You can argue that the Washington Nationals just caught the New York Mets at the right time, with the Mets a little beat up and struggling. Or you can argue that Nationals are better. For example:

Mets fan: "We didn't have Yoenis Cespedes the entire series!" No doubt, Cespedes being sidelined due to a tender hamstring made navigating the Mets' lineup a little easier. Since acquiring Cespedes, they've averaged 4.6 runs per game when he's in the lineup and 3.8 when he's out (and are now 18-27 when he doesn't play).

Nationals fan: "Bryce Harper." Harper continues to rake. A 2-for-4 game in Sunday's 6-3 victory raised his line to .400/.524/.815. He homered on Friday and the Mets walked him three times on Saturday.

Mets fan: "How's October worked out for you?" True, the Nationals have the most wins in the majors since 2012 and have yet to win a playoff series.

Nationals fan: "Ryan Zimmerman." He's looking like one of the most improved hitters in the league and goes beyond beyond healthy. Zimmerman hit the ball hard last season, but hit too many grounders and struggled to a .215 average. Teammate Daniel Murphy implored him to rework his swing to improve his launch angle -- baseball talk for hit more fly balls. It's working, as Zimmerman is hitting .387 and launched his sixth home run on Sunday, a two-run shot on Sunday off Josh Smoker that cemented the victory.

Mets fan: "Well, Noah Syndergaard didn't pitch in the series."

Nationals fan: "Too bad." Max Scherzer did pitch on Sunday and while he gave up his first two home runs of the season, he fanned nine in eight innings to improve to 3-1 with a 1.95 ERA.

Bottom line: The Nationals have won seven in a row and the Mets have lost eight of nine. The baseball gods don't care about your injuries.

Rockies sweep Giants at home: Those aren't words you see very often. In fact, it was the Rockies' first three-game sweep of the Giants at Coors Field since 2002: A 6-5 win on Friday, with all six runs coming off Johnny Cueto in the fourth inning on a Trevor Story grand slam and Charlie Blackmon's two-run homer; a 12-3 blowout on Saturday as they pounded Matt Moore for three home runs and rookie Antonio Senzatela allowed one run in seven innings; and an 8-0 shutout on Sunday behind Kyle Freeland, another rookie starter. The sweep helped them open up a seven-game gap over the last-place Giants.

The exciting aspect to the Rockies' 13-6 start is that they've been doing it with pitching. They're only 16th in the majors in runs scored per game, but ninth in ERA. Senzatela and Freeland have been huge, especially with Jon Gray on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his foot. The bullpen is 5-0 with a 2.76 ERA as the Rockies have gone 7-0 in one-run games.

That record in one-run games is the balloon that will eventually burst, but the offense has the potential to kick into a higher gear, especially with Story and Carlos Gonzalez both hitting under .200 and Ian Desmond eventually returning.

As for the Giants, manager Bruce Bochy doesn't seem worried just yet. "There's only so much you can do," he said after Sunday's loss. "These are our guys and they've been through this." Should we remind him that Madison Bumgarner is going to miss a couple of months after his dirt-bike fiasco?

Oh, just a little bad blood between the Red Sox and Orioles: Manny Machado always seems to be in the middle of these things, but this one you can't blame on him. Scott Lauber has the complete breakdown here, but the Cliff's Notes version: Machado spiked Dustin Pedroia on Friday night, causing Pedroia to miss the rest of the series, and Matt Barnes threw behind Machado's head on Sunday. After Sunday's game, Pedroia said Machado had "zero intention" of trying to hurt him on Friday and television cameras caught this exchange after Barnes' pitch (from Lauber's story):

    Pedroia: "It's not me. If that was me, we would've hit you the first day [after the slide]."

    Machado pointed to his head, making clear that Barnes was out of bounds.

    Pedroia: "I know. That's bulls---. We should've hit you the first at-bat yesterday. I know that, and you know that. It's not me. That's him."

Barnes said the pitch got away and was ejected. I'd like to see him get a three-game suspension as well. You can't throw that close to a guy's head and not escape a penalty.

There was another incident like this on Saturday, when Tigers starter Matthew Boyd threw a pitch behind Miguel Sano's head after Twins reliever Justin Haley inadvertently hit JaCoby Jones in the face (remarkably Jones suffered only a lacerated lip). Haley had just entered the game and hit Jones with a 1-2 fastball; there was clearly no intent, he just threw a bad pitch. I get that the Tigers were upset, but this unnecessary revenge game not only puts players at risk but will probably hurt the Tigers when Boyd gets suspended.

As Pedroia said on Sunday, "That's not how you do that. I'm sorry to him and his team. I love Manny Machado. That's a mishandled situation." So was the Boyd pitch.

Look, there's no good answer to the eye-for-an-eye philosophy that is hard-coded into the game, but players have to be smarter. Make sure there's at least a good reason if you're going to throw at an opponent. Barnes and Boyd didn't have one. And instead of talking about Andrew Benintendi's five-hit game, we're talking about this nonsense.

Play(s) of the day: The Phillies hit three consecutive home runs in the eighth inning off the Braves, turning a 2-2 tie into a 5-2 win, an outburst punctuated by Odubel Herrera's bat flip:

Quick thoughts ... The Braves are at six straight losses as they've scored just 15 runs in this skid. They've gone from one game out last Monday to seven games out and just have too many easy outs in the lineup right now. ... Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez is an underrated player who has maybe changed his approach this season, trading more strikeouts for a little more power as he slugged his fourth home run on Sunday. He's hitting .338/.376/.563. ... Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto must have had an itch in his finger or was looking for a scapegoat for his team's slow start. He found one in center fielder Leonys Martin, who was designated for assignment while hitting .111. Martin had a nice first half last season before slumping in the second half, so maybe it's not a surprise that he got dumped. ... Let's hope Joey Gallo is figuring things out. He mashed another home run on Sunday, his fourth of the week. ... Carlos Correa's home run on Sunday was his first extra-base hit since homering off Felix Hernandez on Opening Day. Weird. ... Look for updates on Shelby Miller, who left Sunday's game with a right forearm strain. ... Ivan Nova continues to look good for the Pirates, beating the Yankees 2-1, although he did walk his first batter of the season. Of course it was Yankees starter Jordan Montgomery in his first major league at-bat. As they say, you can't predict baseball.video

Gregory Polanco feeling impact of Starling Marte's suspension

April, 22, 2017
Apr 22
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The relationship between teammates is often close, but for Pittsburgh Pirates outfielders Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, it goes a bit further than that. Both were born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, just three years apart. Both signed with the Pirates as teens, with the older Marte preceding Polanco through the farm system to arrive in the majors in 2012. When Polanco debuted two years later, Marte was there to greet his countryman to the majors.

As close as teammates can be, perhaps nothing prepared Polanco for Marte’s 80-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. ESPN’s Marly Rivera sat down with the young Pirates outfielder to talk about the suspension, its impact on the Pirates and on the relationship between Polanco and Marte.

Can you describe how you felt when you found out about Marte’s suspension?

Polanco: It was something that really surprised me. It hurt tremendously. It affected me. It’s still affecting me. I talk to Starling every day, and to listen to him and talk to him hurts a lot because he's like a brother to me. It’s very painful not only for me, but also for the team. It affects the team mentally and also on the field, because Marte is a five-tool player. He can do it all on the field. All. So [his absence] affects the team. I'm going to try to give him strength and I'll always be supporting him, because he made a mistake, but now has to move forward. He is going to comply with his suspension and he will come back healthy, and most importantly, strong.

I tell him to keep his head up and accept his responsibility. And he already has. He told me that he will comply and that he will prepare to come back and help us as he always has when his suspension is over.

What has been the hardest part?

Polanco: The most difficult thing is not to see him here every day; that joy Marte has, he’s a very happy person. I have never seen him angry. Not seeing him here, it's been a few days since we’ve been able to see him here. His presence is very important. That for me is the most difficult part. Also, that feeling of knowing that your brother is not here, because of his mistake, and that is extremely difficult for me and for the team. And also to think about his family, those people back there in Villa Mella [a very poor community near Santo Domingo], who love us so much, what they are going through right now, that for me is the most difficult thing.

Starling Marte and Gregory PolancoCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsStarling Marte and Gregory Polanco are close as teammates can be, but where does Marte's PED suspension leave his teammate and his team?

How do you deal with the disappointment and the headlines that Marte let down the Pirates?

Polanco: It is very hard for me to see so many people who write to me on social media, and to hear those things, too. I have even seen things that people have said, not only about him, but also about me, that ‘since you are brothers, I bet you’re [doing that], too.’ People who have no love for one another, who don’t have any feelings, who have no heart. I have seen many things that people say, terrible things, this, that and the other, many things. So I'd rather stay away from social media. I try to clear my mind and not think too much about it, because it is something that [brings] too many negative thoughts and this is the beginning of the season and you don’t want that for your career or for your season.

What did Starling tell you?

Polanco: He has been very positive with me. He said, ‘I know this hurts you, it hurts me, because you know how close we are, but try to focus and help the team because you're a very important part.’ He tells me, ‘Focus and work hard, you can help the team a lot. I know I will not be around you during this period of time, but you still have to focus and work hard and help the team and I will be watching and I will be supporting you wherever I am.’ He said that wherever he is, he will be watching the games and told me to stay focused in what he knows I can do.

Did learning about Marte’s suspension affect you in that series in St. Louis? (The Pirates were there when the suspension was handed down.)

Polanco: I am one of those people that never likes to come out with an excuse, but we really felt the fact that Marte would not be able to play the next two games. He’s a person who impacts the game in many ways. I think it really affected us. But now it’s time to keep our heads up and move on. That series already happened. Nothing else can be done. When St. Louis comes here, or when we go there, we have to play hard and seek revenge.

Drama in the outfield over who was playing where -- did it ever have an impact on you?

Polanco: I let everyone do what they do. We are a team and all, but they are the ones who make the decisions as to who’s going play in what position. I am here to play. I want to be in the lineup every day. I will play wherever they put me. That never affected our friendship and communication [between Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Polanco]. Everyone is here to play, happy to play wherever they put us. We are players; that’s what we talked about during spring training when we had a meeting, the three of us.

The three of us had a meeting and told each other that there would not be any problems between any of us. That as long as we’re playing and the three of us are in the lineup, doesn’t matter at all where we play. That we’d give 100 percent without any issues or problems between any one of us. We said, they can make their decisions.

And what about McCutchen saying “this is my spot” after a big catch in center?

Polanco: All’s good, and McCutchen did that because it really was a great catch. I saw him and laughed; I loved that play he made. They are both center fielders. McCutchen has won Gold Glove in center field. That’s been his position. And both are great.

How do you turn the page, knowing that even if you do make the playoffs, Starling would not be eligible to play?

Polanco: As [manager Clint Hurdle] said, this hurts us, but we still have a season to play. Even though he’s not here, we still have to play those 80 games. We have to stay positive. We have to give 100 percent because we know our one goal is to make it to the playoffs. Then you have to play. Personally, for me, I don’t know how to answer how I'm going to be able to turn the page, because it’s not going to happen fast just like that. But the manager told us that we have to play and keep going; keep our heads up and prove that we do have the talent necessary to play and move on, even if Marte is not here today.

Did Hurdle's words help you?

Polanco: Yes, of course, because I was very worried. He brought the team together. Marte also met with all of us and said that even though he won’t be here, the team has to move forward, and that we will continue winning and we will have a good season and when he returns he will help us.

What would you like people to know about Starling Marte?

Starling Marte is a very positive person. I have known him for many years and have never seen him make a bad impression or have a long face. He’s a very joyful person. Very kind. He likes to help a lot and has a really noble heart. Sometimes people have taken advantage of it.

And yes, he may have fallen, and I can’t say what he did or did not do. I have no idea how that could have happened. But I do know that he is a very noble person, a happy person, a family man, who enjoys spending time with his children. I don’t like the terrible things they're saying about him like that. I understand that he made a mistake, but he's a human being that has feelings.

I have seen with my own eyes these things, things that no one wants to see, such bad, negative messages. People have to turn the page now and we have to continue playing baseball. I know that his followers really feel cheated, and it hurts, and I understand. I know it's not so easy, but you have to turn the page. In spite of everything, he is a human being, with feelings, and he feels awful. He feels awful right now and we have to support him.

Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsErvin Santana wasted no time in his first start sending the message that the Twins would be different this season.

Ervin Santana's first pitch of the 2017 season to Royals left fielder Alex Gordon was a 93 mph fastball, on the black, knee-high on the inside corner. The Minnesota Twins starter didn't get the call, but he came inside again with his second pitch, this one 92 mph and well off the plate, but one that moved Gordon's feet just a little bit.

Those first two pitches might have put Santana in an early hole, but they sent a message, both to his fellow pitchers and to opponents that the Twins were going to try to be different this season in their hopes of turning around a 59-103 finish last season.

How do you fix a pitching staff that finished with the second-worst ERA in the majors last season (5.08), without any significant changes in mound personnel? Twins management and their coaching staff have put a multi-pronged plan into place. Now, it's just a matter of execution.

Behind the plate

Twins catchers ranked 27th last season in strikes looking rate above average. That’s a number that indicates whether a pitcher and catcher are getting calls, both on pitches they should and pitches they shouldn't.

One of executive vice president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine's first moves this season was to sign former Astros catcher Jason Castro to a three-year deal. Though three years and $24.5 million might have seemed like an overpay for someone who hit .211 and .210 the past two seasons, Castro’s skill is in his work at getting called strikes for his pitchers. He ranked 14th out of 76 catchers in strikes looking above average. Falvey also changed backup catchers, bringing in Chris Gimenez, whose numbers hover around average in that stat, to replace Juan Centeno (who ranked among the worst).

It’s amazing what going from bad to slightly above average can do for a staff. The Twins pitching staff has a 3.17 ERA, which ranks sixth in the majors through 16 games.

"In spring training, [Castro] had pitcher-catcher relationship meetings," Twins pitching coach Neil Allen said. "He talked to each guy about this pitch and that pitch, how he was going to receive it and how he was going to let the ball travel and not reach for it. He opened up the eyes of our guys. He’s been fantastic in how he communicates with our pitchers."

Confirmed Santana: "We’re on the same page all the time. We worked in spring training and we’ve brought that to games."

Nick Wosika/Icon SportswireThe Twins signed catcher Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal.

In the field

The Twins have a great ERA, but it’s not necessarily a deserved one. Their fielding independent pitching, an estimate of what the ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed is just below 4.00. One of the ways a pitching staff can be better than its FIP is to excel defensively, and the Twins have.

Last season, the Twins had some major defensive holes, particularly when they played Robbie Grossman and Miguel Sano in the corner outfield spots. Grossman moved to designated hitter, and Sano to third base. In their place, the Twins have better athletes sandwiching center fielder Byron Buxton with Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right. Again, upgrading from not good to average can do wonders. Twins corner outfielders combined for minus-31 defensive runs saved last season. This season, they’re average. And Buxton, despite not hitting, has flourished with a couple of phenomenal extra-base hit saving catches.

"They’re all young, they’re all good, they’re all quick," Allen said of the current trio. "They get good breaks and good jumps. They’re situated better. They’re moved around depending on each individual’s style of pitching. You get behind in the count, our pitchers trust our outfield [to make plays] now."

"They catch everything," Santana said.

The Twins’ infield defense has similarly done its part. The Twins rank fourth in the AL with 10 defensive runs saved this season and have the highest rate of turning batted balls into outs of any team (74.6 percent). They ranked last in the latter last season.

Mechanics and strategy

Four of the five starting pitchers in 2017 ended 2016 in the team’s rotation (the exception being rookie Adalberto Mejia). The bullpen is almost entirely the same, save for 36-year-old middle relievers Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow.

This isn’t a pitching staff that blows you away. It averages the fewest strikeouts per nine innings of any team in the majors. Getting the most out of them requires creativity and work.

This takes us back to those first two inside fastballs that Santana threw this season. At the start of spring training, Allen told all of his pitchers that they would be pitching inside with greater frequency, both for strikes and for effect, that throwing strikes with the four-seam fastball was a high priority, and that they’d be pitching up in the zone as well.

This was emphasized during spring training side sessions, where pitchers wouldn’t be allowed to do anything else until they executed Allen’s plan.

"We know that the inside fastball is very effective," Allen said. "The ball’s on the hitter a lot quicker. We’re doing it more this year. It has to be done. Last year, we went down and away more than we should have. We’ve got to control the inner-half better."

It’s early, but the Twins lead the majors in the percentage of pitches thrown to the inner-third of the plate or off the corner. They also have the sixth-highest rate of fastballs thrown to the upper-third of the strike zone or over the top of the zone.

The second component to this is making sure his pitchers can execute such a plan. That required some mechanical tweaks. Allen got to Santana last year when he noticed Santana’s front shoulder flying open and gave him a drill that fixed the issue within two starts. Since last June 19, Santana has the best ERA in the majors (2.06) and has a 0.64 ERA with nine hits allowed in 28 innings in 2017.

With veteran lefty Hector Santiago, who had a 5.58 ERA in 11 starts last season, Allen came up with a change that kept Santiago’s left elbow even with or higher than his shoulder, ensuring his pitches would have movement. In four starts this season, Santiago has a 2.19 ERA.

The Twins moved righty Tyler Duffey and his 6.43 ERA to the bullpen. In five outings, he’s started to establish himself as reliable for multiple innings, with a 2.00 ERA. The tweak there was simply ensuring that Duffey’s release point was consistent. Extra work between appearances has produced success.

"It’s important we come out of the gate stronger this year," Allen said. "Last year was a disaster out of the gate. These guys are now aware they can compete and they felt good about themselves."

The other step in this is in game-planning. Falvey, formerly the Indians assistant GM, and Levine, formerly with the Rangers, brought a more data-driven approach than his predecessor, Terry Ryan. As such, the Twins' advanced scouting reports are different from what they’d provided their players in the past.

"We recognize how Phil Hughes' stuff is different from Kyle Gibson's stuff," Allen said. "So we have individual reports for each pitcher. Before, we would get a report and it would say we pitch this guy this way and that guy that way. That doesn’t apply to everybody. Now we break down what each pitcher's stuff will do against that particular club."

And so far, everything’s gone according to plan. The Twins aren’t overwhelming opponents, but those who experienced the 59-103 season can tell you that things are a heck of a lot better.

"We’re enjoying the moment, keeping positive and having fun with what we’re doing," Santana said. "We can tell the difference compared to last year. We’re winning. That’s different."

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Mark Simon

Justin Verlander had the worst start of his career on Saturday, giving up 11 hits and nine runs over four innings in a 13-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians, and the Detroit Tigers responded exactly as you might expect in America circa 2017: with paranoia, conspiracy theories and crazy talk.

"For a day where I thought he had his best stuff all season, they seemed to be on quite a few pitches," catcher James McCann said. "What that is, I don't know. We're going to study film and see."

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsThe Tigers might blame the ball next for the Indians' success against Justin Verlander.

Manager Brad Ausmus proposed that maybe the Indians were stealing signs, explaining that McCann and Verlander used different signs during the game. "Sign stealing has become kind of a new fad in some clubhouses," he said, even though it's obviously not a fad. "They look at video. So we are in a constant state of trying to stay a step ahead."

Verlander seemed at a loss to explain what happened. "I feel like I threw some pretty good pitches today that they hit, and hit hard," he said. "I guess when you go to multiple signs with nobody on, you're just saying, 'Hey, it's a little fishy.'"

Verlander and McCann studied video for an hour after the game. Ausmus joined Verlander in another video session Sunday morning. By then, the tact shifted more to Verlander potentially tipping his pitches than the Indians stealing signs, which Verlander had some fun with on Monday:

Some of the paranoia stems from the fact that the Indians also beat up Verlander twice last season. On May 3, he allowed seven runs and eight hits in five innings. On June 26, he allowed eight runs, including four home runs in one inning. While the Indians have won eight of the past nine games Verlander has started against them, he did have three good outings against the Indians last season, although one of those came after the Indians had clinched the AL Central title and he faced a lineup of mostly backups and minor league call-ups.

Last October, Verlander also tweeted this during Game 1 of the Red Sox-Indians playoff series, a game in which the Indians hit three home runs off Rick Porcello:

That wasn't the first time the Indians faced accusations of sign stealing at Progressive Field. Verlander was paranoid enough in his September start there last season that he repeatedly stepped off the mound and had several conversations with his catcher even with nobody on base. Going back further, according to longtime Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes, former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams believed the Indians were stealing signs in the 1998 playoffs, and the Braves believed something fishy was going on in the 1995 World Series.

The Indians did have huge home/road batting splits last season. Their OPS was 136 points higher at home, and they scored 127 more runs there. The last non-Rockies team to achieve both of those differentials was the 2003 Rangers. (Splits for Indians pitchers were pretty even, with a .724 OPS allowed at home versus .696 on the road.)

Of course, there's sign-stealing in baseball, such as a runner on second base trying to read the catcher's hand signals, and there's a more nefarious form that may involve coded signals from spies in the outfield. The most famous of these cases was the 1951 New York Giants, who used a telescope and electronic buzzer system. Last year, a suspicious guy in a Padres polo shirt was spotted in the center-field camera well at Petco Park with a walkie-talkie and binoculars; the Padres said he was a security official. In 2010, the Phillies' bullpen coach was seen with a pair of binoculars looking in toward home plate. After an investigation, no conclusive evidence was found, although the Phillies were issued a warning. When Bobby Valentine was managing the Mets in 1997, opponents suspected him of using cameras.

Indians manager Terry Francona has heard it all before. After the playoff game last October, he said, "You hear all the stories. I heard them all in Boston, how the guys in the bullpen were always giving signs. Once we found that out, we'd line them up out there, and they'd all do different stuff just to aggravate the other teams. I've heard about the guy in Toronto up in center field for years. [Josh] Beckett swore he was up there."

Indeed, for several years around 2009-11, players believed something fishy was going on in Toronto, but those rumors died down after Toronto's home/road splits normalized. That could be the case in Cleveland. The Indians' splits weren't as extreme in 2015, with the hitters faring better at home and the pitchers faring worse, indicating Progressive just played as a good hitter's park that season.

It's also worth noting that the four-homer inning off Verlander last June came in Detroit, not Cleveland, which perhaps tips the story back to, well, tipping pitches. Here's the hit chart from Saturday with all the pitches in the plate appearances in which the Indians got their 11 hits:

ESPN Tru Media

The blue dots are the hits, and while Verlander did get some pitches up in the zone, the location of the pitches wasn't bad, with only one hit off a pitch in the center of the zone. Here are the three home runs the Indians hit:

Jose Ramirez homered off a 1-1 fastball. Carlos Santana smoked a first-pitch curveball, and Lonnie Chisenhall hit a first-pitch fastball. One thing mentioned was the Indians didn't have any problems with Verlander's curveball, although he threw just eight of them on Saturday. They swung at four and didn't miss any. Here are the results against his curveball the past two seasons:

Overall: 38 percent swing rate, 22 percent miss rate, .190/.218/.289
Indians: 20 percent swing rate, 11 percent miss rate, .350/.350/.650

They do seem more locked in on the curve than other teams. Is that from seeing him more often? Anticipating his pitch selection? Or is Verlander tipping something?

Or, like so much of what happens in baseball, is this just a random string of events? If the Indians do know something, it seems exclusive to them. Verlander's start Friday is against the Minnesota Twins, a team he dominated last year with 30 strikeouts in three starts (and they didn't get a single hit off his curveball). I suspect Verlander will pitch a great game. After all, the Twins aren't in his head.

Eric Thames, Milwaukee BrewersJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesEric Thames' eight homers have him and his teammates jumping for joy.

Just like any other small slice of the season, crazy things can happen in a 15- or 16-game sample. When it happens at the start of the season, however, it's like we all turn into Howard Beale in "Network" and go a little bit crazy. I like to point out that the Cubs went 5-15 over one stretch last season. Kris Bryant won National League MVP honors, but over one 25-game stretch he hit just one home run and drove in four runs. The Twins lost 103 games, but had a 12-6 stretch from July 2-23. Anything can happen over three weeks.

Still, beginning-of-the-season numbers and trends are fun to examine. Here are a few noteworthy ones and what they may mean.

Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers: .408/.500/.959, 8 HRs

This is how you become a fan favorite:

1. Sign with a team because you say the city has great beer and "I love beer."
2. Hit like Babe Ruth.

Not everyone is buying Thames' hot start. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and starter John Lackey both seem to be hinting at PEDs with Bosio saying, "So, yeah, it's a head-scratcher because nobody knows who this guy is" and Lackey winked and told reporters Thames' performance "makes you scratch your head."

I don't know, maybe the Cubs need to get tested for fleas.

One other thing Bosio said is that Thames is "doing stuff that I haven't seen for a long time." What? Guys get hot for 15 games all the time. I picked a random date, last Aug. 1-15. Ryan Braun hit .381/.449/1.000. (OK, maybe not the best example.) Charlie Blackmon hit .429/.478/.937. Heck, from Aug. 16 to Aug. 31, Bryant hit .443/.533/.902, so Bosio saw somebody on his team hit like this just last summer. Gary Sanchez hit .429/.515/1.018 that same stretch. The Cubs win a ring and start whining like Red Sox fans.

Will Thames keep it up? I'll buy that he's legit because he's clearly a much smarter hitter than he was before he went to South Korea. A free-swinger before, he's now laying off pitches out of the strike zone, with one of the lowest chase rates in the game. He has talked about how playing in South Korea, where they throw a lot more breaking balls and didn't challenge him as much, forced him to improve his plate discipline. That's a big reason for his start.

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves: .407/.500/.852, 6 HRs

There's a case to be made that Freeman is now the best hitter in the NL. Yes, Bryce Harper looks like the Harper of 2015 and Bryant is the reigning MVP, but Freeman looks like he's maintaining the power surge from his blitz through the league in the second half of last season. What makes Freeman so impressive is his power is to all fields. Look at all the opposite-field home runs in 2016 and this season:

Freddie Freeman graphic -- SchoenfieldESPN TruMedia

If the new park plays as a more of a hitters' park than Turner Field, Freeman should improve on the 34 home runs he hit last season.

Avisail Garcia, Chicago White Sox: .423/.483/.654

I'm not buying this one. Yes, he dropped a lot of weight and some in the organization believe nearly getting released over the winter was a wake-up call. His plate discipline has been a little better, so maybe he'll improve on 2016's numbers, but I'll be surprised if he ends up close to .300.

Bad bullpens?

When the Cubs rallied from a five-run deficit against the Brewers on Tuesday, it was already the sixth time a team overcame a deficit of five or more runs to win a game. The Angels and Astros did it twice, the Mariners and Cubs once. The sixth such victory last season didn't come until May 28.

Those games are rare and maybe it's just a weird oddity that there were so many big comebacks this early. Let's compare leads after six, seven and eight innings and how often teams are winning those games compared to 2016:

2016
Leading after six: 1,838-290 (.864 winning percentage)
Leading after seven: 1,983-192 (.912)
Leading after eight: 2,106-92 (.958)

2017 (entering Thursday)
Leading after six: 168-33 (.836)
Leading after seven: 182-21 (.897)
Leading after eight: 191-8 (.960)

So the percentages are down a bit in the seventh and eighth innings, but the Mariners' blowing a six-run lead in the ninth notwithstanding, the ninth-inning guys have been just as effective.

Overall bullpen numbers look pretty similar:
2016: 3.93 ERA, 22.7 percent SO rate, 9.0 percent BB rate, .246 average
2017: 3.90 ERA, 23.8 percent SO rate, 9.6 percent BB rate, .237 average

(Starters' ERAs, however, are down from 4.34 to 3.88, which may not mean anything just yet because most rotations are healthy at the start of the season.)

Rockies' bullpen ERA: 2.62

Team trends this early can be just as dubious as individual numbers, but this may be the most important team split/breakdown so far. The Rockies had the worst bullpen in the majors last year, but the addition of Greg Holland and Mike Dunn, plus a healthy Adam Ottavino, have given the Rockies a stellar back-end group. The pen has allowed 40 hits in 55 innings with 65 K's and just 15 walks and two home runs.

When the Rockies have been good -- making the playoffs in 2007 and 2009 -- they've had good bullpens. Considering it can be difficult to get length out of your starters playing half your games in Coors Field, having a deep bullpen is vital to the Rockies' success. The 2007 World Series team ranked sixth in the NL in bullpen ERA (impressive given its home environment) and had seven relievers who pitched at least 48 innings with an ERA under 4.00. The 2009 pen wasn't as good, although closer Huston Street was 35 for 37 in save opportunities.

Shelby Miller, Arizona DiamondbacksThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesShelby Miller has rediscovered his mechanics and the D-backs are the beneficiaries.

Diamondbacks' rotation: Stellar

With the Rockies and Diamondbacks off to good starts, maybe we'll get some new blood in the NL West. Arizona had the second-best rotation ERA in the NL behind the Mets entering Thursday as all five starters have had their moments. While I have to mention Robbie Ray's strikeout rate -- 24 in 18 1/3 innings! -- the encouraging bright spot has been Shelby Miller rediscovering his mechanics. Through three starts, he has a 17-7 SO/BB ratio in 18 innings with 16 hits allowed. If they get solid performances from Taijuan Walker and Patrick Corbin -- and stay heathy -- the rotation could keep the D-backs in the playoff race.

Michael Pineda, New York Yankees: 23 SO, 1 BB

When he got knocked out in the fourth inning in his first start, Yankees fans moaned, "Same old Pineda." In other words, lots of strikeouts, few walks, but too many runs allowed. His next two starts have been stellar, however, and Buster Olney mentioned on Baseball Tonight that Yankees teammates believe Pineda has turned the corner, learning to invest in every pitch. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is still insane. We'll see if he can keep focused and minimize the pitches in the center of the zone. Remember, the Yankees are playing well without Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius. If Pineda is Masahiro Tanaka's wingman, watch out.

Cardinals' defense

Nobody liked the way the Cardinals played defense last year. They moved guys around too much, Matt Holliday lacked range in left field, and a weird Kolten Wong experiment in the outfield was quickly abandoned. So, for 2017: More stability in the infield, no Holliday, Dexter Fowler in center field and … MATT ADAMS IN LEFT FIELD?!?!

Entering Thursday, the Cardinals ranked last in the majors with minus-17 defensive runs saved. The Diamondbacks (minus-13) were the only other team with 10 runs. It's not just Adams, as Fowler, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty all rate below average and shortstop Aledmys Diaz has struggled. Looks like an issue to watch.

Marco Estrada, Toronto Blue JaysTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesIt hasn't been easy for Marco Estrada and the Toronto Blue Jays early this season.


Facing Chris Sale in an afternoon tilt at Rogers Centre, the Toronto Blue Jays ran out a lineup with Justin Smoak hitting cleanup and Darwin Barney, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the struggling Devon Travis and Ryan Goins filling up the final four spots. It went about as you might expect, as Sale tossed eight scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts. While Kendrys Morales homered off Craig Kimbrel in the ninth to tie the game, the Red Sox scored three runs in the 10th off Jason Grilli to win 4-1.

The Blue Jays are 3-12.

I also believe they're done. The regulars at Tim Hortons might disagree, but I have trouble seeing the Blue Jays digging themselves out of this hole. No team that started 3-12 has made the playoffs in the wild-card era. That alone isn't reason to write them off; three teams that started 4-11 have made the postseason -- the 2000 Giants, 2001 A's and 2007 Phillies -- and 4-11 isn't much different from 3-12.

I see an old team. Seven of the nine regular position players are 30 or older, as are their top bench players. Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin -- while not this bad -- are clearly past their primes.

I see a team with a shaky bullpen. Grilli is 40 years old, and maybe Joe Biagini will supplant him as the top setup guy, but the depth behind closer Roberto Osuna is questionable -- and Osuna started the season on the disabled list.

I see a team that's already hurting. Josh Donaldson is out two to four weeks with his calf injury. J.A. Happ is on the DL with elbow inflammation, and Aaron Sanchez is on the DL with a blister issue. Maybe those are all minor injuries, but the rotation last season barely missed a start, with the top five guys all making at least 29. They only needed seven starters all season, with the seventh guy making just two starts.

I see a team playing in a tough division. The Yankees and Rays might be tougher than last season.

It's worth noting that the Blue Jays got off to a slow start last season too. They were 19-23 on May 18. Like last year, they'll need the rotation to carry them. Maybe it will.

The man is hotter than the planet Venus in summertime.

Eric Thames does it again:

The Brewers beat the Cardinals 7-5. After I declared Carlos Martinez a Cy Young contender after his first start, when he allowed no runs and fanned 10 against the Cubs, he's reeled off three consecutive junk outings. DON'T OVERREACT TO ONE START! HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE TOLD YOU THIS?! The Brewers, meanwhile, are playing some fun baseball and lead the majors with 32 home runs. At 6-10, the Cardinals are off to their worst 16-game start since 1997 (also 6-10). That's how good the Cardinals have been: They don't usually get off to slow starts.

Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley pitched back-to-back good games and the world is still spinning.

After Jimenez threw 7⅔ scoreless innings for the Orioles on Wednesday, Miley followed it up with another impressive effort against the Reds, matching his career high with 11 strikeouts over eight innings. Baltimore would win 2-1 in 10 innings. The O's are off to a 10-4 start despite little production from Manny Machado (.176, two HRs) and Mark Trumbo (.255, one HR) and, so far, haven't missed closer Zach Britton while he's on the DL.

James Paxton gives up a run and the world keeps spinning.

The Mariners were feeling good. After that rotten start, they had climbed back to 7-9 and had Paxton going, the guy who hadn't allowed a run in his first three starts. Beat the A's and you're a win away from .500. Instead, this happened:

Paxton ended up giving up nine hits in 4⅓ innings, although he ended up with a no-decision (if you care about pitcher wins and losses). His ERA rose to 1.78, which leaves Oakland's Andrew Triggs as the remaining starter with a 0.00 ERA (he's allowed three runs, all unearned).

Quick thoughts ... Good read from USA Today's Bob Nightengale on David Freese's lifelong battle with depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse and how he's changed since leaving the Cardinals, a reminder that players often have stuff going on off the field we don't always know about. ... The A's lead the American League in extra-base hits. ... Good game in Texas as the Rangers beat the Royals 1-0 in 13 innings. Credit to the much-maligned Texas bullpen for seven innings of one-hit relief. It was the sixth victory in franchise history in which the Rangers allowed no runs in 13-plus innings but the first since 1990. Since the franchise began, only the Mets, with eight such wins, have more. ... Because you have to mention Frank Tanana whenever you can: Noah Syndergaard had 10 K's and no walks matching Dwight Gooden with six such games before turning 25. Tanana, Madison Bumgarner, Jose Fernandez and Bert Blyleven had five. ... But Syndergaard lost! Some shaky Mets defense, including a miscommunication at first base between Syndergaard and Neil Walker on a flip from first baseman Jay Bruce, didn't help. ... We mentioned Ryan Zimmerman in Wednesday's roundup and how he's worked on getting more lift in his swing. He homered again in the Nats' 3-2 win over the Braves.

This is what I love about baseball. A random Wednesday in the middle of April featuring enough plot twists that I could write 10,000 words on everything that happened today. We'll try to keep it to 1,000 (I'll go over). We start with Bryce Harper, who went 4-for-4 with a walk, a grand slam, another home run, five RBIs and a hustle double when the Washington Nationals were up 7-3 in the eighth. That led two batters later to a Ryan Zimmerman grand slam as the Nationals finished with 20 hits in a 14-4 pounding of the Atlanta Braves.

Harper's two home runs came off Atlanta ace Julio Teheran in the first and second innings, and he now has hit seven home runs off Teheran in his career. Among active batter-pitcher matchups with at least 30 plate appearances, the only hitter with a higher slugging percentage than Harper against Teheran is Anthony Rizzo against Wily Peralta.

Harper already has two 4-for-4 games this season. Only DJ LeMahieu had three 4-for-4 games last season. So Harper is locked in, hitting .404/.516/.846. That's scary enough for the Nationals opponents, but what makes this lineup the best in the National League right now is Zimmerman's hot start. He's at .380/.426/.720 with four home runs. Zimmerman's numbers were terrible last season, but there was one metric hidden in his numbers that said he wasn't washed up: He had excellent exit velocity numbers; however, he'd hit too many balls on the ground. He followed the advice of teammate Daniel Murphy and worked on changing his launch angle. Look at Murphy's explanation back in February (via Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post):

Ryan ZimmermanJason Getz/USA TODAY SportsRyan Zimmerman was 3-for-5 in the Nationals' mashing of the Braves on Wednesday, with his four RBIs coming on this eighth-inning grand slam.

"All these [Nats] think I'm crazy, but I want to hit the ball in the air [every time], optimally at about 25 degrees at 98 miles per hour. Those are home runs. Ryan's exit velocity last year was elite [14th in baseball, at 94.1 mph]. He's just looking to take his already elite skill of putting bat to ball and [achieving high] exit velocity off the barrel and get it at the right angle. Now we're really starting to do some serious damage."

So far, so good. Add in Murphy picking up where he left off in 2016, Adam Eaton getting on base at a .400 clip, and Matt Wieters producing, and the lineup looks much deeper than last year, especially once the Nats get Trea Turner back. It looks like the best in the National League to me.

Where have you gone, Willie Hernandez? Oh, man, this will go down as one of most excruciating defeats of the season. Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez was about to work out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam with a double play, but Jose Iglesias tripped on second base and threw the ball away, allowing two runs to score as the Rays won 8-7. To add insult to injury, Iglesias took a knee to the head and will be monitored Thursday. I've never seen anything like it before.

But that's not all. The Tigers also dropped two fly balls, but instead of blaming the roof in Tampa, both Ian Kinsler and manager Brad Ausmus blamed ... the fans. As in, they were yelling from the stands and messing with the Tigers. What, is this Little League? You can't use that excuse. Kinsler sort of couched it by explaining that there was nobody there, so you could hear everything. So give half of this win to Rays fans.

The long-term issue here is K-Rod and his 87-mph "fastball." He has two blown saves, has given up 10 hits and two home runs in 6⅔ innings, and while his job isn't in jeopardy just yet, you have to wonder if Justin Wilson or even Joe Jimenez will eventually take over. Then again, I've been second-guessing Rodriguez for five years, so he'll probably convert his next 30 opportunities.

Cardinals win 2-1, rinse, repeat: The Cardinals swept the Pirates, with all three games 2-1 victories. Dexter Fowler finally broke out of his early slump with two home runs, both off Gerrit Cole, and Matt Carpenter saved the day in the eighth when he snared Gregory Polanco's grounder with two out and the bases loaded (although Carpenter's error had helped set up the bases-loaded jam). Trevor Rosenthal got the save with a two-strikeout ninth, and if St. Louis can get him back to where he was a few years ago that's a huge boost for the bullpen. As for the Pirates, every series so far has been a sweep: Swept by Boston, swept Atlanta, swept by Cincy, swept the Cubs, and then swept by the Cardinals. Clint Hurdle must be popping the antacid pills.

Aaron Judge did a thing only strong men can do: The Yankees are 10-5 and doing this without Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius. But enough with the analysis. Here's the highlight:

Plays of the day: Last season, with Edinson Volquez pitching for the Royals, Jarrod Dyson robbed Christian Yelich of a home run. Wednesday, with Volquez now pitching for the Marlins, Yelich robbed Dyson, now with the Mariners, of at least a triple and maybe an inside-the-park home run with a spectacular catch as he smashed face-first into the wall at Safeco Field. The two plays:

Yelich stayed in the game and even homered later off Felix Hernandez, although the Mariners won 10-5. Here's the thing, the highlight of the game wasn't even Yelich's catch or Giancarlo Stanton's 448-foot home run that left one poor unsuspecting fan with a spilled adult beverage:

No, the play of the game was Ichiro Suzuki's ninth-inning home run, a treat for the fans who cheered him on for 12 seasons, and the perfect swan song if this is the final game he ever plays in Seattle. You have to remember, the Mariners were awful for much of Ichiro's career there, a bright spot along with King Felix amid all the blight. The affection for him is similar to the way Yankees fans love Don Mattingly, who persevered through many non-playoff seasons in the 1980s and early '90s. Ichiro says he wants to play until he's 50, but his future after this season is unknown and there is the distinct possibility this will be the final home run of his career. At 43, he's also the oldest player to homer since 48-year-old Julio Franco in 2007.

My colleague Jim Caple reports that the fan who caught the ball gave it to Ichiro in exchange for an autographed bat. Ichiro on the home run: "When I saw the ball go over the fence I had to pinch myself to make sure that that really happened. I'm grateful that happened. ... I will definitely remember this one."

Quick thoughts ... Check out the reaction of this young Cubs fan after he gets tickets to a game. ... Angel Pagan announced he's going to sit out the season. A little odd that nobody signed him, but he's really just a fourth outfielder at this point and maybe he was holding out for a starting opportunity. ... The Blue Jays got a much-needed victory with a 3-0 shutout of the Red Sox. Francisco Liriano was dominant early but ran up his pitch count and lasted just 5⅓ innings, so good job by the bullpen to finish it off. The Red Sox lead the majors with a .289 average but are last with only seven home runs. They're averaging 4.3 runs per game, way down from last season's 5.4. Getting Hanley Ramirez going (zero home runs) will help. ... Two young shortstops struggling: Tim Anderson and Dansby Swanson. Anderson was criticized for signing a six-year, $25 million extension -- a great deal for the White Sox if he plays the way he did as a rookie -- but he's hitting .164 with 14 K's and one walk. Same thing with Swanson: 16 K's, two walks and a .131 average. Gotta control the zone. ... Jay Bruce hit two more home runs, driving in all five runs for the Mets in a 5-4 victory over the Phillies. ... Seems as if the Royals haven't been good, but they're 7-7 after beating old nemesis Madison Bumgarner 2-0 behind Jason Vargas. ... Amir Garrett lost 2-0 but fanned 12 for the Reds and threw 71 of 97 pitches for strikes. He looks poised and confident and is throwing more strikes than he did in the minors. ... The Cubs rallied again, beating the Brewers on Addison Russell's three-run, walk-off home run. One key: Joe Maddon used closer Wade Davis in the top of the ninth, even while down by a run. Most managers wouldn't have done that. ... Besides Iglesias, keep an eye on Lucas Duda, Travis d'Arnaud and Jayson Werth, who all left with injuries. ... Finally, a great note from Mark Simon on Dallas Keuchel, who was very good again for the Astros: Keuchel is excelling at keeping his pitches down in the zone. His rate of pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone by start: 75 percent, 65 percent, 82 percent, 66 percent. His rate last season was 56 percent. His strike rate with pitches down in the zone is 62 percent; last season it was 55 percent.

The box score says Rafael Montero was tagged with the loss, as the Philadelphia Phillies beat the New York Mets 6-2 in 10 innings on Tuesday. Montero was definitely awful, as he allowed four hits and four runs while retiring just one batter and giving up several rockets in the process.

The Mets, however, should have won the game before Montero appeared. In the top of the eighth, with two outs and the Mets leading 2-1, Jose Reyes dropped a little pop fly along the third-base line, perhaps a little wary of bumping into catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who was standing a few feet away. Andres Blanco then doubled to tie the game. That's an inexcusable error.

The Mets have five outfielders. What they don't have is a third baseman. Reyes is hitting .100/.182/.140. Besides maybe Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, he has been the least valuable player in the majors. You might be shocked to hear this, but Mets fans are upset:


It will be interesting to see how long a leash Mets manager Terry Collins extends Reyes. He is a below-average third baseman, and he doesn't run much anymore, so any potential value he has is tied to his bat, which was basically league average last year once the Mets signed him after his domestic violence suspension. Given that history, there's even less reason to keep him around. Wilmer Flores can put up decent enough numbers at the plate, and there's always the ghost of David Wright potentially returning. There's also the possibility of a trade down the road; Mike Moustakas, for example, would be a nice trade-deadline acquisition if the Royals fall out of it.

What do you think? Does Reyes last the season as the Mets' third baseman?

Eric the dread. Speaking of players struggling, Eric Hosmer went 1-for-4 in the Royals' 2-1 loss to the Giants in 11 innings, which puts his season line at .200/.259/.260. He hit into an inning-ending double play with two runners on in the 10th.


What is Rany alluding to? Well, earlier in the day while perusing this thing called the internet, I came across this excellent breakdown of Hosmer's slow start. As author Craig Brown pointed out, Hosmer has pulled the ball in the air once all season. As he wrote, that's a "disgusting spray chart for a cleanup hitter." Here's what it looks like:


Hosmer's hit Tuesday was a little flair to right field, but you can see the problem: Everything is on the ground. This has essentially been Hosmer's problem his entire career, and it's why he has reached 20 home runs just once. He hits the ball hard ... but on the ground. His 25 home runs last season came at the expense of more strikeouts and a lower average and OBP. He was a league-average hitter, which isn't great for a first baseman.

Anyway, Rany is right. Hosmer will never be anything special unless he learns to add loft to his swing, as players such as Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner famously did to turn their careers around. Hosmer is just 27 and heading to free agency. It's probably too much to ask for him to rehaul his swing during the season, but he isn't going to cash in next winter unless he starts hitting fewer grounders and more fly balls that tap into his natural power potential.

Mookie Betts strikeout note of the night. We're going to keep writing about our man Mookie because we have great appreciation for what he's doing in this age of strikeouts. He went 3-for-5 with no strikeouts in Boston's 8-7 win over Toronto, and his K-less streak hit 128 plate appearances. He also hit his first home run of the season -- and just his second during this streak. Considering he hit 31 home runs last year, it will be interesting to see how Betts' power plays out in 2017. Going back to the beginning of last September, he has homered just twice in 157 at-bats, although he has hit .325.

FYI: The longest strikeout-less streak of the expansion era (since 1961) is Dave Cash's 223-PA streak for the Phillies in 1976. He fanned just 13 times in 727 PAs. What's kind of remarkable is that he didn't hit .300, with a .284 mark. To some extent, his streak shows how the game has changed: If you're never striking out and not hitting .300, you aren't hitting the ball hard all that often. Indeed, Cash hit just one home run and just 27 extra-base hits that season. That style of hitting -- just slap the ball in play -- is essentially nonexistent in today's game.


Quick thoughts on Starling Marte's suspension. Obviously, Starling Marte is a huge loss for the Pirates. Factor in Jung Ho Kang's absence due to his legal troubles in South Korea, and the Pirates are missing their top two offensive players from 2016 for the next 80 games. Manager Clint Hurdle moved Andrew McCutchen back to center field -- he of the minus-28 Defensive Runs Saved there last season -- and kept Gregory Polanco in left. McCutchen responded with two nice plays in a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals, including a long run into right-center to rob Mike Leake. Then McCutchen yelled, "This is my spot!" after the catch.

In one sense, I love McCutchen's showing a little attitude there, and it helps explain why managers are so reluctant to move star veterans off their positions. Then again, one nice play doesn't mean McCutchen is suddenly going to be good out there again, and Hurdle might have a big headache when Marte does return. The outfield defense was a problem before the suspension, with the Pirates converting the lowest percentage of fly balls into outs in the majors. For more, Buster Olney and Jerry Crasnick wrote about the suspension.

When mascots go wild. On Sunday, the Easter Bunny destroyed Teddy Roosevelt in the Presidents Race at Nationals Park, and now we have Astros mascot Orbit having a little fun with Mike Trout:


Who wears the jersey of the team's hitting coach? Apparently, this Padres fan!


Quick thoughts: The Marlins flirted with a combined no-hitter for the second time in three games, before Mitch Haniger singled off Kyle Barraclough with one out in the ninth. Meh, it's hard to get that excited about a combined no-no. Henderson Alvarez remains the last Marlin with a no-hitter. He threw one in September 2013 against the Tigers. ... Zack Wheeler continues to be a work in progress for the Mets. The stuff is there, but the command is shaky, as he threw 99 pitches in five innings. ... Kevin Gausman's start remains a bit concerning. Although the grand slam he gave up to Adam Duvall in a 9-3 loss was a wind-aided cheap shot in Cincinnati, his season totals of 12 walks and 13 strikeouts while averaging fewer than five innings per start are a problem. As with Wheeler, the pitch counts are way too high. ... Shout-out to Robbie Grossman and his .489 OBP. Why aren't the Twins batting him leadoff? ... Jose Ramirez looks great for the Indians, showing he can repeat or improve on his surprising 2016. ... There was a ridiculous ending in Atlanta. Down 3-1, the Braves loaded the bases with two outs when Shawn Kelley fanned Chase d'Arnaud swinging on a ball off the plate -- a swing that missed the ball by at least a foot. The Braves asked for a review, and home plate ump CB Brucknor and his crew decided it was a tip. Luckily, Kelley fanned d'Arnaud again. ... We had an exciting ending at Dodger Stadium, in which Yasiel Puig just missed a three-run walk-off home run. The Dodgers scored twice off Greg Holland, but Adrian Gonzalez grounded out with the go-ahead runs on base, as the Colorado bullpen continued to do the job.

videoST. LOUIS -- One veteran scout who attended Tuesday night's Pittsburgh Pirates game in St. Louis described the blow of losing Starling Marte for 80 games.

"Kills them," he said.

Asked to elaborate, he didn't exactly make things sound any less debilitating for the Pirates after Marte, their rightful center fielder and most valuable player, got hit with a suspension for using the performance-enhancing drug Nandrolone.

"It's not good," he said. "It hurts them defensively. It hurts their power. It hurts their speed. He's the best athlete on the team."

It's hard to overestimate the impact, psychologically and otherwise, of losing a player like Marte, midstream, for a reason other than injury. So the Pirates didn't underestimate it. They copped to the pain it will inflict. Their clubhouse was quiet before Tuesday night's game, and it was quieter still after a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals.

"It's hard to lose a player like that for 80 games," Gregory Polanco said after the game. "You know the impact Marte made on us. You have to play, you know. This is our job. We have to go through this, and you have try not to think about it during the game."

That's easier said than done, apparently. The news seemed to stop the Pirates' momentum dead in its tracks. They came into this series off a rousing sweep of the world champion Cubs at Wrigley Field to play a 3-9 Cardinals team that wasn't doing many things right.

Starling MarteJoe Sargent/Getty Images"It's hard to lose a player like that for 80 games," Gregory Polanco said of Starling Marte's suspension. "You know the impact Marte made on us. You have to play, you know. This is our job."

In the first two games in St. Louis, against mid-rotation pitchers Lance Lynn and Mike Leake, the Pirates scored a total of one run, losing both games. They looked as lifeless as can be. This is the kind of news that can send a team sinking to the depths immediately.

Three pitches into Tuesday's game, the Pirates felt the sting of losing their most dynamic defender. Adam Frazier, playing right field because of Marte's absence, kicked a ball that ricocheted off the wall, turning a Dexter Fowler double into a triple. Fowler scored on Stephen Piscotty's checked-swing dribbler that might as well have been a squeeze-play bunt. In other words, the margin of defeat wouldn't have existed, most likely, had Marte been in center and Andrew McCutchen in right.

Going into this season, the Pirates shuffled their outfield defense out of desperation. Last year, they converted only 88.6 percent of fly balls into outs, the second-worst mark in the National League.

Asked how losing his most athletic outfielder would impact his team's ability to catch the ball, manager Clint Hurdle said before the game, “I'm not even going to go there.”

McCutchen's defensive liabilities in center, which forced a difficult conversation for Hurdle in spring training, must have been a sore subject by Tuesday. Hurdle did, however, “go there,” eventually.

“We're going to put people out there. We're going to man every position. Time will tell,” Hurdle said. “There have been situations where, on paper, things look a certain way. The beautiful thing about this is, the people that analyze the game and the people who write about the game and the people who work the game, things happen. You don't have answers for them until you put men out there and give them the opportunity to play, and that's what I'm looking forward to.”

Then again, one year doesn't always predict the next. McCutchen rated last season as the worst center fielder in the league by defensive runs saved, but maybe he had such bad defensive numbers because he was hurt and wasn't letting on. He looks like he still has the ability to play a good center field. Playing shallow with Leake, a 160-pound pitcher, up in the third inning, McCutchen ran 98 feet to catch a deep drive into the right-center-field gap.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images"We're going to put people out there. We're going to man every position. Time will tell," Clint Hurdle said or replacing Starling Marte.

According to Statcast, Leake's drive would have been caught 63 percent of the time. That made it a decent, if not spectacular, play, but one that a significant number of center fielders wouldn't have made, perhaps including McCutchen last year.

After the running catch, TV cameras caught McCutchen demonstrably saying something that appeared to be, “This is my spot!” and pointing to the ground.

McCutchen also made a nice play to cut off Greg Garcia's double in the fifth inning, getting the ball to relay man Josh Harrison, who threw out Garcia at third.

“He's played there before, and he looked good out there tonight. He looked very good out there tonight,” Hurdle said. “I didn't anticipate him not looking good out there tonight.”

The Pirates are increasingly swimming in shark-infested waters in the NL Central. The Cubs, now that they won the World Series and built a system that could dominate for a decade, are no longer cuddly.

And the Cardinals, with a $1 billion TV deal kicking in next season, are intent on bridging the gap as quickly as possible. The Cardinals spent $110 million signing free agents Fowler and Brett Cecil over the winter, then followed with $144 million worth of extensions for homegrown players Yadier Molina, Carlos Martinez and Piscotty. They blew through their international spending limits in the last period, signing five Latin American players to bonuses of at least $1 million.

It's a neighborhood the Pirates have survived in well the past few seasons despite a sub-$100 million payroll. They actually trimmed $8 million from the payroll over the winter despite reportedly making $51 million in profit last year. Losing two of their best three players for off-the-field reasons just might take the fight out of them, for a while, too. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang, the third-most valuable Pirate by Baseball Reference WAR (Marte was first) is in South Korea, denied a work visa because of a third DUI conviction.

Marte has been the Pirates' most valuable player since 2015, with 7.5 fWAR since then. Pirates GM Neal Huntington tried to say the right things, that the Pirates have the depth to fill in, that guys will continue to play hard, but you could hear an air of desperation when he discussed the blow to his small-market team.

“We've got two next-man-up opportunities with off-field activities impacting what we're trying to do on the field, but we're going to come back to that organizational depth,” Huntington said. “This is what you prepare for.”

Can you ever truly prepare for something like this?

Eric Thames is making Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns look like a genius. He's making a lot of fantasy owners very happy. And he's definitely making major league pitchers look bad right now. He's the feel-good story of the season's first two weeks.

The first baseman went 3-for-4 with his seventh home run in the Brewers' 6-3 victory over the Cubs on Monday. He's hitting .405, slugging 1.000 and leads the majors in home runs while becoming the second player in Brewers history -- Jeromy Burnitz, step on over -- to homer in five consecutive games. Since the headline on this column is "Real or not?" the obvious question: Is Eric Thames for real? My short answer: I believe so.

Thames played in the majors with the Blue Jays and Mariners in 2011-12, and he did show some power, hitting 21 home runs in 633 at-bats. But he hit .250 with a low OBP and was a below-average outfielder. He spent the next season in the minors, then went to Korea. He was so good there, hitting .348 with 124 home runs in 388 games, that the fans nicknamed him "God." He had his own line of watches and wore a bright gold elbow protector. You'd think more teams would be interested in a player nicknamed God, but the Brewers signed him for three years and $16 million, chump change in today's game.

Before the season, Stearns had said "there is a wide range of outcomes" with Thames, but the statistical models forecast solid numbers (ZiPS projected .247/.321/.493 with 26 home runs). And you can bet the Brewers relied on similar models as well as the scouting reports that showed Thames had revamped his swing. The most impressive thing early on has been Thames' Joey Votto-like approach at the plate, swinging rarely (38.3 percent of the time) and rarely chasing out of the zone (15.5 percent). Compare that to 2011-2012 Thames:

2011-2012: 50.0% swing rate, 26.5% miss rate, 34.8% chase rate
2017: 38.3% swing rate, 25.3% miss rate, 15.5% chase rate

The change in approach looks like the big key. Once a hacker, now he's seeking out only pitches over the plate. Check out his plate coverage so far:

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For the Brewers, it was exactly the kind of signing a rebuilding team should try. They non-tendered Chris Carter, who hit 41 home runs last year, but in Carter you had a player who didn't provide much value even with all those home runs. So why not try a lottery ticket? Meanwhile, look at what some playoff contenders are doing at first base. Toronto elected to go with Justin Smoak yet again even though he's never been good; Thames has as many home runs as all of the Blue Jays. The Red Sox gave $5.5 million to Mitch Moreland, who is off to a nice start but was terrible last season with a .293 OBP; Thames has more home runs than all of the Red Sox. The Mariners are trying their luck with Danny Valencia. The Astros went with Yuli Gurriel, who looks overmatched with one extra-base hit and one walk so far. It appears Thames would have made all those teams better.

This may not be the year the New York Yankees finish under .500. With a 7-4 win over the White Sox, the Yankees have now won eight in a row, seven at home -- the first time they've won their first seven home games since 1998. Yankees fans may remember that year. Aaron Judge slugged his fourth home run and is hitting .275/.356/.650.

I wasn't sure Judge was ready to contribute after he struggled during his initial call-up to the majors last year, when he hit .179 with 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances. He's cut his strikeout rate from 44.2 percent to 28.9 percent, and if he can keep that under 30 percent, he's going to be a productive hitter. While Judge was blown away in the majors, his strikeout rate at Triple-A was 24 percent, which in turn was down from a 27 percent rate at Double-A and Triple-A in 2015. The point here is that while Judge has a reputation as a big swing-and-miss guy, his minor league K rates aren't horrible. Compare him to Joey Gallo, who had a 35 percent K rate at Triple-A.

I wonder if Matt Holliday has been a positive influence as well as a big guy with a patient approach who can take Judge under his wing. A couple of years ago, Judge told me at the Futures Game how Alex Rodriguez had been helpful in spring training, explaining how pitchers will attack a bigger guy. Holliday can continue that mentoring.

Mookie Betts versus Byron Buxton, a quick scientific study. Five days ago, Betts was hitting .150 and fighting the flu. Now he's hitting .325! This is why you never overreact to the first few weeks of the season. Anyway, that's now why I bring up Mookie. He's gone 123 regular-season plate appearances since his last strikeout, in the sixth inning last Sept. 12. (He did strike out once in the postseason and three times in spring training, but the record books consider only the regular season for these things. Don't yell at me; that's just the way it is.)

That's the longest streak in the majors since Juan Pierre of the Marlins went 147 plate appearances without a strikeout in 2004. Betts' streak is also the longest for a Red Sox player since Denny Doyle went 159 PAs in 1975. I vaguely remember Doyle; he was no Betts. Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Info reports that since Mookie's last whiff, four players have fanned at least 40 times: Byron Buxton, 49; Randal Grichuk, 44; Danny Espinosa, 44; Chris Davis, 41.

Ichiro returns to Seattle. Ichiro Suzuki made his second start of the season, and Mariners fans rewarded him with a standing ovation his first time up.

OK, this is all really just an excuse to run one of my favorite videos ever, when "Fake Ichiro" interfered with a fair ball back in 2011:

After I posted that on Twitter, however, I was told by @IchiroReport that this wasn't even the real Fake Ichiro. Apparently, there is a more famous Fake Ichiro in Japan called "Nichoro." So the guy in the video was only a fake "Fake Ichiro."

I love baseball.

Pop quiz: Who is the National League's top home run hitter?

Bryce Harper? Yoenis Cespedes? Nolan Arenado? Clearly it is Milwaukee's Eric Thames. (I kid, I kid. For now.) But what about Atlanta's Freddie Freeman?

Consider this: According to ESPN Stats & Information research, going back to June 15 of last season, Freeman's 29 homers are the most of anyone in the senior circuit. With a two-homer outburst in Monday's thrill-a-minute, 5-4 walk-off win over San Diego, Freeman has now homered five times in 12 games, after needing 30 games to get there a season ago.

"I feel good," Freeman said. "I've felt good pretty much since spring training. Hopefully I can keep this going."

Then there is SunTrust Park, the venue that -- four games in -- still has that new ballpark smell, and where the Braves seem intent to never lose. After completing a park-opening four-game sweep of the Padres, Atlanta has climbed back to .500 for the first time since, well, it was 1-1 this season. But before that, it was July 7, 2015. Atlanta lost its first nine games a season ago, but it is creating a whole new vibe in its new digs.

"It's neat," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "We've had some great ballgames and good weather, in a venue like this. And guys feed off that, too. They're coming out in droves and these guys enjoy that and appreciate playing in front of that."

Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsFreddie Freeman went 4-for-4 with two home runs and two doubles for the Braves on Monday.

And these very friendly confines promise to be particularly friendly for Freeman. He added a pair of doubles to his pair of homers during his 4-for-4 performance, giving him a career-best 12 total bases. It's the first time a Braves player has done that since Adam LaRoche on Sept. 15, 2009.

"He's going to like this park," Snitker said. "He's just been swinging the bat so good since day one. He's an elite hitter."

Freeman's first homer settled into the right-field seats, a section that is likely to get very well acquainted with Freeman home run balls. Based on a small sample size, it appears the ball will carry very well at STP, and the porch in right is tantalizingly close. They may have to name that section after him. Freddie Fence?

"It's a great place to play," Freeman said. "On a Monday night, fans came out and supported us, and we played good the whole game."

Another tricky aspect of that right-field portion is the brick facing that tops the wall. Freeman crushed his second double off the brick and it caromed wildly past scrambling San Diego right fielder Hunter Renfroe. Had the Padres not been in the shift, putting second baseman Yangervis Solarte in position to back up Renfroe, Freeman would have had a triple in his sights. And it's easy to envision some craziness on balls like that.

"I was thinking three until I saw Solarte get out there," Freeman said. "They played that one pretty well. But the ball really ricochets around over there."

Nineteen of Freeman's career-best 34 homers last season came on the road. Given the more friendly environs at STP and his quick start, that number could be in jeopardy. And it's not just the short porch, either, it's the carry that well-struck fly balls seem to have in all directions at the park. Freeman, who is a spray home run hitter if such a thing can be said to exist, hit his second homer to opposite field in left. And with his big night, Freeman's 1.347 OPS now ranks second in the majors to the aforementioned Mr. Thames.

"It's almost like I'm getting used to it," Snitker said. "He's such a good hitter, and his swing is just so short. Everything is just so simple. But it's not simple. Hitting is pretty hard."

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the Braves became the first team to open a new stadium with a four-game sweep since the 1972 Texas Rangers. If Freeman's dominance put them in position to do that, it was rookie Dansby Swanson who put Atlanta over the top. Freeman's second dinger tied the game 4-4 in the eighth. Swanson's bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth was the game winner.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDansby Swanson celebrates his game-winning hit in the ninth on Monday.

It was a much-needed boost for the touted rookie, who entered the game hitting .146, though he had more than a bit of tough luck on well-struck balls and played good defense through it all. Swanson grew up in the Atlanta area and, as a high schooler, admired Freeman's work from not so far away.

"He's amazing," Swanson said. "He's one of the best baseball players I've ever played with, for sure. The fact that he does it so consistently -- and you just watch him prepare and how precise he is with everything he does -- you can learn so much just from watching him. It's a joy playing with him."

Everything is fresh and new in Atlanta, and while the preseason forecasts suggest these kinds of high points might be few and far between, the Braves have rejuvenated their early season with this surge.

For Freeman, who doesn't like patting himself on the back all that much, the best thing about the night was that it got the Braves back to break-even. It's not time to calculate magic numbers just yet, but with division rival Washington arriving Tuesday, it's a start.

"It's a huge win for us right there," Freeman said. "Especially with a big series starting tomorrow. We don't give up. We had a big hit from Dansby and that was huge. We don't want anybody up there in that situation but him."

Swanson probably would have said the same thing about Freeman.

Andrew McCutchenPatrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

A consensus opinion heading into the 2017 season was that for the Pittsburgh Pirates to return to playoff contention, they needed Andrew McCutchen to get fixed.

McCutchen's disappointing 2016 was one of the main reasons the Pirates fell under .500. On the surface, his numbers didn't look terrible -- .256, 24 home runs -- but the underlying metrics tell the story of a player in decline. After he'd posted a .400 OBP four seasons in a row, that stat fell to .336. He created 34 fewer runs than in 2015 and 45 fewer than in 2014, and after adjusting for the increased offense around the majors, the season looks even worse. That doesn't account for the fielding metrics that suggested McCutchen was the worst regular center fielder in the majors, with minus-28 defensive runs saved.

In early August, I wrote that McCutchen's decline at his age was unprecedented for a superstar hitter. No player who was so good from ages 25 to 28 had fallen off so abruptly at age 29. A decline in exit velocity from earlier in the season seemed to indicate that McCutchen was probably playing through an injury, and he did hit much better after that, including .287 in September with six home runs.

That led to hope that a healthy McCutchen for 2017, now playing right field, could return to the old McCutchen at the plate. As the Pirates face the Cardinals on Monday night (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), it's too early to draw any conclusions from his numbers, which aren't impressive -- .250/.294/.438, two home runs in 48 at-bats –- but there is something that jumps out at me: Pitchers don't fear him. Sometimes that says more than any crunching of the numbers.

Here's what I mean. Check out the percentage of pitches in the strike zone since his breakout in 2012:

2012: 50.7 percent
2013: 49.4 percent
2014: 48.4 percent
2015: 47.2 percent
2016: 50.0 percent
2017: 55.7 percent

You see the pattern, right? As McCutchen grew into an MVP winner, he saw fewer pitches in the strike zone. That makes sense. Pitchers preferred to let somebody else on the Pirates beat them. That's one reason McCutchen drew a lot of walks, aside from his good eye at the plate. That rate of strikes increased last year, however, and has jumped way up so far this year. Again, it's too early to draw any surefire conclusion here, as maybe the Pirates have faced a collection of strike-throwers so far, but it seems like an indication that scouting reports are simply telling pitchers to challenge McCutchen.

McCutchen's strikeout rate rose last year while his walk rate dropped. The strikeout rate has stabilized in 2017, but the walk rate has plummeted even more. Well, no surprise here, as we just pointed out that McCutchen is seeing more strikes. That should lead to fewer walks and fewer strikeouts. In fact, his chase rate is at a career low, so he's walking less even though he's not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. On the other hand, despite seeing more hittable pitches, he's not doing more damage. His average exit velocity last year was 90.3 mph; it was 89.3 entering Sunday.

Here's my take: My fear is that McCutchen has simply lost some of his athleticism. While he was never a blazer, he stole as many as 33 bases and was over 20 each year from 2011 to 2013. Last year, he was just 6-for-13 on the bases. He hasn't attempted a steal this year. His declining metrics in center field point to a decline in speed as well, and if you don't believe the metrics, well, the Pirates moved him to right field for a reason. If you still aren't buying this premise, his percentage of extra bases taken on the basepaths declined from 64 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016 (well below the league average of 40 percent). Once an aggressive runner, he's now either slow or extremely cautious or some combination of both.

You might be thinking that loss of speed doesn't have anything to do with hitting. Just look at guys like Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz. That's true, but that doesn't mean that for some players they aren't related. McCutchen isn't a big, physical guy; he's a player who has relied on a precision of performance. He doesn't have the bat-to-ball skills of Cabrera, let alone the brute strength of an Ortiz. It's feasible that a small loss in that precision -- bat speed, foot speed, etc. -- has forged this new McCutchen who isn't quite as good.

Again ... it's early, small sample sizes and all that. The Pirates are coming off a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley, so they enter this series against the Cardinals with the opportunity to build a nice streak and bury their struggling rivals early in the season. Keep an eye on their outfield defense. In 2016, the Pirates were second worst in the majors in percentage of fly balls turned into outs. In 2017, they've been the worst. I hope I'm wrong. I'd love for McCutchen to go on a tear, hit a bunch of home runs and prove that he's not getting old at 30.

Here's the deal: I vote in our weekly Power Rankings. It's a fun little task and it's an unpleasant little task. It's especially unpleasant early in the season. Do we just rank teams by win-loss record? Do we still stick with our preseason projections? How much do you factor in Rich Hill's blister or Zach Britton's sore forearm or who is on a winning streak?

Dallas KeuchelTroy Taormina-USA TODAY SportsDallas Keuchel has been a key part of the Astros' early success.

There's no right answer. I mean, do I think the Blue Jays and Cardinals are the two worst teams in baseball right now? They've played poorly, no doubt, but do I think the Padres or Phillies are better? No, I do not. Am I worried about the Indians and their MLB-worst ERA? Not really, as they have a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate (but a terrible strand rate). Am I buying the Reds or Rockies? Not yet. Although if that Rockies bullpen holds together …

Anyway, I voted the Houston Astros No. 1 this week. I liked them at the start of the season and they've played well enough so far, with an 8-4 record. The main reason I like what I've seen is that Dallas Keuchel has looked really good, reminding of Cy Young Keuchel. He's getting great movement on his sinker, pounding the bottom of the zone and getting an insane rate of ground balls (84 percent). He looks like the ace everyone said the Astros lacked.

I also love Chris Devenski. This guy is a multi-inning relief weapon, possesses a deceptive delivery and a lethal changeup that needs a nickname. Wait … Google search … article from 2015, before he pitched in the majors, said teammates called the pitch The Circle of Death. Maybe. What do you think? I love the versatility in the outfield and the power in the lineup, and that's with Carlos Correa still sitting on one home run and Jose Altuve on zero.

This doesn't mean the Cubs aren't really still the best team. They haven't really done anything to suggest they're not, but, hey, it's hard to be excited about what they've done so far -- 6-6 and a series sweep at the hands of the Pirates. The bullpen has four of those six losses and they've hit just nine home runs in 12 games. If you liked them on April 1, you should still like them now, but it seems fair to anoint a new No. 1 until the temporary blindness from all the diamonds on those World Series rings goes away.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are probably OK. As frustrating as Rich Hill's blister issues are -- he was activated from the 10-day disabled list to start on Sunday, but lasted just three innings when the issues on his middle finger popped up again -- they have more starting pitching depth than any team in the majors.

Ross Stripling replaced Hill on Sunday and pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, although the Dodgers lost 3-1 to the Diamondbacks. Stripling made 14 starts as a rookie last year and could start again this year. Alex Wood is also in the bullpen and he already started once in place of Hill. Buried down at Oklahoma City to preserve innings is 20-year-old phenom Julio Urias, although he's off to a slow start with six walks in 8.1 innings. Brock Stewart is out until May with a shoulder issue and Scott Kazmir is in Arizona, reportedly throwing 74 pitches the other day, although topping out at 88 mph.

Figure in the current members of the rotation besides Hill -- Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu -- and the Dodgers have 10 viable starting pitcher options. But we knew this heading into the season. Even factoring in that McCarthy and Ryu were both injured last year and Maeda signed despite irregularities in his elbow, the Dodgers appear to have plenty of solutions if pitchers other than Hill start going down. Of course, we said this in 2016 and they ran through 15 starting pitchers, including the awful Bud Norris for nine starts.

This has been the mindset of the front office under Andrew Friedman. "Starting pitching has become the most overvalued in the industry because, outside of the aces, they are pitching less innings, with less starts as more depth is needed," Friedman told ESPN colleague Jim Bowden. "We have a tremendous amount of depth on the prospect side and at the major league end by design. Quantity is just as important as quality in today's baseball."

That's all good and reasonable, but here's my take: The Dodgers need Rich Hill to be great. As much success as the Dodgers have had in recent years -- four straight 90-win seasons, four straight NL West titles -- it's World Series or bust for the team with the majors' highest payroll. All that rotation depth wasn't there last October, when they started Kershaw once on three days' rest; Maeda three times even though he was obviously gassed (he lasted just 10.2 innings in three games); and the kid Urias, who got knocked out in the fourth inning in his National League Championship Series start.

The Dodgers' best chance to get to their first World Series since 1988 includes a healthy and dominant Hill in the rotation, and he has been dominant when he hasn't been sidelined by blisters (2.08 ERA since September 2015, but he also missed two months last season with blister issues). The catch for 2017 is the Dodgers may also need a healthy Hill for the regular season. The Dodgers have won 91, 92, 94 and 92 games during this run, but with the Diamondbacks and Rockies looking better so far -- the last time either finished above .500 was 2011 -- winning 91 games may not be as easy. The Dodgers may have to better just to get back to that same win level and avoid the wild-card scramble.

So, yes, this blister issue for Hill is a concern. Stay tuned.

Series of the year: The Mets and Marlins played an insane four-game series that should be as good as any series we'll see all season, with the Marlins taking three of four, including the final three in games started by Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey. The Mets won on Thursday in 16 innings; the Marlins won 3-2 on Friday on J.T. Realmuto's walk-off double; the Marlins won 5-4 on Saturday on back-to-back home runs by Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton off Fernando Salas in the eighth inning and, yes, I'm surprised as you that Fernando Salas is pitching important innings; and the Marlins took the finale on backup infielder JT Riddle's first major league homer, a two-out walk-off against Addison Reed. Dan Straily and the bullpen even took a no-hitter into the eighth inning.

As Don Mattingly said, "This is why people love baseball."

Dyson not cleaning up: The Texas Rangers' 4-8 start is mostly about Sam Dyson's bad start. He's now 0-3 with three blown saves and a 27.00 ERA after blowing a 7-6 lead to the Mariners on Sunday. He had pitched a clean inning on Saturday, apparently enough to convince Jeff Banister to trust him with the ball in the ninth. To be fair, there was some bad luck as Seattle scored two runs without getting the ball out of the infield. Jarrod Dyson singled off Dyson's hand and stole second. On Leonys Martin's bunt, Dyson turned to third but nobody was there. After another steal and intentional walk, he walked Mitch Haniger to tie the game and then Nelson Cruz's game-winning hit glanced off the glove of a diving Elvis Andrus.

Still, why take Matt Bush out of the game? He had struck out the side in the eighth, throwing just 11 pitches. Bush hadn't pitched in a week, although maybe Banister didn't want to push Bush after he had a tender shoulder examined earlier in the week. Then again, if Bush isn't healthy enough to throw more than 11 pitches, he shouldn't be on the roster. Bottom line on Dyson: He has struck out just two of the 31 batters he has faced. While he's not a big strikeout pitcher like other closers, instead relying on his hard sinker to get grounders, you're going to survive with that kind of strikeout ratio. Banister's late-game issues remain a problem.

Play of the day: Haniger not only had the game-tying walk and a three-run homer, but preserved a 6-6 tie in the eighth when he robbed Joey Gallo of a two-run homer.

Haniger has been the one Mariner producing at the plate, hitting .294/.410/.588. Sunday's win completed a much-needed series sweep for Seattle, with James Paxton tossing eight scoreless innings on Saturday to give him three scoreless outings to start the season (he has held batters to a .113 average).

Quick thoughts ...: Well, there's this:

Wondering if we're going to see more DL stints, especially for pitchers, with the new 10-day minimum instead of 15. ... Words I thought I'd never type: "Avisail Garcia is hitting .465." Garcia is one of my least favorite players, a corner outfielder with no power, doesn't walk, bad defender. His well-hit average is up and his chase rate is down, but he's still chasing more than 32 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, so I don't think his approach has altered all that much to get me to buy in. ... Jose Quintana was shelled again on Saturday as he walked five batters. Curse of the World Baseball Classic? ... The Pirates swept the Cubs at Wrigley because of course they did. A good sign considering the Cubs went 14-4 against the Pirates last season and outscored them 114-73. ... Jameson Taillon with a third straight strong outing on Sunday. He's the real deal. ... I'll wait a few more starts before pointing out Paxton and Taillon were on my breakout list for 2017. ... Adam Wainwright scuffled again, throwing 98 pitches in 4.2 innings on Sunday, this after that weird eight-walk, 11-strikeout start by Carlos Martinez on Sunday. Cardinals can't like the way the weekend at Yankee Stadium went. ... Not worried about the Indians, even with their MLB-worst 5.35 ERA. They're fourth in strikeout rate, sixth in lowest walk rate, but 29th in left-on-base percentage.

ATLANTA -- Maybe in a way, Bartolo Colon was destined to pitch for the Atlanta Braves, even if took him two decades to make his home debut for the franchise.

In his SunTrust Park debut, with his ninth big league club, Colon throttled San Diego over seven efficient innings as the Braves beat the Padres 9-2. Atlanta has won its first three games at SunTrust and four straight overall. Finally, the Braves are having as much fun as Colon always has.

“It’s refreshing to watch,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I love being around the guy. He’s just such an engaging, personable guy. And he does his job. He’s a pro, he prepares. You don’t play this long in the major leagues without knowing what you’re doing.”

And Colon has indeed being doing it for a long time. In fact, dig this: Twenty years and 12 days ago, on April 4, 1997, the Braves played their first game at Turner Field in downtown Atlanta, a 5-4 win over the Cubs.

Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBartolo Colon on Sunday earned his first victory with the Braves, the ninth team he's notched a win with.

According to one of those "on this day" sites, Bill Clinton was president, Puff Daddy topped the charts, and "Grosse Pointe Blank" was one of the biggest movies in the land.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Anaheim Angels hosted the Cleveland Indians. On the hill for Cleveland? A 23-year-old Dominican righty named Bartolo Colon, making his big league debut.

Colon didn’t get the win that day -- thanks to Paul Shuey's blown save -- but he’s won plenty since, logging career victory No. 234 on Sunday. That total has him within striking distance of a couple of lofty targets: Juan Marichal holds the record for wins by a Dominican-born pitcher with 243. Meanwhile, Dennis Martinez has the mark for all Latino-born hurlers with 245.

With a few more outings like Sunday’s, Colon will pass them this year, which is pretty amazing for a guy five weeks away from his 44th birthday. Colon was signed to a hefty, one-year, $12.5 million deal over the winter as the Braves sought a veteran stopgap for the rotation.

The hope was that Colon -- along with Saturday’s winner, R.A. Dickey, and Monday’s starter, Jaime Garcia -- would stabilize the staff as the club tries to compete while buying time for a stacked minor league system to do its thing.

“He did that against us a lot, what he did today,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman said. “It’s nice having him on our side.”

Colon allowed just one run and one hit -- both on a Ryan Schimpf homer -- and has sandwiched two terrific outings around a clunker at Miami.

But the fact that he returned to his unflappable ways on Sunday was no surprise to anyone.

Said Freeman, “He got knocked out in his last start, and when he looked at me, he was like, 'Next time, papi, next time.' He definitely was right on about that. He went out there and did his job. That’s what we signed those guys for, was to give us a chance to win.”

That playful demeanor, the one that endeared him to fans in New York the past few years, has already won over the hearts of Atlanta fans, who cheer for him vigorously whenever his name is announced, as if he has played for the club for a decade.

“The second I put on the shirt, I think the fans started giving us support,” Colon said. “Even before I put on the shirt, when I signed with the Braves, I started feeling the support from the fans. On my part, all I want to do is keep doing the best I can, keep pitching well, so we can get them to come out and support us for the rest of the season.”

The Braves got more than a veteran innings-eater when they signed Colon, and that’s likely why they spent so much on a 43-year-old starter.

They really landed a cult figure of sorts, which isn’t a bad thing to have for a team looking to build good will in its new suburban environs. Improbable as it seems, a 40-something, 5-foot-11, 280-pound hurler has injected youthful energy into the clubhouse.

“He’s very positive,” Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte said. “He knows he’s still got a lot to give. He’s always having fun. I like hanging out with him.”

Of course, the success of the Colon signing will depend less on his infectious personality and more on his ability to replicate the performance he had on Sunday. Or something close to it -- Colon’s game score (76) was the 18th-best of his 503 career starts, so that’s an awfully high bar.

“He was real efficient,” Snitker said. “He probably could have went back out. But when you look at the big picture, we’ve got six months left. He kind of got us to where we wanted him to go.”

Snitker snickered before making an observation about Colon’s personality that has to be the polar opposite of a skipper: “There is one guy that’s not going to die of a heart attack from stress, I know that. He’s fun. He’s probably experienced everything and more than all the rest of us put together in this clubhouse. Nothing bothers him.”

You have to wonder if all that positivity is the key to Colon’s longevity. He shrugs off the question. Who knows about such things? He just likes to pitch. It’s his happy place, and maybe that’s why he has such a calming influence on everybody else.

“I’ve always tried to pitch relaxed and be in a good place when it’s my turn,” Colon said. ”Like I tell everybody, the day it’s my turn to pitch is the happiest day of the week for me.”

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