Real or not? Jake Arrieta is back, the NL East is interesting

The Mariners turned a triple play on Thursday, but my favorite play of the day was Cesar Hernandez's three-run single for the Phillies, and it wasn’t one of those singles that should have been a double if only the batter had simply run harder:

J.P. Crawford was off and running on the full count, but he also got a good jump instead of a half-hearted one, and ran hard to second base, which allowed third-base coach Dusty Wathan to send him home when Pirates center fielder Starling Marte made a lackadaisical throw to the infield. It was smart and aggressive baseball, and while it wasn’t the key play in the Phillies’ 7-0 victory, it says something about how the Phillies are going to play this year and maybe a play like that will win a game for them.

The big story in the game, of course, was Jake Arrieta's vintage, 2015-like performance, as he allowed one hit and struck out 10 over seven innings. In his Cy Young season, Arrieta pitched seven-plus innings 18 times; during an inconsistent season with the Cubs in 2017, he had just four starts of seven innings and didn’t record an out in the eighth all season. This kind of start provides hope that Arrieta can improve his pitch efficiency, allowing him to get back to going deeper into games and help manager Gabe Kapler from overusing the bullpen.

It was an interesting night in the National League East, as the Braves beat up on Matt Harvey and the Mets while Matt Wisler, making his first start of 2018 and just his second since 2016, looked terrific in the 12-4 win, allowing two hits in seven innings with eight strikeouts and no walks. I liked Wisler as a prospect coming up, but the Braves might have rushed him to the majors in 2015 as he lacked the secondary stuff against lefties. He fell apart last season, making 20 appearances, 19 in relief, and got hammered for an 8.35 ERA, before spending much of the season at Triple-A with mediocre results.

When the Braves made a series of transactions Wednesday, fake news spread on Twitter that the Braves had released Wisler. Maybe that was the wish of Braves fans, but instead the right-hander got recalled and pitched a great game. He was still just fastball/slider (four curves out of 102 pitches), so maybe he still ends up as a bullpen guy in the long run.

The best news for the Braves was Freddie Freeman was in the lineup, after getting hit on the wrist on Wednesday and leaving the game. The Braves continue to rake at the plate, and maybe this turns out to be a much better offensive team than believed. Freeman is one of the best hitters in the game, Ozzie Albies is hitting .316 with power, Dansby Swanson made some swing changes and is pulling the ball with authority and Kurt Suzuki is one of those launch-angle guys who might be proving that last season wasn’t a fluke. Who knows, maybe Jose Bautista, just signed to a minor league contract, will even find a way to contribute.

Anyway, there’s a chance the NL East could be a fantastic four-team race. At the minimum, the Phillies are much more interesting with a good Arrieta, and the Braves are much more interesting if they can score runs like this. After a terrible season of division races in 2017, let’s hope we get more turmoil in 2018.

Charlie Morton is one of the best pitchers in baseball: Morton continued the Astros’ phenomenal starting pitching, allowing just three hits in seven scoreless innings while striking out eight in Houston’s 9-2 victory over Seattle. The Astros completely shut down the Mariners in the four-game series, holding them to six runs and a .171 average.

Morton improved to 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA and has a sterling 33-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has a chance at one of the best months in Astros history for a starting pitcher (minimum 25 innings):

Nolan Ryan, May 1984: 0.20 ERA

Ken Johnson, September 1963: 0.44 ERA

J.R. Richard, August 1979: 0.67 ERA

Charlie Morton, April 2018: 0.72 ERA

Dallas Keuchel, April 2015: 0.73 ERA

Note that Gerrit Cole (0.96 ERA) and Justin Verlander (1.35 ERA) aren’t far behind. The five starters have allowed two runs or fewer in 15 of 20 games and the rotation ERA is 2.26 only because Lance McCullers had one blowup start during which he allowed eight runs.

Just like last season, Morton is throwing with elite velocity; his average fastball velocity of 96.3 mph ranks third among starters, behind Luis Severino and Noah Syndergaard. The one change from last year is that it looks like he’s throwing his four-seamer more and his sinker less. Maybe that’s why he’s throwing a higher percentage of his fastballs for strikes -- 69.2 percent, up from 61.5 percent -- which means he’s getting ahead in the count more often and then going to the off-speed stuff, which has translated to a higher swing-and-miss rate. As always, we’ll see if Morton has the durability to make 30 starts, as he’s qualified for the ERA title just once in his career. But it seems at age 34, he’s just hitting his peak.

Yankees beat Blue Jays, but ... The Yankees held on for a 4-3 victory in the first game of a big four-game showdown at Yankee Stadium. The key play came in the eighth, when the Jays were down 4-2 and loaded the bases with one out against David Robertson. Curtis Granderson hit a blooper into left-center, but Justin Smoak got a bad read from second base, and combined with his lack of speed, was held at third. Robertson then escaped with a strikeout of Randal Grichuk and a fly ball.

Aaron Judge hit his fifth home run and Giancarlo Stanton went 1-for-3 with a walk (and no strikeouts!) as he was moved from third to fourth in the lineup. Two takeaways from this game:

This was in reference to Robertson walking a couple of guys before his tightrope act. CC Sabathia, returning from a short stint on the disabled list, lasted just 4⅓ innings, but the bigger picture is the Yankees are asking a lot of the bullpen right now -- which isn’t a surprise, but the pen is thinner than was projected back in spring training. Tommy Kahnle is now on the DL, Dellin Betances did have a 1-2-3 seventh inning but has struggled, and Adam Warren hasn’t been as sharp as last season. Manager Aaron Boone can’t use Chad Green, Robertson and Aroldis Chapman in every game. Something to watch.

Then there’s the concern about Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez, who allowed three runs in six innings, but didn’t look too good and saw his velocity drop as the game progressed:

So keep an eye on Sanchez’s next outing.

Late-night wizardry: How about this for play of the day, courtesy of more Andrelton Simmons magic:

The Price is not right: The Reds gave manager Bryan Price an early boot with Cincinnati off to an abysmal 3-15 start in which it was outscored by 46 runs. I don’t have a lot to say here, except if you’re firing the manager after 18 games and replacing him with somebody already on the coaching staff, you don’t really have a plan. Look, Price didn’t have much talent, but the Reds lost 98, 94 and 94 games the past three seasons, so it’s hard to argue he got the most out of the talent he did have.

Price was a successful pitching coach, but the Reds’ pitching continues to be the worst in the game. Maybe what the Reds really need to do is move back the fences so the pitchers aren’t afraid of giving up so many cheap home runs at Great American Ballpark.