The Monday Takeaway
Fans of efficient pitching were treated to the epitome of their preferred craft last night, when Cliff Lee and Bronson Arroyo went head-to-head in game one of a three-game series between the Phillies and Reds. The control artists both came into the evening with sub-5.4 percent walk rates since the beginning of the 2009 season, ranking among the league’s 15 stingiest qualifying starters over that span, and even in the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park, they did not disappoint.
For six swift innings, Lee and Arroyo traded zeros, the former aided by an incredible catch by center fielder Ben Revere, the latter by a moderately generous strike zone enforced by home-plate umpire Jim Joyce. Lee needed only 67 pitches to record his first 18 outs; Arroyo fired 70. And, as expected, to that point in the ballgame, neither of them issued a walk.
But while the Phillies went quietly in the top of the seventh, the Reds were determined not to cede the 19th, 20th, and 21st outs of Lee’s evening as peacefully as they had the first 18. Joey Votto led off with a single. Brandon Phillips advanced him to third with a double. And then, Jay Bruce stepped into the box for what would develop into one of the most impressive plate appearances of the young season.
Lee, who notched a strike with 19 of his 26 first pitches, induced two foul balls to surge ahead in the count. Bruce, in the 493 career plate appearances in which he slipped into an 0-2 hole, had drawn only 11 walks and struck out 271 times, while batting .159/.181/.278. Lee, in the 1,796 career plate appearances in which he had pulled ahead, 0-2, had doled out only 37 free passes and struck out 757 batters. Moreover, the 34-year-old southpaw had not walked anyone, lefty or righty, ahead 0-2 or behind 3-0, in 44 2/3 innings, a span of 169 batters, the longest then-active stretch in the majors.
Bruce fought off one fastball, and then another, before taking a pair of low fastballs to even the count at 2-2. He fouled off the seventh pitch, a cutter off the outer edge. And then, Lee bounced a curveball through the legs of catcher Erik Kratz, running the count full and—more importantly—gifting the Reds a 1-0 lead. Bruce fought off a cutter to force Lee to throw another payoff pitch and, this time, Lee missed badly with a down-and-away fastball, ending his remarkable walk-less streak (though not without a controversy surrounding one of Bruce’s check-swings). According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, the sudden bout of wildness marked Lee’s first start with a walk and a wild pitch since last May 25—and both came in a span of three pitches.
The home team plated Phillips, who moved to third on the wild pitch, on a sacrifice fly by Todd Frazier, but Cincinnati’s 2-0 lead did not last long. After 21 quiet outs, the Phillies made some noise of their own in the top of the eighth, which began with a single by Domonic Brown. Two outs later, manager Charlie Manuel sent Chase Utley to the plate to hit for Lee—and Utley evened the score with his first pinch-hit home run in nearly eight years.
Arroyo, who threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 28 batters he faced, finished the inning by coaxing a ground out from Revere. He ultimately earned the victory thanks to a two-run Reds counter-rally in the bottom of the frame, which began with an infield single by pinch-hitter Derrick Robinson and was keyed by a two-run knock by Phillips.
In the foregoing two hours, Lee and Arroyo combined to throw 187 pitches over 15 innings, an average of 12.47 per frame. Nearly 70 percent (130) of those offerings went for strikes, equaling the strike rate that Lee sustained over the course of the 2012 campaign to lead all qualifying starters. And by relentlessly pounding the zone in one of the league’s least-forgiving parks, Lee and Arroyo gave the impatient among the 17,345 in attendance a figurative fast-forward button to the late-inning action in the 4-2 Reds win.
UPDATE: â€‹Willingham is still ill and will not be available in today's game. His Matchup nod now goes to Aaron Hicks, who will try to shake his early-season slump after a day off and a demotion to the eighth spot in manager Ron Gardenhire's lineup. Hicks, a switch-hitter, is just 2-for-43 so far in his first major-league stint, and both of his hits came off of right-handed pitchers. The rookie is 0-for-8 against lefties, and with the righty-swinging Darin Mastroianni on the roster, if that trend doesn't turn around soon, his everyday job could be imperiled.
Another day, another Angels starting pitcher getting hammered. That was the story from the series opener at Target Field, where Joe Blanton surrendered four runs on nine hits in just 4 2/3 innings, bloating the team’s rotation ERA to 5.72. If the Halos are going to right their ship after a 4-9 start, they will need better performances throughout their rotation, especially while Jered Weaver is on the disabled list with a fractured left elbow. And tonight, the burden falls on the left shoulder of Jason Vargas, who coughed up 18 hits in just 11 1/3 innings over his first two outings.
The 30-year-old Vargas, who spent four seasons with the Mariners before traveling south in the Kendrys Morales trade this past offseason, carries an unsightly .367 batting average against into tonight’s duel with Mike Pelfrey, who—rather incredibly—has managed to outdo him by coughing up a .371 average to his opponents. Vargas has, however, been able to baffle Josh Willingham, who saw plenty of the southpaw during his stint with the Athletics, but seldom came out ahead in their showdowns.
Willingham, who took Monday night’s game off because of an illness, is just 2-for-19 lifetime against Vargas, with one extra-base hit (a home run), one walk, and seven strikeouts. Among hitters that have logged at least 20 career plate appearances versus Vargas, only three—Adrian Beltre, Adam Jones, and David Murphy—have compiled an OPS worse than Willingham’s 454, and only one, Murphy, sports a lower on-base percentage than Willingham’s .190.
Like most pitchers, the left-handed Vargas leans heavily on his changeup against opposite-handed batters, and he typically throws the offering down and away. In his 21 meetings with Willingham (detailed on the afore-linked matchup page), Vargas has actually thrown his changeup more often than he has used his four-seam fastball. Willingham entered their most recent slate of encounters, which came last August 29, hitless in 16 at-bats against Vargas; but in that 10-0 rout, he contributed to a 17-hit parade by going 2-for-3.
The left fielder singled on a changeup in his first at-bat, flied out on another off-speed pitch in his second, and then went yard on an ill-placed fastball, taking advantage of a mistake that many pitchers have not survived. Willingham has done his best work off of left-hander’s fastballs all over the zone, but has been especially excellent against belt-high heaters on the inner half—precisely the spot that Vargas found with the sixth pitch of that fifth-inning at-bat.
Willingham does, however, have an Achilles heel, and Vargas—as evidenced by his pitch selection—is well aware of it.
Remember those down-and-away changeups that Vargas likes to throw to righties? Willingham has shown time and time again that, as long as they don’t sail up in the zone, he can’t hit them. And that should give Vargas the peace of mind he needs to stick with the approach that held Willingham 0-for-16 until last August, despite his 2-for-3 showing the last time they met. If Willingham is to turn around his .105/.190/.263 triple-slash line against Vargas, he’ll need to find an answer for the knee-high soft stuff and lay off of the changeups that stay off the edge.
What to Watch for on Tuesday
- This is pasted from yesterday’s WYNTK, as the series opener in Colorado was postponed, prompting a doubleheader this afternoon and evening.
Mets catcher John Buck has already authored more long balls this season than all of Terry Collins’ backstops did in 2012, but after smacking one in four consecutive games, the 32-year-old went 0-for-4 on Saturday, as Scott Diamond and the Twins put an end to his run. Rain washed away Sunday’s scheduled series finale and Monday's series opener in Colorado, but Buck will have an opportunity to resume his power surge at Coors Field, where the Mets will begin pen up a four-game tilt with the Rockies this afternoon. Rockies starter Juan Nicasio—whom manager Walt Weiss has tabbed for the day game in the doubleheader—will take the mound at home for the first time since last June, when a season-ending knee injury thwarted his remarkable comeback from neck surgery (3:10 p.m. ET, 8:40 p.m. ET).
- Josh Johnson’s second outing of the season, which came in an 11-1 rout last Thursday, was the shortest of his career. The righty lasted just 1 1/3 innings against the Tigers, who touched him up for six runs on seven hits and two walks, with most of the damage coming in a five-run bottom of the second inning. Johnson will try to bounce back in game two of the series versus the White Sox at the Rogers Centre, where Robin Ventura will give the ball to Dylan Axelrod (7:07 p.m. ET).
- If the season ended today, the National League batting title would go to—you guessed it—Jean Segura, who is in his first full year as the Brewers’ starting shortstop. Segura enters Milwaukee’s three-game date with the Giants with 15 hits in 36 at-bats, including two doubles, a triple, and a home run. He’ll have a chance to improve on an impressive 7-for-12 line against left-handed pitchers in tonight’s matchup with Barry Zito, for whom Miller Park has been a house of horrors. Zito is 0-4 in seven career starts in Milwaukee, with a 7.67 ERA—the product of seven homers in 31 2/3 innings and a 28-to-23 K:BB. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke will counter with Wily Peralta (8:10 p.m. ET).
- First, the Dodgers shipped Aaron Harang to the Rockies. Then, the Rockies shipped him to the Mariners. Now, he’s finally ready to make his 2013 debut in game one of a three-game set against the Tigers at Safeco Field. The 34-year-old right-hander will square off with ex-Mariner Doug Fister, who held Eric Wedge’s less-potent 2012 lineup scoreless over seven innings in a victory last May 7. Harang has, perhaps surprisingly, enjoyed success in his past encounters with Miguel Cabrera, limiting the Tigers’ third baseman to two hits in 15 at-bats while recording two strikeouts and inducing a pair of double-play balls. He’ll need to sustain that in order to make a strong first impression in Seattle (10:10 p.m. ET).