The Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics went at it Sunday in a playoff-like atmosphere in Oakland, with first place in the American League West on the line. The Astros won 9-4 and Justin Verlander registered his 200th career victory, but the A's won the weekend and made the loud statement that they can go toe-to-toe with the defending champs.
Oakland won the first two games of the series to create the tie heading into Sunday's game, including a dramatic, 10-inning, come-from-behind victory Friday. The A's beat up Dallas Keuchel on Saturday as Trevor Cahill dominated, giving up one hit over seven innings. And though Verlander got the win on Sunday, he left a little bloodied as the A's clocked three home runs off him in 5⅓ in shaky innings.
Indeed, Verlander's continued issues with the long ball are just one thing the Astros need to fix if they're going to hold off the A's down the stretch. In his past seven starts, Verlander has given up 14 home runs over 38 innings -- that's after giving up 12 over his first 131⅔ innings.
All three home runs Sunday came off his four-seam fastball -- Matt Chapman on a 3-2 pitch in the first, and Khris Davis with first-pitch home runs in the first and third innings. The fastball has been a big problem of late for Verlander:
Through July 10: 2.05 ERA, .195/.246/.330 versus fastball
Past seven starts: 4.74 ERA, .317/.345/.732 versus fastball
The big out of the game came after Verlander exited in the sixth with a 6-4 lead and runners at first and third and one out. Brad Peacock entered, fanned Stephen Piscotty, walked Marcus Semien to load the bases and finally escaped the jam after an eight-pitch battle with Mark Canha, getting him swinging on a slider after Canha had fouled off three fastballs.
Still, 200 wins is a huge milestone and given that Verlander ranks fourth in the AL in ERA, first in innings and first in strikeouts, he's still at the top of his game (other than this little slump). Since reaching the majors in 2005, nobody has more wins:
Congrats to @JustinVerlander on win #200! Honored to be your teammate!— Josh Reddick (@RealJoshReddick) August 19, 2018
Verlander joins Sabathia and Bartolo Colon as the only active pitchers with 200 wins and 2,500 strikeouts. In fact, of the other 21 right-handed pitchers with those totals, all but four are in the Hall of Fame: Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Colon. So a tip of the hat to one of the very best we've ever seen.
As for the A's, it was still a good weekend as they show no signs of slowing down. The late-game bullpen is lethal -- they haven't lost a game all season in which they led after seven innings -- and deeper with the acquisitions of Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney. They don't really need many innings from the starters, but the starters have been pretty good as well. On June 15, the A's were 34-36 and 11½ games behind the Astros, but look at what the rotation has done since:
Before June 15: 4.41 ERA, .730 OPS, 17.5% SO rate, 6.4% BB rate, 3.5% HR rate
After June 15: 3.74 ERA, .697 OPS, 17.6% SO rate, 6.6% BB rate, 2.5% HR rate
Then there's Davis, the most underappreciated slugger in the game:
He's headed to his third straight 40-homer season. Only 44 players have had at least three 40-homer seasons and only 24 of those did it three seasons in a row.
Maybe the Astros can turn it back on. Carlos Correa has been back for eight games, they got George Springer back this weekend and Jose Altuve is expected to return this week from his knee discomfort. None of those three, however, have hit as well as last season.
Unfortunately, the teams have only three games left against each other, Aug. 27-29 in Houston. It looks as if there will be a lot of scoreboard watching in September in Houston and Oakland.
Rockies sweep Braves: The Rockies finished off a huge four-game weekend in Atlanta with a 4-2 victory behind German Marquez's seven strong innings. The Rockies won 5-3 on Thursday with three runs in the ninth, pounded out 16 hits in an 11-5 win Friday, then scored three runs in the ninth to tie it on Saturday (after there were two outs and nobody on) and won in 10 innings on DJ LeMahieu's go-ahead home run. It's one of those series that has the potential to change the directions of both teams.
The Rockies now head home to face the Padres, ending a streak of 46 games in a row against opponents that entered the game over .500 -- the longest such stretch in MLB history (via Elias Sports Bureau research). Impressively, they went 30-16 in those games. Included in this stretch were sweeps over the Giants, Mariners, A's and Braves, plus a 5-2 mark against the Dodgers. Some notes from this 46-game stretch:
-- The staff ERA of 3.65 ranked seventh best in the majors.
-- Their 19 saves ranked second.
-- They were only 15th in the majors at 4.59 runs per game, so it was mostly about really good pitching (and some clutch ninth-inning rallies).
-- Kyle Freeland went 4-1 in 10 starts with a 2.08 ERA. He has been the most underrated starter in the majors this season, ranking fourth in the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR. With a 2.96 ERA and 6.0 WAR, he's challenging Ubaldo Jimenez's 2010 season for best ever by a Rockies starter.
-- Marquez was 6-1 with a 2.87 ERA.
-- Talk about all those late victories: Scott Oberg had six wins in relief.
This is probably Arenado's best chance at an MVP award after finishing eighth, fifth and fourth since 2015. By the advanced metrics, he has had his best year at the plate, primarily due to a career-high walk rate that has boosted his OBP to a career-best .390. There isn't a clear MVP favorite. Arenado is hitting .330/.431/.581 with runners in scoring position. And maybe you want to give him extra credit for having to carry more of the offensive load this year since the Rockies are averaging 4.69 runs per game, down from 4.92 last season.
Red Sox have a one-game losing streak: The Red Sox had two off days this week, so a 3-2 week is a bad one by their standards. Their winning percentage following a 2-0 loss to the Rays on Sunday remains at .704, a 114-win pace, giving them a chance at the record of 116 wins. That's going to be tough given that 19 of their remaining 37 games are against the Yankees, Indians, Astros and Braves, plus knowing Alex Cora is going to be more concerned with resting players down the stretch than pushing them to a potential record.
Anyway, Sunday's game was a good pitching duel between ... well, each team used five pitchers. Jalen Beeks was the long man out of the Tampa Bay bullpen and he looked really good, holding the Red Sox to one hit over four innings. He's the lefty the Rays picked up from the Red Sox for Nathan Eovaldi at the trade deadline, and while he's not regarded as a top prospect due to underwhelming velocity and a listed height of 5-foot-11, he had big numbers at Triple-A with 117 strikeouts and 25 walks in 87⅓ innings.
Against the Red Sox, he did a nice job of moving the ball around all four quadrants of the strike zone, including a little cutter that he uses to get in on the hands of right-handed batters. The biggest at-bat of the game came against J.D. Martinez in the third with runners at first and second and no outs. Beeks threw eight pitches to Martinez, the first six all below the knees and below the strike zone. Martinez fouled off a cutter, breaking his bat, and finally grounded into a double play on a changeup on the outside corner:
This is slick. pic.twitter.com/qdShMOcTvk— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) August 19, 2018
Beeks gave up eight runs in his first outing with Tampa, but has given up only five runs in 19 innings over his next four. There's probably not any star potential here, but he looks like a nice pickup for the Rays.
Kershaw reaches milestone: Clayton Kershaw cruised to his 150th career win as the Dodgers beat the Mariners 12-1. After the Dodgers scored five in the top of the first, Kershaw made it easy on himself: He threw 71 of his 88 pitches for strikes, a strike rate of 80.7 percent -- the highest of his career. So even Clayton Kershaw is capable of doing things he has never done before.
The game had a scary moment in the ninth inning when Mariners infielder Andrew Romine was pitching and hit Manny Machado on the left wrist. X-rays were negative, but this is exactly the potential scenario Sam Miller alluded to in his story earlier this week: One of these days one of these position-player pitchers is going to hit somebody. If that somebody gets hurt -- especially a star of Machado's magnitude -- the other team is going to be angry. And that could lead to a bean-ball war. That's the big downside of using non-pitchers to pitch.
Defensive play of the day: The Pirates beat the Cubs 2-1 on Adam Frazier's walk-off home run in the 11th, but a huge play came in the top of the inning when Pirates catcher Elias Diaz picked off Addison Russell with one out and two on, wiping out a Cubs rally:
Not too far...— Pirates (@Pirates) August 19, 2018
Elias is watching 👀 pic.twitter.com/KpY8ewA7HH
They say the triple is the most exciting play in baseball. How about the catcher pickoff?