Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pitching with two strikes

Part of being a young pitcher is learning how to pitch in certain situations. One of those situations is when you're in command of the count -- if you can't put a guy away when you've got him in an 0-2 hole, when can you put a guy away?

Pitchers certainly have the advantage when the count is 0-2. So far this season, American League hitters have hit .179 on an 0-2 count, .172 on a 1-2 count and .191 on a 2-2 count. Pitchers do give up hits on 0-2, but it's safe to assume that those hits, if the pitchers are doing their job, are fluky, off-the-end-of-the-bat- or jam-shot-type hits.

If a pitcher has two strikes on a guy, he's in control -- and that means he has to pitch like he's in control. Justin Masterson didn't do that in a big spot on Wednesday night.

Victor Martinez had just given the Indians a one-run lead with a two-out double to dead center field on which Jonathan Van Every nearly killed himself trying to make a play. There still were two outs; Shin-Soo Choo was at the plate with a chance to drive home a key insurance run.

The at-bat did not start well for Choo.

Masterson jumped ahead early with a slider low that was fouled off and a sinker on the inner half that was taken for a strike. All of a sudden, Masterson was in total control. The inning was all but over. All Masterson had to do was make one more pitch.

He didn't make that pitch. His next pitch, a pitch he needed to throw pretty much anywhere except over the middle of the plate, was a slider right over the middle of the plate. Choo ripped it into right field for a line-drive single, and Martinez scored.

Just like that, a one-run game had turned into a two-run game.

Masterson said after the game that he'd meant for the slider to end up on Choo's back foot and not, as you can imagine, out over the plate.

"Hopefully, soon enough, my pitches will start listening to me and doing what they're supposed to," he said with a sheepish smile.

An inning later, though, Masterson did get the results he wanted. He went 0-2 on Ben Francisco and threw three straight pithces out of the zone -- a sinker high, a sinker inside and a slider outside. Francisco, as a hitter down 0-2 tends to do, chased all three pitches; he fouled off the first two and swung and missed at the third.

Kelly Shoppach took a first-pitch ball but fouled off a sinker and took a sinker for a strike to fall into a quick 1-2 hole. Masterson again did what he had to do; he threw a sinker up and in that Shoppach fouled off, and he threw a slider that never came close to ending up in the strike zone. Shoppach chased it, of course, and struck out to end the inning.

The Indians' three-run seventh inning rendered Shoo's run-scoring single pretty insignificant in the big scheme of things.

At the time, though, it was a big run -- and by leaving an 0-2 pitch over the middle of the plate, Masterson essentially handed the Indians that run.

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