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Pitchers’ dominance a thing to behold in today’s majors

By Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune –

You know what made Wednesday night’s game against the Astros really perfect for the Giants?

The guy who turned in the historic performance was Matt Cain, who in spring training signed a contract that runs through 2017, with an option for ‘18, not two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who has somehow became yesterday’s news in San Francisco.

It has been a tough year for Lincecum, who is 2-7 with a 6.00 ERA entering the weekend. But a word to the wise is still in order. He faces the A’s on Friday, and you probably should set your DVR.

We have entered a period (if not an era) of pitching greatness, and a Lincecum no-hitter or perfect game on the heels of Cain’s perfecto would be just about right.

Look at the Mets. They go 50 seasons as a franchise without even one lousy no-hitter — yes, they still talk about the one Tom Seaver try the Cubs’ Jimmy Qualls broke up — and then almost get a second one only 12 days after Johan Santana ended the streak. R.A. Dickey was an infield single away from a no-hitter Wednesday against the Rays.

Less than halfway through the 2012 season, there already have been five no-hitters, including the 21st and 22nd perfect games ever (Cain and the White Sox’s Philip Humber). There have been only seven seasons since 1917 when there were so many no-hitters — and in those years only 16 of 41 total no-hitters had been thrown by this date. That suggests there could be another five no-nos, maybe even more, before the season ends.

Two more would equal the most in one season, with seven thrown in both 1990 and ‘91.

Nolan Ryan (no-hitters in both ‘90 and ‘91), Randy Johnson, Fernando Valenzuela and Dave Stewart contributed to that flurry. But there were also random acts of greatness from the likes of Terry Mulholland, Tommy Greene and Bob Milacki.

The cast of no-hit artists has been almost as varied this year, with a six-pack of Mariners (including starter Kevin Millwood) and Jered Weaver joining Cain, Humber and Santana.

There’s no question pitching rules in the era of PED policing. Batting averages have shrunk across the game for six years in a row, and the drop in runs scored and home runs is huge — as ESPN’s Jayson Stark points out, there figure to be nearly 4,000 fewer runs scored and almost 900 fewer homers hit this season than in 2000.

Testing for steroids and stimulants is the obvious difference, of course. But there’s also a Darwinian element to the situation.

With so many hitters pounding balls out of ballparks, pitchers have become better. They throw harder — consider the 12-inning game between the Mariners and White Sox that featured six relievers throwing 94-plus, including two (rookies Stephen Pryor and Nate Jones) who hit 100 — and have more pitches they can use as genuine weapons than they did when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire made a mockery of pitching in 1998.

Pitchers have figured out how to exploit the huge swings of most hitters, and coaches are having a hard time getting hitters to adjust. Consider the White Sox’s Adam Dunn, who seems like a lock for Comeback Player of the Year with 22 home runs in his first 220 at-bats.

That’s impressive, no doubt. But Dunn also had 99 strikeouts in that stretch, and that’s a really crazy figure. Mark Reynolds, then with the Diamondbacks, set the strikeout record with 223 in 2009 including eight on the final weekend of the season at Wrigley Field. Dunn entered the weekend on track to strike out 255 times — a 12.5-percent increase on the all-time high.

You can talk about pitchers with better velocity and defensive alignments highly detailed scouting spawned, but nothing better explains the increase in perfect games and no-hitters more than how badly contact hitting has been devalued. Juan Pierre, we take it all back.

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Sneak attack: Credit Bruce Bochy for being a sensitive manager. He wanted to have reliever Shane Loux ready to relieve Cain in case the Astros broke up his no-hitter but didn’t want to spook Cain. So he had Loux throw in the underground batting cage adjacent to the Giants’ dugout, not the bullpen.

Loux was watching Cain on a television monitor as he got loose. He ran into the dugout after Cain got the second out in the ninth, wanting to be on hand for the finish.

“It was the most exciting game of my career, and I wasn’t even throwing,” Loux said.

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Two of a kind: While the guy wearing jersey No. 5 has started to look a lot like Albert Pujols, most people still point to the arrival of rookie Mike Trout for the Angels’ climb up the AL West standings.

The Dodgers are the first team to face both Bryce Harper and Trout, and they seem to think the Angels’ center fielder is a better hitter than the man-child leading the Nationals.

“I’m definitely going Mike Trout right now,” Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano said. “Take nothing away from Bryce, but I think (Trout) has a more polished approach.”

Entering the weekend, Trout was hitting .341 with a .942 OPS and an American League-high 16 stolen bases, compared to Harper’s .303, .933 and four. Trout, who, at 20, is 14 months older than Harper, doesn’t play with the same flair but can be a devastating offensive player, disrupting as much on the bases as at the plate.

“He plays under extreme control,” Dodgers center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said. “Bryce looks like he’s exerting full effort, Trout doesn’t.”

The Angels were 6-14 when Trout was promoted from Triple A, and entered the weekend having gone 28-16 since.

“He’s too young to compare to anybody right now,” Pujols said. “He’s Mike Trout and he’s playing the game the right way. He plays hard. I’m really excited for the next 10 years that I hope I’m going to play with him and (Mark) Trumbo and Peter (Bourjos). They’re going to keep me young.”

———

Sense of security: Scratch Andre Ethier from the free-agent market. The Dodgers gave him a five-year, $85-million deal that easily could be worth $100 million over six years — nice money for a wing man.

Some analysts question paying him that much, but he’s one of the big reasons the Dodgers went into the weekend with baseball’s best record. He has kept the lineup going without Matt Kemp — leading the National League with 55 RBIs — and even in years he hasn’t been as productive, he has been strong fielder in right.

“He covers all the bases,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. “He’s good on the field, he’s a Gold Glove, a player who hits in the middle of the lineup. But he’s also a solid family person, who loves this community. That’s the perfect profile. That’s what we want Dodgers to be.”

Ethier could be one of those players who raises his game as he ages. He admitted that he has long suffered from a sense of insecurity, fueled by doubts over whether the Giants appreciated him.

“It’s always something I’ve struggled with, I’m not going to lie,” Ethier said. It has been a draining, tough process for me to get this point. I admit I’ve made a lot of mistakes. There are a lot of things I would have done differently along the way. I guess you only learn as time goes on.”

———

The last word: “I thought we were in Detroit, not in Chicago. The support we had here was unbelievable. It was really special.” — Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit on the feeling at Wrigley Field last week.

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The Whispers: Strasburg 6th to notch 200 Ks in fewer than 30 games

Stephen Strasburg got his 200th strikeout in his 29th career game, joining Hideo Nomo (23 games), Kerry Wood (23), Dwight Gooden (25), Mark Prior (27) and Herb Score (29) as the only big leaguers to strike out 200 in fewer than 30 games. … Vladimir Guerrero was hitting the ball well in Triple A when the Blue Jays decided they didn’t need him. That’s a vote of support for rookie first baseman David Cooper, who would have been shipped back to Triple A if Guerrero arrived as the everyday DH, moving Edwin Encarnacion to first. … The Pirates are interested in the Cubs’ Bryan LaHair and the Padres’ Chase Headley as they seek to get more runners on base. Scouts say they could pull off one of the first trades, as they’re anxious to build on the momentum of a 12-3 run that briefly gave them a share of the lead in the NL Central. … Fans seem to like 4-3 games just fine. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci points out that attendance is up 7 percent this year, with 20 of the 30 clubs reporting an increase in ticket sales, and that per-game attendance dropped in three of the next five years after the McGwire-Sosa home run race in 1998. … No knuckleball pitcher ever has started the All-Star Game. The Mets’ R.A. Dickey is a strong candidate to become the first. … Reports of Jim Thome’s demise, once again, were exaggerated. He has hit so well in a stretch of 10 games at designated hitter for the Phillies (11-for-27, three home runs and 13 RBIs through Friday) that Charlie Manuel may take another look at using him at first base. As tough as it would be to fit him and Adam Dunn onto the same roster, don’t be surprised if the White Sox at least explore adding him at the trade deadline. … There will be long suspensions if the Reds and Braves get into a beanball war Monday, when Derek Lowe and Dusty Baker renew animosities. … Joe Torre will replace Davey Johnson as manager of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. The key question for the U.S. in filling out the roster for next spring’s event is whether to stick with only three or four starting pitchers, as it had on the unsuccessful teams in 2009 and ‘06, or take the top six or eight starters and use them in three- or four-inning stretches. That’s a better way to do it.

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