MLB Spotlight Series: Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado visits Arizona in big NL West series
The weekend series that is about to take place between the host Arizona Diamondbacks and division-rival Colorado Rockies is extremely important.
These have been two of the more surprising contenders of the 2017 season. The Dbacks lead the NL Wildcard race. Arizona has a 9.5 game cushion on one of those postseason berths.
The Rockies currently control the second NL Wildcard berth. Their nearest pursuer for that spot, the defending NL champion Chicago Cubs, are six games back.
But while these have indeed been two successful clubs over the course of the season, each is struggling of late. Colorado has dropped eight straight games. Arizona comes in after dropping the final two of their last series with the Saint Louis Cardinals.
Both teams have fallen behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for the NL West Division crown. The Rockies led the division for most of the season until the current losing streak. Arizona has been playing catch-up, spending just one recent day tied atop the division back on June 1.
The desperation factor is clearly a check mark on the Colorado side. Already fully immersed in a losing streak, the team needs to wake up and reverse the skid before losing becomes habitual. No time like a big weekend series with a division rival to do so.
The Dbacks have lost three games in a row just three times all season. They haven’t dropped four in a row all year. The club certainly doesn’t want to slip in to such a losing skid now.
The series has plenty of talent for MLB fans to enjoy. That includes two of the top superstars in the game today in Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and Dbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

WEEKEND PITCHING MATCHUPS

FRIDAY: Jon Gray (COL) vs Robbie Ray (ARZ)
SATURDAY: Tyler Chatwood (COL) vs Zack Greinke (ARZ)
SUNDAY: German Marquez (COL) vs Taijuan Walker (ARZ)
At age 25, Gray is the Rockies best starter. He has made just three starts this year, however, due to a stress fracture in his left foot. The righty is expected to be activated for Friday night’s game, his first appearance since April 13.
He will be opposed by the 25-year old lefty Ray, who has drawn at least even with Greinke as the Dbacks top starting pitcher. Both clubs will be looking to get off on the right foot in the Friday night matchup.
Both teams are already experiencing major improvement in the standings from a year ago. In 2016 they finished third and fourth in the NL West. The Rockies went 75-87 in what was their sixth consecutive losing campaign. Arizona went 69-93, narrowly avoiding last place.
The rivals have already met nine times this season. The results have been fairly even, with the Rockies capturing five of the nine games thus far. Just over a week ago, the Dbacks took two of three at Coors Field.

STATISTICAL COMPARISON

The Diamondbacks rank fourth and the Rockies sixth in all of Major League Baseball in runs scored this season. That is no surprise. Chase Field, host to this weekend’s matchup, ranks second among all ballparks in the MLB Park Factors ranking for run production. Coors Field is at the very top of the list.
Arizona shows a bit more power. Their cumulative .782 OPS mark is fourth-best in MLB this year. The Rockies .757 is tied in the 11th spot.
The Dbacks are also more patient, ranking 13th in all of MLB compared to Colorado’s 24th in the Walks category. Speed also shows as a huge Arizona advantage, with the Diamondbacks ranking sixth in steals and the Rockies only in 25th place.
Arizona has the statistical advantage on the mound as well. The Dbacks staff is tied for third with a .235 Batting Average Against. The Rockies .256 mark ranks 16th in baseball. Arizona is 7th and Colorado 15th in Quality Starts.
One of the major factors cited by many following this year’s Arizona turnaround has been the positive influence of new manager Torey Lovullo. This is the first big league managerial opportunity for the long time bench player and coach.
Bob Baum of The Boston Globe recently quoted Lovullo on his journey. ‘‘I started to sit on the bench a lot and I started to pay attention a lot. I started to realize there was something inside of me that felt like I could manage. … I thought about being the leader of a team that could win a World Series. That became a goal of mine.’’
It appears that Lovullo can indeed manage a big league ball club. If he continues to push the right buttons in the clubhouse and dugout, he could very well end up leading a team to win the World Series, far sooner than he may have ever believed was possible.

Nick Williams promoted to big leagues by Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies are promoting outfield prospect Nick Williams for his first big league opportunity this weekend.
The promotion for Williams comes as a direct response to left fielder Howie Kendrick being placed on the Disabled List. The hamstring injury disables the nearly 34-year old for a second time already this season. Kendrick previously was out of the lineup from mid-April through the end of May.
The Phillies also recently released outfielder Michael Saunders. A legitimate argument can be made that the additions of Saunders and Kendrick this past off-season were wastes of time and money.
However, others will say that the two signings did the job. The veterans bought a couple of months while prospects such as Williams “percolated” in the minor leagues. That may turn out to be the case in the long run. Time will tell.
For now, extremely frustrated Phillies fans will get to watch one of the hyped prospects perform each night.
Williams came to the Phils from the Texas Rangers as part of the big Cole Hamels trade back in the summer of 2015. He becomes the fifth piece of that trade to reach the big leagues. Alec AsherJerad EickhoffJorge Alfaro, and Jake Thompson have previously made their debut from that deal.
At the time of his promotion, Williams was hitting for a .277/.326/.511 slash line for the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The 23-year old ripped 15 homers and had 33 extra-base hits. He produced 44 rbi, and scored 43 runs in 302 plate appearances this season. Williams also has five stolen bases.

INCREASED MATURITY LEADS TO MEASURABLE RESULTS

There was an opportunity last season for Williams to force his way into the big league picture. However, the lefty hitter struggled in the minors. Maturity issues played a big part in his troubles.
But this season, Williams has demonstrated increased maturity in every facet of his game and attitude. That was demonstrated in a game earlier this month. He quickly snapped out of a brief funk that would have turned into a major slump a year ago.
IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan was quoted by Tom Housenick of The Morning Call after that June 11 game:
“Once he matured and learned that it doesn’t do him any good to make excuses, … that’s where he’s at now. He got another opportunity and said, ‘let’s do something about it.’ We’ve seen a lot of that lately. His first two at-bats weren’t great. In the past, there’s an 0-for-4. Instead, he turned it around and got two big hits.”
Williams will not be expected to become a savior for this current Phillies team. He cannot turn around this miserable 2017 season on his own.
What Williams does represent to long-suffering Phillies fans is hope. It marks another step forward in the rebuilding program. Hopefully he experiences some immediate and then sustained success. And hopefully his promotion is just the first of a few in the coming weeks.

Mike Trout plots his return as Angels hang in playoff race

Trout tore left thumb ligaments at the end of May
On Sunday, May 28, in the Los Angeles Angels game at Marlins Park in Miami, something big happened. Something that could have been devastating for the Angels 2017 season.
In the 5th inning of that game, center fielder Mike Trout took off in an attempt to steal second base. He was safe on the play, his 10th stolen base of the year. The successful swipe left Trout with a double-digit steals total on the back of his baseball card in each of his first six full MLB seasons.
However, it became apparent quickly that something was wrong. “When I did it, I knew it was messed up a little bit,” said the superstar in an interview as presented by Josh Mayhood SBNation’s “Halos Heaven” site.
The “it” to which Trout was referring was an injury to his thumb. The left thumb ligament was torn, requiring surgery that would keep him out of the Angels lineup for six-to-eight weeks.
This was a first for Trout. His first major injury. First surgery. First time on the disabled list. At age 25, it has all seemed to come so easy for the player who is now playing already in his seventh big league season.
“I’ve never torn anything or broke anything, ever. It’s frustrating. The rest of my body feels good, it’s just my thumb doesn’t work.”

BIG LOSS LEADS TO OPPORTUNITY

At the time of the injury, Trout was enjoying a phenomenal season, but one that has become almost typical by his personal standards. He was hitting for a .337/.461/.742 slash line with 16 home runs, 36 RBI, 32 extra-base hits, 36 runs scored, and those 10 steals.
The Angels lost that afternoon, torn apart 9-2 by the Fish to put a further damper on a 10-game road trip. The defeat dropped the Halos a game below the .500 mark.
They would also lose the following night to the Atlanta Braves in their return home. That was the club’s fifth defeat in six games. It not only left the Angels two games below the break-even mark, but also dropped them five games behind an AL Wildcard position in the loss column. Facing a Trout-less lineup for more than a month, any hopes at a 2017 postseason berth appeared dead.
But here we are, over four weeks later, and the Angels are still surviving. The club captured the final two games of a visit to Fenway Park this past weekend to move back above that .500 mark. Entering play on Tuesday night, they now sit just one game back in the American League Wildcard race.
A big factor in helping the Angels stay in the race over this past month has been the play of veteran outfielder Eric Young. Called up from AAA Salt Lake due to Trout’s injury, Young has hit for a .289/.379/.461 slash. He has three homers, 11 RBI, 16 runs scored, and seven stolen bases.

STAR’S RETURN COULD LEAD TO SECOND HALF PUSH

Despite the success and veteran experience provided thus far by Young, manager Mike Scioscia knows that he will need the best player in the game back as quickly as possible if the Angels are to remain in the hunt. However, they also don’t want to rush Trout and risk a setback.
“He’s felt good in every step he’s had so far,” Scioscia said on Monday per Elliott Teaford for the Ocean County Register. “We want to make sure we don’t miss any steps and he doesn’t do too much too soon.”
“Without him, we haven’t gone off the charts,” Scioscia said per Teaford. “I mean, .500 baseball is nothing to throw a parade about, but it’s a start. Hopefully, we’re going to continue to get better.”
It appears as though Trout will be back in the lineup at right around that six-to-eight week time frame. He is pointing towards returning just prior to the MLB All-Star Game break, which comes following games of Sunday, July 9.
While .500 is “nothing to throw a parade about”, it is a far cry from a year ago. In 2016, the Angels finished 14 games below that .500 mark, and 15 games out of a Wildcard playoff berth.
Scioscia and the Halos will try to continue battling their way through these next couple of weeks. If they can remain in the race and get Trout back healthy and producing at his usual levels, the Angels may turn summer into a heavenly experience for their fans over the season’s second half.

Surprising Jason Vargas leads starting rotation of resurgent Royals

Vargas has been a surprise rotation leader for KC
The Kansas City Royals were contenders in the AL Central Division each season from 2013-15. In 2015, the Royals not only captured that division crown, they also won the World Series.
Last year, Kansas City slipped to a third place .500 finish. The club struggled through the first couple months of this season, and as late as June 9 the Royals were still buried at 26-34.
Since that time, the Royals have gotten hot, winning nine of their last 11 games. The winning stretch has pulled the team back within a game of the .500 mark. They are now 3.5 games behind the first place Cleveland Indians, and just two games out in the AL Wildcard race.
One of the key factors in the Royals ability to stay in the race this season has been the strong performance of pitcher Jason Vargas. The 34-year old lefty is 10-3 with a 2.27 ERA and 1.134 WHIP, and has allowed just 79 hits over 87.1 innings.
Vargas 10 victories has him leading the American League in that category, tied with Clayton Kershaw for the MLB lead. The ERA mark is second-best in the AL, his WHIP mark ranks 8th in the league. His .243 Batting Average Against is 12th in the American League.
In short, Vargas has been one of the best pitchers in the AL this season. During this recent hot stretch the Royals have won both of his starts. In fact, Vargas has registered a victory in each of his last five outings. Vargas has allowed just six total runs over his last four starting assignments.

SECOND-HALF SUCCESS KEY FOR PLAYER AND TEAM

In his most recent start, Vargas battled through six innings for a 7-3 win over the Angels. After that game, Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com quoted Royals skipper Ned Yost on his pitcher. “He did what he does best — limit the damage,” Yost said.
Vargas is scheduled to next take the mound on Saturday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. There he will face the Toronto Blue Jays, who got off to a similarly poor start to their season but have also fought back into the race.
Vargas is now in his 12th big league season. He has a career 77-73 record with a 4.05 ERA and 1.297 WHIP mark. Vargas has made 210 starts over 230 total appearances in which he has pitched 1,309 innings.
He will be a free agent following this season, so Vargas is absolutely pitching for a contract. Vargas will turn 35 years old just before 2018 spring training gets underway. His ability to earn a big contract is likely limited.
However, if he continues to pitch at this level for the rest of the season, Vargas will certainly get a nice offer for next season somewhere. He could even get a multi-year deal. That continued strong pitching is vital to both his future, and the Royals ability to stay in the 2017 race.

Blue Jays in last place, but still a contending team

Gibbons (leaning on dugout rail) has Jays contending again
In each of the last two seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have played deep into October. The Jays lost in the ALCS both years, defeated in five games a year ago, and in six games by the Kansas City Royals in 2015.
After three consecutive winning campaigns, Toronto is currently struggling along in last place in the AL East Division standings. The Jays 35-36 record has them tied for that distinction with the Baltimore Orioles, five games behind the division-leading New York Yankees.
Despite that last place standing nearly three full months into the season, the Blue Jays are far from out of things. They are just two games off the pace in an extremely crowded race for an AL Wildcard playoff berth.
There are a number of reasons that manager John Gibbons and his team should feel confident. First of all is that recent track record of success. This is a mostly veteran team that knows how to win. If they can stay reasonably healthy, that experience should pay off over the second half of the season.
Toronto has been playing much better in recent weeks. The team fell to a season-worst 11 games below the .500 mark in late April. As recently as May 20 they were still eight games below that break-even mark.
Since that point, the Blue Jays have gone 17-10. The club entered play on Thursday afternoon having won three of their last four games.

UNCHARACTERISTICALLY WEAK OFFENSE

The biggest culprit in Toronto’s mediocre 2017 season has been their lack of offense. The Blue Jays have been one of baseball’s top offensive attacks in recent years. But this season, the Jays bats have gone silent all too often.
The Blue Jays are 25th in MLB in Runsscored to this point, with a combined OPS of .732, just 24th in the game. With just 29 steals, they are tied for 22nd in baseball. Their 227 walks is 20th in MLB.
The Jays are no longer out-slugging anyone, and they’re not finding other ways to get on base and produce run-scoring opportunities.
Perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson was held out of the lineup on Thursday afternoon against the Texas Rangers with a balky knee. The third baseman has already spent time on the DL this year from mid-April until the last week in May.
Donaldson was the 2015 AL MVP and finished fourth in the voting a year ago. He banged 41 and 37 home runs in his first two seasons with Toronto after coming in a December 2014 trade from the Oakland Athletics. He also scored 122 runs in each season, and won a Silver Slugger each year.
On Wednesday, a story in the National Post quoted Gibson on Donaldson. “He’s got that attitude. You guys see it, you guys know it. He’s on the field, there’s just something. Good things happen with him, too. But there’s definitely something different about him.”
The Jays are going to need a healthy Donaldson returning to his accustomed production levels if they are ever going to get this 2017 lineup turned around.

INCONSISTENCY FROM TULO AND JOEY BATS

Veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki seems to spend time each year on the DL. He was out during almost exactly the same time frame this year as was Donaldson.
Tulo is a 5x All-Star and former perennial MVP candidate himself. But this season he is hitting for a weak .235/.297/.333 slash line with just two homers and nine runs scored.
Much was made back in the off-season of the return of popular veteran Jose Bautista to the lineup. ‘Joey Bats’ signed an $18 million deal guaranteed for just this season, with a mutual $17 million option for next year.
With a dozen homers thus far, the 6x AL All-Star has provided his typical pop. However, the now 36-year old is hitting for just a .219/.334/.398 slash line.
The Blue Jays have worked hard over the last month to climb back into contention. They sit just a couple of games out of a Wildcard berth, just a handful of games out in the AL East race.
Unless they get substantially more production from Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Bautista, they may finish this year right where they are in those divisional standings. Rather than another trip to October, the club could end up closer to the bottom than the top.