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Three up, three down: Justin Verlander and Bryce Harper speak, NL West sinks

THREE UP

Real quality starts: After Justin Verlander shut out the Angels on Wednesday, he confessed to some hesitation about his trade to the Houston Astros last year, not because the Astros were a bad team, but because he feared a data-driven approach in which they limited the workloads of their pitchers. Five innings is good, and facing a hitter the third time is bad? Not in Houston, not this year. In the Astros’ first 45 games, their starters completed seven innings 22 times, six innings 35 times. Verlander (1.05), Gerrit Cole (1.75) and Charlie Morton ranked 1-2-3 in the American League earned-run average ERA race. Verlander was proud of his pitch count: 118. “I wasn’t a throwback when I first started,” he said. “As the game changes, I’m more of a throwback.”

Say anything: Bryce Harper could have said “no comment.” Instead, he cheekily deflected questions about how much he might like to play for the New York Yankees by dropping the names of his most prominently rumored suitors in free agency this fall into an otherwise generic answer. “We have to do the things to keep track of what’s important and that’s winning ballgames. ... It doesn’t matter who we’re playing — if it’s the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Phillies, name it.” That evoked this instant classic from Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post: “Watching New York writers try to get Harper to bite on questions about his future and affinity for the Yankees was roughly as uncomfortable as I imagine it is watching me try to dodge my grandmother’s questions at holidays when she points out I’m not yet married.”

Short stop: In 2002, the Dodgers drafted a Canadian infielder named Russell Martin. He played 40 games in the rookie league at shortstop and one at third base, the Dodgers converted him to catcher, and the rest is history. Martin is the last active player from the Dodgers’ “Jacksonville Five,” the quintet that was supposed to lead the Dodgers back to October glory. The others: pitchers Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton, and infielders Joel Guzman and Andy LaRoche. Martin developed into a four-time All-Star catcher, but he never abandoned a dream that came true Tuesday. In the 1,548th game of his career, at 35, the Toronto Blue Jays gave Martin a major league inning at shortstop.

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THREE DOWN

National League Worst? The NL West sent three teams to the playoffs last year and, well, that ain’t happening this year. The first-place Arizona Diamondbacks? They just lost six games in a row, they lost their best player, center fielder A.J. Pollock, for a month or two, and franchise slugger Paul Goldschmidt is getting outslugged by good-field, no-hit shortstop Nick Ahmed. The second-place Colorado Rockies? They can’t hit. No, really. They have scored fewer runs per game at home — at mile-high Coors Field — than the San Francisco Giants, who play at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. The third-place Giants? No Madison Bumgarner, no Johnny Cueto. The fourth-place Dodgers? No Clayton Kershaw. The division is there for the taking.

Decade to doom: Robinson Cano’s 80-game drug suspension is a reminder that the testing regimen largely put an end to the atypical run of players defying the aging curve and staying atop their game into their late 30s. Cano, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto all signed 10-year deals that started at age 30 or later. Votto turns 35 this year; his on-base-plus-slugging percentage is at a career low. Pujols is 38; his two lowest OPS seasons are this year and last year. Harper and Manny Machado, the premier free agents this offseason, will be 26 at the start of next year. Would that be young enough for a team to consider signing one for 10 years? “When you sign franchise players, particularly in the luxury-tax environment, you’re going to have to show me why that would not be the most plausible methodology,” agent Scott Boras told The Times, speaking generally.

With relish: The New York Mets lost nine of their first 26 games, proud occupants of first place in the NL East on the last day of April. Then they lost 10 of their first 13 games in May, tumbling into fourth place. They batted out of order. Both of their catchers are injured, as are outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and third baseman Todd Frazier. Pitcher Matt Harvey was exiled, Jason Vargas was activated but failed to escape the fifth inning in any of his first three starts, and the Mets’ best hitter is, um, Asdrubal Cabrera, a 32-year-old infielder. The good news? At least they won’t go hungry. They put a hot dog roller in a vacant locker, and they were cooking dogs there Wednesday morning. “It’s a day game. Who doesn’t want a hot dog for a day game?” pitcher Jacob deGrom told mlb.com.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin


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