Three Strikes: Arenado's big day helps Rockies keep pace atop crowded NL West
- The Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers are all looking well-positioned for October. Plus, the Cubs and Indians are starting to get back on track thanks to a pair of sluggers.
When October rolls around and the playoffs are set, will we see three National League West teams in the mix? That’s certainly how things look at the halfway point of the season, with the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers all among the Senior Circuit’s best teams, with Colorado leading the division and Arizona and Los Angeles just behind—and atop the wild card.
Sunday’s action in the NL West—including some historic heroics from Nolan Arenado in Denver and a spirited comeback by the D-Backs in Philadelphia—led a busy Father’s Day in baseball. Let’s revisit the day’s top stories.
How Will The NL West Be Won?
One game: That’s all that separates the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers for first place in the West. The three best teams in the National League all won in dramatic fashion on Sunday, though it was Colorado that pulled off the most stunning victory thanks to Arenado’s walk-off home run against the Giants—one that completed his bid for the cycle.
A quick search of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index suggests that Arenado is the first player to cap off a cycle with a walk-off homer since his teammate Carlos Gonzalez pulled the trick way back in 2010 against the Cubs, when he broke a 5–5 tie in the ninth with a solo shot. Arenado’s was a touch more dramatic: With the Rockies down one and two on in the ninth against Giants closer Mark Melancon, Arenado took a first-pitch fastball and sent it screaming to left for the win, the team’s fifth straight.
The 26-year-old third baseman is amid yet another MVP-caliber season, albeit slightly down from his monster 2016 season. Sunday’s four-hit effort raised his season line to .299/.352/.573, and his 15 home runs trail only the Diamondbacks’ Jake Lamb among all NL third basemen.
Colorado needed all of Arenado’s brilliance to stay ahead of Arizona, which rallied to beat the Phillies for its seventh straight win and 10th out of its last 11. Like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks took advantage of a closer misstep: Trailing 4–3 going into the top of the ninth against the Phillies, Nick Ahmed drew a leadoff walk against Hector Neris, who then gave up back-to-back singles to tie the game. Arizona held serve in the bottom of the frame, then scored the winning run on a homer off the bat of light-hitting reserve Reymond Fuentes, who took Jeanmar Gomez deep in the 10th.
Arizona, too, needed that win, as the streaking Dodgers captured their third straight win and 10th out of their last 11 as well, though Los Angeles had to survive a big and late rally by the Reds in an 8–7 victory. Thanks to homers from Logan Forsythe and Justin Turner, the Dodgers had an 8–1 lead after five and a half innings, only to watch relievers Grant Dayton, Josh Fields and Pedro Baez quickly give up six runs over the next three frames. As he has all season long, though, closer Kenley Jansen closed the door, striking out a pair in a perfect ninth for the save—and running his strikeout-to-walk ratio to an incredible 50/0 on the year.
Thanks to their respective hot streaks, the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers have left the rest of the NL West in the dust—not that they needed much help against the rebuilding Padres or miserable Giants—and have a ton of cushion outside of the division as well. Arizona and Los Angeles are tied for the two wild-card spots, but the next closest team—the Cubs—trails by a whopping nine games. So while all three of these squads will go cold at some point, with that much room built up, it seems more likely than not that the NL playoffs will see the entire trio get in.
Edwin Encarnacion And The Indians Are On One
Encarnacion’s first season with Cleveland hadn’t exactly gotten off to the hottest start. Through his first 41 games and 178 plate appearances, the burly designated hitter was batting a miserable .199/.333/.356 with just seven homers—hardly the numbers that the Indians were expecting when they signed him this off-season.
But it’s been vintage Encarnacion since then. Over his last 24 games, he has gone deep nine times, including twice on Sunday, and has hit .369/.459/.738 to help the once-struggling Indians vault ahead of the Twins and take over the AL Central, courtesy of a four-game weekend sweep.
Encarnacion was a one-man wrecking crew against Minnesota in the two teams’ four-game series, hitting three homers, driving in eight and reaching base 10 times in 19 plate appearances. On Sunday, he put Cleveland ahead early with a towering blast to leftfield off Kyle Gibson in the fourth inning, then expanded the Indians’ lead with a two-run shot off Gibson in the sixth—all the runs they would need in a 5–2 win.
Thanks to Encarnacion’s hot hitting, the Indians have found their groove. Saturday’s doubleheader sweep put Cleveland alone atop the division for the first time since May 10, and Sunday’s win gives the Indians a two-game advantage over Minnesota. Cleveland’s five-game win streak is also its longest since mid-April.
Not a whole lot has gone right for the Indians this season, thanks in large part to an up-and-down offense and a shaky back of the rotation. But if Encarnacion has put his early-season slump behind him, there’s no reason to think they can’t keep up their winning ways.
Rickey Who? Anthony Rizzo Makes Leading Off Look Easy
Cubs skipper Joe Maddon’s mad scientist approach to managing can look a little strange sometimes, and his most recent experiment—moving the slugging Rizzo from the middle of the lineup to the top—was his oddest yet. While Rizzo is a terrific hitter with a good eye and strong on-base skills, conventional wisdom would suggest that his power makes him a better play hitting third or fourth rather than leading off.
But Rizzo has made his manager look good. Since taking over the leadoff spot on June 13 against the Mets, the 27-year-old first baseman has been a force, collecting nine hits and two walks in 24 plate appearances, including three home runs. On Sunday, he once again set the stage for Chicago, with three hits and a homer to help the Cubs win, 7–1, and take two of three from Pittsburgh.
Despite having never hit leadoff before, Rizzo has taken to the position like Rickey Henderson in his prime. He hit back-to-back leadoff homers in his first two games—something Henderson himself did three times in his Hall of Fame career, in case you were wondering—then took Pirates reliever Wade LeBlanc deep in the sixth on Sunday for a two-run shot to push Chicago’s lead to 6–1. That home run was his 16th of the season, putting him on pace to reach the 30-homer mark for the fourth straight season.
Rizzo’s hot streak has come at an opportune time for the Cubs, too, who have Kris Bryant slumping and lost Ben Zobrist to the disabled list earlier this week. And while Chicago remains stuck in second place in the NL Central behind the Brewers, if Rizzo can keep this up, the Cubs won’t be there for long.