A-Rod takes care of business

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Coming in to this season, Alex Rodriguez had two demons with which he needed to wrestle: (1) his public relations issues; and (2) his reputation as a playoffs choker. Based on how things are going, he’s beating the demons handily.

On the P.R. front, A-Rod has bounced back nicely since the low point of his outing as a steroids user over the offseason.  Some rather boring and tame Kate Hudson stories aside, he has kept himself off the tabloids’ back pages. Indeed, since coming back from the hip injury, he has more or less put his head down, played ball, and has utterly failed to make waves.  Whether this is because of a conscious change in approach to life on his part or simply a function of the New York press growing tied of writing about him is unclear, but either way, demon number one appears to be vanquished.

The playoffs. At the outset it’s probably worth noting that, contrary to his reputation, Rodriguez is not a complete playoff non-entity. Yes, if you start counting from Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS you would be completely accurate to say that Rodriguez has been a zero, having failed to drive in a run with men on base in 27 straight opportunities. Such an observation would be misleading in the grand scheme because it fails to acknowledge that he was a beat in the 2000 ALCS against the Yankees, the 2004 ALDS against the Twins, and probably would have been the ALCS MVP that year if the Yankees didn’t choke Game 4 and the rest of the series away.  But yes, it would still be accurate to say that the guy has struggled since.

Until last night. 3-2 Yankees, a man on second in the fifth inning. A single to left, Jeter comes home, playoff RBI drought broken. A-Rod haters probably aren’t used to the image of the guy standing on first base clapping his hands following an RBI in a key situation — that’s Jeter’s image — but there Rodriguez was, having done what people somehow think him incapable of doing. And he did it again in the seventh inning for good measure.

What has come over A-Rod?  Maybe nothing. Maybe he’s still kind of a weirdo but no one wants to write about him anymore. Maybe the haters are right and he really is some sort of pathological choker and doesn’t know how to approach the postseason and last night’s RBIs are simply a matter of chance and small sample sizes coming back around again.

But maybe A-Rod has also grown up a little. Maybe he has heeded my colleague Bert Blyleven’s advice and has simply decided to enjoy the playoffs, have fun, and stop listening to the people who want to bring him down.  The power of positive thinking and all that.

Whatever the case, it’s nice to see the guy break out of the box he’s been in for so long, put his head down and take care of business on the ballfield. If, as I suspect will be the case, the Yankees go on to win their 27th title, A-Rod’s transformation will be remembered as a key part of that.

It’s May 4 and Daniel Murphy is still out-hitting Bryce Harper

Washington Nationals' Daniel Murphy hits an RBI single during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday, April 30, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy flirted with the cycle in Wednesday afternoon’s 13-2 drubbing of the Royals, as he went 4-for-5 with a pair of singles, a two-run double, and a solo home run. That brings his triple-slash line on the season up to .398/.449/.663. Comparatively, teammate Bryce Harper — the defending NL MVP and arguably the best player in baseball — is currently hitting .266/.372/.649.

Murphy has always been an above-average hitter, but this level of hitting is something else. Of course, he flashed it in the post-season last year when he homered in six consecutive games, helping the Mets advance past the Dodgers in the NLDS and sweep the Cubs in the NLCS.

The Nats signed Murphy to a three-year, $37.5 million contract in January. If Neil Walker, acquired from the Pirates to replace Murphy, wasn’t hitting so well, the Mets would probably be jealous. Walker is hitting .296/.330/.582 with nine home runs and 19 RBI.

Video: Jon Lester tosses his glove to get the out

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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It’s always fun when this happens. Cubs starter Jon Lester snagged a grounder hit back up the middle by Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli in the bottom of the second inning. The only problem was that the ball got stuck in the webbing of his glove. Rather than fight to pry the ball out, Lester just lobbed his glove over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to get the first out of the inning.

Lester has had issues throwing baseballs to first base, so maybe it was a good thing the ball got stuck in his glove.

Lester did this last year, too, by the way.

Alex Rodriguez lands on the 15-day DL with a strained hamstring

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez follows through on a single to right off a pitch from Texas Rangers' Shawn Tolleson in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. The Yankees lost 3-2. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez strained his right hamstring running out a ground ball in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Orioles. The club announced it has placed him on the 15-day disabled list and recalled pitcher James Pazos from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Rodriguez lands on DL hitting .194/.275/.444 with five home runs and 12 RBI in 80 plate appearances.

Dustin Ackley replaced Rodriguez in Tuesday’s game, but the Yankees will likely cycle a handful of players in and out of the DH spot while Rodriguez heals.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Wednesday evening’s action

Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Nola pitches to a Milwaukee Brewers batter during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)
AP Photo/Tom Lynn
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We were treated to a handful of games this afternoon but we still have eight night games left. Let’s talk about the Phillies.

I wrote this preview of the Phillies just before the season started, predicting them to win only 65 games, which would mark only a marginal improvement over their 63-win season last year. In my defense, I wasn’t alone, as almost every expert as well as the projections had them finishing under 70 wins. And yet, here they are 27 games into the season with 16 wins. That’s on pace for a 96-win season. What the heck.

Aaron Nola pitched seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in a 1-0 victory on Tuesday, marking the Phillies’ sixth shutout of the year, the best mark in the majors. Even as the Phillies prepared to draft him, Nola was described as “major league ready” but no one expected him to be quite this dominant. In his first 19 major league starts, Nola has a 3.37 ERA with a 112/26 K/BB ratio over 117 2/3 innings. This year, not only has Nola been extremely stingy with the walks, but he’s been missing bats at an elite level. He’s only 22 years old.

Nola is joined in the rotation by Vincent Velasquez, the pitcher who highlighted the return from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade. The right-hander made headlines in April with a 16-strikeout performance against the Padres and currently stands with a 1.44 ERA with a 39/10 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings. Unlike Nola, Velasquez was billed as a future ace or a dominant eighth- or ninth-inning guy.

Then there’s Jerad Eickhoff, who came over in the Cole Hamels trade last year. Though he has a ho-hum 4.15 ERA, Eickhoff is occasionally dominant as evidenced by his 32/5 K/BB ratio over 30 1/3 innings. He has a pretty curve. Look at it. Eickhoff probably won’t be an ace, but he wasn’t considered to be a future mainstay in the rotation when the Hamels trade went through. All he’s done so far is exceed expectations. Nola-Velasquez-Eickhoff makes for an outstanding start to a long-term starting rotation.

The offensive tools aren’t quite where the pitching is yet for the Phillies, as third baseman Maikel Franco has wavered between looking like Mike Schmidt and looking completely lost at the plate. He has only five hits (zero home runs) in his last 37 plate appearances. Shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford isn’t there yet, nor is outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro, and outfielder Cornelius Randolph. There’s certainly a lot of hope on the horizon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Phillies fan, but wearing rose-colored glasses isn’t a crime of which I’ve been often accused over the years. It has been one headache after another being a Phillies fan between 2012-15. The front office under former GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. was stubborn and out of touch. Now, under new president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, the team has a goal and is seeing it through. No, the Phillies won’t win 96 games this year — they probably won’t even win 80 — but they’re certainly further along than a lot of us gave them credit for being.

The Phillies play game three of a four-game set in St. Louis tonight at 8:15 PM EDT. Lefty Adam Morgan will oppose the Cardinals’ Mike Leake.

The rest of Wednesday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) @ Cleveland Indians (Corey Kluber), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (CC Sabathia) @ Baltimore Orioles (Tyler Wilson), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Colby Lewis) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Rubby De La Rosa) @ Miami Marlins (Jose Fernandez), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Alex Wood) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Drew Smyly), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Clay Buchholz) @ Chicago White Sox (Carlos Rodon), 8:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Phil Hughes) @ Houston Astros (Mike Fiers), 8:10 PM EDT