White Sox part of junior circuit's interleague dominance, more notes
The White Sox swept the Cubs to move within 2½ games of first in the AL Central
The American League continued to demonstrate its dominance of interleague play
Max Scherzer struck out 15 (the most by any Tiger in 40 years) in seven innings
Five Cuts from the first weekend of interleague play:
1. South Side Sweepers -- The early-weekend attention on Chicago's crosstown rivalry rightfully centered on the retirement of Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, but the story at the end of the weekend was the resurgence of the White Sox, who swept their North Side neighbors 3-2, 7-4 and 6-0 to extend their winning streak to four games and move into second place, only 2½ games out of first place in the AL Central. Not bad for a club that uttered the word "rebuilding" this offseason.
Buoying Chicago's bounce back have been returns to form by two previously down-and-out veterans still in their early 30s. Right-handed starter Jake Peavy, the two-time major league ERA champ and 2007 NL Cy Young winner with the Padres, made only 35 starts in 2010 and '11 with Chicago with a 4.77 ERA. After throwing 6 1/3 shutout innings on Sunday while allowing only three hits, Peavy is now 5-1 with a 2.39 ERA. He'll only turn 31 years old on May 31, so age is certainly not a factor when wondering how well he'll be able to sustain this start.
The other remarkable turnaround belongs to Adam Dunn, the 32-year-old who homered twice over the weekend and is tied for second in the AL with 14. His 2011 was an unmitigated disaster -- .159 average and .292 on-base percentage with only 11 home runs in the first season of a four-year, $56-million deal -- but he has rallied in 2012 as if last year never happened.
The contract seemed like a relatively safe bet for the most consistent player in baseball; his stats from 2004 through 2010 are eerily similar. This season, though his strikeout rate is up considerably, Dunn is on pace for the most homers and most walks of his career. And he's doing so with great power, as nearly two-thirds of his hits have gone for extra bases. (Note: XBH% is percentage of total hits that have gone for extra bases.)
Are the White Sox built to last? Hard to say. In the current state of the AL Central, anything can happen, and Chicago is the division's only club with a positive run differential this year (+9). But there are warning signs: an offense, which ranks only ninth in the AL, that is very dependent on a small group of players (Dunn and Paul Konerko, most notably); a pitching staff that's also only middle of the pack in ERA (seventh); and a club that, oddly, has been far more successful on the road (14-9) than at home (7-12).
And, of course, the White Sox are now only .500 for the season, but one wonders if this early standing will change their midseason plans. With a second wild card in place, trade-happy general manager Kenny Williams will no doubt explore all options.
2. All hail the AL -- The American League continued its interleague reign. Armed with an eight-year winning streak and a .522 all-time winning percentage, the AL entered the first weekend of action against the NL and again emerged victorious, going 24-18 (.571). The only two weekend sweeps were done by AL clubs, with the White Sox taking three from the Cubs and the Mariners winning all three with the Rockies.
NL teams were ill-equipped to employ a productive designated hitter. That's not a knock on them. NL teams have 144 intraleague games and nine interleague games at home, so for 153 games they play without a DH, so of course that 94 percent of their schedule will prevail when it comes to roster construction.
But as a result, the six NL teams that used a DH this weekend did not get desirable results. Cincinnati's Ryan Ludwick was the only NL DH to homer. Collectively, the group went 11-for-62 with eight walks, two doubles and one home run, for a .177 average, .264 OBP and .258 slugging.
Amazingly, however, the six NL teams who played on the road this weekend actually had a winning record despite the DH foibles. They went 10-8, while the NL teams playing at home went 7-16, meaning those AL clubs yielded both inherent advantages (DH and home park) and still had great success.
3. Rust Belt Stars -- Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen and Cleveland shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera continued their hot starts and their ascension into the game's elite. On Saturday McCutchen's pair of two-run homers accounted for all four Pirates runs in a 4-3 win over the Tigers, and Cabrera's solo homer was the first and thus the game-winning run in the Indians' 2-0 win over the Marlins.
While ably playing demanding up-the-middle defensive positions, both young hitters -- Cabrera is 26 and McCutchen is 25 -- lead their respective clubs in all three rate stats (average, on-base percentage and slugging). Cabrera has a .309/.404/.504 slash line with five homers while McCutchen checks in at .336/.395/.550 with seven homers, after also having a multi-homer game last Thursday.
4. Detroit's Dynamic Duo -- Tigers ace Justin Verlander nearly threw his third career no-hitter on Friday night, going 8 1/3 hitless innings against the Pirates before Josh Harrison singled up the middle. Verlander finished the complete-game shutout while allowing just one hit and two walks against 12 strikeouts.
His Bill James game score -- a composite number rating individual pitching performances -- was a 95, his seventh start of at least 87 since 2007; no other pitcher in baseball has more than four during that time span.
Remarkably, Verlander never struck out as many as 15 batters in any of those virtuoso outings, which is the number of strikeouts logged by teammate Max Scherzer on Sunday. Scherzer needed just seven innings, albeit, 115 pitches, to reach that total, which was the most by any Tiger since Mickey Lolich in 1972.
While Doug Fister is clearly Detroit's second-best starter and so far Drew Smyly has also outperformed Scherzer, Sunday's outing reinforced the fact that Scherzer has much better swing-and-miss stuff than anyone on the club except for Verlander. For now, however, Scherzer is too inconsistent in his ability to harness that stuff -- he now has a major league-best 11.7 K/9 and a 3.5 BB/9, the latter of which is both a team- and career-worst rate.
5. Give the Dodgers their due -- The Dodgers, who own baseball's best record, have won 10 of 13 games, including a series win against the NL West's second-place Giants and a sweep of the Central-leading Cardinals. They've done much of this with lineups comprised of the anonymous and the ancient.
In winning three games against St. Louis, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly filled out lineup cards that included the following a leadoff hitter with a .247 on-base percentage (Dee Gordon, Friday), a No. 2 hitter with six career plate appearances (Elian Herrera, Saturday) and a No. 3 hitter who was released by a last-place club earlier this season (Bobby Abreu, Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Abreu, rejuvenated with his new team, had a three-hit night on Sunday and scored four runs in the series; he's batting .341 with the Dodgers.
Among players with at least 80 at bats Los Angeles has four players with an OPS above league average and two of them, center fielder Matt Kemp and second baseman Mark Ellis, are now on the DL. Over the weekend the Dodgers received breakout games from unexpected places: on Friday night, for instance, Adam Kennedy went 4-for-4 and James Loney was 3-for-4. In Sunday's win the Dodgers won thanks to a three-run homer from pinch hitter Scott Van Slyke, who had eight previous major league at bats yet had the confidence to swing at a 3-0 pitch.
Not enough can be said about the jobs that right fielder Andre Ethier (.309/.367/.559, 8 HRs) and catcher A.J. Ellis (.321/.446/.491, 3 HRs) have done, especially Ellis, whose 23 walks rank fifth in the NL and are nine better than his previous career high. Ellis' OBP is surpassed in the NL by only the Mets' David Wright and the Reds' Joey Votto; his 4.6 pitches per plate appearance lead the league.
Most of the credit, of course, belongs to the Dodgers' pitching staff, especially a rotation that recently threw 23 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run or a walk. Their starters collectively have a 2.73 ERA, which is first in the majors. But they still need some run support in order to win, and that wouldn't be possible without the contributions from a patchwork lineup.
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