1. It's easy to forget now, but the San Francisco Giants had the best record in the majors at the All-Star break at 57-33, three games up on the Chicago Cubs. After another crushing loss on Wednesday -- Santiago Casilla, Josh Osich, Angel Pagan's legs and Joe Nathan combined to blow a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning in Colorado -- the Giants are 17-32 since the break, the worst record in the majors. Reading Bill James Online today, there was a reader question about how unprecedented the Giants' free fall has been. James mentioned these teams (record through 90 games and then after) that fell apart, although not necessarily from best to worst:
1977 Cubs: 55-35 to 26-46 (finished 81-81)
1995 Angels: 56-34 to 22-33 (lost one-game playoff to Mariners)
2001 Twins: 57-33 to 28-44 (finished 85-77)
2006 Tigers: 61-29 to 34-38 (still reached World Series)
On Wednesday, Casilla gave up a home run to Nolan Arenado and a one-out single. Bruce Bochy finally showed his lack of faith in his struggling closer and brought in Osich, who hit Charlie Blackmon. He then brought in Nathan, making his second appearance for the Giants since signing Aug. 16 -- after the Cubs had waived him following two appearances for them. It was a clear sign of desperation on Bochy's part, wishing he could simply turn the clock back to Nathan's heyday. It didn't work, as Pagan failed to catch up to Nick Hundley's blooper; yes, Pagan was playing deep at Coors Field, but his old legs showed on a ball that hung up a long time. Then Cristhian Adames lined the winning double off the right-field wall.
The closer issue is but one problem for the Giants. Buster Posey's homerless streak is now 42 games. Hunter Pence has three home runs and a .299 OBP since the break, Eduardo Nunez is hitting .228 with a .299 OBP and so on. The Giants still lead the National League wild-card race, but it's now down to a half-game over the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. Desperate times indeed.
That loss was an anvil dropped on the toes for the Giants. Lead for top wild-card spot drops to half-game over Cardinals, Mets.— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) September 8, 2016
Just remember when you watch the Giants struggle that this is only happening to have something to talk about on the World Series DVD.— Christopher Crawford (@CVCrawfordBP) July 26, 2016
2. Scrappy Yankees keep on scrapping. The New York Yankees completed a sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with a 2-0 victory, as Bryan Mitchell pitched five scoreless innings in his 2016 debut, Luis Severino pitched three scoreless innings and Didi Gregorius hit cleanup for the ninth time. The Yankees are winning with Didi Gregorius hitting cleanup! How can you not root for this team? (Wait, did I write that? Clear head. Remind self that these are still the Yankees, owners of 27 World Series titles, owners of MLB's largest payroll at the start of the season ... but I digress.)
In all seriousness, it's a fun story brewing here, considering the front office essentially decided to punt the season when they traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran. The Yankees are now 21-13 since Aug. 1, and the bullpen has a 3.66 ERA since then. It had a 3.40 ERA through July 31, so even minus Chapman and Miller, the pen has been effective. In those 34 games, Joe Girardi has used 156 relief appearances; that's more than 4.5 relievers per game on average, a number that will only go up in September, as the Yankees are carrying 17 pitchers and Girardi will use all of them. It might not be baseball the way Alexander Cartwright drew it up, but it's working for the Yankees.
One key has been Severino, who has found a home in the bullpen. It's small-sample-size stuff, but as a reliever, he has faced 51 batters and allowed just two hits (2-for-45, .044). The swing-and-miss rate on his fastball has increased from 16 percent to 32 percent. Props to Girardi for sticking with the hot hand for three innings in Wednesday's game. Mitchell was also impressive, averaging 94.6 mph on his fastball and hitting 96 with sinking action. He's going to help down the stretch, as the Yankees have climbed to just 2½ games out of the AL wild card, a push nobody saw coming.
3. A Nationals nightmare. You hate to speculate, but it didn't look good when Stephen Strasburg walked off the mound after his 42nd pitch:
We've seen Strasburg leave a lot of games early. We've never seen him cover his mouth with his glove all the way back to the dugout.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) September 8, 2016
"Perhaps only one cruel fact of baseball life could ruin a fan's love of the game: the fragile human arm." Lede to my Strasburg column 8/22— Thomas Boswell (@ThomasBoswellWP) September 8, 2016
If Strasburg's injury is serious, how does this affect the Washington Nationals? Colleague Mark Simon did the math: Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark have combined for a 2.90 ERA, while Gio Gonzalez, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole have combined for a 4.59 ERA as starters. It would obviously be a big drop-off from Strasburg to one of those other options, and the Los Angeles Dodgers -- the Nationals' likely first-round opponents -- would be the beneficiaries, especially considering they'll get their own ace back in Clayton Kershaw. Let's hope the news on Thursday is good.
4. Bring on the robot umps! OK, ripping the umpires for bad calls on balls and strikes is like complaining that everyone else is a bad driver, but bad calls are amplified even more this time of the season. The situation: The Cleveland Indians lead the Houston Astros 6-5, tying run on first base in the ninth, two out. Plate ump Marvin Hudson gives Cody Allen a gift call on 1-1 curveball to Jose Altuve, changing the entire sequence of the at-bat:
The 1-1 pitch to Altuve, 2 inches off the plate. Not the worst call ever, but huge difference between 2-1 and 1-2. pic.twitter.com/Bd6yMBAVpH— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) September 8, 2016
The difference between 2-1 and 1-2? In 2016, batters have hit .248/.384/.418 after the count reaches 2-1 and .179/.230/.281 after the count reaches 1-2. That's akin to the difference between Adeiny Hechavarria and Manny Machado. Altuve ended up striking out swinging on a 2-2 fastball at his shoulders, perhaps thinking he had to expand the strike zone. Anyway, one ball/strike call doesn't win or lose a game, and I'm not really all that fanatical about robot umps, but Hudson's strike hurt the Astros at the wrong time. For the Indians, Mike Napoli hit a two-run homer, his career-high 31st.
For Broxton, it was his first career home run robbery. For Rizzo, he became the fifth player to be robbed twice this season. Broxton's emergence as a potential solution in center field for the Milwaukee Brewers has been key in this rebuilding campaign, as has Jonathan Villar's breakout season. Villar homered twice for both of Milwaukee's runs in the 2-1 victory, giving him 15 and making him the first player with 15 home runs and 50 steals since Carl Crawford in 2009. (The great Rickey Henderson did it six times.) Among the rebuilding clubs, the Brewers might be the first to climb back to a competitive level, given the quality of their young talent that is already in the majors -- or close -- and the lack of bad money (Matt Garza has one season left).