Five Cuts: Padres offense receives awaited boost from leadoff spot
The Padres may finally have found their leadoff hitter in Aaron Cunningham
The Twins and their strong bullpen have all but wrapped up the AL Central
The Phillies are leaving nothing to chance by tinkering with their top-heavy rotation
1. It took until their 144th game of the season, but the Padres may finally have found their leadoff hitter. In defeating the Rockies 7-6 on Tuesday night to maintain its 1 1/2-game lead over the Giants in the National League West and push Colorado to 3 1/2 games back, San Diego relied on one of its finest offensive performances of the season with 16 hits, including three by left fielder Aaron Cunningham.
Leadoff has been a problem area for the Padres all season. Their No. 1 hitters -- most commonly Jerry Hairston Jr., Tony Gwynn Jr., David Eckstein, Will Venable and Everth Cabrera -- have collectively batted a major-league-worst .222 and had an NL-worst .298 on-base percentage.
Tuesday was Cunningham's first crack at leading off this season, and he proved worthy of at least another game there, given his .327 average and .366 OBP in 114 plate appearances this year. Add in the two games he started batting second, and he's reached base in half (8-of-16) of his plate appearances in the top two spots. It's a terribly small sample size, but given that the Padres haven't scored any fewer than six runs in any of those three starts, and Cunningham has earned an extended look atop the Padres' middling lineup.
2. Back in July, Giants Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller offered an admittedly baseless accusation that was nevertheless interesting: The Denver Post recounted that on San Francisco's KNBR radio Miller said there's a "feeling" that "sometimes late in games when the Rockies need help, that some non-humidor baseballs slip into the mix," Miller said, before acknowledging, "Nobody has been able to prove it."
While Coors Field remains friendly to offense, much of the video-game scoring has been depressed since baseballs used in Denver were stored in a humidor that kept them at Major League Baseball specifications. The Rockies went from averaging 128 home runs at home each year to 97 homers per season since. The humidor works.
Though Miller has presented a fascinating conspiracy theory given the Rockies' late-innings heroics (they have 25 come-from-behind wins this season) it is only that -- conspiracy. The numbers this season suggest little deviation in the later innings.
Because the home team, of course, doesn't bat in the bottom of the ninth in games they win -- and the Rockies have won 50 games at home -- a comparison of Colorado's production in innings six, seven and eight at Coors Field and in those same innings on the road ought to illustrate the difference. It's expected that a club with an even distribution would have roughly 33 percent of its production in those three innings.
The Rockies have hit 100 home runs at Coors Field this year, but only 30 -- i.e. 30 percent -- came in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning. On the road, the Rockies have hit 57 home runs, of which 21 (or 36.8 percent) of them have been in the sixth through eighth innings.
Similarly, the Rockies have 764 hits at home, with 267 of them coming in innings six through eight, which is 34.9 percent of the total. They have 551 hits on the road -- 170 have come in innings six through eight, which is 30.9 percent.
Nevermind the logistical impracticality of implementing such a plan -- sneaking baseballs not stored in a humidor into the game and having no one notice -- the numbers are pretty comparable, seemingly debunking Miller's allegation.
3. Twins reliever Jesse Crain ended the White Sox' season. Trailing Minnesota by one run, Chicago had the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh with its best hitter, Paul Konerko, and its hired gun, Manny Ramirez, due up. Crain struck out both. Minnesota went on to win 9-3 to extend its AL Central lead to seven games with 18 to play.
With the emergence of Crain, who has a 2.59 ERA and 19 holds, along with Matt Guerrier (3.47 ERA, 22 holds), the Twins have had two reliable set-up men all season. That doesn't even include Jon Rauch, who had 21 saves before being displaced as closer when the team traded for Matt Capps (2.70 ERA, 12 saves with the Twins), or Brian Fuentes (3.40 ERA, 24 saves on season), the lefty who had closed for the Angels before also being acquired in a trade.
Those five constitute the deepest back end of any bullpen in the majors, even without a star closer like Joe Nathan, whom the Twins lost to injury before the year. The relievers have a 3.30 ERA this season, No. 3 in the AL, and for most of that time Capps and Fuentes pitched for different teams, and Rauch was in a different role. In other words, it should only get better.
4. The importance of Tuesday night's Yankees-at-Rays game in the AL East race didn't dissuade either team's manager from letting rookie late-season call-ups determine the outcome of that game from the mound. In other words, neither seems to care if they win the division title or take the wild card.
The Yankees -- who won 8-7 in 10 innings and are now a half-game ahead of the Rays in the division -- started Ivan Nova. It was his fifth career start, and he was summarily knocked around in the fifth inning, allowing six runs in 4 2/3 innings.
The Rays started Matt Garza, but when he got into trouble, manager Joe Maddon turned to a pair of rookies as his first two relievers. The first one into the game was left-hander Jake McGee, who was making his major-league debut. Granted, Tampa Bay trailed 5-0 at the time, but McGee walked the first two hitters he faced, making it 6-0, and walked three of the four batters he faced in all.
The second reliever used by the Rays was Jeremy Hellickson, who had less than 30 innings of major-league experience including disastrous results in his only two career relief appearances. He entered after Tampa Bay had taken a 7-6 lead, which he promptly coughed up after three batters. Not everyone can be David Price.
While both clubs received contributions from their in-their-prime stars -- New York's Robinson Cano, for instance, was a triple shy of the cycle with three RBIs, and Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria combined to reach base five times -- the prevalence of unproven arms, no matter how promising they are, suggests how unimportant the distinction between division champ and wild card is.
5. The Phillies are leaving nothing to chance. By flipping Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt in their starts against the Nationals on Friday and Saturday -- thanks to an off-day on Thursday, both would still be pitching on normal rest -- Philadelphia will throw its three best pitchers in both remaining series against the Braves, who trail by two games in the NL East.
The Braves and Phillies play two more series against each other -- a three-game set starting Monday in Philadelphia and three more games in Atlanta on the season's final weekend starting Friday, Oct. 1 -- and manager Charlie Manuel has lined up his trio of aces, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Oswalt to each make two starts against the Braves, all of them on normal rest.
Over the weekend in New York, Manuel expressed his concern about pitching Hamels on short rest because he's never done it. Halladay and Oswalt both have started games on only three days' rest -- and both done it well -- but as durable as they've been for most of their careers, they've already logged a lot of innings with potentially four more starts for each if the Phillies' playoff hopes does come down to the final series against Atlanta.
The heavy loads of Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt are a product of their success this season, but it could be a small concern if the Phillies make another run to the World Series. Halladay has averaged a hefty 233 innings and 3,333 pitches the past four seasons but in 2010 has already thrown 228 2/3 innings and 3,261 pitches, meaning he'll blow by his yearly averages. With four long starts, he could approach the career-high 266 innings and 3,630 pitches he threw in 2003 -- before injuries ravaged his '04 and '05 seasons.
Oswalt, meanwhile, has averaged 206 innings and 3,109 pitches in each of his last four seasons. In 2010 he has already logged 192 2/3 innings and 2,914 pitches, meaning he too will easily exceed his normal workload.
Similarly, Hamels -- who threw a career-high 127 pitches to defeat the Marlins on Tuesday night -- has already thrown 194 2/3 innings and 3,137 pitches this year while averaging 201 innings and 3,111 pitches in his three full seasons.
And so while the Phillies have set their rotation perfectly to throw their best against the Braves, it comes with a heavy burden, so Philadelphia's solution should be simple: clinch before the final weekend.