Tuesday September 29th, 2015

Cardinals inch closer

The Pirates will not sweep their way into a share of first place at PNC Park this week, and whatever hopes they have of catching the Cardinals in the NL Central took a significant hit on Monday night. The Redbirds opened the series with a 3–0 victory over the Bucs, reducing their magic number to two, but they didn’t emerge unscathed, as leftfielder Stephen Piscotty was carted off the field following a frightening collision with centerfielder Peter Bourjos.

Despite occupying first place in the division since April 16 and compiling the majors’ best record, the Cardinals entered the day just three games ahead of the Pirates. That left open the possibility that Pittsburgh could end the series tied for first place via a three-game sweep in its home park, claiming the season series 11–8 in the process, which is important if a tiebreaker game needs to be played to determine the division winner after 162 games. The Cardinals’ win moots that, giving them a four-game lead with five to play. With one more win in this series, they’ll clinch their third straight division title. The Pirates have already clinched a wild-card berth, as have the Cubs.

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The game remained scoreless for the first eight innings, with the Pirates squandering numerous opportunities against Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, who yielded four hits and four walks over five innings before departing for a pinch-hitter. Opposite number J.A. Happ faced the minimum number of batters through six scoreless innings before yielding to a pinch-hitter as well; he allowed only a third-inning single to Kolten Wong that was quickly erased by a double play. Acquired on July 31 from the Mariners, for whom he posted a 4.64 ERA in 108 2/3 innings, Happ has emerged as the latest of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage’s turnarounds, in the tradition of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. In 57 1/3 innings with his new team, he’s put up a 2.04 ERA with 9.7 strikeouts per nine.

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The Cardinals finally broke the deadlock in the top of the ninth against Mark Melancon, the third Pirates reliever of the night. With one out, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay singled, with Gregory Polanco overrunning the latter’s ball in trying to field it, and Andrew McCutchen struggling to find the handle as well. Carpenter sprinted home, and Polanco was charged with the error three pitches later, before Melancon served up a two-run, pinch-homer to Mark Reynolds.

In all, the Pirates stranded 16 base runners, the Cardinals just two. Pittsburgh loaded the bases with one out in the second, but Jordy Mercer’s fly out turned into an inning-ending double play when Jason Heyward threw Starling Marte out at home. They loaded the bases with one out in the third to no avail, wasted a leadoff double by Polanco in the fifth when he was thrown out at third base on a fielder’s choice, came away empty from bases-loaded, two-out situations in the sixth and seventh and could do nothing after putting the first two runners on base in the ninth inning to bring the tying run to the plate. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal struck out Neil Walker, then got Francisco Cervelli and Aramis Ramirez to line out to seal the win.

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The Piscotty collision took place in the top of the seventh inning. On Josh Harrison’s fly ball into left centerfield, centerfielder Bourjos made a sliding catch, but his left knee hit the head of the diving Piscotty as he came in from leftfield. Piscotty rolled over and lay motionless on the ground for several moments as blood visibly trickled from his nose or mouth. Play was delayed for several minutes as he was strapped to a stretcher and carted off the field, though he was conscious and able to wave at the PNC crowd to acknowledge their collective concern. The Cardinals announced that he had suffered a head contusion and was being transported to a local hospital for further evaluation; later, they announced that all tests on the outfielder were negative (presumably, including concussion tests), but that he would be held overnight for observation.

Piscotty a 24-year-old rookie, has emerged as a key player for St. Louis over the past two months, batting .310/.365/.502 with seven homers in 249 plate appearances. That strong performance, good for a 134 OPS+ coming into Monday—second on the team to fellow rookie outfielder Randal Grichuk’s 138—has helped to off-set the strained quadriceps that has limited Matt Holliday to just 14 starts and five pinch-hit appearances in the team’s last 99 games.

Alas, Piscotty’s injury is just the latest of a rash of them to hit the Redbirds. On Saturday, the team announced that Carlos Martinez would not pitch again this season due to a shoulder strain. The 23-year-old righty had made an impressive transition into full-time rotation duty this year, pitching to a 3.01 ERA and 3.22 FIP with 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 179 2/3 innings. Earlier on Monday, the team announced that Yadier Molina has been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season due to a slight ligament tear in his left thumb, an injury he sustained last Sunday while tagging the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo. He will be reevaluated on Sunday or Monday in hopes that he can join the team for the postseason, but general manager John Mozeliak, who termed it "a severe injury," did not sound optimistic when addressing the media on Monday.

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This is not the same thumb that Molina injured last year, requiring surgery that caused him to miss 50 games, but that injury has to loom large in the minds of the Cardinals. The team was 15 games above .500 in games he started in 2014, but just three above .500 with other catchers, and it didn’t win a game after he left Game 2 of the NLCS against the Giants due to an oblique strain. Though the 32-year-old backstop is hitting only .270/.310/.350 for an 80 OPS+ this year (his worst showing since 2006), he’s thrown out 41% of would-be base thieves, has been six runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved and 7.9 above average according to Baseball Prospectus’ pitch-framing metrics. It’s a steep drop from that solid performance to that of backup Tony Cruz, who has hit abysmally (.190/.226/.262 for a 32 OPS+), has thrown out just 17% of would-be base stealers, is three runs below average via DRS and just 0.4 above average in framing.

The Cardinals did get some good news on Monday. Adam Wainwright, who has been out since tearing his left Achilles tendon on April 25, threw a simulated game on Monday, demonstrating his agility afield as well as on the mound. He could be cleared to pitch in a game as early as Wednesday, and while he doesn’t have enough time to build up to a starter’s workload, he’s already shown he can work in this context. Wainwright was the closer during the team’s 2006 championship run, saving four postseason games, most notably striking out the MetsCarlos Beltran to end the NLCS and closing out Game 5 of the World Series over the Tigers.

Champagne on ice

The Dodgers’ quest for a third consecutive division title—unprecedented in the history of the franchise—remains on hold, as the team dropped the first game of its four-game series against the Giants at AT&T Park in 12 innings, 3–2. Alejandro De Aza’s sacrifice fly off Adam Liberatore drove in Marlon Byrd with the winning run. Byrd led off the 12th with a single off Yimi Garcia, and took third on Kelby Tomlinson’s single, but Dodgers manager Don Mattingly refused to call upon closer Kenley Jansen when strikeouts were needed, instead choosing Liberatore as his eighth pitcher of the night.

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In better news for the Dodgers, Zack Greinke made a solid return after missing a start due to a sore right calf, throwing seven innings of two-run ball, with a messy second inning featuring a pair of singles and a two-run double by rookie catcher Trevor Brown the only real blemish. The runs raised Greinke’s NL-best ERA to 1.68, but the start kept him a perfect 31 for 31 in lasting at least six innings in every start this season.

Jake Peavy was even better than Greinke, limiting the Dodgers to one run on three hits in seven innings; neither pitcher allowed a hit over his final four frames. The Dodgers did tie the game in the ninth against the Giants' bullpen, as Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez singled off Josh Osich, prompting Giants manager Bruce Bochy to call upon closer Santiago Casilla. Justin Turner’s sacrifice bunt sent Seager to third and pinch runner Ronald Torreyes to second, and with the infield back, Andre Ethier’s ground ball to second base plated the equalizer. Neither team could hold the other to a 1-2-3 inning from there, and each had its chances with runners in scoring position on multiple occasions before the Giants finally broke through.

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It was the Dodgers’ fourth straight loss, their eighth out of their last 10 games and their 10th in 16 games against their longtime rivals. Even so, they still hold a five-game lead in the NL West with six games to play and will send Clayton Kershaw to the mound to face Madison Bumgarner on Tuesday. It would take an 0–6 record on the Dodgers' part and a 6–0 record by the Giants for the defending world champions to win the division outright. If the combination is 1–5 and 6–0, or 0–6 and 5–1, the Giants would host the Dodgers for a Game 163 tiebreaker in San Francisco. Anything outside of that, and the $300 million team will finally be able to break out the champagne.

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