Can surprising Braves, Reds, Padres hang on?

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With the All-Star game coming to a close, the warm California sun sets on the first half of the season.

With that, it’s time to look ahead to the second half, and three surprising teams that find themselves in first place – the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres.

All of these teams are playing beyond expectations, at the expense of preseason favorites in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado and Los Angeles.

But do they have staying power? Let’s take a look at what each team needs.

ATLANTA
The Braves are in the best shape of these three teams, holding a four-game lead over the New York Mets, and a 4 1/2-game edge over the two-time NL champion Phillies. They have good pitching, ranking fourth in the NL in runs allowed (3.83), and a solid offense, ranking sixth in runs scored (4.61). Tim Hudson has been lights-out, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson solid, and the bullpen dependable.

What do the Braves need? As it seems unlikely an aging Chipper Jones will rediscover his power, the Braves could use an outfield bat, as Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera have performed below expectations.

Also, it would be nice to gain some improved health for rookie phenom Jason Heyward, who looked just fine taking batting practice on Tuesday, by the way.

But overall, the Braves are looking good, as they have built a cushion despite all the problems they’ve had.

CINCINNATI
The Reds have moved to the top of the NL Central thanks to a powerful offense (second in NL in runs per game, second in home runs, first in slugging), and a better-than-average pitching staff led by Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and rookie Mike Leake, who debuted for the Reds without playing a single day in the minors.

But they hold only a one-game lead over favored St. Louis, a team that expects to come on strong.

“(The Reds) have a good team,” said St. Louis slugger Matt Holliday. “They’ve got really good pitching and a good lineup. Joey Votto is having an MVP-type season. … It doesn’t surprise me.”

But Holliday issues a warning: “We’re only one game back and we’ve had some injuries. Two fifths of our starting rotation has been out most of the first half. (Ryan) Ludwick’s been out for three weeks now. Hopefully we can get healthy. I like our chances.”

What do the Reds need? An arm in the bullpen would be nice, as would a successful return of Edinson Volquez.

SAN DIEGO
How are the Padres, with no established stars outside of Adrian Gonzalez, doing it? How have they built the second-best record in the NL and established a two-game lead over the Dodgers and Rockies?

Some would say it’s smoke and mirrors, others say it’s a team built on speed, defense and pitching, tailored perfectly to their home ballpark.

The Padres rank 12th in the NL in runs per game, but first in runs allowed. Furthermore, as far as the defense is concerned, five Padres are ranked in the top three at their position in UZR – first baseman Gonzalez, second baseman David Eckstein, third baseman Chase Headley, center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr., and right fielder Will Venable.
But can they hold on?

“San Diego’s been playing some pretty good ball,” said Dodgers All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier, “but we’re right there in striking distance, two games away. It’s going to come down to the end of the season. I think the last week or two is going to decide the season for us. We’ll take our chances and hopefully take the West again.”

Also, don’t forget the Rockies, who are right in the mix and were favored by some to take the West entering the season.

What do the Padres need? A big bat to pair alongside Gonzalez would be nice (Cory Hart?). Also, they can’t trade Gonzalez, of course.

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And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Saturday’s games featured Jake Lamb‘s record-setting home run, Ivan Nova‘s sterling outing against the Marlins, and an impressive walk-off at Dodger Stadium. Here are the rest of the day’s scores and highlights:

Yankees 12, Orioles 4: So much for the Yankees blowing past their quota of runs on Friday night. They returned in full force on Saturday, dominating the Orioles in regulation innings with a 12-run display. Home runs were, again, the name of the game, with Brett Gardner going deep twice for his first two homers of the season and Austin Romine and Aaron Judge tacking on an extra couple of blasts to pad the Yankees’ eight-run lead. (That’s home run No. 10 for Judge, by the way, a record-tying total by a rookie in his first month of big league games.)

Mets 5, Nationals 3: The Mets are still dealing with a slew of injuries, some of which have drastically thinned their outfield reserves over the last several weeks. With Brandon Nimmo and Yoenis Cespedes hampered by hamstring issues, left fielder Michael Conforto rose to the occasion, hitting two home runs in the Mets’ 5-3 win over the Nationals on Saturday. He boosted the club to their first lead in the fifth inning, plunking a two-run homer into the right field bleachers, then reemerged in the eighth with an insurance home run off of Enny Romero.

Blue Jays 4, Rays 1: The Blue Jays still have the worst record in the majors, but you wouldn’t know it from their dominant outing on Saturday. Francisco Liriano limited the Rays to one run over five innings, backed by a strong showing from the ‘pen to maintain the club’s three-run lead. Kendrys Morales put Toronto on the map in the first inning, scoring on a fielding error by Tampa Bay’s Tim Beckham, while Russell Martin and Justin Smoak decorated the Jays’ efforts with an RBI double and two-run home run to even the series.

Cubs 7, Red Sox 4: Hanley Ramirez may not own the longest home run of 2017, but he set a record that may take longer to beat: the longest home run hit at Fenway Park.* Ramirez belted a 469-footer off of Cubs’ right-hander John Lackey in the third inning, catapulting a 1-0 pitch over the Green Monster to break the season record set by Kris Bryant’s 449-foot homer on Friday. He even snuck in a few celebratory kisses after rounding the bases.

Ramirez’s home run beat his own previous mark, measured at 468 feet last May.

*In the Statcast era

White Sox 6, Tigers 4 (10 innings): We’re only through one month of the regular season, so it’s pointless to fret about slumps and slow starts right now. Still, the White Sox were able to breathe a sigh of relief when veteran slugger Melky Cabrera finally recorded his first home run of the year, a 10th-inning game-winner off of Detroit left-hander Justin Wilson. It’s the sixth consecutive win for the White Sox, which keeps them just half a game ahead of the Indians in the AL Central.

Pirates 4, Marlins 0: It’s hardly exaggerating to call this the best game of Ivan Nova’s career. The right-hander tossed a three-hitter at Marlins Park on Saturday, striking out seven and setting down nine scoreless frames. Not only did it mark Nova’s fifth complete game in a Pirates’ uniform, but it was the third complete game shutout of his eight-year career.

Indians 4, Mariners 3: It only took one inning to decide the Mariners’ fate on Saturday. They got on the board with consecutive home runs from Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager in the first, then promptly erased their three-run lead when the Indians lassoed four runs in the bottom of the inning. From the second inning through the end of the game, neither team advanced a runner past second base, preserving the Indians’ one-run lead and bringing them within half a game of the division lead.

Rangers 6, Angels 3: Sure, hitting for the cycle is a rare feat in and of itself, but how many major league players can do it with one shoe on?

Carlos Gomez completed his second career cycle on Saturday, beginning with a first inning double that cost him exactly one cleat:

He returned (with both cleats) for a triple, base hit and a two-run homer, becoming the first Rangers’ player to hit for the cycle since Adrian Beltre defeated the Astros with his third career cycle in 2015.

Braves 11, Brewers 3: The Braves have played with a short-handed bench lately, forcing manager Brian Snitker to engineer some creative alternatives (including, but not limited to, the use of starter Julio Teheran as a pinch-hitter and -runner). Thankfully, no such alternatives were needed on Saturday, especially after Matt Kemp helped vault the Braves to an eight-run lead with the first three-homer game of his career:

Athletics 2, Astros 1: Andrew Triggs is looking more and more like a bonafide starter these days. He anchored the A’s 2-1 win with seven shutout innings, allowing five hits and fanning nine before handing the game over to the bullpen. The A’s were similarly stymied by Houston right-hander Joe Musgrove through the better part of seven innings, but rallied with a pair of home runs from Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis to secure the lead — and their 11th win.

Rockies 7, Diamondbacks 6: Is it even worth bragging about hitting the longest home run of the year when the record gets shattered every other day? Perhaps not, but it’s difficult to imagine someone hitting a ball much further than Jake Lamb’s 481-foot two-run shot off of Colorado’s Tyler Anderson this weekend:

Lamb’s home run ranks eleventh in estimated home run distance during the Statcast era. Only nine hitters have recorded longer home runs, topping out at Giancarlo Stanton‘s 504-foot blast last August.

Dodgers 6, Phillies 5: No one would have blamed you for turning off the Dodgers’ game last night. Few would have faulted you for trying to beat L.A. traffic by skipping out of Dodger Stadium in the eighth inning, when the Phillies padded their three-run lead with Andrew Knapp‘s first home run of the season. If you had, however, you would have missed a true storybook ending.

Down 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Yasiel Puig worked an eight-pitch at-bat against Philadelphia right-hander Hector Neris, prevailing with a 416-foot home run that sank into the center field bleachers. Neris wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. His at-bat against Cody Bellinger only lasted one-eighth as long, ending on a long fly ball that ricocheted off of the right field foul pole for the rookie’s second major league home run. Justin Turner provided the game-tying knock, going back-to-back-to-back with Puig and Bellinger, while Adrian Gonzalez polished off the rally with a two-out, game-winning base hit.

 

Padres 12, Giants 4: The Padres leapfrogged their injury-riddled division rivals on Saturday with their first double-digit win of the year, breaking out in the sixth with an eight-run inning that saw 11 batters, an RBI double, two RBI singles, a bases-loaded walk, an RBI force out, Wil Myerssixth home run of the season, and the complete implosion of the Giants’ bullpen.

Video: Mets execute a bizarre double play against the Nationals

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Double plays come in an assortment of combinations, from the standard 6-4-3 combo to some more unusual patterns. During the Mets’ 5-3 win over the Nationals on Saturday, however, what made this double play strange was less the product of an unorthodox route and almost entirely due to an unexpected collision on the basepaths instead.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, with the Mets trailing 1-0, Zack Wheeler caught Jose Lobaton swinging for strike three. Mets’ backstop Travis d'Arnaud fired the ball to second base, where the ball slipped out of Asdrubal Cabrera‘s glove as Jayson Werth slid into the bag for a stolen base. Second baseman Neil Walker fielded the ball in shallow center field, then tossed it to third base, and Jose Reyes tagged Werth easily for the second out of the play.

The Mets complimented their defensive efforts with a strong showing at the plate, reclaiming the lead with three home runs from Michael Conforto and Jose Reyes to clinch their tenth win of the year.