The Orioles are currently clinging to a wild-card spot more in spite of their rotation than because of it, but this week, they've taken a significant hit. Chris Tillman, their most reliable starter thus far, was placed on the disabled list on Wednesday with bursitis in his shoulder. While he's expected to return next month, the Orioles’ hold on a playoff position is a precarious one. But Baltimore is hardly alone, as several contending teams have high-profile starters who have been sidelined as well.
Given that August is turning to September soon, those teams are in tough positions as well: Opportunities for minor league rehab starts are dwindling, and any significant setback in these hurlers' recoveries could mean they miss out on the season's most crucial games. What follows here is a quick roundup of key starters on the disabled list and how they're keeping their managers lying awake at night in a cold sweat. Three of them, in fact, were part of a similar roundup I did two months ago. After Tillman, the pitchers are listed alphabetically.
Chris Tillman, Orioles
Though they've taken the first three games of a four-game set against the Nationals, the Orioles are a game behind both the Red Sox and Blue Jays in the AL East race, occupying the top wild-card spot despite the rotation's 4.92 ERA (12th in the league), 4.73 FIP (13th) and 3.5 walks-per-nine rate (15th). Tillman (3.76 ERA) and Kevin Gausman (3.92) are their only starters with more than eight turns and an ERA+ above 100 (119 and 114, respectively), and while Dylan Bundy (3.33 ERA, 135 ERA+) has acquitted himself well in the bullpen and in a recent move to the rotation, he's going to run out of innings at some point.
Hence the concern about Tillman, who went eight days between starts and then walked five and allowed six runs in two ugly innings against the Astros on Saturday. There's hope that he'll be back after a minimal DL stay, but with Ubaldo Jimenez (6.94 ERA) or Mike Wright (5.97) the likely fill-ins until he returns, the dropoff from Tillman is a steep one.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Improbably, the Dodgers have thrived without the planet's best pitcher, going 30–19 games since he last threw on June 26 and swinging the NL West race by 11 games relative to the Giants. That's despite approximately 763 other starters on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster paying visits to the disabled list themselves, leaving them with a rotation that boils down to Kenta Maeda, Blistery McBlister, Your Name Here, Some Guy and Ask Me Tomorrow. Fortunately for the Dodgers, there's optimism that their 28-year-old ace can return from his herniated disc soon. Kershaw began throwing bullpen sessions last week and has so far reported feeling good; on Tuesday, he threw a 40-pitch bullpen session consisting of two simulated innings separated by a break, of which he said, "That was the hard part for me before, sitting down in between innings. It was just not very comfortable to sit. Definitely a positive step there, sitting down, not even thinking about it. I felt fine.”
The current plan is for Kershaw to throw a 60-pitch bullpen session on Thursday or Friday. Assuming he clears that hurdle, he'll make one rehab start—not two, per his wishes—and then, ideally, rejoin the Dodgers for his next turn, which would be sometime next week.
Elsewhere in the MASH unit that is the Dodgers' rotation, deadline acquisition Rich Hill finally returned from his bout of blisters to throw six shutout innings against the Giants on Wednesday night, but it's anybody's guess as to who from among Brett Anderson (blister), Scott Kazmir (neck), Brandon McCarthy (hip), and Hyun-jin Ryu (elbow) will recover from their ailments in time to help the team this year. Some combination of Bud Norris (inflamed ERA), Ross Stripling (innings) and Julio Urias (youth) will have to hold down the fort despite their own issues.
John Lackey, Cubs
The Chicago rotation's most battle-tested veteran left his Aug. 14 start due to stiffness in his right shoulder, and after having his next start pushed back, he was placed on the disabled list five days later in what was described as a "precautionary move more than anything." Indeed, with a 13 1/2-game division lead and an eight-game cushion for the NL's best record, the Cubs have the luxury of not overtaxing anyone between here and October. While Lackey has the highest ERA (3.41) of any of the Cubs' starters, prior to his injury he had pitched to a 1.63 mark with a 23/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his previous four starts totaling 27 2/3 innings, and his 3.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season is the best among their starting five.
At last report, the 37-year-old righty played catch on Tuesday, will throw a bullpen session this weekend—when the Cubs visit the Dodgers—and should be back in the rotation in early September. Fill-in Mike Montgomery acquitted himself well in his first turn with the Cubs, allowing only a solo homer in 4 1/3 innings and 60 pitches of work at Coors Field on Aug. 20.
Steven Matz, Mets
At 63–63 overall and 16–22 since the All-Star break, the Mets are in danger of slipping out of the playoff picture: They're 10 games back in the NL East and 4 1/2 back in the wild card, with the Marlins and Pirates ahead of them in the pecking order. Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, New York has a 14.8% chance of making the postseason in some fashion or another, but even that estimate feels high. The Mets can hardly afford much more to go wrong, particularly as they've struggled to replace even the broken down version of the shelved-for-the-season Matt Harvey, with Logan Verrett getting torched and Jon Niese needing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee after lasting just one-third of an inning in his start on Tuesday.
Matz, who's already known to be pitching through a bone spur at the back of his elbow, has pitched to a 3.40 ERA with 8.8 strikeouts per nine this year. After taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning of his Aug. 15 start against the Padres, he was scratched from his follow-up turn due to discomfort in his shoulder; a subsequent exam resulted in the diagnosis of a minor shoulder strain and rotator cuff irritation, with a trip to the DL following. The good news is that the team believes he will be ready to go in time to make next Tuesday's turn against the Marlins at Citi Field, with rookie Seth Lugo—who allowed just one run in the first six innings of his first major league start on Aug. 19 before things fell apart in the seventh—in his stead until then. The bad news is that the Mets' chronic inability to gauge injuries and return times is enough to make anyone fear that Matz could be dealing with gangrene in his arm by Tuesday.
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Through the start of August, Strasburg was putting together the best season of his seven-year career, pitching to a 2.63 ERA and 2.90 FIP with 10.8 strikeouts per nine and making 15 quality starts out of 20. Over his next three turns, however, he was lit up for 19 runs in 11 2/3 innings, capped by a career-worst nine-run debacle at Coors Field in which he failed to make it out of the second. Hours before he was scheduled to face the Orioles on Monday, he was scratched and sent to the DL with elbow soreness, which had apparently been an issue since the All-Star break.
As with Lackey and the Cubs, the Nationals have the breathing room to ease off the gas pedal. The move has been termed "precautionary," with general manager Mike Rizzo saying, "We’ve been monitoring it for a while. We felt like the prudent thing to do—like we always have with our pitchers—was to give him this reset. We’re going to put him on the DL rather than pitch through some routine inflammation and soreness." Strasburg's history played into it as well, as the 28-year-old righty himself noted: "Being a Tommy John guy and being able to get through the grind of the season, there is just a little more maintenance to go with it."
Rookie A.J. Cole was recalled from Syracuse to take Monday's start because he was on turn, and he didn't pitch badly under the circumstances, allowing four runs in seven innings and striking out eight. He’s scheduled to go again on Saturday, though it's worth noting that the more highly-regarded Lucas Giolito was pulled after one inning on Tuesday to keep him in play for the start as well. Either way, this appears to be a short-term thing. Meanwhile, righty Joe Ross, who hasn't pitched in the majors since July 2 due to shoulder inflammation and hasn't pitched at all since July 30 due to continued soreness, threw a 25-pitch bullpen session on Monday, starting him back on the road to a return.