Three Strikes: Bellinger's walk-off walk helps Dodgers seize MLB's best record
- Three of the top storylines from Saturday in baseball included a pair of rookies who delivered walk-off wins and some more hard luck for last year's AL Cy Young winner.
On Saturday, a pair of rookies came through in walk-off situations, while a Cy Young winner's hard-luck season continued.
Cody Bellinger had already dazzled to the point of becoming the youngest Dodgers position player ever to make an All-Star team, but against the Royals in Los Angeles, he did something new. With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning, he waited out Kansas City closer Kelvin Herrera, earning a six-pitch walk that forced in the game-winning run. It was the first walk-off RBI of the 21-year-old rookie's big league career, and what's more, the 5–4 win ran the Dodgers' record to 60–29—the best record in baseball given the Astros' 7–2 loss to the Blue Jays.
Bellinger had already helped the Dodgers draw things out. Via Joc Pederson's two-run homer and a Justin Turner sacrifice fly, they built a 3–0 lead against Royals starter Ian Kennedy in the first three innings, but Kansas City clawed its way back one run at a time, scoring off Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy in the fourth and fifth, and off reliever Brandon Morrow in the seventh. Sal Perez's solo homer off Pedro Baez gave them the lead in the top of the eighth, but Bellinger equalized in the bottom of the frame with his own solo homer off Joakim Soria, his 25th of the year; with that, he re-tied Joey Votto for the NL lead.
The Royals failed to capitalize after Eric Hosmer led off the top of the 10th by reaching second base when Corey Seager misplayed a routine grounder into an error. In the bottom of the inning, Scott Alexander couldn’t find the plate, walking Chase Utley, who stole second, and then Seager and Turner; just nine of his 21 pitches were strikes. Manager Ned Yost then turned to Herrera, but the walkathon continued to its conclusion.
The Dodgers' victory was their 25th in 29 games dating back to June 7. In that span, they've swung the NL West race dramatically, erasing a two-game deficit in part by sweeping both the Rockies (now 51–30) and the Diamondbacks (53–35), whom they now lead by 9 1/2 and 6 1/2 games, respectively. They were 35–25 before the streak began, 3 1/2 games behind the Nationals (37–20) for the NL's best record and 7 1/2 behind the Astros (42–17) for the best in the majors. Since then, Washington has gone 14–16, and Houston 17–12. The Royals own the AL’s best record in that span (19–10), so the Dodgers’ ascent to the top has been well-earned.
A First for Frazier
Clint Frazier's first home run was significant, as he joined the select group of players to hit a four-bagger in his major league debut. His second homer, hit on Sunday, was even bigger. The 22-year-old leftfielder's three-run walk-off homer gave the slumping Yankees a much-needed victory over the Brewers.
Acquired from the Indians in the Andrew Miller blockbuster last July 31, Frazier didn't figure into the team's immediate plans this year, as the 2013 first-round pick had just completed his first season in the high minors. He came into the season ranked as high as number 16 on the top prospect lists, and made waves more for capitulating to the Yankees' heavy-handed hair policy by cutting the ginger locks that garnered him the nickname "Red Thunder."
A barrage of injuries to outfielders Aaron Hicks and Dustin Fowler (the latter via a ruptured patellar tendon in his major league debut) plus a viral infection that KO'd Matt Holliday thinned the Yankees' depth to the point that they recalled Frazier on July 1. Facing the Astros, he collected a double and a homer in four trips to the plate, becoming the first Yankee since at least 1913 to homer and collect a second extra-base hit in his major league debut. The Yankees lost that game, however, one of 17 they dropped in a 23-game span dating back to June 13, a slide that turned their four-game lead in the AL East to a 4 1/2-game deficit behind the Red Sox.
They had lost three in a row coming into Saturday, with bullpen meltdowns against the Blue Jays on Wednesday and the Brewers on Friday. They quickly fell behind on Saturday when Luis Severino served up a three-run first-inning homer to Domingo Santana, and didn't get on the board until the seventh, with Frazier's RBI triple off flagging starter Brent Suter driving in their second run in a two-run rally. The 3–2 deficit carried into the ninth, when All-Star closer Corey Knebel issued walks to Didi Gregorius to lead off the inning and then Jacoby Ellsbury one out later. When Knebel left a 97 mph fastball over the plate, Frazier launched it 423 feet to leftfield for the game winner:
That was Knebel's third blown save since assuming the closer's job in mid-May. The three runs matched the total he had allowed since April 25, and the loss snapped the Brewers' five-game winning streak; at 49–41, they have a 4 1/2 game lead over the Cubs (43–44) in the NL Central race. The Yankees' win lifted them to 45–40, 3 1/2 game behind the Red Sox (50–38), speaking of whom…
Traded from the Tigers to the Red Sox in a December 2014 deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes the other direction, Rick Porcello struggled as so many pitchers do during their first seasons in Boston, going 9–15 while being pounded for a 4.92 ERA in 2015. It was a disappointing setback after his modest 2014 breakout, when he set a career low with a 3.43 ERA. He bettered that in 2016, pitching to a 3.15 mark in a career-high 223 innings, thanks in part to impeccable control—the league's second-lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.9)—and in part to a little help from his teammates. His defense held opponents to a .269 batting average on balls in play, his offense bashed out an MLB-high 6.8 runs per game, and he finished the year with a gaudy 22–4 record, impressing enough voters that he won a squeaker of a Cy Young race over former teammate Justin Verlander.
Though his strikeout and walk rates have been in order, Porcello hasn't gotten nearly as much help from his friends in 2017. Entering Saturday, he had been scorched for a .352 BABIP, the league's third-highest clip, and had received a modest 4.2 runs per game of support, the eighth-lowest mark. His 4–10 record and 5.01 ERA stuck out like a sore thumb even in a rotation that has struggled to fill in for the injured Eduardo Rodriguez and David Price, the latter of whom has since returned.
Porcello pitched his best game of the season on Saturday against the Rays, allowing just one run and six hits in eight innings while striking out seven and walking none. Unfortunately, the Red Sox offense—which had bashed out 64 runs over the previous 10 games—scraped together just two singles, a double and three walks against starter Alex Cobb and closer Alex Colome. Not until the ninth inning did they get a runner past first base; they couldn’t convert Mitch Moreland's one-out double, which sent Xander Bogaerts to third, into the tying run. Adding insult to injury, the game's only run, driven in via Jesus Sucre's second-inning sacrifice fly, was scored after a potential inning-ending double play call was overturned.
It was the ninth time in 19 starts that Porcello received two or fewer runs of support, but it's not all the fault of an offense that entered Saturday scoring 4.92 runs per game, good for fourth in the league. His hard contact rate has ballooned from 30.0% of all balls in play to 43.4%, and a pitcher who in 2013–14 allowed more than twice as many groundballs as fly balls is allowing more of the latter for the first time ever; his 0.92 groundball/flyball ratio is well below his career mark of 1.62. Via Brooks Baseball, his sinker has been hit for a .383 average and a .688 slugging percentage—a significant problem given that he's throwing it more often than any other pitch (32.2%). By comparison, last year, the sinker was hit for a .294 mark with a .469 slugging percentage. His other pitches have been hit harder this year than in 2016 as well.
The good news is that the Sox have been the AL's hottest team since June 25, going 9–4 while outscoring opponents 78–41 and surging into the AL East lead. If the reigning AL Cy Young winner can get right, they could put some separation between themselves and the rest of the division.