Three Strikes: Indians lose a key starter; Tigers’ offense sputters again
There were no clinch celebrations or front-office executives in disguise on Saturday—at least none that we know about—but action on and off the field kept us headed inexorably toward October.
Saturday was a rough day for hard-throwing righthanders on playoff hopefuls. Hours after the Mets announced that they had likely lost ace Jacob deGrom—on Jacob deGrom Hair Hat Day, no less—for the rest of the season, the Indians were dealt a similar blow when, two pitches into the game against the Tigers, Carlos Carrasco took a line drive off his pitching hand. The team announced he sustained a non-displaced fracture of the bone below his right pinky finger, and manager Terry Francona confirmed that his season is over. Cleveland went on to win the game, but on everyone’s mind was a loss the Indians can ill afford.
“It hurts,” Francona acknowledged. “It’ll make this more challenging, what we’re trying to do.”
Although they lead the AL Central by eight games with 14 to play, the Indians sit in a precarious position going into the playoffs. With righthander Danny Salazar’s regular season over and his postseason in jeopardy due to a right flexor strain, Cleveland is suddenly without a pair of pitchers who together produced 6.7 WAR this year. Ace righty Corey Kluber is a Cy Young contender and leads the league with a 153 ERA+, but some combination of Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger will have to step up if the Tribe intends to play deep into October.
Detroit continued its free fall, losing a 1–0 heartbreaker in 10 innings to the Indians and wasting another excellent Justin Verlander start. The 33-year-old is among the unluckiest pitchers in baseball: He’s made a league-leading 24 quality starts and has only 14 wins, the second worst ratio among pitchers with 20 quality starts (Jose Quintana narrowly edges him with 12 and 21). Verlander went seven innings and didn’t allow a hit until the sixth, but the Tigers could muster only five total bases even after Carrasco’s injury gave them looks at eight new pitchers, two of them September call-ups.
It was a creative new way to lose for a team that has lately been testing a lot of methods.
Detroit had a 61% chance of making the postseason as late as Sept. 5, when it ended the day tied for the second wild card, but it’s scored the second fewest runs in baseball—and its starters have allowed the fourth most—since then. “When they’ve got to use their bullpen from the beginning of the game and we're not able to score a single run, that's bad,” DH Victor Martinez said afterward. “What can I say?”
All is not lost. Detroit has six games remaining against the Twins and the Braves, who are currently fighting each other for the first pick in next year’s draft (although it’s worth noting that if they’d swept rather than split last week’s series against Minnesota, the Tigers wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with). Verlander has been a revelation again this year after a 2014 in which he gave up the most earned runs in the American League (104); since he returned from his first-ever DL stint last June, he’s been the 12th-best pitcher in baseball by average game score. (His 59.0 mark basically means you can pencil him in for six innings of six-hit, two-walk, five-strikeout, one-run ball.) But manager Brad Ausmus did not sound hopeful Saturday night.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a season of squandered opportunities,” he said. “I think let’s wait till the season’s over and we’ll decide that. Today, I felt like we should have—we could have been a little bit better. Not from lack of effort. Just from lack of results.”
Rocky Mountain High
The Rockies have not yet been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, but their fans have been looking toward 2017 since about May. Tonight’s sparkling performance by Jon Gray should give them more reason to be excited about what is to come. He completely dominated the Padres, striking out 16 without allowing a walk over nine four-hit, shutout innings. At one point he struck out six straight, including four in the second inning, when one reached on a dropped third strike.
According to Brooks Baseball, batters swung at his offerings 52 times—and missed 25. His game score of 102 is tied for the third-best in baseball history in a nine-inning game, putting him behind Kerry Wood’s 1998 20-strikeout game and Max Scherzer’s second no-hitter last season, and alongside Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 no-hitter. For some perspective: There have been 23 perfect games. There have been seven game scores better than 100. Pedro Martinez never did it. Warren Spahn never did it. Walter Johnson never did it.
“It’s night and day difference,” said Gray, who was the third pick in the 2013 draft but has had an uneven start to his major league career. “I feel like I belong out here this year. I told myself, ‘I’m here for a reason, so when not show it off?’ That has been my thought process this year: ‘Go show it off.’”