The great thing about baseball — other than pitchers’ duels, triples, closer music, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, garlic fries by the Bay, BBQ on Eutaw Street, sunsets at Dodger Stadium, sunsets at Coors Field, sunsets at PNC Park, sunsets at Busch Stadium, Mariano Rivera, Joe Mauer, “right field sucks,” the Monster, walk-off homers, no-hitters, King Felix, Yu Darvish, keeping score, endless debates, Opening Day, Game 162, knuckleballs, drummers in the bleachers, more drummers in the bleachers, KC’s fountains, Prince Fielder moon shots, Jose Bautista moon shots, and Mark Reynolds doing anything — is that just when you think you’ve seen everything that a century and a half of history could possibly offer, something unbelievable happens that knocks you off your feet.
A century and a half from now, scholars may well debate how Jean Segura stole second, stole first, then got thrown out at second all in the same inning. Maybe it was an homage to Lloyd Moseby or a tribute to Germany Schaefer, one of baseball’s original clown princes. Whatever he was thinking, we salute Jean Segura, for turning a minor moment in a probably meaningless Brewers-Cubs game into The Play That Broke The Internet.
It’s Week 3 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
2. TEXAS RANGERS
It feels weird to fret about the no. 2 team on our list, a team coming off a 4-1 week, with fewer runs allowed than any other AL club, and a broader track record of success that includes three consecutive trips to the playoffs. But the Rangers of April 22, 2013, don’t have the same talent that the 2010, 2011, and 2012 teams did. Hell, they don’t have the same talent that the Rangers of June 22, 2013, likely will.
The question is, can they stem the tide until reinforcements arrive? Opening Day starter Matt Harrison’s out until after the All-Star break after suffering a herniated disk injury that will require surgery. Harrison’s ouster, combined with the fractured ulna suffered by would-be fifth starter Martin Perez during spring training, leaves Texas with highly untested commodities at the back of its rotation.
A cakewalk early schedule has helped make the transition easier. Sixteen of the Rangers’ 26 scheduled games in April are against the Mariners, Cubs, Twins, and Astros, and they’re 8-3 in those games so far. Nick Tepesch has fared well in his first exposure to the big leagues, striking out 13 batters and walking just three over 14⅔ innings, while generating a shiny, small sample–sized 64.4 percent ground ball rate. Those efforts came against the Rays — who at the time couldn’t get a hit with a fistful of hundreds in Hamsterdam — and the Mariners, who may not hit all year. Tepesch got knocked out of his last start against Seattle with a right wrist contusion but is expected to make his next start against the punchless Twins, which really won’t tell us much either. Current fifth starter Justin Grimm lasted six innings against the M’s in his last start, and he, too, gets Minnesota next.
The schedule gets tougher in May, which creates something of a race against baseball’s nonexistent clock. When Harrison’s injury got downgraded from a 15-day DL stint to “you might not see the guy till August,” a few nervous Rangers fans wondered aloud if a trade might be in order. Problem is, you can count the number of major deals consummated before June 1 during the past decade on one hand. So if, say, a Jurickson Profar–for–Oscar Taveras trade sometime in the next four weeks is highly unlikely, a deal that packages Profar and others for, say, David Price is ostensibly impossible. Same goes for an Ian Kinsler–for–front-line starting pitcher trade, or really any kind of move that would bag a notable starting pitcher.
So the mantra for now is, hold on. Colby Lewis is making steady progress in his rehab after flexor tendon surgery, throwing on the side for now, then slated for an extended spring training start or two before month’s end, with the hope of going for a rehab assignment soon afterward and ideally returning at some point in May. There’s no timetable for Perez’s return, but he’s at least slated to start throwing live batting practice in the next few days. Swingman Kyle McClellan could pitch some meaningful innings once he’s healthy too.
The stealthier bit of good news comes with potential reinforcements for the bullpen. Joakim Soria, an elite closer three years ago and still a strikeout-an-inning guy in 2011, is already throwing live BP and is shooting for a late-May or early-June return from Tommy John surgery. With the very real possibility of Tepesch and Grimm taxing the bullpen with short starts, any influx of additional talent, be it from Soria’s return, a June or July pickup or two, even a potential August return from post-TJ Neftali Feliz, would be most welcome; that Texas pen wasn’t going to sustain a sub-2.00 ERA even in the rosiest of scenarios, and getting overworked could hasten some more severe regression. On top of all that, Profar and Mike Olt are standing by in the minors, ready to come up if Lance Berkman’s injury bug bites again, if Mitch Moreland keeps hitting like a Dead Ball–era hot dog vendor,1 or if the team simply wants to be better 1 through 25. And the rotation’s top three will remain formidable, with Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando ably supporting likely Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish.
Meanwhile, the Angels’ own, much more frightening rotation issues and the A’s getting swept over the weekend in St. Pete to cool off a blistering start gives Texas a little more precious time. If the Rangers can make it till Arlington’s sweltering summer in the thick of the race, the reinforced ball club could line up as the league’s most dangerous second-half team.
6. BOSTON RED SOX
Just as the Darvish-led rotation holds the key to the offensively diminished Rangers storming back to the postseason, so, too, do returns to form for Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz in Boston.
Talk all you want about bad chemistry, clubhouse mutinies, and all that other touchy-feely stuff torpedoing Boston’s season last year. The Red Sox lost 93 games last year for two main reasons: they got hurt, and their pitching stunk. But there were reasons to be optimistic about the Sox, and specifically the pitching staff, heading into this season. Start with the shopping that management did during the winter. Boston got flak for signing 35-year-old Ryan Dempster to a two-year, $26 million contract. That criticism ignored a free-agent market that rewarded run-of-the-mill talent with big bucks, thanks to a boom in local and national TV deals. It also ignored Dempster’s track record of above-average performance, with an average of nearly 32 starts a season and sub-4.00 FIPs five years in a row; Dempster’s early-season strikeout barrage won’t last, but he’s a perfectly capable midrotation starter on a contending team. The same goes for Felix Doubront, the 25-year-old lefty who struck out more than a batter an inning last year and projected as a sleeper breakout candidate this year.
But it’s been Lester and Buchholz, the two rotation holdovers from the last contending Red Sox team, who’ve pitched like aces early on. Lester was one of the AL’s 10 best starters from 2008 through 2010. Even last year, his 9-14 record and near-5.00 ERA owed a lot to uncharacteristically poor results on balls in play and with men on base, and a career-high percentage of fly balls leaving the yard — not a collapse of his core skills. Buchholz wasn’t particularly effective in 2012. But he still set career highs in starts and innings pitched, thus overcoming the biggest barrier to his success when his stuff clicked in earlier seasons: health. Heading into his age-28 season, you could dream on a year in which he combined the talent he never really lost with 30-plus starts, thus producing the big breakout everyone’s been waiting to see.
Both pitchers have come roaring out of the gate to start this season, highlighted by Buchholz’s 11-strikeout, near-no-hitter against the Rays on April 14. He came back strong on Saturday, plowing through eight innings against the Royals, striking out six, walking one, and yielding just two runs. Though the results weren’t quite as spectacular as in his near-no-no, Buchholz’s ability to mix pitches and hit his spots was nearly as impressive. The first Royals batter he faced, Alex Gordon, swung over a 3-2 changeup with ludicrous movement, one that started thigh-high and ended right at the knees, strike three whether or not KC’s leadoff batter bothered to swing. After running up another 3-2 count against Jeff Francoeur in the second, Buchholz fired a 93 mph fastball for strike three that couldn’t have been more perfectly placed on the outside corner if it were lobbed in from two feet away.
There’ve been other positive signs for the Sox, from miraculous pickup Daniel Nava cruising at .326/.441/.6092 to a new and improved version of Allen Webster showing flashes of greatness. Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, and Andrew Bailey have emerged as an airtight seventh-inning-and-on combination, and David Ortiz started mashing immediately upon his return from the DL, delivering a blunt but inspiring speech for good measure after one of the most trying and terrifying weeks in the city’s history.
Still, it’s the starting rotation, the one that tied an all-time AL record by allowing three or fewer runs in each of its first 16 starts, that’s propelled the Sox to their best record since the end of the 2011 season. It was that cruel season end that set in motion the chain of events that’s led to this drastically recast, John Farrell–led bunch3 sitting atop the AL East three weeks in. We shouldn’t go overboard on this Red Sox team just yet, not with Stephen Drew needing to show he can stay healthy, much less hit his weight; Will Middlebrooks often looking lost on off-speed and breaking pitches; and other offensive deficiencies that leave this team well behind the powerhouses of the championship years.
But if the early returns are to be trusted, the Red Sox can pitch. And in what might be the most wide-open AL East race in decades, that alone could go a long way.
12. COLORADO ROCKIES
Sunday’s bullpen meltdown tempered the enthusiasm a bit. But just a bit.
The Rockies are 13-5, coming off a streak in which they won each of their first eight home games. A year ago, these same Rockies lost 98 games and allowed 890 runs, a product of playing at altitude but also of a horrific pitching staff that triggered such desperation that the team actually tried a four-man rotation for a good chunk of the season. There can be plenty of good reasons to go with four starters, whether it’s having four great arms you want out there as often as possible, believing that a fresh bullpen’s a better option to carry you through the final three or four innings of every game, or simply lacking a viable fifth starter. The 2012 Rockies did in fact lack a viable fifth starter. Problem was, they didn’t have a viable second, third, or fourth starter either; the most productive member of the rotation, Jeff Francis, made 24 starts and posted a 5.58 ERA (albeit with a playable 4.27 FIP).
That alone is why it was so easy to underestimate the Rockies this year. When disaster strikes the way it did last year, it’s tough to sort through the rubble and make sense of it all. In this case, it was a run of bad injury luck that dwarfed any bad spell the franchise had seen in its two decades of existence. Jhoulys Chacin made 14 starts all year. Juan Nicasio made 11. Jorge de la Rosa made three. No one would confuse that trio for Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. But when the alternatives are 49-year-olds and washout former first-round picks, you’ve got no shot at a respectable season. Considering that the injuries spread to the lineup and cost Carlos Gonzalez 27 games, Michael Cuddyer 61, and Troy Tulowitzki 115, the Rockies did well just to avoid losing 100.
We know very little after three weeks, other than that the Rockies have played the awful Padres and Brewers nine times (winning eight) and frozen the Mets out of town with three straight wins in Iditarod-caliber weather. But that doesn’t mean this can’t be a competitive team for the rest of the year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, and Dexter Fowler are crushing the ball. The rotation, so beat up last year, has been much improved this year, with scrap-heap find Jon Garland joining Chacin and de la Rosa in putting up zeros. As long as everyone stays healthy, there’s .500 potential here. And once you have .500 potential, you never know what can happen with a few breaks.
Then you see Chacin (and his 1.46 ERA)4 hit the DL with a lower back strain, see the schedule flip over to include the Braves, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rays, Yankees, and Cardinals in a row, and wonder if we’ve already seen the high point of the Rockies’ season.
18. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
Of all the small sample size oddities the season had to offer two and a half weeks in, few were weirder than the Angels’ terrible start. There were reasons to worry about the pitching from the get-go, with a rotation meant to rely on the likes of Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas and a bullpen with many of the same holes that plagued the team last year. When Jered Weaver opened the season with the same velocity issues that hung around ominously after last year’s second half, the injury to his non-throwing arm is in some ways, a possible blessing.
No one would’ve figured they wouldn’t hit. Not with one of the best rookie position players of all time back for Year 2, Albert Pujols coming off a Pujols-like second half after an ugly start to his Angels career, and Josh Hamilton onboard after cranking 43 homers in his walk year, then inking a $125 million deal. All of that meant little at first. Hamilton hit .179/.261/.231 through his first 10 games, with no home runs and 14 strikeouts. Trout hit just .227/.277/.341 through his first 10, with no homers and 12 strikeouts. The worst of it was the team’s performance in high-leverage situations. Through Wednesday, the Angels were hitting .151 with runners in scoring position, easily the worst mark in baseball.
Then just like that, things started to turn. Trout’s 13 for his last 31, Hamilton is well, he’s still swinging at everything and making little contact, but at least he’s hit a couple of homers as he starts to find his power stroke. The biggest and most abrupt change came with the team’s scoring position numbers. In just two games, the Angels hiked their batting average with RISP by more than 70 points, en route to 10-0 and 8-1 blowouts of Detroit.
The iffy rotation will look for more good tidings from Garrett Richards, the only Angels starter to pitch into the seventh inning this season (he’s 2-for-2). The flawed bullpen will at least try to dig itself out from a sub–replacement level start. But if the Angels want to continue the trend they set in sweeping the Tigers over the weekend and hoist themselves back into the race, they’ll have to do what everyone expected them to do: bash other teams into submission.