Three Strikes: Pat Venditte makes debut, A-Rod moves up record books
The biggest story in baseball Friday night was a horrific one. In the top of the second inning of the Red Sox’ 4–2 win over the A’s in Boston, a woman seated on the third base side of home plate was struck in the head when a broken piece of Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie’s bat flew into the stands. The woman, who was in attendance with her husband and son, was seen bleeding profusely and was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center with what officials termed “serious” injuries. (The injuries were initially described by Boston police spokesman David Estrada as “life-threatening.”) No further update on her condition was available at the time this article was published. Everyone in baseball is obviously hoping for the best possible outcome, but one thing that seems certain is that this incident is going to lead to discussions about baseball extending netting down the first and third base lines to protect those fans sitting closest to the action and, thus, most in harm’s way. That discussion seems best held in check for the moment, however, as we await word on her condition.
Friday night’s best baseball story took place in the same ballpark just five innings later, when Pat Venditte made his major league debut for the A’s, becoming the first full-time switch pitcher in the major leagues since the 1880s and, at most, the second ever in major league history. Venditte, who has been throwing with both arms since he was three years old, appeared close to forcing his way to the majors in 2012 with the Yankees, the team that drafted him out of Creighton University in the 20th round in 2008. However, he suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder that April, which pushed back his progress and led to him becoming a six-year minor league free agent before reaching the majors.
Naturally, the A’s, always enamored with misfit toys, signed him to a minor league deal over the winter and made him an invitee to major league camp for the first time this spring. Venditte made 11 appearances for the A’s in spring training, then posted a 1.36 ERA in 17 appearances for Triple A Nashville before finally getting called up Monday morning.
Due to turn 30 at the end of June and having had labrum surgery on his stronger shoulder, Venditte throws low-velocity sidearm slop from both sides, but because he always has the platoon advantage, he has been very effective throughout his career, posting a 2.37 ERA in 259 minor league appearances while striking out 10 men per nine innings with a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He carried that success into his major league debut, working around a Hanley Ramirez single to pitch two scoreless innings.
Venditte began his major league career pitching left-handed to Boston lefty Brock Holt, getting Holt to ground out to first base on a 3-2 slider. He then switched arms and gave up a groundball single through the shortstop hole to Ramirez but, sticking with his right arm, got Mike Napoli to hit into a 4-6-3 double play on his very next pitch, an 86-mph fastball.
Venditte pitched his entire second inning right-handed. After winning a nine-pitch battle by getting leadoff man Xander Bogaerts to ground out to shortstop, then getting Mookie Betts to fly out to right, he faced a major league switch-hitter for the first time. Per what’s known, for obvious reasons, as the “Pat Venditte Rule,” Venditte declared his intention to pitch right-handed before taking the mound to face rookie switch-hitter Blake Swihart. That forced Swihart to hit left-handed, historically his weaker side. Throwing mostly mid-70s junk, Venditte struck Swihart out on five pitches to put an exclamation mark on his debut.
Much as Venditte may seem like a novelty, he has real value to the A’s, because of his track record of success and because his ability to always have the platoon advantage and to use two arms allows him to work longer outings. Prior to Friday’s game, bullpen coach Scott Emerson told the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea that he believes Venditte is viable for 35 pitches from each side in a single appearance. At Triple A this year, Venditte averaged 1.8 innings per appearance, not counting his solid spot start at the end of April (4 IP, 1 R, 0 BB, 3 K). He may not be a high-leverage reliever any time soon, but he has significant value in games such as Friday night’s in which the A’s were trailing by just two runs and wanted to keep things close without burning through their better relievers. Expect him to stick around in the majors for a while, and not just this season.
Don’t Mess With Texas
With their 4–0 victory over the Royals Friday night, the Texas Rangers have now won 13 of their last 16 games. Mix in the Angels’ loss to the Yankees Friday night (more on which below), and Texas has moved into second place in the American League West, a game ahead of the Angels and a half-game behind the Rays for the second wild-card spot in the junior circuit. One reason to take the Rangers' recent surge seriously was Friday night’s winning pitcher, 23-year-old righty Chi Chi Gonzalez, who was appearing in just his second major league game.
All Gonzalez did Friday night was shut the Royals out on three hits, all singles, and a pair of walks. In doing so he became just the second pitcher to throw a shutout in one of his first two major league games since Clay Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second major league start in September 2007 and just the eighth since the turn of the millennium to do so, the most recent being former Twin Andrew Albers in August 2013. Gonzalez also became the first pitcher since Albers to throw 14 2/3 or more innings in his first two career games, both starts, without allowing a run, having previously held the Red Sox scoreless on two hits for 5 2/3 innings in his major league debut last Saturday.
As the invocation of Albers’s name proves, the impressive start to Gonzalez’s career isn’t particularly meaningful. However, Gonzalez was a well-regarded prospect coming into this season, ranking 29th in baseball on Baseball Prospectus’s list and in the top 100 on Baseball America and MLB.com’s lists as well. Drafted 23rd overall out of Oral Roberts University in 2013, Gonzalez isn’t a future ace. He’s not particularly big, doesn’t have above-average strikeout rates and throws in the mid ‘90s with no discernable out pitch. However, he has a deep repertoire of pitches that move (cutter, sinker, slider, change, curve), he has good mechanics and he projects as a solid mid-rotation horse. Pitching in place of the likes of Ross Detwiler (6.95 ERA in seven starts) and Phil Klein (8.59 ERA in two starts), he represents a significant upgrade in the rotation. That could be a boon for a Rangers team that saw its offense improve dramatically in May with the rejuvenation of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the emergence of Rule 5 pick Delino DeShields, a big showing from catcher Robinson Chirinos and a power surge from first baseman Mitch Moreland, who homered again Friday night.
A-Bombing the Record Books
The Angels nearly came back from an 8–1 deficit against the Yankees in the top of the ninth inning Friday night, scoring four runs and loading the bases with the tying and go-ahead runs before making the first out of the inning. That rally ultimately fell short, however, as New York relief ace Dellin Betances struck out pinch-hitter Carlos Perez with the tying and winning run in scoring position to secure the Yankees' 8–7 win. As a result, the story of the night in New York was not the comeback but Alex Rodriguez’s 4-for-5 performance at the plate, which included an RBI single and a run scored following a seventh-inning double.
With that, Rodriguez moved past Barry Bonds on the career RBI list with 1,997. That puts him in second place all-time according to Major League Baseball’s official records, but fourth all-time according to the more complete records kept by Baseball-Reference.com (as previously explained by Jay Jaffe). It also pushed Rodriguez past Stan Musial on the all-time runs scored list with 1,950, putting him alone in ninth place all-time (eighth per MLB). Meanwhile, the four hits put him just nine away from 3,000 at 2,991. Rodriguez has a long way to go before he moves any further up even Baseball-Reference’s all-time RBI and runs-scored lists (he’s 49 runs and 78 RBIs away from fellow scoundrel Cap Anson, who is directly above him on both lists) but he’ll make news with every hit at this point as he seeks to become just the third player ever with 600 home runs and 3,000 hits, joining an elite group populated only by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays (lower the standard to 500 home runs and only Rafael Palmeiro and Eddie Murray join).
For the curious, Rodriguez is 345 runs away from Rickey Henderson’s all-time record and 300 RBIs away from Aaron’s all-time mark in that category. Both records seem safe, as Rodriguez would have to average 130 runs and 113 RBIs per 162 games over the remainder of his contract to reach those numbers. Impressive as his comeback this season has been, he is on pace for just 91 runs and 82 RBIs for the season.