By Cliff Corcoran
April 13, 2014

Ryan ZimmermanRyan Zimmerman left Saturday's game against Atlanta with a thumb injury (David Goldman/AP)

Ryan Zimmerman breaks thumb, out 4-6 weeks

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman broke his right thumb diving back into second base on a successful pickoff attempt by the Braves' Alex Wood in the fifth inning of Washington's 6-3 loss to Atlanta Saturday night. He is expected to miss four to six weeks, during which the Nationals will likely move sophomore Anthony Rendon to third base and restore Danny Espinosa to the second base job he lost last season.

Though just 11 games old, this had already been an injury-plagued season for Zimmerman, who missed two games last week due to continued discomfort in his right shoulder, which has been diagnosed as arthritic. Still, things had been looking up for Zimmerman, who returned to the Nationals' lineup on Wednesday with a new, sidearm motion that seemed to improve his throws to first base and had been swinging a hot bat. The double that put him on second base in the fifth inning raised Zimmerman's batting line to .364/.405/.636, where it will now remain until at least late May.

The good news for the Nationals is that Espinosa, who played his way off the team and nearly out of the organization a year ago, is off to a hot start, as well. Sent in to replace Zimmerman on Saturday, he singled in two at-bats to put his season line at .316/.381/.474. That's after just 21 plate appearances, but it's still an encouraging start, and one the Nationals have to hope is an indication of things to come given their lack of alternatives with Zimmerman on the shelf. With the team considering moving the sore-armed Zimmerman to first base full-time next year in the wake of Adam LaRoche's free agency, Zimmerman's thumb injury could provide Espinosa with an opportunity to reestablish himself as the team's second baseman over the long term.

As for the near-term, the Nationals have gotten off to a good start this season, but six of their seven wins have come against the lowly Mets and Marlins. Their loss to Atlanta on Saturday was their fourth in five games against the Braves this season and allowed Atlanta to catch them atop the National League East. With Bryce Harper off to a poor start, Zimmerman joining starting catcher Wilson Ramos (hamate surgery), center fielder Denard Span (concussion), and big offseason addition Doug Fister (lat strain) on the disabled list, Jayson Werth day-to-day with a groin strain, and seven games against the Cardinals and Dodgers coming starting on Thursday, the next week and a half could be a major test of their fortitude.

Cincinnati in the red

We're only 11 games into the 2014 regular season, but the Cincinnati Reds, a playoff team in three of the last four years, are already six games out of first place in their division. With their 1-0 loss to the Rays on Saturday afternoon, the Reds are now 3-8 (.273) and own the worst record in the majors. One need look no further than Saturday's final tally for the reason why. The Reds aren't scoring. Last year, Cincinnati was third in the National League in runs scored, behind only the Cardinals and Rockies, but this year they are tied with the Padres for the least runs scored, both total and on a per-game basis, in the majors. Thus far they have scored three or fewer runs in eight of their 11 games and one or fewer runs in four of them, including their last two at home against the Rays.

The quality of the Reds' competition has had a lot to do with that. They have faced the Cardinals six times in 11 games. They scored just one run in their first two games of the season, but the starting pitchers in those games were Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha. They have scored just one run in their last two games, but the starting pitchers in those games have been David Price and Alex Cobb. Then again, last weekend they played three against the Mets in New York, faced neither Bartolo Colon nor Zack Wheeler, and still failed to score more than three runs in any of those games.

Outside of their catchers, who are hitting a combined .316/.395/.526 on the season, a performance sure to decline given that most of it has come from veteran backup Brayan Peña, the Reds hitters are off to slow starts across the board. However, it's unclear just how much more can be expected from most of those bats. Certainly Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will perk up at some point, but Brandon Phillips' .295/.326/.409, Todd Frazier's .256/.341/.410, and even Ryan Ludwick's .250/.286/.344 represent improvements over their respective 2013 batting lines, and glove-first shortstop Zack Cozart and rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton have been so bad that one wonders how much longer first-year manager Bryan Price can continue to write their names into the lineup.

Cozart doubled and was hit by a pitch on Saturday, which doubled his hit total on the season and brought his on-base percentage up to .094, dead last in the majors among hitters with 25 or more plate appearances. Hamilton, who went 0-for-4 on Saturday, has 100 points on Cozart, which means he's getting on base at a .194 clip, all of that coming in the leadoff spot. For all of his speed, Hamilton has attempted just three stolen bases in seven opportunities and been thrown out once, has just one infield hit, and has yet to reach base on an error. As exciting as his three hits and mad-dash for home were on Thursday afternoon, he has just two hits on the rest of the season and hasn't reached base since, going 0-for-8 in the first two games against the Rays.

Hamilton, at the very least, could be dropped in the order. As it is, the Reds already have Cozart, the pitcher, and Hamilton hitting in a row. Moving Hamilton down to seventh would at least take one at-bat per game away from that trio of automatic outs. The complicating factor there is the fragile confidence of a rookie who surely heard plenty of doubts about his ability to hit major league pitching all winter. As for Cozart, he's already hitting eighth, and the only other shortstop on the roster is 34-year-old veteran Ramon Santiago, who has hit .213/.288/.277 over 501 plate appearances since the start of the 2012 season.

Cincinnati won't get relief from the schedule any time soon. The Pirates follow the Rays into Great American Ball Park and will be the Reds' opponents in seven of their next ten games starting Monday. Seven of their next ten after that will come against the Braves and Brewers, and then they travel to Boston for two games against the defending world champions before finally hitting a sustained lull in the second week of May with series against the Rockies, Padres, and Phillies. Given the strength of their division, particularly with the Brewers ascendant, if the Reds haven't started scoring by then, their season could be lost.

Brewers extend streak after 2-6-1 double play

Contributing to the Reds' problems is the fact that the first-place team in their division has the best record in baseball. The Brewers extended their winning streak to eight games and improved their record to 9-2 Saturday night with a 3-2 win over the Pirates. The turning point of the game came in the top of the eighth inning after Yovani Gallardo, making his third start of the season for Milwaukee, gave up his first runs of the season, and Pittsburgh starter Edinson Volquez overcame a leadoff home run by Carlos Gomez to match Gallardo for six innings, passing 2-2 tie to the bullpens.

Deposed Milwaukee closer Jim Henderson came on to pitch the top of the eighth and gave up one-out singles to Starling Marte and Travis Snider to put runners on the corners for defending National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen popped out to catcher Jonathan Lucroy on a 2-1 pitch, but with Lucroy's back turned, Snider tried to tag up and go to second base, or at the very least draw a throw that would allow the speedy Marte to score. Lucroy delivered the throw, and Marte took off for home, but Brewers shortstop Jean Segura cut off the throw in front of the bag and fired home to Henderson, who tagged out Marte for a wild, inning-ending 2-6-1 double play. The Brewers then broke the tie in the bottom of the inning on singles by Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Lucroy. Francisco Rodriguez worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth for the save.

Missing Reel

Does this man look safe to you? Does this runner look safe to you? MLB's replay umpires ruled that he was.

A replay challenge is only as good as the best available footage, but what if the best footage isn't available? That's a question the Red Sox would like answered after they lost a challenge they should have won in the eighth inning of their 7-4 loss to the Yankees on Saturday afternoon. With one out and a man on first in the bottom of the eighth inning of that game, the Yankees' Dean Anna doubled off Boston reliever Burke Badenhop, sliding in head-first to second base.

However, Red Sox shortstop Xavier Bogaerts kept the tag on Anna's hip as Anna stood up, a process during which Anna briefly came off the bag. Boston manager John Farrell asked the play to be reviewed based on broadcast replays that showed indisputable evidence that Anna should have been called out. However, according to Major League Baseball, the replay umpires in New York didn't have immediate access to the definitive angles and thus allowed the call on the field to stand.

MLB admitted the mistake, but hasn't provided an explanation as to why the replay crew didn't have access to an angle that was being shown repeatedly on local cable both before and during the challenge on the field. One would think that there would have been room on the 37 high-definition video monitors in MLB's brand-new, high-tech Replay Operations Center (each of which can show four feeds at a time) for the home and away broadcasts of the four games that were going on at the time, and that someone there would have noticed when the YES Network showed a six-second freeze frame of the definitive view above.

As it was, Baseball got lucky. They have egg on their face from this gaffe, but the blown challenge had no impact on the game. The Yankees were up 7-4 before Anna doubled, and the score didn't change after his hit. So, a flaw in the system was exposed and can now be fixed without harm being done. If this problem arises again, however, Baseball may not be so lucky, and will have no excuse for having failed to fix it.

Coffee Is For Closers

It took Jim Johnson five appearances to lose his job as the A's closer this season. Jose Veras needed just four to lose the Cubs job. Veras blew his second of as many save opportunities on Friday night with an outing in which he hit two batters with a pitch and walked a third following a leadoff single by Yadier Molina. On the season, Veras has faced 23 men, walking seven and hitting three others, adding in a wild pitch as further evidence that his always shaky control (4.8 walks per nine innings in his career) has left him entirely in the early going.

"He's proven when he throws strikes, he gets guys out," said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer Saturday morning. "We've seen it as a closer, we've seen it in the playoffs. Once he gets back in the strike zone, I think he'll be fine. I just think the ball's not in the strike zone enough."

The 33-year-old Veras, who was signed to a one-year, $4 million contract in December, is a veteran reliever that the rebuilding Cubs were likely hoping to trade at closer prices in July as the Astros did with him last year, landing outfield prospect Danry Vasquez from the Tigers after Veras had converted 19 of 22 saves. This early season hiccup, however, puts a serious wrench in that plan, even if the Cubs' intention is to restore Veras to the closer role once his control problems settle down.

The Cubs have now gone through four closers since the start of last season. Carlos Marmol, who is now with the Marlins, lost the job after just three appearances last year. His replacement, Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa, went down with elbow probelms in mid-April, eventually having Tommy John surgery last June.

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