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May 4, 2012
Prospectus Game of the Week
Harper Overshadows Kemp, or Vice Versa?
Even though we’ve already had a pair of no-hitters, it could be argued that the most exciting—and certainly the most anticipated—game of the year was Saturday, when the Washington Nationals visited Chavez Ravine and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The most-hyped prospect of all-time, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, was making his debut. Harper’s teammate Stephen Strasburg, who wasn’t far removed from his own otherworldly hype, would be making his fifth start of the year. The advent of MLB.tv enabled fans from all over the country to tune in and hear Vin Scully describe the intricacies of Harper’s debut. Both teams were in first place. And, as the game grew late, Matt Kemp and the Nationals' depleted bullpen were rushing toward each other for an inevitable conclusion.
How We Got Here
When Lidge went on the disabled list, 25-year-old Henry Rodriguez became the Nationals’ full-time closer. He entered the bottom of the ninth inning 5-for-5 in save chances and having pitched seven hitless innings since an April 9th meltdown against the Mets. Tyler Clippard had already worked through the meat of the Dodgers lineup in the eighth inning, striking out two and walking one, leaving Rodriguez to face Mark Ellis (.671 OPS entering the day), James Loney (.648), and Juan Uribe (.637).
Ellis started the Dodgers rally by lacing Rodriguez’s third pitch, a 98-mph fastball, to right field for a single. Ellis advanced to second on a wild pitch to Loney, and went to third when Loney stroked a single to right field.
Rodriguez changed his approach with Uribe at the plate and runners on the corners, opting to feed the veteran infielder a steady diet of mid-80s sliders in hopes of inducing a double play. Uribe fell behind 0-1 when he swung and missed at Rodriguez’s first offering, but connected on the next pitch, scoring Ellis from third base on a ground-rule double to left field.
Clinging to a one-run lead, Rodriguez appeared to regain his composure in a six-pitch at bat that ended with Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis swinging and missing at strike three, a triple-digit four-seam fastball on the inner half.
Dee Gordon fouled off three of Rodriguez’s first five pitches before the sixth one got away from Nationals backstop Wilson Ramos, allowing Uribe to score the game-tying run and the winning run, Kennedy, to advance to second base. Rodriguez coerced Gordon into swinging at strike three, another 100-mph fastball, well off the plate. So far off the plate, in fact, that it got past Ramos and allowed Gordon to reach first base safely and moved Kennedy to third.
With the winning run 90 feet away, and his closer exhibiting little command of a usually deadly heater, Nationals skipper Davey Johnson summoned left-hander Tom Gorzelanny to face lefty-hitting Tony Gwynn, Jr. On Gorzelanny’s second pitch to Gwynn, Gordon stole second base unopposed. With Matt Kemp on deck, and the Dodger Stadium faithful on its feet, Gwynn worked the count full before lining out to LaRoche and sending the game into extra innings.
The Ryan Perry Call-Up
State of the Nationals Bullpen Entering April 28
At the time, Syracuse had a trio of right-handed relievers throwing reasonably well: Austin Bibens-Dirkx, Josh Wilkie, and Perry. Neither Bibens-Dirkx nor Wilkie had major-league experience, but all three had posted similar strikeout, walk, and hits allowed totals for Syracuse. The difference was in how each of them had been used prior to Lidge’s assignment to the disabled list.
Perry had thrown 41 pitches on April 25-26, the first time all year that he’d been used on back-to-back days. Like Perry, Wilkie had pitched in consecutive games against Rochester on April 25-26, but he’d thrown only 30 pitches while recording five outs. Bibens-Dirkx had thrown 11 pitches in one-third of an inning on April 26, his first in-game work after six days of rest. All three pitchers had similar numbers against right-handed batters through the season’s first three weeks, though Perry had the most recent extended history of shutting them down (.195 batting average against in 87 Triple-A plate appearances in 2011).
Perry's three seasons and 161 innings of major-league experience gave him the edge over Bibens-Dirkx and Wilkie, and made him the most suitable long-term replacement for Lidge. But it isn’t clear whether Perry was expected to be available to pitch on April 28, only one day removed from his most strenous workload of the season. If the team were on the east coast, rather than in Los Angeles, they may have considered bringing up one of the other two pitchers while Perry took a second day off at Triple-A, or even a third left-hander to give Sean Burnett a breather.
The Tenth Inning
At this point, Davey Johnson had a decision to make. Due up for Los Angeles were Kemp, Ethier, and Ellis. Right-lefty-righty. Kemp was swinging the hottest bat in baseball, crushing pitchers regardless of which side they were coming from, but had fared much, much better against left-handers for his career (994 OPS vs. LHP, 814 OPS vs. RHP). Ethier, on the other hand, had historically struggled against southpaws. Johnson could replace Gorzelanny, and get an edge against Kemp, but be all right-sided for the rest of the inning—Burnett, the only left-handed pitcher in the bullpen aside from Gorzelanny, had worked three of the previous four days and wasn’t available that night. Or he could try to survive one mismatched confrontation against Kemp and be in a position to use Gorzelanny, his final left-handed bullet, against Ethier. If the plan worked, he could worry about who would face Mark Ellis when the time came. He had a well-rested Craig Stammen available, and could perhaps call on Ryan Perry if necessary. And if worse came to worst, that kid in left field had a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder, and Johnson would have seven batters or breathing room before Kemp and Ethier were due up again.
Matt Kemp’s 2012 Splits
The decision to keep Gorzelanny in the game to face Kemp and Ethier was had been made. The at-bat started off well enough for the Nationals lefty, earning a called strike on the lower half to take an 0-1 advantage. Gorzelanny got Kemp to swing and miss at a low-and-in changeup for strike two before a throwaway changeup that missed inside ran the count to one ball and two strikes. After three-consecutive changeups to begin the at-bat, Gorzelanny opted for a change of pace with his fourth offering, a 92-mile-per-hour fastball low and away. That pitch caught more of the plate than Gorzelanny had intended, and Kemp ripped a 429 home run to center field to give the Dodgers the walk-off win.
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Could Davey Johnson, or even general manager Mike Rizzo, have done anything differently to change the outcome of the game? Maybe not. While Ethier isn’t the threat in the batter’s box that Matt Kemp is, he’s still a damn fine hitter in his own right. Had Johnson called on one of Stammen, Mattheus or a tired Perry to face Kemp, there’s a reasonable chance Kemp would have found a way to muscle one of their pitches over the center field wall. Even if he hadn’t, even if one of his right-handers had managed to retire Kemp, there’s still the issue of what to do with Ethier facing his strong side.
It wasn’t a no-hitter, but Saturday night’s game was memorable for a lot of reasons. The debut of a phenom. An outstanding pitcher’s duel. A wild finish. And the inevitability, so rare in baseball, of Matt Kemp destroying a baseball. All in all, it was a perfect evening of baseball.