Teammates turned rivals. Brothers turned enemies. Sunday’s matchup at Yankee Stadium was downright Shakespearean.
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Okay, maybe I need to brush up on my Shakespeare. There doesn’t seem to be any animosity between Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka, but it was still thrilling to see the former teammates go at it on Sunday. Tanaka, now the No. 1 starter for the league’s most storied franchise, played alongside Iwakuma with the Rakuten Eagles from 2007-2011. Sunday marked the first time two Japanese teammates started against each other in an MLB game. Appropriately, the game’s first batter was Mariners left fielder Nori Aoki, who played with Iwakuma and Tanaka in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Of the two Japanese hurlers throwing Sunday in the Bronx, Tanaka’s star shined brightest. The Yankees ace scattered six hits and three runs (two earned) over seven mostly stress-free innings to pick up his first win of 2016.
Defensively, Tanaka’s teammates didn’t do him any favors. The normally sure-handed Mark Teixeira flubbed a grounder in the fourth inning, which eventually led to an unearned run. An inning later, Jacoby Ellsbury took a stab at a sinking liner hit by Aoki. He came up empty, losing his glove and sunglasses in the process. The ball rolled to the wall as Aoki coasted into third for a standup triple.
But none of that was enough to deny Tanaka on this afternoon. The right-hander only needed 93 pitches to complete seven innings and matched a season-high with six strikeouts. Sunday he became the first Yankees starter to pitch seven innings in a game this year.
Alex Rodriguez, who said this will be his penultimate season (unless it’s not), entered Sunday’s game 0 for his last 19. He erased the slump with a single swing, belting Iwakuma’s offering into the seats for a two-run homer in the second inning.
A-Rod’s hitless drought was his longest since 2007 when he went 0-for-21 over a six-game stretch. Back then he was batting cleanup. Sunday Rodriguez hit from the No. 6 spot in the lineup. Two of A-Rod’s four hits this year have landed over the fence. Jacoby Ellsbury also broke out of a long slump, ending an 0-for-14 spell with a single to lead off the third inning,
Brett Gardner collected a game-high three hits Sunday including an RBI double that scored Ellsbury. The two-bagger gave the Bombers a 3-1 advantage, but more importantly, it ended New York’s 30-at-bat hitless streak with runners in scoring position.
Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller continued their string of dominance by striking out six straight batters to end the game. Neither has allowed a run this season. The Yankees’ bullpen has been a strikeout factory all year. New York relievers have combined for a 12.53 K/9, easily the highest in MLB. The scary thing is, New York’s best reliever hasn’t even pitched yet. Aroldis Chapman is still serving a 30-game suspension for a domestic incident that occurred in October. To the 29 other teams in Major League Baseball—good luck.
It wasn’t a great outing for Iwakuma (7 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 3 Ks), but the significance of pitching against his former teammate was not lost on him. “I was very excited to face [my] ex-teammate," he said through a translator. "[Tanaka] was pitching with composure and he kept the ball down … I was able to make adjustments, but it was kind of too late." Iwakuma dropped to 0-2 with the loss.
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Harper Homers … Again
Bruce, I mean Bryce Harper, went deep for the fourth consecutive game Sunday at Philadelphia. His tape-measure blast gave Washington a 2-1 lead in the tenth inning. If you watch the replay closely, you’ll see the ball travel into the bullpen bathroom, which was inexplicably left wide open. This comes just a few days after Harper celebrated his 100th home run by demolishing a scoreboard in right field. With the exception of maybe Giancarlo Stanton, nobody homers with as much flair as Harper. The reigning NL MVP has now homered in six straight games at Citizen’s Bank Park.
That home run came off Jeanmar Gomez, who was recently named the Phillies’ closer. Serving up a long ball to the National League’s best hitter is pretty understandable but Gomez’s ninth-inning leash could be getting tighter. David Hernandez has settled down since giving up three runs on Opening Day while Gomez has let up a run in each of his last two appearances. With the Phillies hovering around .500, the team can’t afford to punt the ninth inning.
Harper got some style points for Sunday’s round-tripper but not the win. The Phillies triumphed by plating two runs off Harper’s old friend Jonathan Papelbon in the 10th inning. The Phillies were down to their last out when Andres Blanco pinch-hit for Gomez. He knotted the score at two with a single to left field and advanced to second on the throw home. Freddy Galvis followed with a double to left field, sending the Phillies to a walk-off victory.
In all likelihood, Sunday was just a hiccup in what should be another productive season for Papelbon. But would it really be that crazy if this was the year it all fell apart? Papelbon has been one of the most prolific closers in baseball over the last decade—only Francisco Rodriguez has more saves among active players—but the six-time All-Star is 35 with a shrinking strikeout rate. In his last year with the Red Sox in 2011, Papelbon’s fastball averaged 95.0 mph. This year, he’s averaged 90.3 mph. Papelbon posted a career-low 7.96 K/9 last season and this year it’s even lower (7.20). Though it’s probably just a coincidence, it’s worth mentioning that Papelbon hasn’t pitched in a playoff game since 2009.
The counter argument would be that Papelbon didn’t blow a single save with the Phillies last year (17-for-17) and he hadn’t blown one this season until Sunday. Maybe it’s only the Phillies he struggles against. He blew a save against them on September 14 and followed that up with an even worse outing on September 27 (1 IP, 1 H, 5 R, 2 BB). Since joining the Nationals, Papelbon has compiled a miserable 15.00 ERA in four games against the Phillies compared to 2.05 against the rest of the league.
Despite Sunday’s setback, the Nationals still have the top mark in baseball at 9-2. That ties the franchise’s best start since 1981. Only four players on the Nationals were alive back then.
Quick Hits: Jacob deGrom was placed on the family emergency list Saturday while dealing with complications from his son’s birth. Fortunately his son is doing much better and could be released from the hospital as early as Monday. DeGrom stayed sharp during his time off by throwing a 40-pitch bullpen session Sunday at the team’s facility in St. Lucie … Mets manager Terry Collins plans to sit Travis d’Arnaud on Monday. D’Arnaud took a 93 mph fastball off his left elbow on Saturday … Yoenis Cespedes will return to the outfield Monday in Philadelphia. He DH’d over the weekend because of leg soreness … Yasmany Tomas left the yard twice Sunday in a win against the Padres. It was his first career multi-homer game … Matt Moore fanned 10 hitters Sunday in a win over the White Sox. It was his first double-digit strikeout game since July 11, 2013 … Jose Bautista homered Sunday in Toronto’s 5-3 win over the Red Sox. All three of his round-trippers this year have come against Boston. Bautista has now homered 22 times in 221 career at-bats at Fenway Park … Marco Hernandez made his MLB debut for the Red Sox on Sunday. He started in left field and went 1-for-2 with a single and a stolen base … Nolan Arenado mashed two homers Sunday in a win over the Cubs. He leads MLB with 16 RBI … The Braves and Twins have both won three in a row after starting the year 0-9. Prior to Sunday, no team had accomplished that since 1871 … Rajai Davis may need to invest in a better pair of sunglasses. He lost the ball in the sun twice on Sunday … How much did Trevor Story’s Opening Day jersey go for? Well it wasn’t cheap … Ian Kinsler dropped a popup on purpose Sunday to get the force out at second. That put molasses-slow Tyler White on first base instead of Colby Rasmus. Pretty clever … How about Kenta Maeda? The rookie from Japan is now 2-0 with a 0.47 ERA. He outpitched Jeff Samardzija for the win on Sunday.