This is what you might call a tough run of games. The Houston Astros just finished a stretch of four games at Cleveland, three games in the Bronx against the Yankees, and four games at home against the Red Sox. Yes, this felt a little like a rerun of last fall's playoffs. The Astros went 2-2 against the Indians, 1-2 against the Yankees and 2-2 against the Red Sox, dropping the series finale 9-3 on Sunday night as Rick Porcello cruised through the first six innings while Charlie Morton had his worst start of the season.
What did we learn as Sunday's game wrapped up? Well, a few things: (1) Jose Altuve is human (he struck out three times for the first time all season); (2) The Astros' rotation is human (Morton dropped his first decision of the year as he allowed six runs and two homers in 5 1/3 innings; (3) Boston's lineup is deep even without Mookie Betts (he landed on the DL and missed the entire series); (4) The Astros are no longer in first place.
Hold on there ... did you say ... yes, we did ... that's right, the Seattle Mariners are now in sole possession of first in the AL West after they scored two runs in in the eighth inning to beat the Rays 2-1 behind eight strong innings from Felix Hernandez. They're 15 games over .500, just finished an 8-2 homestand and now hit the road for a two-game series in ... Houston. That's right, this stretch for the Astros isn't over just yet.
If the Mariners feel like a minor miracle, it's because they kind of have been. Just checking the two teams' run differential:
Can the Mariners actually crash this Astros/Red Sox/Yankees/Indians playoff party? As you would expect with that slim run differential, they're crushing it in close games. They're 18-9 in one-run games and 6-0 in extra-inning games. If you don't think they can keep this going all season, I point you to a couple of recent playoff teams:
• The 2016 Rangers went 95-67 despite a meager plus-8 run differential. They were 36-11 in one-run games (the best winning percentage ever in one-run games).
• The 2012 Orioles went 93-69 despite a meager plus-7 run differential. They were 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games.
The Mariners had a big week despite a couple hiccups from closer Everyday Edwin Diaz. He gave up four runs in losing on Tuesday and then blew a save chance on Friday (the Mariners won in 13 innings). So I figured manager Scott Servais would give his closer the rest of the weekend off as it seemed he clearly needed some rest. Instead, he got the save Saturday and then another one Sunday, retiring all six batters he faced over the two games, and is on pace to appear in 88 games.
But the Mariners find a way. On Sunday, Tampa starter Blake Snell, pitching the first time in his hometown, fanned 12 in six innings. Hernandez got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth with a strikeout and bouncer back to him. As he closed out the eighth with three grounders, he pumped his fist, and for one game at least he was the King Felix of old. The winning run scored on Dee Gordon's little blooper over a drawn-in infield. The bullpen has mostly been clutch, but worked heavily. Marco Gonzales has a 1.98 ERA over his past eight starts, and Wade LeBlanc is 5-1 with a 1.72 ERA since moving into the rotation.
Of course, you wouldn't compare the trio of Gonzalez, LeBlanc and a past-his-prime King Felix to Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers Jr., but this is where we point out the Astros are 4-12 in one-run games. Maybe that's just random early-season weirdness, but witness three games from this recent stretch:
• Last Sunday, the Astros lost 10-9 in 14 innings to the Indians after they blew an 8-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth.
• They lost 5-4 to the Red Sox on Saturday, unable to hold a 3-2 lead after Verlander left the game.
The Houston bullpen hasn't been clutch. Seattle's has. And because of that, in early June, it's the Mariners sitting in first place.
Charlie Culberson needs a nickname: The Atlanta Braves infielder has eight career home runs in the regular season ... and four of them have been walk-off home runs after he did this against Tanner Roark and the Nationals:
That's more walk-off home runs than Ted Williams or Manny Ramirez. It's as many as Lou Gehrig, who hit 493 total home runs in his career. It's as many as Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573. It's infinitely more than Norm Cash, who hit 377 home run and never hit a walk-off homer. It's more than Jose Bautista, who has also never hit one. It's insanely ridiculous and absurd and baseball is wonderful and awesome.
Oh, the win also kept the Braves in first place, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Nationals. They took three out of four in the series, holding the Nationals to nine runs and a .137 average. The offense carried the Braves through the first two months, but this series was a big statement for the pitching staff.
(For more on Culberson's heroics, Brad Doolittle has the report from Atlanta.)
Giants sweep Phillies and Jake Arrieta isn't happy about it: The Giants beat the Phillies 6-1 on Sunday with Arrieta's home run -- off Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez, son of Pudge (you read that right, and dear lord, we are all getting old) -- accounting for the only tally. The Giants won 2-0 on Saturday. They won 4-0 on Friday.
So, of course, the problem was ... defensive shifts. From Matt Breen's piece at Philly.com:
Arrieta described himself as "furious" as he ripped the team's data-driven defensive shifts, criticized Scott Kingery for not going to second base on an infield grounder, and said the Phillies need to hold themselves accountable after he allowed five runs in six innings.
"We need to have an accountability check," Arrieta said. "This is a key moment in our season. We had a pretty good April and a pretty good May. June isn't starting out so well."
I admire Arrieta's passion, competitiveness and desire for accountability, but the #Phillies aren't the first team to have a lousy West Coast trip. They've scored 5 runs in their last 5 games. That's not a product of questionable defensive shifts.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) June 4, 2018
The Phillies were up 1-0 in the sixth when the Giants scored five runs, a rally jump-started by a blooper and an infield single when shortstop Kingery was shaded over toward second base. Andrew McCutchen finished the rally with a three-run homer that presumably had nothing to do with any shift.
"We're the worst in the league with shifts. So we need to change that," Arrieta said. "Copy, the best. I don't know. That's not my job. Use your eyes, make an adjustment and be better. We need some accountability all the way around. Everybody, top to bottom."
The numbers do back up Arrieta's assessment: Shifts have cost the Phillies 11 runs, according to Sports Info Solutions (they're one of just two teams with a negative total).
Of course, the bigger issue is an offense that has hit .204 and averaged just 2.43 runs since May 20, as the Phillies have gone 5-9 to fall behind the Braves and Nationals.
Eddie Rosario fun fact of the night: Rosario homered three times in the Twins' 7-5 win over the Indians as they took the final three games of the four-game series. This was the big one:
It was Rosario's second career three-homer game, which makes him the first player in Twins/Senators franchise history with two three-homer games. Not Killebrew. Not Kirby Puckett or Kent Hrbek or Joe Cronin or Justin Morneau or Tony Oliva or Gary Gaetti or Lenny Faedo ... Eddie Rosario. Baseball, my friends.