Game 132, Mariners at Astros
Vidal Nuno vs. Dallas Keuchel, 5:10pm
Let’s be honest : the M’s arrive in Houston without much to play for. Now it’s the Astros turn to feel the pressure of playoff expectations, as crazy as that would’ve sounded 6 months ago. Crazier still, their primary opponent is suddenly the Texas Rangers, as the Angels ill-timed slide has pushed them back to .500 on the year. The M’s are a game above .500 in August, and they’ve made some improvements in the 2nd half of the season, but they simply haven’t been able to make a sustained run, the kind of surge that pretty much every team in the league has made at one time or another…even the Phillies, somehow.
A good chunk of the blame for that has to fall on the M’s black holes. As Jeff Sullivan wrote in his post-mortem of the Jack Z years, the M’s have had insanely low production from various line-up spots for years. The M’s went from Jack Wilson to Brendan Ryan, with a brief stop in Ronny Cedeno purgatory. The M’s have employed Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, Miguel Olivo and Mike Zunino at C, and received a total of more than -106 batting runs for their trouble. At 1B, they’ve gone from Casey Kotchman’s worst year to the Justin Smoak slow fade to Logan Morrison’s struggles. As we’ve talked about, other teams have been successful with a black hole in their line-up, but the M’s couldn’t get past the event horizon of theirs, and were crushed by them. Futility became a force of nature.
The Astros are of course no stranger to positional black holes. Matt Dominguez at 3B, Humberto Quintero at C, Brett Wallace at 1B, etc. There’s a reason the recent Astros teams were some of the worst in a decade. But a big part of why their rebuild has gone faster than anyone suspected is that they’ve avoided them this year. They’re not average everywhere – their DH production has been awful, for example – but they’ve avoided the kinds of abysmal performances that the M’s have fallen victim to yet again.
But as tonight’s starter proves, they’re not simply a team full of average guys playing over their heads. Dallas Keuchel’s status in the top tier of starting pitchers seemed far fetched a year ago, and even early this year, many of us waited for regression to pull Keuchel and his 88mph sinker back to earth. The low K rate, the freakish GB% and what looked like luck on line drives and fly balls – they produced some spectacular results in 2014, but you can’t rely on that stuff for your career. Can you? In nearly every facet of his game, Keuchel has battled regression and won. His GB% is still 2nd in baseball, just where it was last year. And last year’s seemingly impossible .438 OPS-against on ground balls? Well, it’s now .379. Batters are slugging below .200 on grounders this year, and he’s coupled that with better production when batters DO elevate the ball – batters are SLUGGING .286 on FLY balls. Years ago, we’d chalk this up to some kind of luck or to brilliant defenders, but Keuchel is helping change everyone’s idea of what pitchers can control. And while he’s doing all of that, his plain old FIP stats are better. He’s now got an above-average K rate, and he’s pushed his walk rate below 2/9IP. With a FIP and xFIP aroudn 2.70, Keuchel is clearly an elite starter no matter what stats you look at.
That said, the M’s aren’t 9 games below .500 because they’re hopeless against ace-level starters. The M’s beat Keuchel this year back in June, and they are 7-5 in games started by pitchers in the top 20 in pitching WAR this year. We’ll leave aside what it says about the M’s facing mediocre starters and just extract the part that gives us a modicum of hope going into today’s game.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, 1B
7: Montero, DH
8: Miller, CF
9: Sucre, C
Austin Jackson was penciled into the line-up in the lead-off spot, but that won’t be happening, as the M’s just traded him to the Cubs for a international bonus pool slot and a PTBNL. Given the Cubs injuries in the OF, it makes sense for them, and they obviously didn’t pay a whole lot. Brad Miller is officially a CF for a while. Justin Ruggiano’s hurting a bit in Tacoma, but he could see some time soon, as could James Jones, recently returned from his own injury rehab. Jackson’s tenure in Seattle probably won’t be remembered fondly; Seattle bet on regression and got age-related decline. It happens.
The Rainiers completed their home schedule yesterday, battling the rain and the Nashville Sounds to a draw. The crowd must’ve gotten wet, but the R’s got both games of the doubleheader in, and split it at a game apiece. The Rainiers got a walk-off 6-5 win in Game 1, before losing the nightcap 8-4 despite two more HRs from Jabari Blash. The R’s head down to Salt Lake tonight, with Mike Montgomery trying to right the ship against the Bees’ Drew Rucinsky.
Jackson beat Pensacola 8-2 behind a 2-HR game from 2B Tyler Bortnick and Dylan Unsworth’s best pitching performance of the year. The South African hurler went 6 scoreless, striking out 5, while Bortnick was named the SL Player of the Week after a 5-hit game earlier in the week set the stage for his 2 HR, 1 BB, 5 RBI game yesterday. Jimmy Gilheeney starts for Jackson today against Pensacola’s Cody Reed, one of the prospects Cincinnati acquired from Kansas City in the Johnny Cueto deal. The lefty has plus velo, and has struck out 43 in 35+ innings in the Southern League.
Bakersfield’s bullpen couldn’t stop the High Desert Mavericks, resulting in a 7-3 loss. Ryan Yarbrough was so-so, tossing 4 innings and giving up 3 runs (1 earned) while striking out 5. But while HD kept adding on, the Blaze couldn’t figure out the Mavs bullpen. Tyler O’Neill had 2 doubles and Kyle Petty homered for Bakersfield. The Blaze are off today.
Clinton’s Eddie Campbell pitched well, and the L-Kings took a 3-2 lead into the 8th, but Wisconsin scored 4 in the inning off of two Clinton relievers. Campbell went 7 IP, giving up 2 runs and striking out 6 (to just one walk). Lukas Schiraldi takes the mound for Clinton tonight.
Everett beat Tri-City 5-4, as the Everett bullpen came up big after Jake Brentz was chased in the 2nd without recording an out. Joe Pistorese finished things off with a rare 3 1/3 IP save; he gave up 0 runs and 0 hits while striking out 3. As gaudy as his K:BB ratio is (46:7), his hits-allowed is noteworthy, too: he’s given up 28 in 42 1/3 IP. Yarbrough shot up the prospect ranking last year after his 53:4 K:BB ratio and 25 hits in 38 2/3 IP in Everett. Pistorese’s numbers aren’t quite in that league, but the fact that they’re close is noteworthy. Yarbrough was a budget-minded senior sign out of Old Dominion, while Pistorese was also a senior out of WSU, taken in the 17th round.