SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

We're getting close enough to the end of the season to start speculating on who could pitch in the wild-card games. Teams won't necessarily have the luxury of lining up their best pitcher -- two years ago, for example, the Orioles went with Joe Saunders (although they didn't really have an ace that season). Last season, the Rays and Indians used Alex Cobb and Danny Salazar, as David Price had to pitch the tiebreaker game for Tampa Bay.

Let's see how the rotations line up for each team.

Detroit Tigers
David Price: Starts Wednesday, so could then start on Monday on four days' rest. That would line him up for another start on Saturday on four days' rest, if needed, or a start in the wild-card game on Tuesday, Sept. 30, if the Tigers have clinched.

Max Scherzer: The Tigers have an off day Thursday and haven't announced their starter yet for Friday. They could go with Kyle Lobstein, but since they play the Royals it seems more likely they would skip him and go with Justin Verlander on Friday, Scherzer on Saturday and Rick Porcello on Sunday. Or maybe Lobstein is a better choice than Verlander right now. If they stick with a five-man rotation, that pushes Price back to Tuesday and Sunday (if needed).

Anyway, the Tigers have options. Regardless of what they do, they'll have either Price or Scherzer available on full rest for the wild-card game.

Kansas City Royals
Here's how the Royals line up their next four games:

Wednesday: Yordano Ventura
Friday: Jason Vargas
Saturday: James Shields
Sunday: Jeremy Guthrie

They have no off days next week, so at some point they'll have to use Danny Duffy as a fifth starter (well, assuming nobody pitches on three days' rest, which no one does anymore). Duffy could start on Monday or Tuesday. Assuming he pitches on Monday to give Ventura an extra day of rest, the rotation the final week would look like this:

Monday: Duffy
Tuesday: Ventura
Wednesday: Vargas
Thursday: Shields
Friday: Guthrie
Saturday: Duffy
Sunday: Ventura

That would line up Shields to pitch the wild-card game Tuesday. Of course, there's also the possibility of a tiebreaker game Monday. Presumably that would be Vargas, especially since that game would likely be against Seattle and its lefty-heavy lineup.

Oakland Athletics
The A's have built a little breathing room. With no days off the rest of the way, their rotation is set and they have Jon Lester lined up for the wild-card game, as he starts Friday and then next Wednesday.

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have no off days the rest of the season and their rotation was also thrown a curve when Roenis Elias left Tuesday's game with elbow stiffness.

Felix Hernandez starts on Thursday, which means he would pitch again on Tuesday and then the final Sunday of the season. If they've clinched a playoff spot, obviously they hold Felix back for the wild-card game. If not -- a distinct possibility since they have to make up ground -- Chris Young follows Hernandez in the rotation, followed by Hisashi Iwakuma.

So if the Mariners go down to the wire and have to pitch Felix on Sunday, it would be: Felix in the regular-season finale, Young in a potential tiebreaker game and then Iwakuma (or Young) in the wild-card game.

San Francisco Giants
The Giants have some room to play with, leading the Pirates by 2.5 games and the Brewers by four games. And of course they can still win the NL West.

Madison Bumgarner starts Wednesday and they have an off day on Thursday. Assuming they don't skip a starter, Bumgarner goes on Tuesday and then is ready to go on the final Sunday. If they've clinched, he's ready with a week's worth of rest for the wild-card game.

If Bumgarner is needed on that final day, Tim Hudson follows him in the rotation. Jake Peavy proceeds Bumgarner so he wouldn't be available for the wild-card game.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have no off days remaining. Their current rotation has Francisco Liriano pitching on the final Saturday and Gerrit Cole on Sunday. If those two have to pitch on those days, that would leave Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez for the wild-card game (or Locke in a tiebreaker game and Volquez in the wild-card game).

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have an off day on Monday, which gives them an opportunity to tweak Tuesday's starter -- important, because the Tuesday starter would then go again on Sunday. It's Mike Fiers' turn in the rotation, but they could push him to Wednesday and use Kyle Lohse on regular rest on Tuesday. So Ron Roenicke's choice: Who would you rather give the extra start to, Fiers or Lohse? Whoever doesn't get that Sunday start would then presumably go in the wild-card game. Yovani Gallardo would also be available, although it seems unlikely he would start over those two.

St. Louis Cardinals
With a 2.5-game lead over the Pirates, the Cardinals haven't locked up the NL Central just yet. They haven't announced any starters beyond Adam Wainwright on Wednesday and Shelby Miller on Thursday. If Wainwright goes four days between starts, he would pitch again on Monday and the final Saturday. Lance Lynn could go Sunday and next Friday. But that would make both unavailable for a wild-card game. Then again, if they lose four or five in a row and lose their grip on the division lead, they may have to use Wainwright and Lynn to try and win the division.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Obviously, you know who the Dodgers want to start the wild-card game if disaster strikes and the Giants catch them. And, yes, Clayton Kershaw is lined up for that game, starting Friday and then next Wednesday.

Basically: All the teams have adjusted their rotations about as perfectly as possible, including the Mariners with the ability to start Felix on the final day if needed. The Royals probably should have done the same thing with Shields -- although Seattle did so with Felix by holding him back a couple times (including six days between starts once in August). Shields has made 32 starts so far to 31 for Hernandez because of that, so you can't really fault the Royals there. And if they win the wild card (or division), Shields is ready to go on full rest.
I'm oddly interested in the National League batting title race, mostly because it's such a weird one: Among the top five guys, there are two stars in Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen, a former MVP whose career was in jeopardy after a concussion in Justin Morneau, a much-maligned slap-hitting singles hitter in Ben Revere, and a utility man with a .250 career average before the season in Josh Harrison.

Harrison is the current leader with a .317 average, and if he does win, I have to think he'd be the most unlikely batting champion ever. (My vote right now is probably Terry Pendleton, who won the batting title in 1991 with the Braves with a .319 mark; in his previous seven years with the Cardinals, he had a .259 average and had hit .230 in 1990.) Morneau, second in the race at .315, sat out Saturday and Sunday with a rib cage strain and is listed as day-to-day, so that could help Harrison.

[+] EnlargeJosh Harrison
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarIn 10 games in September, Josh Harrison has batted .362.

Harrison has started 103 of the 130 games he's played in. If he wins, he's likely to start the fewest games by a batting champ since George Brett started 113 games for the Royals in 1980 (not including strike-shortened seasons).

In some ways, Harrison is similar to another surprise Pirates batting champ, Freddy Sanchez in 2006. However, while Sanchez started games at third base (99), shortstop (27) and second base (18) that year, he still started 144 games. Harrison is still more of a true utility guy, having started at five different positions, with his 42 starts at third base leading the way.

Harrison wouldn't be in completely unique company, though. In 1950, Billy Goodman of the Red Sox won the American League batting title with a .354 mark while starting at five different positions, mostly in left field (45 games). But he started just 96 games overall and barely qualified for the batting race. MVP voters were so impressed by Goodman's average and versatility that he placed second in the voting that year even though he hit just four home runs and drove in 68 runs. (Among others, Yogi Berra hit .322 with 28 home runs and Joe DiMaggio hit .301 with 32 home runs, yet finished third and ninth in the voting. Ted Williams was injured and played just 89 games ... but still drove in 97 runs and finished 21st in the voting. It's too bad we didn't have sabermetric bloggers back then to debate this!)

What's even stranger about that vote is the voters seemed to hold Fenway Park against Red Sox hitters -- fair enough, as the Red Sox hit .335 at home, .269 on the road -- because shortstop Vern Stephens led the league with 144 RBIs and finished even lower in the voting than Williams. Yet they didn't hold it against Goodman, who hit .376 at Fenway, .336 on the road.

Goodman was just 24 that year, and while he never won another batting race, he did prove to be the real deal, as he hit .300 in his career. During his Red Sox career, he still primarily remained a full-time utility guy, more or less, except for one year where he started 143 games at second base.

As for Harrison, one thing he's done this season is blister fastballs, hitting .357/.390/.594. He also has the 11th-best wOBA against fastballs among qualified hitters. (In fact, McCutchen ranks eighth and Neil Walker 10th, so don't throw too many fastballs to the Pirates.) Most hitters struggle with two strikes, but Harrison has hit .245 -- that doesn't sound great, but it's 12th in the majors.

By the way, despite not being a full-time player all season, Harrison ranks ninth among NL position players in WAR. He won't finish second in the MVP voting, but he's a legitimate top-10 candidate.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
8:46
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Check out all the playoff odds and upcoming schedules on the Hunt for October page.

1. The Tigers will win the AL Central.

It hasn't always been easy the past three seasons, but after sweeping the Indians, it appears the Tigers will win their the fourth straight division title. It's not over, not with a big series against the Royals this weekend, but 10 of Detroit's other final 13 games are against the Twins and White Sox, so they should finish strong. That said, Sunday's win didn't resolve two major issues the team will carry into the postseason: Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan. Verlander gave up six hits and three walks in 5.2 innings and you have to think he still slots in behind Max Scherzer, David Price and Rick Porcello in the playoff rotation, and that's pending the return of Anibal Sanchez, who threw Saturday and is hoping for a return in the final week of the regular season. Nathan earned his 32nd save, but gave up a run on two hits and a walk. Yes, he hasn't blown a save since Aug. 9, but he's also pitched just three 1-2-3 innings in 12 outings since. He's still shaky, to say the least.

2. Jordan Zimmermann looking like Nationals' No. 1 starter.

He tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.83. His next start is Friday and then Wednesday or Thursday of next week after that, giving him plenty of time before the first game of the Division Series. Over his past 10 starts, he's 6-0 with a 2.16 ERA and just eight walks; meanwhile, Doug Fister has had a couple shaky outings lately and Stephen Strasburg remains inconsistent. Look for Zimmermann to draw the first game of the Division Series.

3. Good night, Yankees.

Pitching for the third day in a row, David Robertson didn't have it Sunday night and the Orioles rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 3-2. The Yankees are now five games behind the Royals for the second wild card. It may only take 88 wins to get that second wild but the Yankees would still have to 12-2 to get to 88. Their playoffs odds are now under 1 percent.

4. Pirates looking good.

With a 7-3 win over the Cubs, the Pirates' playoff odds have now increased to 79 percent. They're three games behind the Giants for the first wild card and home field be important there -- Pittsburgh is 46-29 at home, 33-41 on the road, the second-largest home/road split in the majors behind the Cleveland. Of course, there are still slim hopes of catching the Cardinals, but the Cardinals finish with the Brewers, Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks, so it's going be difficult for the Pirates to make up 3.5 games.

5. Clayton Kershaw with his biggest win of the season.

After the teams exchanged 9-0 and 17-0 blowout wins in the first two games of the series, Kershaw went eight strong innings in a 4-2 win over the Giants -- although his ERA did climb all the way from 1.67 to 1.70. This doesn't look like a man wearing down at the end of the season, as he's pitched at least eight innings in seven consecutive starts. The Dodgers are now up three games and their odds of winning the division are over 90 percent.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:12
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Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?

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The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but is it possible reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is a little underrated?

Here's what I'm getting at it: Who is the best player in baseball? Most everyone says Mike Trout. Some will say Clayton Kershaw, if you want to consider a pitcher. Maybe a small percentage will suggest Giancarlo Stanton, based on his big season.

And while everyone acknowledges McCutchen is a terrific player, I don't seem to hear his name mentioned alongside Trout's. Why not?

In Wednesday's 6-3 victory over the Phillies, McCutchen went 2-for-4 with an inside-the-park home run as his deep drive to center bounded off the wall and away from Ben Revere (right fielder Grady Sizemore was nowhere to be seen backing up the play). The Pirates maintained their slim 1.5-game lead for the second wild card, and McCutchen has been a big reason for that. Since he missed 15 games in early August with a fractured rib, he's hit .313/.356/.550 with six home runs in 20 games -- all while playing through the injury. With Josh Harrison, the red-hot Starling Marte and McCutchen -- each went 2-for-4 on Wednesday -- the Pirates have as good a top three in the lineup right now as any team in the majors. That offense is good enough to carry this team into the postseason again.

Anyway, back to that compare/contrast exercise with Trout. Their season numbers:

McCutchen: .311/.403/.539, .401 wOBA, 162 wRC+
Trout: .286/.373/.551, .391 wOBA, 164 wRC+

Trout has the advantage in power, while McCutchen gets on base more. The sabermetric stats rate their overall value as hitters pretty similarly, with McCutchen having the edge in weighted on-base average and Trout the slightest of edges in the park-adjusted weighted runs created.

OK, what about defense? The metrics agree neither Trout nor McCutchen has been a top defensive center fielder this year. Trout rates at minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved and McCutchen at minus-8. Ultimate Zone Rating also puts both below average. Both have reputations that exceed the numbers, but this is the second straight season of mediocre defensive metrics for Trout.

Baserunning? Trout hasn't run as much this year, so that advantage has dissipated. He's 14-for-16 stealing bases while McCutchen is 17-for-19. McCutchen has taken the extra base in 42 percent of his opportunities compared to Trout's 59 percent, so overall, Trout holds a minor edge on the bases. Still, there's not a whole lot of difference between what the two guys have brought to the field this year.

Now, Trout does own a somewhat decisive edge in Wins Above Replacement, with 7.0 to 5.3 on Baseball-Reference.com (entering Wednesday) and 6.9 to 5.5 on FanGraphs. Some of that difference is simply due to plate appearances: Trout has played 12 more games and has 70 more at-bats. (Batting second as opposed to third also gives him a few more plate appearances.)

WAR is a cumulative statistic, so I'm not dismissing that advantage of Trout's; those are real opportunities to affect games and create value, and are more opportunities than McCutchen has had. But we're not really discussing value here as much production and ability. Give McCutchen those 70 additional plate appearances, and he edges closer to Trout in WAR.

I think part of the reason McCutchen might be underrated is he doesn't do one thing that draws awe-inspiring reactions: He doesn't hit mammoth home runs like Stanton or play center field like Juan Lagares or dart around the bases like Billy Hamilton. He did have a 31-homer season in 2012, but he had 21 in his MVP season, and he's at 23 this year.

Trout, meanwhile, put up numbers rarely seen from a 20-year-old, and then did it again last year as a 21-year-old. He was the best player in baseball those years. Once you've earned that label, you don't lose it unless you really go into the tank. That's certainly not the case with Trout this year.

However, while Trout leads the American League in both runs and RBIs, he hasn't been quite as good this year (though I'd argue he's still the best player in the AL): The on-base percentage is down from .432 to .373; the steals are down; the defense is arguably down a bit; and his average and walk rates are both down, as his strikeout rate has increased.

Trout is still awesome. But so is McCutchen. Consider this a reminder to give Cutch a little more love when you talk about the best of the best.
In my chat on Tuesday, a reader asked my thoughts on John Holdzkom, if I thought he was for real. I didn't know anything about him, other than a name I had seen in a Pirates box score. I hadn't heard of him as a prospect, hadn't seen him pitch, just assumed he was another minor league reliever called up as another arm in the bullpen.

As it turns out, Holdzkom has a pretty interesting story. He's a 26-year-old, 6-foot-7 right-hander with a 95 mph fastball and, apparently, the only palmball in the majors. In his second major league outing, he picked up a save in a 5-3 win over the Cubs, pitching the bottom of the 11th and striking out two of the three batters he faced. So far, in three appearances, he's allowed one hit in three innings with six punchouts.

[+] EnlargeJohn Holdzkom
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJohn Holdzkom fanned six of the first 10 batters he faced as a Pirates reliever.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has the story on Holdzkom's rise from nowhere, complete with palmball GIFs and links to this Baseball America story by J.J. Cooper and a transcript of Holdzkom calling in to a podcast (after he had apparently washed out of the minors) and admitting he had blown all of his $210,000 signing bonus (among other issues).

Holdzkom signed with the Mets as a fourth-round pick in 2006, didn't throw strikes and got hurt. He missed all of 2011, pitched sparingly for the Reds' organization in 2012, and then spent 2013 pitching for Amarillo and Sioux City of the independent American Association, walking 36 batters in 43.2 innings.

He got cut from the Sioux Falls team in spring training and eventually ended up pitching for San Angelo in the United League, an even lower rung of independent baseball, for $600 a month. From there, he moved back up to Amarillo for a few games, and the Pirates signed him; somewhere in there he slightly changed the grip on his fastball and started throwing more strikes. He pitched four games for Double-A Altoona and 18 at Triple-A Indianapolis (combined numbers: 36.2 IP, 22 H, 14 BB, 46 SO) and Pittsburgh added him to the 40-man roster on Aug. 31, making him eligible for the postseason.

Whew. That's a wild ride, a little reminiscent of Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, who had washed out of the Brewers' system and become a bartender before giving baseball another try.

Is Holdzkom for real? I have no idea. The arm is legit, the palmball looks nasty, and while the command may still be iffy, it's good enough now to carve out a major league career.

It makes you wonder: How many other John Holdzkoms are out there? Change your grip, don't give up on the game, just hoping for one more shot...

Five things we learned Monday

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
10:34
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1. The A's can't get Sean Doolittle back soon enough.

For the second day in a row, the A's blew a ninth-inning lead, as Tyler Flowers of the White Sox homered off Eric O'Flaherty with two outs to tie the game and then homered again in the 12th off Jesse Chavez to win it. Doolittle threw a bullpen session on Monday and will face hitters on Wednesday, hoping for a return at the end of the week. The A's have now lost six games they've led heading into the ninth inning (the major league average is three) and their wild-card lead is down to one game over Seattle and 1.5 games over Detroit. Brandon Moss hasn't homered since July 24, a span of 113 at-bats during which he's hitting .159. Maybe it's not exactly desperate times in Oakland, but it's starting to feel like desperate times.

2. Even when he's mediocre, King Felix is pretty good.

Felix Hernandez scuffled through six innings against the Astros, walking four for the second time this season and giving up five hits. But he kept the Astros off the board in getting a no-decision. The Mariners broke open a 1-1 tie in the eighth on Brad Miller's two-run triple to win for the sixth time in seven games. Still, Felix hasn't been quite as dominant over his past five starts, as he's allowed seven home runs and has a 23/9 strikeout/walk ratio in 31.2 innings. He'll face the A's this weekend and the Mariners will hope to see the Felix who had that memorable 17-start stretch where he went seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer each outing.

3. Big night for the Pirates.

With a 6-4 win over the Phillies, combined with losses by the Brewers and Braves, the Pirates increased their lead for the second wild card to 1.5 games over those two clubs. While Jeff Locke pitched seven solid innings -- three hits, one run, nine K's -- it's the Pittsburgh offense that remains underrated. They're third in the NL in runs (just two behind the Nationals for second-most) and second in wOBA. Last year's Pirates were all about pitching, defense and Andrew McCutchen, but this year's lineup runs much deeper. Starling Marte has been huge of late. Since returning from a concussion on Aug. 5, he's hit .342/.402/.575 in 32 games, with 15 extra-base hits, getting on base and adding power from the leadoff spot.

4. Javier Baez is going to have to some interesting projections for 2015.

Baez went 0-for-4 as the Cubs lost 8-0 to the Blue Jays ... although he did strike out just once after whiffing 10 times in his previous three games. His batting average in 34 games is down to .165 and he has 62 strikeouts in 140 at-bats. Yes, he's just 21. Yes, the raw power is off the charts. But 62 strikeouts -- with just eight walks -- in 140 at-bats? That's crazy terrible. That's not even Mark Reynolds territory. Not surprisingly, among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Baez has the highest swing-and-miss percentage at 42.9 percent. Astros rookie George Springer has the second-highest at 41.1 percent. Springer, however, has hit .231/.336/.468 compared to Baez's .165/.209/.350. The big difference? Baez has a chase rate on pitches outside the zone of 40.6 percent compared to Springer's 23.3 percent. Again, Baez is three years younger than Springer, so he has time to learn the strike zone; but if he doesn't, pitchers are going to continue exploiting his aggressiveness.

5. Victor Martinez is the best hitter in the game right now.

After going 3-for-5 as the Tigers pounded the Royals 9-4 in the first game of their big series, Martinez leads the majors in wOBA, just head of Jose Abreu, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. In the park-adjusted wRC+, he's also first. He's hitting .337. He has power (already with a career-high 30 home runs). He rarely strikes out (just 39 K's in 570 plate appearances). Obviously, he doesn't have much defensive value as he's started just 30 games in the field, 28 of those at first base, but shouldn't he be a factor in the MVP voting? Not saying he should win, but he's a good top-five candidate. Oh ... doesn't Tuesday feel like a big game for the Royals? Jason Vargas versus Max Scherzer. Should be a fun one.

Five things we learned Sunday

September, 8, 2014
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1. Oakland's pain continues.

After Oakland's dramatic ninth-inning rally on Saturday, the Astros returned the favor, scoring twice in the ninth to win 4-3. Especially painful: The Astros didn't even get a hit as Ryan Cook walked three batters and Fernando Abad walked two (around a sacrifice fly). Eric O'Flaherty, the team's interim closer with Sean Doolittle injured, was unavailable with lower back tightness, so Bob Melvin turned to Cook, who promptly walked Marwin Gonzalez on four pitches and threw only five of 18 pitches for strikes. With the Angels pounding the Twins, the A's are now seven back. It's all about holding on to a wild card now -- and avoiding becoming the first team of the wild-card era to have the best record in the majors at the All-Star break and miss the playoffs. Next up: A seven game road to Chicago and Seattle. That trip to Safeco shapes up as a huge series with the Mariners just two games behind the A's for the first wild card.

2. Wade Davis continues to throw up zeroes.

Filling in for Greg Holland (biceps tendinitis) in the ninth inning, Davis spun another scoreless inning to get his second save of the weekend -- closing out 1-0 and 2-0 wins over the Yankees, giving the Royals their first season-series edge over the Yankees since 1999. Davis has allowed five runs all season for a 0.71 ERA and hasn't allowed a run since June 25, a span of 31 appearances. Ned Yost has been careful not to ride his big three relievers too hard. With Holland out, Aaron Crow pitched out of the seventh on Sunday after Yordano Ventura threw six-plus scoreless innings and Kelvin Herrera was pushed back to the eighth.

Yost may have to ride that bullpen a little harder down the stretch, especially after Danny Duffy left his start on Saturday after one pitch with a sore shoulder. But he does have his three veteran starters lined up for the big series against the Tigers that begins Monday, with Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and James Shields set to go.

3. Don't forget Andrew McCutchen in the NL MVP race.

He went 3-for-5 with his 22nd home run as the Pirates finished off a sweep of the Cubs. McCutchen also went 3-for-5 on Saturday and ranks first in the NL in OBP and third in slugging.

4. Matt Kemp stepping up for the Dodgers.

Adrian Gonzalez had the big day on Sunday with two two-run homers, but Kemp also hit his third homer of September, after hitting five in August. Kemp is quietly 10th in the NL in slugging percentage and considering the struggles of Yasiel Puig of late (.207, no home runs since Aug. 1), Kemp may have to be the guy to carry the Dodgers down the stretch.

5. Derek Jeter had a nice career ... in case you had forgotten.

The Yankees had their Derek Jeter sendoff of sorts on Sunday, even though they still have more home games remaining. But maybe it was a good idea to do it now and get it out of the way, just in case the Yankees are fighting for a wild card down the stretch. Jeter wouldn't have wanted the ceremony to distract the team before a crucial game in the week's final season.

Of course, the Yankees went out and laid an egg with that shutout defeat. I figure it's going to take at least 90 wins to win the second wild card, which means the Yankees have to go 17-5 the rest of the way. Doesn't seem likely, does it?
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The good news for the St. Louis Cardinals: They secured an important 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Combined with the Milwaukee Brewers' seventh straight loss, the Cardinals now lead the NL Central by two games over the Brewers and four games over the Pirates. Until taking the division lead on Monday, the Cardinals had been tied for first place for seven days, but hadn't had sole possession of the top spot. Now they do -- even though they've been outscored on the season (last team to win a division while being outscored: the 2007 Diamondbacks) -- and they may not look back.

The bad news for the Cardinals: Adam Wainwright got the win but struggled once again, and the concerns about his dead arm or fatigue or whatever are going to get more serious with each mediocre outing.

Wainwright lasted six-plus innings but gave up three home runs for just the fifth time in his career and first since 2010. I was actually a little surprised manager Mike Matheny brought him back out for the seventh inning with the Cards up 5-2 and Wainwright already at 91 pitches. He hadn't really dominated up to that point with three strikeouts, but the two home runs he allowed had been solo shots. Why not call it a night, chalk up his best performance in several weeks and turn the game over to the bullpen with a good feeling? Instead, Wainwright walked Ike Davis, and Starling Marte crushed a 2-1 slider to left field, leaving the Cards still worrying about their ace.

They have to, don't they? At the All-Star break, Wainwright was a legitimate Cy Young contender, maybe even the favorite over Clayton Kershaw since he had pitched more innings. But it's been a Jekyll and Hyde two halves for Wainwright:

First half: 12-4, 1.83 ERA, .201 average, .258 BABIP, 4.26 SO/BB ratio
Second half: 4-5, 4.82 ERA, .282 average, .315 BABIP, 2.0 SO/BB ratio

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAdam Wainwright didn't have his best stuff Tuesday, and he hasn't had it in a while.
Besides the ERA, the important number here is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the first half, he averaged more than four K's for every strikeout, but that rate is down to just two K's for every strikeout since the All-Star break.

There had been speculation about Wainwright suffering from a dead arm or fatigue, and he did finally reluctantly admit to an issue a few days ago -- again, leading me to wonder why Matheny didn't pull him after six innings. That fatigue hasn't shown up in the velocity readings -- his fastball averaged 89.8 mph on Tuesday, right near his season average of 90.1, and he's averaged 89-91 every start this season -- although it's possible he's exerting more effort to create the same velocity.

Of course, the other thing that happened right before the All-Star break was the injury to Yadier Molina, who went down on June 29. There was speculation that maybe Wainwright just missed Molina and his game-calling and artful pitch framing of Wainwright's offerings. You can read the piece from Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs for some evidence in that regard. As a team, the Cardinals' ERA on the season is 3.31 with Molina catching, 4.24 with Tony Cruz and 4.29 ERA with A.J. Pierzynski. Sabermetricians dislike catcher ERA due to concerns about sample size and personal catchers and so on, but successful pitch framing should show up in fewer runs allowed, right?

But Molina was back there Tuesday and that didn't seem to help. It just hasn't been the same Wainwright. Witness the three home runs. The pitch to Marte was a flat slider with no bite. Russell Martin homered on a 2-0 fastball that was down the middle. The 2-1 pitch to Jordy Mercer was a 90 mph inside fastball at the belt with no movement. Three bad pitches when behind in the count. Big league hitters don't miss those kinds of pitches too often.

The Cardinals can certainly win the division even if Wainwright continues to scuffle. But if he doesn't show signs of getting back to something resembling what he was in the first half or the past two seasons, Matheny will have a difficult decision: Does he still make Wainwright his No. 1 starter in the postseason? Is he still the guy you want to line up for two potential starts in a five-game series, to potentially match up against Kershaw?

Maybe Matheny turns to Lance Lynn, who has a 2.85 ERA ... but has also never made it through six innings in five career postseason starts. Maybe he turns to John Lackey, who hasn't been that great since coming over but pitched well in the postseason for the Red Sox last year. Maybe Michael Wacha manages to get healthy and join the rotation (he just pitched two innings in his first rehab stint).

Put it this way: I don't think it should be automatic that Wainwright will be the No. 1 starter come the postseason, from what we're seeing right now.

Of course, you do have to get there first.

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.
So, these are the National League leaders in batting average entering Thursday:

1. Justin Morneau, Rockies -- .317
2. Ben Revere, Phillies -- .310
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates -- .307
4. Josh Harrison, Pirates -- .304
5. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers -- .304

Five other players -- Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, Yasiel Puig, Paul Goldschmidt and Denard Span are also at .300 or above, although Goldschmidt will eventually fall off the qualifying leaderboards due to his season-ending injury (as Troy Tulowitzki already has).

Let's be honest here: This isn't exactly Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker dueling it out.

Morneau is a nice story, signing with the Rockies and having a nice season after struggling for years to perform at his usual All-Star level after suffering a concussion in 2010. Of course, hitting .317 or winning a batting title playing for the Rockies is hardly a unique achievement and Morneau hasn't hit .300 in a full season since 2008. Michael Cuddyer, another ex-Twin, won the NL batting title last season for the Rockies at age 34 -- after having never hit .300 before. Six different Rockies have won a total of eight batting titles. To be fair, Morneau isn't just riding Coors Field -- he's hitting .325 on the road and .310 at home.

In Revere's case, it's not so much that it's surprising that he's hitting .300 -- he hit .305 last year and .294 the year before -- it's that he's the perfect example of why batting average is overrated in the first place. He has no power (just one home run and 17 extra-base hits in 480 at-bats) and has just 11 walks. So while's second in the NL in average, he's just 41st in on-base percentage and 63rd in slugging percentage. Players like Revere are kind of what led to the whole creation of sabermetrics in the first place: There's more to creating runs than just getting singles.

Now, players of Revere's ilk have won batting titles before. Ichiro Suzuki won two titles, although compared to Revere he looks like Babe Ruth, and he hit .350 and .372 the years he won. Tony Gwynn had some years where he didn't hit for much power; in 1988, he won a title with a .313 average and just 34 extra-base hits (that's the lowest average to win a title since the mound was lowered in 1969). He also won the next year, hitting .336 with four home runs. Rod Carew won the AL batting title in 1972, hitting .318 with no home runs and just 27 extra-base hits. Matty Alou won the NL batting title in 1966 (.342) while hitting two home runs.

Still, Revere would easily be the "worst" batter to win a batting title. Here are the players with the lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging) to win a batting title:

Ben Revere, 2014: .696
Rod Carew, 1972: .749
Zach Wheat, 1918: .755
Dick Groat, 1960: .766
Tony Gwynn, 1988: .787
Matty Alou, 1966: .793
Pete Runnels, 1960: .795
Willie Wilson, 1982: .796

Those numbers don't adjust for the offensive environment of the season. OPS+ adjusts for that as well as home park. The worst five in this category, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Groat, 1960: 110
Runnels, 1960: 114
Billy Goodman, 1950: 117
Wilson, 1982: 118
Freddy Sanchez, 2006: 119

Revere's OPS+ is 96 -- below league average.

Under this method, Groat qualifies as the worst hitter to win a batting title. He hit .325/.371/.394 that year with two home runs and 32 extra-base hits. The average wasn't a complete fluke as he hit .300 three other times in his career. To show how times have changed, however, Groat also won the NL MVP Award as the Pirates won the pennant. Yes, he played shortstop and was regarded as the team leader (and wasn't a terrible choice with a 6.2 WAR that ranked seventh among NL position players), but the batting title most certainly helped.

Groat winning wasn't as strange as Goodman riding his .354 mark for the Red Sox to second place in the 1950 MVP vote. He was kind of the Josh Harrison of his day, playing all over for Boston, although he played in just 110 games and barely qualified for the title. Phil Rizzuto won the MVP but Goodman (four home runs, 68 RBIs) finished ahead of Yogi Berra, who only hit .322 with 28 home runs and 124 RBIs for the pennant-winning Yankees.

Anyway, if you like to follow the batting races, this year's NL race could certainly end up being one to forget. Although on the bright side it gives Phillies fans something to cheer for (although didn't they want to run Revere out of town last summer?).


I'm not sure it was the Pittsburgh Pirates' biggest win of the season, but watching from afar it sure felt like it. It may not even have been Ike Davis' biggest pinch-hit home run of the season -- back on April 5, he hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Reds -- but considering the opponent, the time of the season and how the game unfolded before Davis crushed a three-run shot to center field in the eighth inning to break a 2-2 tie and deliver the Pirates a 5-2 win over the Cardinals, it was one of the blows to remember if this season turns to roses for Pittsburgh.

A few small-picture and big-picture thoughts off this game. ...

1. Andrew McCutchen departed in the sixth inning with discomfort in his left rib, the injury that forced him to recently miss two weeks. He left two innings after making a leaping grab against the wall that preserved the no-hitter Gerrit Cole was working on at the time. He batted one more time after the catch, striking out. Obviously, the MVP candidate isn't at full strength, although he did homer on Monday. Hopefully, this was more precautionary and not a severe re-aggravation. Despite missing the two weeks of action, McCutchen stands a good chance of winning back-to-back MVP honors, especially with a big September that pushes the Pirates into the postseason.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGerrit Cole flirted with no-hitting the Cardinals, the latest proof he's the Pirates' indispensable starting pitcher.
2. Gerrit Cole looked terrific. In his second start since returning from a six-week stint on the DL with soreness in his right lat (he also missed three weeks in June with a sore shoulder), the hard-throwing second-year righty was dominant, with a no-hit bid until Kolten Wong doubled with two outs in the sixth. He averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball, maintaining the velocity he had in his last start, a good sign that he's healthy.

Leading 2-0 in the seventh, Clint Hurdle let Cole start the inning against Matt Adams, the Cardinals' lefty masher. Cole was at 105 pitches entering the inning, so it was a curious decision in this day in which pitchers rarely go much past 110. Why not bring in a lefty to face Adams to start the inning? By the time Adams doubled and Jhonny Peralta singled, the Pirates were in trouble. Tony Watson couldn't escape the inning as the Cards hit a sac fly and soft looper to center -- reminiscent of Monday's rally when a few seeing-eye singles gave the Cards a late comeback.

3. Ex-Mets great Davis to the rescue. With Pirates fans sensing doom and gloom after McCutchen's departure and the blown lead, Davis entered for Watson with two outs against righty Seth Maness and hit a 2-2 change to deep center -- a definite no-doubter that Davis watched and admired for a split second. Considering Davis is hitting .100 against lefties this year (granted, that's in just 32 plate appearances), it was a little surprising Mike Matheny didn't bring in Randy Choate, although maybe he suspected Hurdle would have countered with a right-handed bat. But considering McCutchen and also Pedro Alvarez (foot injury) had left the game, the Pirates' bench was already thin by then; I doubt Hurdle would have wasted Davis in a tie game.

Anyway, the other option would have been to have Pat Neskek and his 0.86 ERA pitch the eighth instead of Maness, but Matheny figured Maness could get through the bottom of the Pittsburgh order. Maness is certainly a serviceable middle guy, he just hasn't pitched at Neshek's level. You hate to lose games like this without getting your best guys in there. (Neshek had thrown 18 pitches on Monday, didn't pitch on Sunday, threw 16 pitches on Saturday but hadn't pitched in four days before then, so he appeared to be rested enough.)

4. First base and right field. As for Davis, he hasn't provided a ton of power in his platoon role at first but at least he has been getting on base with a .352 OBP. Last year, first base and right field were offensive problems for the Pirates (rectified somewhat late in the year with the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd) and Davis was supposed to help that production as was rookie midseason call-up Gregory Polanco.

Their first basemen have a .232/.320/.376 line this year versus .264/.346/.422 last year (Garret Jones hit when he played first but not right field); their right fielders are hitting .247/.305/.345 compared to .242/.299/.385 last year and Polanco was just sent down to the minors.

The Pirates are scoring more runs this year (4.24 runs per games compared to 3.91), but it's not because they've upgraded their production from those two spots. Most of that credit goes to Josh Harrison and Russell Martin and a bench that has been more productive (in part because of Harrison).

5. Oscar Taveras needs to start hitting for the Cardinals. Part of the reason for trading Allen Craig in the John Lackey deal was the Cards' faith in their rookie right fielder, but Taveras is still muddling along at .233/.272/.306 with two home runs in 180 at-bats. Considering the Cards are still last in the NL in home runs, they desperately Taveras -- or somebody -- to start popping a few home runs.

Anyway, good game. It's not September yet, but it certainly had that September feel to it. The best part: Same two teams Wednesday afternoon, Adam Wainwright versus Jeff Locke, as Wainwright tries to turn around his second-half slump. The Pirates are 3.5 behind the Cards in the wild-card race, so it's a bigger game for them. Let's hope McCutchen is out there in center field.
1. The Angels need Bartolo Colon.

Journeyman left-hander Wade LeBlanc, replacing injured ace Garrett Richards in the rotation, was shelled in a 7-1 loss to the Marlins, giving up six runs and getting knocked out in the fourth inning. Do the Angels give him another start? Trouble is, that would come this weekend against the A's. Other internal options don't look much better than LeBlanc: Randy Wolf? Chris Volstad? Triple-A Salt Lake is 57-80, so you know there isn't much help down there. That brings the Angels to Colon. According to reports, Colon cleared waivers, meaning the Mets can trade him to any team. But if the Mets didn't trade Colon at the non-waiver deadline, are they going to be any more interested now?

2. Giancarlo Stanton is still in the MVP race.

He launched a long three-run home run off Cory Rasmus, his NL-leading 33rd -- and became just the 12th player to reach 150 career home runs before turning 25 (seven of the first 11 are in the Hall of Fame and the other four are Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols). He also leads the NL in RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and tops NL position players in WAR. MVP voters historically don't go for players on non-playoff teams, but in a year where the leading candidate may be a pitcher who missed an entire month of action, Stanton needs to be heavily considered.

3. Michael Pineda looked good.

Here's the scary thing about the Yankees: If they do somehow get to the postseason, don't underestimate them. Pineda hasn't been healthy enough to make many starts this year, but when he's been out there, he's been effective. He beat the Royals, allowing one run, five hits and no walks in 6.1 innings, the one mistake a Mike Moustakas home run. In 37 innings, he has a 1.95 ERA. Against the Royals, Pineda averaged 93.9 mph with his fastball (2.6 mph faster than his final start in April before he went on the DL), and in his three starts since coming off the DL he's thrown more 70 percent strikes all three outings. He's not the flamethrower with sometimes shaky command he was as a rookie in Seattle but has turned into a guy who can spot his fastball, with just four walks in those 37 innings. If Masahiro Tanaka returns at 100 percent and with the way Brandon McCarthy has pitched since coming over from Arizona, that trio suddenly looks playoff-caliber.

4. The Pirates suffered a tough loss.

John Lackey allowed just one run in seven innings, but the Pirates actually hit him pretty hard, with seven hits and several hard-hit outs. But the Cardinals turned four double plays behind Lackey (give him credit for inducing the groundballs), turning what could have been another shaky outing into a solid line in the box score. Meanwhile, after Francisco Liriano tossed six scoreless innings, the Cardinals scraped together three runs in the seventh off Jared Hughes, with a walk and some seeing-eye singles. Andrew McCutchen's home run in the ninth made the final score 3-2, but it's one of those games you lose a little sleep over if you're a Pirates fan.

5. The Mariners' punishing travel schedule may have affected them.

No team will travel more miles this year than Seattle and after playing in Boston on Sunday, they had to fly across the country to host the Rangers. They got shut down by Miles Mikolas, who entered with a 7.48 ERA and tossed eight scoreless innings. This is the kind of series the Mariners have to win against the worst-in-baseball Rangers, so the pressure is on these next two games, and the Mariners already announced that Felix Hernandez will be pushed back from Wednesday to Friday against the Nationals (Wednesday's starter is undecided, although it will likely be Erasmo Ramirez). The long plane ride isn't the only reason they lost 2-0, but it's one obstacle East Coast teams don't have to face nearly as often.

Pirates must rely on big reinforcements

August, 19, 2014
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This is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps even a defining week. Monday night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves was their sixth straight. They’re now two games back in the wild-card standings, with the Braves between them and the Cardinals and Giants.

The big factor that people no doubt worry about is that they’ve gone 5-9 since the grudging acknowledgment that reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen had to go to the disabled list. Add in that second baseman Neil Walker has been healthy enough to make just five starts in August in what had been his best season since his rookie year, and the Pirates have had to get by a whole lot of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez. Some of those losses have been especially tough, including getting swept over the weekend in a trio of one-run losses to the Nationals, and losing four one-run games during McCutchen’s absence. Operating without their best hitter, as well as their best starting pitcher -- Gerrit Cole -- and those margins are that much tighter.

SportsNation

With Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole returning this week, will the Pirates make the playoffs?

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    9%
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    58%
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    33%

Discuss (Total votes: 41,348)

I’d argue that the absences of Cole and Charlie Morton have been every bit as critical as the losses in the lineup. Since the break, the Pirates have averaged 4.6 runs per game, and even 4.1 with McCutchen on the DL, slightly above league-average for the NL. But on the pitching side, since the All-Star break the Pirates have seen some things unfold that they have to have anticipated: Jeff Locke’s transient magic once again fading with repeated exposure to National League lineups that have cranked out a 1.60 WHIP in his last six starts, while Edinson Volquez has been looking very much like nothing more than a No. 5 while allowing 4.9 runs per nine in his six turns in that time. These are not the guys you’re going to win a division with; they’re whom you get by with when Cole and Morton are out. The happier news is that Vance Worley looks like a keeper, but we’ll see if he pushes past Volquez to enter postseason rotation consideration.

One of the things you can consider a lesson learned is that the enthusiasm for the Pirates’ young outfield is still mostly deserved. Starling Marte has been excellent since the All-Star break, with an 1.132 OPS. Gregory Polanco, not so much (.632 OPS), but it’s too soon to see if he’s going to have to join Pedro Alvarez on the team’s growing pile of disappointing superstars-to-be (or not). But another happy surprise is that Josh Harrison seems as ready as Omar Infante was to make people eat those “that guy’s an All-Star?” taunts, hitting .331/.369/.570 since the break.

The weeks to come are going to provide all sorts of interesting questions for Clint Hurdle and company as they try to get back on top, because the Pirates and Hurdle have proven themselves reliably creative when it comes to lineup solutions in particular. I think it’s fascinating to see them play Harrison at shortstop these last four games. Breaking out a rare “small sample-size” caveat this late in the season, it hasn’t been lovely (the first three games were at a minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved level for a full season), but if by some chance he proves that he can play short as a regular, that creates an expanded range of options in the lineup. It might even provide Alvarez a chance at redemption at third base, at least against right-handed pitching -- if the choice is between Jordy Mercer (.656 OPS, career) or Clint Barmes and Alvarez (.790 OPS) against a righty. I’d like to see a loose Alvarez-Mercer platoon in the lineup. Maybe Harrison is only affordable at shortstop on days when Cole pitches (because of his large number of strikeouts) or Worley (because he’s a fly ball-out guy), but it’s interesting to see Hurdle and the sabermetrically savvy Pirates experiment, even at this point of the season.

And that’s because, with 37 games left, everything is still possible. The good news is that they’ll get McCutchen back from the DL on Tuesday, and Cole should make his return from the DL on Wednesday, in time to face these Braves. Sometime around Sept. 1, they should have Morton back to start for them as well.

As long as the Pirates are within a game or two, when you’re talking about adding that kind of talent, you’re talking about a team with a chance. Last year’s playoff appearance should not be a one-time thing. And after what Pirates fans endured for two decades, you have to hope it wasn’t.


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

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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