Shark, Hammel also carry impressive numbers into Thursday games
By Matt Kelly
Last Friday, Chris Sale joined the exclusive company of two Cy Young Award winners in the record books.
Thursday, Sale will aim for a perfect 9-0 start -- and a chance to own a piece of history all to himself.
Sale's pursuit of perfection is one of the more intriguing storylines among the 11 games available on MLB.TV, but it certainly isn't the only one. Jeff Samardzija will try to keep the Giants' rotation rolling, two division leaders will duke it out in a series finale in Baltimore, and Jason Hammel aims to add yet another quality start to his ledger in Milwaukee.
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Here is a look at what to watch for today in the Majors (all times ET):
Chris sets Sale for record books: HOU@CWS, 8:10 p.m.
Last year, Sale etched his name alongside Pedro Martinez as the second pitcher to record 10 or more strikeouts in eight consecutive starts. Just more than six weeks into the 2016 campaign, Sale has matched Pedro again, joining Martinez (in 1997) and Fernando Valenzuela (1981) as the only pitchers to begin a season 8-0 with an ERA below 2.00.
Both Martinez and Valenzuela immediately lost their next start after beginning 8-0, but each of them also went to win the Cy Young later that year. Martinez allowed seven runs (though only two were earned) in a 7-0 Expos loss to the Mets on May 28, 1997, while Valenzuela allowed all four runs in the Dodgers' 4-0 loss to Philadelphia on May 18, 1981. Sale, whose ERA sits at 1.67, needs just one more victory to potentially be the first pitcher since mound was lowered in 1969 to begin a season 9-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA.
Amazingly, Sale is accomplishing all of this with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 8-to-1 in 2016, the lowest of his career.
"He can strike people out, but you're seeing a more effective guy who can go deeper into games," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura after Sale's complete-game victory Friday over the Yankees. "The last couple of years he wouldn't have been able to do this, finish off games."
Sale boasts a 3-1 career record with a 0.56 ERA and an 11.75-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four career starts against the Astros. He'll be opposed by Houston start Collin McHugh, who took a no-decision last Saturday after allowing four runs and 10 hits to the Red Sox over six innings.
Stat that matters: Sale has allowed an opponents' batting average of just .167, the second-lowest average among American League starters entering Wednesday's games. McHugh's .333 opponents' batting average is the worst in the Junior Circuit.
Shark in the San Diego bay:SF@SD, 9:10 p.m.
Here come the Giants. After an 18-18 record to start the season, San Francisco reeled off five straight wins to surge to 1 1/2-game lead at the top of the NL West standings entering Wednesday. The streak has been spurred largely by the starting staff, who posted a 1.46 ERA with just six earned runs allowed in 37 innings pitched in their last time through the rotation.
Samardzija (5-2, 2.88 ERA), who signed a five-year, $90 million deal with San Francisco during the offseason, has been among the team's most consistent starters. He leads the staff with a 1.118 WHIP and has matched rotation-mates Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto so far in 2016, giving the Giants a three-headed monster at the top of the staff as they eye another even-year title.
"He's got probably some of the most explosive stuff I've caught from start to finish," said catcher Buster Posey of Samardzija. "There's a lot of weapons and a lot of different things he can do." James Shields (2-5, 3.12 ERA) gets the ball for the Padres. He recovered from a bad start against the Mets (in which he allowed Bartolo Colon's first career homer) by tossing seven scoreless innings against the Brewers last Thursday.
Stat that matters: Samardzija allowed the most earned runs (118) of any pitcher in baseball last year, but has recommitted himself to keeping batted balls on the ground so far in 2016. He's posting the highest ground-ball rate (50.6) in his career, and his home run-to-fly-ball rate (8.5) is 3.1 percent lower than his average over the past three seasons.
West Coast vs. East Coast: SEA@BAL, 12:35 p.m.
The Mariners and Orioles entered this three-game set as somewhat surprising division leaders following disappointing 2015 seasons. The two squads split the first pair of games, giving the rubber match even a little more weight.
Nathan Karns (3-1, 3.51 ERA), who gets the ball Thursday, has been one of the best fifth starters in baseball. In his last six starts, the fourth-year right-hander has combined a 3-0 record and 3.00 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 36 innings. On offense, Kyle Seager has been a revelation, carrying a .521 slugging percentage into Wednesday's action -- a full 87 points higher than his career average prior to 2016.
One of the only two AL teams with more home runs than Seattle is Baltimore, who have three of the league's top 10 long-ball hitters in Mark Trumbo (12), Manny Machado (11) and Chris Davis (9). The Orioles have slugged 33 homers at Camden Yards, second behind Cincinnati for the most homers at home of any team in the Majors.
Stat that matters: Of the 30 batted balls in play that Orioles starter Tyler Wilson has allowed to right-handed batters this year, 17 have been fly balls. That 56.7 percent fly ball rate is the highest of any qualified starter in the big leagues against righties.
Wilson's fly-ball rate may be a risk for his start against the Mariners on Thursday, as Seattle's home run-to-fly-ball ratio of 15.3 percent ranked fourth in the Majors entering Wednesday's games.
High quality in high quantities for Hammel: CHC@MIL, 1:40 p.m.
Hammel (5-0, 1.77) may not garner the headlines of Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester or even John Lackey, but one could argue that he's been the Cubs' second-best starter so far. In the seven times Hammel has trotted out to the mound, he's delivered a quality start each and every time. In fact, Hammel has allowed just eight earned runs all year, tied with his teammate Arrieta and San Diego's Drew Pomeranz for the lowest among Major League pitchers with at least seven starts.
Meanwhile Milwaukee's Thursday starter, Junior Guerra, has been one of May's best surprise stories. Guerra was once a 16-year old catching prospect for Atlanta who subsequently endured a position change to pitcher and a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2008. After a journey that included stops in Mexico, Italy and the White Sox' Minor League system last season, Guerra was claimed off waivers by Milwaukee and made his first Major League start at age 31 on May 3. Since then, the right-hander has begun the year with two victories at Miller Park, including six scoreless innings in his last start Friday against San Diego.
"He's certainly done his job," said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. "It's not his job to stabilize the rotation. But he's certainly done his job, and he's done it well."
Stat that matters: In his first three starts in the Major Leagues, Guerra allowed just two two-strike hits in 32 opportunities and an OPB of just .143 in two-strike situations. Entering Wednesday, the Cubs owned a Major League-best .302 OBP in two-strike counts.
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Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.