Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch is back in Houston for the first time since he was dismissed by the Astros in the aftermath of a sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball. If he’s worried about how he will be received in his old stomping grounds, he hid it well during a pregame video news conference on Monday, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t anticipate some strong feelings.
“I do have to focus on the good things that happened here,” Hinch said. “I have a lot of fond memories, incredible interactions with fans and throughout the organization. Some really great times and ultimately a really low time. I kind of embrace all parts of that in my journey through this.
“I think it will be emotional for me. I wish I had a great quote for the words or the right thing to say about what I’m feeling. I know Jose (Altuve) described it as weird, and it’s different, coming to the visiting side as the ex-manager is a lot different. I think emotions will kind of be on full tilt tonight.”
Hinch’s new club begins a three-game series at Minute Maid Park on Monday, marking his return to a city where much has changed on the baseball front since he piloted the Astros to the 2017 World Series title, beginning with the somewhat amazing fact that only five players remain from the championship team – infielders Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, along with starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. For all the accomplishments of that title team, Hinch says that he has mixed feelings about its legacy.
“That’s difficult,” Hinch said. “And I have largely stayed quiet about all of that, because it’s very personal. I do believe that we did some good things in Houston. I do believe that we wrong in the behavior and the decisions that we made in 2017. It’s hard to have that cloud over the sport and be responsible for that and be the manager, that it happened on my watch.
“My relationship with that time is very complicated, very personal. It’s something that I will continue to apologize (for), not only to the Houston fans, but to all the fans around baseball, and continue to repeat how wrong it was. For that, we’re going to have to live with that for the rest of our careers.”
Hinch managed the Astros from 2015 to 2019, during which he helped lead the organization from the throes of a rebuilding process led by his former boss, Jeff Luhnow. With Hinch at the helm, the Astros won that 2017 championship, added a pennant in 2019 and won a division title in 2018. Houston won at least 101 games in each of Hinch’s last three seasons, culminating with a franchise record 107 wins in 2019.
After the 2019 season ended with a Game 7 home loss in the World Series against the Washington Nationals, the Hinch/Luhnow era came to an abrupt halt a few months later, when an MLB investigation determined that several members of the Astros organization engaged in an orchestrated program of swiping signs from opposing clubs during the championship run in 2017.
Hinch was suspended for the entirety of the 2020 season for his role in the scandal, primarily because of his inability to put a stop to the practice. Astros owner Jim Crane dismissed Hinch after the suspension was announced. Since Hinch reemerged in the public eye after his suspension ended with the completion of the 2020 World Series, has apologized for his role in the scandal repeatedly and has avoided criticizing Crane for dismissing him. In fact, Hinch insists his relationship with the organization remains solid.
“My relationship with the Astros has been fine,” Hinch said. “You don’t spend five years together and then just simply walk away and not have relationships. (There are) a lot of people in the organization that I care about, a lot of players, executives. Jim Crane and I have stayed in touch. It’s a relationship that was built up over a long time and they’ve treated me fine.”
Hinch ranks as Houston’s all-time leader among managers in winning percentage and games over .500; while he ranks second to Bill Virdon in wins. Monday’s game will be the first time that Hinch has managed against the Astros since May 6, 2010, when he was managing the Arizona Diamondbacks.
At least one of his former players — Correa — thinks that Hinch’s reception on Monday will be a warm one.
“We stay in touch,” Correa said. “I’ve talked with him multiple times. I think it’s going to be very special to have him back. I’ll be happy to see him. He did amazing things for this organization, and I’m expecting a big ovation for him when his name is announced.”
Hinch did not want to speculate on how he would be received on Monday, but said that his interactions with Houston fans all along have been supportive, even on the morning of his return game, when he was recognized near the Tigers’ hotel even though he was sporting a protective mask.
“The fans in Houston have been incredible to me,” Hinch said. “My interaction with fans, before the sign stealing, after the sign stealing, while I was the manager, after I was dismissed, has been universally positive. This morning I went for a walk to get a coffee and a little exercise in this Houston heat, and people stopped me. Recognizing me in a mask, I didn’t expect, but I got it.”
Despite the unfortunate ending to his Houston tenure, Hinch suggested that his link to the Astros fan base goes beyond the scandal. There was the championship and the two pennants and numerous wins, but also the moving experiences that surrounded the aftermath of Hurrican Harvey, which devastated the Houston area in August of 2017 and forced the relocation of one Astros home series to St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Astros were back home a week after the hurricane, and Hinch and many of his players spent time visiting displaced Houstonians in shelters around the city, including the convention center near the ballpark. It was Hinch who took the microphone and addressed the fans at Minute Maid Park before the Astros’ first game after returning home after Harvey, a night which he described as one of his most emotional times in baseball.
Hinch and the fans in Houston have been through a lot together, with the next chapter beginning on Monday in a very different form, one in which Hinch and his young Tigers will try to beat the still-powerful Astros, now led by legendary skipper Dusty Baker.
“The fans have just been tremendously supportive of me,” Hinch said. “We went through hurricanes. We went through playoff runs, two World Series. Then one of the ugliest departures. And that’s established a great relationship between me and the fans around Houston.”
MLB Power Rankings Week 6
For the first time during the 2021 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers are not atop our MLB Power Rankings.
The defending world champions fell from No. 1 after a prolonged slump in which L.A. has gone just 7-15 and dropped five consecutive series since starting the season with an MLB-best 13-2 mark.
Now the big question is which team took advantage of the opportunity to lead our Week 6 rankings? With the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians all sitting within one game of MLB’s best record in the standings, there are plenty of teams worthy of top billing — but only one can be No. 1.
Here is what our eight-voter expert panel decided based on what we’ve seen in the first month-plus of the season. We also asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Joon Lee, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to weigh in with one Week 6 observation for all 30 teams.
1. Chicago White Sox
Previous ranking: 7
It does not feel like the White Sox have reached their full stride, yet they are starting to climb to the top of quite a few rankings lists, both of the subjective and objective variety. And why not? The ChiSox lead the majors in runs per game and rank second in runs allowed per game. The lofty offensive ranking is eye-catching since a team we figured would hit lots of long balls thus far ranks just 25th in isolated power. Yes, Chicago still has to navigate the long-term absences of Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez. Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason to believe it’s only going to get better from here. — Doolittle
2. Boston Red Sox
Previous ranking: 3
A month and a half into the season, Boston not only looks like a contender in the American League East, but also like one of the best teams in baseball. While the team started off the season 0-3 against the Orioles, they’ve not had a losing streak of more than two games until this week. Righty Nick Pivetta has been the best starter so far, with a 1.0 WAR while posting a 3.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in 36.2 innings pitched. — Lee
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Previous ranking: 1
The Dodgers had dropped five consecutive series and lost 15 of 20 games heading into the week, a bewildering circumstance not just because of their overall talent but because they haven’t necessarily been playing as bad as that recent stretch would suggest. But a positive development came on Tuesday, when Gavin Lux belted the game-winning home run in the eighth inning against the Mariners. Lux, whom the Dodgers consider a potential star, began the week batting only .209/.247/.267 with 24 strikeouts and five walks. Maybe he’ll finally get going. — Gonzalez
4. St. Louis Cardinals
Previous ranking: 6
The Cardinals have gone on a run to create some separation at the top of the National League Central; however, a home sweep of the Rockies isn’t necessarily a season-defining series win. St. Louis’ run differential is far and away the best in the division, and the pitching staff has been among the best in the game over the past week. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 8
The Yankees find themselves in second place after a sluggish start to the season riding the molten-hot bat of Giancarlo Stanton and improved performance from the entire rotation. Since the calendar turned into May, New York finds itself with a 8-2 record, while Gerrit Cole continues to be one of the best pitchers in baseball. — Lee
Previous ranking: 2
The Padres have been stopped in their tracks. In one day, they lost five key contributors to their offense with Fernando Tatis Jr., Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, Jurickson Profar and Jorge Mateo being placed on the injured list for COVID-19-related reasons. Tatis and Myers, in particular, tested positive. Luckily for them, it came amidst a nine-game stretch in which they’ll play the lowly Rockies six times. — Gonzalez
7. San Francisco Giants
Previous ranking: 5
Alex Wood could barely find a role on last year’s World Series-winning Dodgers. This year, he boasts a 1.80 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP through his first 30 innings. Opponents are slugging just .192 off his slider, which has produced a whiff rate of 45.1%. And Wood is just one of a handful of remarkable stories on that pitching staff. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 4
Oakland is in the midst of its toughest test of the season, a three-game battle with the Red Sox at Fenway. The Athletics continue to ride strong starting pitching to start the season, with Chris Bassitt (3.54 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 1.3 WAR), Sean Manaea (3.07 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 1.3 WAR) and Cole Irvin (3.29 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 1.0 WAR) leading the way and Yusmeiro Petit anchoring the bullpen. — Lee
Previous ranking: 12
Tyler Glasnow continues to establish himself as a bona fide ace, but Tampa Bay hasn’t gotten much else out of its starting rotation so far this season, with Michael Wacha, Rich Hill and Ryan Yarbrough all below replacement level in the early part of the season. — Lee
Previous ranking: 9
Despite a depth of live, young arms, Houston has not been able to carve out a consistent pecking order in the bullpen. Houston ranks 27th in reliever win probability added and is below replacement in relief bWAR. Ryne Stanek and Ryan Pressly have been fine. After that, it’s been a crapshoot and that’s a problem for a club with a solid rotation that nevertheless is short on workhorse-type starters. Getting Blake Taylor, Pedro Baez and Enoli Paredes back from the injured list would certainly help. And, given some recent rumblings, perhaps later in the season, could they be joined by Justin Verlander? — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 15
Despite the infiltration of rats and raccoons into Citi Field, the Mets went 5-0 on a homestand against Arizona and Baltimore to run their winning streak to seven. Obviously, Jacob deGrom‘s injury bears watching, but the good news is Taijuan Walker continues to pitch well and is now 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA, allowing just one home run in 41 innings. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 14
Jose Ramirez is setting himself up for yet another run at AL MVP with a season that is gradually building momentum, largely on the strength of a number of clutch home runs. Six of his 10 homers have come with Cleveland either tied or trailing by one or two runs in the sixth inning or later. Ramirez ranks second in the AL among hitters in win probability added. You still sometimes hear Ramirez referred to as underrated, but he has finished in the top three of MVP balloting in three of the past four years. It could happen again this season. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 11
George Springer entered the season as the big-ticket free agent whom Toronto acquired this offseason, but he has played only four games. Marcus Semien has been the biggest addition, and he appears to be bouncing back after a rough 2020 season in Oakland. He is second on the team in WAR behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and is hitting .267/.333/.474 with eight homers. — Lee
Previous ranking: 10
How long can the Brewers survive without Christian Yelich? The offense ranked 29th in all of baseball in OPS over the past week, so it is going to fall on the pitching staff to keep Milwaukee afloat. The return of Corbin Burnes will help matters. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 16
The Braves won five of six against the Nationals and Phillies to claw back to .500 at the start of the week, even winning their first extra-inning game after starting the season 0-4 in the ghost runner contests. With Travis d’Arnaud on the 60-day IL after surgery on his thumb and Alex Jackson also injured, the Braves have been forced to go with rookie William Contreras as their starting catcher, with longtime vet Jeff Mathis signed as his backup. It’s not like the trade market would have any obvious improvements, either. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 17
Rhys Hoskins is off to a … strange start. In 2019, he led the NL with 116 walks, producing a 16.5% walk rate that led to a fine .364 OBP despite a .224 average. This year, his walk rate is all the way down 6.8% and his OBP is under .300. He’s producing some power numbers but making a lot of outs. His overall swing rate and K rate are both up, so this feels like an effort to be more aggressive. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 23
Injuries have both hurt the Cubs and opened up some playing time for others. Infielder Matt Duffy has been a find, playing solid defense and getting on base at nearly a 40% clip. Joc Pederson has finally gotten hot for his new team, hitting .471 over the past week. Chicago needs their production, as Javier Baez has missed a couple of games with a back issue and Kris Bryant missed another with bad allergies. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 22
Cincinnati has produced moments that point toward a contender in the division but has hovered around the .500 mark thus far. For example, Jesse Winker led all NL players in OPS over the past week, while the pitching staff threw two shutouts. However, in two other games, that same staff gave up a total of 16 runs to hitting-deficient Cleveland and Pittsburgh. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 25
As Jesus Aguilar continues to rake, he’s going to make an attractive trade piece if the Marlins aren’t in the playoff race in July. Among the playoff contenders struggling with production at first base: Brewers (.650 OPS), Rays (.618), Red Sox (.587) and Indians (.485). Aguilar debuted with Cleveland in 2014 and was an All-Star with the Brewers in 2018. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 21
Yusei Kikuchi fanned a career-high 11 against the Dodgers on Tuesday and left with a 4-1 lead in the seventh inning, but the bullpen allowed both inherited runners to score and then Rafael Montero coughed up a three-run homer in the eighth. Manager Scott Servais tried to milk a few extra outs from Kikuchi, but he looks like a classic “watch out the third time through the order” guy, as his OPS allowed goes from .543 to .671 to .774 so far in 2021. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 19
Minnesota has been baseball’s most disappointing team during the first few weeks of the season. The Twins began a stretch playing the first-place White Sox six times in nine games with a lackluster 9-3 loss at Chicago on Tuesday. That dropped the Twins eight games out of first place and pushed them to nine games under .500. There is no one aspect that explains everything, but the Twins’ bullpen has been especially loathsome. Minnesota’s run differential this season during the first six innings of games is plus-18, which is tied for eighth in baseball. After that, they are minus-26, easily the worst mark in MLB. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 18
Max Scherzer had a dominant effort against the Yankees with two hits and 14 strikeouts over 7⅓ innings, his most K’s since fanning 15 against the Reds on June 2, 2019. That followed a complete-game win over the Marlins. After allowing four home runs on Opening Day, Scherzer has a 1.79 ERA and .173 batting average allowed. Mike Rizzo is going to be getting some phone calls. — Schoenfield
Previous ranking: 24
Madison Bumgarner has done a complete 180, suddenly reemerging among the game’s most productive starting pitchers. Nick Ahmed, struggling mightily to begin this season, finally hit his first home run recently. Luke Weaver is coming off a solid outing. The likes of Carson Kelly, Asdrubal Cabrera and Josh Rojas are providing unexpected contributions. And Ketel Marte is on his way back. The D-backs recently suffered a six-game losing streak, but things are seemingly looking up in again the dessert. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 20
The Angels released Albert Pujols largely because they wanted to put the bats of Jared Walsh and Shohei Ohtani in the lineup on an everyday basis, but also because Walsh playing first base — and somebody else, at this point Taylor Ward, playing right field — would greatly help a defense that ranks among the worst in the sport so far. The Angels’ top-end talent can rival any team’s, but pitching and defense has been a problem. And they can’t reach the postseason if that continues to be an issue. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 27
The Rangers are turning into a surprising storyline, as they won three consecutive series before dropping two games in a row to the Giants earlier this week. They’ve dominated left-handed pitching, sporting a 12-5 record when a southpaw starts against them. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 13
Even as the Royals sprinted out to the best record in baseball, analytical killjoys were pointing out that a few underlying fundamentals didn’t exactly support the sustainability of that status. Given a long enough timeline, regression to the mean will exact its toll. But someone should have told the Royals that it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Kansas City’s skid reached nine games with a demoralizing loss at Detroit on Tuesday, a game in which they erased a 7-0 deficit. At that point, K.C. had been outscored during the skid 66-28. — Doolittle
Previous ranking: 26
Sure, the Orioles look up at every team in the AL East standings, but we can still appreciate the special season John Means is having so far, with a league-leading 2.7 WAR and an American League-leading 1.21 ERA and 0.71 WHIP. During a season in which 100 mph fastballs seem to be a dime a dozen, Means creates success by working off of his elite changeup — which possesses a .106 batting average against and a 40.9% whiff percentage — and a fastball that averages around 93 mph. — Lee
Previous ranking: 28
Things might be finally catching up with the Pirates, as evidenced by four consecutive series losses. Colin Moran‘s groin strain is a big loss, as Pittsburgh is still waiting on the return of rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes, who won’t come back until at least June after being moved to the 60-day injured list this week. — Rogers
Previous ranking: 29
The Rockies had nearly twice as many losses as they had wins going into Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Padres, were 2-14 on the road and had won only seven of their 17 games against a National League West that has otherwise been spectacular. If you’re searching for a positive, here’s one: Kyle Freeland, who suffered a shoulder strain late in spring training, is approaching a rehab assignment and should join the rotation soon. — Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 30
Nothing much has changed for the Tigers over the past week, except that division mates Minnesota and Kansas City have been playing almost as bad, so perhaps that draws some attention away from Detroit. The recent release of Angels legend Albert Pujols did cast some unwanted light on Miguel Cabrera, with some wondering if a similar fate lies somewhere in his future. Cabrera’s 2021 season to date isn’t exactly fending off such analysis: He has been stuck hitting under .150 since late April and remains stuck on two homers for the season — and 489 for his career. — Doolittle
Seattle Mariners calling up top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert, OF Jarred Kelenic
The Seattle Mariners are calling up right-hander Logan Gilbert, their top pitching prospect, and he will start Thursday against the Cleveland Indians, manager Scott Servais said after Wednesday night’s 7-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Gilbert is ranked as the No. 43 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel.
Seattle also will call up touted outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 amateur draft, on Thursday, Servais said.
Gilbert made his Triple-A debut for the Tacoma Rainiers on Friday. He allowed one run on four hits with no walks and five strikeouts in five innings of work.
Gilbert, the 14th pick in the 2018 draft, popped up in the Cape Cod League the summer before his draft year, working in the mid-90s with above-average stuff and starter command. During his sophomore season at Stetson, he was pitching deep into games, regularly well over 100 pitches, and his velocity was hovering in the low 90s with a less sharp breaking ball.
He profiles as a bulk-inning midrotation starter with solid average stuff and plus command, according to McDaniel.
The 18-18 Mariners, third in the AL West entering Wednesday, have had to lean heavily on their bullpen after injuries to Marco Gonzales (left forearm strain), James Paxton (season-ending Tommy John surgery) and Nick Margevicius (left shoulder inflammation). Seattle is down to four healthy members of its six-man rotation to start the season: Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Chris Flexen and Justin Dunn.
New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole shows he’s an ace for the ages
Maybe this is one way to put Gerrit Cole in perspective.
In his career, Nolan Ryan, the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, had eight games in his career where he struck out at least 10 batters and issued no walks. Cole has five such games … in 2021.
Cole’s 1-0 victory Wednesday night in Tampa Bay was a masterpiece for any era: Eight innings, four hits, no runs, no walks, 12 strikeouts, all in a pressure-packed game that was 0-0 until the seventh inning, in a ballpark that hasn’t been kind to the New York Yankees in recent seasons, against a team that has owned the Yankees the past two years, all while a COVID outbreak hit seven members of New York’s coaching and support staff loomed over the team.
“I certainly enjoy playing in meaningful games,” Cole said afterward. “There was a lot going on today and it was certainly a bit challenging to get focused for the game, but once you’re there it’s kind of business as usual, so I try to keep that mind-set all the time and I think it’s helpful when there’s a little bit more on the line.”
Even after beating the Rays on Tuesday, the Yankees were 6-16 against the Rays since 2020, including last year’s loss in the division series. This is the type of game where you need your ace to step up, and Cole did in a big way.
Cole has now struck out 56 batters since his issuing his last walk, tied with a Curt Schilling run in 2002 for the longest stretch since the mound was moved to its current distance in 1893.
“I just want to force the issue. They can always hit it at somebody, I guess,” a decidedly reserved Cole would say, like it’s no big deal to throw 98 and then paint the corners with your off-speed stuff.
Cole’s last walk came on April 12. For the season, he now has 78 strikeouts and three walks. It’s a ratio inconceivable even two decades ago, let alone for a pitcher like Ryan, who had a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.04 and career-best streak of 26 strikeouts without a walk.
Yes, somewhere an old-timer will point out Ryan’s complete games and how this was the first time Cole pitched into the eighth inning all season. Fair enough. The games changes. But it was interesting to see Cole’s performance compared to some of the other low-scoring games on Wednesday. Sixteen other starters on a night of low-scoring baseball allowed zero runs or one run, and 12 pitched fewer than six innings.
In today’s baseball, eight innings is a rare achievement.
“He’s so good and so fun to watch,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s so versatile out there and able to get you out in so many ways. He was very pitch efficient early on there. Any time he did lose leverage in a count and got behind he made big pitches. I think maybe he made one mistake to [Randy] Arozarena for the double, but he leaned on every pitch in different ways.”
Indeed, that element of pitching is what makes Cole so hard to hit, aside from the velocity and the command. He threw 48 four-seam fastballs, 24 sliders, 19 changeups and 15 curveballs. You can’t sit on the fastball — not that you can hit when you do.
The Yankees clinched the series victory, the first in Tampa since May of 2019, but that was hardly on Cole’s mind after the game.
“In a more normal environment, we’d be a little more focused on that stat, but we’re a little preoccupied with a virus running through the clubhouse right now,” he said. “Maybe it kept it simple for us. We just played baseball and tried to stay safe out here.”
Indeed, shortstop Gleyber Torres sat out Wednesday’s game as a precaution after seven members of the staff tested positive for COVID-19. All seven had been vaccinated. Each member of the Yankees’ traveling party has also been tested at least three times since Tuesday, leading to that chaotic pregame atmosphere Cole referenced.
The Yankees are 11-3 since dropping to an end-of-the-world 9-13 on April 26. Cole is leading the way. “He’s an ace. He’s an absolute bulldog,” Boone said.
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