Three Strikes: Kevin Kiermaier injury another hit to Rays; more notes
Rays lose another key player
Saturday, exactly one week after the Tampa Bay Rays placed their best hitter, second baseman Logan Forsythe, on the disabled list with a fractured shoulder blade, the Rays lost their best all-around everyday player, centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, to another fracture.
The injury occurred in the bottom of the fifth inning of the Rays’ 5–4 loss to the Tigers in Detroit when Kiermaier, one of the best fielders in baseball, charged a sinking liner off the bat of Tigers’ catcher James McCann. Kiermaier left his feet and made the catch, but the ground bent his glove hand backward and the force of his full body weight and momentum snapped two bones in Kiermaier’s left hand. Kiermaier reacted immediately, briefly writhing in pain and holding the area near the base of his left thumb before getting to his feet, tucking his glove under his left arm, jogging off the field and going directly to the clubhouse while accompanied by assistant team trainer Paul Harker.
“I heard it crack,” Kiermaier said after the game. “I knew something was broke right away.”
The Rays won’t have an estimate of how much time Kiermaier is going to miss until he consults a hand specialist in St. Petersburg on Monday. However, if he needs surgery, his absence could be measured in months. Outfielder Mikie Mahtook has been called up from Triple A to take Kiermaier’s spot on the roster and, most likely, the starting centerfield job.
Though the impact of Kiermaier’s injury will obviously depend on the length of his absence, it looms as a potentially massive blow to the Rays. Tampa Bay entered Saturday’s action just two games behind Cleveland for the second wild-card spot in the American League and boasted a third-order winning percentage of .618, which was the second-best in the American League after that of the division-rival Red Sox and suggested better things ahead for Tampa Bay. With Logan out for at least two more weeks and Kiermaier for likely much longer, however, the Rays could find it difficult to keep pace in the crowded American League field.
One reason for the Rays’ success thus far this season has been a surprising power surge that found them entering Saturday’s games having hit 60 home runs as a team, just one behind the major league-leading Orioles. However, the Rays’ offense as a whole has been close to league average (a hair below in runs per game, a hair above in team OPS+). Where they have excelled has been, as expected, in run prevention. Among AL teams, only the White Sox and Mariners had allowed fewer runs per game than the Rays’ 3.77 entering Saturday’s action, and their fielding deserves a large portion of the credit for that as only the Cubs had a better park-adjusted defensive efficiency than the Rays through Friday’s games. Kiermaier, whom the advanced metrics told us was the best fielder in all of baseball last year and, in fact, may have one of the best fielding seasons ever in 2015, led that particular charge. The loss of his glove will have a significant impact, particularly as this year’s Rays have one of the most flyball-oriented pitching staffs in the majors, trailing only the Angels, Red Sox, Twins and Reds in flyball-to-groundball ratio, according to Baseball-Reference’s numbers.
Kiermaier had also improved at the plate thus far this year, dropping his strikeouts, nearly doubling his walk rate and joining his team in hitting for more power. Mahtook, who appeared in 41 games for Tampa Bay last year and is actually five months older than his fellow-26-year-old Kiermaier, is capable of replicating Kiermaier’s production at the plate, but is unlikely to exceed it to such a degree that it will compensate for the downgrade in the field. Desmond Jennings, who replaced Kiermaier in the fifth inning on Saturday, could also help out in centerfield, where he was Tampa Bay’s starter in 2013 and 2014, however, he would be a downgrade on both sides of the ball. After going 0 for 2 in Kiermaier’s stead on Saturday, Jennings, who has been losing playing time in leftfield to Brandon Guyer in recent weeks, is hitting .186/.263/.304 on the season.
In happier news, Saturday’s games were sprinkled with encouraging performances from starting pitchers who have been in need of good news. Most notably, the Red Sox’s Joe Kelly returned from the disabled list, where he had spent the last month with a shoulder impingement, and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Boston’s 9–1 win over Cleveland. Spotting his mid-90s fastball, which regularly hit 96 mph, Kelly retired the first 13 men he faced before walking Carlos Santana with one out in the fifth. Kelly then proceeded to walk the bases loaded around a strikeout of Juan Uribe, but got out of the jam by making a good play on a comebacker by Cleveland catcher Chris Gimenez. Kelly then worked around a two-out error by third baseman Travis Shaw in the sixth and got the first two outs of the seventh before Uribe doubled into the right field gap on Kelly’s 104th pitch of the night, leading immediately to Kelly’s removal from the game.
Kelly was lit up in Toronto in his first start of the season, but has allowed just two runs in 12 1/3 innings since, and over his last dozen starts dating back to August 7 of last year (one of which was cut short by his injury), he has gone 9–0 with a 3.08 ERA. Kelly’s peripherals over that span have been poor (1.40 WHIP, 1.86 K/BB), but his outing on Saturday, which included seven strikeouts in his 6 2/3 innings, was at the very least encouraging.
Meanwhile, back in the Tigers-Rays game, 23-year-old Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer turned in the first quality start of his young career. Fulmer struck out 11 against just one walk in seven innings while allowing just four hits and one run, that coming on an Evan Longoria solo home run in the sixth. Fulmer impressed me in his major league debut three weeks ago, missing bats with a mid-90s heater that spiked to 98, a two-seamer with arm-side run, a nasty low-90s slider with a big downward break and a high-80s changeup and showing good control, walking just one in his first five major league innings. Fulmer struggled in three starts after that, but entered Saturday’s game with 22 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings. Saturday was his first home start for Detroit and it was extremely encouraging.
Elsewhere, two veterans who got off to lousy starts this season continued recent stretches of effective pitching suggesting they have turned the corner. In St. Louis, the Cardinals’ big free-agent addition Mike Leake threw seven scoreless innings in his team’s 6–2 win over the Diamondbacks. Leake went 0–3 with a 6.03 ERA in his first six starts for St. Louis, none of which were quality. However, in his last three turns he has gone 3–0 with a 0.86 ERA, averaging seven runs per start over those three and dropping his season ERA by nearly two runs to 4.07.
In San Francisco, former Giants ace Matt Cain held the powerful Cubs offense to one run over six innings, that one run coming on a Kris Bryant solo home run in a 5–3 Giants win. After opening the season with a quality start against the Dodgers, Cain went 0–4 with a 9.00 ERA in five starts. However, his last three turns have all been quality, with Cain posting a 1.71 ERA over that span in starts against the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks (at Chase Field) and Cubs.
Finally, facing the Orioles in Anahiem with the Angels’ rotation in upheaval, Matt Shoemaker took a perfect game into the fifth inning and struck out a career-high 12 men in 7 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just three baserunners on a pair of singles and the two-out, fifth-inning Matt Wieters double that broke up his no-hit bid. Wieters, who turned 30 on Saturday, later hit a three-run home run off Joe Smith with the Angels one out away from a 1–0 victory in the top of the ninth to deliver a 3–1 victory to Baltimore.
Despite being walked three times, twice intentionally, in five trips, Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. extended his hitting streak to 26 games by just barely beating out an infield single in the sixth ... In a 4–0 Mariners win over the Reds, Seattle leftfielder Franklin Gutierrez hit the second-longest home run in the majors this season, a 473-foot blast into Great American Ball Park’s leftfield upper deck off a fat 90 mph fastball from Reds’ starter John Lamb.
It was just Gutierrez’s second home run of the season.