The difference between John Lackey and Jon Lester on Thursday night -- other than the "h" missing from one of their first names -- was one pitch.
Baseball is a long-term game. Batting averages and on-base percentages are built up over a span of weeks and months; the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter, as they say, is about one hit a week. In any single game, be it in early April or in mid-September, the chances are pretty good that even the best hitter in the game will throw up an 0-for-4 once or twice a week. Nothing changes in October. Nothing makes Kevin Youkilis or Victor Martinez or Mike Lowell any less likely to throw up an 0-for-3 or 0-for-4 in Game 1 of the ALDS than on a random Tuesday in June. It happens. It's the way the game goes. Any one of those three hitters might go 2-for-4 in Game 2 and suddenly be hitting .285 and having himself a pretty decent postseason.
For pitchers, though, it's a different type of game. Pitchers go through the same work in the offseason as the hitters, take part in the same preparation in spring training, endure the same ups and downs during the season -- but one mistake on just one pitch can pretty much ruin everything.
Both Lackey and Lester pitched terrific games in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday. That should come as no surprise, of course, but it's worth making the point: Lackey earned the win and Lester took the loss, but both Lackey and Lester pitched terrific games.
Lackey pounded the outer half of the strike zone to lefties and righties, daring the Red Sox to extend their arms and take him the other way:
(Keep in mind that the approach plot is normalized for righties and lefties: Everything on the left side of the chart is inside, and everything on the right is outside.)
But it wasn't just that Lackey used the outer half of the plate: He threw his breaking ball for strikes on the outer half of the plate both to lefties and to righties. Jason Bay can hit the ball for power the other way, but he's only going to do that with a fastball up -- not with a curveball at his knees. Jacoby Ellsbury can be effective with those pitches if he slaps them into left field, but he tried to pull the ball in each of his first three at-bats. Not once did he get the ball out of the infield.
Lester didn't show the same aggressive adherence to a plan -- which, in a lot of ways, is a good thing. He worked both edges of the strike zone, particularly with his trademark cutter, and he threw five different pitches -- we're differentiating his four-team fastball from his two-seam fastball -- with relative consistency.
Ignore the colors and labels attached to the pitches on the chart. Based on the groupings, it's easy to pick out the four-seamer (around 96 miles an hour), the two-seamer (around 93 miles an hour with extra horizontal movement), the cutter (around 91 miles an hour), the curveball (around 80 miles an hour) and the occasional changeup (around 86 miles an hour).
But he still didn't give the Angels much to hit:
Like Lackey, Lester generally kept the ball out of the middle of the plate. When he gave up a double to Erick Aybar to open the fifth inning, for example, it was on a cutter down and in that umpire Joe West probably wouldn't have even called a strike. It was a good pitch, and Aybar yanked it down the third-base line. That happens. The double itself wasn't going to kill Lester.
What followed, though, did: Lester threw his worst pitch of the game to Torii Hunter, and Torii Hunter didn't miss that pitch. Lester started Hunter's fifth-inning at-bat with a beautiful fastball on the outside corner of the plate. He then tried to come back with a similar pitch, he told reporters after the game, but he missed his spot pretty badly.
He didn't get his fastball far enough away or far enough down, and Hunter crushed it:
Baseball is a long-term type of game for hitters. An 0-for-4 in Game 1 doesn't mean much, particularly if it's followed by a 3-for-4 in Game 2. For pitchers, though, it can all come down to one pitch -- and if the Red Sox can't come back to win Games 2 and 3, Lester is going to spend most of the winter thinking about that one pitch.