Sunday August 16th, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back

No matter what happens in their series finale against the Blue Jays on Sunday, the Yankees guaranteed that they would leave Toronto in first place by beating the Jays 4–1 on Saturday afternoon behind Masahiro Tanaka’s first complete game of the season and home runs by Friday night’s hero Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira.

Having slipped behind Toronto in the standings earlier this week, the Yankees reclaimed first place Friday night on Beltran’s pinch-hit, three-run home run off Aaron Sanchez in the eighth inning, nailing down their 4–3 win when Andrew Miller finally threw a splitter Troy Tulowitzki couldn’t foul off to end an epic 12-pitch at-bat with the tying and winning runs in scoring position in the bottom of the ninth. Beltran’s next at-bat came against Toronto starter Marco Estrada in the top of the first inning on Saturday and resulted in another home run to give the Yankees a lead, this one a solo shot to put them up 1–0. The Jays tied things up on a bases-loaded sac fly by Josh Donaldson in the fifth, but Tanaka wriggled out of further trouble that inning by striking out Jose Bautista and getting Edwin Encarnacion to pop out, and Teixeira answered that run in the top of the sixth with a solo homer of his own off Estrada, his first extra-base hit of any kind in 27 plate appearances. Beltran and Teixiera combined on an insurance run in the eighth, with Beltran doubling and Teixeira driving home pinch-runner Chris Young with a single.

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For Teixeira, Saturday’s contest was his first multi-hit game since last Friday. That Teixeira, who tied Donaldson for fourth in the AL with his 31st home run of the season, might be breaking out of his small slump is a good sign for the Yankees. Their offensive struggles over the last week and a half (in a seven-game stretch from Aug. 5 to this past Wednesday, they scored more than two runs just once and multiple runs just twice) were a large part of what allowed the Blue Jays to pass New York in the standings to begin with (the Yankees went 1–6 in those seven games while Toronto went 7–0). Beltran, meanwhile, is now hitting .309/.413/.632 since being activated from the disabled list to start the second half. He also has an active 14-game hitting streak during which he has five home runs and eight walks against just four strikeouts in 54 plate appearances.

As for Tanaka, by game score his performance on Saturday (9 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 8 K) was only his second best of the year (he scored a 78, compared to the 81 he registered when throwing seven scoreless innings in Tampa on April 18), but there’s little doubt that this was a more impressive performance. In his most important game with the Yankees, he held the best offense in baseball, one that had seen him three times already this year, to one run over nine innings in its own hitter-friendly ballpark, one in which Tanaka hadn’t pitched since making his impressive major league debut last April.

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This surprisingly low-scoring series (aggregate score: 8–4 Yankees after two games) will conclude on Sunday afternoon with the youngest members of each rotation taking the hill in a matchup that favors a New York sweep. Twenty-four-year-old Drew Hutchison has been the Jays’ worst starter over the last month or so, posting a 5.89 ERA in his last seven starts, while 21-year-old Yankees rookie Luis Severino, one of the game’s top pitching prospects, has impressed in his first two major-league starts (2.45 ERA, 0.91 WHIP), displaying an upper-90s fastball and an outstanding changeup and slider.

Sox Sock Seattle

Saturday’s schedule contained just two games that started before 7 p.m. ET, but both proved to be memorable. One was the Yankees’ win over the Blue Jays. The other, which found the Red Sox taking on Felix Hernandez and the Mariners at Fenway Park, was the highest scoring game of the year, setting 2015 season marks in a variety of categories. The final score was 22–10 Boston. The Red Sox’ 22 runs were the most scored in a game by a single team since the Yankees beat the A’s 22–9 in the new Yankee Stadium on Aug. 25, 2011 and the 32 combined runs were the most scored in a game since the Red Sox beat the Rangers 19–17 at Fenway on Aug. 12, 2008. Boston’s 26 hits, meanwhile, were the most since the Tigers collected 26 in a 16–2 win over the Royals in Kansas City on Sept. 6, 2013. As for the two teams’ 39 combined hits, I know the Twins and A’s combined for 39 hits in Oakland on July 20, 2009, but I’ve thus far been unable to find another game with 39 combined hits since.

Then there was Jackie Bradley Jr.’s contribution. All Bradley, Boston’s ninth-place hitter, did was go 5 for 6 with three doubles and two home runs for a total of 14 total bases, the most by a single player in a game this season, picking up seven RBIs and five runs scored along the way. The last player with 14 or more total bases in a game was Cleveland’s Lonnie Chisenhall, who had 15 via three homers, a double and a single on June 9 of last year. The last player with multiple home runs and multiple doubles in the same game was the Rangers’ J.P. Arencibia on July 29 of last year (two of each for 12 total bases), and the last player with five extra-base hits in any combination was Josh Hamilton, who added a double to his four-homer game back on May 8, 2012, during his first stint with the Rangers. As for Bradley’s specific combination of extra-base hits, he’s just the fourth player since 1914 to have at least three doubles in a multi-homer game, joining Willie Stargell (Aug. 8, 1970), Steve Garvey (Aug. 28, 1977) and Cleveland catcher Kelly Shoppach (July 30, 2008), all of whom had exactly five hits, including three doubles and two home runs, on those dates.

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As the presence of Chisenhall, Arencibia and Shoppach in the previous paragraph suggest, Bradley’s big game is not necessarily indicative of future success. Indeed, his second home run and final hit of the game came off Seattle’s backup catcher, Jesus Sucre, who was making his second relief appearance of the season, mixing a 90-mph fastball with a mid-70s curveball. Still, Bradley has been hot over the Red Sox’ last five games, going a combined 13 for 22 (.591) with four doubles, two triples and three homers for a 1.364 slugging percentage over that span.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, beat the Mariners 15–1 on Friday, giving them 37 runs and 47 hits in their last two games. At the 4.2 runs-per-game pace at which they had been scoring prior to Friday night, it would have taken them nearly nine games to score 37 runs.

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As for Hernandez, he was charged with 10 runs on 12 hits, including home runs by Pablo Sandoval (who left the game after being hit on the right elbow by a pitch, though X-rays were negative), Bradley and Alejandro De Aza in 2 1/3 innings. The result was the first negative game score of his career (-6) and the third-lowest game score by any pitcher this season (after David Buchanan’s -12 from this past Tuesday and Jeremy Guthrie’s -11 from late May). Despite that statistic, it’s difficult to argue that this was even Hernandez’s worst game this season. As hard hit as he was Saturday, Hernandez did get seven outs. He managed just one against the Astros on June 12.

Ichiro hits 4,192

Ichiro Suzuki joined Pete Rose as the only players ever to accumulate 4,192 career hits on Saturday night, going 2 for 4 with a pair of singles in the Marlins’ 6–2 loss to the Cardinals to increase his major league hit total to 2,915 and his combined hit total between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball to 4,193. Of course, since Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record in 1985 with hit No. 4,192, baseball historians have discovered that two of Cobb’s hits were double counted, so technically Suzuki passed Cobb on Wednesday, when he went 2 for 5 against the Red Sox. However, MLB still uses 4,191 for Cobb’s official hit total, so his passing Cobb only became news on Saturday.

Either way, Suzuki’s career hits total is a tremendous accomplishment, but one that immediately raises two questions: can he catch Rose, and can he reach 3,000 hits in the major leagues? He needs 63 more hits to match Rose and 85 to reach 3,000. Given that he now has just 71 this season, he’d obviously need to play another year to reach either mark. The Marlins have said they’d be interested in having him back, but there’s no guarantee that he would get as much playing time on the 2016 Marlins as he has had for the 2015 team.

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Indeed, Suzuki has played far more than expected this season due to injuries and poor performance by the team’s other outfielders. Giancarlo Stanton has been out since late June due to a broken hamate bone. Christian Yelich is currently on the disabled list for the second time this season, and Opening Day centerfielder Marcell Ozuna was just recalled on Saturday after more than a month in Triple A following a prolonged slump in late June and into early July. Suzuki’s batting average this year has dipped to a career-worst .256. If he hits that poorly again next year (or, from a different perspective, if he can avoid having his average drop any lower), he’d need 246 at-bats to catch Rose and 277 at-bats to reach 3,000 hits. That’s a lot of playing time for a 42-year-old extra outfielder on a team with a starting trio as talented as Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna.

As it is, Suzuki has been a shell of his former self over the last five seasons, hitting just .272/.308/.348 (85 OPS+) since his last full season with the Mariners in 2011, barely exceeding replacement level at times over that span (Baseball-Reference’s WAR has him below replacement this year). In the process, his career batting average in the majors has dropped from .331 at the end of the 2010 season to .315. The temptation to catch Rose and reach 3,000 may be great, but Suzuki may do his legacy a greater service by retiring at the end of this season given that he appears to have a very slim chance of reaching either mark even if he does return.

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