As it turns out, there was no Impending Zombie Apocalypse as projected by this blog two weeks ago. Whew! That means that there was two incredible weeks of baseball instead, highlighted by interleague play, a no-hitter, as discussed here, a perfect game, and much more.
In the past two weeks, the level of play from Nationals rookie center fielder Bryce Harper has been extraordinarily high. In just the last week alone, he is batting .476, with four extra base hits, and two home runs. On June 5th, he picked up his first walk-off hit when he singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning (a caveat; it was aided by multiple Mets errors to prolong the game several times), had three hits to lead the franchise to their first ever win at Fenway Park, including their days as the Montreal Expos, before batting 7/13 with two XBH in a three game sweep of the Blue Jays. The Washington Nationals continue to roll. It may be a bit much to argue that Harper (season totals of .303 AVG, 7 HR, 19 RBI, .933 OPS) should make the NL All-Star Team, considering that Ryan Braun and Melky Cabrera are having better seasons, and Andrew McCutcheon should be the NL’s leading vote-getter, but you can’t deny Harper’s impact on the team. They’re 15 game over the .500 mark, four and a half games ahead of the Mets for the lead in the ultra-competitive NL East, and are 7-2 against teams from the other ultra-competitive division, the AL East. Tonight, they begin a three game series against the Yankees, who are also riding a hot streak. Despite the disparity in franchise success over the past 15 years, the Yankees still have not won a series against the Expos/Nationals franchise since they took two of three games at Yankee Stadium on June 12-14, 2001. Which leads me to…
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Despite not having Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, or Brett Gardner, the Yankees have somehow found their way into first place in the AL East. That either speaks to the advantages of having a $200+ million dollar payroll, or to their organizational depth. Probably both. What has turned around a team that struggled to stay above .500 the first month and a half of the season? Predictably, the answer is starting pitching. Since Hiroki Kuroda gave up three runs in 5.1 innings against Kansas City on May 21st, he is 3-0, and has lowered his ERA from a season-high 4.56 down to 3.43. Phil Hughes (who gets the unhappy task of trying to shut down Harper and the Nats tonight), has given up just three runs in 16.1 innings in June, including a complete game win in Detroit where he out-gunned Justin Verlander. Since losing to Cincinnati a month ago, Ivan Nova is 4-0, and has given up just one run in 15 innings since the calendar flipped over onto June. Most importantly has been the dominance of Andy Pettitte. In six starts since he ended his retirement, Pettitte is 3-2, with a 2.81 ERA. Even more surprisingly is the rate at which he’s striking out batters. For his career through 2010, Pettitte’s K/9IP was a modest 6.63. This year? 8.64! While not quite Straburgian numbers, Pettitte would rank 24th in MLB if he had enough IP to qualify, a spot better than Felix Hernandez. Surprisingly, the weakest link in the Yankees rotation has been CC Sabathia, who is coming off of a start where he gave up 4 runs to Atlanta. Despite a higher-than-usual ERA, CC has still pitched into the 7th inning in all but three of his thirteen starts.
For a brief moment earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the NL Central leaders. If anyone were able to help carry the load that Andrew McCutcheon is carrying, they would be running away with the division. The Pirates rank dead-last in baseball in runs scored, which as I said a few weeks ago, is indeed the offensive objective in this game. Andrew McCutcheon is excelling, with a .326 AVG, .384 OBP, 11 HR and 37 RBI. However, the second leading hitter on the team is Neil Walker, with a .265 AVG. How are they contending? Again, starting pitching. James McDonald, surely a household name, is 5-2 with an ERA of 2.39, 7th best in the NL. A.J. Burnett, far removed from the lights of New York City, is 6-2. Their bullpen ERA is 4th best in baseball, at 2.77 and second only behind Cincinnati (which leads the NL Central by three games) in the National League. If the Pirates can make a trade for a competent hitter, which considering that the Pirates normally trade away their talent would be a sign of the Mayan Apocalypse, the Pirates could make a legitimate run at the playoffs. Currently, they are 2.5 games behind the Mets for the 5th spot, which would guarantee them a one-game shot at making the playoffs.
On Wednesday night, Matt Cain joined the exponentially increasing club of pitchers to throw a perfect game. Granted, it was against the Astros, but Cain was simply dazzling. He struck out 14, and have some considering whether or not it was the greatest pitching performance ever. That might be some embellishment (it’s Forbes Magazine, not Sports Illustrated), because it was against the Astros, in June. Let’s remember that Don Larsen and Roy Halladay both threw spectacular perfect and no-hit games in the playoffs, and Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum are just a few recent examples of dominating performances in the playoffs while still surrendering a few hits. So while Matt Cain did throw an incredibly impressive game, let’s save the superlatives for October.
That will do it for this week’s Turning Two article. Check back in on June 29th for the next edition. And follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo