-- This is an ugly one, folks. There are only eight games on Thursday, with five eligible for the evening slate. Worst of all, the day's top three pitchers all appear in the afternoon.
The day's lone elite option, Jose Fernandez, draws a road start against the Rays, a matchup that's dripping with upside. The right-hander is striking out an MLB-best 36 percent of batters, and the Rays are fanning at a 26 percent clip against righties, the highest rate in the American League. Double-digit K's are definitely on the table here, a feat Fernandez has achieved in two of his past three starts. Unfortunately, an afternoon start means Fernandez won't be available for evening-slate action.
As it happens, the next two best hurlers are also relegated to early- or full-day contests. Drew Smyly faces a Marlins team that hits lefty pitching well (.333 wOBA) but also strikes out nearly 24 percent of the time. Although Smyly has pitched past the fifth inning just once in his past four starts, he carries nice upside with a 10.3 K/9 that ranks sixth-best in the AL. That said, a win will obviously be hard to come by against Fernandez.
Gerrit Cole doesn't carry high-end upside, as his 7.3 K/9 leaves something to be desired, but he's still getting things done. Despite not striking out a single batter in his last outing against Colorado, he's allowed just three combined runs over his past three starts, including matchups against the Cubs and Cardinals, the two highest-scoring teams in the NL. Against a Diamondbacks team that gets a big park downgrade going from Chase Field to PNC Park, Cole is solid for cash, but the tournament appeal is limited.
On a limited evening slate that includes only five games, Kevin Gausman is the top play with a road tilt against Houston. The Astros, of course, can do plenty of damage with the long ball, but they also strike out more than any team in baseball (25.9 percent) and have been middle-of-the-road against righty pitching this year. Gauman is unlikely to go off for double-digit strikeouts here, as he's topped out at nine this season and his K/9 sits at just 7.3. He should, however, still be able to rack up a nice number of strikeouts against the free-swinging Astros.
The Cardinals have scored the second-most runs in the National League and lead the NL with a 127 weighted runs created plus against righty pitching, so Joe Ross finds himself in a tough spot on Thursday. Then again, Thursday's pickings are slim. The Nationals righty isn't flashy, but the skills are decent and he's surrendered more than three earned runs just once in eight starts this year, so the floor is solid. Ross also held the Cards in check when he faced them earlier this season (6 IP, 1 ER). On a normal slate, Ross wouldn't get any attention. On Thursday's, he's in the conversation.
Matt Wisler is on a nice little roll, throwing four straight quality starts with a 1.80 ERA. On Thursday he gets an enticing home start against the Brewers, who are below average against righty pitching and strike out more against righties (27.1 percent) than any team in baseball. Wisler is striking out just 6.3 batters per nine innings this season, but he's fanned seven in each of his past two starts and should be able to take advantage of a Brewers team so averse to contact. He's worth strong consideration in cash games.
The volatility with Jon Gray is clear. Not only does his ERA sit at a bloated 6.75, but he's coming off his worst outing of the season, a start in which the Cardinals bashed him for nine runs in 3? innings. To make matters worse, he draws a road start against the Red Sox, the toughest team in baseball against right-handed pitching (128 wRC+). The underlying numbers with Gray are still strong (11.0 K/9, 50 percent GB rate), but he's GPP fodder only at this point.
After a rough start to the season, Mike Leake has righted the ship, allowing only two combined runs over his past three starts. You can't count on more than a few strikeouts, but he limits damage by generating grounders (52 percent) and giving up few walks (1.9 BB/9). Leake gets a Nationals team that has 86 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. He's available in 60 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Danny Duffy has pitched just 7? combined innings in his two starts this year, so don't count on his pitching deep into Thursday's matchup with the White Sox. That said, the southpaw didn't allow a run in either start, and his ability to miss bats gives him some upside even in a shortened outing. The White Sox can handle themselves against lefty pitching, but it's not as though we're overwhelmed with streaming options on Thursday. Duffy's ownership sits at only 6 percent.
Lance McCullers' Game Score of 55 ties him with Gausman for the highest mark of the evening slate, but he's not what you'd call safe. The righty has struggled in two starts since returning from the disabled list (5.91 ERA, 5.1 BB/9), and he's facing an Orioles team that is not too kind to right-handed pitching (.344 wOBA). As we saw last year, McCullers has plenty of potential when he's on his game, but it's hard to feel confident using him in cash right now, even on a short slate.
The Braves probably have the worst lineup in baseball, but it becomes somewhat interesting in DFS when a guy like Wily Peralta is on the mound. The right-hander's 6.99 ERA is the worst in baseball, and both right- (.455 wOBA) and left-handed hitters (.394 wOBA) have hammered him this season. Freddie Freeman is the most obvious play, but more cost-effective options like Nick Markakis and Kelly Johnson are in play, too.
Miguel Gonzalez is one of the day's weakest pitchers, presenting the Royals as a nice stacking opportunity. Although right-handed hitters have hit Gonzalez harder this year, lefties have given him more trouble in his career, so both are viable options on Thursday.
They aren't at Coors Field, but the Rockies' left-handed bats are still in play Thursday with Clay Buchholz on the hill for the Red Sox. The right-hander has surrendered a .393 wOBA to left-handed batters this season, putting Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon and Gerardo Parra on the map for the Rox.
Most likely to go yard: Carlos Gonzalez
Clay Buchholz is allowing 44 percent fly balls, is on pace to surrender 33 homers and has trouble with left-handed bats. Sounds like a good opportunity for CarGo to muscle up.
Most likely to swipe a bag: Mallex Smith
Jonathan Lucroy has allowed more stolen bases than any other catcher this season (29). Smith will burn some rubber if he gets the opportunity.