And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

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Pirates 2, Cubs 1: And with that the Pirates are going to the playoffs. It’s so strange, though, how even though it’s the franchise that has lost for the past 20 years — even though it’s just the laundry which has been shut out so long — that we sort of passively put all that weight on the current members of the Pirates too. Weight that Andrew McCutchen talked about after the game:

“Even though I didn’t lose for the last 20 years, they make you feel like you are. You feel like you lost those 20 years”

That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. McCutchen was six years old when Sid Bream slid into home plate in the 1992 NLCS, yet pressure has been put on him simply because he got drafted by the Pirates instead of, say, the Giants. The Reds clinched yesterday too and are back to the playoffs. No one asks, say, Shin-Soo Choo about any weight being removed even though he’s just as much of a playoffs newbie as McCutchen is. Oh well.

Reds 3, Mets 2: Like I said, the Reds clinched too, this on a Shin-Soo Choo single in the 10th, but it was a very different scene afterward. No champagne or anything, as they want the division title and seeing the Cardinals beat the Nats a bit after their game ended made that a half game harder to do.

Cardinals 4, Nationals 3: The Nats get eliminated. Proof that you can’t just sleepwalk for four and a half months and then step on the gas for a while and expect it all to be OK. Proof that preseason expectations and predictions mean nothing. Proof that when someone — like a lot of us around here — adds “on paper” to comments about how good a team looks in March it’s probably close to meaningless. Meanwhile the Cardinals are tied with the Braves for the best record in the National League. Whichever of those teams prevails in this regard gets to avoid the Dodgers in the NLDS, so yeah, there are still things to be decided in the NL.

Rays 5, Orioles 4: What an awful day for the Orioles. They lost on a James Loney walkoff homer, get swept in four games and lose Manny Machado and Alexi Casilla to serious injuries. The Rays are a game up on Cleveland for the top wild card spot. The O’s are all but eliminated.

Twins 4, Tigers 3: The Tigers could’ve clinched the central but the wheels fell off late. Lots here which suggests what kind of trouble the Tigers could have in the playoffs, though. Justin Verlander had a dominant stretch of strikeouts — he finished with 12 in six innings — but inefficiency prevented him from going deep into the game. This exposed the Tigers bullpen for too many innings and led Jim Leyland to go to closer Joaquin Benoit for a five-out save which just wasn’t happening. Today is another day to clinch, but I feel like there are reasons to be concerned.

Brewers 5, Braves 0: Atlanta played much like a team that had spent the previous night shooting champagne into each others’ faces. Marco Estrada tossed seven shutout innings and Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy homered.

Athletics 10, Angels 5: Not all teams which celebrated Sunday looked flat on Monday. Five wins in a row for Oakland, which benefited from Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss homers and RBI from seven different A’s.

Rangers 12, Astros 0: Alex Rios hit for the cycle and drove in four runs. Texas is a game behind Cleveland for the final wild card spot. All of their remaining games are at home.

Royals 6, Mariners 5: Alex Gordon keeps the Royals’ hopes alive. He gunned down a runner at the plate in extra innings and then scored on Salvador Perez’s two-out double in the 12th to put KC ahead for good. The Royals are still a longshot, though. Three back with six to play and, unlike the Rangers, all of their remaining games are on the road.

Marlins 4, Phillies 0: This could’ve been Roy Halladay’s final start for the Phillies. And, though he has said he will pitch again next year, the way he looks it could be his final start in major league baseball. He faced only three batters, walking two, and couldn’t break 83 on the gun. This is pretty sad to watch.

White Sox 3, Blue Jays 2: Tiger got to hunt, Bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?” Sox got to pitch, Jays have to bat, Man got to Jays fans have to ask where their Leafs’ schedule’s at. Why no, I didn’t read Charles J. Shields’ quite excellent biography of Kurt Vonnegut over the weekend. Why do you ask?

Padres 4, Diamondbacks 1: My Friday and Monday absences were occasioned by a trip to San Diego for a wedding. While there I got to take in Sunday’s game at Petco. And hang out and walk on the beach and eat In-N-Out Burger and good tacos and drink good beer at Karl Strauss and see my brother and enjoy all of the good things Southern California has to offer while avoiding just about all of the bad things it has to offer, mostly because I didn’t go up near Los Angeles. Starting about 8AM yesterday, as I was enjoying a wonderful breakfast, I began my usual “wait, why don’t I live here again?” musings. I’ve been back in Ohio for about eight hours now and I’m still musing. Sigh. Oh, Padres beat the Dbacks. Apologies for the non-recap of that one. I was busy consulting real estate listings.

Kevin Gausman to start Opening Day for the Orioles

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The Orioles have tabbed Kevin Gausman to start on Opening Day, April 3 against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports. Chris Tillman started the previous three Opening Days for the O’s. This will be Gausman’s first Opening Day nod.

Gausman, 26, finished the 2016 season with a 3.61 ERA and a 174/47 K/BB ratio in 179 2/3 innings. The Orioles selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2012 draft and moved him through their minor league system quickly. Gausman debuted in the majors in May 2013.

2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central