B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez

Rays advance to postseason with 12th-inning win, Red Sox loss

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The Rays beat the Yankees 8-7 in the 12th inning on an Evan Longoria walkoff homer Wednesday, while the Red Sox fell to the Orioles 4-3 after Jonathan Papelbon gave up two ninth-inning runs.

Tampa Bay’s win came after a furious six-run eighth and a Dan Johnson homer with two outs in the ninth ruined a 7-0 Yankees lead.  Left with just Scott Proctor — their 11th pitcher of the game — in the bullpen the Yankees lost it in the 12th.  Proctor did an admirable job for someone with an 10.80 ERA, pitching 2 2/3 scoreless innings prior to Longoria’s homer.

In Baltimore, Papelbon, who worked 2 1/3 innings on Sunday and had a difficult ninth inning Tuesday, appeared to simply run out of gas.  He gave up two doubles with two outs, tying the game.  Robert Andino then hit a low liner to left that Carl Crawford appeared to have a play on.  Of course, Crawford, as he has all season long, came up just a little short and had no chance of throwing out Nolan Reimold at the plate after playing the one-hopper.

The loss completed a season-ending run that saw the Red Sox go 7-19 and lose a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay.

The story from the Red Sox fan viewpoint will be how the Orioles gave it their all and the Yankees, Mark Teixeira excepted, did anything but. It’s also worth noting how terribly Terry Francona used his bench down the stretch. The Red Sox didn’t send up one pinch-hitter in this game.  Francona allowed J.D. Drew to face a lefty with two men on in the fifth (he flied out to end the inning) and he let Ryan Lavarnway go 0-for-5 (with nine men on base) even though there were lefties to hit for him against right-handers late.

So, it’s the Rays who move on to face the Rangers on Friday, while the Tigers will travel to New York. Stifled for seven innings — they managed just two hits against the dregs of the Yankees pitching staff — the Rays, to their credit, did their battling back under extreme duress against genuine major league pitchers.  Luis Ayala, who was torched in the eighth inning, entered with a 1.64 ERA in 55 innings, and Cory Wade, who gave up the run in the ninth, had a 1.85 ERA.  They were the Yankees’ low-leverage guys this season, but both had been excellent.

For the Red Sox, it it was Papelbon’s last appearance with the team, it was a dreadful one. He and David Ortiz are among the team’s key free agents, and it’s unclear if the Red Sox will want to commit to making Papelbon one of the game’s highest-paid closers for the next three or four years.  Papelbon had just one blown save all season until taking two in his last three chances, both of which resulted in losses.

Francona’s status is also very much in doubt. Letting go of their two-time World Series-winning manager would by a drastic step for the Red Sox, but it’s one that could be considered. Technically, they wouldn’t even have to fire him, since his contract is up anyway.

Eddie Perez likely to be Braves’ interim manager if Fredi Gonzalez is fired

Atlanta Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, left, stands with manager Fredi Gonzalez during a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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There’s been a lot of rumbling that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will soon get the pink slip. His team is 7-20 entering Thursday’s action. Historically, front offices — particularly those of rebuilding/restructuring teams — respond to that by making coaching and/or managerial changes.

Per MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, bullpen coach Eddie Perez is likely to fill in as the Braves’ manager on an interim basis if and when Gonzalez is fired. Perez has been with the Braves as a coach since 2007. He played for the Braves in 10 out of his 11 seasons from 1995-2005. Perez wasn’t known for his bat, but was respected for the way he called games and handled the Braves’ then-elite pitching staff.

Bowman notes that Gonzalez isn’t expected to be fired over the weekend. If the team plays well, that could extend Gonzalez’s leash, so to speak.

First baseman Freddie Freeman issued a vote of confidence for his skipper, saying, “I think everything is getting magnified since we’re off to this start. I don’t know if it’s fair to put it all on [Gonzalez] because he’s not a player. We’re the 25 guys [who have to] go out there and play every day. We’re obviously not playing to our capabilities. To say that’s Fredi’s fault is unfair in my opinion.”

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, and Kris Bryant celebrate a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Phillies and Cardinals got started a little early, finishing up their four-game series on Thursday afternoon. In the evening, we have 10 games on our slate, including Cubs-Nationals.

The Cubs have jumped out to a 20-6 start, looking like baseball’s best — and scariest — team. Entering Thursday’s action, the Cubs have a +93 run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed). That’s by far the best in baseball. The next best are the Nationals at +50, the Mets at +44, and the Cardinals at +41. In fact, the Cubs’ run differential is so good that they have under-performed relative to their expected won-lost record of 22-4.

This is without Kyle Schwarber. This is with Jason Heyward hitting a miserable .211/.317/.256, Jorge Soler hitting .185/.276/.292, and Addison Russell hitting .224/.356/.329. It’s with John Lackey pitching to a 4.32 ERA.

What makes the Cubs so good? They’re on-base machines. The club’s aggregate .364 on-base percentage is second best in the majors behind the Pirates. Dexter Fowler has an outstanding .470 OBP and Anthony Rizzo is at an elite .403. In fact, of their regulars with 100-plus plate appearances, Heyward is the only one with a sub-.350 OBP. The league average is .319. The Cubs steal bases, too, as they’re 17-for-24 (~71 percent) in that department.

The Cubs have baseball’s best pitching staff, which has yielded a major league-best 2.54 runs per game. Only four teams are below 3.00 runs allowed per game. Of course, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is the big contributor to that with a sterling 0.84 ERA, but Jon Lester has put up a 1.58 mark and Jason Hammel 1.24. Closer Hector Rondon has found himself in only four save situations but has converted each of them with an even 1.00 ERA and a 15/0 K/BB ratio in nine innings. The Cubs’ aggregate bullpen ERA of 2.66 is fifth-best in the majors.

It’s too early to use defensive statistics with any degree of certainty, but even the eye test shows the Cubs to be elite defenders at the important positions, particularly shortstop (Russell), right field (Heyward), and third base (Kris Bryant).

The Cubs’ success isn’t exactly surprising. The club rode five consecutive fifth-place finishes into some high draft picks and that talent is starting to establish itself in the majors. Whether it was fans, writers, or Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs were preseason darlings.

Kyle Hendricks starts for the Cubs opposite the Nationals’ Joe Ross at Wrigley Field tonight at 8:05 PM EDT.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Derek Holland) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) @ Miami Marlins (Adam Conley), 7:10 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Cincinnati Reds (Alfredo Simon), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ Chicago White Sox (Erik Johnson), 8:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Wade Miley) @ Houston Astros (Chris Devenski), 8:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) @ San Diego Padres (Colin Rea), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Chris Rusin) @ San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), 10:15 PM EDT

The Phillies are seeing to it that their minor leaguers eat well

Crop of vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables.
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For years we’ve talked about how odd it is that baseball teams are in the extraordinarily competitive business of developing highly-trained athletes yet, for whatever reason, it pays minor leaguers virtually nothing and all but forces them to subsist on junk food and other cheap options.

As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, however, the Phillies are changing that. Indeed, they’re plowing serious money into nutritious food options for their minor league players:

The Phillies are teaching their minor leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

“We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball,” assistant general manager Ned Rice said. “When they’re playing for the Phillies, they’ll have that stuff taken care of for them.”

 

That this is a news story — and it is a good and novel one — is kind of sad in some ways. How teams haven’t been on board with this approach for decades is beyond me.

Tracking baseball’s “Naturals”

The Natural
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Rob Neyer has a great column in today’s New York Times in which he tracks the real life players who, at one time or another, were dubbed “The Natural.” A la Roy Hobbs in the book and movie of the same name.

There are some that a lot of people probably remember: Jeff Francoeur and Ken Griffey, Jr. as “The Natural” come to mind easily. There are some who I don’t ever recall being called “The Natural” but were, apparently, like Terry Pendelton and Karim Garcia. There are also some whose stories were far odder and far more tragic than any version of Hobbs’ tale (oh man, a Toe Nash sighting!). Then there’s Rick Ankiel, whose path may be the closest one to Hobbs’ of them all, at least broadly speaking.

Fun stuff that, in addition to being a walk down memory lane, is also an instructive lesson about how the power of narrative works in sports.