Hit and Run: Puig lighting it up in return; Miller Time on hold in New York
1. Puigatory is over
Yasiel Puig is back—not only in the Dodgers' lineup, but also in the human highlight film business. On Wednesday, in his fourth game since returning from a six-week absence due to a recurrent left hamstring injury, Puig went 4-for-4 with a hustle double, a three-run homer, and a walk that materialized into the game-winning run in Los Angeles' 7–6 victory over the Diamondbacks.
Puig stroked a one-hopper into left-centerfield off Arizona starter Jeremy Hellickson in the first inning, crushed a 403-foot homer to center in the second to give the Dodgers a 4–1 lead, and stretched a single to shallow center into a double in the fourth as centerfielder A.J. Pollock watched Joc Pederson take third base. Needing a triple to complete the cycle when he came up in the seventh against Andrew Chafin, he settled for a leadoff single.
With the Diamondbacks having tied the game at 6–6 in the top of the ninth via Pollock's solo homer off Kenley Jansen, Puig worked a one-out walk against Daniel Hudson, took second on Adrian Gonzalez's walk and sped home on Howie Kendrick's single to rightfield. Here's the greatest hits compilation, which omits his winning run:
About the only things missing from Puig's performance were a spectacular defensive play and a bat flip (alas, he's trying to cut down on the latter in order to sate the killjoys of the world). The four-hit game was the sixth of the 24-year-old’s major league career and the first since last July 29 against the Braves, while the homer was his third of the season and his first since April 13 against the Mariners. He's gone 9-for-15 with 15 total bases in four games since returning, lifting his line to .362/.439/.603, albeit in just 15 games and 66 plate appearances.
Puig’s injury first cropped up on April 13; he played in just five of the team's next nine games before aggravating the hamstring to the point of being placed on the disabled list retroactive to April 25, then managed just two games in his first attempt at a rehab assignment before being shelved for nearly four weeks. While the hamstring may not quite be 100%, he has been running with typical abandon during his well-timed return, which has helping to shake the Dodgers out of a skid during which they'd lost 14 of their previous 23 games and scored just 3.3 runs per game. That stretch trimmed their division lead from a season-high 5 1/2 games to just half a game, with a brief detour into second place.
Since Puig first hit the DL, the team's outfield depth has been thinned by injuries to Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke, with infielder-turned-leftfielder Alex Guerrero inevitably cooling off (he's in a 5-for-28 slide with 12 strikeouts). Fortunately, Andre Ethier (.287/.369/.506 with eight homers) has turned back the clock, and Pederson (.249/.377/.557 with 17 homers) has done everything but hit singles. Check out the rookie's theft of a potential three-run homer off the bat of Yasmany Tomas during the third inning of Wednesday's game:
With four wins in their past five games, the Dodgers are 35–25, one game ahead of the Giants in the NL West race, and both their record and +58 run differential are the league's second-best behind the Cardinals (39–21, +63).
2. No Miller time in the Bronx
At 33–26, the Yankees own a 1 1/2-game lead in the AL East and the league's second-best record, but one of their keys to success thus far—their killer late-inning relief combo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances—took a significant hit on Wednesday, as the team placed Miller on the disabled list with a strained flexor mass. During Tuesday night's one-batter appearance against the Nationals, Miller could be seen shaking his left arm between pitches, in apparent discomfort.
Signed to a four-year, $36 million free agent deal in December, the towering 30-year-old lefty has been everything the Yankees could have hoped for thus far, pitching to a 1.03 ERA and 1.93 FIP with 14.7 strikeouts per nine in 26 1/3 innings. Though the Yankees entered the season with manager Joe Girardi suggesting that both Miller and Betances would share ninth-inning duties in the wake of David Robertson's departure, Miller quickly annexed the closer's job. He's gone 17-for-17 in save opportunities, being scored upon in just two out of 26 appearances and allowing only one out of seven inherited runners to score.
The 27-year-old Betances has been nearly as dominant, posting a 0.28 ERA and 1.07 FIP with 15.0 strikeouts per nine in 32 1/3 innings, with two saves. He does have three unearned runs on his ledger, however, and has allowed eight of 17 inherited runners to score. His lone earned run and three of those inherited runners scored during a messy ninth inning last Friday, as the Angels trimmed an 8–1 deficit to 8–7 (yours truly secured his first major league foul ball off the bat of Kirk Nieuwenhuis amid that ruckus). Between the two of them, Betances and Miller have struck out 97 of the 225 batters they've faced; among pitchers with at least 80 batters faced, they rank first and second in the majors at 44.3 and 41.8%, respectively.
The good news is that Miller has no ligament damage, just a muscle strain caused by fatigue. He'll be shut down for 10 to 14 days before throwing again, so a best-case scenario has him back in pinstripes by month's end. The bad news is that this further depletes a bullpen that beyond Miller and Betances has been shaky. While the unit as a whole ranks third in the league with a 3.11 ERA, the relievers besides that pair are at 4.21. Righty David Carpenter, who was expected to fill a setup role, was designated for assignment after being lit for a 4.82 ERA and 5.31 FIP in 18 2/3 innings, then traded to the Nationals for minor-league second baseman Tony Renda on Thursday. The remaining corps lists heavily to the left, with mop-and-bucketman Esmil Rogers (6.39 ERA) and Chris Martin (who just came off the DL) as the only righties. Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson, Chris Capuano and 2014 first-round pick Jacob Lindgren are all southpaws, and of that group, only Shreve has an ERA below 3.86.
With Ivan Nova likely to need just one more rehab start before returning to the rotation—he underwent Tommy John surgery in late April of last year—the Yankees could move Adam Warren back to the setup role that he occupied in 2013–14. He was a workhorse last year, throwing 78 2/3 innings in 69 appearances, with a 2.97 ERA, 2.89 FIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine. Through 11 starts and 64 1/3 innings this year, he has a 3.64 ERA but just a 4.66 FIP due to unflattering peripherals, though in a rotation where Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka are the only other pitchers preventing runs at an above-average clip, such a move to the bullpen would come with a cost as well.
Not to be overlooked is the workload of the 27-year-old Betances. He's on pace to make 80 appearances totaling 89 innings, that after 70 appearances totaling 90 innings last year. Girardi did not call upon him during Wednesday afternoon's 11-inning loss to the Nationals because he had worked three out of the previous four days and because the Yankees' schedule is packed with 13 straight days worth of games starting on Friday.