Stretch-drive mound heroes often a surprise
O's, Tigers, Nats, Braves and A's have benefited from unexpected pitching excellence
Starting pitching depth is often the separator as teams vie for the postseason, and sometimes that depth comes from unlikely sources or unexpected developments. That's part of the excitement of the final stretch.What's notable, as we observe the standings, is not just which teams are in contention with a month remaining on the slate but how they've remained in contention. Five teams in particular have had starters who have really pitched in lately, delivering unforeseen upside in games of the utmost import. Miguel Gonzalez, Orioles: Gonzalez is 28, somewhat old for a rookie. He was certainly no top prospect, as a Rule 5 Drafte in 2008 who missed the 2008 and '09 seasons because of knee and elbow surgeries, signed a Minor League free-agent contract with the Baltimore in March and began the season at Triple-A Norfolk. But Gonzalez became a rotation regular just before the All-Star break, around the time the starting unit was reshaped following an injury to Jason Hammel and the demotions of Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz. In his first four starts after the break, Gonzalez posted a 6.65 ERA. But in five starts since, he has gone 3-1 with a 1.91 ERA, limiting opponents to a .220 average. "I think he's a guy that's just letting it fly and trusting himself," manager Buck Showalter said. "He doesn't have anything to lose. Heck, he's had a lot of people in his career tell him that he couldn't do something, and I think he knows he's in a place where people get him and know what he brings." It's notable that Gonzalez has outdueled the likes of David Price, C.J. Wilson and Hiroki Kuroda in recent weeks. Impressive stuff. The O's will be careful with Gonzalez's innings, but he's still a huge part of their outlook the rest of the way. Max Scherzer, Tigers: The Tigers' ace the past few weeks -- in results, mind you, not reputation -- has not been Justin Verlander. And it hasn't been Doug Fister or Anibal Sanchez, either. It's been Scherzer, who has gone 5-0 with a 1.03 ERA, a .200 average against and 44 strikeouts in 35 innings over his past five starts. The Tigers have won eight of his past nine starts. Scherzer's success hasn't come completely out of nowhere, as he's long been lauded for his strong stuff. The book on Scherzer is that when he's good, he's really good. But consistency has eluded him, so to see him rattle off this five-start stretch at this pivotal time on the calendar qualifies as encouraging for the Tigers, who have the opportunity to take the American League Central despite their uneven play. Fister, perhaps expectedly, has not been the second-half savior he was a season ago, and Sanchez had a rough start to his Tigers career after being acquired from Miami (though he's been terrific lately). Right now, if manager Jim Leyland were lining up a playoff rotation, it would be hard to not put Scherzer into the second slot. But first the Tigers have to get there, and Scherzer is doing his part to point them in that direction. Ross Detwiler, Nationals: How much you want to read into the following second-half numbers is ultimately up to you, but here they are, for your perusal ... Pitcher A: 10 starts, 6-2 record, 3.14 ERA, .226 average against, .631 OPS against, 67 strikeouts, 17 walks, 57 1/3 innings.
Pitcher B: 10 starts, 5-3 record, 2.79 ERA, .220 average against, .591 OPS against, 31 strikeouts, 13 walks, 61 1/3 innings.Just looking at those numbers, you'd assume Pitcher B's output is at worst comparable and at best preferable to Pitcher A's, right? Well, Pitcher A is Stephen Strasburg. Pitcher B is Detwiler. Now, this is not to suggest that Detwiler has the stuff of Strasburg (the strikeout totals, in particular, refute that notion) or would be as impactful a postseason presence as Strasburg. But it does go to show just how deep the Nats staff is, because Detwiler is the club's fifth starter, and by and large, he's been effective all year. "He is just getting better," manager Davey Johnson said. "He is real confident." Kris Medlen, Braves: The way the Braves handled Medlen stands in stark contrast to the way the Nats have handled Strasburg. Both missed the vast majority of 2011 following 2010 Tommy John elbow surgery. But rather than prescribe an innings limit and let Medlen start games until he reached it, the Braves opted to have Medlen initially work out of the bullpen. Because he didn't move to the rotation until the end of July, his innings total does not figure to limit him should the Braves reach the postseason. Of course, that's the easy way to view the situation now that Medlen is 6-0 with a sparkling 0.54 ERA in seven starts. The fact of the matter is that the Braves turned to Medlen out of necessity and were somewhat reluctant to move him from a relief role in which he was having success. "When we put him in that rotation, we kind of knew in the back of our minds that it would be tough to take him out," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "And he has proven us right." Medlen cemented his spot in the rotation with a 34 2/3-inning scoreless streak. The Braves have won each of his past 18 starts, dating back to 2010. Atlanta loves the way he does all the little things beyond throwing strikes -- fielding his position, holding the runner, etc. His emergence has been impactful for a Braves team currently in possession of a Wild Card spot. Brett Anderson, A's: The A's don't really have to worry about any kind of innings limit on Anderson, who had Tommy John surgery last July, given that he wasn't available to them until August. It's impossible to estimate how quickly a pitcher will gain a feel for his pitches and develop his tempo after so much time away. And that's what makes Anderson's emergence these past few weeks such an off-the-charts positive for Oakland, especially given that Anderson arrived at the same time the club lost Bartolo Colon to a 50-game performance-enhancing drug suspension. Three starts in, Anderson is 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA. He's walked three and struck out 15 in 20 innings. Nobody's taken him deep, and he's posted a 2.06 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. The movement on his slider and curveball has been devastating. It will be interesting to see how long Anderson can keep this up or if the league adjusts, but remember: This is not fluky stuff. Anderson has been very highly regarded since arriving to the professional ranks in 2006. He just needs to stay healthy. But the way he's pitching right now, he's taken an already strong A's staff to the next level.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.