By Cliff Corcoran
April 20, 2014

Evan LongoriaEvan Longoria and the Rays ended their scoring slump in decisive fashion against the Yankees. (Cliff Welch/Icon SMI)

Henderson Alvarez hurls stingiest start of the season

Marlins righty Henderson Alvarez, best known for his walk-off no-hitter on the final day of the 2013 season, threw a two-hit shutout against the Mariners in Miami Saturday night. Not impressed? How about this: The two hits Alvarez allowed were the only baserunners he allowed in the entire game. He erased the first of those, a Dustin Ackley single leading off the sixth innning, with a double play. In doing so, he faced just one more than the minimum 27 batters on the game, and needed just 90 pitches to do it. The second hit, a double by Mike Zunino, didn't come until there was one out in the ninth inning, meaning Alvarez faced the minimum through the game's first 25 batters.

In support of Alvarez's dominant outing, the Marlins pushed across seven runs against the Mariners, the big shot being centerfielder Marcel Ozuna's three-run homer off Seattle starter Roenis Elias, which landed in the pool in the Clevelander night club behind the left-centerfield fence.

However, Alvarez was the story of the night. His shutout was just the sixth of the young season and the first complete game of the year thrown with fewer than 100 pitches. It was also the first complete game to see the opposition put fewer then three men on base. Alvarez only struck out four batters, same as his no-hitter, so his game score was merely the fifth best of the season. But 17 of his outs came via ground balls, three more than in his no-hitter. Plus, his two baserunners were technically one fewer than in his no-no, which included a walk, a hit batter, and an error.

Ray of light

Two days ago, I wrote that in the wake of the injuries to their rotation, the Rays needed their offense to step up. At that point, Tampa Bay had scored just 16 runs in its last ten games. Since then, the Rays have scored 27 runs in two games against the first-place Yankees. On Friday night, they were down 4-3 after six innings, then scored eight runs in the final two innings against the New York bullpen to win, 11-5. On Saturday night, they picked up right where they left off, scoring one in the second, three in the third, two in the fourth, four in the fifth, four in the sixth, and two in the eighth (though those last two came against Yankees infielder Dean Anna, who was lobbing in pitches as slow as 55 miles per hour) to beat New York 16-1, scoring as many runs in that single game as they had scored in the aforementioned ten.

The Rays' onslaught included five home runs, two of them by the formerly slumping Wil Myers, who has gone 6-for-9 in the last two games with three extra-base hits on Saturday night, adding a double to those two homers. Two more of those home runs came off the bat of Ryan Hanigan, who hit a total of two home runs in each of the last two seasons and has had just two other two-homer games in his career, both coming in 2011. James Loney, another of the Rays' struggling bats, has gone 4-for-8 with a pair of doubles in the past two games. Of course, Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria have done their part, as well. Zobrist went 5-for-10 with a double over both meetings with the Yankees. Longoria went 5-for-6 with this moon-shot home run on Saturday night that hit a Tropicana Field catwalk and still cleared the left-field wall.

[mlbvideo id="32216063" width="600" height="360" /]

That home run, incidentally, made the 28-year-old Longoria the Rays' all-time career leader in home runs with 164. All of that overshadowed a strong start by Chris Archer (6 2/3 innings, three hits, no walks, one run) and the major league debut of lefty relief prospect and New York native C.J. Riefenhauser (who retired all four batters he faced).

Meanwhile, amid the barrage, Yankees starter Ivan Nova left the game in the fourth inning after reporting elbow pain. The Yankees don't know the extent of his injury yet, but have ordered tests on his right elbow. Those tests will be performed in Tampa, where the two teams play the finale of their current four-game series on Sunday.

Home plate collision rule tested in Rockies' win

In one of the first notable examples of the new home plate collision rule altering a play on the field, the Rockies' Nolan Arenado was called safe upon review on this play in the bottom of the third inning of Colorado's 3-1 win over the Phillies on Saturday night:

[mlbvideo id="32217919" width="600" height="360" /]

There's a lot going on in that play, so let's break it down. Arenado was on first with no outs when DJ LeMahieu singled into left-center. Phillies left fielder Domonic Brown, assuming Arenado would stop at third, threw to second to keep LeMahieu at first base, at which point Rockies third base coach Stu Cole sent Arenado home. Chase Utley took the throw at second and immediately fired home to Carlos Ruiz, who, in home plate umpire and crew chief Tim Welke's initial opinion, tagged Arenado out on the left thigh before his outstretched right foot touched home plate.

The replay showed that Welke got the call right in terms of the timing of the tag, but it also showed Ruiz's left leg draped in front of the plate, impeding the progress of Arenado's right foot toward the plate. The question then became, did Ruiz have the ball before Arenado's foot made contact with his leg. If not, it was an illegal block per Rule 7.13, which reads in part:

Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.  If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.

Catchers are allowed to get between the runner and the plate if doing so is required to field the ball, but that was not the case for Ruiz in this play as the catch was made well within fair territory.

Based on the replay, it appears to me that Ruiz did have the ball in time and that Arenado should have been out, though it was extremely close. Here's a screenshot of the moment that Ruiz squeezed the ball in his glove, at which point Arenado does not appear to have made contact with Ruiz and is still roughly a foot from home plate.

The counter argument to that would seem to be that Ruiz did not give Arenado a lane to the plate in which to slide, as seen here:

Ruiz Arenado play 2

Had Ruiz made the same play without draping his leg in front of home plate, which he easily could have done, Arenado would have been out both by Welke's call and upon review. Given that, it seems the replay umpire got the call right.

However, Wednesday afternoon in Cincinnati, Roger Bernadina was called out at home on a play in which Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez had his entire body in front of home plate, and that call was upheld upon review. The difference there seems to have been that Sanchez clearly had the ball ahead of Bernadina's arrival at the plate, as seen here:

Bernadina Sanchez play

The same was true of a play at the plate on the Phillies' Tony Gwynn Jr. last Sunday in which Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis had his left leg draped in front of the plate, like Ruiz above, but also receive the ball earlier, with the timing similar to the Bernandina/Sanchez play above.

That would seem to confirm, per the specific language of the rule above, that the timing of the catch is the determining factor in the legality of a catcher's move to block the plate. Thus, per that first screenshot above, it would appear Ruiz had the ball in time for his leg to have been legally in front of the plate and Arenado to have been out upon review on Saturday.

Indeed, Rule 7.13 doesn't ban blocking the plate. It bans blocking the plate without the ball and bans attempts by the runner to dislodge the ball once it is in the catcher's possession, which is exactly how the obstruction and interference rules work at every other base. A first, second, or third baseman in possession of the ball can stand between the runner and the base to apply the tag, but the runner cannot barrel into that fielder in an attempt to dislodge that ball, and the fielder cannot block the runner's path without the ball. That's as it should be. There's nothing wrong with Rule 7.13, but there will clearly be a learning curve on the part of both players and umpires as they adjust to it.

Braun's two homers power Brewers to late-inning victory

Ryan Braun increased his season home run total to five on Saturday with a pair of round-trippers, almost single-handedly turning a 7-5 Brewers deficit in the seventh inning into an 8-7 Brewers win. Braun's first home run came off lefty Tony Watson with one out in the top of the seventh to make the score 7-6. His second came after a one-out Jean Segura single in the top off the ninth with Pirates closer Jason Grilli two outs away from nailing down a Pittsburgh win. Francisco Rodriguez got the save in the bottom of the ninth, tying Hall of Famer Goose Gossage for 20th place all-time with his 310th save.

Braun is now just one off the major league lead in home runs (there's a six-way tie for first with six home runs), but he has only homered in two games this season. He hit three in a 10-4 Brewers win in Philadelphia back on April 8 and two in Pittsburgh on Saturday night. Braun isn't lacking for power or consistency, however. Since going 1-for-16 to start the season, then sitting out one game due to a nerve injury in his right thumb, he has hit .367/.385/.776 in 52 plate appearances over those last dozen games and is now hitting .292 with a .600 slugging percentage on the season. The Brewers, meanwhile, still have the best record in baseball, improving to 13-5 with the win, a half-game better than the Braves and A's, and now lead the the third-place Pirates by five games in the National League Central.

American Hustle

You want irony? Bryce Harper was pulled by Nationals manager Matt Williams after the sixth inning of Washington's 4-3 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday afternoon because of his "lack of hustle." So what's on the cover of the Nationals' official program for the current homestand? This (courtesy of @bencelestino on twitter):

Harper program

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