Sunday afternoon, the Phillies came back from down 2-0 to beat the Reds. That’s not particularly newsworthy on its own — the Phillies aren’t a bad team, and in a game as unpredictable as baseball, comebacks like that are commonplace.
But dive a little deeper into what happened and you’ll start to appreciate exactly how unpredictable baseball was on Sunday afternoon.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a starting lineup of the most entertaining players in baseball, and Jonah Keri objected to my including only one pitcher, Yu Darvish. Of course, you can have only one pitcher in a starting lineup at a time. That’s how baseball works. But because I crave Jonah’s approval as if he were an aloof and uninterested father figure, I put together what would be the most entertaining pitching staff in baseball: Yu Darvish, plus …
Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Please, Hernandez’s elbow, don’t blow up. Just please don’t blow up. I’m a sucker for a good sinker. Back in the day, one of my favorite things about baseball was that, once a week, it gave me the opportunity to watch Brandon Webb dive-bomb hitters for seven or eight innings. After the tragic passing of Roy Halladay, King Felix might now be the archetypal no. 1 starter — an enormous dude with a strong fastball, great command, and a long and distinguished list of off-speed and breaking pitches. Not only does the archetypal no. 1 starter have to throw good innings, he has to throw lots of them, consistently. It’s hard to just go out there and carpet-bomb hitters start after start for 220 innings a year. At the moment, it might be down to Hernandez and the next guy.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
I’ve been writing about baseball for five seasons now. Whenever preseason prediction time comes around, I pick Justin Verlander to win the Cy Young every time. I have literally never picked another pitcher. I almost didn’t add him because his brilliance is really perfunctory at this point. On Sunday, Verlander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and I even didn’t turn the game on because it seems like he does that twice a month. “Oh, did Verlander just throw eight innings, strike out 10, walk one, and give up four hits and one earned run? Fascinating. Let me do the Aubrey Plaza eye roll.”
In case you were busy scaring little children by reciting Mariners hitting stats from the past decade, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
The Utah Jazz were eliminated from the NBA playoff picture after an 86-70 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. But don't worry, people of Salt Lake City, you still have a critically acclaimed production of the classic musical West Side Story playing through April 21 at the Capitol Theatre. The Salt Lake Tribune raves, "This touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival hits on most cylinders."
Who will be taking the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs? Why, it's the Los Angeles Lakers, who not only qualified, but in beating the Houston Rockets 99-95 in overtime, were able to snag the seventh seed in the West. "It's quite an achievement," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni after the game, "that a team no one believed in overcame all the odds to make the playoffs. If you had told me when I took over this team that was stuck in a mire that we would be seventh in the West " D'Antoni then drifted off and shook his head, before Lakers center Dwight Howard tiptoed up behind him and dumped a small cup of red Gatorade over his head.
When a manager employs a bullpen-by-committee — let's junk that term forever and call it what it is, a bullpen-by-matchup — he usually does so because he lacks the kind of archetypal, fire-breathing closer who takes decisions out of his hands. When you've got Mariano Rivera or Aroldis Chapman standing by, you can shut off your brain, play your rockin' closer intro, and that's that. If you're going to use a bullpen-by-matchup, you'll likely need to leverage a group of capable but flawed pitchers: lefties and righties with big platoon splits, maybe a combination of ground-ball and fly-ball pitchers, too. That takes prep work, nuance, and foresight.
Jim Leyland showed none of these things on Wednesday.
The Reds' plan to shift Aroldis Chapman to the rotation died before he could make his first big league start, keeping one of the most dominant closers baseball has seen in decades in his ninth-inning role, but also wrenching some major upside away from Cincinnati's starting five.
On paper, nearly everything about moving Chapman into a starting role made sense. Though he'd never made a major league start, Chapman came up in Cuba as a starting-pitching prospect. He made 13 starts in Triple-A Louisville in 2010, albeit with sometimes exciting but also inconsistent results. Though ostensibly a two-pitch pitcher as a reliever (and really closer to one pitch, having fired fastballs on 81.6 percent of his pitches last year), those pitches are electric, with his fastball averaging 98 mph last year and regularly breaking into triple digits. The bullpen would have been well-armed without him this year, with Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall signed for a combined $37.5 million over the next three years and Broxton's refined, ground-ball inducing arsenal covering the closer's spot. Anyone short of Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersley in their prime (and maybe present-day Craig Kimbrel, too) would've been a downgrade from Chapman and his unhittable offerings (44.2 percent strikeout rate last year 44.2!!!). But the nature of the modern closer role means that even the best pitchers can affect the game only so much, with most of their work coming with their team up one to three runs, bases empty, needing only three outs to finish the job.
Todd Frazier has reached base in 22 straight games. He's hitting .294/.354/.554, making him a top-25 hitter in his rookie season. In the past 30 days, only Buster Posey, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and teammate Ryan Ludwick have put up bigger numbers. In that same 30-day stretch, the Reds have gone 19-11, blazing to the best record in baseball and giving themselves a shot at their first World Series in 22 years.
So what does the best team in baseball do with the guy who's been its best hitter for the past two months? Bat him cleanup? Give him a long-term deal? Throw him a parade?
Not quite. When Joey Votto comes off the disabled list on Saturday, Dusty Baker plans to look Frazier square in the eye, and give him the good news. Congratulations, you've just been benched.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
LeBron James choked by scoring just 15 points in the second half, including a mere four in the fourth quarter, as Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat overcame his nervy effort to beat Boston 98-79 and force a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals. In frustration, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra benched James for the final three minutes of the game in favor of Juwan Howard, who is no longer ambulatory.