Wednesday June 24th, 2015

1. Thumbs up for Beltre

As of this past weekend, it didn't sound as though Adrian Beltre would be back in the Rangers' lineup anytime soon. Out since May 31—when he sprained and lacerated his left thumb while sliding into a base—he had yet to swing a bat as of last Thursday and expressed his frustration with the injury's lingering effects as recently as Sunday. Yet there he was in the lineup on Tuesday, batting cleanup and going 1-for-4 with a single, a reach-on-error and a sacrifice fly in the Rangers’ 8–6 loss to the Athletics.

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According to Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, Beltre’s situation improved over the weekend, as he was able to hit off a tee and then take batting practice on Tuesday, after which he was activated. Both Daniels and Beltre readily admit that the 36-year-old third baseman isn't fully healthy, but Texas' medical staff has assured him that he's not doing further damage by playing. Via's T.R. Sullivan, Daniels said, "I don't pretend to think he is 100%. He is going to have to deal with this whether he waits another week or takes some at-bats on a minor-league assignment." Said Beltre, after the game, "I can't remember the last time I played without pain … It's just a matter of tolerating it…. I'm not going to feel like I'm locked on, but I was productive tonight. I didn't have a great game, but it wasn't bad."

The loss was the Rangers' third in a row, the first time the team has dropped three straight since May 14–16. At that point, they were 15–22, but since then, they've gone 22–12 to climb to second place in the AL West, four games out of first and just one game out of a Wild Card spot. Beltre had been part of that resurgence, batting .293/.313/.455 in May after a sluggish April, though his overall numbers (.257/.292/.405 with six homers) are still subpar by his standards.

During Beltre's absence, the Rangers recalled top prospect Joey Gallo, a third baseman with light-tower power who finished a triple short of the cycle in his major league debut, then homered again the next night. But the youngster had his ups and downs since, going just 3-for-28 with 15 strikeouts since homering in back-to-back games on June 13–14. While two of those hits came in the Rangers' past two games, Gallo is down to .221/.312/.471 with five homers and 31 strikeouts in 77 PA. The 21-year-old slugger’s slide has coincided with a foray into leftfield, where he's made four of his last seven starts, including Tuesday night.

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For the moment, Gallo is sticking around despite his slump, but another decision point looms in the near future. Josh Hamilton, who strained his left hamstring while collecting a pinch-hit–walk-off double in the same game in which Beltre was injured, is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment at Double A Frisco on Wednesday and could return to the lineup by next Monday. Hamilton had gone 6-for-22 with four extra-base hits in his seven games since being activated from his shoulder injury. With Delino DeShields—who has started a team-high 23 games in left—on the disabled list since June 15 with a hamstring injury and possibly out until early July, Hamilton would in theory be competing with Gallo for at-bats. Prince Fielder is raking (.338/.408/.520 with 11 homers) as Texas' designated hitter, and Mitch Moreland (.292/.345/.492) has been productive at first base, closing those avenues to playing time—particularly with all of the principals swinging from the left side. Also swinging lefty is slumping rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo, whose 4-for-31 slump has sunk his batting line to .233/.319/.390. Choo sat on Tuesday night due to back spasms, his first game out of the lineup since May 30, though it’s not believed that he’ll be out for an extended period of time.

Daniels and manager Jeff Banister will have to solve the playing time puzzle once everybody is healthy, but as the Rangers have shown over the past season and a half, there simply no guarantees of health. The good news is that unlike in 2014, the team is back in the playoff hunt.

• JAFFE: Jose Fernandez gets closer to return for Marlins

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

2. Montgomery's brilliant night

Once upon a time, the Royals envisioned former top prospect Mike Montgomery doing something along the lines of what he did on Tuesday night: spinning a four-hit shutout and striking out 10 without a walk. They didn’t anticipate winding up on the short end of such a gem, however. The 25-year-old lefty now pitches for the Mariners, who supported Montgomery with a rare seven-run outburst at Safeco Field to take the second game of their three-game set with the defending AL champions.

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It’s been a long road to this point for Montgomery, a 2008 supplemental first-round pick by the Royals out of a Southern California high school. By '10, following two strong seasons in the low minors, he was ranked by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus as the Royals’ No. 1 prospect and as one of the top 40 prospects in the game. Even though elbow and forearm troubles cut into that season, he came into '11 ranked 19th by BA and 21st by BP thanks to his combination of three plus pitches (fastball, curve and changeup). He struggled mightily at Triple A Omaha that year, however, getting lit up for a 5.32 ERA and walking 4.1 per nine. After trying to refine his command at the expense of his power, he was even worse at Double and Triple A in '12, with a combined 6.07 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine. That December, he was an add-on in the James Shields blockbuster, arguably the third-most notable prospect in the trade behind both Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi.

Parked at Triple A Durham and away from the hitter-friendly parks of the Pacific Coast League, Montgomery stabilized somewhat, but a second-half collapse last season marked yet another setback. Though he was still on the 40-man roster and had one minor-league option remaining, the Rays traded him to the Mariners for righty Erasmo Ramirez on March 31. He pitched well enough for the team’s Tacoma affiliate that the team recalled him when James Paxton hit the disabled list with a tendon strain in his middle finger on June 1, and so far, he’s reeled off four quality starts out of five, including a seven-inning, two-run effort against Tampa in his second start on June 7.

Though Montgomery now has a 2.04 ERA through five starts over 35 1/3 innings, none of his previous starts were as dominant as Tuesday’s. He had whiffed just 4.1 per nine in his previous four starts, with a single-game high of four, reached twice. Against the Royals, Montgomery mixed a four-seamer, sinker, cutter, changeup and slider, throwing 77 of his 105 pitches for strikes, including 26 out of 33 first-pitch strikes. He generated 11 swings and misses, seven of them via his changeup, six of which finished off strikeouts.

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That said, Montgomery did have to escape major jams in the first two innings. He loaded the bases before recording an out, with Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas both hitting singles and Lorenzo Cain getting hit by a pitch, but he struck out Eric Hosmer, then induced Kendrys Morales to hit into a double play. He got into trouble again in the second via an error by first baseman Logan Morrison and a Salvador Perez single, but struck out Alex Rios, Omar Infante and Escobar in order, kicking off a stretch of 17 straight batters retired that didn’t end until the seventh, when Perez reached base on an error by shortstop Brad Miller. From there, only a two-out–ninth-inning single by Morales interrupted his flow.

The significance of Montgomery’s competition certainly wasn’t lost on him. Via the Associated Press:

"I probably had a little more emotion going in than I normally do," Montgomery said. "I know a lot of those guys. I was with them for five years. It was definitely a little extra added on to it."

..."It was fun though because I played with them for a couple of years and to now face them and face them in the big leagues it was a cool experience," Montgomery said. "I'll remember them for a long time."

Montgomery put himself in good company: Felix Hernandez is the only other Seattle pitcher to throw a shutout this season. With Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma both on the disabled list—the former is out until at least August, while the latter could be back after two more rehab starts—he figures to stick in the Mariners' rotation for at least awhile longer. Then again, if he keeps pitching as he has, he’ll be here to stay, at long last.

• JAFFE: Is Tim Lincecum's rotation spot for Giants in jeopardy?

3. Oh baby, what a catch!

In the second inning of Tuesday night's game at Wrigley Field, Cubs starter Jason Hammel popped a pitch into foul territory. Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez leaned over the tarp to make a play, but a fan got there first—and barehanded the ball with his right hand while holding a bottle-feeding infant with his left:

Check out the photo from Dodgers official photographer Jon Soohoo:

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That was quite a catch, but it had its cost. First base ump Jerry Meals initially ruled it a foul ball, but a challenge by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly led to the call being overturned by replay officials, who ruled that the fan interfered, then awarded the Dodgers the third out of the inning. Fortunately for the Cubs, they wound up winning 1–0 in 10 innings, preventing the fan (Keith Hartley) from joining Steve Bartman in infamy.

Then again, Hartley could be accused of some degree of bad parenting: You have to show the kid how to catch the ball with two hands. None of that showboating stuff! (I kid, I kid)…

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