Framing the Friars: McCutchen Strikes Back

Credit: USA Today Sports

Despite a four-game winning streak which included back-to-back wins over the Pirates, things didn’t look good for the Padres going into the finale of the series with Pittsburgh. On the one hand, Padres starter, Clayton Richard, since the end of June was 0-4 in five starts, having allowed 63 base runners in 27.2 innings. During that time, he had an ugly 8.78 ERA, the highest of any starter in the big leagues for that period. To make matters worse, Richard is the recipient of the lowest run support in the National League, a toxic combination to be sure.

Topping it off, the Pads were facing the Pirates’ ace, Gerrit Cole. Cole has straightened out his season in the last six weeks and in his previous four starts sported a fashionable 2.52 ERA. San Diego would have been better served if the Pirates had fallen out of the race a week ago, in which case Cole might have been traded. But no. There he was on Sunday facing the Padres, 24 hours before the trade deadline.

To be fair to Richard, he pitched very well for five innings. His only blemish was an outer third but elevated fastball to the Pirates’ best and hottest player, Andrew McCutchen, who whacked it 400 feet to dead center. It was unclear if it had enough. Not for the first time this season, center fielder Manuel Margot took a bad route on the ball while retreating to the fence, and wasn’t positioned correctly to snare it. The ball cleared the wall by about two feet and Margot missed it by about six inches. It could have been a highlight reel catch which would have picked up his veteran teammate, though at minimum a very difficult play to be sure. Instead it was 1-0 Pirates.

Cole had his good stuff working from the get go, spotting his fastball and getting Padres to chase his devastating slider. He did walk two in the second but got Austin Hedges and Dusty Coleman easily to end the threat. In the third Margot and Carlos Asuaje singled, but Jose Pirela and Yangervis Solarte – fresh off the disabled list – also went down easily. Besides that? Not much.

In the sixth the Pirates got to Richard the third time through the order. McCutchen walked and David Freese followed with a single through the gaping hole on the right side of the shift. Jose Osuna then spotted one in the right field alley, which somehow got past both Hunter Renfroe and Margot all the way to the wall for a 2-run triple. Jordy Mercer followed with a single through the drawn-in infield and suddenly it was 4-0. The Pirates really didn’t hit Richard that hard but all inning everything found a hole.

Cole was still hitting 97 on the gun in the 6th but Coleman finally got to him in the 7th, driving a hanging slider over the center field wall for his second career major league home run. Dusty literally has been working the last 10 years of his professional life for this chance to get to play for a consistent stretch in the Show, and for however short a period it will ultimately be one can only hope he’s enjoying the hell out of every second of it.

Speaking of enjoying the hell out of it, the Padres had yet another rookie make their major league debut, the ninth such player in the organization to make their debut this year. Kyle McGrath, a left-handed reliever enjoying a stellar season in double A San Antonio, came on in the top of the 7th and retired the Buccos 1-2-3, getting the first two Ks of his major league career in the process. Welcome to the bigs, Kyle. With all the trades of relievers going on around here, this just might your chance.

It became the Andrew McCutchen show at that point. First, he added to his exceptional day with another dinger in the top of the 8th. Then he made a sparkling diving catch in the bottom of the 8th for the third out of the inning. Finally, after Josh Bell added a pinch-hit home run for the men from steel town in the 9th, McCutchen had one last chance to show who was boss on the afternoon and he didn’t disappoint, rifling a line drive off the right field foul pole for his third home run on the afternoon. To think the Pirates would have practically paid you to take him off their hands last offseason.

The Padres never laid over and died. Coleman flashed some serious leather in the 8th with a remarkable play from deep in the hole, which he made look easy. I’m not sure Aybar has made a similar play all season (my memory isn’t the best though). Pirela, proving yet again it helps to have a bunch of hungry players on your team, dove headlong into the stands risking life and limb to make a great catch for the final out of the same inning. Even when the cause is lost, the Padres almost always battle.

The final score was 7-1, which prior to the game was somewhat predictable but like I said, Richard wasn’t hit that hard. When balls are put in play they often find holes and Richard was the victim of it on the day. Still, Cole had his good stuff. He shut us down pretty good.

It needs to be said, the Padres are doing something remarkable this year, something almost nobody is talking about. Picked to be the worst team in baseball, San Diego currently sits better than five teams in the standings, and about even with three others. Making this more remarkable, the Padres play in by the far the best division in baseball. The Dodgers are a superteam, and both the Rockies and the Diamondbacks would easily be the wild card teams if the season ended today. In our division, where we play opponents 18 or 19 times a year (versus teams from other divisions which we only play six or seven), we stand 19-28, nine games below .500. Against everyone else, we are two games below, or before today, essentially .500. In the American League, we’d still be in the wild card chase. If we played in the N.L. Central, we’d still be battling for first place. It’s highly unlikely we would reach either one of those heights but the fact remains, far from pushovers, the Padres have proven tough hombres, “not an easy out” as they say.

It could get worse from here. Not only could more assets be traded away at the deadline, but we’ll finish the last six weeks of the season with a murderous run through the N.L. West, so no doubt more punishment could be meted out. Still, given expectations, and given the fact the best of our farm system remains far off, the results so far have not only been enjoyable, but eye-opening. Kudos to Andy Green for steering the ship through rough waters but most of all kudos to the players for ignoring the naysayers, and proving their worth as best as they are able.

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