Three Strikes: Fielder guiding surging Rangers, Price makes case for AL Cy Young and Bryce Harper all but wraps up NL MVP
1. Welcome back, Prince
Prince Fielder is 31 years old now. No longer a feared masher, he’s a crumbling behemoth of a ballplayer who, with no defensive value to offer, has already, in what should be the prime of his career, been banished to DH duty. He is not the type of ballplayer who ages gracefully—the end tends to come swiftly, and brutally, for XXL sluggers like this. Wednesday night in Texas, however, was a reminder that Cecil’s son can still intimidate and obliterate baseballs like few others. During this Astros-Rangers rumble this week in Arlington, perhaps the biggest series in baseball so far this September—it’s certainly been the most compelling—Fielder has turned back the clock, and at just the right time for the surging Rangers, who have suddenly, improbably, become the best story in baseball.
The Rangers pummeled the Astros 14–3 on Wednesday to extend their lead in the AL West to 1 1/2 games, with Fielder continuing to lead the stampede. On Monday, he rocked a two-run homer in the 8th inning to break the tie in a 5–3 win. On Tuesday, his leadoff ninth-inning single set the table for Mitch Moreland’s sacrifice fly and a 6–5 win. On Wednesday, he mashed his 20th and 21st home runs of the season, and both his homers landed in the rightfield home run porch at Globe Life Park.
Over the three games, he is 8 for 13 with two home runs, eight runs scored and eight RBIs. Fielder is having a splendid season overall, a .314/.383/.477 line despite struggling some since the All-Star break. Fielder’s powers were fading his last two years in Detroit, and when Rangers GM Jon Daniels struck the deal to acquire him in exchange for longtime franchise cornerstone Ian Kinsler, it was a move that quickly looked disastrous when Fielder played 42 games last year before undergoing season-ending neck surgery (his deal runs through 2020). Fielder, though, has quietly reinvented himself this season. He has, according to Texas coaches, become less pull-conscious, he is no longer “crashing into the ball.” He will never hit 50, or probably even 40 home runs again in a season, but Fielder could still be a dangerous hitter for a lot longer than we thought.
At the moment he is the cleanup hitter for a team that may well be playing in October. Wednesday’s romp was the Rangers’ first five-home run game at home since 2011, the year the team last reached the World Series, and with grizzled veterans like Fielder, Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre mashing in front of packed houses, it suddenly feels like ’11 again in Arlington.
2. David Price is suddenly positioned to win the AL Cy Young
It was a nightmare scenario for the Astros: Not only did they lose for the third straight night to Texas, but they did so with their ace on the mound. On Wednesday night, Dallas Keuchel was blasted by the Rangers, allowing nine runs and 11 hits over 4 2/3 innings—it was his worst career start, and couldn’t have come at a worse possible time.
The loss padded Texas’s lead in the division and also opened the door for a pitcher other than Keuchel, the front-runner for much of the summer, to take the AL Cy Young. As Keuchel was sliced up by the Rangers and saw his ERA balloon from 2.22 to 2.56, the AL East-leading Blue Jays’ David Price was brilliant again, as he allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings in a 9–1 rout of the Braves in Atlanta. The start lowered Price’s ERA to a league-best 2.42; he lags behind Keuchel in Wins Above Replacement, but while WAR is a good guide, it’s far from a perfectly precise indicator of a player’s value. Price has more strikeouts than Keuchel (212 to 197), and, if you’re looking for narratives, the Toronto ace, who is 7–1 with a 2.28 ERA since joining the Jays, has ignited the late summer surge of a team that’s about to end baseball’s longest current postseason drought.
3. The NL MVP race is over
Don’t waste your time making the National League Most Valuable Player case for Yoenis Cespedes, or Paul Goldschmidt, or Joey Votto or Anthony Rizzo—all have had splendid seasons, but Bryce Harper is having a season for the ages. On Wednesday, a day after he hit his 38th and 39th home runs, he may have sealed the deal on his first MVP when he did this:
It was a two-run shot to rightfield off Phillies reliever Justin De Fratus, Harper’s 40th home run of the year, and it makes him the seventh player in baseball history with 40 home runs in his age 22 or younger season. The others: Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Mathews (twice), Johnny Bench, Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez. Harper also raised his major league-leading average to .338, and his on-base percentage (.467) and OPS (1.137—the best since 2004 and Barry Bonds’s single-season record 1.422) also lead the majors. Harper notched his 10th career multi-home run game on Tuesday and joined Mathews, Ott and Bob Horner as the only players to have that many multi-homer games at age 22 or younger. It’s been a nightmare stretch for the Nationals, but it’s been a good week for the guy who is the clear NL MVP—and is having an all-time great season.