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Milwaukee Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff, San Francisco Giants’ Kevin Gausman are unsung Cy Young candidates

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When Memorial Day weekend reached Sunday, the slate of games in the National League teased the possibility of a full day when generational pitchers were dominating the highlight reels. You know them by their last names, that’s how famous they are, but we’ll give you first names, too: Max Scherzer. Clayton Kershaw. Jacob deGrom.

What we ended up with instead were two triumphant upstarts, and one rainout. All things considered, that’s not a bad outcome, because it gives us a chance to shine a light on two of baseball’s underrated aces: Brandon Woodruff of the Milwaukee Brewers and Kevin Gausman of the San Francisco Giants.

Let’s start by stipulating something about Mets ace deGrom, whose scheduled matchup against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday evening was washed away by the unrelenting rain on the East Coast. If he stays healthy, deGrom is the clear front-runner to win the NL Cy Young Award, which would be the third of his career.

It’s not just reputation. For all of deGrom’s exploits in recent seasons, he has never been better. However, deGrom has dealt with nagging injuries of late. With Sunday’s game postponed, he’s slated to start in Arizona on Monday night on the final day of May. Entering that game, deGrom’s May ledger is comprised of just two five-inning outings.

So if this pattern were to continue — and the Mets and deGrom and fans of great pitching certainly hope it does not — that would open up the field in the nascent 2021 NL Cy Young race. And as we hit Memorial Day, the leaders of a strong pack behind deGrom are Woodruff and Gausman.

That dynamic was on full display on Sunday.

Woodruff and Scherzer were matched up in an early-day start at Nationals Park. Scherzer entered the game with a 2.27 ERA, while Woodruff was working on a minuscule 1.41 mark, second only to deGrom, who is at 0.80 but barely qualifies because of the injuries.

While Woodruff’s star has been rising for a couple of years, he still entered Sunday with just 22 career victories and has never earned a single Cy Young vote. Scherzer, on the other hand, has won 179 games, three Cy Youngs, and leads all MLB hurlers in wins (170) and strikeouts (2,639) since the start of the 2010 season, while ranking second in FanGraphs WAR (59.1) during that span.

The matchup was as good as advertised. Scherzer gave up only two hits over six innings, striking out 10, but one of the hits was a two-run homer in the first by Milwaukee’s Avisail Garcia. That was more than enough support for Woodruff and the great bullpen that works behind him and the other members of the Milwaukee rotation.

“Both guys pitched really well,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Woody was just better, ultimately.”

Woodruff shut out the Nationals over seven innings, and gave up just two hits with 10 strikeouts. In doing so, he reduced a nearly irreducible ERA even further, dropping to 1.27. After giving up three runs over four innings (6.75 ERA) in his Opening Day start against the Twins, Woodruff has reduced his ERA with each of his 10 subsequent outings.

“Any time you get to go up against Max, it’s going to be a challenge,” Woodruff said. “He’s one of the best in the game and the best to ever do it. It’s definitely a challenge.”

In the reliever-heavy pitching environment of 2021, innings pitched is as much of a proxy for bottom-line value as anything else. That is where Woodruff is making his name. He’s gone at least seven innings in each of his past four starts and has gone at least six frames in his past 10.

The reason he’s been able to do that is pretty simple: His stuff holds up deep into games and even after traversing opposing lineups a couple of times. Among pitchers who have at least 50 batters faced against hitters seeing them more than twice in a game, Woodruff leads everyone by allowing just a .429 OPS in those spots.

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Kevin Gausman blanks the Dodgers for six innings with seven strikeouts in the Giants’ win.

By the time Woodruff was done watching his closer, Josh Hader, nail down the shutout against Scherzer and the Nats, Gausman was into his preparations to face Kershaw and the Dodgers, with San Francisco bidding to win a third straight game on the home field of its ancient rival.

Where Scherzer lingers on the ERA leaderboards, so does Kershaw. Kershaw trails Scherzer by one win for the most since 2010. He leads Scherzer in fWAR (62.3, for a lead of 2.2) during that span and is second to Scherzer in strikeouts. They are, along with perhaps Justin Verlander, the best pitchers of their generation.

Gausman? He’s a rags-to-riches guy who has seen his status morph from journeyman to star during his short time with the Giants. A pitcher who was a tick under league average for the first seven years of his career currently has a four-seamer that ranks as baseball’s second-most lethal pitch and a splitter that ranks as the 12th-best pitch.

Those two offerings accounted for 61 of Gausman’s 72 offerings on Sunday, as he stifled the Dodgers over six shutout innings. Alas, he departed at that point with what the Giants later called left hip tightness, which manager Gabe Kapler described as an ongoing issue. San Francisco held on to win 5-4, though, and Gausman lowered his ERA to 1.40.

“Kershaw, the name kind of speaks for itself,” Gausman said. “Kind of knew runs were going to be at a premium today.”

After all that, here’s a mini-leaderboard of National League hurlers, and this accounts only for those who currently sport sub-2.00 ERAs:

Once you start working through advanced metrics, other pitchers beyond this quintet emerge who might be part of the Cy Young conversation. That group includes Scherzer and Kershaw, Trevor Bauer (who was last year’s winner), Yu Darvish, Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler and Woodruff’s rotation-mate, Corbin Burnes, who ranks high in several advanced metrics.

But when you’re past Memorial Day and you have three qualifying pitchers in one league sporting ERAs under 1.50, that will demand some attention. You know, the kind of attention we were ready to shower on Scherzer, Kershaw and deGrom on Sunday, as we’ve done so many times before.

Instead, we have a chance to stop, pause and take notice of two less-famous hurlers who nevertheless are producing like stars and might well actually be stars. And there is zero evidence based on two months of results that Brandon Woodruff or Kevin Gausman is going to disappear from this conversation.

The pecking order for NL Cy Young consideration has to begin with deGrom. But if he falters in either health or performance, the pack of contenders ready to take his spot begins with those two underrated but emergent aces.

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Patrick Wisdom hits two more homers, continues to be ‘a real offensive force’ for Chicago Cubs

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Chicago Cubs infielder Patrick Wisdom reached a milestone on Sunday accomplished by only two other players in history.

Wisdom, 29, hit two home runs in the Cubs’ 4-3 win over the San Francisco Giants, giving him seven long balls in his first eight starts with his new team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only Cincinnati Reds outfielder Aristides Aquino and Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story have hit that many in their first eight games with a team.

“He’s been carrying us,” Cubs manager David Ross said after the game. “He’s a real offensive force for us right now. It seems like every time he gets up he’s going to do something really good to help the team. Real damage. What is that, seven home runs? Real power since he’s been up.”

Wisdom was a 2020 addition to the Cubs after stops in St. Louis and Texas, but he played in only two major league games last season. And before about a week ago, he had four career home runs. Cubs center fielder Ian Happ summed up the team’s strategy right now.

“If we can just get it to Wisdom with guys on base, we’ll be all right,” he said with a smile.

Wisdom has taken the success in stride while praising the Cubs’ welcoming environment after being called up from Triple-A Iowa.

“It’s the same game,” he said. “There’s another deck on the stadium and more cameras. There’s bigger things but it’s the same game. The more at-bats you get, the more pitches you see, the better you get. I’m thankful for my time in the minor leagues.”

Wisdom says he’s letting the game slow down as he tries not to do too much at the plate. Both his home runs on Sunday came off Giants veteran Johnny Cueto, who hadn’t given up a home run in his previous four starts.

Wisdom was asked if he’s adhering to any superstitions during his hot streak.

“Sometimes it’s chewing gum,” he said. “If I’m chewing gum and I get a hit I’ll try to keep it in for the next at-bat.”

Wisdom is hitting .412 with 10 runs driven in, in just 34 at-bats. He was drafted No. 52 overall by the Cardinals back in 2012.

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Boston Red Sox’s sweep highlights flaws of New York Yankees

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In the first series of the 2021 season between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium and swept the Yankees in the Bronx for the first time since 2011, including a wild 6-5, 10-inning victory on Sunday.

Some takeaways from the series …

• If you think this rivalry lacks some of the off-the-chart intensity it used to have, consider what longtime Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said at the outset of the series — the teams’ first meeting since manager Alex Cora returned to the Red Sox after serving a suspension in 2020 for his involvement in the Houston Astros‘ sign-stealing scandal.

“Having him in the dugout obviously makes me want to beat them,” Gardner said. “We don’t like those guys, they don’t like us. It will be interesting for them to come to town.”

OK, Gardner apparently said this with a smile and later said he was “half-joking” about Cora, but the Red Sox noticed his comments.

Note what Xander Bogaerts told SportsCenter’s Steve Levy after completing the sweep: “Obviously, Gardner said a couple of words before the series started. It kind of got us fueled up a little more.”

The Red Sox had lost 11 straight games at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees went 9-1 against them in 2020, so it’s understandable why Bogaerts would call Sunday’s win “the most fun game in a long time.”

Bogaerts delivered the go-ahead run in the eighth with a sacrifice fly and the winning runs with a two-run single off Luis Cessa in the 10th inning and is now hitting .318/.376/.536 with 36 RBIs. He’s kind of flown under the radar — as always seems to be the case — but he should be headed to his third All-Star Game.

• In a sense, the series offered confirmation of what we’ve seen so far this season: The Red Sox are better than expected and the Yankees are nowhere near as good as expected. Nothing in these three games changed that view. It was a big week for the Yankees with seven games against the Tampa Bay Rays and the Red Sox and they laid an egg, going 2-5.

What’s especially disappointing is they won two of the first three against the Rays and had Gerrit Cole starting the fourth game of that series. But Cole allowed five runs in five innings in a 9-2 loss, and then the Red Sox cleaned up.

“An awful week for us,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We’ve got to get right, we’ve got to get better. … We’ve got to find a way to start scratching out some W’s.”

The Yankees just haven’t scored runs, which is maybe the biggest team-wide development of the season. The Yankees are 27th in the majors in runs per game — ahead of only the New York Mets, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates, which sounds almost impossible for a team that ranked fourth in 2020, first in 2019, second in 2018 and second in 2017.

It’s not just because of injuries, as Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have actually been pretty healthy, with Judge playing in 57 of 60 games and Stanton in 41. More worrisome, it doesn’t feel like a scary lineup that is just waiting to kick into gear, not with DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres basically turning into singles hitters, Gardner looking over the hill at 37, Clint Frazier and Rougned Odor hitting under .200, and somebody named Chris Gittens hitting sixth on Sunday. It’s not as simple as just getting Luke Voit healthy. There are real problems here. The Yankees have hit .215 and averaged 2.6 runs per game over a 3-10 stretch.

“No, I’m not concerned at all,” Gary Sanchez said after Sunday’s loss. “We’re a really good team and I believe in my teammates, I believe in the talent that we have. … I’m confident that we’re definitely going get over this hump here and will start playing the baseball we want.”

• Alex Rodriguez made a good point about the New York lineup during the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, pointing out that the Yankees have been synonymous with left-handed power hitters for decades — really, going all the way back to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The three versions of Yankee Stadium have all featured the short porch in right field, so it has been a longstanding organizational philosophy to load up on left-handed hitters. The lineup Sunday night, however, featured eight right-handed batters and the struggling Gardner hitting ninth against Boston righty starter Garrett Richards.

Entering Sunday, the Yankees hit with the platoon advantage 44.6% of the time, the second-lowest percentage in the majors, with only the Toronto Blue Jays below them. This wasn’t an issue in 2019, when the Yankees hit with the platoon advantage just 42.9% of the time, yet hit 306 home runs and led the majors in runs scored. But looking back at some Yankees teams of the past, we see the 2009 World Series champions had the platoon advantage 70.3% of the time, best in the majors. The great 1998 team had the advantage in 56.4% of their plate appearances. That 2019 team struggled to score runs in the AL Championship Series against the Houston Astros — in part because the Astros were loaded up with right-handed pitching. The lack of lefty power feels like part of New York’s problem.

• One thing that stood out in the series was the performance of the bullpens in the three games. The Yankees are third in the majors in bullpen ERA, so overall the group has been effective, but Marwin Gonzalez twice burned Lucas Luetge, with a two-run double on Friday and then a game-tying two-run home run on Sunday. Luetge has been outstanding, but he’s a 34-year-old lefty who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2015 and has a .785 career OPS allowed against right-handed batters. Aaron Boone went with the hot hand, but it didn’t work.

Chad Green lost Saturday’s game when he allowed four runs in the eighth inning as the Red Sox broke open a 3-3 game. All four runs came with two outs on doubles from Enrique Hernandez and Christian Vazquez and then a Bobby Dalbec home run. Green has a 3.14 ERA, but he’s now 0-4.

Then, after Boone used Aroldis Chapman down 4-3 in the ninth on Sunday — I didn’t have a problem with that, as you want to keep the game close and Chapman hadn’t pitched in the first two games — he had to use Luis Cessa in the 10th and that didn’t work either. Again, Cessa has been decent enough, but he’s mostly a low-leverage guy. I think this weekend showed how much the Yankees miss Zack Britton.

• Meanwhile, Matt Barnes got saves on Friday and Saturday, striking all four batters he faced. He’s been crushing it as Red Sox closer, with 47 strikeouts and just seven walks in 26⅓ innings, allowing a .136 average. Only Chapman has a higher strikeout percentage among pitchers with at least 20 innings. The key for Barnes has been throwing more strikes, which has led to more pitcher’s counts (47.2% of his pitches, compared to just 12.9% in a hitter’s count, much better than his career rates of 38.1% and 22.0% entering 2021).

Barnes faced just one batter on Saturday, but it still was a mild surprise when Cora brought Barnes on for a third straight game to try to close out a 4-3 lead on Sunday. Managers just don’t use relievers three days in a row if they can avoid it, but if there was ever a game to do it, it’s with a one-run lead against a division rival. Plus, Barnes hadn’t pitched in five days before throwing 17 pitches on Friday, so this usage was defensible, even if Barnes has historically pitched worse when going with no days of rest (5.37 career ERA versus an overall ERA of 3.97).

Sure enough, Aaron Judge walked with one out and Gleyber Torres doubled him home with a line drive into the left-field corner, Alex Verdugo‘s bobble making it easy to send Judge home with the tying run. Barnes got a gift to escape the inning when umpire Gabe Morales rung up Odor on a 3-2 curveball that was outside — a call that led to Yankees coaches Phil Nevin and Carlos Mendoza getting ejected.

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Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin gets ejected from the game for arguing a strike call vs. the Red Sox.

Some of the postgame chatter centered on why Boone wasn’t ejected alongside his coaches. You can feel Yankees fans starting to turn a little bit on their manager (although Boone was just ejected from a game a few days ago, so it’s not like he won’t get fired up or defend his players).

Anyway, Boston’s no-name bullpen includes Hirokazu Sawamura, Josh Taylor and Phillips Valdez (who got the save on Sunday). Two other key members are two ex-Yankees: Adam Ottavino, who has a 2.78 ERA and two saves, and rookie Garrett Whitlock. Whitlock was a good prospect as a starter coming through the Yankees system, but had Tommy John surgery in 2019. The Yankees left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, but the gambit failed as the Red Sox took a flyer on Whitlock. He has a 1.63 ERA in 27⅔ innings, often pitching multiple innings, including getting five outs on Saturday.

• Alex Verdugo is doing his best to make the Mookie Betts trade look a lot less controversial than it did when it occurred. Verdugo’s first-inning home run off Domingo German was his eighth and he’s hitting .288/.348/.463. Betts is hitting .258/.372/.438 with five home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

OK, there is a lot of baseball to be played before we declare Verdugo in the same universe as Betts, but Verdugo is going to be a solid contributor in front of Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers in the Boston lineup. He’s one of the better contact hitters in the league (10th-lowest strikeout rate), has started at least nine games at all three outfield positions and has hit well in high-leverage situations. Remember, this is a player with fewer than 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, so there is still possible improvement to come, especially if he learns to lift the ball a little more.

• Much has been made of the Yankees’ baserunning woes and it’s warranted. They entered the day leading the majors with 28 outs on the bases, including 12 at home plate. You might chalk this up to them being extra aggressive — nope. They also rank last in the majors in percentage of extra bases taken, such as going first to third or second to home on a single. They’re next to last in stolen bases. They also lead the majors in double plays grounded into, including three more on Sunday.

This is about as bad a team on the bases as you will ever see, with little team speed and a slew of boneheaded plays tossed in. That’s one reason the Yankees are last in the majors in percentage of runners who get on base who come around to score. The Yankees are 14th in the majors in on-base percentage, but 27th in runs per game.

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Chicago White Sox’s Tony La Russa passes John McGraw for second-most career wins by MLB manager

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The Chicago White Sox‘s Tony La Russa moved into second place on MLB’s all-time manager wins list with his 2,764th career victory on Sunday.

La Russa passed John McGraw after his team beat the Detroit Tigers 3-0 in Chicago. He now trails only Connie Mack.

“He was a much better player than I was, and he has a much higher winning percentage,” La Russa joked of McGraw. “I beat him with longevity and great situations.”

La Russa, 76, came out of a 10-year retirement to take over the ultra-loaded White Sox after beginning his career with the same job in Chicago in 1979. He went on to manage the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals before retiring the first time following the 2011 season. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

“It’s not about the staff,” La Russa said. “It’s about the players.”

Having said that, La Russa was quick to praise all his coaches over his career, as well as his current boss. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf allowed La Russa to be fired once, calling it the biggest regret of his time as owner. He was the driving force behind bringing La Russa back for a second stint with the White Sox.

“Early on, he read my bubble gum card and saw what a crappy player I was, so he’s the one that started putting outstanding coaches with this manager, who had no clue,” La Russa said.

It resonated with La Russa that this latest accomplishment came on the 77th anniversary of D-Day; the team put the movie “The Longest Day” on in the clubhouse before Sunday’s game. He expressed an appreciation for those in uniform, then pointed to his own jersey as the White Sox have a special place in his heart as well.

“Lot of pieces to this day including this uniform and coming back here to have it happen,” La Russa said. “It’s just overwhelming. Glad it’s a day off tomorrow.”

La Russa won’t catch Mack. He trails him by 967 wins.

“It’s beyond sacred,” he said of the top mark. “Unattainable. I didn’t think this was attainable. I didn’t think this was ever going to happen.

“The year I retired (in 2011), my family was very upset. They wanted this to happen.”

It took nearly a decade, but La Russa finally moved ahead of McGraw. His players weren’t aware what was at stake on Sunday, but were more than happy to be a part of baseball history.

“You have to respect him,” winning pitcher Dylan Cease (4-2) said. “It’s pretty legendary to say we get to play for him. He’s calm. He’s funny. It’s nice having him at the helm.”

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