And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

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Pirates 13, Rockies 7: The Pirates clinch a playoff spot behind Neil Walker‘s three-run homer and six RBI. Not that it was totally easy. The Pirates had a 7-1 lead, let the Rockies back in it and then put their foot down with a six-run ninth inning. Walker has been on the Pirates since 2009, by the way. In 2010, his first full season, they lost 105 games. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and last night’s starter Charlie Morton were on that team as well. Seems ages ago, however.

Orioles 4, Nationals 3Manny Machado hit a two-run home run with two outs in the seventh and then Jonathan Papelbon hit Machado with a pitch in the ninth after throwing one up and in to him. Papelbon was ejected and after the game Machado called him a “coward.” I’m not sure if that’s literally correct — we tend to use “coward” as a synonym for “jackass” and other, more pithy words in that family of nouns, and that seems weird to me — but I get what Machado is saying and agree with him. Bryce Harper seems to agree as well, calling it “pretty tired” and lamenting the fact that he’ll probably get hit in today’s game. He even said “somebody” hit Machado, not using Papelbon’s name, which is a pretty classic baseball way of throwing shade on a guy. So, yeah, things are going great in the Nationals’ clubhouse, I’m sure.

Braves 6, Mets 3: Freddie Freeman, like Dante, wasn’t even supposed to be here today. But like Dante, he buckled down and did his job, driving in five runs after entering the game as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning, totally stunning the Mets. Freeman has always hit the Mets well, but I’d like to think this is him upping his game to Chipper-versus-the-Mets levels. Mostly because very little makes me giggle more than seeing Mets fans suffer derangement syndrome over a given Braves hitter at any given time. I mean, the Nats lost, the Mets are pretty clearly winning the division and the Braves are a total tire fire at the moment, but from the looks of my timeline last night Mets fans are reaching for the antidepressants. Really, the Mets need to either win every single playoff game in which they appear by five runs this postseason or else they need to be eliminated quickly, because I don’t think their fans can handle the drama otherwise.

Padres 5, Giants 4: Bruce Bochy may be the best manager alive and all of that, but he ought to be tarred and feathered for this:

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Yes, Bochy used three pitchers in the seventh, three pitchers in the eighth and three pitchers in the ninth inning. Of his nine relief pitchers in this game, one threw two pitches, two threw three, two threw four and one threw eight. Hell, now that I think of it, this isn’t tar-and-feathering stuff. This is “put him on the back of a horse backwards with a Mardi Gras head on him and make him walk out into the desert like Mel Gibson in ‘Beyond Thunderdome'” stuff. And the Giants still lost. As did every single person watching this game.

Seriously, we need to do something about expanded rosters.

Angels 6, Astros 5: Things are getting tight. The Angels rallied in a three-run eighth inning thanks in part to a David Freese two-run double and took two of three from the Astros in this series. They’re now only one and a half back of Houston — the Twins are just a game back — and the Astros are looking up three games at the Rangers. Can a team go from most surprising to most disappointing in the space of a couple of months?

Tigers 7, White Sox 4: There was a time when Justin Verlander would sit mid-90s all game and then, in the late innings, crank it up to the high 90s. Not a ton of pitchers do that and Verlander himself hasn’t been able to for a couple of years. But he did it yesterday, hitting 99 on the gun in the seventh inning en route to his fourth win of the season. Verlander’s reemergence may be the only positive thing happening with the Tigers in the second half but it’s an absolutely essential thing if the Tigers are to return to competitiveness in the next couple of years.

Blue Jays 4, Yankees 0: Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Marcus Stroman! I guess we’ve seen that for a few games now, but if seven shutout innings or something quite like it is what we’re gonna get from him on the regular, well, look out everyone else in the playoffs.

Rays 6, Red Sox 2: Drew Smyly pitched shutout ball into the seventh, Steven Souza had four hits and Asdrubal Cabrera had three. This game was brought to you by “dudes who, if you weren’t paying that much attention, you coulda swore played for other teams.” And FanDuel.

Marlins 4, Phillies 3: Dee Gordon hit an RBI double with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning to walk it off for the Marlins. Which is sort of surprising to me because I was assured that the Geneva Convention had outlawed extra innings games between teams like the Marlins and Phillies in late September as some sort of crime against humanity.

Brewers 4, Cubs 1: The Brewers had a nine-game losing streak to the Cubs but they snapped it here. Curse of the cheetah, probably.

Royals 4, Mariners 3: Lorenzo Cain singled home the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning, reducing the Royals magic number to two. Twins loss, Royals win and it’s over in the AL Central. After the game, Cain said “Champagne tomorrow, that would be nice.” I’d like to think he said that with no knowledge whatsoever of the magic number situation, however. Because it’s always a true sentiment.

Twins 4, Indians 2: Phil Hughes lost his job in the Twins rotation but was back last night and he pitched five scoreless innings, beating Corey Kluber and the Tribe. Paul Molitor said after the game that “those were the biggest five zeros” Hughes has had all year. I can only assume that means Hughes’ fantasy team didn’t have some combination of the Phillies and Tigers rotation in it.

Cardinals 10, Reds 2: Matt Carpenter homered twice and the Cardinals won their 96th game of the year. Pretty darn good chance they’ll be the first 100-win team since the 2011 Phillies. Not that I wanna jinx ’em with that awful comp, however.

Dodgers 4, Diamondbacks 1Chase Utley played the hero, hitting a leadoff homer and doubling in Jimmy Rollins in the eighth which gave the 2008 Phillies the lead. My computer crashed as I was looking at the box score so I can’t be sure, but I think Brad Lidge closed this one out.

Rangers 10, Athletics 3: Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre each drove in three runs — each on a three-run homer — and Colby Lewis won his 17th as the Rangers maintain their three-game lead in the West. At some point we’re all gonna have to sit down and talk about how the Rangers pulled this off.

 

World Series Preview: Marquee starting pitching matchups lead the way

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The Astros were the best team in baseball in 2019, winning 107 games, so everyone expected them to be here. As you’ve heard a thousand times by now the Nationals started out poorly in 2019, standing at 19-31 in late May. After that, however, they went on a 74-38 tear in 112 games. A tear which, if extrapolated to 162 games is a . . . 107-win pace.

Which is to say that, despite whatever the oddsmakers are telling you, this is not quite the mismatch some may want to make it out to be. The Astros are a great team, no question, but the Nationals as they stand right now are a strong match for them. If you doubt it, go ask the Dodgers and Cardinals about whether Washington played like a 93-win Wild Card team when they met in the earlier rounds.

No matter how you think the teams matchup overall, however, you can’t help but love the matchups between the clubs’ starting pitchers.

The Astros feature the top two Cy Young candidates in the American league in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and feature a third starter, Zack Greinke, who would be most teams’ ace. The Nationals, meanwhile, counter with Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, finished in second place last year and, before for an injury this season, was a strong contender to take home the hardware again. After him comes Stephen Strasburg, also a 2019 Cy Young candidate, and Patrick Corbin, who was last offseason’s big pickup and who won 14 games and posted an ERA+ of 141 this season. It may be the Era of Bullpenning and all of that, but this Fall Classic looks to be a throwback to a time when — gasp! — starting pitchers mattered.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

THE ROTATIONS

We just listed the big names. The exact order in which they appear is not yet officially known but you’ll color me shocked if Game 1 isn’t Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Game 2 isn’t Stephen Strasburg vs. Justin Verlander, and Game 3 isn’t Zack Greinke vs. Patrick Corbin. In Game 4 the Nats will likely go with the hot Aníbal Sánchez who, if he stays on his game like he has been of late, gives them depth the Astros can’t quite match. Brad Peacock or “Bullpen” could get the ball for A.J. Hinch in Game 4, depending on the circumstances of the series at that point.

As for Game 1, Scherzer is coming off two strong postseason outings, allowing one run on five hits with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings in those starts. Cole was somewhat human in his last start, walking five guys. But, um, yeah, he still tossed seven shutout innings. It seems like all he has done since before Memorial day is toss seven or eight shutout innings or something close to it.

We simply couldn’t ask for a better head-to-head matchup to start this bad boy. There isn’t a hitter on either of these teams happy about who they’ll have to face in this series.

THE LINEUPS

Saturday night’s José Altuve walkoff blast notwithstanding, the Astros’ mighty offense has been somewhat less mighty over the past couple of weeks, averaging just 3.7 runs per game and posting a .645 team OPS. A lot of that was due to the scads of fresh and strong bullpen arms the Rays and Yankees trotted out, but it’s not like things will get easier, at least against Washington’s starting pitching. The Astros had timely hitting — and some big home runs — as they made their way to the World Series, but they’ll definitely need to rattle the ball off the walls and get on base at a higher clip like they did in the regular season if they want to win this thing. To do so, I don’t suspect A.J. Hinch will do much shuffling or fiddling with his lineup — his dudes are his dudes — he’ll just have to hope that they snap out of their relative funk and remind everyone that, when everyone is healthy on this club, there is no better offense in baseball.

Washington’s lineup was nowhere near as fearsome during the regular season but it was the second-best unit in the National League, so they’re no slouches. Like the Astros, they have not exactly set the world ablaze offensively in the playoffs, posting a team OPS about a hundred points lower than their regular season mark. Also, like the Astros, they’ve had some huge hits at great times, as do all teams that get this far. Luck and good timing matter a whole heck of a lot in October.

Editor’s note: Need World Series tickets? Click here to see the Nats try to stop the Astros

A bit of a wild card here: the de-juiced ball everyone is talking about. While the Nats, like everyone else, hit a lot more homers in 2019, they were somewhat less reliant on homers than a lot of other winning teams, finishing only sixth in that category in the NL. The Astros were third in the AL and might’ve come close to matching New York and Minnesota’s totals if they didn’t have so many injuries to key offensive performers in the first half. Which is to say that the dead ball’s taking away of a few feet of flight from equally-struck balls probably hurts the Astros a bit more than the Nats, even if the Astros hitters are better on average.

One can overstate all that, of course. At the end of the day both of these teams have MVP-candidates — Alex Bregman for Houston, Anthony Rendon for Washington — and a good supporting cast of thumpers like Juan Soto, José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez and hot-in-October Howie Kendrick, who will likely see DH action in the games in Houston. Ultimately it will come down, as always, to who is hotter over the next 4-7 games.

THE BULLPENS

The bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest weakness all season long. In the NLDS against the Dodgers Dave Martinez masked the problem by creatively deploying starting pitchers in relief, praying a bit, and watching it work. in the NLCS they so thoroughly steamrolled the Cardinals that it didn’t truly matter, though they did get some good innings from guys not named Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Meaning that, heck, you may even see Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in games that aren’t blowouts. Either way, the week off the Nationals have been given by wrapping up the NLCS so quickly means that every arm is fresh, with extra rest even, so the team’s biggest weakness is about as contained at the outset as it can be. As suggested above, the deeper Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez can go, the better.

Houston’s bullpen has allowed 16 earned runs in 35.1 innings this postseason (4.08 ERA). This after having the third-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball during the regular season (3.75). Sample sizes are obviously an issue here. As is the class of competition. They were more than capable of getting the job done during the ALDS and their failures — like Roberto Osuna‘s blown save in Game 6 — were either contained by the work of others or led to less-than-fatal wounds. They simply have better arms that Washington does down there even if, as is the case with the Nats, they’ll hope to need them as little as possible.

THE MANAGERS

A.J. Hinch has hoisted a trophy before and rarely harms his team. Dave Martinez learned over the course of the season that the less he does the better. Without putting too fine a point on it, if it comes down to a chess match, it’s advantage: Astros. At this point Martinez simply needs to let his horses run and muster enough will to pull them out of the race if they’re tired. That’s easier said than done when it’s, say, Max Scherzer. His arm could be hanging by frayed tendons and he’d still probably glare at Martinez if he walked out to pull him.

THE HISTORY

There is virtually none. These teams share a spring training complex but they have not faced each other in interleague play since 2017. A host of players on each squad has never faced the pitchers on the other. In addition to starting pitchers being so critical here, add “NL vs. AL, in a matchup of unknowns” to the list of things that make this Fall Classic a throwback to olden days.

If we did the usual “Advantage: [TEAM]” for every one of those categories, I feel like we’d probably end up with the Astros coming out on top in each of them. The closest is probably the rotation, with the top-end talent of Cole, Verlander and Greinke outweighing the four-deep depth the Nats have at the moment. But as the earlier rounds showed, it’s not as much of an advantage as you might think and being able to run four starters out there whom you trust matters a lot.

Which is to say that, yeah, I think the Astros are the better team. They’re better in record, better on paper and should be favored. But I don’t think they’re overwhelming favorites. And I don’t think it could or should be considered a massive upset if this better-than-most-people think Nats team comes out on top. I feel like this will be a very, very even and competitive series, in fact.