50 pitchers for five years

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Before moving on to the top 50 pitchers for 2010-14, here’s a look at the pitchers who missed the cut:

The prospects: Trevor Cahill, Neftali Feliz, Brett Anderson, Chris Tillman, Jarrod Parker, Brett Cecil

Cahill was the very last cut from the list. That he’s fanned just 19 in
48 2/3 innings as a major leaguer did hurt his cause a bit, but he has
plenty of stuff and he really should be in Double-A right now.

The relievers: Carlos Marmol, Joakim Soria, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Ryan Madson

That’s how I’d rank the next five behind Jonathan Broxton, the only reliever to make the top 50.

The tumblers: Fausto Carmona, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Chien-Ming Wang, Scott Kazmir

All five of these guys would have made the top 50 at the start of
the year. Carmona has failed to bounce back from a very rough 2008, but
at least his problem seems to be between his ears. Santana is trying to
pitch with a torn elbow ligament, and Tommy John surgery still looks
like a real possibility, while Kazmir’s stuff has been on an obvious
decline for a year now. … Of the five, Nolasco’s stock has dropped the
least. He’s healthy, and his problems this season were due in part to
bad luck and bad defense.

The up and comers: Edwin Jackson, John Lannan, Wandy Rodriguez, Phil Hughes, Kevin Slowey

I’m not completely sold on Jackson or Rodriguez or both would be in
the top 50. Jackson, though, has always had the stuff, and Rodriguez’s
command has come a long way. … Lannan lags behind when it comes to
stuff, but he gets an awful lot of grounders and he should prove to be
pretty durable.

The veterans: Mark Buehrle, Aaron Cook, Gil Meche, Roy Oswalt, Aaron Harang

Buehrle would have made the top 50 if there were any indication that
he was motivated to pitch into his mid-30s. The 30-year-old left-hander
has indicated that he could all it quits after 2011. … The 32-year-old
Oswalt is another who might hang ’em up prior to 2014.

Over the next five days, I’m going to rank my top 50 pitchers for
2010-2014. Money is not an issue. Durability is. The rankings are not
done with fantasy value in mind, though I hope keeper leaguers will
still find it useful. The included ages are as of Apr. 1, 2010.

50. A.J. Burnett (33 – Yankees) – Burnett’s stuff is about as good
as ever, so it doesn’t figure that he’ll succumb to age at any point
during the five-year, $82.5 million contract he received from the
Yankees over the winter. It’s more of a matter of whether he’ll provide
four mostly healthy seasons in the five-year span. Burnett has made 30
starts twice and pitched 200 innings three times in his major league
career. That he hasn’t had any problems of late gets him a spot here,
if only barely. He’s rather overrated even when healthy.

49. Derek Holland (23 – Rangers) – In making his major league debut
after just one Triple-A start last month, Holland brought with him
perhaps the best fastball for a lefty starter seen since CC Sabathia
entered the league. The rest of his arsenal isn’t quite as strong as
Clayton Kershaw’s and he’ll have a tougher road than most young
pitchers while pitching for the Rangers, but he could be a long-term
No. 2.

48. Joe Saunders (28 – Angels) – Saunders has the worst strikeout
rate of anyone on the list, but he’s won 23 games and posted a 3.35 ERA
in 40 starts since the beginning of last season. He has a perfectly
legitimate 88-92 mph fastball, and his changeup has made him plenty
effective against righties. Remarkably, he hasn’t had a single injury
of significance since missing 2003 with a torn rotator cuff that
originally figured to derail his career.

47. Jonathan Broxton (25 – Dodgers) – The lone reliever on the list.
Carlos Marmol and Jonathan Papelbon were close, and Joakim Soria
probably would have made it if not for his shoulder problems. Broxton,
who has a 1.17 ERA and a .092 average against so far this year, gets
the edge because of his durability.

46. Chris Carpenter (34 – Cardinals) – Carpenter was the NL’s most
effective pitcher in a three-year span from 2004-06. He’s pitched a
total of 44 1/3 innings since, but he’s back now and looking about as
good as ever. He makes for one of the toughest calls in the top 50.
Given that he turns 35 next April, there’s little chance that five more
healthy seasons are on the way. However, he’s such a terrific pitcher
that two or three 32-start seasons could justify his presence.

45. James Shields (28 – Rays) – Shields has more than survived in a
tough division for pitchers, going 35-28 with a 3.92 ERA in 95 starts
since debuting in 2006. He has great command, and his excellent
changeup makes him tough on lefties. I don’t see him possessing any
further upside, but durability is a big point in his favor. He’s never
had any arm problems, and that he rarely has to deal with long innings
should help him stay healthy.

44. Daisuke Matsuzaka (29 – Red Sox) – Leading the AL in walks
didn’t prevent Matsuzaka from finishing third in ERA last season.
Dice-K has struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings and limited hitters
to a .236 average as a major leaguer. He has quite a bit more mileage
on his arm than the typical pitcher his age, so it does remain to be
seen whether he’ll be able to keep it going in his 30s. He’ll likely he
held under 170 innings again this year after missing time with shoulder
fatigue.

43. Max Scherzer (25 – Diamondbacks) – Some projected Scherzer as a
closer after he was selected 11th overall in the 2006 draft, but he’s a
definite top-of-the-rotation talent. It’s concerns about whether his
arm will hold up in the rotation that keep him out of the top 30 here.
Scherzer battled shoulder problems last year and gave the Diamondbacks
another scare when he had some soreness there over the winter. If it
looks like he’s not going to be able to make 30 starts per year, the
team may yet have to turn him into a closer.

42. Ben Sheets (31 – FA) – Sheets’ reputation for getting hurt doesn’t
quite match up with the facts: he’s made 34 starts three times and he
made 31 last year. 2009 will be just the second season of his nine-year
career in which he hasn’t made at least 22 starts, and 2003 was the
last year in which he wasn’t clearly an above average starter while on
the mound. The torn flexor tendon that’s causing him to miss most of
this year shouldn’t cause any problems in 2010 and beyond, and all of
the time off will likely do his shoulder some good.

41. Clay Buchholz (25 – Red Sox) – After a lost year in 2008,
Buchholz has recaptured the form that helped him throw a no-hitter in
his second major league start on Sept. 1, 2007. He’s currently 2-1 with
a 1.60 ERA, 23 H and 42/12 K/BB in 39 1/3 IP for Triple-A Pawtucket.
Buchholz has three above average major league pitches in his low-90s
fastball, curve and changeup. He lacks maturity and he’s too easily
rattled for someone who should be a future ace, but like Burnett, he
could be a big-time asset while still never truly pitching up to his
potential.

40. Tim Hudson (34 – Braves) – A sharp decline in his first two years
in the NL suggested that Hudson was done as a top starter, but he
bounced back to go 27-17 with a 3.27 ERA in 2007 and the first
two-thirds of 2008. Tommy John surgery has kept him out since, but he’s
made steady progress and he could return to help the Braves in August.

39. Edinson Volquez (26 – Reds) – Volquez dials it up to 95 mph and has
one of the best fastball-changeup combinations in baseball. Command
woes have made him a six-inning pitcher for the most part, but he did
finished eighth in the NL in ERA and tied for second in strikeouts last
year. Unfortunately, he’s gone from walking 4.3 batters per nine
innings then to 5.7 this year. Especially with Dusty Baker at the helm,
he’s going to have to become more efficient if he expects to survive.

38. Ubaldo Jimenez (26 – Rockies) – Unlike Volquez, Jimenez seems to
be going in the right direction. He walked 4.7 batters per nine innings
last year, but he’s improved to 4.1 this year and he’s been especially
good lately. In five starts this month, he has a 2.38 ERA and a 29/7
K/BB ratio. Jimenez throws 93-97 mph and has a quality slider for a
second pitch. He had some significant arm injuries early on in his pro
career, but nothing since 2004.

37. Madison Bumgarner (20 – Giants) – The Giants have another
potential ace on the way, and this one is a left-hander. Bumgarner is
6-1 with a 1.06 ERA and a 44/8 K/BB ratio in 42 1/3 innings between
Single-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut. The 10th overall pick in
the 2007 draft throws 93-96 mph and shows a pretty good slider. His
changeup is a work in progress. His only other flaw — the fact that
he’s a big flyball pitcher — won’t be a major issue in AT&T Park.
He could debut this summer if the Giants stay in contention.

36. Tommy Hanson (23 – Braves) – After coming in at 5:1 in the
Arizona Fall League, Hanson has had to settle for just about 2.5
strikeouts for every hit allowed in Triple-A this year. He’s 3-3 with a
1.51 ERA, 30 H and 73/15 K/BB in 53 2/3 innings. His ability to work
deep into games remains in question, and it also remains to be seen
whether major league hitters will be as baffled by his curve as minor
leaguers. Fortunately, his slider has gotten a lot better, giving him
another legitimate weapon when he can’t throw his curve for strikes. I
still think he’s more of a future No. 2 than a true ace.

35. Cliff Lee (31 – Indians) – I would have had a more difficult
time putting the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner in such a top 50 over
the winter, but since an ugly spring and a rough first two starts, he’s
settled right back in as one of the league’s best pitchers. In his last
eight turns, he has a 1.86 ERA and a 39/9 K/BB ratio.

34. Joba Chamberlain (24 – Yankees) – Chamberlain, on the other
hand, would have been in the top 20 on this list three months ago. He
was plenty impressive in his 12 starts last year, going 3-1 with a 2.76
ERA and a 74/25 K/BB ratio in 65 1/3 innings. However, it seems like
he’s been hesitant to cut loose this year. In trying to pace himself,
he hasn’t been any good at all early in starts. I certainly don’t think
it’s time to move him back to the pen. However, it would be something
to consider for 2010 if he fails to progress. I think we will see
improvement as the year goes on.

33. Jair Jurrjens (24 – Braves) – With little more than an average
strikeout rate, middling walk and groundball rates and an unremarkable
90-93 mph fastball, Jurrjens shouldn’t be this good. Yet he finished
with a 3.68 ERA as a 22-year-old last season and he’s at 2.07 through
his first 10 starts of 2009. White it looks like he’s pitching over his
head, there’s also no reason to think he’ll fall apart anytime soon.
His changeup and slider are both above average offerings, and he does a
great job of keeping hitters guessing. The only thing he still needs to
prove is that he can throw 200-220 innings a year. He wore down at the
end of 2008, but, again, he was just 22.

32. Derek Lowe (36 – Braves) – Yes, I do believe the Braves are in
pretty good shape going forward, though it’s not a given that Hudson
will be back in 2010. Lowe is the oldest pitcher in the top 50, but
he’s a good bet to keep racking up 200-inning seasons; not once in his
13 seasons has he been on the disabled list. That fact lifts him over
some of the more talented pitchers behind him.

31. Carlos Zambrano (28 – Cubs) – Zambrano is still a week away from
his 28th birthday, but I wonder if his best days aren’t already behind
him. He had some shoulder problems last year, and his velocity has
declined a bit through the years. I’d feel better about things if he
can maintain the stronger strikeout rate he’s displayed so far this
year. He went from 8.8 K/9 IP in 2006 to 7.4 in 2007 and 6.2 in 2008.
He’s back up to 8.4 right now, but it’s only been seven starts. 

30. Chris Volstad (23 – Marlins) – With his strikeout rate well up and
his walk rate down, Volstad’s about 20 spots higher now than he would
have been at the start of the year. If not for a fluky home run rate —
he’s given up 11 in 61 innings, even though he’s still getting an above
average number of grounders — his ERA could be quite a bit lower than
3.69. Apparently, he used up all of his luck last year, when he had a
2.88 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. His WHIP is 1.13 this season.

29. Matt Garza (25 – Rays) – Garza’s ERA hasn’t changed a bit since
2007 — it’s been right at 3.70 — but his average against has gone
from .294 to .245 to .200 so far this season. A true power pitcher,
Garza alternates fastballs, sliders and curves. That he’s been trying
to avoid contact has resulted in higher pitch counts, but he appears
built to last. The only arm problem he’s had as a pro was some nerve
irritation early on in 2008.

28. John Danks (24 – White Sox) – Danks was quietly one of the AL’s
best pitchers as a 23-year-old last season, going 12-9 with a 3.32 ERA
and 159 strikeouts in 195 innings. His ERA is up this year, but so is
his strikeout rate and he’s been effective in six of his nine starts.
Along with a quality fastball for a left-hander, he has a very good
changeup that has made him more effective against righties than lefties
over the course of his career. He’s yet to establish himself as a
210-220 inning guy, but he has time on his side.

27. Adam Wainwright (28 – Cardinals) – Since moving from the pen to
the rotation to begin 2007, Wainwright has gone 30-17 with a 3.45 ERA
in 62 starts. I don’t think he has much additional upside, but with one
of the NL’s best curveballs at his disposal, he could keep this up for
several more years.

26. Jon Lester (26 – Red Sox) – It’s been an awfully odd year for
Lester. Even when he was a below average major league starter in 2006
and 2007, he seemed to have a special knack for pitching himself out of
jams, allowing him to maintain respectable ERAs despite poor WHIPs. In
10 starts this year, he’s already had five innings in which the
opponents have scored at least four runs, leaving him with a 6.07 ERA.
He’s fanned 62 in 59 1/3 innings and he’s throwing harder than ever
before, so it’s not a matter of stuff. He’ll probably turn it around
before long.

25. Francisco Liriano (26 – Twins) – Liriano’s velocity has come
back only a bit in his second year back from Tommy John surgery,
leaving him down about three mph from where he was during his brilliant
rookie season in 2006. I don’t doubt that he can and will be an
effective pitcher while throwing 91 mph, but he’s still working to
adapt, as evidenced by his current 6.42 ERA. My biggest concern is that
more injuries are on the way. He battled shoulder problems several
times before blowing out his elbow.

24. Matt Cain (25 – Giants) – Only his ERA suggests that Cain is
having a breakthrough season, as his WHIP, average against and K/BB
ratio are all weaker than usual. Still, this is right about where I
would have put him at the start of the year. Even though he’s working
on his fourth full season as a major leaguer, he’s younger than Tim
Lincecum. He doesn’t give up many homers, and he’s always maintained a
strong strikeout rate. The big knock against him is that he’s no better
now than he was when he entered the league.

23. Jordan Zimmermann (23 – Nationals) – Great command of a
legitimate 93-mph fastball and a four-pitch arsenal should make
Zimmermann a quality No. 2 starter for a long time. He’s not making a
big case for Rookie of the Year honors yet with a 5.71 ERA in seven
starts, but he’s struck out 39 and walked just 12 in 41 innings.

22. John Lackey (31 – Angels) – Back-to-back years kicked off by
elbow woes have taken a toll on Lackey’s ranking here. He was just
about as effective as usual in his 24 starts after returning in 2008,
and he seems to have recovered his velocity already after missing the
first 5 ½ weeks of 2009. However, it remains to be seen whether he’ll
be able to reemerge as a workhorse after pitching so much from 2002-07.

21. Stephen Strasburg (21 – San Diego St.) – Strasburg will be taken by
the Nationals with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. He’s very
likely ready for the majors now, but the smart move would be to tell
him to take the rest of this year off and get ready for 2010. The
20-year-old right-hander has gone 13-0 with a 1.24 ERA and a 180/19
K/BB ratio in 102 innings for the Aztecs. He can throw in the high-90s,
his slider will be one of the best in baseball and his changeup shows
promise. It was hard to resist putting him in the top 15.

20. Josh Beckett (29 – Red Sox) – Having made 99 starts since the
beginning of 2006, Beckett has been a rather durable pitcher as a
member of the Red Sox. However, he only pitched like an ace in 2007,
though that season nearly got him a Cy Young Award. His ERA jumped to
4.03 last year, and he’s at 4.60 though 10 starts this season. Part of
it is bad defense, but he is walking more batters that usual. All in
all, he’s a pretty borderline choice for the top 20. However, it’s
quite possible that he’ll be better in his 30s than he’s been in his
20s. For someone who debuted in the majors at 21, he doesn’t have a ton
of mileage on his arm.

19. Johnny Cueto (24 – Reds) – Cueto opened the year as the Reds’
No. 4 starter, but he’s the ace now. He’s lasted at least seven innings
in seven straight starts and is 4-2 with a 2.37 ERA. Cueto has very
good command of a 91-94 mph fastball, and right-handers hardly seem to
have a chance against his slider. A better changeup would be nice, but
he’s plenty good as is.

18. Jake Peavy (28 – Padres) – It’s not at all fair to call Peavy a
Petco creation, but he has a 3.84 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP outside of San
Diego in his career. Also, there are serious concerns about how his
shoulder is going to hold up. His stuff hasn’t gotten any worse through
the years, but he’s often battled minor problems and it is likely that
he’s currently pitching with damage in the shoulder. He’s not going to
have five more healthy seasons in a row.

17. Justin Verlander (27 – Tigers) – Possessing one of the game’s
very best fastballs didn’t make Verlander an effective pitcher in 2008
or in the first month of 2009, but since opening the year 0-2 with a
9.00 ERA in four starts, he’s allowed four runs and struck out 60
batters in 42 1/3 innings. All of the inconsistency makes him awfully
tough to rank, but he was a clear top-10 starter going into 2008 and
he’s looking better than ever right now.

16. Josh Johnson (26 – Marlins) – Johnson was viewed as a future No.
3 starter during his days as a prospect, but his fastball has gotten
better every year and he’s now one of baseball’s hardest-throwing
starters. He never missed a beat after returning from Tommy John
surgery, and he’s pitching like a Cy Young candidate this year, though
his defense and lack of run support will probably prove too much to
overcome in the end.

15. Erik Bedard (31 – Mariners) – Back with a vengeance after a 2008
season ruined by a cyst in his shoulder, Bedard has gone 3-2 with a
2.48 ERA to date in his final season before free agency. He hasn’t lost
anything off his fastball or curve, which is one of the league’s best
breaking balls, but he really could use a 200-inning season before he
puts himself up for bid. His career high is 196 1/3 innings,
established in 2006.

14. Clayton Kershaw (22 – Dodgers) – While I broke the list down by
tens, when I really see here is, well, let’s call it a Fantastic
Fourteen. Kershaw is closer to the top 10 than he is to Bedard at No.
15. That he is the last pitcher in the group is mostly a result of me
being worried about his durability. There are no obvious red flags, but
Kershaw is quite wild and he can rack up big pitch counts in a hurry if
he’s not being watched extremely closely. The Dodges are still being
very careful with him now — he’s topped 100 pitches only three times
this year, with a high of 112 in an outing in which he was dominant —
but they will take the kid gloves off at some point within the next
couple of years.

13. Dan Haren (29 – Diamondbacks) – Haren seems well on his way to
making 33 starts and throwing at least 215 innings for a fifth straight
season. He has the least impressive fastball of anyone in the top 20,
but his splitter is an excellent strikeout pitch and his command
continues to improve. With Brandon Webb sidelined, Haren should start
to be recognized as one of the game’s very best pitchers.

12. CC Sabathia (29 – Yankees) – The 512 innings he threw between
2007 and 2008 haven’t taken a major toll yet. Sabathia’s strikeout rate
is down in his first year with the Yankees, but it has bounced back
lately and he’s still throwing as hard as he has at any point in the
last half-dozen years. If he does have an off year at some point, it
will likely be blamed on his ever increasing belly. He likely will have
to commit to getting into better shape one of these years, but worse
athletes have remained excellent pitchers into their mid-30s.

11. Rick Porcello (21 – Tigers) – A fine sinkerballer at age 20,
Porcello could yet develop into a 160-180 strikeout guy if need be.
He’s talented enough to succeed in any number of ways. With the Tigers
keeping him on fairly strict pitch counts, he’s just trying to pound
his fastball at the knees and get grounders right now. If success with
that method proves fleeting, he can go with more high fastballs and
curves out of the zone. He’s a terrific bet for the long term even if
he goes on to stumble some this year.

10. David Price (24 – Rays) – The first overall pick in the 2007 draft
burst onto the scene in the second half of September last season and
turned into one of the Rays’ most trusted relievers in the postseason.
He just this week returned to the majors, as the Rays weren’t willing
to carry him from the start of the year and put him on 200-inning pace.
Dealing with a severely limited pitch count, he’s been quite
inconsistent this year. However, he has a dominant mid-90s
fastball-slider combination when he’s on. If his changeup comes along
with experience, he’ll be one of the game’s best pitchers. Even if it
doesn’t, he should be very good anyway.

9. Yovani Gallardo (24 – Brewers) – Gallardo has proven to be a
remarkably solid pitcher at a very young age. The question is whether
he has the same kind of ceiling as the other pitchers in the top 14. He
throws 90-93 mph and relies a great deal on a curve that gets him a lot
of his strikeouts. It’s going to be tough for him to take his game up
another notch without a better changeup. Of course, if he just stays at
this level, he’ll be in the top 10 in the NL in ERA every year. Missing
most of 2008 with a knee injury may pay off in the long run, as it
saved significant wear and tear on his arm in what was his age-22
season. I think he has a better chance of staying healthy than most of
the other under-25 pitchers here.

8. Chad Billingsley (25 – Dodgers) – The Dodgers have jerked
Billingsley around a bit in his young career, but it’s never stopped
him from progressing. His ERA has dropped from 3.80 as a rookie to 3.31
in 2007 to 3.14 last year and 2.82 so far this season. Billingsley
possesses the build of a workhorse, plenty of movement on his fastball
and a strikeout curve. His command is below average, but all of the
other pieces are in place for him to serve as a top starter for a long
time.

7. Zack Greinke (26 – Royals) – With a 90-mph fastball, excellent
command and a strong array of pitches, Greinke was compared to Greg
Maddux after being drafted sixth overall in 2002. That didn’t work out,
but there’s no shame in being the new Bret Saberhagen instead. Greinke
typically works at 92-95 mph these days, and he can throw strikes with
the best of him. 2009 may well go down as his career year, but unlike
Saberhagen, he won’t be asked to throw 260 innings. He’ll have a much
better chance of holding up for the long haul.

6. Cole Hamels (26 – Phillies) – Health is the big question with
Hamels, who pitched the Phillies to a championship last year. It took
him 262 innings to get it done, though, and he developed some elbow
soreness this spring that caused the Phillies to go slowly with him. He
also missed time in 2006 with a strained shoulder and 2007 with a
strained elbow. Before arriving in the majors, he missed much of 2004
with elbow woes and had back problems. Last year was proof that he can
stay healthy and perform as a Cy Young candidate for a full year. Now
he just needs to do it again a few more times.

5. Brandon Webb (30 – Diamondbacks) – Obviously, this isn’t a good
time to be ranking Webb. The injury that’s sidelined him since the
beginning of April has been labeled bursitis, which suggests that there
will be no long-term ramifications. However, there’s clearly something
more going on in his shoulder. We now know that there were significant
concerns raised over a physical Webb had last summer and that he was
examined by Dr. James Andrews over the winter. If it were just
bursitis, Webb would be two spots higher here. If I knew of a tear
somewhere in his shoulder, he’d be at least 10 spots lower.

4. Felix Hernandez (23 – Mariners) – Even in his fourth season, King
Felix still hasn’t become the pitcher everyone expected. But it’s well
worth nothing that he’s actually eight months younger than Price and he
already has 44 victories to his credit. He’s become much more of a
pitcher in the way he battles hitters, especially when he’s working
with men on base. That has more to do with his velocity drop than any
arm problems. Of course, he still throws quite a bit harder than most
and both his slider and curve are legitimate strikeout pitches. If he
continues to stay healthy — and the Mariners have done a fine job of
taking care of him — it’s only a matter of time until he puts it all
together and becomes a Cy Young candidate.

3. Roy Halladay (32 – Blue Jays) – When Halladay was limited to 21
starts in 2004 and 19 in 2005 and then spent much of 2006 pitching
through forearm issues, it looked like he might not remain an ace into
his 30s. However, after a disappointing season in 2007, he suddenly
reemerged as the AL’s best pitcher in 2008. Sure, Cliff Lee won the Cy
Young, but Halladay, who had to deal with a tougher schedule, would
have been at least as good of a choice. He’s been just as good so far
this year, and it doesn’t look like he’ll begin to fade again anytime
soon.

2. Johan Santana (31 – Mets) – Santana averaged 230 innings per year
from 2004-08, so it’s of no surprise that his velocity has declined a
bit. Still, he’s quite likely baseball’s best pitcher anyway, and he’ll
probably remain outstanding even if he’s working at 88-90 mph by the
time he’s 35. That’s because he has outstanding command and one of
baseball’s very best changeups.

1. Tim Lincecum (25 – Giants) – It’ll be years before I stop
cringing every time the Giants let Lincecum approach 130 pitches.
However, there is the real possibility that the kid is simply a freak.
He has a delivery unlike anyone else, he has a very modest build and he
doesn’t ice his arm, yet he’s never had any problems. For what it’s
worth, his velocity is down a bit this year, though it’s bounced back a
bit recently. The results have been outstanding since two poor outings
to begin the year. Hopefully, he’ll rack up 230-inning seasons for
years without incident.

Darvish wins 1st start since 2014 as Rangers top Pirates 5-2

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Yu Darvish struck out seven in five strong innings in his first start in the majors in almost 22 months, and the Texas Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Saturday night.

The Japanese right-hander allowed three singles with a walk in his return from last year’s Tommy John surgery, ending Pittsburgh’s five-game winning streak.

Adrian Beltre had a two-run homer in the first inning off Juan Nicasio (3-3) to become the fourth third baseman with at least 1,500 RBIs, finishing with 1,501.

Mitch Moreland snapped a 1-for-27 skid with a solo home run in the fourth.

Four Texas relievers allowed four hits and a run with four strikeouts in four innings.

The “Yuuu” calls from a sellout crowd started early for Darvish, who last pitched in the big leagues on Aug. 9, 2014. He missed the rest of that season with right elbow inflammation, and ended up needing ligament reconstruction surgery after his only spring training appearance last year.

Darvish (1-0) had a 0.90 ERA in five rehab starts this month, culminating with an 87-pitch outing. He threw 81 against the Pirates, hitting 98 mph with his fastball in the first inning and displaying his usual array of breaking pitches, some as slow as 70 mph.

John Jaso had a leadoff single on Darvish’s second pitch before Andrew McCutchen struck out. The Pirates didn’t get another hit until Francisco Cervelli‘s sinking liner in front of rookie right fielder Nomar Mazara in the fifth.

No. 9 hitter Cole Figueroa ended Darvish’s shutout bid by pulling a hanging slider into right-center field for a single that scored Cervelli from second. Darvish then struck out Jaso for the second time to finish his outing.

Beltre’s homer just cleared the wall in center field after Prince Fielder‘s RBI groundout to score leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar, who had two hits filling in for suspended second baseman Rougned Odor. It was the second game of Odor’s seven-game ban.

SHORT HOPS

Joey Gallo, who had just one at-bat in his five-day stint, was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock to make room on the roster for Darvish. … Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson came off the paternity list and pitched a perfect eighth.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Pirates: Manager Clint Hurdle planned to give 2B Josh Harrison the night off after he came out of the series opener early. He’s been battling an illness that kept him out of the lineup Thursday as well.

Rangers: C Robinson Chirinos is expected to start a rehab assignment Tuesday with Double-A Frisco. He’s been out since April 10 with a broken right forearm and could be activated as soon as he is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on June 9.

UP NEXT

Pirates: LHP Francisco Liriano (4-3, 4.30) has won his last four starts against the Rangers and is 5-1 with a save and a 2.89 ERA in nine career games against them, most of those with Minnesota. His last appearance against Texas was Sept. 10, 2013.

Rangers: LHP Martin Perez (2-4, 3.13) makes his team-high 11th start and has gone 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA in his past six starts. He threw six shutout innings in a 4-1 win over the Angels in his last start

Utley answers with slam, solo HR as Dodgers rout Mets 9-1

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NEW YORK (AP) After the New York Mets missed, Chase Utley connected twice.

Utley hit a grand slam and a solo homer after Noah Syndergaard threw a 99 mph fastball behind his back, and the Los Angeles Dodgers went deep a season-high five times in routing New York 9-1 on Saturday night.

In a scene that seemed inevitable since October, Syndergaard was immediately ejected following the third-inning pitch – which certainly appeared to be his shot at retaliation against Utley for the late takeout slide that broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in last year’s playoffs.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari tossed Syndergaard, sending Mets manager Terry Collins into a rage, but no trouble ensued between the teams. A longtime New York nemesis, Utley raised one hand slightly in the direction of the Dodgers’ bench to keep teammates calm – and later responded by doing all sorts of damage with his bat.

“I think a loud, energizing environment gets the best out of you. I think it’s fun,” said Utley, who has 19 RBIs this season, nine in the first two games of this series. “It kind of gets the adrenaline going a little bit, makes you kind of dig down deeper.”

Asked if he thought Syndergaard delivered a purpose pitch, Utley said: “Possibly, but I understand it.”

Adrian Gonzalez homered and had four hits for the Dodgers, who spoiled the Mets’ 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 World Series championship. Howie Kendrick and Corey Seager also connected, all after Syndergaard was gone.

Kenta Maeda (4-3) shook off an early line drive that hit him on the pitching hand and threw five shutout innings. The right-hander yielded two hits, both singles in the first, and stopped his three-game losing streak.

“Pretty impressive. You wouldn’t see too many other pitches staying in the game at that point,” Utley said.

The stoic Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since Tejada was injured. The Mets – and their fans – were incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules this season designed to protect infielders in what some call the Utley Rule.

But the Mets had not tried to retaliate until Saturday night; Utley played all four games without incident May 9-12 when the teams split a series in Los Angeles.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman by a considerable margin.

Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected after screaming at Hamari and pointing in his face during an animated argument. The manager was finally escorted back toward the New York dugout by another umpire.

“The ruling was that he intentionally threw at the batter,” crew chief Tom Hallion told a pool reporter. “We can either warn or eject. And with what happened in that situation, we felt the ejection was warranted.”

Hallion said no warnings were issued before the series.

“We take each game individually,” he said when asked if last year’s playoff series played a role in the ejection. “We have to make a snap decision. We can’t think about, OK, well this guy did this or he did that in Game 6 of whatever. We don’t have enough time to think that way. We make a decision on what happens in the game.”

Collins said he had never before seen a pitcher get ejected without a warning.

“My argument was, nobody got hit,” Collins said. “There was a time when, in this game, where you had a shot and nothing happened, the ball went to the backstop. So that was kind of my argument.”

After waiting near the mound with teammates for some time, Syndergaard walked calmly to the Mets dugout without showing any emotion as the crowd cheered him.

“It was just a pitch that got away from me. That’s all I got,” Syndergaard said. “I can understand why he did what he did. I still think a warning would have been better.”

Collins acknowledged he’s a little concerned Syndergaard might get suspended.

Logan Verrett (3-2) entered for the Mets and, with a vocal contingent in the sellout crowd of 42,227 urging him to hit Utley with a pitch, eventually threw a called third strike past him. But then Utley homered on Verrett’s first pitch of the sixth for a 1-0 lead.

Booed all night, Utley added his sixth career slam off Hansel Robles in the seventh, making it 6-0 with his 38th homer against the Mets.

Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares homered in the eighth for New York, long after the outcome was decided.

In the series opener Friday night, Utley was greeted with loud jeers and derisive chants. He had four RBIs in a 6-5 loss, including a three-run double that tied the score with two outs in the ninth.

“We came together as a group,” Utley said. “We battled, and it was a good win.”

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Tejada was released by the Mets during spring training and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who designated him for assignment Saturday.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: RF Trayce Thompson exited in the fifth with lower back soreness. He was replaced by Yasiel Puig, who hit an RBI single off Verrett in the sixth.

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores (hamstring) went 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly in his fifth rehab game for Double-A Binghamton. Before the game, Collins said it was reasonable to think Flores could come off the disabled list Sunday.

UP NEXT

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-1, 1.48 ERA) starts the series finale Sunday night against 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (4-3, 3.44). Kershaw, coming off a two-hit shutout against Cincinnati, is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 10 starts vs. the Mets. He is 5-0 with a 0.64 ERA in May – including a three-hit shutout of New York on May 12 at Dodger Stadium. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has struck out 55 and walked two this month.

Mets’ Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.