Thursday, September 17, 2009

Walk to Ortiz sparks rally

Mike Scioscia can gripe all he wants about the two third strikes Brian Fuentes threw to Nick Green but didn't get, the first prolonging the at-bat and the second forcing in a run with a bases-loaded walk.

That wasn't the most important walk of the inning.

Baseball people seem to enjoy micromanaging more in September and October. The stakes are more clear. The benches are deeper. Bunts become more prolific. Hit and runs become more common. One run seems to mean more.

To wit: Jacoby Ellsbury laid down a perfect bunt in Tuesday's sixth inning, a bunt that died right along the first-base line and gave the Angels no chance to throw him out. Dustin Pedroia followed with a bunt of his own, pushed toward the third-base side that John Lackey couldn't handle and relayed wildly to allow Alex Gonzalez to score the game's first run.

The Red Sox aren't a bunting team. Giving up a free out runs contrary to the sabermetric philosophy of its general manager and, naturally, the rest of the organization. One veteran reporter even asked Red Sox manager Terry Francona if he was surprised Pedroia had put a bunt down with two on and no outs rather than taking aim at the Green Monster.

"I put it on, so, no," Francona said with a chuckle. "We don't bunt that much. But the way Lackey had throwing and what we had going, it seemed like one run was pretty important."

Francona put on another bunt in Wednesday's third inning that seemed to backfire: Casey Kotchman doubled to lead off the inning, and Gonzalez sacrificed him to third base. Kotchman never scored, however, because Jacoby Ellsbury bounced to first base and Dustin Pedroia hit a ground ball deep in the hole at third base that Chone Figgins corralled for the final out.

The only reason a bunt makes sense in that spot is if you're playing for the sacrifice fly. A single would have scored him from second. A hard-hit ground ball to the infield, the type of ground ball Ellsbury hit, would have left him at third base. Only a sacrifice fly makes the bunt pay off -- and Ellsbury is the only hitter in the Red Sox lineup this season who's hit more ground balls than fly balls this season:

GB/FB ratio
1. Ellsbury, 1.03
(League average: 0.76)
2. Pedroia, 0.66
3. Jason Varitek, 0.65
4. Mike Lowell, 0.65
5. Nick Green, 0.65

The bunt, then, is a managerial ploy that can backfire.

So, too, is the intentional walk.

Catcher Mike Napoli never got out of his crouch while Fuentes was throwing four straight wide ones to Ortiz with two outs in the ninth inning. Make no mistake, though: It was an intentional walk. Fuentes led off with a slider in the dirt and threw three straight curveballs after that, none all that close to the strike zone:

Granted: It was a one-run game.

Granted: Ortiz is as capable of anyone as going deep.

Granted: Ortiz hit a monster home run in the eighth inning on Tuesday.

But Fuentes had retired Jason Bay and Mike Lowell without much of an issue and needed just one more out to retire the side. When he handed Ortiz a semi-intentional walk -- giving speedster Joey Gathright a chance to pinch-run at first -- he changed the complexion of the inning.

And Ortiz still is hitting .234/.327/.449 this season. In other words, Fuentes had a 68 percent chance of getting him out if he attacked him -- and an even better chance if he pitched like the consistent 30-save-a-year closer he's become.

Ortiz has hit 24 home runs this season -- almost as many as Brandon Inge and Nick Swisher -- but generally has looked overmatched against good pitching even when he's been on his hot streaks. He's hit mistakes, but he's had trouble with anything that's not right over the middle the way Jose Arredondo's fastball on Tuesday was.

On top of all that, Arredondo was a righty. When Ortz strode to the plate on Wednesday, he was facing Fuentes -- a lefty.

Check out Fuentes' splits this year:
vs. RHB: .276/.372/.463
vs. LHB: .246/.310/.292

Care to venture a guess how many home runs Fuentes has surrendered to lefthanded hitters this year?


Ortiz, of course, has always hit more home runs off righties than off lefties. In twice as many at-bats against righties, he's hit three times as many home runs.

Still, though: Scioscia didn't want Ortiz to hit a home run.

He walked him.

No longer was it a relatively easy 1-2-3 inning. No longer was he pitching with the bases empty.

J.D. Drew, hitting next, somehow fisted a single between Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, a fluky hit if there ever was one. Jed Lowrie followed with a hard-hit ground ball that forced Figgins to make an acrobatic play to save a run.

Nick Green then limped to the plate and drew the walk about which the Angels likely are still fuming this morning.

If not for the walk to Ortiz, though, they've never have gotten that far.

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