Called Third Strike

The theme of A.J. Burnett’s start was the strikeout, particularly the called third strike with his curveball towards the end of his outing. His last three strikeouts were of the backwards-K variety.

All we could talk about before the series was how each team packed an explosive offensive punch. Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez both had monster Division and Championship Series performances, and with the homer-friendly parks each team calls home, we were expecting Home Run Derby.

Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Pedro Martinez, and Burnett say “thanks for playing, better luck next time”. Each starter has at least reached the seventh inning, each has struck out at least six batters, and each has allowed no more than three runs.

Tonight, Burnett was in top form just as Cliff Lee was last night. He lasted seven innings and used his curve ball effectively, striking out nine Phillies, while allowing only six base runners on four hits and two walks. The Phils could only muster one run on a Matt Stairs RBI single to left field in the second inning.

Burnett threw 45 curve balls out of 107 pitches (42%). 35 of those curves were thrown to left-handed hitters. The Phillies against Burnett’s curve:

  • Made contact: 10 times (7 fouls, 2 ground outs, 1 ground-rule double)
  • Swung and missed: 7
  • Took for a strike: 8
  • Took for a ball: 20 (6 in the dirt)

To give you an idea as to what the Phillies were facing, take a gander at these visuals from Brooks Baseball, the blue line in particular:

His fastball and curve ball are essentially at the same location for about 35 feet from the pitcher’s mound, and then the curve ball breaks off the table as they say. That’s why his curve has been worth about one and a half runs above average per 100 curve balls.

As the Yankees did last night, the Phillies must simply give Burnett a tip of the cap for a well-pitched game. There was not much they could have done with the curves Burnett was putting on the black, low and outside with pinpoint precision.

The Phillies did not go quietly, however. Facing Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning with one out, Jimmy Rollins had a rare — for this season anyway — professional at-bat in which he saw eleven pitches and eventually worked a walk. Shane Victorino followed up with a single through the first and second basemen to put runners on first and second with one out.

Using the run expectancy matrix on Baseball Prospectus, we would expect about one run there. However, the guy on the mound is the best relief pitcher in baseball history, so the actual run expectancy is somewhere around .001, right? Chase Utley proved it by weakly grounding into a double play to end the rally and the inning.

Raul Ibanez doubled with two outs in the ninth to bring up Matt Stairs as the tying run, but Rivera in typical fashion struck him out for the 27th out.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi, maligned even by Yankees fans for some of his in-game decisions, pushed all the right buttons in the bottom of the seventh. Jerry Hairston led off by dunking a single into right field. Girardi sent in Brett Gardner to pinch-run. He then instructed Melky Cabrera to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but Cabrera was unable to do so. Thinking he was being handed a free out, Pedro Martinez threw a ball up in the zone, but instead Girardi took the bunt off and ordered a hit-and-run. Cabrera sent the pitch back into right field for another single, and Gardner scampered to third base without a problem.

Jorge Posada was announced as a pinch-hitter, so Charlie Manuel yanked Martinez and brought in Chan Ho Park. Making Girardi three-for-three, Posada lined a single up the middle to drive in an insurance run for the Yankees. The only blunder in the inning came when Derek Jeter decided to bunt with two strikes of his own volition.

If we’re handing out MVP awards for Game Two, Burnett wins it easily, but Girardi would get one as well for going three-for-three with his strategy in the seventh.

The Phillies won’t be heading back to Philadelphia on a sour note. They split the two in New York, which is the most that they could have reasonably expected. Now they’ll look to take two of three at home, or even better, finish it off at home as they did last year against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Game graph above courtesy FanGraphs.

BDD: What If It Isn’t Real?

At Baseball Daily Digest, I wonder what we would do if it turns out MLB is just as corrupt as the NBA.

We will still watch, from Game 1 to Game 162, and the post-season. We will talk about the “hot stove” when it’s all done, then we’ll argue about trades that should and should not be made; free agents that should and should not be signed. We will be there for Spring Training. We will ride out the highs and lows with our favorite teams because that’s what we’re in it for, folks: the ride — like a dramatic movie (or in the case of the New York Mets: a comedy). As long as our sports achieve the goal of capturing our attention and entertaining us, we will continue to tune in on TV, radio, and the Internet; we will continue to buy tickets, merchandise, and food at the concession stands. We will continue to blog.