/x era.
Dave cites a piece from James Gentile that shows called strikes are rising much faster than swinging strikes, the suggestion that perhaps there is a relationship between the installation of the PITCHf/x cameras, their affect on umpires and thus the rapid growth in strikeouts in recent seasons.
Bill James also tossed out a theory that it's natural that strikeouts increase throughout history -- for pitchers, strikeouts are good, so it's a process of natural selection; but for hitters, strikeouts (to a point) aren't necessarily bad. You can strike out and still be a good hitter; but few pitchers succeed long term without striking out a certain percentage of hitters.
All this is very interesting and no doubt holds some truth. But maybe there is a simpler explanation: There are a lot of unbelievably talented young pitchers right now.
Look at the next generation of starters on the way, guys who have made fewer than 15 career starts: Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-jin Ryu, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Wily Peralta, Dan Straily. That's on top of last year's rookie group that included Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley, Yu Darvish and Wei-Yin Chen.
Look at some other pitchers who debuted since 2008: Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Doug Fister, Madison Bumgarner, Jordan Zimmermann, Kris Medlen, Brett Anderson, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Alexi Ogando, Jeremy Hellickson, Brandon Beachy and Lance Lynn. Not to mention a plethora of relievers -- led by Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman -- throwing 95-plus mph.
Think of all the advancements that have helped pitchers over the past 20 years -- meaning tools or approaches this generation of young starters has benefited from:
- Arms are better protected, not just in the minors and early in major league careers, but on the high school and college levels.
- Better coaching, teaching proper mechanics, from the youth levels on up, including private pitching coaches.
- Advancements in medicine and injury rehab -- the success rate for Tommy John surgery, for example, has improved.
- Video technology. Once used mostly by hitters, now another weapon for pitchers to take advantage of.
Beyond that, these pitchers are bigger, stronger and throw harder than ever before. Consider Harvey, the Mets phenom who has a 2.21 ERA through his first 13 major league starts, with 95 strikeouts in 81.1 innings. He's 6-foot-4, 225 pounds or so. Maybe 25 years ago he's playing basketball or packs on 50 pounds and becomes an offensive lineman in football. Now more guys like him are playing baseball.
Some of these up-and-coming stars take the hill tonight. The guy to watch is Fernandez, the 20-year-old rookie for the Marlins who was in high school two years ago. He's been terrific in his first two starts, throwing mid-90s fastballs and showing a good feel for pitching. (He opposes Reds rookie Tony Cingrani, just called up to replace the injured Cueto; in three Triple-A starts, he didn't allow a run and struck out 26 in 14.1 innings.) Teheran faces the Pirates. And then Friday we have must-watch TV: Harvey against Strasburg at Citi Field.
Eric Karabell and I discuss five of these guys in the video above. Here's how I would rank them:
1. Matt Harvey, Mets. After 10 successful starts last year, Harvey's first three outings have been pure domination. Right now, he doesn't look like a future ace, but is already an ace. His fastball averages 94 and hits 97. Now, he has faced the Padres (without their two best hitters), the Phillies and the Twins so far, so we should restrain our enthusiasm a little bit until he faces better lineups, but if his changeup continues to improve -- and batters are 0-for-14 against it so far -- watch out.
2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins. Despite the lack of experience, he pitches with the confidence of a veteran. He matches Harvey with his mid-90s velocity and relies on a curveball as his primary off-speed pitch. He's thrown his changeup only 16 times in two starts, but if he masters that pitch, well ... watch out.
3. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. He pitched Wednesday night, retiring 15 Pirates in a row at one point. He's another fastball/curveball guy, although his fastball is a tick below what we've seen from Harvey and Fernandez. After a rough first half at Triple-A in 2012, Miller seemed to put everything together down the stretch. His strong start -- .169 average allowed, 18 K's and 5 walks in three starts -- bodes well that his command continues to improve.
4. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers. The rookie from Korea doesn't throw as hard as these guys, but has shown to be as advertised: A polished left-hander in the David Wells mode (which includes physique as well as stuff).
5. Julio Teheran, Braves. The one guy of these five who has struggled so far. He had a monster spring training (26 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 9 BB, 35 SO) but it hasn't translated to a successful start, as he still has issues commanding his off-speed stuff.
If you haven't seen any of these guys pitch, check them out. And you'll understand one reason why strikeouts are still on the rise.
The Atlanta Braves sent a message this weekend: Don't forget about us.
We all know the Washington Nationals were prohibitive favorites to win the NL East -- 38 of 43 ESPN.com experts picked them -- and only five picked the Braves. I think the Braves' impressive sweep over the Nationals this weekend, culminating in Sunday's 9-0 shutout, did more to showcase the talents of the Braves than to expose any particular weaknesses in the Nationals.
"We know the Nationals are supposed to be pretty good, so it was good to make a statement early," Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons said after the club won its ninth game in a row. "Let them know we're going to be tough to beat."
Nationals manager Davey Johnson took the more experienced response of a manager who knows pennants aren't won in April: "We should have won the first one. We were right there on the second. We just got waffled today. I don't put too much stock in it."
The most impressive thing about the Braves is -- like the Nationals -- they're a team constructed not just for 2013 but for the long haul. What's really impressive is how the Braves have built this team. Astute draft picks, player development, great trades, obscure pickups and, rarely, an impact free-agent signing.
Unlike the Nationals, who benefited from years of losing records that resulted in high draft picks (especially lucky enough to own the No. 1 overall pick the years Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were in the draft), the Braves developed young talent without the benefit of all those high picks. In fact, in the past 20 years, they've had just two picks in the top 15 -- Mike Minor, No. 7 overall in 2009, and Jason Heyward, No. 14 overall in 2007. Minor was a polished college left-hander who some felt the Braves overdrafted; Heyward was a local high school kid who fell to 14th in part because he was pitched around so much as a senior that he had just 52 at-bats.
Credit the Braves scouting staff for not missing those guys. Roy Clark, the scouting director for the Braves when they drafted Heyward and Minor, is now the assistant general manager to Mike Rizzo in Washington. But beyond those first-rounders, the Braves have found talent later in the draft:
- Simmons was a second-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College in 2010 and his meteoric rise to reach the majors was remarkable, considering few teams believed in his bat and some even projected him as a pitcher.
- Closer Craig Kimbrel was a third-rounder in 2008, another junior college pick.
- Starter Kris Medlen was a 10th-rounder, yet another junior college pick, and like Kimbrel is a short right-hander (both are under 6 feet tall).
- First baseman Freddie Freeman, currently on the disabled list, was a second-round pick in 2007, and like Heyward reached the majors at age 20.
- Brandon Beachy, also on the DL after last year's Tommy John surgery, was primarly a third baseman at Indiana Wesleyan and went undrafted. Braves scout Gene Kerns saw him pitching in relief in a college summer league and recommended the team sign him.
- And then there's the quickly growing legend of Evan Gattis, who less than three years ago was a 23-year-old playing for the University of Texas-Permian Basin after having quit baseball for five years. The Braves drafted him in the 23rd round, and now he's a 26-year-old rookie catcher filling in for the injured Brian McCann, batting cleanup and hitting .324/.385/.724. Gattis, who knocked in two runs in Sunday's win, has 10 RBIs and four home runs in nine games this season.
All that young talent means the Braves had an Opening Day payroll just under $90 million -- 16th-highest in the majors and less than half of the Yankees and Dodgers.
Then, of course, there are the Upton brothers. Instead of re-signing speedster Michael Bourn, the Braves signed the younger B.J. Upton to add more power to the offense. Then came the blockbuster deal to acquire Justin Upton. All he's done is club seven homers -- his seventh came on Sunday off a Gio Gonzalez 2-2 curveball that Upton hit out to right-center.
Sunday's pitching star was veteran lefty Paul Maholm, another astute Braves pickup, acquired last summer from the Cubs for Arodys Vizcaino, a youngster who missed all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery. Maholm is a cost-effective mid-rotation starter making $6.5 million this year, the kind of pitcher who is underrated because his stuff isn't overpowering. He'd had a good year with the Pirates in 2011 and was pitching well for the Cubs. He's added a slow curve to his repertoire this year and hasn't allowed a run in three starts.
Maholm will give up a run eventually and the Braves' winning streak will end soon. Right now they're playing the best of any team in baseball, a fun team to watch that does everything -- play defense, pitch, hit for power and then hand the ball to Kimbrel. And the scary thing: B.J. Upton is just finally starting to hit -- he had three on Sunday to raise his average to .163 -- and Heyward is hitting .103 with just two extra-base hits.
Consider the message received.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Sunday against the Rays, finishing with 11 K's over eight scoreless frames in Boston's 5-0 win. Buchholz had a dominant spring training and it's carried over into April as he's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA.
2. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners. Outpitched Yu Darvish in a 3-1 Seattle victory on Friday in a matchup that was certainly huge in Japan. Through three starts Iwakuma is 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA, .129 average allowed and 16/1 SO/BB ratio.
3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Can't avoid another pitcher, but Harvey was dominant once again on Saturday against the Twins, pitching through a start-time temperature of 35 degrees. In three starts he's 3-0 with two runs allowed and six hits in 22 innings.
Clutch performance of the weekend
Albert Pujols, Angels. Trailing the Astros 4-1 in the eighth inning on Saturday, and staring at an embarrassing 2-9 start, the Angels rallied for two in the eighth and then Pujols doubled home Luis Jimenez and Mike Trout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. A win on Sunday pushed the Angels to 4-8; not good, but not yet a complete disaster.
Braves 6, Nationals 4, 10 innings (Friday). The Nationals led 4-0 after two innings and starter Ross Detwiler departed after seven innings with a 4-1 lead. But the Nationals bullpen struggled yet again, the Braves tied it in the ninth off Drew Storen, and then backup infielder Ramiro Pena hit a two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th.
Hitter on the rise: Evan Gattis, Braves.
What does it say about the confidence Fredi Gonzalez has in Gattis to hit him cleanup after just a few games in the majors? If Gattis is this good, it's going to create a good kind of problem when McCann and Freeman return from the DL. What do you do with him? He's catching now and started one game at first, but you can't really hide him anywhere else.
Pitcher on the rise: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
The 20-year-old rookie had his second straight solid outing, with six scoreless innings against the Phillies on Saturday. That's two starts and one run allowed, although he hasn't earned the W yet.
Move I can't understand
Oh, Dusty Baker, how we love to analyze your moves. On Sunday, the Reds led the Pirates 6-4 entering the bottom of the eighth (and had led 5-0 entering the bottom of the seventh). Aroldis Chapman hadn't pitched in ... well, a week. Neither had setup man Jonathan Broxton, who came in and promptly gave up a walk and home run to Michael McKenry. And then after a groundout, another walk. But it wasn't a save situation so Chapman remained in the bullpen. Starling Marte then homered. Broxton then gave up a walk (to pitcher Jonathan Sanchez) and a single. And was still in there to give up a sac fly. (Baker blamed rust for Broxton's stuggles. OK.) Chapman was finally summoned from the pen. So Baker managed to go an entire week without getting Chapman into a meaningful situation. Meanwhile, Johnny Cueto left Saturday's game with right triceps pain and Shin-Soo Choo continues to hit but struggled defensively in center field.
Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates entered the weekend hitting .153 and had scored 21 runs in nine game. They swept the Reds to improve to 6-6, one game behind St. Louis in the NL Central.
Team on the fall: Twins
The Twins have lost five in a row and got snowed out on Sunday, which maybe was a good thing. Rookie center field Aaron Hicks may find a trip to Triple-A in his future, as after a big spring training he looks completely overmatched, hitting 3-for-43 (.047) with 20 strikeouts. And yet Ron Gardenhire continues to hit him leadoff.
Friday was just one of those nights when we give thanks for the existence of the MLB cable package.
Everywhere you turned there was something significant, bizarre, or significant and bizarre going on. Some of these events could define the season, or at the very least will help tell its story.
Let's break them down, starting with the most significant.
Is the Toronto Blue Jays' dream season over before it could really get going? The star-studded Jays were already off to an uneven start, and then Jose Reyes had to be carted off the field after an awkward slide while stealing second base in Kansas City. Last season, Mariano Rivera was a casualty of the Kauffman Stadium turf; this year, it's Reyes.
The Jays did manage to win, but losing a major asset will only make their path to the playoffs that much tougher. And as Paul Swydan pointed out earlier this week, they have a brutal first-half schedule.
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is saying Reyes will be out at least one month, and it could be as many as three. Ouch.
The Nationals' collapse
On paper, the Washington Nationals are still baseball's best team. But if you want to nitpick, there are these: They have used Tyler Clippard -- one of the game's best relievers -- an alarming amount in recent years Drew Storen might still be dealing with confidence issues after blowing the 2013 NLDS, and every Ryan Zimmerman throw is an adventure.
So what happened on Friday? Clippard entered in the eighth with the Nationals leading 4-1. He wasn't sharp, walking three men and allowing a run without being able to get through the inning. Storen relieved him and got out of the jam, only to surrender two runs in the ninth. (Rafael Soriano was given the night off after working a lot the past few days.)
Storen wasn't hit hard, but one would imagine his confidence is still fragile, and this blown save against the Nats' main division rival won't help. And the tying runs? Those came when Justin Upton hit a slow chopper to Zimmerman with the bases loaded and two outs. Zimmerman fielded it cleanly but made an awkward sidearm throw that went into right field and allowed Ramiro Pena to score from second. Injuries have forced Zimmerman to change his arm angle, and he never looks comfortable when making a throw. The Braves took a 6-4 lead in the 10th on a two-run homer from Pena, and the Nats went quietly in the bottom of the frame.
Again, we're nitpicking on the Nats here, and this is a stacked team. But if you were looking for weaknesses, you could find them on Friday.
The Orioles' bad luck
It's been well documented that the Baltimore Orioles had some good mojo last year; look no further than their 29-9 record in one-run games. Friday's events suggested that their luck has turned.
With the score tied at two with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, Vernon Wells hit a deep drive to center field. Adam Jones had a bead on it and was even blowing a bubble (as he's known to do) just as he was about to catch it. Not so fast, my friend. The ball bounced off his glove and three runs scored. It's a drop you never see a player like Jones make. Well, almost never.
Then, in the top of the eighth inning, the Orioles got the first two runners on before Manny Machado hit a soft one-hopper to Robinson Cano at second. And so began the strangest triple play you will ever see. Just watch for yourself.
While all of this weirdness was going on, it was announced that Carlos Quentin would be suspended for eight games for igniting Thursday's brawl with the Dodgers' Zack Greinke. Earlier in the day, word got out that Greinke would miss at least two months with a broken collarbone, and it's easy to wonder if Quentin's suspension should have been heavier considering the severity of Greinke's injury.
I'm inclined to say yes. When you go after someone with the intent to harm, you must be prepared to face the consequences of your damage.
The suggestion that Quentin should have to sit out for as long as Greinke is injured is a bit harsh, but if the precedent for similar instances in which the pitcher was not hurt is eight games, then 15 games would be fair in this instance.
Other weird stuff
- In Seattle, two Japanese pitchers squared off for just the 10th time in MLB history, with Yu Darvish going against Hisashi Iwakuma.
- It was snowing when the New York Mets and Minnesota Twins got started at Target Field, with the kind of weather that usually makes it pretty hard to drive the ball. The Mets didn't get the memo, pounding out 16 runs while trouncing the Twins. John Buck hit a grand slam in the second inning and set a Mets record for most RBIs through 10 games with 19.
So yeah, wild night. Thank goodness we live in a world in which we could watch all of it while sitting on one sofa.