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With the 2014 campaign roughly one-third of the way over, we here at The Strike Zone think this is a good time to look back at the best of what we've seen so far in another unpredictable baseball season.
Best Hitting Performance, Single Game: Charlie Blackmon
Chris Davis racked up more total bases when he went 4-for-5 with three home runs on May 20, but Blackmon's 6-for-6 performance on April 4 trumps that in our book, as that was the only time this season that a batter came to the plate six or more times and got a hit each time. Blackmon's half-dozen hits included three doubles and a home run, giving him 12 total bases, and he had five RBIs and four runs scored, numbers that are nearly identical to Davis' 13, five and four. Blackmon's 6-for-6 game was the first in the National League since August 2009 and the earliest by date in modern major league history.
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Best Pitching Performance, Single Game: Adam Wainwright
No, not Josh Beckett's no-hitter last Sunday in Philadelphia, in which the Dodgers righty walked three, struck out six and threw 128 pitches. In fact, that performance isn't even second on our list. Arizona's Josh Collmenter takes that honor after needing just 94 pitches and facing the minimum 27 batters — all three singles he gave up were erased by double plays — to shut out the Reds on Thursday. Wainwright gets the top spot here because he came the closest to perfection of any pitcher this season when he struck out nine and allowed just one baserunner against the Diamondbacks on May 20. That one baserunner came on a two-out double by Paul Goldschmidt in the top of the fourth. Prior to that hit, Wainwright retired 11 in a row; after it, he retired 16 straight.
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Best Fielding Play: Yasiel Puig
Yasiel Puig doesn't need to respond to his critics. He can let his 200 OPS+, bat flips and plays like this do his talking for him. Watch the video below and marvel at how far Puig goes to get this ball. Playing shallow against the Mets' Wilmer Flores, Puig has to run a long way just to get into the frame of the video, then makes the backhanded catch on a full dive about three feet shy of the warning track, somehow managing not to break his wrist in the process. He then slides under centerfielder Matt Kemp, scrambles to his feet and very nearly doubles Lucas Duda off first base (had Adrian Gonzalez gloved his throw cleanly, Duda would have been out). The play was so good, Puig got a standing ovation for it, on the road.
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Biggest Hit: Nolan Arenado
There have been 79 walkoffs thus far in the 2014 season, but only one came with the eventual winner one strike away from losing the game. That happened in Coors Field on May 20 between what were then the top two teams in the NL West.
With the Rockies and Giants tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth, Tyler Colvin laced an RBI double to put San Francisco ahead 4-3. That brought out Giants closer Sergio Romo for the bottom of the ninth. With two out and one on, Romo got within one strike of retiring Carlos Gonzalez to end the game. But Gonzalez singled, moving Troy Tulowitzki to third base. Arenado then battled Romo for seven pitches before hitting one off the very top of the leftfield wall, plating both runners for the 5-4 win.
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Longest Home Run: Giancarlo Stanton
Of course. The second of Stanton's NL-leading 15 home runs came in the bottom of the first inning on April 4 off the Padres' Eric Stults and had a true distance of 484 feet, according to ESPN's Hit Tracker. Of all of the moon shots Stanton has hit at Marlins Park over the last three years, this one was the longest.
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Biggest Pinch-hit: Charlie Culberson
Hey look, it's the Rockies again, this time with futility infielder Charlie Culberson delivering the season's only come-from-behind, pinch-hit, walk-off home run. Culberson was 3-for-27 on the season and had hit just two home runs in his 158 previous major league plate appearances when he came to the plate to bat for pitcher LaTroy Hawkins with one out, one on and the Rockies trailing the Mets 10-9 at Coors Field on May 3. New York closer Kyle Farnsworth got ahead 0-2, but his fifth pitch was an arrow-straight 96 mile per hour fastball right down the middle, and Culberson hit it over the 415-foot sign in straight-away centerfield to win the game for Colorado. Worth noting: Two of Culberson's three career home runs have come in pinch-hitting appearances, and he is now a .300/.323/.533 hitter in 32 career pinch-hitting appearances.
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Biggest Comeback, Player: Johnny Cueto
The Reds' ace wasn't bad when he was healthy in 2013; he was just never healthy. Not once during the 2013 season did Cueto make four consecutive starts without landing on the disabled list, and he made three DL stints in all for a total of 130 days. As a result, Cueto made just 11 starts for the season, five of which lasted five innings or fewer. This year Cueto has already made 11 starts and surpassed his 2013 totals in innings pitched (by 38 percent) and strikeouts (by two-thirds!).
His health has been the most unexpected aspect of his comeback campaign, but it hasn't been the most impressive. In each of his first nine starts this season, he completed at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs. He completed eight or more innings in the last six starts in that stretch, and had double-digit strikeouts in three of those games. He has stumbled a bit in his last two starts, with a disaster outing two turns ago in Washington (5 1/3 IP, 8 R) and a cheap quality start in Dodger Stadium in his most recent outing (6 1/3 IP, 4 R, 1 ER). Despite those performances, he still leads the major leagues in strikeouts (85), WHIP (0.75), hit rate (4.6 H/9), complete games (3), shutouts (2, tied with four others) and innings pitched per start (7.6), and the NL in innings pitched (83 2/3) while ranking fourth in the bigs with a 1.83 ERA. Cueto has thus gone from being one of baseball's least durable pitchers to its most durable, at least over the short span of two months, and has reaffirmed his status as one of the game's best.
Biggest Comeback, Game: Tie: Rockies, Giants
Culberson's walkoff capped a wild game in which Rockies overcame an early 6-0 deficit with an eight-run fifth inning (capped by an Arenado grand slam off Mets starter Jenrry Mejia) only to have New York tie the game at 8-8 in the top of the sixth and take that slim 10-9 lead into the bottom of the ninth before Culberson finally won it. Only one other team has overcome a six-run deficit thus far this season: the Giants, who did so against the Pirates two days later in a game that also ended 11-10.
In that game, San Francisco went up 2-0 in the top of the first but fell behind 8-2 by the end of the fifth. It got five of those runs back right away in the top of the sixth and tied the game in the top of the seventh. Pittsburgh went ahead again only to have the Giants tie the game once more in the top of the ninth, sending things into extra innings. The decisive blow turned out to be a sacrifice bunt by San Francisco reliever Jean Machi in the fourth plate appearance of his professional career. Pirates reliever Jared Hughes' throw to first was wild, and the Giants' Hunter Pence came around to score what would prove to be the winning run in a crazy, 13-inning game that, among other things, saw Pittsburgh's Ike Davis score from second base on an infield single to the shortstop.
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These matching nine-game winning streaks neatly capture the best teams of April and May, respectively. The Brewers' nine-game streak included road sweeps of the Red Sox and Phillies and a home sweep of the Pirates and got them out to a 10-2 start to the season. Milwaukee expanded that into a 20-7 record through April 29 before cooling off in May.
Toronto's nine-game streak also included a road sweep of the Red Sox followed by home sweeps of the first-place A's and the last-place Rays. That capped a 14-2 stretch by the Blue Jays, whose record in May by the time the streak ended was ... wait for it ... 20-7. Both the Brewers and Jays won just 74 games in 2013, but each had 32 victories entering play on Friday, second only to the Giants in all of baseball.
Best Houdini Act: Mike Adams
Here's the situation Phillies right-hander Mike Adams was called into on Wednesday night: Seventh inning, tie game, bases loaded, no outs. Due up: the Rockies' Charlie Culberson and pitcher Matt Belisle. But instead of those two, Adams had to face pinch-hitters Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. First up was the lefty Gonzalez. Adams missed with his first pitch, but jammed Gonzalez on the second and broke his bat, resulting in a weak tapper back to the mound; Adams and catcher Carlos Ruiz turned it into a 1-2-3 double-play.
That brought up Tulowitzki, the best hitter in baseball to this point in the season, with two men still in scoring position. Adams' first pitch was a fastball for a called strike. His second was fouled off for strike two. His third was a curve that headed for the outside corner then dove toward the dirt. Tulowitzki checked his swing, but first-base umpire Tony Randazzo ruled that Tulo went around. Strike three, inning over and it took just five pitches. [mlbvideo id="33251359" width="600" height="360" /]