1. Verlander's rocky return
The best thing that can be said for Justin Verlander's first competitive appearance of the 2015 season on Sunday is that he got his work in, showed good velocity and escaped unharmed. Sidelined since March 27 due to a triceps strain, his first rehab start for the Tigers’ Triple A Toledo affiliate was otherwise a mess.
Verlander needed 79 pitches to work 2 2/3 innings against the Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates' top affiliate. Though he consistently hit 93–94 miles per hour and topped out in the 95–96 range, he struggled to finish off hitters; 22 of his pitches were fouled off, nine of them in two-strike counts. He didn't get great defensive support, either, as shortstop Dixon Machado misplayed a two-out popup into a two-run double. In all, he allowed three runs on six hits, two walks and a hit batsman, striking out three.
The Tigers have yet to decide whether Verlander will make another rehab start with the JV squad or whether he'll rejoin the big club's rotation this weekend against the White Sox, a decision that isn't likely to come until Tuesday. The Tigers—currently in third place in the American League Central at 28–24, 3 1/2 behind the red-hot Twins—could certainly use the help. Their rotation is 11th in the league in ERA (4.31) and 10th in strikeout rate (6.6 per nine), and aside from David Price (3.15 ERA, 3.26 FIP) and Alfredo Simon (2.67 ERA, 3.56 FIP), it's a disaster.
Anibal Sanchez has yielded 12 homers in 67 1/3 innings (1.6 per nine) en route to a 5.75 ERA, that after allowing just 13 homers in 308 innings over the past seasons, both of which were shortened by injuries. If there's good news, it's that his strikeout and walk rates are fine (9.1 and 2.5 per nine, respectively), as is his velocity. Shane Greene has taken a treacherous path to a 5.19 ERA and 4.51 FIP. Acquired from the Yankees in the three-way deal that sent Didi Gregorius to New York, he began the year looking like the steal of the century as he allowed just two runs (one earned) over 23 innings in his first three starts. Since then, he’s been tattooed for an 8.12 ERA with two quality starts and four disaster starts in eight turns since.
Kyle Lobstein delivered a 4.34 ERA and 4.08 FIP in eight starts, but he hit the disabled list on May 24 with shoulder inflammation and figures to be out beyond the 15-day minimum. Buck Farmer, called up to take Lobstein’s turn on Thursday, was lit up for seven runs in five innings by the Angels, which actually lowered his career ERA to 11.93 (in all of 14 1/3 innings). The 24-year-old righty had a 2.98 ERA with 8.8 strikeouts per nine in 51 1/3 innings at Toledo, so actual proof that he can get batters out exists, but it would be helpful to the Tigers' cause if he could do so at the major league level for more than a couple innings at a time.
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2. Hamilton at home
Josh Hamilton put together quite a scrapbook in his first series in Arlington since being re-acquired by the Rangers. On Thursday night against the Red Sox, the five-time All-Star and former AL MVP followed a heartwarming ovation from the crowd of 34,085 by ripping a first-pitch double into the rightfield corner. He went 2-for-4 that night, driving in the lone Texas run in a 5–1 loss. On Friday, he hit solo homers in his first two plate appearances off Boston's Steven Wright, helping the Rangers to a 7–4 win. It was his first multi-homer game since July 10, 2013 for the Angels against the Cubs and his first in Texas since May 11, 2012 against the Angels.
Hamilton went 0-for-3 on Saturday but drew two walks and scored once in Texas' 8–0 win, and on Sunday, he came off the bench to deliver a two-run–pinch-hit–walk-off double into the left-center gap off Koji Uehara, which brought Prince Fielder chugging home from first base with the winning run:
That was the eighth walk-off hit of Hamilton's career, his first since Aug. 18, 2013 (Angels over Astros via a home run) and the first for Texas since May 26, 2012 (over the Blue Jays via a home run). The hit gave the Rangers their third straight win and 10th in 12 games, a surge that has pushed them to 26–25, their first time over .500 since June 6, 2014, when they were 31–30.
Alas, the victory came at a price. Hamilton was pinch-hitting for Adam Rosales, who had entered the game at third base in place of Adrian Beltre, who sprained his left thumb while sliding feet-first into second base during the fifth inning. Though hitting just .257/.294/.408 overall, Beltre had gone 2-for-3 with a pair of RBIs to cap a solid May (.293/.313/.455) after a frigid April (.205/.267/.337). According to team doctors, he also suffered a laceration on the play, which required four stitches to close. That will cost Beltre two weeks, which makes a DL stint an inevitability. Rosales, who has been sharing second base duties with rookies Tommy Field and Hanser Alberto for the past month, is the most likely candidate to take over the position. Also an option: Rougned Odor, who was recalled from Triple A Round Rock, where he hit a searing .297/.375/.641 with five homers in 73 PA since being demoted on May 11.
3. Miller Time for a hard-working backstop
Extra-inning epics make for unlikely heroes. In Milwaukee on Sunday, light-hitting catcher Martin Maldonado ended a 17-inning marathon with a home run that sent the Brewers to a 7–6 win over the Diamondbacks in what was the longest game in Miller Park history by both innings and time (five hours, 49 minutes), and the longest in the NL this year.
The homer was Maldonado's fourth hit of the game; even with that and two doubles, his line is still an anemic .182/.254/.273, which helps to explain how much the Brewers (17–34) have missed Jonathan Lucroy, who returns on Monday. Even so, the blast ended an unlikely pitchers' duel between Vidal Nuno and Matt Garza, who picked up the slack for bullpens that were depleted in part because their starters didn't last long. Arizona's Chase Anderson was rocked for six runs and 10 hits in five innings; five relievers later, Nuno took over in the 12th inning and held Milwaukee to one hit and three walks over 5 1/3 innings before serving up the winning blast. Brewers starter Tyler Wagner exited after yielding nine hits and five runs in 3 2/3 innings. Seven relievers later, Garza, who had been scheduled to start on Monday night despite having been rocked for 19 runs in 14 2/3 innings over his previous three turns, made just the fourth relief appearance of his major league career and shut out the Snakes for five innings.
In ending the game, Maldonado appears to have set a record, or at least a modern one. Via the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, since the start of the 1938 season, a total of 170 walk-off homers have been hit by catchers in extra innings. Maldonado's is the latest by a catcher who had been behind the plate for the whole game, surpassing two catchers who worked through 16 innings. Here are the ones through 15 innings, some of which were hit by catchers who entered mid-game:
Maldonado displaced Lance Parrish and Nick Hundley among the backstops who worked overtime. Parrish, an eight-time All-Star who was part of the Tigers' core for the first decade (1977–86) of the Alan Trammell-Lou Whitaker era, is the all-time leader in this little corner of history, with five extra-inning–walk-off homers, four of which came while working complete games. Second is Joe Ferguson, a burly bopper from the '70s and '80s who hit four such homers, three of which came while working complete games. Among active players, the tireless Russell Martin has done it three times.