Here are Five Cuts from this weekend's games ...
1. Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, skipped starts and what the Nationals could have done differently. -- The White Sox's Chris Sale struck out 11 on Sunday afternoon while holding the Athletics to two runs in 6 2/3 innings and picking up his 14th win of the season. Sale has now struck out 18 against no walks while posting a 2.45 ERA in 14 2/3 innings in two starts since the White Sox skipped him in the rotation two turns ago due to what the team termed a dead-arm period. In his two starts prior to being skipped, Sale had walked six and posted a 6.75 ERA, allowing five runs both times out, and his average fastball had dipped below 91 miles per hour per the Pitch f/x data at TexasLeaguers.com, prompting Sale to throw more sliders and changeups than usual. Since being skipped, he has recovered the velocity on his fastball, which has one again become his primary pitch. Using the data from MLB.com's Gameday, just over half of Sale's pitches in Sunday's game were fastballs, and those pitches averaged 92.4 miles per hour, topping out at 95 with 15 of them coming in at 94 or above and just six clocking below 91 mph.
Sale has now had three periods this season during which he has gone nine or more days without making a start and continues to be among the best pitchers in the American League. This provides an interesting contrast with the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, who has had more than six days of rest just once this season, that coming around the All-Star break when he had eight days between starts, and is staring down an innings limit that, when reached, will see the Nationals shut him down for the season, pennant race and playoffs be damned.
What has been overlooked in all the garment-rending over Strasburg's shut-down date, however, is that the Nationals have slowed his accumulation of innings by pulling him early from games. Strasburg has pitched into the seventh inning just five times this season and never beyond it. As a result, he has thrown fewer innings in 23 starts than Sale has in 20, and stands a much better chance of pitching deep into September than most realize. Looking at the Nationals' schedule and assuming they stay in rotation with Strasburg starting every five games, his turn will come due nine more times this season. Strasburg has averaged 5.8 innings per start this season. Assuming he continues at that pace, adding nine more starts of 5.8 innings to his current total of 133 1/3 gives him 186 on the season.
One recent report put Strasburg's limit at 180 innings. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has said he is solely responsible for deciding when Strasburg will be shut down, denied that he had settled on that total, but did not offer an alternative figure. If it does prove to be 180 innings, the Nationals could wind up missing out on only one Strasburg start during the regular season, and given their current 4½ game lead in the National League East, they could well have clinched the division by the time they finally have to replace him in the rotation.
The rub is the postseason, and that's where Sale and his skipped starts come in. Based on the above assumptions, every start that Strasburg skipped during the regular season -- save that last -- could have opened up a chance for him to start in the postseason. Asked about the decision not to skip Strasburg, Rizzo told ESPN's Jayson Stark "every injury expert that we have spoken to [says] the effect of shutting a pitcher down and then ramping him back up and having him throw a full go is much more dangerous than having him pitch through the season and shutting him down." Rizzo and the Nationals have clearly done their homework, this is not a decision they have entered into lightly, but Sale's success this season, and especially his return to form after his last bit of extended rest, serve as a data point in favor of giving a young pitcher (and Sale is more than a year younger than Strasburg) the occasional break during the season, something which very well could have allowed Strasburg to pitch in the postseason this year.
2. CC Sabathia's tender elbow: a non-issue or a crack in the foundation? -- The Yankees placed CC Sabathia on the disabled list on Saturday due to discomfort in his pitching elbow despite objections from the pitcher, who told reporters he only let the team know about his sore elbow because his wife threatened to tell them if he didn't. MRIs revealed no structural damage and both the pitcher and team expect Sabathia back and in full health after the 15-day minimum, but this is worth watching as Sabathia, who is now 32, has thrown a ton of innings over the last five-plus seasons and has never before hit the disabled list with an arm injury.
Including the postseason, Sabathia has averaged nearly 256 innings a year over the last five seasons. His 1,340 2/3 regular season innings since the start of the 2007 season are by far the most in baseball, and the man in second place on that list, Roy Halladay, is so far behind (more than 40 innings) in part because he has developed his own arm issues this season. Sabathia's workloads in 2007 and 2008 were a common source of concern when he was a free agent after the latter season, but his big frame (which some saw as an additional source of concern, though I was not and am still not among them) and relatively clean injury history strongly argued he was exactly the sort of pitcher whose skill set included being able to shoulder a heavy workload. The corpulent comparisons that sprung to mind were David Wells and Rick Reuschel, but a closer look at those two career shows both had arm surgery in their early 30s. Wells missed the first half of his age-31 season after having bone chips removed from his elbow, and Reuschel's career was derailed for a few years in the early 1980s after he had rotator cuff surgery at age-32.
The good indicator for Sabathia is both returned to pitch multiple 200-inning seasons and make multiple All-Star teams, but to the Yankees, who are on the hook for $94 million over the next four years, hearing the most heavily worked pitcher in baseball complain of elbow pain can't be a good feeling, and may be why they insisted on the disabled list stay despite the clean MRI.
The Yankees picked up Derek Lowe, just released by the Indians, off the scrap heap in the wake of Sabathia's injury, but it will be rookie swing man David Phelps who will take Sabathia's turn in the rotation on Monday, with Lowe expected to serve as more of a long man in the bullpen, at least for now. Stay tuned.
3. Did Johan Santana trade his comeback for his no-hitter? -- When Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history on June 1, amid all of the celebration there was legitimate concern about Santana's pitch count in that game, not just among the fans and media, but on the part of Mets manager Terry Collins, who was very emotional about having pushed Santana to a career-high 134 pitches in that game despite the left-hander being in the middle of a nearly two-year-long recovery from an anterior capsule tear in his pitching shoulder. Santana's previous high this season had been 108 pitches, he had broken 120 just once in 2010, his last active season, and his previous career high was 125 set in 2008. Santana's pitch count was such a big issue, it was the topic on which I concluded my write-up of the no-hitter, and now, more than two months later, those concerns seem as legitimate as ever.
Santana had a nice run of three quality starts in late June, including one dominant eight-inning (and 107-pitch) outing against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on the final day of the month, but those remain his only quality outings in the nine starts he has made since the no-hitter. Santana sprained his right ankle when Reed Johnson stepped on it during a play at first base to start the fifth inning of Santana's first July start. Santana went on to allow four runs in that inning and 12 more in his next two starts before the Mets finally sent him to the disabled list. However, if the ankle was the problem, or if the 22-day DL stay gave his arm some needed rest, you wouldn't know it from his performance on Saturday, when he gave up eight runs in just 1 1/3 innings against the Braves.
Collins and Santana both attributed his struggles on Saturday to rust and command issues and they could be proven right. Santana had good velocity on his fastball and just one of the eight hits he allowed went for extra bases, many of the rest being weak but well-placed. Still, Santana has now posted a 7.98 ERA in his nine starts since his no-hitter, hasn't allowed fewer than six runs in a start since that dominant outing in L.A. on June 30, and has gone 0-4 with a staggering 17.36 ERA in his four starts since. Maybe it wasn't those 134 pitches on June 1 that steered Santana's inspiring comeback season into a ditch, but it's there nonetheless. His next start will come against the Nationals on Friday.
4. Macho Machado Man. -- No one expected the Orioles to call up 20-year-old shortstop prospect Manny Machado from Double-A on Thursday and install him at third base, and while Machado was one of the top prospects in all of baseball coming into the season (ranked 11th by Baseball America and sixth by Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein), fewer still expected him to make an immediate impact. Machado was off to a hot start in August, but was still hitting a modest .266/.352/.438 on the season in Double-A when he was recalled, but in his first four major league games he has gone 6-for-16 (.375) with five of those six hits going for extra bases -- including three home runs, the third coming in the Orioles' 5-3 win over the Royals on Sunday.
That performance hasn't really moved the needle for the Orioles, who wound up splitting a four-game set with the lowly Royals while averaging just 4.25 runs per game in the series, but it's certainly an encouraging indicator the organization didn't overreach in rushing their top hitting prospect in pursuit of a similarly unexpected chance for a postseason berth. Indeed, heading into Monday's action, the Orioles, who have won nine of their last 13, have the second Wild Card spot in the American League, a half--game ahead of the A's, but also just a half-game behind the Rays, who occupy the top Wild Card spot. You can't expect Machado to give the Orioles the sort of boost Evan Longoria is expected to give the Rays down the stretch, but the unexpected is kind of the Orioles' thing this year.
5. The week ahead -- This week's action features two compelling East-meets-West playoff previews as the AL West-leading Rangers come to the Bronx for a four-game set against the AL East-leading Yankees and the NL West-leading Giants play host to the NL East-leading Nationals. The latter series is especially intriguing, given the quality of the pitching matchups. Monday night will see Gio Gonzalez (14-6, 3.32 ERA) square off against NL Cy Young contender Ryan Vogelsong (10-5, 2.27 ERA). Tuesday features Vogelsong's Cy Young rival Jordan Zimmermann (9-6, 2.35 ERA) facing Madison Bumgarner (12-7, 3.08), and Wednesday caps it off with the marquee matchup of Stephen Strasburg (13-5, 2.90 ERA) and the seemingly rejuvenated Tim Lincecum (3-2, 2.72 ERA since the All-Star break). Adding further star power to the series, which also includes the major league's hottest hitter in Giants catcher Buster Posey (.449/.529/.796 with nine home runs since the All-Star break), San Francisco expects to activate third baseman Pablo Sandoval from the disabled list for the start of the series.
Also, the Dodgers and Pirates will play four games in Pittsburgh with the Pirates holding a 2½-game lead over L.A. for the second NL Wild Card spot, while the Cardinals, who have the exact same record as the Dodgers, host the Diamondbacks, who lurk on the fringes of contention, five games out in the West and 6½ behind the Pirates, for three games starting on Tuesday.