NL Central has MLB’s tightest divisional race

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the MLB divisional races are just beginning to take shape. Perhaps surprisingly, the most competitive race to this point has been in the National League Central Division.
The NL Central is home to the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs. The North Siders were expected by many to run away with the division, much as they did a year ago. The Cubs finished 17.5 games ahead of their nearest divisional rival last year.
But thus far, Chicago appears to be suffering from a Fall Classic hangover. The Cubs are just 25-23 after being shutout by the Los Angeles Dodgers last night. This drops them into the middle of the divisional pack, albeit only a half-game off the lead.
That surprising new NL Central leader this morning would be the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew has not finished on top of the division since the 2011 season.
Last night, the Brewers blasted the Arizona Diamondbacks by a 6-1 score. The victory raised their record to the 26-23 mark.
Tied with the Cubs just a half-game behind Milwaukee are the Saint Louis Cardinals. The Cards began the year by losing nine of their first 12 games. Saint Louis then won 12 of 18 to take over the division lead. However, the Cards had dropped seven of nine before winning last night.
The Cincinnati Reds led the division as recently as three weeks ago. Cincy was a season-best four games over the .500 mark less than a week later. But the Reds have won just four of their last 14, and may be starting to fade.
In Pittsburgh, the Pirates are holding up the bottom of the division with a 23-27 record. But the Bucs are going in the opposite direction from the Reds. The Pirates have won nine of their last 14, moving within 3.5 games of the divisional lead.
That 3.5 game margin from top to bottom in the NL Central Division is by far the tightest in all of Major League Baseball.

In the NL West, the Colorado Rockies, the Dbacks, and the Dodgers are within 1.5 games of one another. However, the bottom two clubs appear already out of the race. The disappointing San Francisco Giants are already 11.5 games out. The San Diego Padres are a distant 14 games back in last place.
In the NL East, the Washington Nationals are running away with things. The Nats at 30-18 hold an 8.5 game lead. None of their divisional rivals have looked capable of making a legitimate run.
Over in the American League, the Houston Astros have similarly built up a huge lead in the AL West Division. The Astros are the owners of baseball’s best record at 34-16, which puts them nine games up.
Perhaps the biggest single surprise on this Memorial Day weekend are the AL Central Division leaders. The Minnesota Twins, with just one winning season in this decade, are on top with a 26-19 mark. A year ago, the Twins lost 103 games and finished 35.5 games back in last place.
This season, Minnesota leads the defending AL Central and American League champion Cleveland Indians by three games. The other three divisional rivals are each at least five games out.
Finally, in the AL East the New York Yankees have surprised some by seizing the division lead. At 28-18, the latest version of the Bronx Bombers have a two-game edge on the arch-rival Boston Red Sox.
Memorial Day weekend has frequently been used as a demarcation line for contenders in Major League Baseball. This year, more than half of the teams in MLB still appear to have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth.
No place is that more true than in the NL Central Division. The five teams there could place anywhere from one to three teams into the postseason. Two months down, four months to go. The “dog days of summer” are about to begin, and those races are about to really heat up.

Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning Passes Away

Jim Bunning was one of baseball’s all-time greatest pitchers. The former Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies star passed away today at age 85.
In 1996, Bunning was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. He won 224 games during his big league career, and was the first to win more than 100 games in the National and American Leagues. The right-hander was also the first to strikeout over 1,000 batters in both.
He also pitched a no-hitter in both leagues. With the Phillies in 1964, he tossed the seventh Perfect Game in Major League Baseball history. It came at Shea Stadium against the host New York Mets. He was the father of seven children at the time.

Heaven got its No 1 starter today. Our lives & the nation are better off because of your love & dedication to family.

Bunning was born on August 23, 1931 in Southgate, Kentucky. He attended high school in Cincinnati and was a star multi-sport athlete. He then attended Xavier University.

BUNNING WITH THE TIGERS

As Ralph Berger wrote for SABR, the Detroit Tigers wanted Bunning. Therefore, the club made a unique arrangement with his parents. The Tigers allowed Bunning to finish his schooling while pitching in the minors.
In May of his freshman year, Detroit Tigers scout Bruce Connatser told Jim’s father that the Tigers were interested in signing Jim. The parents had no objection to his playing professional baseball, but they wanted him to finish college. The Tigers agreed to let Jim finish the spring semester before reporting for baseball – meaning he would miss spring training for the next three years. The club also agreed that his first minor-league team would be Richmond, Indiana, of the Class D Indiana-Ohio League, less than an hour from home. The Tigers gave Bunning a $4,000 signing bonus and a $150-a-month salary. With the bonus, he bought an engagement ring for Mary Theis, his childhood sweetheart. Now that he was under contract to a professional baseball team, his basketball scholarship at Xavier was canceled, and his parents paid for the balance of his college education.
Bunning would go 118-87 over parts of nine seasons with Detroit. He tossed his first career no-hitter in 1958 against the Boston Red Sox. Bunning won 17 games for a 101-win Tigers in 1961. That club finished second in the American League pennant race.

BUNNING WITH THE PHILLIES

In December of 1963, Bunning was traded by the Tigers along with catcher Gus Triandos. Detroit received star outfielder Don Demeter and a young pitcher named Jack Hamilton.
The righty would put together an 89-73 mark over six seasons in Philadelphia. He won 19 games for the Phillies ill-fated 1964 team. That club collapsed down the stretch, finishing in second place.
He was a 5x AL all-star with Detroit and a 2x NL all-star with the Phillies. Furthermore, he was the 1967 National League Cy Young Award runner-up. The award voted that year to Mike McCormick of the San Francisco Giants.
He led the American League in strikeouts in both 1959 and 1960. His 253 punch-outs in 1967 led all of baseball. Bunning recorded 2,855 strikeouts over the course of his career.
In December of 1967, Bunning was dealt by the Phillies to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Coming to the Phils were pitcher Woodie Fryman, infielder Don Money, and two others.

RETURN TO PHILADELPHIA

Bunning pitched during the 1968 and 1969 seasons with the Pirates and Dodgers. He then returned to the Phillies as a free agent in December 1969.
Bunning pitched in relief in the penultimate game at Connie Mack Stadium (formerly Shibe Park) on September 30, 1970.
On Saturday, April 10, 1971 he drew the starting assignment. It was the first Phillies game in the history of Veteran’s Stadium. Bunning got the win in a 4-1 Phillies victory over the Montreal Expos.
That 1971 season would prove the final in Bunning’s big league career. He was elected to the Phillies Wall of Fame in 1984.

BUNNING’S POLITICAL CAREER

Moving into politics, he was elected to the Fort Thomas, Kentucky city council in 1977.
In 1983, Bunning lost as the Republican candidate for Governor. But he remained a major player in Kentucky politics.
In 1986, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He served as a U.S. congressman through 1999.
Bunning was then elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. A noted conservative, he served as a Senator until 2011.
Bunning suffered a stroke in October of 2016. His death came as a result of complications due to the effects.

MEMORIALS AND FAMILY

Per Fox19 in Cincinnati, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell released the following statement.
“Senator Jim Bunning led a long and storied life. From his days in the major leagues to his years as my colleague in the Senate — and the many points in between, from the City Council to the House of Representatives — Jim rarely shied away from a new adventure. This Hall of Famer will long be remembered for many things. A perfect game, a larger-than-life personality, a passion for Kentucky, and a loving family. Elaine and I offer our sincere condolences to Mary and the entire Bunning family.”
Here in Philadelphia, he is a baseball immortal. His retired number 14 is displayed at Citizens Bank Park. Richie Ashburn (1), Mike Schmidt (20), Steve Carlton (32) and Robin Roberts (36) also have retired numbers.
Bunning is survived by the former Mary Catherine Theis. The couple was married for 65 years. Per Wikipedia, the couple had five daughters and four sons. They also had 35 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren as of 2013.

Phillies may need to step back with Vince Velasquez

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Vince Velasquez described himself as “clueless” following yet another disappointing outing. 
The young righty took the loss as the Phils dropped a 6-3 decision to the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday afternoon.
Velasquez allowed five earned runs on seven hits over 5.1 innings against the Bucs. As is frequently the case, he started out fast, retiring eight of the first nine Pittsburgh batters that he faced.
With the Phillies leading 1-0, the Pirates finally got to Velasquez with two outs in the bottom of the third inning. A single and a walk put two men on, and then Andrew McCutchen delivered an RBI single to tie things up.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Pirates took the lead thanks to a leadoff home run off the bat of David Freese. That was still the score entering the bottom of the sixth inning, when Velasquez atypically unraveled.
With one out, a walk, a single, and a throwing error on catcher Cameron Rupp on a pick-off play left Pittsburgh runners at second and third. Francisco Cervelli then delivered a two-run single to push the Pirates lead out to a 4-1 margin.
That was the end of the Velasquez’ day, as he was relieved by Mark Leiter Jr, who didn’t help matters any. Leiter walked the first batter he faced, and then surrendered a two-out, two-run single to Adam Frazier to give the Pirates a 6-1 lead.

CONTINUING COMMAND ISSUES

After the game, Velasquez was quoted by Matt Gelb of Philly.com:
“I’m just clueless right now. I’m just running around like a chicken without a head. I don’t know what I’ve got to do, but I just know there’s something. . . . I have to break it down little by little. Literally, if I have to start over or whatever the situation might be. I need to break it down and not put so much pressure on myself.”
His failure to get through the sixth inning is not unusual. Velasquez pitched into the seventh just three times last season in his 24 starts. This year, he has reached the seventh just once over his first eight trips to the mound.
Velasquez still overpowers hitters. He has now recorded 197 strikeouts over 173.2 innings with the Phillies. But pitch counts remain an issue. He is frequently over the 90-pitch mark by the fifth or sixth inning due to command and control issues.
There has been talk that perhaps Velasquez ultimate best role would be in the bullpen. Perhaps he could develop into a lights-out closer. That may, in fact, be his ultimate fate. That wouldn’t be so bad either.

A STEP BACK MAY BE IN ORDER

However, the time to try Velasquez out in the bullpen is not now. He turns 25 years old in a couple of weeks. He has proven durable to this point in his career. There is still realistic hope that he can figure it out, and become not only dominating in spurts, but more reliable and consistent.
Frankly, what it may take is a trip up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Let Velasquez go to AAA Lehigh Valley, where the IronPigs have one of the best teams in the minor leagues. There Velasquez can work on his confidence in a less pressurized environment where the ball club is winning.
The Phillies have a pair of pitching prospects with Lehigh Valley who deserve and appear ready for a shot in the big leagues. Those would be right-handers Jake Thompson and Ben Lively.
Let Velasquez go to Lehigh Valley for a few weeks. Tell him this isn’t a rush job. Give him a plan, say, after the MLB All-Star break. That would be a good seven weeks and about 10 starting assignments.
Many pitchers have needed to take a step back in order to move forward in their development. It would certainly not be a blow to Velasquez’ confidence, which already appears on the brink of being shattered.

Streaking Rangers powered by Joey Gallo

On Friday night at Tigers Stadium, the Texas Rangers held off the host Detroit Tigers by a 5-3 score. The victory was a 10th straight for the streaking Rangers.
Now at 23-20, they have slipped to within 6.5 games of their in-state AL West Division rivals, the Houston Astros.
The Rangers have made this move without their future Hall of Fame third baseman Adrian Beltre in the lineup. Beltre injured his right calf just one week into the 2017 season, and has been on the Disabled List ever since.
Beltre is now on the road to recovery. Earlier this week, Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram reported that his return to the lineup is likely just a couple of weeks away. Wilson quoted Beltre after the Rangers training staff had allowed the now 38-year old to test the calf by running on it at half speed:
“It’s on the right track. I just have to make sure my legs are in shape and not to have any setbacks. So far, the plan the trainers have for me has been working, and I’m trying to follow that plan.”
Stepping into Beltre’s place in the lineup has been the man who is perhaps the future at the Hot Corner in Texas. Joey Gallo is a 23-year old who has been one of the club’s top prospects for years.
Gallo was the Rangers supplemental first round choice at 39th overall in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.

YOUNG SLUGGER STEPPING UP

Gallo’s game is power. He crushed 22 home runs in his first minor league season as an 18-year old after signing during that summer of 2012. He followed that up by bombing 40 and 42 homers the following two seasons as he advanced through the Rangers minor league season.
Called up for the first time in early June of the 2015 season, Gallo has not been able to stick in Arlington. The big holes in his power swing have been exposed by big league pitching to this point.
However, with Beltre out this season, and with the Rangers lineup struggling for a good portion of his absence, Gallo’s power has fully emerged.
With 13 home runs, Gallo is tied for second in Major League Baseball with big names like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, just one off the game’s leaders. His 29 RBI have Gallo tied for fifth in the American League.
Gallo has also been aggressive on the base paths. His four stolen bases are as many bags as he swiped in the last two full minor league campaigns combined.
A big moment in last night’s victory over the host Tigers was yet another Gallo blast. With the Rangers clinging to a narrow 3-1 lead in the top of the sixth, the lefty hitter drove a Daniel Norris fastball deep into the right field seats. The two-run homer provided Texas with their ultimate margin of victory.

UPS OUTWEIGH DOWNS FOR NOW

It hasn’t been all rosy for Gallo. His 63 strikeouts are tops in the American League, and he is hitting just .188 with a .304 on-base percentage.
Prior to last night, Gallo hit .091 with just one home in his previous 29 plate appearances over eight games. But as Mike Heika with SportsDay at DallasNews.com reported, both Gallo and the Rangers believe that this recent slump was different.
“There’s some patience there. He’s not chasing,” Heika quoted Rangers manager Jeff Banister.
Rangers
“I still think there are going to be times when pitchers are making good pitches on him, but the other night he put the ball in play four consecutive times and didn’t come away with a hit.”
If Gallo keeps up his power pace, it will be difficult for Banister to remove him from the lineup once Beltre returns. The dilemma will then be what to do with the youngster.

DIFFICULT LINEUP DECISIONS AHEAD

First base is manned by Mike Napoli. The 35-year old is a similar player, but from the right side of the plate. Napoli is second on the Rangers with nine long balls. However, the veteran is hitting just .182 with 50 strikeouts.
At the Designated Hitter spot, the Rangers have mostly gone with 34-year old veteran Shin-Soo Choo. The Korean native is hitting just .258 at this point. But Choo’s .377 OBP reflects a far greater level of consistency than either Napoli or Gallo provide.
If everyone is healthy, there remains a chance that Gallo could find himself back in the Pacific Coast League with AAA Round Rock. That would become a greater likelihood should his power slack off.
But what if Gallo does keep ripping balls into the night? What if he keeps helping power the club to victories as he did last night? That is when the aging veterans better have their games together. Otherwise, this time it may be one of them scraping for playing time.

2017 MLB Spotlight Series: Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros

The team with the best record over the first month and a half of the 2017 MLB season has been the Houston Astros. The Cleveland Indians are the defending American League champions.

This weekend at Minute Maid Park, the Tribe comes to town for a showdown of two of the game’s top ball clubs in a series that will shine the baseball spotlight on Houston.
The Astros come into the weekend series with a 29-12 record for a .707 winning percentage. That gives manager A.J. Hinch‘s squad a 3.5 game lead over three other teams for the honor of best record in Major League Baseball.
For manager Terry Francona‘s Indians, it has been more of a struggle. Cleveland is just 20-19, sitting in second place in the AL Central Division, a game behind the surprising Minnesota Twins.
The pitching matchups for the series are as follows:
Indians
Fri – Trevor Bauer (Cle) vs Charlie Morton (Hou)
Sat – Mike Clevinger (Cle) vs Mike Fiers(Hou)
Sun – Danny Salazar (Cle) vs Joe Musgrove (Hou)
The Indians have been up and down all season to this point, possibly showing signs of a hangover after storming to the American League Pennant a year ago. Their World Series vanquishers, the Chicago Cubs, have experienced a similar slow-start hangover in the National League.
Cleveland began the year 5-7, then won 12 of 18 to reach a season-high four games over the .500 mark for the most recent time on May 9. The club now enters this weekend cold, having dropped five of it’s last seven games.
Houston on the other hand has not lost three straight games since early April. The Astros have only lost back-to-back games once since that time.

STATISTICAL COMPARISON

The host Astros own a distinct offensive advantage. They are fourth in MLB and second in the American League in both OPS (.789) and Runs Scored (211) to this point.
Astros
Cleveland comes in just 22nd in Major League Baseball in OPS, and their 168 Runs Scored is also 22nd in the game.
The Tribe are better on the mound, but here the Astros further demonstrate the edge that has produced their outstanding record.
Houston’s pitching staff has a .227 Batting Average Against, best in MLB by a wide margin. They have allowed just 128 walks, tied for seventh in the game. They do surrender the long ball. The 51 homers surrendered by the Astros pitchers has them at 11th in baseball.
Cleveland has a .241 BAA, tied for ninth in MLB. And you have to earn it against Indians pitching. The Tribe staff has given out just 119 free passes, the fourth best total in baseball. Their 43 home runs allowed is tied for the eigth best mark in the game.

PITCHING PROBLEMS FOR TRIBE

Part of the problem for the Indians has been a starting rotation that has been slowed by key injuries, and by staff-wide inconsistency. Ace Corey Kluber appeared hurt for much of the first month, and has now been on the Disabled List for the last two weeks.
Francona addressed the situation in a quote captured by Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com after the Tribe dropped the final two games of their most recent series in Tampa Bay:
“We need to make this correct itself.Mickey Callaway (pitching coach) and I were talking a bunch at the end of the game and we want to sit down maybe with the pitchers when we get to Houston because I don’t think by just showing up and saying, ‘Well, it’s a new day,’ is (going to change a lot). That’s a good way to start, but we need to do some things better.”

ALL SYSTEMS GO IN HOUSTON

Over in the other dugout, things could hardly be going better for Hinch and company. The in-state rival Texas Rangers have run off nine consecutive wins. And still, Houston holds a 7.5 game lead on the two-time defending AL West champions.
Hinch was quoted on his club’s success recently by Jon Tayler at Sports Illustrated:
“We’ve had a different guy every night do the job. Some days it’s been George Springer, some days it’s been Carlos Correa, some days it’s been Jose Altuve. Every fifth day, it feels like it’s Dallas Keuchel. Being able to rattle off names like that is the strength of this team.”
They’re hot, and they’re at home. As a result, the Astros are the clear favorites this weekend. But one senses that this talented Indians ball club is due to go on a run at some point. For Cleveland fans and the team itself, the hope is to begin by winning this weekend series under the MLB spotlight.