- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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I tweeted a note Thursday morning from our Stats & Information department: Only two walk-off home runs had been hit so far (by Alex Aliva and Todd Helton), the fewest this late in a season since 1982.
Sure enough, we got another one later in the day when Tampa Bay's Brandon Allen golfed a low fastball from Jordan Walden over the wall in right-center for a dramatic two-run blast to give the Rays a 4-3 victory over the Angels, completing a series sweep over the reeling Albert Pujols & Co.
In typical Joe Maddon fashion, he pulled the right strings in sending Allen up to hit for Jose Molina. Claimed off waivers last week from the A's, Allen had just one previous plate appearance with Tampa, drawing a key bases-loaded walk the night before. So he hadn't really swung the bat since April 7. He hadn't delivered a hit all season, since he went 0-for-7 with five strikeouts with Oakland. Walden tried to blow him away with five straight fastballs, but Allen crushed a 2-2, 97-mph four-seamer deep into the stands, getting up and personal with his teammates during the ensuing home-plate celebration.
Allen is a fringe major leaguer, a guy with big-time power but who has struggled to make contact in his brief trials with Arizona and Oakland. In many ways, it was just another baseball game, a mid-April affair played on an afternoon when most of the sports world was focused on the NFL draft. But, you know, this game could end up being one of the best moments of Allen's big league career, which makes it pretty neat in my book.
"Baseball is luck. It's a lot of luck. You just do what you can to prepare for it," Allen said after the game. "I just got in there and stayed within myself."
Maddon had told Allen to be ready when the Rays signed him. "To do this, to basically win two games for us two nights in a row, is pretty special," Maddon said.
The Rays are 12-7, which isn't necessarily surprising since many picked them to make the playoffs. But what is surprising is they've done this amid a tough April schedule and they've done it with a lot of offense, supposedly the team's weakness.
Currently fourth in the AL in runs scored, Tampa's hitting attack looks legitimate. Evan Longoria is hitting .309 with a .427 on-base percentage. Matt Joyce is proving last season's All-Star appearance wasn't a fluke with a .322/.394/.644 start. Carlos Pena is hitting .284 and drawing walks. Luke Scott is providing power from the DH slot. Add in Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton and you get the feeling the Rays may score some runs.
And the pitching ... Well, you get the feeling the pitching hasn't even gotten their groove on yet.
Here are three more big surprises after three weeks.
1. Lance Lynn and Kyle Lohse.
The Cardinals have withstood Chris Carpenter's injury and Adam Wainwright's slow start since these two guys have dominated. Lynn replaced Carpenter and, yes, he's faced the Cubs twice and the Pirates in three of his four starts. But he has allowed one run in each start and has an impressive 24/6 SO/BB ratio. Remember, Lynn was a first-round supplemental pick and a decent prospect coming up through the minors before excelling in the bullpen last season as a rookie. Actually, he's still a rookie. He has a good arm, he is a 6-foot-5 beast on the mound and there is a good chance he's a solid No. 3 starter. As for Lohse, I'll be honest: I didn't expect him to repeat last season's 3.39 ERA. He has kept his changeup down in the zone so far and hasn't allowed a home run, leading to a 0.99 ERA. Both have a chance of being middle-of-the-rotation starters ... or better, certainly more than the back-of-the-rotation guys I projected them as.
2. Jose Altuve
This little guy can rake. He's off to a .377 start, which is surprising enough, but the biggest surprise is the mature approach the 5-foot-5 21-year-old has shown at the plate. After hitting .389 between Class A and Double-A last season, the Astros called him in July. While he hit a respectable .276, he drew just five walks in 234 plate appearances, leading to concerns he would be exposed this season. But he has already drawn seven walks, and after swinging at 41 percent of pitches outside the strike zone as a rookie, that has dropped to 25 percent this season. He's a key reason the Astros are third in the NL in runs scored and playing respectable baseball -- they're 7-12 but have outscored their opponents.
3. Pirates pitching
OK, the Pirates are hitting .221 with a .269 OBP. But they're 8-10 behind a pitching staff that has allowed less than three runs per game. The Pirates have neither scored nor allowed more than five runs in a game. Can they keep it up? Even though the starters have a 2.59 ERA, I'm a little skeptical. The Pirates' 6.54 K's per nine ranks 25th in the majors. Their .256 BABIP allowed is third-best. Those two numbers are a bit at odds with each other. It should be noted we saw a similar result last year as the Pirates had a good run in the first half before collapsing. Still, give credit to the pitchers (and defense) for an amazing run of games.
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