Sunday's day of aces turned more into a game of Crazy Eights -- there were some crooked numbers put up against several of baseball's top pitchers and none of the anticipated showdowns materialized into a pitcher's duel.
One of the disappointing matchups was the Stephen Strasburg-Johnny Cueto game in Cincinnati. There's really not much at stake in early April, but this game had that little extra taste of powerhouse teams trying to get a little early bragging rights. The Reds had wiped out the Nationals 15-0 on Friday and the Nationals won 7-6 on Saturday, blowing a four-run lead only to win in 11 innings, so this game would determine the series winner.
Cueto gave up a three-run homer to Kurt Suzuki in the second inning, but did settle down and didn't allow anything else through his six frames. Strasburg's final line -- 5.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 5 Ks -- looked liked he got knocked around, but that wasn't really the case. On the other hand, he wasn't the dominant Strasburg we unfairly expect to see every start.
In the first inning, the Reds scored three runs with only one hit out of the infield:
-- With one out, Xavier Paul weakly chopped an 0-2 curveball off Strasburg's glove for an infield hit.
-- Joey Votto does what Joey Votto does: he walked on five pitches. Strasburg tried to bust him twice inside but was way off the plate on both pitches.
-- With the bases loaded, Jay Bruce lined a 2-2 curve to left-center for a two-run double.
-- Todd Frazier's infield grounder plated the third run.
The curveball to Bruce wasn't in a bad location -- low and away -- but was a bit lazy without a sharp break, and Bruce was clearly sitting on it. Until Strasburg gets better at commanding his fastball inside to lefties, it's going to be easier for hitters to lean over the plate with two strikes -- or at least anticipate that outside curveball. Here, check out Strasburg's fastballs to Cincinnati's left-handers on Sunday:
In the sixth, the Reds scored three more runs. Speedy pinch hitter Derrick Robinson slapped a base hit past a drawn-in Zimmerman for his first major league hit. Shin-Soo Choo then lined a 1-2 high fastball into center to push Robinson to third. With the infield halfway, Paul hit a hard grounder to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who threw home instead of turning two. Everybody was safe. Davey Johnson said Espinosa should have turned two. Espinosa said, "The way I thought was, we were playing halfway because we were trying to cut that run down." After Votto grounded out, Phillips hit a 2-2 changeup into left for an RBI single, knocking Strasburg from the game. The final run scored on Bruce's infield hit.
So it was a bit of a bad-luck outing for Strasburg, as he walked four and was unable to punch out Bruce and Phillips in key situations. He apparently had some problems pitching out of the stretch in spring training as well. "I have to look at video and see what I'm doing out there," Strasburg told MLB.com. "Some days, you kind of give up a lot of singles, and when they all get on base, they seem to come up with the clutch hits. You have to tip your cap and move forward."
I think there's another issue brewing here. Let's see Strasburg become a great pitcher before we declare him the greatest pitcher. In Vegas, he was the betting favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award over Clayton Kershaw. He and Kershaw received the most Cy Young predictions on the ESPN staff balloting. Sure, that's somewhat understandable considering his dominant strikeout rate from last season (30.2 percent, highest in the majors for any pitcher with 150 innings since Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez in 2002).
So, yes, there's no denying Strasburg's potential. But let's keep in mind he's never pitched more than seven innings in a game, let alone 200 innings in a season. He's not quite a polished pitcher yet, especially against left-handed batters, who hit a respectable .271/.326/.387 off him last year, including .323 off his fastball. Kershaw -- only a few months older than Strasburg, mind you -- is at the peak of his powers, a guy who could easily be gunning for his third straight Cy Young Award (he finished second to R.A. Dickey last year).
After an Opening Day shutout against the Giants, Kershaw was brilliant again on Saturday, allowing two hits in seven scoreless innings against the Pirates. He's thrown 94 and 97 pitches in his two outings, whereas as Strasburg labored through 114 on Sunday.
I do think Strasburg will get to that next level. He may reel off 15 brilliant starts in a row. But he's not Kershaw just yet. The hype is a product of today's world, but how about if the man pitches eight innings in a game before we say he's as good as Kershaw.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Justin Upton, Braves. How cool was Saturday night? B.J. Upton tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with a home run off the Cubs' Carlos Marmol, and then one out later, his brother Justin won it with his second homer of the game and fifth of the season.
2. Kershaw, Dodgers. Through two starts he's allowed no runs, one walk and no extra-base hits. Next up: At Arizona on Friday.
3. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks. Went 6-for-13 with a homer, three doubles, five runs and five RBIs as the D-backs swept the Brewers in Milwaukee.
Clutch performance of the weekend
CC Sabathia, Yankees. With the Yankees off to a 1-4 start, on Sunday they had to face Justin Verlander, who was looking to go 2-0 for the first time in his career. He still is, as Sabathia tossed seven scoreless innings. Hold off on that Yankee funeral march -- at least for another week.
Nationals 7, Reds 6 (Saturday). The Nationals led 5-1 but scored twice in the eighth (with the help of some sloppy defense) and twice in the ninth off proven closer Rafael Soriano to tie it (Choo homered and Votto tripled and scored on wild pitch). Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth homered in the 11th only to see the Reds score on Votto's walk and Phillips' double -- but Craig Stammen finally struck out Bruce on an 0-2 curveball.
Hitter on the rise: Chris Davis, Orioles.
Davis went RBI-less on Sunday, but still has 17 in Baltimore's first six games (fantasy owners everywhere thank you, Chris). As John Fisher of ESPN and Stats Info pointed out, Davis has been crushing outside pitches, going back to late last September. In his last 11 regular-season games since Sept. 26, Davis has six home runs on the outside part of the plate (or off it), largely because he's been staying back and going the opposite way or to center field.
ESPN colleague Curt Schilling said (via email) to watch very closely how Davis is pitched moving forward. Schilling says the smart teams will start pounding Davis with hard stuff inside. "If he has matured as a hitter," Curt wrote, "he will draw a significant number of walks this week because only top of the rotation guys (A) have consistent command in; (B) get the consistent call in from umpires."
Pitcher on the rise: Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
Thanks to Carlos Marmol's implosions in the ninth inning, Fujikawa will take over as the Cubs' closer, even though Fujikawa also had a rough outing on Saturday prior to Marmol's Upton affair, giving up three runs in the eighth.
Lineup move I can't understand
Eric Wedge, I don't understand you. And I'm not even talking about your various outfield arrangements so far. If the Mariners have any chance to win this year, a primary reason will be because Dustin Ackley develops into the hitter everyone thought the was going to develop into a couple years ago. But Wedge has already sat Ackley twice in seven games against left-handers. For Robert Andino. I get it, Chris Sale is tough on lefties. But we know Andino can't hit. What the Mariners have to find out is if Ackley can hit. He needs to play every day.
Team on the rise: Rockies
Hey, they're 5-1 and tied for the best record in baseball. They also have the best run differential in the majors at +21 -- an amazing 47 runs better than the Padres after just six games. Ahh, first-week stats!
Team on the fall: Brewers
Where do I even begin? The Brewers lost 8-7 in 11 innings on Sunday -- the final out coming when pitcher Kyle Lohse had to pinch hit and struck out looking with runners on first and third. But the more egregious strikeout looking came with the previous batter, when Rickie Weeks took a called third strike, KNOWING THE PITCHER WAS ON DECK AND THE BREWERS HAD NO BENCH PLAYERS LEFT.
How did the Brewers get there? Well, Ryan Braun was unavailable and Jean Segura got hurt earlier in the game, but the Brewers are only carrying 12 position players on the roster to begin with, meaning they had 11 guys minus Braun. I know the Brewers' bullpen is bad, but carrying 13 pitchers is about the dumbest kind of roster management you can have. The Brewers deserved to lose that game and deserve to be 1-5 right now.