Aroldis Chapman made his debut for the Chicago Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers made five errors before they'd recorded six outs, Stephen Strasburg improved to 14-1, and the Detroit Tigers swept the Boston Red Sox. But our top five for Wednesday leads with the Houston Astros and their chance to chase down the Texas Rangers:
1. The Astros' ace is Lance McCullers Jr. The 22-year-old right-hander struck out 10 for the second game in a row and third time in five starts as the Astros beat the New York Yankees 4-1. McCullers has a 2.11 ERA over his past seven starts. He has a lethal combo of strikeouts and ground balls. There's still room for improvement -- he has 44 walks in 76 1/3 innings, though he has managed to pitch around them because he has allowed just three home runs -- but the stuff is exhilarating to watch, especially that curveball from the gods:
It wasn't quite that many, but McCullers threw 48 curveballs. The Yankees swung at 24 of them, missed 13 and put just five into play. Nine of McCullers' 10 strikeouts came via the curveball -- all swinging. It's a tough pitch to hit but is in the strike zone often enough that you can't just stand there and wait for him to throw his fastball, which, by the way, averaged 94 mph on Wednesday. McCullers is a key reason I liked the Astros heading into 2016 and a key reason the Astros are now just 2½ games behind the Rangers after that terrible April (when McCullers was on the DL). Check out the Houston rotation since June 1:
McCullers: 2.59 ERA
Collin McHugh: 3.44
Dallas Keuchel: 3.48
Doug Fister: 3.61
Mike Fiers: 4.10
That's a solid group coming together after a slow start. The Rangers, meanwhile, are scrambling in their rotation once you get past Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. They tried and gave up on Kyle Lohse. For some reason, they keep trying with Nick Martinez. They just acquired Lucas Harrell from the Atlanta Braves, the worst team in baseball, who signed him two months ago after the Tigers released him from their Double-A squad. The difference in those rotations is why I expect the Astros to catch the Rangers and why we'll see McCullers starting in the Division Series.
2. Gerrit Cole's gem. He cruised through a 94-pitch three-hitter for his first career complete game. It's weird to see a 2.78 ERA next to his name because it feels like he hasn't dominated for any stretch. Some of that is because he missed time on the DL. So if Cole can get on a roll ... if Andrew McCutchen, who homered and drove in four runs for his first RBIs since the All-Star break, can get on a roll ... if the bullpen remains on its roll ... well, the Pirates are just 2½ back in the wild-card race. Their next 12 games are against the Brewers, Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres. It's time for the Pirates to make their run, if they're going to make a run, especially if they playing defense like this:
Easy stuff. pic.twitter.com/u9wO6Wpgg8— Pirates (@Pirates) July 28, 2016
3. The streak is over. A fun game at Citi Field -- well, maybe not for the New York Mets fans in attendance -- ended with the St. Louis Cardinals scoring twice in the ninth to snap Jeurys Familia's saves streak at 52 (regular season). The Mets had taken the lead in the seventh after a monumental, nine-pitch showdown between Adam Wainwright and Yoenis Cespedes ended with Cespedes clocking a two-run homer (after fouling off three pitches), the first Wainwright had allowed since May. The showdown also said a lot about the faith Mike Matheny currently has in his bullpen, as he left Wainwright in for 117 pitches. Anyway, there was lots more coverage of this game from Adam Rubin and Mark Saxon.
4. Jay Bruce's trade value is increasing with his home run total. Bruce has homered in five straight games. His 25th home run gave the Reds a 2-1 victory over Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday. He's up to .271/.323/.572, and if you don't think front offices are influenced by a well-timed hot streak, think again. I haven't been that big on Bruce, but here's one reason I think he can help the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians or Giants, teams that might be interested in him:
Home: .253/.314/.538, 14 HR
Road: .290/.333/.608, 11 HR
That's a big deal because Bruce has always had sizable home/road splits, with some of his power a creation of the cozy dimensions in Cincinnati. Check his splits from 2012-2015:
Home: .236/.311/.466, 60 HR
Road: .244/.308/.440, 48 HR
5. The Cubs are 60-40. Why is that a big deal? The last time they won 60 games in their first 100 was 1977, a season in which they somehow finished 81-81. This team will not finish 81-81.