Given yet another tall task in the form of the undefeated Jon Lester, Dylan Axelrod rose to the occasion once again on Monday night.
Axelrod outpitched Lester over their six innings, giving Axelrod his second victory of the season while handing Lester his first defeat. It may still be surprising on paper, but this kind of game is losing its novelty with every turn.
Through nine starts, the battling Axe is 2-3 with a 4.13 ERA over 52⅓ innings, but the story of his season is far more interesting than what the aggregate numbers say. It's not just that he's underestimated or overachieving -- it's that he's holding his own in matchups that don't favor him.
Out of Axelrod's nine outings, five meet the qualifications for a quality start, and I'd tack on his first start of the season as a clear success (one run over 5⅔ innings against Seattle). That's a pretty good rate for his role, and that's before mentioning that all those starts took place against much bigger names. We're talking about a couple Cy Young winners and a few others way above Axelrod's pay grade.
In his three weakest starts, he faced Dan Haren, Barry Enright and Mike Pelfrey.
It's probably coincidence, because unlike somebody along the lines of Freddy Garcia, who had a reputation of stepping up in big games and coasting in lesser affairs, Axelrod can't afford to let up. Every start is an audition, and he's well aware that doubts remain regardless:
Axelrod has kept the White Sox in all but one of his starts, going six or more innings in six of his nine starts. He has been questioned about his credentials on more than one occasion. At this point the naysayers are getting on his nerves a bit
"Yeah, a little bit," he said with a sheepish smile after Chicago's 6-4 win over Boston. "I feel I have done all that has been asked of me and I have had a lot of quality starts. I feel I belong at this level. If that answers the question, that’s it."
He has a point. When you go through his game log, he's met every serious challenge thrown at him this year beyond reasonable expectations (click on the dates for the recap).
Verdict: Win. Axelrod took his AL East success home for once.
Verdict: Valiant in defeat. This isn't anywhere close to Axelrod's best game score, but it's the longest start of his career, and close to the most effective. A line like this will usually win a lot of games, but White Sox pitchers can't win games against Guthrie. They can only not lose them.
(And while Guthrie doesn't qualify as a big name in the traditional sense, he's 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA this season. His numbers would have looked even more imposing had the Astros not pounded Guthrie while Axelrod bested Lester. Yes, the Astros.)
Verdict: Relative draw. The Sox led the Rays until Axelrod gave up two in his final inning of work. He departed when it was tied, and Price never pitched with a lead himself. It's possible you're not impressed with Price since he's off to a rough start (1-4, 5.24 ERA), but he did win the Cy Young last year.
Verdict: Edge, Axelrod. The Sox held a 2-1 lead when Axelrod left, but Matt Thornton gave up a two-run single in the eighth inning to put Axelrod in no-decision territory. Masterson is 7-2 with a 2.83 ERA through his first 10 starts.
Verdict: Relative draw. This doesn't look like that big of a deal now, considering Johnson's start against the Sox was his only strong one this season. And "this season" has only consisted of four starts thanks to a triceps injury. But at the time, Johnson's condition was unknown, and he's making $13.75 million this season, so it sure seemed lopsided.
Verdict: A draw. Ventura lifted Axelrod with two on, two out, and the game tied at 1, so while Axelrod has the edge in game score, it doesn't reflect the evenness in game state. That said, as long as Axelrod was in the game, he matched King Felix inning for inning.
That's six starts where Axelrod was clearly outclassed in every which way ... but results. He may very well be a long-lasting mirage yet, but the standard caveats are wearing thin. He's facing teams more than once. He's throwing three or four pitches, rather than two. He's harder to rattle, and far more capable of taking a punch. Above all, he knows what he's doing. It's probably wise to still expect the other shoe to drop, but at some point, he deserves at least a little leeway. If not now, then when?
Strength of Schedule
Axelrod might be a back-end guy in terms of status and the Opening Day calendar, but when it comes to degree of difficulty, he's taking on the work of a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Looking at who each of the rotation slots has faced this year, only one guy clearly has Axelrod beat.
No. 1: Chris Sale
Opponents: James Shields, Hisashi Iwakuma, Zach McAllister, R.A. Dickey, Jeremy Hellickson, Nick Tepesch, James Shields, C.J. Wilson, C.J. Wilson
Sale can't match Axelrod's slate in terms of big names, but there isn't a dud in this group. Tepesch is the weakest link, but he's basically the Rangers' version of Axelrod, at least in terms of unheralded production. He's not much like Axelrod otherwise, since he's younger, bigger and throws harder. Not to mention he's from a really good school.
No. 2: Axelrod
Felix Hernandez, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Justin Masterson, David Price, Jeremy Guthrie, Barry Enright, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Lester
Enright, Pelfrey and Haren are enough to knock him from the top, especially since Johnson was only the facade of an ace.
No. 3: Gavin Floyd/Hector Santiago
Jeremy Guthrie, Jordan Zimmermann, Mark Buehrle, Scott Diamond, Matt Moore, Justin Grimm, Matt Harvey, Pedro Hernandez, Joe Blanton
This is almost a duplicate of Axelrod's group -- three Cy Young candidates, one shared above-average opponent (Guthrie), and one disappointing Blue Jay. I'm giving 'Rod the nod because Price has that recent-award smell, and also because he's had to do it all himself.
No. 4: Jose Quintana
Blake Beavan, Justin Masterson, J.A. Happ, Zach McAllister, Yu Darvish, Wade Davis, Jerome Williams, Jerome Williams
A pretty even mix in terms of quality. This is what you might expect a random nine-start sample to yield.
No. 5: Jake Peavy
Ervin Santana, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Myers, Vance Worley, Roberto Hernandez, Jeremy Hefner, Kevin Correia, Jason Vargas
If you believe in Santana (3-3, 2.77 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), then this list has two above-average starters, another mid-rotation guy, and dregs for the rest. Peavy's a guy who thinks he should win every start regardless of opponent, but stumbling into this slate, this is one time he could make an argument for it.