Monday, July 6, 2009

Be patient, but be aggressive

It's sometimes tough to stay patient at the plate. Walks are great, after all, and walks have set up more than a few Red Sox wins this season. But unless an opponent is pitching like he needs a seeing-eye dog to find the plate, you're going to need to get some hits to score some runs.

That's the dilemma the Red Sox faced against the Seattle bullpen on Sunday. Starter Brandon Morrow had allowed three home runs but not much else in his six innings on the Fenway Park mound. He'd even hit 99 miles an hour on the radar gun in the fifth. It looked as though an error and a bases-loaded triple were going to be enough to earn the Mariners a sweep of the three-game series.

But J.D. Drew worked a one-out walk off reliever Miguel Batista and Dustin Pedroia followed with a line-drive single to left field. Two batters later, David Ortiz went after a 3-0 fastball and singled through the shift to plate the tying run. That's when Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu summoned flame-throwing righty Mark Lowe. Jason Bay was coming to the plate with runners on first and third and two outs.

Lowe missed with a slider. Bay laid off.

Lowe missed with another slider. Bay laid off.

Lowe missed with yet another slider. Bay laid off.

The problem, of course, was that a walk wasn't going to drive in a run. Only a hit would drive in a run. On top of that, Bay had just seen Ortiz pounce on a 3-0 fastball and rope a run-scoring single to right field. That was as good a reason as any to be ready to swing.

Lowe threw a fastball low and away that, according to, might have actually been in the strike zone. Bay laid off. Ball four.

But Bay is a patient hitter. He's prone to strikeouts, but he still swings at fewer than 20 pitches of pitches out of the strike zone and has an on-base percentage that rivals that of Dustin Pedroia.

Jacoby Ellsbury, on the other hand, has swung at more pitches out of the strike zone (26.3 percent) than any Red Sox regular except Nick Green (a whopping 39.1 percent). He lost his job as Red Sox leadoff hitter because he wasn't getting on base -- i.e. walking -- often enough. He's even started showing some power -- and he'd hit a long, long home run just the previous inning.

"He's hitting bombs," Pedroia said, laughing. "He said he's like Barry Bonds: He's a speed guy at the start, and then he's going to turn into a power hitter."

That was a solo shot. This time, Ellsbury was coming to the plate with the game tied and the bases loaded. A single would give the Red Sox the lead. A double or a home run would clear the bases and give the Red Sox some much-needed breathing room.

A walk, of course, would give the Red Sox the lead, too.

Ellsbury took two 98-mile-an-hour fastballs out of the strike zone -- one just low and inside, and one just high. He then took a 97-mile-an-hour fastball right down the middle. The next two pitches barely, barely, barely missed: One was just low, and one was just outside.

Ellsbury never took his bat off his shoulder. Ball four. Pedroia trotted home from the third base with the go-ahead run.

"We needed to be patient," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "They were having trouble finding the strike zone. We talk all the time: 'Get a good pitch and whack it.' But in that situation, we needed to be patient because you don't want to help them. Even if you line out or something, you're coming back with a nice at-bat but nothing to show for it."

Said Pedroia, "In that situation, when a guy's having a hard time throwing strikes, the best thing to do is not swing. I know it's tough -- especially with the kind of stuff (Lowe) has. He throws almost 100 miles an hour every pitch. The biggest thing is to try to get to 3-2 or have him walk you. If you get to 3-2, you know it's going to be a battle because he's so good."

Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair then made a visit to the mound -- likely to remind Lowe that it helps to throw strikes every once in a while -- while Mark Kotsay was striding to the plate. Kotsay hasn't played regularly this season and thus has become a bit more of a free-swinger than he used to be. The bases were still loaded. A walk would mean another run.

"When the guy in front of you walks and the pitcher's having trouble with location and command, you want to get a good pitch on the plate and force his hand and try to get ahead in the count," Kotsay said. "Once you get ahead in the count, you know that he's not trying to locate -- he's just trying to throw strikes."

Kotsay got himself ahead in the count, fouling off one pitch but taking three others outside and off the plate. He then swung and missed at a 97-mile-an-hour fastball up and away. Full count.

The next pitch came in over the inside corner at 98 miles an hour. If Kotsay had stood and watched it, had been too patient, it would have been a strike -- and the inning would have been over.

But Kotsay got the bat around and got the barrel on the ball and rolled a ground ball between the first baseman and second baseman. The single plated Ortiz and Bay with the two runs that gave the Red Sox a comfortable cushion.

"You can't lose your aggressiveness to the zone," Kotsay said. "If you do that, he makes a great pitch on you and you're standing and looking at it. He throws 97 or 98. You keep your aggressiveness in the zone."

Being patient and being aggressive: It's really, really difficult to do both. But that's what the Red Sox did on Sunday, and that's why they avoided a sweep with their seventh-inning rally.

No comments: