Five Cuts: Singleton debuts, Zimmerman returns, more from Tuesday night
The Astros' first base prospect made headlines on Monday by becoming the first minor league prospect to sign a multi-million dollar extension in advance of his major league debut, drawing the ire of players such as former Astros pitcher Bud Norris and former A's and Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder. In his major league debut on Tuesday, however, the only pitchers whose ire he drew pitched for the Angels. Starting at first base and batting sixth for Houston, Singleton drew a four-pitch bases-loaded walk in his second plate appearance for his first career RBI amid a third-inning meltdown by Angels starter C.J. Wilson, who gave up five runs on four walks and three singles in that inning before being removed after just 2 2/3 innings pitched (Wilson's shortest outing since 2012).
Two plate appearances later, Singleton delivered his first major league hit, a solo home run to rightfield against Angels reliever Matt Shoemaker leading off the eighth inning. Singleton struck out in his other two at-bats and made two errors in the field (neither of which led to a run), so his debut was short of dazzling, but the Astros are paying him to hit home runs and get on base, and he did both of those things Tuesday night in a game the Astros won 7-2.
Houston has now won eight of its last ten games, is 14-6 over its last 20, and in going 15-14 in May, had its first winning month since September 2010 (not counting March and October records). With George Springer and Singleton finally in place in the major league lineup, it seems things are finally turning around in Houston. Next up: 21-year-old slugging corner outfielder Domingo Santana, who was the 'player to be named later' in the trade that sent Singleton and pitcher Jarred Cosart from the Phillies to the Astros for Hunter Pence at the 2011 trading deadline. Santana has hit .294/.373/.493 in 249 plate appearances in Triple-A thus far this season and could be called up after the Astros are confident that the Super Two cutoff has passed.
Josh Hamilton's Angels didn't fair well against Singleton's Astros in the rightfielder's return from a thumb injury suffered way back on April 8, but Hamilton made his presence known anyway. In his first plate appearance against Astros starter Collin McHugh, Hamilton, who went 6-for-13 in his three-game Triple-A rehab assignment, hit a 430-foot fly out to Tal's Hill in straight-away center. He then walked in his second plate appearance and, after a strikeout in his third, hit a solo home run to right off reliever Josh Fields in his fourth trip. He is now hitting .433/.541/.800 on the season, albeit in just nine games.
Meanwhile, in Washington, former face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman returned from a fractured thumb, like Hamilton's suffered from a dive into a base, to make his successful debut as a major league outfielder. With Zimmerman's chronic shoulder issues steering him toward a move to first base next year in the wake of Adam LaRoche's free agency, and Bryce Harper still out with yet another thumb injury resulting from a head-first slide, the Nationals had Zimmerman, who has been out since April 10, make three appearances in left field in his rehab assignment. Zimmerman made just two putouts in left in those three appearances, his only professional experience in the outfield, but started at the position on Tuesday night anyway. He acquitted himself well both in the field, where he made two more putouts, and at the plate, where he doubled twice, once into each outfield corner, and drove in a run in the Nationals' 7-0 win over the Phillies behind eight dominant innings from namesake Jordan Zimmermann.
The Tampa Bay Rays lost their eighth straight game on Tuesday night and were shut out for the second time in three games as Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez recorded his major-league leading third shutout of the season. Alvarez, who walked no one and scattered seven singles and a Kevin Kiermaier triple, needed just 88 pitches to shutout the Rays. That's the fewest pitches thrown in a nine-inning shutout since fellow groundballer Aaron Cook, then with the Red Sox, shut out the Mariners on 81 pitches almost two full years ago on June 29, 2012.
Low-pitch count shutouts are nothing new for Alvarez. He needed just 90 pitches to shut out the Mariners on April 19, and threw just 99 pitches in his no-hitter in the final game of the regular season last year. Indians blogger Jason Lukehart has dubbed nine-inning shutouts completed with fewer than 100 pitches a "Maddux" after Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who leads all pitchers since 1988 (which is as far back as reliable and complete pitch-count data goes) with 13 such games.
After Tuesday night's Maddux, Alvarez is now tied for sixth all-time with four such outings and tied with Bartolo Colon and James Shields for the lead among active pitchers. That's all the more remarkable for the fact that the 24-year-old Alvarez has just five career shutouts, the first of which (which required 97 pitches) came in May 2012.
With Tuesday night's loss, the Rays, who have scored just one run in their last three games, two runs in their last four games, and six runs in their last six games, failed to win a game on a road trip of eight or more games for the first time in franchise history. David Price will look to snap their losing streak as their intra-state rivalry series moves to St. Petersburg on Wednesday night.
In 2005, Jason Lane was the 28-year-old starting rightfielder for the National League pennant-winning Astros. He hit 26 home runs that season, finished the year with a career batting line of .271/.327/.507 (113 OPS+) in 824 plate appearances and added three more home runs in that year's postseason, including one in the World Series. He hit 23 more home runs and drew another 65 walks in his next 539 major league plate appearances, but he couldn't get the hits to drop and his .192 batting average over that span effectively ended his career as a major league hitter. Sold to the Padres in late 2007, Lane failed to make the Yankees in spring training in 2008 and has since passed through six other organizations, finally returning to the Padres late last year as a 36-year-old left-handed pitcher.
Lane's conversion to the mound took hold in 2012, when he was with the independent Atlantic League's Sugar Land Skeeters. His solid showing in 17 starts and one relief appearance for the Skeeters earned him a look as a Triple-A reliever from the Diamondbacks. That didn't go well, but his return to the Skeeters' rotation in 2013 did (2.98 ERA, 4.08 strikeout to walk ratio in 17 starts), which peaked the Padres' interest. Lane returned to the Pacific Coast League as a swing-man in the Padres' organization late last July and made 11 starts for Triple-A El Paso this year before being called back to the major leagues on Tuesday at the age of 37 after six years adrift in the minors.
That's a great story in and of itself, but the capper isn't just that Lane got into Tuesday night's game. He threw 3 1/3 perfect innings of relief, retiring all ten batters he faced, three by strikeout, and threw 72 percent of his 36 pitches for strikes. Among those three strikeouts was the first batter he faced, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who struck out on four pitches, the last a 79-mile per hour changeup away that Walker swung right through. Lane is a finesse pitcher with an upper-80s fastball, a slider, curve, and that slow change, who struck out just 3.9 men per nine innings in his 11 Triple-A starts this season. That's not a recipe for sustained success in the major leagues, necessarily, but simply making it back to the Show after six years away and a drastic late-career position switch is success enough.
On the day that Matt Harrison had what could prove to be career-ending spinal fusion surgery to correct the spondylolisthesis in his lower back, his Texas teammate Jurickson Profar appeared in the Rangers' clubhouse and admitted that he doesn't expect to return this season after suffering a setback two weeks ago with the torn teres major muscle behind his right shoulder that has sidelined him since spring training. The Rangers expected the 21-year-old Profar, formerly the top prospect in all of baseball, and 28-year-old Harrison, who went 18-11 with a 3.29 ERA in 2012, to be their starting second baseman and a member of their starting rotation, respectively, this season, but now face the rest of 2014 without Profar, whose potential was the driving force behind the Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder trade, and may never see Harrison pitch in the major leagues again. Fielder, meanwhile, is also out for the year having also had spinal fusion surgery. However, Fielder's surgery is in his neck (the C5 and C6 discs), similar to the surgery performed on Peyton Manning and Cubs outfielder Ryan Kalish. Harrison's is near the base of his spine (L5-S1, the lumbosacral joint). We remain unaware of any major leaguer who had similar surgery and returned to the majors.