Hit and Run: Yankees heating up, Puig wins marathon, Yu Darvish back
Happy Monday, everyone. Here are three things to keep an eye on around the majors this week.
1. Boss move: Yankees on the rise
New York won its fifth game in a row on Sunday, completing a sweep of the A's in Oakland to give the team its longest winning streak in nearly a year. With 13 wins in their last 19 games to offset an 8–16 start, the Yankees are now just one game under .500 (21–22) as they head into a nine-game stretch against the two AL East teams they're trying to keep in their rearview mirror, the Blue Jays (22–24) and Rays (20–21). New York's streak began last Wednesday, the same day managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner called out four players for underperformance, and while it's tempting to make a connection between the two, the reality is that better starting pitching has been the real key to the Yankees' turnaround.
The rotation had been cuffed for a 5.10 ERA with 1.5 homers per nine in its first 38 outings of the season, with 10 straight non-quality starts; over that shorter stretch, the starters were blitzed for a 7.19 ERA and 2.6 homers per nine. Yet in their last five games and beginning with the series finale in Arizona, the Yankees received five straight quality starts, good for a 2.03 ERA and just one homer allowed in 31 innings. Nathan Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka each allowed just one run in six or seven innings in those first four games, and then Michael Pineda allowed three in six innings on Sunday in a 5–4 win over the A's.
Sabathia's start was his first since returning from a 15-game stint on the disabled list due to a groin strain and his third quality start in a row. His 3.41 ERA is second best among the team's starters behind Tanaka's 3.24, and his 3.16 FIP is the best. He's now allowed just three homers in his last 63 1/3 innings dating back to last September, another sign that the knee brace that he's taken to wearing has stabilized his mechanics. Nova, who began the year in the bullpen after a rough 2015 return from Tommy John surgery, entered the rotation in place of Sabathia and has allowed one run in each of his three starts while totaling 16 1/3 innings.
There are still issues for New York to address, particularly among the four players Steinbrenner mentioned: Pineda, fellow starter Luis Severino, third baseman Chase Headley and first baseman Mark Teixeira. Even after his sharp outing on Sunday Pineda has a 6.34 ERA and a 1.8 home-run-per-nine rate, and he has been unable to put away hitters—when he has two outs, he's getting seared for a .435/.478/.847 line in just 92 plate appearances, which is no way to live. Severino, the team's top pitching prospect, has been on the disabled list since May 14 due to a triceps strain but had been 0–6 with a 7.46 ERA before that. Headley has hit .333 over the past five games but is at just .213 for the season with two home runs, and Teixeira's 1-for-17 performance during that same stretch has dropped his average to .193.
Overall, however, the offense has improved from 3.36 runs per game in April to 4.48 in May, giving the starters more to work with. That, plus the return of star closer Aroldis Chapman from his domestic violence suspension on May 9, has left the Yankees in better shape than at any time since they left the gate. Still, they need their starting five to continue keeping them in games in order to give Chapman and fellow shut-down relievers Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances a chance to secure more wins.
2. San Diego marathon win a boost for Puig?
Yasiel Puig had much to atone for by the time he drove in two runs in the top of the 17th inning at Petco Park on Sunday. In the top of the fifth, the Dodgers' outfielder was caught stealing second base. In the bottom of the fifth, his unsuccessful dive in pursuit of a Wil Myers liner turned into a three-run triple that made the score 4–0 Padres. In the ninth, after leading off with a single and taking second on a wild pitch—putting the go-ahead run in scoring position—he failed to advance to third on an A.J. Ellis bunt despite third baseman Yangervis Solarte fielding the ball and leaving the bag uncovered. But when Puig came up with one out and the bases loaded in the 17th, he made up for all of that with a two-run single into centerfield, keying a four-run inning that lifted Los Angeles to a 9–5 win in the five-hour-and-47-minute marathon, the longest game this season in terms of innings. Here's the hit:
The victory halted the Dodgers' four-game losing streak, which included walkoff losses to San Diego last Friday via Melvin Upton Jr.'s two-run homer off Kenley Jansen and Saturday via Solarte's 11th-inning bases-loaded walk against Chin-Hui Tsao.
Puig's clutch hit offers a glimmer of hope that the mercurial 25-year-old is in the process of turning his season around. Though he has generally sparkled on defense, with diving catch after diving catch (his failure on Myers's liner notwithstanding), he's hitting just .244/.287/.384 with five homers and an 84 OPS+. After a hot start first two weeks of the season, he endured a month-long slide over which he hit .168/.176/.287 with one walk and three homers in 102 PA; since then, he's 8 for 26. He's struggled to square up pitches and popped up an astounding rate—a career-high 14 times this year, in just 164 PA—generally early in the count. L.A. has scored 4.45 runs per game this month despite his struggles, but they'll be a whole lot stronger if he can start pulling in the same direction as the rest of the lineup.
3. Comings and goings in Texas
It's been more than 19 months since Yu Darvish pitched in a major league game, thanks to elbow woes that culminated in March 2015 Tommy John surgery. But after five rehab starts totaling 20 innings, he's scheduled to return to the Rangers on Saturday against the Pirates. The 29-year-old righty owns a career 3.27 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine, made the AL All-Star team in each of his first three major league seasons and finished second in the 2013 AL Cy Young race on the strength of a 2.83 ERA and a league-high 277 strikeouts (11.9 per nine). Texas won the AL West without him last year thanks in part to its July acquisition Phillies ace Cole Hamels, and the team is currently 25–19, second in the AL West by 1 1/2 games. At last, the Rangers will have the two aces in the same rotation.
Texas's rotation has actually fared well without Darvish this season, owning a league-best 3.38 ERA despite a 4.30 FIP (10th) and 6.87 strikeouts per nine (14th). Hamels (2.83 ERA), Colby Lewis (2.75 ERA) and Martin Perez (3.48 ERA) have all gotten good results, but a peek under the hood shows all three with FIPs in the 4.44–4.54 range, with Hamels and Lewis each serving up 10 homers in fewer than 60 innings. It’s the bullpen that has been the real thorn in the Rangers' side, pitching to a league-worst 5.43 ERA with 1.7 homers per nine, and while Darvish could eventually supply some additional length to cut into their workload, the Texas rotation is already averaging a fairly robust 5.9 innings per start, fourth in the league.
One more thing to look for regarding the Rangers this week: Rougned Odor’s appeal of his eight-game suspension for punching Jose Bautista is scheduled to be heard on Tuesday. Even if a game or two is shaved off, Texas will still have to play several games without its starting second baseman and most frequent leadoff hitter.