September 4, 2007
Causation, Grit, and Imperfection
It's a tough concept to grasp sometimes, but here it is: the universe does not revolve around any one of us. On three consecutive days last week I was tipped off to no-hitters--as I'm sure a lot of you were--only to see them end soon thereafter. On late Saturday afternoon, I found myself watching a Horst Buchholz movie (actually, it was a Jimmy Cagney movie called "One, Two, Three" that happened to have Horst Buchholz in it) and then switched over to the Red Sox-Orioles. I noted the coincidence that the Red Sox starting pitcher shared the same last name as "The German James Dean" and then watched him pitch no-hit ball for the next couple of hours. (Memo to Miguel Tejada: I'm not saying you would have beaten Dustin Pedroia's throw after his amazing play on your shot up the middle in the seventh if you hadn't slid, but it would have been a lot closer if you'd stayed on your feet. You're old enough to know better by now.)
This time, I did something different. Instead of coming in on a no-hitter and seeing it get broken up, I left before it ended because I had somewhere I absolutely had to be. Lo and behold, this one was finished properly! Conclusion: seeing the Horst Buchholz movie and not watching the ninth inning helped Clay Buchholz get his no-hitter. If only it were that simple.
While contemplating this, I remembered that my friend Dennis--a St. Louis native--had once mentioned that he had once had an incredible run of bad luck going to Cardinals games. I couldn't remember the year, so I wrote him and asked him for the details:
It was 1968. I went to 18 regular season games, and they lost 17 of them. I went to Games 2, 6, & 7 of the World Series and they lost all three of those as well. When living in Lawrence, Kansas, I went to nine Royals games during one season; I don't remember the year. They lost all nine of those. When I lived in Philadelphia, I went to six games, they lost them all, but those teams sucked. Since moving to Providence, I've been to six Red Sox games and haven't seen them win one yet.
According to Clay Davenport, the odds of this happening are one in 4.2 million. As Clay notes, "That's a little bit worse than your chance of matching the five regular numbers in the Powerball lotto but not the powerball; those odds are one in 3.5 million, and would win you $200,000."
No wonder Dennis considers himself a jinx, especially if you add the three World Series losses on top of the regular season shenanigans. I'll bet everyone reading this has had moments where you thought you were exacting a cause and effect on incidents not in your direct control. I think it's human nature, and no amount of logic and reason is going to get us to stop thinking this way, at least in some tiny part of our brains.
The bottom of the eighth inning on Sunday ended with a solid collision between Matt Treanor of the Marlins and Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. Catcher-on-catcher collisions are scary propositions because they involve men with builds not often found in everyday life. Backstops simply don't look like the rest of us. They're wider, for one thing, and not wider in the way that guy in the Wal-Mart snack aisle is wider.
This is related to something that occurred to me the other day while visiting the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum in San Antonio, a place that devotes a bit of space to old-time carny folk. We now get to see for free on an everyday basis what our predecessors had to pay to witness: very large people, and people with a great number of tattoos. Without the price of a ticket, you can now go to just about any Wal-Mart and see at least three or four people who could have found employment in a circus sideshow in the 1930s as the "fat lady" attraction. A person applying for a carny position as "the amazing tattooed man" would be laughed out of the tent unless they also provided a geek of spectacular proportions, in which case the tattoos would just be an afterthought in an age where even your local kindergarten teacher has two or three of them.
In any case, Ruiz is not a large man by catching standards, but he did an excellent impression of a reinforced-concrete retaining wall when Treanor tried to tack on an insurance run for the Fish, and instead ended up being the final out of the inning. Treanor, the larger but unpadded one, appeared to be staggered by the play. In as much as he was slated to catch the ninth and Florida had no other backstop available, he had to report for duty behind the plate.
What was also interesting in Sunday's game was that for the second day in a row Marlins closer Kevin Gregg was being asked to pitch into a second inning, having ended a threat in the eighth inning the previous night en route to a save. He has not done this--in any situation--on consecutive days prior to 2007. After entering the eighth to retire Pat Burrell with runners in scoring position and two out to protect Sunday's two-run lead, when matters rolled around to the ninth, he struck out Ryan Howard to start the inning. Aaron Rowand then singled, at which point finding the strike zone soon became a chore for Gregg. Rowand advanced to second on a wild pitch; Treanor, clearly walking on a less stable planet than the rest of us after his collision, was having to dive to both his left and right to corral Gregg's offerings. Gregg got Jayson Werth looking, but not before running the count full. Had Gregg been able to retire Kevin Dobbs at this juncture, Treanor's obvious ordeal would have come to an end. When Treanor would remove his mask, his face seemed to say, "I should be in a whirlpool right now." Instead, Gregg walked Dobbs on four pitches, bringing up Carlos Ruiz--the padded half of the previous inning's collision. Ruiz worked the count full and then singled home Rowand to make it a one-run game. Chase Utley followed with another full-count walk, loading the bases.
Many of the balls that Gregg was throwing weren't just out of the strike zone, they were way down and in or especially wide. Treanor was having to move laterally quite a bit just to keep the runners where they were. Jimmy Rollins came to the plate, and immediately took three balls. Well, it looked like three balls--the third one was called a strike, and that was the beginning of the end of Treanor's sufferings. Rollins was not pleased and strolled away from the plate, uttering oaths. Another ball was called and one had to wonder how Treanor was feeling about playing extra innings--there were no other full-time catchers on the bench, although first baseman Mike Jacobs caught as recently as 2005 in Double-A. [Ed. note: That former catcher-turned-left fielder Josh Willingham was out with a back injury and that utilityman Jason Wood caught a couple of innings in emergency work in Toledo in the '90s probably didn't really offer any other realistic alternatives.] Another called strike followed, this one closer to the zone than the first. Then, on the 40th pitch of the inning--of which only 19 were strikes--Rollins lifted a lazy fly to center, ending the affair.
I think "gutsy" is an overused word in sports, but it's probably the only way to describe Treanor's ninth inning on Sunday. Had it occurred in the midst of a pennant race or in the postseason, people would be talking about it for the rest of the week.
For their part on Sunday, the Nationals won on a walk-off hit by Ryan Zimmerman. "Mob-off" might be a more apt description, as he was lucky to escape the ensuing scrum intact. It should do our hearts well to see a last-place team winning with such obvious joy this late in the season. This is called the "worst matchup," but that's only a relative term. Wonderful things can happen in any major league game.
Friday night we had a near-perfect game, with Scott Baker of the Twins losing it on the first batter he faced in the ninth inning. The very next night--while Clay Buchholz was doing his no-hit thing--we had something quite the opposite; that is, if you believe it's possible for a starting pitcher to have an imperfect game. J.D. Durbin of the Phillies pretty much did just that, not recording a single out in his start against the Marlins. By the time he was pulled, seven men had come to the plate without making an out. (Durbin is no stranger to disaster this year. His one appearance with the Diamondbacks earlier this season resulted in his making the list of the 10 highest ERAs since 1959. This is the group just below the guys with the infinity symbol in their ERA line.)
Have there been worse outings than Durbin's? Yes. Since 1959, four pitchers have faced eight men without retiring a single one, one of them twice. They are:
Durbin's seven-batter imperfecto is one of 30 such games since 1959. The most recent one was by the Reds' Kirk Saarloos against Pittsburgh on May 27 of this year. Only two pitchers gave up hits to all seven batters: Mike LaCoss (Reds vs. Expos) on September 2, 1979, and Bill Bonham (Cubs vs. Phillies) on August 5, 1975. The rest have surrendered various combinations of hits, plunkings, walks, and errors, although none of these games ever involved more than one batter reaching base via miscue. For fans of balance in the universe, two seasons after his famous (or infamous, as he ultimately lost) 12 innings of perfection against the Braves, Harvey Haddix joined the ranks of the imperfect on May 28, 1961 when he hit Joe Cunningham of the Cardinals and gave up six hits without retiring a batter.
There have also been 72 games in which the pitcher faced six batters without getting anyone out. One of the more interesting of the six-batter versions occurred on June 27, 2003 when Carl Pavano, then of the Marlins, failed to retire any of the six Red Sox he faced. His relief help, Michael Tejera, followed up by not retiring the next five men. Finally, Allen Levrault retired the 12th batter in the inning, Nomar Garciaparra. The Red Sox scored 14 in the inning and won 25-8.
This brings up a philosophical question: how long should a pitcher be allowed to go before getting the big yank? Obviously, once you've staked your opponent to a five-spot or more in the first inning, your chances of winning that ballgame have been remarkably reduced. What is the point of no return for a pitcher struggling out of the gate? Obviously, more research needs to be done on this, but it seems to me that once a starter gets to five batters unretired, the game is in serious danger of being out of hand.