Friday, April 17, 2009

Swinging and swinging and swinging

Brad Penny was not effective in the second inning on Friday. In fact, Brad Penny was really, really bad in the second inning. He walked three Orioles, allowed hard-hit singles to three other Orioles and allowed a grand-slam home run to Nick Markakis on a hanging curveball over the middle of the plate.

Even worse than the grand slam, though, was the fact that he'd gone to three-ball counts on four of the first seven hitters he'd faced. When Adam Jones came up with the bases loaded and two runs already in, Penny walked him on four pitches. All in all, he threw 17 balls to the first seven hitters of the inning. He then tried too hard to throw a strike to Markakis; the Orioles' franchise slugger Bernie Carboed the thing.

That brought up Aubrey Huff for the pivotal at-bat of the game.

The Orioles had Penny on the ropes. The bases were empty, but it didn't look like the Red Sox would be able to be much more patient with their starter. One more walk, it seemed, would force Francona to go to his bullpen with 7 2/3 innings left in the game and almost 35 innings left in the four-game series.

Here's what Huff did:
1. He swung at a fastball off the outside corner and fouled it off.
2. He swung at a fastball in the strike zone and fouled it off.
3. He swung at a fastball up and out of the zone -- the count was 0-and-2, after all -- and fouled it off.
4. He swung at a curveball on the inside part of the plate and popped it to Nick Green at shortstop.


All Huff had to do was take a couple of pitches out of the zone -- pitches Penny couldn't help but throw -- and work a walk. If he'd done that, he'd (a) have kept the inning going, an inning in which everything the Orioles hit seemed to be finding grass, and (b) forced Francona to yank Penny and go to lefty Hunter Jones, a pitcher who would have been making his major league debut.

Instead, though, Huff hacked and hacked and hacked. Penny survived to pitch another inning-plus, facing seven more hitters that Red Sox relievers otherwise would have had to face.

(The righty finally was yanked when Adam Jones, apparently a far wiser man than Huff, didn't take his bat off his shoulder in working a five-pitch walk to lead off the fourth inning.)

The Red Sox even rallied to make it a game again, capitalizing on a few friendly bounces and a few big hits to tie the game in the fifth inning. A big reason for that was the fact that J.D. Drew, leading off the bottom of the second inning, worked a four-pitch walk to get things going. He didn't try to hit a seven-run home run the way others might have. He stayed patient and worked a walk -- and Jason Bay followed with a two-run home run that turned the game around.

In the fifth inning, after J.D. Drew tripled with two outs, Jason Bay and Mike Lowell both stayed patient and worked walks from a laboring Jeremy Guthrie and gave Nick Green a chance to hit a game-tying double to dead center field.

Huff came up again in a pitcher-on-the-brink situation in the sixth. Javier Lopez had just walked Nick Markakis on five pitches and looked like he couldn't find the strike zone with the Google Maps feature on his iPhone.

Here's what Huff did:
1. He took a slider outside.
2. He took a slider outside.
3. He took a fastball outside.
4. He took a fastball on the outside corner.
5. He took a fastball on the outside corner.
6. He went after a fastball over the middle of the plate and ripped it into left field for a single.

With righty Ty Wigginton coming up, Francona then had no choice but to lift Lopez and go to Ramon Ramirez an inning earlier than he'd hoped he would. If Wigginton hadn't gone after the first pitch thrown by Ramirez -- a pitch up and out of the strike zone -- the Orioles might have regained the lead.

Taking pitches isn't just about on-base percentage. Taking pitches isn't just about base-runners, either. Taking pitches is about letting a pitcher who's beating himself keep beating himself -- and Huff's inability to do just that might have cost his team this game.

(Don't think so? If that deficit had grown much larger than seven runs, Terry Francona would have deployed his bullpen much differently than he did: "When we scored and got it closer, I feel an obligation to the players out there because of the way they're trying to get back in this game. It's a hard way to play, unloading your bullpen like that. But they deserve from us to do that.")

No comments: