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Acuna hits first homer in his second game

MLB.com @mlbbowman

CINCINNATI -- Ronald Acuna Jr. provided a glimpse of why Ender Inciarte says the Braves' young phenom has more power than any other young player he has ever seen.  

Acuna enhanced the hype that surrounds him as he majestically drilled his first career home run during the second inning of Thursday afternoon's game against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. The Braves' top prospect turned on Homer Bailey's 3-1 slider and watched it sail into the second deck beyond the left-field wall.  

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CINCINNATI -- Ronald Acuna Jr. provided a glimpse of why Ender Inciarte says the Braves' young phenom has more power than any other young player he has ever seen.  

Acuna enhanced the hype that surrounds him as he majestically drilled his first career home run during the second inning of Thursday afternoon's game against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. The Braves' top prospect turned on Homer Bailey's 3-1 slider and watched it sail into the second deck beyond the left-field wall.  

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Pumped Braves fan snags Acuna's first homer

Acuna's second-inning leadoff homer came off the bat at 105.8 mph and traveled a projected 416 feet per Statcast™. The solo shot came in just the sixth career plate appearance for the 20-year-old left fielder, who went 1-for-5 with a single as he made his Major League debut during Wednesday's win over the Reds.  

Ranked MLB Pipeline's second-best prospect, Acuna is a five-tool talent whose power potential has significantly increased since he started last season at the Class A Advanced level. He tallied 21 homers in the 657 at-bats he totaled while playing at three different Minor League levels last year.  

Acuna displayed his tremendous speed on Wednesday, when he singled to begin the eighth inning and then raced from first base to third base at a pace of 30.3 feet per second on Dansby Swanson's single to left field. He trotted home a few moments later on Kurt Suzuki's game-tying single.  

In the fifth inning, Ozzie Albies hit a two-run homer, making he and Acuna the first teammates 21 or younger to homer in the same game since 1978 when Glenn Hubbard and Bob Horner, also of the Braves, did it.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.

Atlanta Braves, Ronald Acuna Jr.

Votto goes deep for third straight game

MLB.com @m_sheldon

CINCINNATI -- After a slow start where he didn't hit much or get on base, Reds first baseman Joey Votto has done both in the past week-plus. And now in the last three games, Votto has found his power as well.

In the fifth inning with two outs vs. the Braves on Thursday, Votto hit the game-tying three-run home run to center field at Great American Ball Park on an 0-1 pitch from Sean Newcomb. The homer knotted the score at 4. All three of Votto's homers have come in three straight games vs. Atlanta, the sixth time in his career where he's cleared the wall in three consecutive games.

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CINCINNATI -- After a slow start where he didn't hit much or get on base, Reds first baseman Joey Votto has done both in the past week-plus. And now in the last three games, Votto has found his power as well.

In the fifth inning with two outs vs. the Braves on Thursday, Votto hit the game-tying three-run home run to center field at Great American Ball Park on an 0-1 pitch from Sean Newcomb. The homer knotted the score at 4. All three of Votto's homers have come in three straight games vs. Atlanta, the sixth time in his career where he's cleared the wall in three consecutive games.

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Votto has also reached safely in 11 consecutive games. He had walked just three times in his first 15 games, but has walked 11 times in his previous eight.

On Tuesday vs. Brandon McCarthy, Votto hit a two-out homer to left field for his first homer of 2018. On Wednesday, he took Matt Wisler deep with a two-run homer to left field.

What do all three homers have in common besides being off of Braves pitching? They've all come during the fifth inning.

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto

Strained hamstring sends Miller to disabled list

MLB.com

Indians reliever Andrew Miller was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a strained left hamstring on Thursday. The contract of left-hander Jeff Beliveau was selected from Triple-A Columbus.

Miller exited his outing after only two pitches in the seventh inning of Cleveland's 4-1 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday. He entered the game in the seventh inning with two out and a runner on first, and after his second pitch to Chicago's Anthony Rizzo, he grimaced, grabbed the back of his hamstring and motioned toward the dugout.

Indians reliever Andrew Miller was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a strained left hamstring on Thursday. The contract of left-hander Jeff Beliveau was selected from Triple-A Columbus.

Miller exited his outing after only two pitches in the seventh inning of Cleveland's 4-1 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday. He entered the game in the seventh inning with two out and a runner on first, and after his second pitch to Chicago's Anthony Rizzo, he grimaced, grabbed the back of his hamstring and motioned toward the dugout.

"With the DL being 10 days now, it just makes sense," Miller said. "I don't want to go on the DL. I don't think it's going to take 10 days. I'm more concerned with -- I already talked to [pitching coach Carl Willis] about it -- I felt like I was really sharpening up, and making sure we don't lose that. So, I think it's just you don't want to hang 24 guys out to dry for, call it, seven or eight days, if you don't have to. It's the right thing to do, even if it's not the most desirable thing for me personally."

Miller has yet to allow a run through 11 relief appearances this season and has struck out 17 batters in 10 innings.

Beliveau, 31, signed a Minor League contract with the Indians during the offseason. He's pitched in parts of five seasons in the big leagues with the Cubs, Rays and Blue Jays. He began the season with Columbus and has pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings, holding opposing hitters to a .071 batting average with 14 strikeouts.

Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles.

Cleveland Indians, Andrew Miller

One thing has changed for Darvish -- it's not good

Cubs righty has a 6.86 ERA through first four outings
MLB.com @mike_petriello

Each week on the Statcast™ Podcast, hosts Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers dig into the world of Statcast™ and advanced metrics, exploring the most important topics in baseball through the lens of the groundbreaking Statcast™ technology. Download, subscribe and help others find the show by leaving a rating and review on iTunes or your favorite platform.

What's wrong with Yu Darvish? That's the question that Cubs fan have been asking this month, as their big-ticket starting pitching acquisition -- and, notably, Jake Arrieta replacement -- has gotten off to a slow start, with a 6.86 ERA through his first four outings. It's been especially rough the past two times out, as Darvish has allowed nine earned runs while failing to get through five innings in losses to the Braves and Rockies.

Each week on the Statcast™ Podcast, hosts Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers dig into the world of Statcast™ and advanced metrics, exploring the most important topics in baseball through the lens of the groundbreaking Statcast™ technology. Download, subscribe and help others find the show by leaving a rating and review on iTunes or your favorite platform.

What's wrong with Yu Darvish? That's the question that Cubs fan have been asking this month, as their big-ticket starting pitching acquisition -- and, notably, Jake Arrieta replacement -- has gotten off to a slow start, with a 6.86 ERA through his first four outings. It's been especially rough the past two times out, as Darvish has allowed nine earned runs while failing to get through five innings in losses to the Braves and Rockies.

Darvish gets a chance to redeem himself on Friday against the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, who have won eight straight entering Thursday. Can he? His tough April was a topic of this week's Statcast™ podcast, as we dug into what the data says about the unexpectedly poor outings from a longtime ace.

The last we saw of Darvish in 2017, he was having a pair of awful starts for the Dodgers in the World Series, though that did follow a pair of good postseason starts and generally good work for Los Angeles down the stretch after being acquired from Texas. Two starts, even on the biggest stage, shouldn't take more importance than several years of ace-like quality. Still, based on what happened in the Fall Classic and the size of the $126 million contract Darvish signed with Chicago, he could have used a fast start.

Now, Darvish did throw effectively against Milwaukee on April 7, striking out nine over six one-run innings. But digging into the numbers, there's some pretty clear warning signs.

His strikeout rate is down.
Darvish struck out 31.7 percent of hitters in 2016, the second-highest rate of any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched. Last year, that dropped to 27.3 percent, still above average but now 18th best. This year, he's down to just 22.8 percent. Darvish hasn't thrown enough innings to qualify for the leaderboards, but if he had, that would be 44th overall. Strikeouts in baseball are going up, but for Darvish, they're going down.

His walk rate is up.
Darvish consistently walked just under eight percent of hitters in both 2016 and '17. That's fine; nothing to see here. But this year, that's all the way up to 12 percent. So now we've got fewer strikeouts and more walks, and you can see where some of the problems are coming from. Why is this happening? Because…

His chase rate is down.
If there's a single culprit, it's this. There's almost nothing more beneficial to a pitcher than getting a hitter to swing at pitches outside the zone, because they're more likely to be misses or lead to poor contact. If you're wondering if this matters, note names on the Top 10 in 2016-17 at getting swings outside the zone were Masahiro Tanaka, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Greinke, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Yes, it matters.

Darvish got a consistent 32 percent chase rate -- that is, nearly a third of pitches he threw outside the zone got swings -- in 2014, '16 and '17. This year? That's down to 23 percent. His once legendary slider, which once induced swings nearly half the time outside the zone, now has a chase rate of just 25 percent. It's been hit hard, with a line against of .269/.321/.654.

So what's the good news? There is good news.

First of all, Darvish's velocity isn't down, staying steady on his fastball at 94.2 mph, after 94.3 last year and 93.9 the year before. He's not really being hit harder, as his average exit velocity has dropped from last year's 85.7 mph to 84.8 mph, and at a lower launch angle, dropping from 13 degrees last year to 11 degrees this year.

There's definitely cause for concern about Darvish, especially after the way his slider got lit up by Houston last October (and November). But all hope is hardly lost, obviously, because the velocity is still there. The problem is if the command isn't, and if Darvish can't get hitters to go after the slider. Hittable in-zone fastballs tend to be hittable.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Chicago Cubs, Yu Darvish

These are the worst no-hitters in baseball history

MLB.com @JPosnanski

Let's just say it: We might be in for another crazy no-hitter year. We went through a no-hitter downturn in 2016 and '17 -- in large part because so many home runs were being hit. You can see it clearly when you look at the entire decade:

2010: Five no-hitters
2011: Three no-hitters
2012: Six no-hitters
2013: Three no-hitters
2014: Four no-hitters
2015: Seven no-hitters
2016: One no-hitter
2017: One no-hitter

Let's just say it: We might be in for another crazy no-hitter year. We went through a no-hitter downturn in 2016 and '17 -- in large part because so many home runs were being hit. You can see it clearly when you look at the entire decade:

2010: Five no-hitters
2011: Three no-hitters
2012: Six no-hitters
2013: Three no-hitters
2014: Four no-hitters
2015: Seven no-hitters
2016: One no-hitter
2017: One no-hitter

Those seven no-hitters in 2015 is a record -- well, there were actually seven no-hitters in '12, but one of them was delivered by six Seattle pitchers, so we'll not count that one. In all, there have been 31 individual pitcher no-hitters in this decade, and the decade isn't over yet. This is more than double what baseball had in the 2000s (14).

Those numbers, as mentioned, have been down lately. But less than a month into the 2018 season, there are signs that the no-hitter alerts on our phones might be buzzing. There has already been one no-hitter (Oakland's Sean Manaea against the Red Sox) and a whole bunch of near no-hitters.

Video: Must C Classic: Sean Manaea no-hits the Red Sox

And the trends are pointing toward a no-hitter year. It's only April, sure, and the weather has been terrible, which affects bats in a big way. But even if you compare April to April, batting average is down six points to .241 and strikeouts are way up to an all-time high of 8.87 per nine innings. More strikeouts equals lower average equals more potential no-hitters.

Home runs countered this trend somewhat the last couple of years. Last year there were five games where a team managed only one hit ... but it was a home run. That was a record. Well, home runs are down somewhat in 2018. Look out below.

With all this no-hitter talk, we thought it would be fun for this Throwback Thursday to look at ... the worst no-hitters ever thrown. Here's the caveat: There is no such thing as a bad no-hitter, but some are better than others. We are so used to lists of the best-pitched no-hitters in baseball history. Well, what about the roughest ones?

Here we go:

1. Matt Young, Red Sox vs. Indians, April 12, 1992
Unofficial: 8 IP, 2 ER, 7 BB, 6 K's, 6 SB
Final score: Indians 2, Red Sox 1

Young only pitched eight innings, so it was not an "official" no-hitter. Someone asked him after the game if he had a different word for it.

"Purgatory," Young said.

This was a nutty game, and it was that way right from the start. Young walked Kenny Lofton to lead off the first. Lofton promptly stole second. During a strikeout of Glenallen Hill, Lofton stole third. Lofton scored on a ground ball (the ball ended up being booted for an error but he would have scored anyway).

So 1-0 Cleveland, and Young has given up an earned run but no hits.

In the third, Young walked Mark Lewis and Lofton. Lewis moved over on a ground ball and then scored on another ground ball. Young had given up two earned runs but still had not given up a hit.

And so it went. Young walked Lofton three times, and Lofton stole four bases. Young threw 120 pitches over eight grueling innings. He did not pitch the ninth because Cleveland had already won the game. But Young never did give up a hit.

"It's irrelevant," Young said about not getting the opportunity to pitch the ninth, "because we lost the game. A no-hitter's supposed to be where you strike out the last guy, and the catcher comes out and jumps in your arms."

When someone asked him how he felt about it not being considered a no-hitter -- this was just a few months after a committee came up with the rule that a no-hitter had to be at least nine innings -- Young shrugged.

"I don't feel I pitched that well," he said. "But they didn't get any hits. And the game's over."

2. Edwin Jackson, Diamondbacks vs. Rays, June 25, 2010
9 IP, 0 R, 8 BB, 6 K's, 1 HBP, 149 pitches
Final score: D-backs 1, Rays 0

The headline in the Arizona Republic the next day was "NO-HIT WONDER," which, well, it was that. It's a wonder that Jackson made it out of the first three innings, to be honest. He walked seven those first three innings, including the bases loaded with nobody out in the third.

How did Jackson get out of that? He then coaxed a short fly ball that didn't score a run.

And then something remarkable happened. Melvin Upton Jr. and Hank Blalock both grounded out. That in itself is not remarkable but what is remarkable is that they each did it on the first pitch of the at-bat. We'll get back to that in a moment.

Jackson threw 70 pitches those first three innings. Seventy! What do you think the odds were that a guy who had seven walks and had thrown 70 pitches in three innings would end up throwing a no-hitter? They have to be astronomical. It's almost impossible to conceive.

But Jackson became a different pitcher after the third. He retired 13 of the next 14 batters (with only a hit batter in the process) and he worked around an error in the eighth and a walk in the ninth to finish off one of the craziest no-hitters in baseball history.

But let's get back to Upton and Blalock for a second. Seriously, the guy has walked seven in three innings. His pitch count is out of control. The bases are loaded. How could you possibly bail him out by swinging at the first pitch of each at-bat?

Video: ARI@TB: Jackson hurls the second D-backs no-hitter

3. A.J. Burnett, Marlins vs. Padres, May 12, 2001
9 IP, 0 R, 9 BB, 7 K's, 1 HBP, 3 SB
Final score: Marlins 3, Padres 0

This is the most walks in a nine-inning no-hitter. Jim Maloney, who did not make this list, walked 10 in his no-hitter in 1965, but he pitched 10 innings -- it's hard to put a 10-inning no-hitter on the worst list.

Burnett admitted after the game that his command was not sharp at all. He got into trouble almost every inning with his wildness and inability to keep runners on. In the second, Burnett put runners on first and second with nobody out, but he got a double play to get out of the mess. In the third, he had two walks, a wild pitch and allowed a stolen base so there were runners on second and third with one out. Burnett got a key strikeout of Ryan Klesko and then got Dave Magadan to fly out.

Fourth inning, Burnett walked one and hit a batter but got out of the inning with a couple of strikeouts. Eighth inning, he again walked two in the inning and allowed a stolen base before escaping. It was a 129-pitch tightrope act (only 65 were strikes), but he got stronger in the ninth and got a 1-2-3 inning to finish the job.

"I felt good all night," Burnett told reporters. "And the closer it got, the more confident I was."

Video: FLA@SD: A.J. Burnett throws a no-hitter in San Diego

4. Dock Ellis, Pirates vs. Padres, June 12, 1970
9 IP, 0 R, 8 BB, 6 K's, 1 HBP
Final score: Pirates 2, Padres 0

This is the famous (or infamous) LSD game. Ellis had dropped acid earlier in the day and still went out and no-hit San Diego.

As Ellis' version of the story goes, he woke up in Los Angeles at noon. He was to start a 6 p.m. game in San Diego, the first in a twilight doubleheader, but he didn't know that. Ellis thought that he was pitching the next day. So it seemed a good time to take acid. A little while later, the girl he was with told him that, no, actually, he was pitching that evening.

She somehow got Ellis to the airport, he somehow flew to San Diego and somehow got to the ballpark. It is unclear -- even to Ellis in the ensuing years -- how any of that happened.

Ellis would say that he was high and gone the entire game; he couldn't feel the baseball or even see the catcher. He remembered almost nothing from the game except for a few trippy things like: "I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home-plate umpire."

Ellis couldn't throw strikes, but the Padres couldn't get a hit. The no-hitter was saved by second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who made a spectacular diving catch on a Ramon Webster line drive. The rest of it was a blur with lots of walks, and Ellis finished it off with a strikeout of Ed Spiezio to clinch the LSD no-no.

5. David Palmer, Expos vs. Cardinals, April 21, 1984
Unofficial: 5 IP, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K's (perfect game)
Final score: Expos 4, Cardinals 0

There have been five five-inning complete-game no-hitters thrown, and Palmer joined Rube Vickers and Dean Chance as the only pitchers to throw five-inning perfect games. I chose this one because of the sort of sad controversy that followed it.

This was only Palmer's second game back after a horror-show run of injuries. The game was in St. Louis and it was the second in a doubleheader. The rain started falling hard in the sixth, and the umpires stopped the game with two Expos on (including now Cleveland manager Terry Francona) and nobody out. They delayed for 77 minutes before finally calling it.

The way Palmer understood it, he had just entered the Major League history books.

"It's a five-inning perfect game, but it still goes down as a perfect game," Palmer told reporters afterward. "I'll take it."

It was a cool story -- Palmer had been snakebit his entire big league career. He had pitched very well when he was very young and he looked like a potential star. Then Palmer started having elbow problems that did not stop. He missed all of the 1981 and '83 seasons. He had worked so hard to get back and now, finally, something good was happening.

"I'm hoping all the bad luck is behind me," Palmer said.

Well, OK. Palmer got to enjoy the perfect game for about a week. That's when baseball people started wondering, "How can you call that a perfect game?"

Then the Cardinals started talking about how Palmer was throwing a "mystery pitch" during the game -- "I don't know if he was throwing a spitball or what," manager Whitey Herzog told reporters.

Then on Sept. 30 of that year, Mike Witt threw an actual perfect game, the nine-inning variety, and at that point people mostly stopped thinking of Palmer's feat as an actual perfect game.

Just seven years later, a committee determined that a pitcher has to throw at least nine innings for it to be considered a no-hitter or perfect game. And with that Dave Palmer's perfect game was thrown into the asterisk field.

6. Ed Lafitte, Brooklyn Tip-Tops vs. Kansas City Packers, Sept. 19, 1914
9 IP, 2 R (0 ER), 7 BB, 1 K
Final score: Tip-Tops 6, Packers 2

I'm including this one largely because it's so quirky. Lafitte was pitching in the Federal League -- it was the first of five Federal League no-hitters. Lafitte walked seven. His Tip-Tops committed two errors.

In the words of the Brooklyn Eagle, "The achievement was somewhat tarnished by the fact that the visitors scored two runs against him but there was no question about the absence of a base hit of any description."

There's something else that's fun about this -- it was the first game of a doubleheader. And there was apparently real consideration for Lafitte to pitch the second game, at least until he gave up a hit. This would have given him a chance to do something nobody had ever done or, surely, would ever do again: Pitch two no-hitters on the same day.

Brooklyn manager Bill Bradley decided against it.

7. Ken Holtzman, Cubs vs. Braves, Aug. 19, 1969
9 IP, 0 R, 3 BB, 0 K's
Final score: Cubs 3, Braves 0

Holtzman had come close to a no-hitter twice before ... and he said that he had much better stuff those other two times. Well, what he actually said was that on the day he no-hit the Braves he didn't have his curveball or his changeup or his control. That's quite a way to throw a no-hitter.

What's striking about the no-hitter is that Holtzman did not strike out a single batter in the game. It's the only time since 1923 that a pitcher has thrown a no-hitter without a strikeout.

"I had one pitch, the fastball, and I didn't think I was too fast," Holtzman explained after the game.

The no-hitter was saved when Holtzman did what no pitcher should ever do -- he threw a middle-middle fastball to Hank Aaron in the seventh inning. Aaron didn't miss (how many times in his career do you think Aaron missed a middle-middle fastball?) but the wind was howling in that day. Aaron's ball died in that wind.

"It should have been out of here -- and would have been -- except for the wind," Holtzman said.

Video: ATL@CHC: Holtzman gets Aaron to complete no-hitter

8. Johnny Vander Meer, Reds vs. Dodgers, June 15, 1938
9 IP, 0 R, 8 BB, 7 K's
Final score: Reds 6, Dodgers 0

Nobody cared how Vander Meer got this no-hitter, because it was his second in a row, a feat unmatched in baseball history. But he really had to fight to get this one. Perhaps it was the pressure. Vander Meer walked a hitter in the second and third, but he was generally dominant until the seventh, when he walked two batters and needed to get Leo Durocher to ground out to end the inning.

The ninth inning was a carnival. With one out, Vander Meer walked Babe Phelps, Cookie Lavagetto and Dolph Camilli to load the bases. That's when Reds manager Bill McKechnie came to the mound with the crowd shrieking, "DON'T TAKE HIM OUT." McKechnie had no intention of taking him out; instead he told Vander Meer, "Don't worry. Just relax. You'll get this."

And with that, Vander Meer found his control, got Ernie Koy to ground into a forceout at home, and he finished it off by getting Durocher again; this time he hit a lazy fly ball to center for the historic no-no.

Pete Rose loves when people ask him, "Do you think your hit record is the most unbreakable mark in baseball history?" He says, "No. It's Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters. Because to break it you would have to throw three in a row."

9. Chris Heston, Giants vs. Mets, June 9, 2015
9 IP, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 K's, 3 HBP
Final score: Giants 5, Mets 0

Heston was a rookie and he was brilliant that day against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets ... except for the hit-batter thing. He hit three batters, the only time a pitcher has done that in a no-hitter the in the last 100 years. Heston actually hit back-to-back Mets in the fourth inning, and it looked like the wheels might be coming off. But he promptly got Michael Cuddyer to ground into a double play, and that saved the day and a little piece of history.

"I'm not sure what just happened," Heston said after the game.

Video: SF@NYM: Heston tosses no-hitter, strikes out 11

10. Andy Hawkins, Yankees vs. White Sox, July 1, 1990
Unofficial: 8 IP, 4 R (0 ER), 5 BB, 3 K's, 1 SB
Final score: White Sox 4, Yankees 0

OK, a couple of points. One, we have included some in here that are not "official" no-hitters because the pitcher did not go nine innings. It's more fun to include them.

Two, Hawkins does not really belong on this list. He was more a victim of circumstance than anything else. Through seven innings, Hawkins was cruising. He retired the first 14 batters that he faced. Then, yes, Hawkins had some control problems -- two walks in the fifth and a walk in the seventh -- but he still looked good.

Eighth inning, Hawkins got the first two batters on infield popouts. Then Sammy Sosa, in his first full season in the big leagues, hit a ground ball to third. Mike Blowers booted it. And the agony began. Sosa stole second. Hawkins walked Ozzie Guillen, which was not an easy thing to do. Guillen walked just 239 times in more than 7,000 plate appearances; he walked once per 30 plate appearances, by far the lowest ratio for any player with that long of a big league career.

But Hawkins walked Guillen, then he walked Lance Johnson to load the bases (Johnson wasn't easy to walk either). Robin Ventura hit a fly ball to rookie left fielder Jim Leyritz. Well, Leyritz wasn't really a left fielder. He was a catcher and a third baseman who Yankees manager Stump Merrill felt comfortable playing everywhere, even during a no-hitter. Leyritz dropped the ball and three runs scored.

Video: NYY@CWS: Hawkins throws a no-hitter and loses

"The ball was hit right at me," Leyritz said, "and I made a wrong move."

Then, the finishing touch: Ivan Calderon hit a fly ball to right, where Jesse Barfield played. It was a windy and sunny day. Barfield didn't stand a chance.

"It was brutal out there," Barfield said. "I knew I was in trouble when the ball was hit."

Barfield lost the ball in the sun and dropped it. Because it hit the glove, it was ruled an error (one of the quirks of errors). That's four runs -- but the no-hitter was intact. Hawkins retired Dan Pasqua to make history; the most runs allowed in a no-hitter.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.

Dyson heating up, slugs one into 2nd deck

MLB.com @SteveGilbertMLB

PHILADELPHIA -- Jarrod Dyson's bat continued to heat up Thursday as his two-run homer in the first inning helped give the D-backs a 3-0 lead against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Dyson came into the series with the Phillies hitting .160, but homered on Tuesday off Vince Velasquez and reached base two other times via walks.

View Full Game Coverage

PHILADELPHIA -- Jarrod Dyson's bat continued to heat up Thursday as his two-run homer in the first inning helped give the D-backs a 3-0 lead against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Dyson came into the series with the Phillies hitting .160, but homered on Tuesday off Vince Velasquez and reached base two other times via walks.

View Full Game Coverage

Video: ARI@PHI: Dyson belts a solo home run to right

Then Wednesday night he beat out an infield hit and eventually came around to score the D-backs' first run.

Thursday, after David Peralta led off the game with a single, Dyson hit a 1-0 fastball from Ben Lively over the wall in right to give the D-backs a 2-0 lead.

Arizona scored a run later in the inning on an RBI double by Chris Owings.

Steve Gilbert has covered the D-backs for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB.

Arizona Diamondbacks, Jarrod Dyson

Braves fan snags Acuna's first MLB home run

Ronald Acuña Jr. made his MLB debut on Wednesday night against the Reds in Cincinnati, and he did not disappoint. He went 1-for-5 and scored the game-tying run in the Braves' 4-5 win.

But, he didn't homer. Braves fans had to wait one whole day for that. Acuña's first MLB dinger came in the second inning of Thursday's game against the Reds

Best and worst of NL East closers thus far

Middle-inning troubles throughout division not extending to ninth
MLB.com @matthewhleach

The messy middle has been quite a challenge for National League East managers this year. Fortunately for the five skippers, the final three outs have been mostly clean.

The NL East has been beset with worrisome relief performances this year, but for the most part, the guys at the back end have been just fine. The Marlins are a bit of an exception in both cases -- shaky in the ninth, solid in setup -- but there are some trends here.

The messy middle has been quite a challenge for National League East managers this year. Fortunately for the five skippers, the final three outs have been mostly clean.

The NL East has been beset with worrisome relief performances this year, but for the most part, the guys at the back end have been just fine. The Marlins are a bit of an exception in both cases -- shaky in the ninth, solid in setup -- but there are some trends here.

Let's take a look at the ninth-inning situations around the division.

Braves
Who's the closer? Arodys Vizcaino

How is it working out? Well, it's actually kind of hard to say.

Vizcaino has pitched well. He just hasn't pitched the ninth very often. It was April 11 before Vizcaino got a save chance, and April 16 before he converted on one. He's 1-for-2, total, on the year. That might not be a bad thing, though, since Vizcaino had some trouble finding the strike zone. When he's struggled in the past, that's been his issue, and it popped up early this season.

However, over Vizcaino's past seven outings, he's only walked one -- a pretty good indication he's rounding into form. The Braves have had some bullpen issues this year, but it's mostly been about getting to the ninth, not getting through it.

Video: PHI@ATL: Vizcaino induces groundout to notch the save

How secure is he? Pretty darn secure -- if only because, who would supplant him? A.J. Minter may well be the closer of the future, but he, too, has had some trouble throwing strikes, and it's hard to envision Atlanta plugging him in the ninth any time soon.

Who's next in line? If the Braves were to make a change later in the year, it seems likely Minter would be the next man up. He closed out Wednesday night's game and did well. But if something were to happen soon, that might be less of a given. While Minter has had trouble throwing strikes, the less-heralded Shane Carle and Dan Winkler have been quite effective. Atlanta would rather not have to make that decision any time soon, because there's not a clear alternative.

Marlins
Who's the closer? Brad Ziegler

How is it working out? Not great. Ziegler is 2-for-2 in save chances, but he's been scored upon in five of 10 appearances and taken three losses. He's 38 and has never been overpowering. It's fair to say this year's performance is concerning.

Video: MIA@LAD: Ziegler gets Bellinger to ground out

How secure is he? Fairly safe for now, if only because the Marlins won't have great urgency to make a change in a rebuilding year. But at the same time, when wins are precious, you don't want to let them slip away. There's also the possibility that even if he rights the ship, Ziegler could be dealt to a contender between now and the end of July.

Who's next in line? Here's one team that has options. Miami is loaded with late-inning power relievers, including four regular members of its bullpen who are averaging more than 11 K's per nine innings. Kyle Barraclough would probably rank ahead of Drew Steckenrider and Tayron Guerrero, but all three have the stuff to close. Junichi Tazawa has experience and plenty of strikeouts, but he's also had huge problems with walks and homers. He's got a long way to go before he would be the guy.

Mets
Who's the closer? Jeurys Familia

How is it working out? Better than anyone could have anticipated. Remember when the Mets hedged their bets and indicated they might go with a closer-by-committee approach? It's always wise to be skeptical of such pronouncements, but Familia has made it moot anyway. He's dominated, with nine saves and 17 K's in 13 innings.

Video: NYM@ATL: Familia gets Bourjos out, picks up the save

How secure is he? Probably pretty safe, but a couple of recent wobbles have been a bit concerning. If it's just a bad week, and that happens, Familia is just fine. If it's the start of a longer slump, maybe a different answer. Still, if Familia is truly back to being the pitcher he was three years ago, that's an elite closer. Right now, he looks a little more like the 2016 version than '15, given a bit of a high walk rate, but even that is a guy you ride for as long as you can. Familia has 115 big league saves; they're not looking to dislodge him if he keeps getting the job done.

Who's next in line? Funny you should ask, and you may sense a bit of a trend here as we go along. As in Washington (see below), the presumed alternative hasn't really stated his case very forcefully. AJ Ramos has allowed a mere two hits, but he's walked more batters than he's struck out, and that's not great. Robert Gsellman has been brilliant, but it's extremely tough to envision him being removed from his Swiss Army Knife role.

Nationals
Who's the closer? Sean Doolittle

How is it working out? Mercy. Doolittle has been absolutely dominant. He's had at least one strikeout in each of his 10 appearances, and at least two strikeouts in eight of them. He has yet to blow a save. The Nats have had some issues in the middle innings, but when they can get a lead to Doolittle, they're golden.

Video: WSH@LAD: Doolittle retires Seager to earn fourth save

How secure is he? Quite. It's not like it's impossible that the Nationals could make a change, but they acquired Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler all at around the same time, and then made the clear choice that Doolittle was the guy. That was under previous manager Dusty Baker, but there's no indication they've reconsidered.

Who's next in line? Well, that's part of the issue. One option, Kintzler, has had trouble finding the strike zone. Another, Madson, has been awfully hittable. So even if Doolittle were to have a rough go of it, it's hard to imagine the Nats having a lot of confidence in whomever they'd choose to replace him. It's definitely safe to figure that Davey Martinez is thinking much more about the sixth, seventh and eighth innings these days than the ninth.

Phillies
Who's the closer? Hector Neris

How is it working out? The overall numbers only look so-so. Don't believe them. Neris had a rough first outing, but since then, he's been nails. Over his next eight appearances, he looked just like the guy who was so good in 2016-17. Neris is not otherworldly dominant, but he's very good, and he doesn't hurt himself with a lot of walks or homers.

Video: ARI@PHI: Neris forces a flyout to secure fifth save

How secure is he? Not bet-the-house secure, but pretty safe. But this answer is definitely connected to the next one, so read on. If Neris pitches well, he's fine -- and he's converted 25 of his past 26 chances, going back to last year. But if he struggles, it may depend on what the alternatives are.

Who's next in line? That may be changing. If you'd asked a week or so ago, the answer likely would've been Luis Garcia, who's picked up the occasional save here and there over the past three seasons. But you'd have to think that Tommy Hunter, fresh off the DL, will have the chance to pitch his way into the opportunity. Once he's fully up and rolling, the leash might be a little shorter.

Matthew Leach is the National League executive editor for MLB.com.

Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Sean Doolittle, Jeurys Familia, Hector Neris, Arodys Vizcaino, Brad Ziegler

Suarez returns from fractured thumb, in lineup

Reds option Pennington, Ervin; utility man Herrera called up
MLB.com @m_sheldon

CINCINNATI -- When Eugenio Suarez was hit by a pitch on April 8 in Pittsburgh and fractured his right thumb, the Reds third baseman did not initially believe he would get back fast.

Instead of just getting back fast, Suarez returned very fast. He was activated from the 10-day disabled list on Thursday and in the starting lineup vs. the Braves.

View Full Game Coverage

CINCINNATI -- When Eugenio Suarez was hit by a pitch on April 8 in Pittsburgh and fractured his right thumb, the Reds third baseman did not initially believe he would get back fast.

Instead of just getting back fast, Suarez returned very fast. He was activated from the 10-day disabled list on Thursday and in the starting lineup vs. the Braves.

View Full Game Coverage

"I feel so excited to be back this quick," Suarez said. "I feel great right now, a little bit nervous. I think that's normal. It will be all right. I feel good. My thumb has no pain at all. That's why I'm here today."

In other moves, the Reds selected the contract of utility player Rosell Herrera from Triple-A Louisville. To make room on the 25-man roster outfielder Phillip Ervin and infielder Cliff Pennington were optioned to Louisville.

Although the Reds lineup has scored more runs -- 23 -- in its first three games vs. Atlanta, the return of Suarez to the lineup was sorely needed. The club entered the day batting .231, was last in the Majors in home runs and 13th in the National League in runs scored.

Suarez was batting .296/.424/.630 with two home runs and seven RBIs in eight games before going on the DL. He had a homer and five RBIs on April 7, the day before getting hit on the hand by a Jameson Taillon pitch.

"It was an injury that could have gone longer to get him back, but he's fine to go," Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "So, we made the move to get him on the roster."

In two rehab assignment games with Louisville, Suarez was 1-for-5 with a double.

"Just a little bit off on my timing, but I will get over it real quick," Suarez said. "All of my at-bats felt good. I was swinging hard like I can do. My thumb feels really good with no pain at all."

Pennington, along with Phil Gosselin and Alex Blandino, filled in at third base while Suarez was out. The 33-year-old Pennington, who was signed during Spring Training, batted .138/.265/.138 in 16 games. While playing eight games at third base and five at shortstop, his defensive range lacked compared to Suarez and Jose Peraza. Pennington was also needed to pitch an inning of an April 12 blowout loss to the Cardinals.

Ervin, 25, hit .211/.318/.237 with one double and three RBIs in 16 games for Cincinnati after he earned an Opening Day roster spot. But he demonstrated some shaky defense, especially in right field while he filled in for an injured Scott Schebler.

"Once Schebler came back, Ervin kind of became the fifth outfielder," Riggleman said. "We need him playing. He's got to go down there and get some at-bats."

Video: LAA@CIN: Herrera clears the bases with a triple

Herrera gets first call-up
Herrera, 25, wasn't expecting his first big league promotion Wednesday night.

"I was playing PS4 last night around 10:30 p.m., and I got a phone call," Herrera said via translator Julio Morillo. "It was the trainer in Triple-A. He told me, 'You've got a call up to the big leagues, congratulations.' After that, it was an amazing feeling."

Herrera was playing the perfect video game for the occasion when his phone rang. It was "MLB: The Show."

Herrera spent his entire professional career with the Rockies organization after signing as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2010. In November, the Reds signed him to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training. Herrera's contract selection gives the Reds a full 40-man roster.

During 23 games in camp, Herrera often impressed with his versatility while batting .267 with two homers. In 15 games with Louisville, he batted .311/.373/.607 with three home runs and 10 RBIs.

Herrera has already played six positions this season -- all three outfield spots plus third base, second base and shortstop.

"A tall, rangy kid that can run," Riggleman said. "He swings it from both sides of the plate. Primarily he's been playing the outfield the last few years but signed as an infielder. He's played all around. It gives us a little more versatility and some real athleticism there."

Hernandez close
Reliever David Hernandez made his third appearance in his rehab assignment with Louisville on Wednesday and threw 15 pitches over a scoreless inning. Hernandez gave up one hit and struck out one.

Hernandez was in the Reds' clubhouse on Thursday, but not activated from the disabled list. He's been out since March with right shoulder inflammation.

"He's still on the rehab schedule. But he's real close," Riggleman said.

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Cincinnati Reds, Phillip Ervin, Rosell Herrera, Cliff Pennington, Eugenio Suarez

Draft class short on shortstops, full of Vandy commits

MLB.com @JimCallisMLB

The NFL Draft begins tonight with the first round, which could include a former professional baseball player.

The Pirates signed Hayden Hurst, a 6-foot-5 Florida high school right-hander with a low-90s fastball, for a well-over-slot $400,000 in the 17th round of the 2012 Draft. Part of a 2009 U.S. national team that also included Albert Almora Jr. and Francisco Lindor and won a gold medal at the World Youth Championships, he suddenly lost the ability to control his pitches and never recovered it.

The NFL Draft begins tonight with the first round, which could include a former professional baseball player.

The Pirates signed Hayden Hurst, a 6-foot-5 Florida high school right-hander with a low-90s fastball, for a well-over-slot $400,000 in the 17th round of the 2012 Draft. Part of a 2009 U.S. national team that also included Albert Almora Jr. and Francisco Lindor and won a gold medal at the World Youth Championships, he suddenly lost the ability to control his pitches and never recovered it.

Hurst only worked in one official Minor League game, walking all five batters he faced and throwing two wild pitches in 2013. After returning to Rookie ball the next summer as a DH/first baseman, he batted .245/.333/.245 in 15 games before giving up baseball to walk on at South Carolina as a wide receiver.

Moved to tight end in 2016, Hurst has become one of the best prospects at his position. His combination of size, speed and hands may land him in the back of the first round and almost certainly in the second.

:: Submit a question to the Pipeline Inbox ::

Tweet from @MontanaBadboy: How does the short stop crop of this class stack up to others in the recent past. Is Brice Turang on the rise with his strong hitting? Is Nander de Sadas really a threat to fall into the second round?

The 2015 Draft began with shortstops as the first three picks (Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman, Brendan Rodgers), while the Twins took one (Royce Lewis) with the top overall choice last year. By comparison, the 2018 Draft has a lackluster group of shortstops. For more details, check out the video at the top of this column.

Tweet from @grapebaseball: Is Alex Bohm's stock rising enough for him to be the number 2 pick to the Giants?

Yes, that's fair to say. Bohm (it's Alec, by the way) put himself in position to go in the first round with a solid sophomore season at Wichita State and an even better summer on the Cape, and now he has a very good chance to go in the first five selections.

Bohm appeals to statistics-minded teams because he's hitting .336/.444/.564 with plenty more walks (29) than strikeouts (19). He appeals to scouts, too, because his proponents believe he has well-above-average raw power, plus hitting ability and strike-zone management to match. Some worry that he does it more with strength than bat speed and that he's going to wind up moving from third base to first base, but he still won't have to wait very long to hear his name called on June 4.

Tweet from @ijustshukya: How impressive is the Delmarva Shorebirds rotation?

Quite impressive. All six pitchers in Delmarva's rotation are legitimate prospects and thus far they've combined to go 9-4 with a 2.31 ERA and a 115/34 K/BB ratio in 101 2/3 innings. The best prospect is left-hander D.L. Hall, a 2017 first-rounder with a low-90s fastball and a wipeout curveball.

The best performer so far is another lefty drafted last year, supplemental second-rounder Zac Lowther, whose fastball plays well above its 87-93 mph velocity thanks to extension, life and command. He has given up just seven baserunners and one run while striking out 31 in 16 innings.

The Shorebirds also have two more 2017 draftees in third-round right-hander Michael Baumann, who can hit 97 mph with his fastball and flash a plus slider, and 26th-round left-hander Cameron Bishop (signed for a well-over-slot $605,000), who can reach 95 mph. The other two members of the rotation are 2016 picks: second-round righty Matthias Dietz, who throws the hardest of all of them with a mid-90s fastball that peaks at 98, and fourth-round righty Brenan Hanifee, whose heavy sinker generates a lot of ground balls.

Tweet from @clayphillips27: How many future #VandyBoys will sign @MLB contracts instead of coming to school 👀🤷���������������������

At this point, before the Draft and before anyone turns pro, Vanderbilt has the best recruiting class in college baseball. MLB Pipeline will release its updated and expanded Draft Top 100 Prospects list in the very near future, and it's loaded with potential Commodores.

We've rated right-handers Kumar Rocker, Ethan Hankins, left-hander Ryan Weathers and catcher Will Banfield as first-round talents; shortstop Xavier Edwards as a supplemental first-rounder; lefty Brett Hansen and righty Austin Becker as second-rounders; and third baseman Nick Northcut and outfielder Ryder Green as third-rounders. While it's too early to pinpoint asking prices, most of them won't make it to Nashville. But Vanderbilt does a great job of holding onto recruits, so a couple of these guys will probably become Commodores.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

This is why Bryan Shaw trains with a football

MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

DENVER -- Rockies reliever Bryan Shaw saw his ability to spot pitches leave him for two games during the past week. But the right-hander received help, at least in the way of a gift and some inspiration, from the NFL's Denver Broncos.

Shaw's unique cut fastball made him an important setup man in recent seasons with the Indians and earned him a three-year, $27 million contract with Colorado this past offseason. Part of his unique preparation method is to throw a football. A quarterback at Livermore (Calif.) High School, Shaw figured that his pitching-hand angle and motion were quite football-like -- possibly a reason hitters struggle to pick up his pitches.

DENVER -- Rockies reliever Bryan Shaw saw his ability to spot pitches leave him for two games during the past week. But the right-hander received help, at least in the way of a gift and some inspiration, from the NFL's Denver Broncos.

Shaw's unique cut fastball made him an important setup man in recent seasons with the Indians and earned him a three-year, $27 million contract with Colorado this past offseason. Part of his unique preparation method is to throw a football. A quarterback at Livermore (Calif.) High School, Shaw figured that his pitching-hand angle and motion were quite football-like -- possibly a reason hitters struggle to pick up his pitches.

When several Broncos -- including star pass rusher Von Miller and newly signed quarterback Case Keenum -- visited the Rockies before Tuesday night's 8-0 victory over the Padres, Marquette King -- the former Raiders punter who has joined the rival Broncos -- presented the Rockies with two footballs. One is a "K-ball," limited to the kicking game under NFL rules. The other is now Shaw's training ball.

Tweet from @Rockies: .@MarquetteKing, the newest and biggest Rockies fan in the world, gifted some new pigskins to @BryanShaw37 and the ���pen. 🏈🏈 pic.twitter.com/UyoOFrcbkQ

After giving up five runs on six hits with a walk and a home run in the two games against the Cubs last weekend, Shaw struck out all three Padres batters he faced on Tuesday. He didn't get to use the football pregame -- rainy, wet conditions prevented him -- but he attributed some magic to it.

"I got the ball yesterday, and yesterday felt good -- I got to hold it," Shaw said before Wednesday's game, when he walked two and gave up a run in one inning of a 5-2 Rockies win over the Padres.

Shaw isn't the first to find function in a football. Former Rangers and Padres pitching coach Tom House used it with Major Leaguers and crossed over to work in football with players such as Tom Brady and, before he became a Mets Minor League outfield hopeful, ex-Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Often, it just breaks up training monotony. So don't be surprised if a bunch of Colorado pitchers spent afternoons punting and kicking field goals.

Shaw, who received balls from the Cleveland Browns when he pitched for the Indians and brought a football with him when he came to Coors Field to finalize his contract in December, uses it for both.

"The way I throw my fastball, my cutter, it kind of mimics throwing a football," he said. "So I like throwing that before playing catch, to kind of loosen my arm and get the motion going, kind of get the feeling down and obviously move on to playing catch with a baseball."

Two outings -- three runs in one inning of an April 10 loss to the Padres and five runs in Saturday's 16-5 loss to the Cubs -- have driven Shaw's ERA to 7.11 and accounted for seven of the 17 hits off him in 15 appearances. Shaw has made 70 or more appearances each of the past five years, so he has ample chance to improve his stats.

The proper pitch action returned against the Padres. Shaw noted that Wednesday's two-walk, one-run appearance was because he went for strikeouts rather than weak contact, which is his norm.

"I'd been a little more missing middle than I'd like," Shaw said. "And if you leave pitches middle, they hit them. So I'm focused on getting back to getting out front, driving -- all the little things -- and working the outer thirds."

The ball Shaw packed for the flight to Miami to begin a nine-game, 10-day road trip should help him hone the proper mechanics.

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.

Colorado Rockies, Bryan Shaw

Mariners activate Healy, option Vogelbach

MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

CLEVELAND -- After spending much of the first four weeks of the season with five key players on the 10-day disabled list, the Mariners got their last missing piece back on Thursday with the return of first baseman Ryon Healy.

Rookie Daniel Vogelbach was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to open a spot for Healy, who had been sidelined since spraining his right ankle on April 7. Healy joined the Mariners for the start of their four-game series with the Indians on Thursday at Progressive Field.

CLEVELAND -- After spending much of the first four weeks of the season with five key players on the 10-day disabled list, the Mariners got their last missing piece back on Thursday with the return of first baseman Ryon Healy.

Rookie Daniel Vogelbach was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to open a spot for Healy, who had been sidelined since spraining his right ankle on April 7. Healy joined the Mariners for the start of their four-game series with the Indians on Thursday at Progressive Field.

Healy is the latest Mariner to return from the disabled list over the past 13 days, along with designated hitter Nelson Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino, left fielder Ben Gamel and starting pitcher Erasmo Ramirez.

Healy played five Minor League rehab games with Double-A Arkansas, batting .333 (5-for-15) with one home run and six RBIs.

The 26-year-old was acquired from the A's by trade in November. Healy got off to a slow start this season, batting .091 (2-for-22), but he hit a three-run double in his final at-bat against the Twins on April 7 before injuring his ankle in a postgame workout.

Healy hit .271 with 25 home runs and 78 RBIs in 149 games for Oakland in 2017 and was acquired to be Seattle's everyday first baseman.

Vogelbach had a strong spring to make the Opening Day roster, then hit .204 with two doubles, two home runs and five RBIs in 54 at-bats while filling in for both Cruz and Healy during their injury stints.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach

Doolittle's high heat more effective than ever

Nationals' closer taking advantage as hitters drop their barrel
MLB.com

If "launch angle" was the catchphrase of 2017, "high fastballs" may be joining it this season.

Proposed as a counterattack to the uppercut swing, high heat seems to be catching on. But for Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, few adjustments were needed. He was firing high heat well before it was in vogue.

If "launch angle" was the catchphrase of 2017, "high fastballs" may be joining it this season.

Proposed as a counterattack to the uppercut swing, high heat seems to be catching on. But for Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, few adjustments were needed. He was firing high heat well before it was in vogue.

"It's how I've always thrown it," Doolittle said. "I came into the league doing that. At the time, I didn't have a great secondary pitch. So the way I would get hitters to chase out of the zone was by climbing the ladder."

Few pitchers reside at the top of the strike zone like Doolittle does, and the left-hander is only climbing higher. He has increased his average fastball height in each of the past four seasons, and he entered Thursday ranked second among MLB pitchers with an average heater height of 3.11 feet above home plate. As hitters drop their barrel and aim for the sky, Doolittle has feasted.

"Five years ago, hitters were fighting to get on top of the ball," said Doolittle, "and so the theory used to be that if you climb the ladder, it would be harder for them to get on top and create backspin. Now you climb the ladder because they're trying to hit under the ball and hit it up into the air.

"The effects have stayed the same; the reasons are the only things that have changed."

Some hitters would rather spit on a chest-high fastball than even attempt to get on top of it. Yankees catcher Austin Romine said his approach against high heat is simple: Don't swing.

"You're not going to be able to get to that up there unless you're cheating to get to it," said Romine, who added that high fastballs have increasingly made their way into scouting reports for Yankees pitchers. "But then you can't hit anything else. The holes for hitters right now seem to be fastballs up and expanded breaking balls down in the dirt."

Doolittle believes that if he does his job and keeps his fastball elevated, a fly-ball hitter can play right into his strength. His deceptive delivery is hard enough for hitters to pick up, but the way his fastball defies gravity and stays above their hands is a true separator.

"It looks like it's 200 miles per hour coming out of his hand," said bullpen mate Sammy Solis. "That's why Sean can throw it by guys at 95 when you see guys out there throwing 98 and getting hit around."

The spin rate on Doolittle's four-seam fastball hovers around 2,200 rpm, right near the Major League average. But Statcast™'s new pitch movement metric, set to be made public soon, paints a better picture of why he's so effective. Doolittle's heater gets nearly four inches of vertical break above average when compared to similar pitches delivered with the same velocity and from the same left-handed release point. Only seven pitchers -- right- or left-handed -- average greater vertical movement on their fastball by this metric, and they include Clayton Kershaw, rising strikeout artist Josh Hader and Marco Estrada. Subsequently, only three active pitchers -- Craig Kimbrel, Chris Sale and Chad Green -- have allowed a lower slugging percentage on four-seamers than Doolittle since the start of 2016.

Video: WSH@CIN: Doolittle locks down save on Opening Day

That kind of success has emboldened Doolittle to go right after hitters. Since the start of 2017, he has gone with his four-seamer on nearly 87 percent of his pitches -- a rate topped only by Rockies reliever Jake McGee in that span.

"He's always been a guy who says, 'Here's my four-seam fastball, go ahead and hit it,'" said Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak, an 0-for-7 hitter lifetime against the Nats' closer. "You know it's coming in hard, but when it's elevated like that, it's something that's tough to get to."

But just as Doolittle walks the tightrope as a big league closer, so too is the precarious life of a high-fastball practitioner. Rockies first baseman