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September 8, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

Arizona Diamondbacks @ Florida Marlins, 9/6/06

by Derek Jacques

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In response to the open call for suggestions on games to cover at Game of the Week, reader Art Kraft, writing in from London, England, proposed "the Florida-Arizona matchup next Monday-Wednesday looks pretty interesting. Two teams still hanging in the wildcard chase and both are loaded with interesting stories and young talent."

Since Art wrote in, even Joe Sheehan has given up on Arizona's chances for the Wild Card, but Art's letter piqued my curiosity enough for me to record the final game of the Diamondbacks/Marlins series. As you may have heard, it was not an uneventful evening. And so, without further ado, we have an abbreviated edition of Game of the Week. We'll show you the starting lineups, without comment, and on to the action:

Arizona                                   Florida

Orlando Hudson, 2B                        Hanley Ramirez, SS
Conor Jackson, 1B                         Dan Uggla, 2B
Luis Gonzalez, LF                         Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Eric Byrnes, CF                           Josh Willingham, LF
Chad Tracy, 3B                            Mike Jacobs, 1B
Carlos Quentin, RF                        Joe Borchard, RF
Stephen Drew, SS                          Miguel Olivo, C
Miguel Montero, C                         Alfredo Amenzaga, CF
Edgar Gonzalez, P                         Anibal Sanchez, P
Orlando Hudson leads off the game against Anibal Sanchez. The last time we saw Hudson and the D'Backs, he had a .232 EqA and was batting eighth in the lineup, so it's a little jarring to see him as a leadoff man. At the All-Star Break, Hudson was batting .261/.324/.415, since, he's hitting .338/.402/.525. Basically, he was Vinny Castilla before the break and Michael Young afterwards. Hudson flies out to right on a 1-1 count. Next up, Conor Jackson. Sanchez works high in the zone, which isn't much of a liability in Florida, which is right behind Petco and RFK among the most pitcher friendly parks in baseball. Jackson hits another lazy fly to right. Luis Gonzalez flies out to center for a quiet 1-2-3 first inning.

With only a couple of exceptions, this is the same Marlins lineup that we discussed last month, when the Marlins faced the Mets. MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera is batting third, rather than cleanup, Mike Jacobs slides down to fifth in the lineup, and Joe Borchard and Alfredo Amezaga stand in for Jeremy Hermida and Cody Ross.

The top two, the Marlins' rookie double play combination, remain the same. Hanley Ramirez, the shortstop, leads off against the Snakes' Edgar Gonzalez. Gonzalez's fastball is in the low 90s, and his secondary pitch is a mid-80s slider. Gonzalez has a classic frame for a Mexican pitcher--think Fernando Valenzuela, barrel-chested and thick-necked.

Ramirez starts the at bat down 1-2, but works the count full and then lines a ball down the right field line, a lead off triple. That's his tenth of the season, good for 4th in the league. The second baseman, Dan Uggla fails to capitalize on the scoring opportunity, popping up to second. In a display of bravado, Gonzalez finds a little extra mustard to put on a 1-2 pitch above the letters, and strikes out Miguel Cabrera swinging. With two outs, Josh Willingham gives the ball a ride to right, deep but playable, caught by Carlos Quentin on the warning track. And just like that, the Marlins have stranded a runner on third, with no outs. Doubtless manager Joe Girardi, known for having, as they say, the scarlet gluteus, is a lot of fun to hang out with right now.

In the top of the second, Sanchez faces Eric Byrnes. Byrnes' season is like Hudson's, just the opposite: at the All Star Break, .292/.352/.522, since then: .255/.299/.468. Then again, this is the story of Byrnes' career. Over the last three years--the time that Byrnes has been a major league regular--he has hit .283/.350/.483 before the Mid-Summer Classic, .231/.297/.367 afterward. Everyone loves it when Byrnes slams into walls, makes head-first dives, and whatnot. It's human nature to like guys who hustle, but then you see the second half stats, and you wonder if maybe he could serve the ballclub a little better if he just…paced himself. Just a thought.

Sanchez is throwing low-90s cheese up in the zone, mixing in the occasional 80 MPH curve all delivered over the top, with a motion that's mildly reminiscent of Roger Clemens. Byrnes flies out to center, Chad Tracy is caught looking at the curve, strike three, and Carlos Quentin flails at some high heat, 93 MPH on the gun, for another whiff. Three up, three down.

In the bottom of the frame, Mike Jacobs is taken apart by Gonzalez systematically, late on the fastball, fooled by the change, swinging over the slider low and inside out of the zone. He's a strikeout victim. That brings up right fielder Joe Borchard. The Marlins are the third team to take a flyer on Borchard's talent. They've gotten pretty much what everyone else gets--Rob Deer, Jr. Borchard blasts Gonzalez's changeup to deep right-center, and gone. The Marlins lead, 1-0. Gonzalez recovers from his mistake to Borchard to overpower Miguel Olivo and retire Alfredo Amenzaga to end the inning.

In the Snakes' next at bat, shortstop Stephen Drew swings at the first pitch, topping a ball to the second baseman, one out. Miguel Montero, up from Double-A, fouls off a few pitches before striking out on a slider, down and out of the zone. The pitcher grounds out to second, and Sanchez is perfect through three.

In the Marlins' half of the third, Hanley Ramirez draws a one-out walk against Gonzalez, then ends the inning getting caught stealing with the team's best hitter, Cabrera, up at the plate.

In the fourth inning, with one out, Conor Jackson breaks up Sanchez's streak of 10 consecutive men retired by drawing a walk. From the stretch, Sanchez throws with a very low leg kick, virtually a slide-step. The slide step doesn't work out too well, and Sanchez walks Luis Gonzalez on four pitches. With men on first and second and one out, Sanchez receives a visit from pitching coach Rick Cranitz, and he goes back to a full leg kick. Eric Byrnes gets himself down 0-2 fouling off pitches, then flies out to left field. On an 0-1 count, Chad Tracy hits a flare to left, which looks to fall in front of Josh Willingham, an awful defensive catcher converted to play really bad left field.

The ball hangs in the air for just a moment longer than expected, enabling Willingham to make a full-extension, head-first dive for the ball, catching it just as he flops on his belly. Dangerous play-if Willingham misses that ball, it's at least one run, maybe two. But that's academic now. Marlins still lead, 1-0.

Leading off the home half of the fourth, Cabrera's up again, and he crushes Gonzalez's first pitch, a towering drive to left-center field, over the high fence for a home run. It's 2-0 Marlins. Cabrera still isn't done celebrating in the dugout by the time Willingham flies out to left. It takes Mike Jacobs a little longer to strike out, and Borchard hits a first-pitch cue shot to short, an easy out.

Leading off the top of the fifth, Quentin grounds one down the third base line to Cabrera, whose throw to first is high and pulls Jacobs off the bag, an error. Sanchez shows a better-than-expected move to first before going to work on Drew. Sanchez uses the slide-step again, but to much better effect than in the previous inning. Sanchez gets Drew to ground to the mound on a low breaking pitch. Sanchez goes to second to get the lead runner, but his hard, tailing throws Ramirez off balance, preventing the double play. Montero follows by popping out to Cabrera, and Gonzalez has no luck trying to help his own cause. High chopper to third, inning over.

Over the next two innings, Gonzalez only allows a one-out walk to Amezaga, of all people. In the top of the sixth, Orlando Hudson's up for the D'Backs again. On a 2-2 pitch, Sanchez freezes Hudson on a curve, up in the zone and out over the plate. There is no argument, Hudson just puts his head down and heads back to the bench. On a 1-2 count, Jackson chops a ball down to short, from where he's gunned down by Ramirez. Sanchez doesn't take much time between pitches, which just emphasizes the dramatic way he slows things down at the top of his windup. Luis Gonzalez walks on four pitches, as Sanchez seems to lose control of his fastball a little bit, missing outside, high, high, and inside. Naturally, given that Sanchez is having control problems, Byrnes is hacking away at the first pitch. It's actually a good decision--Byrnes hits the ball square and hard--but the liner's right at Cabrera, who's playing near the line at third. No hits for the Diamondbacks through six innings.

And suddenly, people start thinking about the zero in the hits column. The game's moved along at a brisk pace. The Marlins' scoring has all been on solo homers, and they haven't put on many runners--or gone terribly deep in counts--against Edgar Gonzalez. So Sanchez hasn't had to sit around much between trips to the mound. I wonder if that's helping.

Sanchez quickly gets ahead of Tracy 0-2 in the seventh, and then Tracy goes fishing for a curveball out of the zone, low and inside. On the second pitch of his at bat, Quentin squibs one off the end of the bat, toward short. Two outs. Stephen Drew, inexplicably the D'Backs seventh slot hitter, hits another grounder, this time up the middle. Ramirez ranges to his left for the grab, does a spin move as his momentum carries him across the second base bag, and guns the ball to first just in time to get the runner!

Just as I'm talking about how the Marlins' lack of offense might be helping Sanchez, the Fish start a rally in the bottom of the seventh. Borchard doubles to the left-center gap, and Olivo is nailed on the hand when Gonzalez goes up and in one too many times. And just like that, Gonzalez is done. Tony Pena is summoned from the pen. Amezaga bunts the men over, to put runners on second and third with one out for the pitcher. The pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter.

It sounds like a bad play, but the options were lousy to begin with. Amezaga isn't much of a hitter. The best hitter on the Marlins' bench, Jeremy Hermida, has a stress fracture in his ankle, and likely would be on the DL if the rosters weren't expanded. So, unable to pinch hit for Sanchez, and without better options to bat for Amenzaga, Girardi's playing for one run. He calls the safety squeeze with Sanchez, and it's successful, with pinch runner Eric Reed sliding between Montero's legs as he stretches to take a bad throw from Pena. Everyone saw it that way, except the home plate umpire, Jeff Kellogg, who calls Reed out. Replays seem to show that Kellogg was badly positioned to make a call on the play, the catcher's body screening Kellogg's view of the tag.

To everyone's surprise, no one argues with the call. Girardi never leaves the bench. Of course, given what Sanchez is trying to do, it's probably a good idea not to antagonize the home plate umpire. A soft fly ball later, it's time for Sanchez to get back to work.

In the eighth, Montero grounds a ball to second, which Uggla bobbles. With the catcher chugging up the line, Uggla has time to pick up the ball and fire to first, one out. Craig Counsell pinch-hits for Pena. Sanchez bounces the first ball in the dirt, and then tosses the next one a bit above eye level. When the count goes 3-0, Olivo comes out to talk to Sanchez. Sanchez comes back to being the count full, before finally walking Counsell. After another conference on the mound, with the pitching coach this time, Orlando Hudson takes a belt-high changeup for a strike. On a 1-2 count, Hudson grounds a ball to Uggla, who tries but can't tag a retreating Counsel. Uggla fires to first in time to get Hudson, and Jacobs throws back to Ramirez at second in time to tag Counsell out. Three outs left.

Juan Cruz takes over for the Snakes, walking Dan Uggla before striking out the side. At some point during the last half-inning, the call went out over BP's internal mailing list, the heads up to tune into this game. This is big, on account of the BP mail system curse.

All right, let me back up. We here at Baseball Prospectus are men and women of science. We don't believe, without evidence to back it up, in stuff like ghosts, yetis, team chemistry, or the Loch Ness Monster. However, there hasn't been a no-hitter in more than two years, since Randy Johnson threw a perfect game for the Diamondbacks against the Atlanta Braves. Since May, 2004, countless people on the mailing list have sent in alerts of no-hitters in progress to BP's authors and contributors. By the time anyone changes channels to watch, it's usually just in time to see a squib dribble through the infield, or a flare fall in front of a right fielder.

The idea that Destiny is on the BP internal mailing list--and is willing to punish any mention of a no-hitter--is a risible one. The no-hitter drought is a fluke, much in the same way that no-hitters themselves are highly subject to chance. But it doesn't take all that much frustration to make people start joking about jinxes, and eventually, it stops being funny. By Monday, when the Curse claimed Ramon Ortiz's no-hit bid against the Cardinals, no one was laughing. It's time to see a no-hitter again.

The three batters standing between Anibal Sanchez and history are Conor Jackson, Luis Gonzalez, and Eric Byrnes. First pitch to Jackson is a breaking ball outside, ball. The second pitch is a 92 MPH fastball, called a strike on the outside corner. The third pitch is slider, up and over the plate for strike. Sanchez has been working high in the strike zone, all game, and no one has made him pay for it. Sanchez throws a curve off the plate, outside, and Jackson waves at it strike three.

The closest thing we've had to hits are the floater Willingham caught with men on in the fourth, the bullet Byrnes lined to Cabrera in the sixth, and Ramirez's nice play to end the seventh. Luis Gonzalez has walked twice, he takes a fastball high and a breaking ball in the dirt to get ahead 2-0, and it looks like it might happen again. Gonzalez pops up high over the infield on a 2-1 slider, caught by Cabrera. And Sanchez is now one out away.

The first pitch to Eric Byrnes is Sanchez's hardest fastball of the night, 95 MPH on the radar gun. Byrnes swings through it, and now the Dolphins Stadium crowd, such as it is, is really rocking. Byrnes connects on the next pitch, an 86 MPH slider, a hard grounder Hanley Ramirez fields from one knee. Ramirez's throw to Jacobs is a perfect strike, and the drought is over.

That's the ballgame. The Marlins pull even with the Phillies, three back of the Padres in the wild card hunt, just in time to host the Phillies in a three-game set. Here at Game of the Week, we'll be back with our regularly scheduled write-up next week.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

Derek Jacques is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Derek's other articles. You can contact Derek by clicking here

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