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 should ask Teheran to throw to him in the next home run derby.— The Natidude (@TheNatidude) April 20, 2017
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):
"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.
Tigers Live covering this like the Zapruder film.— Neil Weinberg (@NeilWeinberg44) April 20, 2017
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.
You go deep twice, you tip your cap. pic.twitter.com/SeREYsYY94— MLB (@MLB) April 19, 2017
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:
Revenge is a dish best served robbed. pic.twitter.com/st6sPmsvyJ— Cut4 (@Cut4) April 19, 2017
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:
The aftermath of that Stanton HR. Jesus. pic.twitter.com/cANPVAEgeb— Daniel Carroll (@tworsandtwols) April 19, 2017
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.
If it's his last at-bat in Seattle, Ichiro went out in style. pic.twitter.com/vNdQFXgQuH— MLB (@MLB) April 19, 2017
Seager on Ichiro: "You don't want to see your opponent hit a home run, but at that moment, that was pretty special. I had chills for him."— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) April 19, 2017
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.